Finding the Best Pass in the SPFL (Don’t Look at Rugby Park)

The image here is not one of those ink-blot pictures that psychiatrists show you. Rather, it is SPFL Passesshowing where the passer was located for every shot in the SPFL Premiership through February 25th. 2976 passes and 2976 shots (and each one of them mattered damn it, despite what some Times writer in England may think). I previously discussed what we could learn about individual players in the SPFL by their passing thanks to the data that Strata provided me. With that data we got Expected Assists and confirmed Scott Sinclair’s great season while learning how important Don Cowie and James Tavernier are to their clubs attack. Now we will see what we can glean from this same data on a macro level league wide looking at Key Passes, or every pass that has lead to a shot in the SPFL.

Image by The Rangers Report @TheGersReport

Before heading into the secret world of the private sector, The Rangers Report did some great work looking where passes came from and why that mattered. The Report would track the starting location of each pass that lead to a shot for Rangers, also known as a Key Pass and then placed them into numerical zones on the pitch (based on the methods of Claude Moeller Henriksen). However, since the fine folks at Stratabet have provided me all of locations of passers for these 2,900+ shots, I don’t have to spend hours tediously tracking these locations. With this data and using the same zones Rangers Report came up with, I thought it would be interesting to see just what passing locations lead to the most success in the SPFL Premiership this year.

SPFL Pass_Score Data

Looking at the data, it becomes clear that the closer to the goal line and more central you are when you make your pass the higher the chance is that your teammate will score on their subsequent shot. We see passes from zone 22, or the 6 yard box, lead to goal 57% of the time. Zones 17 and 19 lead to goals over 23% of the time, with a left zone 17 pass RangersReportPassingZonesleading to a goal nearly 30% of the time. If you make a pass anywhere outside the box, your team is nearly 10% less likely to score than inside the box this season.

Of course, if exploring expected goals and goal conversion rates this year has taught us anything, it is that sometimes we can make a great pass and the striker will inexplicably miss. There has been numerous work discussing that shots in the “danger zone”, or shots in the 18 yard box between the goal posts, have the highest probability for going in. Those are the shots you want your team taking. Therefore, you would also want your team making the passes that would most lead to those shots.

To do this we can look of the percentage of key passes that result of danger zone shots over all of the key passes. Again we see passes being made in zones 22, 17 and 19 leading to the most danger zone shots. We also see passes from zone 15, outside the box but still within 18 yards of the goal line, leading to a high number of

Krys Boyd loves long balls and hates laptops

danger zone shots. Regardless of finishing, making a pass within 18 yards of the goal is the best way to get a good shot for your team in the SPFL.

So most would agree that these numbers would suggest the death of “route one” football. If you want to be among the goals, your final key pass will need to be in and around the box more often than not. Since we have all of this passing data, we can see which teams are taking the most key passes from farther out(~30 yards or farther). The clubs who take the most passes outside the box would probably be on the bottom of the table right? Well, as we see Celtic with the most key passes from 18 yards out, but that is due to the fact that Celtic has the most shots by a wide margin in the league and thus has the most key passes in all of the various passing zones, not just from long distance.

SPFL Long Ball Table

So instead of total number of passes, the percentage of long balls compared to total key passes each team plays might be more telling of a playing style for a club. And indeed we see bottom half clubs Kilmarnock and Inverness CT playing the highest percentage of key passes as long balls. Bottom six clubs Dundee and Hamilton round out the top 4 of highest percentage of long balls for their key passes. It certainly seems those relying on the long ball is not a way to be successful in the SPFL.

Killie Key Passes
Kilmarnock Pass Map: This is a bad SPFL team

This data has lots of possibilities. You can narrow it down to the team level to see where teams are most passing to lead to goals and shots. You can compare multiple clubs styles. You can do all of this with individual players. A club with this data and the right interpretation can get a leg up on a club who does not in the SPFL.

Celtic Key Passes
Celtic Pass Map: This is a good SPFL team

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.

Introducing Expected Assists to Scottish Football: Sinclair, Tavernier, and Cowie Stir their Team’s Drink

The idea of “expected assists” (or xA for short) has been in football for awhile now. However, like most statistical innovations in football, it has yet to be publicly available forSinclair.jpg Scottish football. This was incredibly frustrating for me, as there were players that clearly contributing to their team’s attack but it was not showing in something like expected goals since they were not necessarily shooting as much as other players. Expected assists helps to quantify this.

Similar to its more famous cousin expected goals, expected assists quantifies chance quality, but it counts the quality of the pass that led to a shot. As football stats guru Michael Caley states, “Of course, assists can mislead. A player might get lucky a few times that he happened to make the pass before his teammate took an incredible shot. To be confident that a player with big assist numbers is in fact pulling the strings requires a bit more statistical evidence.” Also like xG to goals, xA is a better measure of a player’s passing ability than regular assists are. An important part of thinking about football stats is considering if it makes sense in the sense of the game. A pass is still a great pass whether the person shooting is able to finish the shot for a goal or send it into Row Z while falling on their butt and becoming a viral video. Expected assists counts all of these passes and what type of shot they lead to, regardless of whether that conclusion is a goal or not.

Expected assists is the stat that can give us that insight into those string pullers for a club, but up until now information on who was providing the passes that your favorite team’s crap striker was missing was unavailable publicly for Scottish football. Recently though, the allcowie around good looking folks at Stratabet have provided me with the data necessary to start calculating xA for the SPFL Premiership. Along with providing me data, I have been a subscriber to Stratabet’s weekly emails for awhile now. While I cannot use their betting tips since “Making America Great Again” apparently does not include repealing archaic gambling laws, their emails have had plenty of interesting stats related articles on topics such as free kicks, finishing skill, and more that if you are interesting in stats in football will more than tickle your fancy.

