Soccer / statistics
Can Wolverhampton Wanderers turn the Premier League's Big 6 into its Big 7?
Away from the headline-friendly fodder of the title race, the unedifying end of season lunge for Champions League relevance/cash, and the Ole Gunnar Solksjaer love-in, one of this season's most intriguing narratives has been the duck-to-water like aptitude with which Wolverhampton Wanderers have taken to the Premier League. Refusing to be tactically browbeaten, Nuno Espirito Santo has even had the temerity to adopt a finely tuned footballing philosophy which, uninhibited by the near-horizon-ed survivalism of parking the bus, effervesces with adventure without ever dissolving into reckless abandon. Impeccably well drilled, Wolves buzz with hive-like collectivism, their play characterised by a form of shuttling synchronicity somehow indivisible from, and yet a product of, João Moutinho and Rúben Neves' hard-edged midfield artistry. When you add in Raul Jimenez' irrepressible intent, Matt Doherty's dashing dynamism, and Rui Patricio's acrobatic alacrity it becomes obvious why Molineux is now abuzz with the expectant echoes of 1950's nostalgia. Indeed with the club's rate of growth rivalling that of an emerging tiger economy, the next logical question is whether Wolverhampton Wanderers can turn the Premier League's "Big 6" into its "Big 7". If Wolves' skyward trajectory ever does require the "Big 6" to lower their elitist drawbridge to begrudgingly accommodate a putative "Big Seventh" the cloistered aristocracy can do so safe in the knowledge that they will be admitting one of their own. For Wolves, far from epitomising a Billy Wright-fetishising take on footballing romanticism, in fact, embody the super-charged financialism of the Premier League's establishment. Indeed one could quite easily mistake the opacity of dealings between the "super-est" of super-agents Jorge Mendes and the club's Chinese owners FOSUN International for something straight out of the Man City playbook on backroom horse-trading. While the prerequisite financial infrastructure to join the elite is already in place the sporting side of the operation is, however quickly, still playing catch-up. Now ordinarily, if a newly promoted club were to bang their head on the Premier League's glass ceiling of seventh position it would elicit much in the way of, borderline apologetic, self-deprecation, but in Wolves' case there is a palpable sense that there is more to come and perhaps, more pointedly still, that more could already have been achieved. So, whereas the likes of West Ham and Everton appear anchored to mediocrity by the weight of their ambitions, Wolves, in remaining resolutely uncowed by the "Big 6", project a sense of purposefulness that other aspirants to elite status noticeably lack. They are going places and, if the stated objective of winning the Premier League within 7 years is anything to go by, doing so with bombastic levels of self-confidence. Or at least they give the impression that they are, for Wolves have an Achilles heel. Twice this season Wolves have contrived to lose to, of all teams, Huddersfield; they have also lost to Cardiff, and to Burnley, and oh to cap things off to Brighton on top of that. The common denominator linking those sides is that all are reluctant members of what could, as a neat counterpoint to the "Big 6", be termed a "Little 6"; a relegation-threatened cohort (Brighton, Burnley, Cardiff, Fulham, Huddersfield, & Southampton - which, in case you're wondering why Newcastle have been excluded, at the time I was writing this part also constituted the bottom 6) which when playing at home appear to hold something of a hoodoo over Wolves. Indeed, so poor is the Molineux side's away-form against this "Little 6" that they have amassed only 1 solitary point from 5 games. To put this paltry return in context they have taken 6 points in away fixtures against the "Big 6". In many quarters the discrepancy in performance levels has been attributed to Wolves' preference to hit teams on the counter-attack, a tactic which, according to a certain line of reasoning at least, tends to be largely mitigated by the emphasis poorer teams place on defensive fire-fighting. Indeed, it is true that 2 goals in 5 away games attest to the fact that for whatever reason, on their travels Wolves find it surprisingly difficult to break down the overpopulated defenses commonly found at the arse-end of the Premier League's meritocracy. Moreover, if averaged out this goal return translates to 0.4 goals per game (GPG), a figure notably inferior to their overall GPG to date of 