What Type of Voodoo is Tommy Wright Working at St. Johnstone?

On Saturday St. Johnstone beat Aberdeen 2-0 despite being outshot 13-8 and the xG being in favor of Aberdeen 1.10-0.66. It was a pretty typical match for St. Johnstone this season as they have a negative xG differential and TSR and TSoR’s below 0.5 meaning they allow

Tommy Wright
“Now go do that voodoo that you do so well!”

more shots and shots on target than they take. Despite this, Tommy Wright has the Saints in the top 6 again, which they have been every year he has been in charge and seemingly destined for Europe with a 4th place. Wright has a 44% winning percentage, only Owen Coyle has a higher percentage at St. Johnstone in much less games than Wright (Coyle was the last manager Transfermarkt had win numbers for). So what exactly is Wright been able to do to have his club finish with less shots than their opponents and a lower expected goals but still be destined for Europa League qualifiers?

Many have credited St. Johnstone’s success to their ability to convert the chances they do get. Goal conversion rate has been a hot topic in football analytics lately. Is finishing ability a skill that differs between players? Will it usually regress to the mean? The godfather of Scottish football analytics, Seth Dobson, did a great, easy to understand article discussing conversion rate in Scotland. In his article, Seth found that it takes usually around 3,000 shots before conversion rate stabilizes in the SPFL. Before that, conversion rate has huge variation, swinging up and down. Seth also found that Celtic has a higher conversion rate than the rest of the league, while the rest of the league has an average conversion rate between 13-15%.

Coversion Rate Graph SPFL
Image Courtesy of Seth Dobson, https://twitter.com/226blog

With that 13-15% average range in mind, let us look at St. Johnstone’s conversion rate since Tommy Wright has been at the club. As we see in the graph below, St. Johnstone had a goal conversion rate of 13.26% in 2013/2014, 11.85% in 2014/2015, 16.57% in 2015/2016, and 13.86% in 2016/2017. This works out to an average 13.97%. We see their conversion rate slip below average in 13/14 but then it rise above average in 15/16. So it does not seem that St. Johnstone are any better or worse than the average SPFL club at finishing chances in Tommy Wright’s time at the club.

St. J Conversion Rate.png

Furthermore, their expected goal numbers this year are not anything to write home about. As I previously mentioned, they have a negative xG difference so far this year. They are 7th in xG per game and 9th in xG per shot. It does not seem that the success Tommy Wright has had is due to St. Johnstone’s attack.

Dashboard 1-6

If it is not St. Johnstone’s attack that is leading them to success, than surely it has got to be their defense that is leading them to success. Well, only Dundee and Motherwell have conceded more shots than St. Johnstone have this year. Yet, St. Johnstone have the lowest Conceded Conversion Rate in the SPFL this year at 9.83%. We know not every shot is equal and we can measure shot quality with expected goals. Though when we look at their xG conceded numbers we see they are 7th in the league xG against, which isn’t awful but isn’t great either. However, when we look at St. Johnstone’s xG Against per shot, we see only Partick Thistle, Celtic, and Rangers have a lower xG per shot allowed. St. Johnstone are allowing a lot of shots, but many are low quality chances.

Dashboard 2.png

Exploring the type of chances the Saints defense allows further, we can look at the number of danger zone shots they allow. The average number of shots allowed in the danger zone (the area in the 18 yard box in between the 6 yard box) in the SPFL this year is 45.62%. However, only 41.63% of the shots that St. Johnstone have allowed have come from the danger zone. Another sign that while St. Johnstone allows a high number of shots, they are lower quality shots than the rest of the league typically allows.

St Johnstone Shots Conceded Locations.png
Locations of Shots St. Johnstone have Allowed This Season

So we see St. Johnstone have been particularly good at limiting opponents to worse shots than much of the rest of the league. In addition to providing me with data that hasn’t been available for Scottish football publicly, the good folks at Strata have also attempted to quantify the defensive pressure a shot faces when taken. Using a scale of 0-5, they base the defensive pressure ranking as follows:

0 – No defensive players around, nobody blocking the shot

1 – Light defensive pressure, no direct tackle but a player stood a few yards away causing some part of the goal to be blocked

2 – Low defensive pressure, a player a few yard away but could be sticking a leg out looking to make a block

3 – Medium defensive pressure – Close contact with a defender, a player blocking the ball from close range, s player holding onto the shirt but behind the man

4 – High defensive pressure – Many defenders crowding around the shooting player, Tackles being made as the shot is taken, very close contact when jumping to meet a header

5 – Intense defensive pressure – a player being held while taking a shot, many players all making tackles together giving very little room for a strike, a player crowded out when challenging for a header

With those defensive pressure rankings, I found the average shot in the SPFL this season has a defensive pressure of 2.04. However, St. Johnstone have an average defensive pressure of 2.14, meaning they are typically getting more pressure on shots taken than the average SPFL shot, further evidence that the Saints are allowing a lower quality shot than much of the rest of the Scottish Premiership.