Using my expected goals model and the data Stratabet has provided me, I can now include xA in my weekly stats updates and leaders in the SPFL Premiership. Having to come up with the xA stats for the previous 20+ games in the league has been a bit time consuming, but I have been able to get the numbers done for the Top 4 in the SPFL table thus far. As I’m sure we all expected, the player with the highest xA on either Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers, and Hearts is…Don Cowie?!?!? Ok, so maybe he is not the high profile name some would expect to be on top of the league in xA. Yet, Cowie has played the highest number of minutes in the league for Hearts, who have the highest goals scored and xG for by any club not named Celtic in Scotland. Can you imagine how many assists Cowie would have if he didn’t have to pass it to Tony Watt and Connor Sammon for much of the year?!


Rounding out the players with the 10 best xA totals thus far from Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and Hearts (and perhaps you could assume they would be the top 10 of the league given the gulf between the top and bottom of the SPFL Premiership, but you know what they say about assuming) we see James Tavernier, Scott Sinclair, Jamie Walker, Niall McGinn, Johnny Hayes, Stuart Armstrong, Leigh Griffiths, James Maddison, and Barrie McKay. If we combine both xG and xA, we can see just which players among the top 4 are offering the most for their side on the attack.


While fans and pundits alike have deservingly praised Moussa Dembele for his incredible form this season, Scott Sinclair has the highest xG+xA total among the top 4 of the SPFL so far this season. Sinclair has both set up his teammates and scoring goals on his own for Celtic, leading in both xG+xA as well as the top goal scorer in the league and joint top assists. Dembele may be the subject of mega-money transfer deals, but you could make a very convincing argument that it is Scott Sinclair who has been Celtic’s best player as they have run away with the SPFL title this season.

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Can we spare a thought for James Tavernier at Rangers this season? There has certainly been a lot going on at Ibrox in the past few weeks. If you do not bring into account the whole Mark Warburton saga over the past few days, Tavernier seems to be the forgotten man behind “£6,000,000 man” Barrie McKay. However, Tavernier has the 2nd highest xAtavernier in the league, the 6th highest xG+xA in the league and highest at Rangers. Before the season it seemed that Tavernier would be the Rangers player destined for a high transfer fee, but that seemingly has been forgotten. Amongst the circus at Ibrox this year, Tavernier has been putting together another solid season for Rangers. He only has 1 goal and 2 assists, but has had to create much of the Rangers attack this season. His assists totals are not helped by the lack of talent Rangers have had at striker. If Tavernier had a more clinical striker (like say, oh Liam Boyce), his assist numbers would be higher.

Once I finish going through all the old matches, I will have xA and xG+xA leaders for the SPFL up with the rest of the stats. Thanks again to Stratabet for providing me with this data. This has been something I wanted to bring to SPFL supporters for awhile and they made it happen. I also have some plans for some more fun things to do with the data they are providing me.

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.




When Losing a Defender Hurts Your Attack: What Will Happen to Hearts Without Callum Paterson?

It would be fair to say that noted laptop enthusiast Ian Cathro has had a rocky start to his managing career. Cathro has seen losses to Rangers, Dundee, and Aberdeen, as well as a draw with Partick Thistle and being taken to extra time in a Scottish Cup tie with patersonstruggling Championship Club Raith Rovers in his short tenure as Hearts manager. Even his surely enjoyable 4-0 win over laptop doubter Kris Boyd and Kilmarnock saw him lose Callum Paterson for the rest of the season to injury and perhaps beyond that.

Paterson had been having a great season before that, among the leaders for Hearts in goals and had the highest expected goals at the club, which for a defender is some feat. Paterson’s contract is up at Hearts at the end of the season. His injury could mean he will stick around at Tynecastle rather than head to pastures new, but regardless Cathro now faces the pressure of bad results piling up without one of his leading scorers to this point. Is the young manager doomed without Paterson or can others pick up the attacking slack in Callum Paterson’s absence?


Paterson’s goals and expected goals were pretty close, meaning he was not overachieving in an unsustainable fashion. Before his injury, Hearts had the best expected goals for numbers in the league for a club not named Celtic, with an xG total of 41.47 and 1.97 xG per game in the league (for comparison, the league average xG per game is 1.58). While your small sample siren should be going off in your head, in the 3 games (in the league versus Aberdeen and the two ties in the Scottish Cup versus Raith Rovers) Hearts had an expected goals of 0.68, 0.95, and 1.82 (this was in 90 minutes in the 2nd Raith fixture). Before the injury, Hearts had averaged 13.65 shots per game. In these three matches they had 7,8, and 15 shots. You shouldn’t press the panic button yet if you’re a Hearts supporter due to the aforementioned sample size, but you could say their attack has slowed down in those three matches after looking at those numbers. But is it all doom and gloom for Hearts supporters?


Before we go on, can we first have a moment of silence for Tony Watt. Scoring 1 goal while averaging 0.51 xG per game is really some feat in being unlucky. Like a shining star, Tony wattburned quickly, hot and bright before burning out.