1.25, their away GPG of 1, and even their away GPG against the Big 6 of 1.2. The expected goals (xG) metric delivers a more flattering figure of 0.97 xGPG (expected goals per game) across the set of fixtures, but again this figure trails their overall xGPG to date of 1.36, their away xGPG of 1.08, and, if only marginally, their xGPG in away games against the Big 6 of 0.98. Diving deeper, as derived from a metric measuring the average xG per shot (AxG), it becomes apparent that Wolves resort to lower value efforts away to the "Little 6" (AxG = .06) than they do in the return fixtures (AxG = 0.14) or when facing the "Big 6" either away (AxG = 0.14) or at home (AxG = 0.13). With this in mind, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Wolves' shooting accuracy is also markedly inferior in away matches against the Premier League's bottom feeders, where it drops to 25%, a rate which, in addition to falling well short of the equivalent figures recorded in home fixtures against the Big 6 (34%) and Little 6 (42%), is only half that achieved in the away fixtures against the elite (50%). The picture doesn't get any prettier if the interpretative parameters are relaxed somewhat to consider either the average xG of Wolves' best chance in each game (AxBC) or the average xG of their 3 best chances per game (Ax3). In each scenario the performance figures relating to matches against the "Little 6" away once again bring up the rear, although in the case of AxBc the difference between the bottom two is very marginal. In concrete terms at the top of the AxBC table is the Big 6 at home (AxBC = 0.54), in second the Big 6 away (AxBC = 0.43), next come the Little 6 at home (AxBC = 0.4125), while as previously stated the Little 6 away bring up the rear (AxBC = 0.408). The order is slightly altered with respect to the Ax3 metric; but once again the Big 6 at home emerge at the top of the standings (Ax3 = 0.54), in second on this occasion however is the Little 6 at home (Ax3 = 0.35), while the Big 6 away (Ax3 = 0.28) is third, and as per the established pattern the Little 6 away (Ax3 = 0.20) is bottom of the pile. Cumulatively, the data suggest that Wolves, when travelling to Little 6 venues, are struggling to reproduce the quality of chance they would otherwise ordinarily create. When you throw in the fact that the average difficulty of chance scored, as measured by xG per goal scored (AxGG), in these banana skin fixtures (AxGG = 0.63) is considerably higher than in away fixtures against the Big 6 (AxGG = 0.36) or in home fixtures against the Big 6 (AxGG = 0.47) or Little 6 (AxGG = 0.33), you have a recipe for falling short of expectations. As has been widely hypothesised stylistic factors do perhaps contribute to the emergent trend. Wolves average 59% of possession during their problem-fixtures, a rate of ball retention somewhat antithetical to the principles of counterattacking and which also so happens to comfortably exceed their season average (47.2%) or their averages against the Big 6 both at home (39%) and away (30.3%). However, how do we reconcile the stylistic clash argument with the fact that Wolves average a bumper 2.25 points per game against the Little 6 at Molineux when averaging only slightly less possession (52.2%)? It would seem untenable to maintain that the sizeable points per game differential of 2.05 (Wolves average 0.20 points per game in away fixtures against the Little 6) can be attributable to just 6.8% of possession. While some allowance can be made for the effect of home advantage it alone surely cannot account for the stark contrast in Wolves' fortunes. If we look at the away fixtures again it becomes apparent that on a couple of occasions at least Wolves were undone by statistically improbable events - in other words, they were a bit unlucky to lose. The 2-1 defeat to Cardiff was an evenly balanced affair, as evidenced by the xG final score of 1.09-0.99, and was decided by a Junior Hoillet effort which registered as a highly speculative 0.01 xG. It was a similar story against Burnley, where Wolves fell behind in the first minute through a Conor Coady own goal before Dwight McNeil extended The Clarets' advantage with another improbable strike (xG = 0.08). However, in both matches, the scale of the difference attributable to the putative "luck" factor is not commensurate with the gap between winning and losing, but to the much narrower span between losing and drawing. As a result, even if football matches were wholly determined by probabilities, which they most assuredly are not, Wolves would still only have garnered two extra points. Let's