Tommy Wright clearly has made an organized defense the heart of his St. Johnstone team. The numbers point to another organized back line that keeps it’s shape to prevent opponents from taking quality shots and those shots they do allow have plenty of defensive pressure being applied to them. Wright has the Saints organized and you would have to wonder how long until a bigger club either here in Scotland or elsewhere notices his success with St. Johnstone and want him to bring the same defensive organization there. Until then, Saints supporters will enjoy the continued success Wright has brought their club.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.


The Biggest Underachievers in the SPFL: Tony Watt said what?!

Being petty is something I believe I have shown I have no problem doing. After namingWatt Yellow.jpg my SPFL projection model after “He’s probably compensating for something” Proper Football Man Craig Burley, my credentials in the petty game would hopefully be unquestioned. So what has set off my petty radar today? It is none other than Tony “Hey, did you know I scored against Barcelona?” Watt.

I was minding my own business, scrolling on Twitter when Craig Fowler, who I think has been doing a great job covering Scottish football with his colleagues at The Terrace and the Scotsman, posted an article chronicling five “hot takes” people who have been invited to promote the Scottish Cup this season have spouted. In February, after being sent home from loan early from Hearts for having another disappointing season in his disappointing career, Watt was strangely asked to perform this PR exercise. From there, Tony gleefully danced with a lit torch and gasoline as he burned his bridges in Scottish football. Craig in his article says:

“There was a reason Hearts never let the striker speak to the media either before or after matches during his six-month spell in Gorgie, and it quickly became apparent when he was invited back north to promote the Scottish Cup fifth-round in February. Instead of talking up the product, Watt said Scottish football was “not for me” and that he didn’t see himself in the SPFL for “the next five or ten years”. “Everything” about English football was better.”

Now, more illustrious football luminaries have made similar comments. These are nothing new and most football fans in Scotland are usually able to brush them off. I vaguely remember hearing these comments and thinking “Good luck in League Two in England next year Tony,” and went on with my day. However, a perfect storm of Craig posting that article bringing those comments back into my focus and updating the SPFL Premiership stats from the last round of fixtures put me on the stats warpath.

Along with the usual stats I publish, I have been calculating the Goals subtracted by Expected Goals for each player in the SPFL. The thought with this number is that you can see who is under-achieving and over-achieving on attack. If a player has a positive number with the Goals-xG, they are “overachieving”. From this we could gather that Azeez cautioneither they are due for some regression in their performance or if they are able to continually over achieve, you could be looking at a potential superstar player (for example, Leo Messi consistently outperforms his xG numbers).

On the other end, players with the lowest negative Goals-xG have been underachieving. Similar to those overachieving, if a player has a negative G-xG they are candidates to possibly see an improved performance as a season continues. The other option is they are just not a good player, constantly flubbing quality scoring opportunities. After looking at these numbers and finding the biggest underachiever in the league, can you guess who it is? Yes, it is our old friend Anthony “Barca” Watt.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 8.27.38 PM.png

Despite not playing in the league for months, Tony Watt underperformed his expected goals more than any player in the league by nearly a full goal. His xG total suggests he should have scored 4-5 more goals in his time in Scotland, you know 4-5 more than the 1 single league goal he scored.

Now of course, there are players on that underperforming list that are still in the league and haven’t compounded their lack of success by saying Scotland was “not for them”. I guess, Belgium, Wales, and England aren’t for you either, eh Tone? Regardless, we see
Adebayo Azeez second in the league in underperformance. However, we already saw luck bounce a bit in Azeez’s direction when he scored Partick Thistle’s equalizer at Celtic Park last week to earn the Jags a 1-1 draw. Though I applaud his gaul to be both the biggest underachiever in the SPFL not named Tony Watt this season and earn a yellow card for excessive celebration when he finally does score.

Sheet 1-4

We also see four Rangers players on the list of the 10 biggest players underperforming in the SPFL. James Tavernier, while very attack minded, is a defender, so we cannot fault him too much for not being on this list. Jason Holt mostly plays central midfield, a position we wouldn’t always expect a high number of goals. But many of Rangers issues Garner Yellowthis season are very much linked with the fact that Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner are on this list, each having expected to score between 3-4 more goals each this season based on their xG. Whether or not Rangers re-sign Kenny Miller, a striker should be a priority this off-season.

Of course, Kenny McLean appears on this last after I write 1000 words about how his improved performance has helped Aberdeen move into second. I would like remind that I predicted McLean to start scoring more (and he has scored since), as well as that it’s McLean’s forward position and passing that has really helped the Dons. Also on the list is Tom Hateley of Dundee. Hateley has been a player that has caused great frustration for Dee supporters. He has good xA numbers and key pass stats, but has clearly struggled also adding goals to his game this year. Dundee will need that to change as they very much find themselves in a relegation fight.

So in conclusion, perhaps if the thing you have known for most in your career is underachieving and not meeting your potential, maybe you shouldn’t talk about being better than the league you are leaving after you spent months continuing to underachieve. Of course, the applications of using Goals-Expected Goals goes beyond pettiness. A player could be in a run of bad luck and about to turn it around, or just not be what your team needs. Using this with other metrics and video analysis can help you make that determination. Though sometimes being petty is more fun.