Anyways, when we look at Expected Goals per 90 minutes over Goals per 90 minutes for Hearts, Callum Paterson is among the best at Hearts for both. But look, some hope! Bjorn Johnsen split time while previously mentioned burning star Tony Watt and Conor Sammon struggled finding their asses with a map. However, Johnsen is now settled in Hearts’ first XI and has knocked in 6 SPFL goals with an xG total of 6.11. Johnsen’s xG per 90 minutes and Goals per 90 minutes both better than Paterson’s, logical given that he’s an actual striker. Hearts fans can be hopeful that Johnsen can help carry the goal scoring load lost with Paterson (Oh, hi US Soccer, lets go ahead and give him a US cap the next possible chance you have).

Shots p 90.png

I have referred to Callum Paterson as a defender a few times so far, but the defending part of his job might be the weak part of his game. It might be fair to compare him to some attacking midfielders Hearts have instead. Jamie Walker has scored 9 goals, though 4 of those are from the penalty spot, and has a rather respectable xG total of 4.66 and a xG per 90 of 0.27. You can’t see it, but I am nodding my head at these numbers. Furthermore, Walker had already averaged more shots per game than Paterson. There may be even more opportunity for Walker to be the focal point of Hearts’ attack with Paterson out that could see the creative attacking midfielder get more goals, shot quality, and shots improve.

If Jerry Seinfeld has taught me anything, it is that things usually even out. Paterson may be gone due to injury for the season, but Hearts have just got back Sam Nicholson from a long injury layoff. Before getting hurt, Nicholson had a very impressive goal haul at 4 goals in about 600 minutes from an xG total of 1.6 and an xG per 90 of 0.23. I have a word of warning though. Nicholson averaged 1.88 shots per game in his limited time thus far this season. It isn’t feasible to think Nicholson will be able to continue a goal pace of 0.58 goals per 90 minutes with those xG and shot numbers. However, like Walker, Nicholson will get more opportunities in the Hearts attack with Paterson out.

Johnsen, Walker, and Nicholson all missed time due to injury or not being picked. Now that each seem to have a spot in the Jambo’s first XI, there are some numbLee Wallace of Rangers & Bjorn Johnsen of Heart of Midlothian during the SPFL Ladbrokes Premiership match between Heart of Midlothian & Rangers at Tynecastle on 30th Novemberers to suggest together they can replicate the missing goals that Callum Paterson’s absence brings. However, pressure is starting to mount on Ian Cathro to get some results. Things will not get easier for the young manager, as his first match in the league after the winter break is at Celtic Park against a Celtic squad running at full tilt trying to break records that the Lisbon Lions set. They also competing for second place with Aberdeen and Rangers squads that are starting to find their form and have spotted each a 6 and 8 point head starts respectively for the race for second. Cathro will need these three performing at maximum capacity if they have any hope in reaching that second spot.


Mailbag: Set Pieces, Transfers, xG, and Who in the SPFL Would Make the Best Bachelor?

Welcome to the first in a possible reoccurring series of posts where I take queScreen Shot 2017-01-13 at 8.17.26 PM.pngstions from you, the reader interested in some combination of Scottish football and stats in football. I was unsure if I would actually get any questions when I asked for them on twitter, so to get too many to questions to feature in one post was quite the surprise and very humbling. People disparage both Scottish football and analytics in football, so to see so many people interested in either/or (OR POSSIBLY BOTH?! You people get the gold star) is great. Now, onto your questions!


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Daisy here is not the first Jags supporter to ask about how Thistle do at set pieces. I am not sure what has caused Partick Thistle fans to be so concerned about set pieces, but questions about how they do might be one of the things I get asked most. Set pieces are what many in the football analytics community seem to believe is the biggest opportunity to gain an advantage over opponents.

Set Piece Chart.png

To see how Thistle compare to the rest of the league, I counted every set piece each club has had so far in the attacking half of the field. Now, I have discussed the limited public data available for Scottish football, so I used the same BBC live tracker data I use for my expected goals. Since that is what I am limited to, I decided to count any goals resulting around a set piece. It may not have gone in directly from the either the free kick or corner kick, but the resulting play led to a goal, so there is a bit of subjectivity to it but it should give us an idea how the Jags compare to the rest of the league.

Set Piece Graph.png

I have got some good news for the Firhill faithful. Your club is above average in the league at set pieces! The league average is around 3.86% conversion rate on corners and free kicks combined. Partick Thistle come in at a whopping 5.53% and they compare favorably to the top 4 clubs in the Premiership. So rest easy Jags supporters, your club is doing ok when it comes to set pieces.

“Are there any players Celtic should sign from the rest of the SPFL?”- Julio Lèon via email

Are there players good enough to play for Celtic on other clubs in the SPFL and be successful? Yes. Are these players better than what they have? I’m not so sure.


Who are these players that I think would be successful at Celtic? Well, have I ever mentioned this striker at Ross County? Liam’s his name…I can’t quite recall his last name. Boyle? Boyd? Bourne? Oh, Liam Boyce, that’s right. Boyce has 11 goals from 6.35 xG this season, outperforming his xG. Could he see a regression? Possibly, but he also outperformed his expected goals last year. Typically, great players will outperform their xG.  Looking at his shooting stats, Boyce averages 1.94 shots per 90 minutes this season. Compared to Leigh Griffiths, who is averaging around double the number of shots per 90 minutes. However, Boyce averages an expected goal of 0.19 per shot, which is higher than Griffiths’ 0.13 xG per shot. Given that you would expect a striker playing for Celtic to naturally have more chances on average than a striker for Ross County, as well as his superior xG totals per shot, one would expect Boyce to not only replicate Griffiths’ success with Celtic, but perhaps exceed it as well. Is Boyce better than Moussa Dembele? No, but I do not expect Dembele to be at Celtic past this summer.

