In October, I wrote an article for The TwoPointOne discussing Partick Thistle’s performance to that point of the season. It is behind a paywall, but the main gist of the article was that Thistle found themselves towards the bottom of the table as they did the year before but unlike in the previous campaign, this lower half of the table performance matched what we would expect based on underlying metrics. It seems this article made it to Firhill, as George Francis, Communications and Media Manager at Partick Thistle, tweeted this:
Now, I certainly do not think George’s opinion represents the entirety of Partick Thistle, especially on the footballing side. However, I was needless to say surprised by this reaction. I thought I spelled out why I thought the scenario from last year was different, mainly their xG difference last season was among the top 6 clubs in the SPFL (and that is where they ended up in the table) and this season their xG numbers were much worse.
So I hope most would forgive me when I did a little twitter touchdown dancing after Thistle’s 4-0 loss to Ross County to send them bottom of the table with one game remaining before the split. However, I do not want to rub it poor George or Partick Thistle’s face too much. Rather, this seems like a good opportunity to discuss what has continued (since you know, I pointed this all out in October as well) to trouble the Jags and how these numbers can help us and clubs determine when they might be just going through some bad luck and not to panic or when things might need to change and sticking our heads in the proverbial sand like George here might not be the best course of action.
As mentioned, Partick Thistle moved to the bottom of the table after their loss to Ross County midweek. The Jags currently have 25 points after 32 games, the same as their opponent Tuesday Ross County but with a -30 goal difference compared to County’s -19 difference. To bust out the football cliche handbook, we could even say that goal difference is almost like another point advantage for County. Compare this to last season where Thistle finished sixth when the SPFL split in half.
If we look at the underlying metrics for Partick Thistle this season, we cannot be surprised by where they are in the table. Thistle was averaging 0.91 xG per game and 1.49 xG Against per game after Sunday April 1st , which are worst and third-worst in the SPFL respectively. Compare these numbers to their 6th place finish last season, where they averaged 1.07 xG per game and 1.33 xG against per game, which were 6th and 7th overall last year (though worth noting that before the post-split matches Thistle was averaging 1.01 xG against per match). Looking at these numbers, we can start to see why the Jags have fallen down the table this season.
It is not just in expected goals we see Partick Thistle regress this season compared to last. TSR, or Total Shots Ratio, is the number of a shots a team has divided by shots for and against for that team. It shows the percentage of shots a team gets in their matches. In the 2016-17 campaign, Thistle had a TSR of 0.44 (or they had 44% of the shots in the matches they played). This season, they have fallen to a TSR of 0.37 which is the worst in the league. This means that the Jags have the biggest difference in shots they are conceding and shots they are taking in SPFL Premiership play.
So what has caused this sharp decline in Partick Thistle’s play. Most would assume that Liam Lindsay being sold to Barnsley would be one of the main culprits and there certainly is some truth to that. As we discussed earlier, the Jags back line has conceded shots and xG this season at a higher rate than the did last season. Though Lindsay has left Firhill, Thistle still have defenders such as Niall Keown and Danny Devine who were part of the squad last season that finished sixth. We can surmise with these players still in the squad but the club’s defensive metrics deteriorating that Lindsay was an integral part of the back line last season.
While the defense has clearly been an issue for Partick Thistle this season, a more long term issue for the club has been their attack. Last season, Kris Doolan netted 14 non-penalty goals in the league, but no other player had more than 6 non-penalty goals in SPFL play. Doolan averaged a very good 0.33 xG per 90 minutes last season. Thistle also had Ade Azeez averaging 0.35 xG per 90, but no player underachieved their xG numbers more when it came to goals than Azeez. Besides Doolan and Azeez, no other Thistle player averaged above 0.15 xG per 90. Given that the “average” player at this level has an xG per 90 of 0.22, you can see the attacking options were limited last season for the Jags.
The attacking side of the ball may have been a struggle for Partick Thistle last season, but things have gotten worse this year. As previously mentioned, the Jags are averaging 0.91 xG per match, down from 1.07 xG per match in 2016-17. Through Sunday, no Partick Thistle player has over 5 non-penalty goals, with Connor Sammon, Chris Erskine, Kris Doolan, and Blair Spittal all with 4 goals. Of the Thistle squad who have played 930 minutes this year, only Doolan, Connor Sammon and Chris Erskine are averaging an xG per 90 above 0.22 (again, the “average” number for players in similar leagues as the SPFL) at 0.24, 0.27 and 0.25 respectively. Thistle have had a need at striker for a few years now, but have failed to address it properly.
The one bright spot on the Partick Thistle attack has been Blair Spittal. The Scottish midfielder has 4 non-penalty league goals, 4 assists, and is averaging an xA per 90 minutes of 0.23, which is the 15th best in the SPFL. He has an xG total of 3.17 and xA total of 4.63, so he is scoring and assisting more or less at what you would expect based on his xG and xA numbers. The issue is that Spittal has had to carry much of the attack himself. The 22 year old is having perhaps his best professional season so far, but without any help from his Partick Thistle teammates, the Jags will continue to be in trouble.
It is safe to say that heading into the split, Partick Thistle was looking to avoid being
at the foot of the table. While Thistle’s underlying metrics have been awful most of the season and suggest they are right where they should be, most of the other clubs in the relegation fight do not have more impressive stats. Hamilton and Dundee have similarly as bad xG numbers. Ross County have had better underlying metrics than these three, but has underachieved all season. Thistle are definitely still not dead and have fixtures against all of these clubs to try and get off the bottom.
However a club employee, albeit head of PR and not on the football side, dismissing these type of statistics as “not being in context” and then finding themselves bottom of the league in April is very fitting. The warning signs were there in the numbers since October and have not improved since. Clubs can use these numbers to better judge their performance during a season, avoiding the type of blushes ole’ George has had.
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.