I would also point Julio to Callum Patterson, once healthy, as “good enough for Celtic, but not better than what they have”. There is no denying Patterson’s attacking prowess would fit in with Celtic’s high octane attack. Patterson’s 8 goals before he was injured is about what we would expect from his xG of 7.23. For a fullback, Patterson’s weakness is definitely the defensive side of his responsibilities. However, much like one would expect Liam Boyce to get more opportunities lining up for Celtic, you could also hypothesize that Patterson would have less opportunities to be exposed defensively playing for Celtic.

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So when I previously mentioned the lack of public data for Scotland? Yeah, something like this is sadly not available. Though as interest in stats in Scottish football has grown, so have those interested in producing content on it. Here relatively new guy on the block “The SPFL Radar” twitter account has created a stats radar for McKay.

McKay Radar.jpg

I would also really quickly like to discuss the “community” surrounding Scottish football stats. One could accuse some of those involved in EPL stats twitter to be over saturated and unwilling to help those just learning about the basics of analytics in football. I have found the absolute opposite of those interested in stats in Scottish football. The most well known accounts are always willing to lend a hand and share info for those looking for it. I would suggest tapping these resources if you have any interest in Scottish football or stats (OR BOTH!)

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I asked Michael what he wanted to use to compare Garner to the rest of the league with and requested expected goals. Garner currently is 12th in the SPFL Premiership in xG total at 5.58, 0.41 xG per 90, and 0.16 xG per shot. With GarnerOuchie.jpgonly 3 goals this season in league play, Garner is underperforming his expected goals. This would suggest he has either been unlucky, not great at finishing, or some combination of both. One would expect his goal total to improve, you know, once he comes back from…

We’ll close out our first mailbag with two questions from emailer Michael M., concluding with perhaps the most important question facing Scottish football today.

How do the SPFL teams rank in terms of expected goals per shot?


Motherwell’s prolific duo of strikers have had another great season for the Steelmen so far. Louis Moult and Scott McDonald have contributed 15 of Motherwell’s league goals this season and are the biggest reason why they have the highest xG per shot in the league at 0.16 xG per shot.

Which SPFL player would make the best Bachelor?

I was unsure if the readers of this blog would know what “The Bachelor” is. After consulting with my “sources”, I was told that The American edition of “The Bachelor was on Channel 5. That is the channel of shit programs.” If you are unfamiliar with it, one male dates 25 females, eliminating a few of them weekly, until he finds his “winner” who he proposes to. The whole idea is, of course, ludicrous.

However, sometimes in a relationship you have to compromise. My spouse puts up with my sports viewing and “sports spreadsheets” (her term for the excel sheet where I house my stats), so I can watch 2 hours of a reality dating show.

Now, most know I support Celtic but I would like to believe I am impartial when it comes to discussing stats in the SPFL. However, in choosing the first star of “The SPFL Premiership Bachelor”, I could only think of one midfielder from Celtic.



Now, while I have stats for every SPFL Premiership player, I must admit my knowledge of the marital status of each player and if they would do well on a silly reality dating show is lacking. Do you have a better suggestion for the first star of “The SPFL Bachelor”?

B.U.R.L.E.Y. Tries to Sort Out a Close Relegation Fight in the SPFL Premiership

By now, many of you have realized B.U.R.L.E.Y. hates your team. Celtic fans taking thistleexception to B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinking the Bhoys won’t finish the year undefeated, Rangers fans mad that B.U.R.L.E.Y. is of the opinion they will finish far behind their Glaswegian rivals. Aberdeen fans perplexed by a possible 4th to 5th finish predicted by B.U.R.L.E.Y. The list goes on.

After you get past the top 5 in the SPFL Premiership, things have been incredibly tight. Five points separate last place from sixth place as of writing this. Heck, Ross County who, by both stats and the naked eye, have struggled this season currently sit sixth and only 4 points behind fifth place St. Johnstone, albeit having played one more match than the Saints. Things are equally tight in the fight for a top six place and fighting to avoid relegation. The always tricky promotion/relegation playoff awaits the club that finishes in eleventh and is another thing teams will be trying to avoid.

Since I brought B.U.R.L.E.Y. out to forecast who was going to finish where in the battle for the Premiership title and the European spots, I thought I would do the same thing to get a grip who is going to finish where at the bottom end of the SPFL Premiership. I’ll add the methodology of how I came up with B.U.R.L.E.Y. for anyone who missed the first post (Hi Partick Thistle fans who retweeted B.U.R.L.E.Y.’s prediction for the Hearts match but then also liked me stat-splaining Azeez’s miss against Celtic!) Again, I warn you if the nitty gritty of how I am calculating you will bore you to tears, I would skip ahead of this part. I will give you the results after it.

To come up with B.U.R.L.E.Y., I borrowed Mark Taylor, from the Power of Goals Blog, simulations method with a few tweaks. Using the expected goal data from the SPFL I have gathered, I took the xG average for the league, the average xG both home and away for mcdonaldevery club, and the xG for and against for every club to come up with a calculation for xG for every match up between every team in the SPFL Premiership.

With these expected goal figures, I use Poisson distribution to come up with the probability of every scoreline for every match up in the league. For example, there is a 0.000000000046% chance that Hamilton will beat Partick Thistle 10-7! If we sum the winning score lines for each team in each of these match-ups, we can determine the probabilities of who B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks will win each match.

Once we have the win probabilities for every match up, we can then run simulations for every game each club has remaining in Excel, as Mark details how to in the link above. We
run each club’s remaining season (up until the league splits into a top half and bottom half, since we won’t know who each club will face in their last 5 matches, because LOLSPFL) 1000 times (…and BOY are their legs tired). We take the point total B.U.R.L.E.Y. suggests will happen most frequently and boom, that’s how many points B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks your team will end up with.

(End of methodology section if you wanted to skip that part!)


You will notice I updated B.U.R.L.E.Y.’s thoughts on the top half of the league. He still sees Celtic as run away favorites for the title, but now thinks Rangers will pull away from the pack and be 7 points ahead for 2nd at the time the table splits. Hearts will be behind Rangers in third, but will be in that position comfortably B.U.R.L.E.Y. foresees. Aberdeen and St. Johnstone will go into the split equal on points, which would likely be a disappointment for the Dons.

Now let us look at the bottom half of the table. B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks that the fight against relegation will be far from over as we head into May. Motherwell is projected to finish 6th, largely on the attacking prowess of Louis Moult and Scott McDonald. Perhaps a bit of a surprise is B.U.R.L.E.Y. predicting Ross County will be seventh at this junction as well, but B.U.R.L.E.Y. is predicting that the Staggies will be only 6 points off the bottom when 5 matches remain. No word what B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks will happen to Liam Boyce’s back…you know…SINCE HE’S CARRYING THAT ENTIRE TEAM ON HIS BACK!

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As far as the rest of the relegation peloton, B.U.R.L.E.Y suspects there will be all to play for after the split. He predicts only 3 points will separate Partick Thistle, Hamilton, Dundee, Inverness CT, and Kilmarnock. That is 3 points between 7th and top. Partick Thistle and Dundee have showed some improved form, so one would think they would be the favorites from that group to stay up. However, if B.U.R.L.E.Y. is correct in how razor thin the margins will be between safety and relegation, it might not be smart to call any of these clubs safe.


Introducing “B.U.R.L.E.Y.”, a Prediction Model for the SPFL and Handicapping the Race for 2nd

We are a few days removed from Hearts decisive 2-0 victory over Rangers. The win put Hearts even with Rangers on points and ahead on goal differential to earn 2nd in the table. Aberdeen had a disappointing League Cup final against Celtic last Sunday, but find muirheadgoalthemselves very much in the fight for 2nd in the SPFL, being 2 points behind Hearts and Rangers while playing 2 games less than both of those clubs. Celtic seems to be coasting to another league title, but all three of these clubs have a good shot to finish 2nd. With a week of hyperbole surrounding all three of these clubs, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce the prediction model I have been working on and use it guess where these clubs fighting for 2nd will be towards the end of the season.

My prediction model has been, most definitely for petty reasons, named B.U.R.L.E.Y. This stands for “footBall Using Reliable anaLytics, Even You!” Was this a giant stretch of an acronym just to make sure it fit Craig Burley’s name? Maybe. But if we can’t be petty about Craig Burley, who can we be petty about?

(If you don’t want to read/don’t care about how I came up with these figures, I’d skip this next part!)

To come up with B.U.R.L.E.Y., I borrowed Mark Taylor, from the Power of Goals Blog, simulations method with a few tweaks. Using the expected goal data from the SPFL I have gathered, I took the xG average for the league, the average xG both home and away for every club, and the xG for and against for every club to come up with a calculation for xG for every match up between every team in the SPFL Premiership.

With these expected goal figures, I use Poisson distribution to come up with the probability of every scoreline for every match up in the league. For example, there is a 0.000000000046% chance that Hamilton will beat Partick Thistle 10-7! If we sum the winning score lines for each team in each of these match-ups, we can determine the probabilities of who B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks will win each match.

Once we have the win probabilities for every match up, we can then run simulations for every game each club has remaining in Excel, as Mark details how to in the link above. We swansonrun each club’s remaining season (up until the league splits into a top half and bottom half, since we won’t know who each club will face in their last 5 matches, because LOLSPFL) 1000 times (…and BOY are their legs tired). We take the point total B.U.R.L.E.Y. suggests will happen most frequently and boom, that’s how many points B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks your team will end up with.

(End of methodology section if you wanted to skip that part!)

When it comes to prediction models, compared to others B.U.R.L.E.Y. is simplistic. I haven’t nailed down how to account for things such as players joining clubs in January or, more pertinent at this moment, managerial changes. B.U.R.L.E.Y. will be blissfully ignorant if Pep Guardiola says to himself, “Forget Manchester, I want to see Edinburgh Castle!” and becomes the next Hearts manager. However, since B.U.R.L.E.Y. is using the expected goal data I am collecting throughout the season, I am hoping that B.U.R.L.E.Y. will continue to get more accurate as the xG sample grows larger. In maybe the first time anyone has ever put these letters in the same order, B.U.R.L.E.Y. will get smarter. But enough of that, you are here to see where B.U.R.L.E.Y. says your club will finish.


Unsurprisingly, B.U.R.L.E.Y. is predicting Celtic to have clinched the SPFL Premiership title by the time the split comes. B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks that the race for 2nd will be much tighter though. Going into the split, B.U.R.L.E.Y. is predicting today that Rangers will be 2 points ahead of Hearts and 4 points ahead of Aberdeen going into the last 5 matches. Those last 5 matches will decide who else will be joining Celtic in Europe next season most likely. St. Johnstone won’t feature in the fight for 2nd according to B.U.R.L.E.Y., but will comfortably make the top 6 in 5th. I will continue to update these projections as the season continues.

Since we can use B.U.R.L.E.Y. to predict each club’s position in the table, we can also use him to predict to outcome of individual matches. While I am no professional gambler (archaic, outdated laws here make that illegal), I have been using B.U.R.L.E.Y. for the very legal BBC SPFL prediction game the last two weeks, going 8-3! Here is what B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks will happen this weekend.


Celtic are unsurprisingly heavy favorites in their match away to Motherwell, with B.U.R.L.E.Y. giving their chance to win at 56.82% (Draw 25.09%, Motherwell 16.29%)


B.U.R.L.E.Y. gives an edge in the fight for 2nd to Rangers this weekend. Unsurprisingly, teams typically fare better at home than on the road, so when two relatively equal teams meet, B.U.R.L.E.Y. usually thinks that the home team will prevail, giving Rangers a 53.73% chance to win (Draw 28.95%, Aberdeen 17.32%).


As stated earlier, B.U.R.L.E.Y. currently doesn’t take into effect any coaching changes, so despite Robbie Nielson moving to Milton Keynes, B.U.R.L.E.Y. still expects Hearts to win against Ross County. He gives the Jambos a 43.76% chance to win (draw 37.47%, Ross County 18.77%).


Tommy Wright has built a solid foundation in Perth at St. Johnstone, where he has given the Saints an underdog fighting mentality (as well as seemingly able to find good keepers out of Canada). On Twitter, a Saints supporter told me the club was on their way to becoming the “establishment diddy team”. Here B.U.R.L.E.Y. thinks the “establishment diddy team” will be able to put aside Inverness Caley Thistle, giving the Saints a 49.24% chance of winning (Draw 29.56%, Inverness Caley Thistle 21.20%). Even B.U.R.L.E.Y. knows that Richie Foran has the best beard in the league though.





Conversion Rates in the SPFL Championship: The Finishing Fairy Can’t Find Dunfermline on a Map

Gathering stats for the SPFL Championship for the first time this year has been very interesting. Sometimes the stats do not make sense, sometimes it is a hassle to make sure cummingsshinnethe data is correct, and sometimes the data is not even there. Yet, it has been interesting following the league, especially since some Scottish media outlets have reduced the coverage of the league.

Seeing as I compared the conversion rates for the Premiership in Scotland, I thought it would be interesting as well to compare them for the Championship as well. Here we can see some teams who has seemed to make lady luck angry, while others seem to be reaping the benefits of an extended visit from the finishing fairy.


As a reminder, Mark from Every Team Needs a Ron says when discussing conversion rates, “As a rough guide, anything within +4% to -4% conversion difference seems like noise that is hard to discern meaning from.” We see first place Hibernian right below that +4% conversion rate difference. With a positive expected goal difference and a relatively sustainable conversion rate difference, Hibs can be expected to continue to compete for the title.


In recent weeks, Dundee United has emerged in the table as Hibs main competitor for the top spot in the Championship. However, looking at both their conversion rate and expected goal differential, we see them with numbers that might not be able to sustain their undefeated form in the last five matches. United have a negative expected goal andreudifferential and a very unsustainable +9% difference in conversion rate.

In those last five matches, the Tangerines have had a lower xG than their opponent in 3 of those matches. Their overall conversion rate is at 20%, a number they usually would not be able to continue. We would expect Dundee United to regress throughout the season, but they certainly could be in line for a promotion play-off spot.

Now to the other end of the table. Things are looking hopeless for St. Mirren right now. The Scottish League Cup winners of 2013 seem destined for relegation to League 1. The Buddies have an xG difference of over -5 and a conversion rate difference of over -10%! Wow! St. Mirren can expect that to improve a bit, but dreadful xG for and against numbers means you shouldn’t expect much of a change of fortune for the team from Paisley.

Above St. Mirren in the table is Dunfermline. Ayr, Dumbarton, and Dunfermline were most’s picks for relegation from the Championship this year and those 3 clubs are definitely in danger of that. However, the Pars are the only one with the distinction of having a positive expected goals difference and a negative conversion rate difference. DUNFERMLINE V ST MIRREN
 DUNFERMLINEDunfermline has been able to create some chances, as they have the 3rd highest xG total in the Championship and have scored 15, the same as Queen of the South.

However, they have also conceded the 4th highest xG against total and the 2nd most goals in the league. The finishing for the Pars hasn’t been relegation level, but the defense and goalkeeping certainly has.

If Hibs can continue these numbers going forward, they should win the league comfortably. However, from the promotion playoff spots to  relegation seem to be up for grabs for numerous teams. If the first three months of the season are any indication, it should be a wild ride.

Conversion Rates in the SPFL Premiership

The football analytics community most recent civil war with itself has been on the moussadembele-cropped_1mhegto7ovgp01i1t0ul0cjkhhsubject on finishing skill. Whether or whether not a player can improve, do something, be better at finishing than fellow pros has been a hot topic. The idea of expected goals heavily relies on there not being a discernible difference in finishing ability amongst teams in a league, since all chances are judged the same in a model no matter who takes it.

One of the things to like about expected goals is that it does not treat every chance the same, such as a a stat like conversion rates (goals/shots taken) does. Teams may have a higher and lower than average conversion rate at points of the season, but usually teams conversion rates regress to the mean over the season.

Of course, Scotland is a bit different than most leagues. Friend of the blog Seth Dobson compiled 10 years worth of shots in the SPFL and found that Celtic consistently had a higher conversion rate than the league average. However, even Celtic has a mean that it regresses to. Since their 5-1 Glasgow Derby victory, Celtic have not lost and only drawn once in the league. Yet despite their impressive form, Celtic had a conversion rate of 25% before the derby and now have a conversion rate of below 19%. Regression happens to everyone.


After being inspired (well, taking his idea and applying it to the SPFL) by the EPL stats blog “Every Team Needs a Ron” (as in Harry Potter), I decided to compare each club’s conversion rate and the conversion rate of their opponent. In his blog, Mark from ETNAR says “As a rough guide, anything within +4% to -4% conversion difference seems like noise that is hard to discern meaning from.” Keeping this in mind, we see most of the league is within that range, with two outliers of Celtic and Ross County.

xG Differential_Conversion Rate Differential.png

I thought it would be interesting to compare these conversion rate differences to each club’s expected goal difference, as well as their goal differential. A club’s spot on the graph is based on their expected goals and conversion differences, as well as the size of their circle is based on their goal difference.

Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts all have positive conversion rates and expected goal differences. It is no surprise that these clubs are in first, second, and fourth in the league.

Dundee and Ross County look marooned on the relegation islands with their negative conversion rate and expected goal difference. County particularly look in trouble with their conversion rate falling outside of that + or – 4% conversion rate difference that we could chalk up to noise. Blog favorite Liam Boyce has missed some time with a knee injury, so his return will be a welcome site for County, but Boyce will need some help to pull County out of a relegation fight.

The only team that has the dubious distinction of a positive expected goal differential and a negative conversion rate is Rangers. They currently sit in 5th place in the league, well miller.jpgbelow the standards their fans demand. Much of the blame for the Bear’s place in the table has fallen on the shoulders of their defense. The back line has been a middle of the league defense, with the 4th best expected goals conceded total and the 6th best conversion rate conceded.

While the defense has been ok but not spectacular, I might suggest much of Rangers issues have stemmed from their attack. With the fourth best expected goals for in the league, Rangers should have a conversion rate a lot better than just above 8%. Have Rangers been unlucky or are their attackers not good enough? I would say a little of both.

Harry Forrester has the highest xG total at the club, and is 8th in the entire league, but only has 4 shots on target all year. Rangers leading scorer is 36 year old Kenny Miller. You would expect some more bounces to go Rangers way as the season goes on, but even if their finishing moves up towards the mean, it likely still will not be enough to be a title contender. It could see Rangers challenge the likes of Aberdeen and Hearts for 2nd though.

Finally, looking at the top left quadrant of the graph we see Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone in what I like to call the “lucky quadrant”. St. Johnstone are on the edge of the “lucky quadrant”, with only a -0.53 xG difference and conversion rate difference of 3.14. Much of this is thanks to the wonderful play by their young keeper Zander Clark who is the owner of a 88% save rate. Tommy Wright has managed to buck the stats for his entire tenure with the Saints and this year is no different, though some of the Perth clubs stats are still good this year.

Meanwhile Kilmarnock were many’s pick for relegation this year and their xG total is of a_91368317_coulebaly_cel_sns club fighting relegation. Yet, Killie currently sit in 7th place in the table, seven points safe. Killie’s place in the table has much to do with their conversion rate of over 16%, the 2nd highest in the league behind Celtic. Souleymane Coulibaly is good, but he’s not that good. Expect Kilmarnock’s finishing to regress and likely will coincide fall down the table, but with a 7 point cushion, Killie could prove the pundits wrong again and avoid relegation.


xG Leaders in the SPFL: What is it Going to Take to Get Liam Boyce and Jason Cummings a High Profile Move?

Hi Hibs and Ross County fans. Let us get this out of the way right now. I hope Jason liam-boyceCummings and Liam Boyce stay in Scotland. I really enjoy watching them play, think they are great players, and think it is great they are at both of your respective clubs.

Both are leading the SPFL Premiership and Championship in goals and expected goals. When looking at both players’ impressive stats thus far in the season, I started thinking about how long they would be in Edinburgh and Dingwall. More over, I was a bit perplexed they were still at these clubs at largely successful campaigns last year. This made me recall an interaction I had on twitter with a Birmingham City fan.


Rightly or wrongly, those down south think there is a risk in purchasing talent from the SPFL. While there are plenty of examples of players who have succeeded in England, people (and likely clubs) will think of Andrew Shinnie (who has been good at Hibs this year), David Goodwillie, Aidan McGeady, and others who did not fare as well down south as they did in Scotland.

Expected Goals per 90 minutes over Goals per 90 minutes in the SPFL Premiership


Strikers like Liam Boyce and Jason Cummings are clearly among the best strikers in their respective divisions. Along with their hot goal scoring form to start the season from both,
both have the best-expected goal totals in the SPFL Premiership and Championship respectively. As we have discussed, expected goals is a better indicator of future success than goals are. Both have taken the highest number of shots and shots on target in their division. Both seem to have stats to suggest they could continue their form at a higher level.

Expected Goals per Shot over Goals per Shot in the SPFL Premiership


Now, this is not to say that there haven’t been bids for either Boyce or Cummings. Hibs have reportedly turned down a seven-figure bid for Cummings. Clearly any bid for either Jason Cummings.jpghas not met either Hibs or Ross County’s valuation of their star striker. Both have recently signed contract extensions, neither club needs to sell anytime soon (and one would hope County wouldn’t continue the recent trend of giving players other clubs want for free).

Hibernian and Ross County have lofty goals this season. Hibs is looking (and honestly needs) to win promotion back to the SPFL Premiership. Ross County is looking to venture into uncharted territory with back to back top 6 SPFL Premiership finishes. Both are the holders of the Scottish Cup and League Cup respectively. Much of their success this season will come down to the performance and health of Cummings and Boyce.

Expected Goals per 90 minutes over Goals per 90 minutes in the SPFL Championship


Yet, if someone comes in with a bid for either that is above Hibs or County’s valuation, could we fault them for accepting? Hibs, one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, are now in their second season in Scotland’s second division with second division revenues. County, despite a top 6 finish and League Cup win, is one of the smallest clubs in the top flight and has only been in the top flight since 2012. Financially, a £2-4 million bid would be tough for either club to turn down.

Expected Goals per Shot over Goals per Shot SPFL Championship


I do think that both clubs would be wise to not let past failures from players hold them hostage when or if they sell Liam Boyce and Jason Cummings. These players have shown consistency in numerous metrics over multiple seasons now and have the tools to succeed anywhere they go.

Perhaps, Scottish clubs should be looking to sell elsewhere besides the English Championship and EPL. However, if that’s where Boyce and Cummings end up, can they be the players to change the minds of those in England about the quality of player in Scotland? That is, quite literally, the million pound question.

(Peter Lawwell, if you’re reading this, both would be great additions to Celtic!)

Follow The Backpass Rule on Twitter at @TheBackpassRule

A Quick Delve into Keeper Stats in the SPFL Premiership

craiggordonAs the 2016-2017 SPFL Premiership Campaign is mere days away from getting underway, it seemed like an opportune time to discuss new stuff I am hoping to accomplish this year. This year I am making an attempt to track stats on keepers in the SPFL. Thus far, most of the available data available to play with for the SPFL deals with the attacking side of the ball. Expected Goals, shot ratios, and the like give us insights on the teams and players who have the best opportunities to put the ball in the net, so why not reverse that data and look at those trying to stop the ball going into the net. Stats for keepers have been developed by a few in the “analytics community”, such as American Soccer Analysis  and Deep xG. It has been very interesting to see these talented analysts and writers develop these stats for our friends in between the sticks. I started this blog after not finding any stats for the SPFL that I was looking for, and these keeper stats are along the same lines. I used the data I gathered for last season’s SPFL Premiership campaign and applied it to American Soccer Analysis and Deep xG’s ideas.

First, I use inspiration from American Soccer Analysis, the very well done blog on MLS and analytics. Is it a little depressing that Major League Soccer has more data and stats to play with than the SPFL? Yes, yes it is. But regardless, you should check out the fine work they do there and keep tabs on the various former SPFL players in MLS now. Below are the minutes, Shots on Goal Faced, Saves, Goals Against, Expected Goals Against, Goals Against minus Expected Goals Against, and Goals Against minus Expected Goals Against per 90 minutes for every keeper who appeared in at least 1,000 minutes last season.

2015-2016 SPFL Keeper Stats-3

partick-thistle-mascot-tomas-cerny_3320439.jpgLast season, we see that Celtic’s Craig Gordon had over two less goals conceded than his expected goals against total, putting him at the top of the league. The general consensus (or “eye test” if you will) was that Gordon, Danny Ward, Neil Alexander, and Scott Bain were the best keepers in the league last year, and these numbers back that up, with those four keepers amongst the top five in these metrics. The surprising inclusion amongst the top five is Partick Thistle’s Tomas Cerny. Cerny had some injury issues last year, but despite appearing in about 700 less minutes, faced the same amount shots that Craig Gordon did and made only two less saves. With the Partick Thistle defense much more porous than Celtic, Cerny’s GA-xGA total of 0.98 is very impressive and the second best total in the Premiership last season.

The next stats we are applying to the SPFL keepers are taken and developed by the great blog Deep xG, who does wonderful analytical work on the EPL. These stats include minutes, shots on goals, goals against, saves, expected saves, which uses the xG model to predict how many saves each keeper should make, how many saves they made above expected, and a “keeper rating” which is saves over expected save as a percent. Again all keepers listed appeared in at least 1,000 minutes last year.

2015-2016 SPFL Keeper Stats 2

scottfoxWhen we look at these stats, we again see the likes of Craig Gordon, Danny Ward, Neil Alexander amongst the top keepers in the SPFL, as well as Tomas Cerny again towards the top, further confirming the Partick Thistle’s great season for the Jags last year. All four of these keepers made more saves than they “were expected to make”, with a positive Saves Above Expected total. They also have a Keeper Rating of over 100 (with a keeper rating of 100 meaning a keeper made the same amount of saves they were expected to). Towards the other end of the table, we see Ross County’s Scott Fox and Gary Woods. Last year, this blog was very impressed with Ross County’s season. For a club of their size, Ross County had some impressive attack numbers and their defense conceded the 3rd best expected goal against total in the league, yet their keepers let them down for much of the year. Fox was the Staggies first choice keeper, although he had some injury issues throughout the year, yet was a -9.22 for saves above expected and a keeper rating of 87.58. His deputy when he was out injured was Gary Woods and Woods didn’t fare much better, with a saves above expected of -9.58 and a keeper rating of 76.96. County manager Jim McIntyre saw the need to improve the keeper position this offseason and brought in Aaron McCarey from Wolverhampton. If County are to continue their unprecedented success from last year, they will need improvement from their keepers this year.

I am looking to track these stats throughout the upcoming season and provide weekly updates to how the keepers of the SPFL Premiership fare.