face it though, invoking bad luck is effectively tantamount to whingeing and what is more, whatever shaky explicatory power this almost fatalistic line of argument could claim to possess seems to dissipate when applied to the away fixtures against Fulham, Brighton, and Huddersfield. Of course, if one were intent on stretching the narrative to flat-Earthist levels of credulity (which I may already have done), you might point to the timing of Huddersfield's 90th minute winner or resort to unconvincing on-another-day-isms to bemoan Ryan Bennett's spurning of a very presentable chance (xG = 0.42) in the Brighton match. But to do so, would be to ignore that a match is 90 minutes long, that Ryan Bennett isn't Cristiano Ronaldo, that Brighton's Shane Duffy missed an even better chance (xG = 0.52), or that at Craven Cottage Aleksandar Mitrovic, ON ANOTHER DAY, could easily have scored for Fulham. With the luck argument spreading increasingly thin, perhaps its time to assess the influence of another great footballing intangible; form. Initially, at least this seems like a promising lead, the away defeats to Brighton and Cardiff (and indeed the home loss to Huddersfield) came during a poor run which saw Wolves collect only one point from a possible 18. Brighton, on the other hand, arrived at their AMEX date buoyed by successive victories. Things become a little stickier, however, when the erratic nature of Cardiff's form prior to the meeting at the Cardiff City Stadium is considered, stickier still, when one learns that Wolves' solitary point during that lean spell was earned away to Arsenal and positively glue-like when it emerges that the run also included a somewhat undeserved defeat to Spurs. Similarly, while Wolves came into the recent clash with Burnley on the back of an indifferent string of results, during which they took 6 points from a possible 15, such a form-line appears positively commendable if compared against The Clarets' prior sequence of 4 consecutive defeats. Somewhat coincidentally (or not given that they're God awful) Burnley's form, comprising 3 consecutive losses, going into the early season encounter at Molineux bears a striking resemblance to the sequence of defeats which preceded the Turf Moor clash. However, what is markedly different is that on this occasion Wolves' were enjoying an excellent rather than mediocre run, and came into the match brimful of confidence on the back of recent draws with both Manchester giants. Likewise, a comparable form dynamic, weighted heavily in Wolves' favour, was in play for Southampton's visit to the Black Country. The tables were turned for Huddersfield's visit. As previously stated Wolves were floundering like ... erm ... Huddersfield at this point, while for The Terriers the tie marked the apex of a three-game mini-revival, which in addition to snaffling all three points here included a victory over Fulham and a draw with West Ham (It's the hope that kills you, Jean Luc). By the time the return fixture at the evocatively named John Smith's Stadium came around, Huddersfield had regressed to their season-long norm, while Wolves found themselves, if not quite in a slump then drifting toward May on a carefree current of mid-table apathy. Ultimately, irrespective of what the form-lines hinted at, Huddersfield claimed all three points again. Much to their credit Wolves didn't let the farting-audibly-at-a-funeral scaled embarrassment of losing to Huddersfield twice in one season derail their campaign altogether and bounced back to defeat Cardiff in the very next game at Molineux. For their part, Neil Warnock's side had taken 6 points, courtesy of consecutive victories over Southampton and Bournemouth, from a possible 15 beforehand, meaning that their 5 game form-line was slightly inferior to Wolves', who had secured 8 points over the same timeframe. On that note, if one calculates comparative points per game form lines derived from the commonly used 5 preceding game reference point, so that for example 3 wins, 1 draw, and 1 defeat would equate to 2 ppg, an intriguing pattern emerges. In only two of the nine matches against the Little 6 played to date have Wolves gone in with an inferior PPG form line. On both occasions, against Huddersfield at home (0.8 ppg v 1.0 ppg) and Cardiff away (1.2 ppg v 0.2 ppg), Wolves lost. Earth shattering stuff there Eoghan - you're very welcome. But, if you, dear reader, can suffer your growing exasperation for just one second more, hang on, for the (slightly more) interesting part is upon us ........ while Wolves have been able to translate their superior form into three victories from three matches when safely ensconced at Molineux, away from home they have roundly failed to hammer home this advantage and have managed only one draw from four games. Since the sample size is limited, the results insinuate softly rather than generalise boldly, but nevertheless, the data tentatively sketch the outline of a highly context-dependent trend. Going one step further, if we revise the form equation slightly to replace points per game with expected points per game, the overall pattern remains largely unchanged with Wolves once again dominating the head-to-head form lines. However, whereas Huddersfield at home (0.8 v 1.0) and Cardiff away (1.2 v 0.2) were plotted as outliers by the ppg model that effect is reversed when the revised xppg formula is adopted, culminating in values of; Huddersfield at home - 1.5 v 1.2 & Cardiff away 1.45 v 1.57. Plainly, therefore, the xppg model considers Wolves' form advantage to be total; a result which has some implications for how we interpret the relationship between form, venue and result. Firstly, the trend dislocating Wolves' form from results in away matches solidifies. Secondly, Wolves' exemplary home record of invariably translating superior form (as calculated by the ppg model) into securing three points is tarnished. Are Huddersfield to Wolves, therefore, what Bolton once were to Arsenal, are they their bogey team? It goes without saying that neither model satisfactorily captures the elusive vagaries of form. For example, among many other refinements, more exact models offering greater predictive power would adjust the input data for the quality of opposition. Nevertheless, the emergent insinuation will be incredibly frustrating for a club of Wolves' lofty ambitions. For, if, as doesn't seem entirely implausible, the Molineux side had won all their away fixtures against the "Little 6" they would currently be level on points with Manchester United. If, and it seems implausible that they didn't, Wolves' had, in addition, also won at home to Huddersfield, they would be sitting alongside Spurs on 64 points. While such calculations amount to little more than speculative what-iffery they do nonetheless reinforce the impression that Wolves have left points behind them this season - enough certainly to separate themselves decisively from the other aspirational mid-table sorts with whom they are currently jostling for the chicken feed of best of the rest status. Reassuringly, from a Wolves perspective, one would assume that, judging from their results against the Big 6, much of the heavy lifting, so to speak, required to graduate to truly elite status has already been completed. Indeed, if one were to collate a Big 7 table, to include Wolves obviously, Nuno Espírito Santo's side would stand third on 13 points from 10 games, admittedly quite some way behind predictable table-toppers Liverpool and Man City, tied on 22 points from 10 games, but equally quite some way ahead of Manchester United's return of 7 points. Problematically, however, this haul also so happens to eclipse the 10 points they have taken from 9 games against the Little 6. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that on a comparative table measuring the relative performance of the Big 7 against the Little 6 that Wolves should be cut adrift from the established elite. By way of comparison, the second-worst total, that of Manchester United, is 23 points, while Liverpool and Man City both boast impeccable 100% records after 10 games, and Chelsea have taken 31 points from a possible 33. Although the significant gap between the "Top 2" and the rest of the Big 6 should temper any expectation that Wolves will challenge for the Premier League title in the very short term, there nevertheless is enough evidence of what could be called "latent potential" to suggest that a concerted push for a top 6 spot could soon be feasible. Indeed, if lingering doubts over Spurs and Arsenal's transfer fund liquidity, Chelsea's ownership, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's managerial nous eventually crystallise into differing forms of footballing penury, then Wolves already seem the club best positioned to take advantage. Of course, to do so they will need to navigate the clogged intersection of travel sickness, creative inhibition, and another-day-itis which has slowed their progress this season somewhat. Finally, given that in the wake of disappointing results Espirito Santo has effectively implicated his side's temperament when referencing shortfalls in work ethic and concentration as contributory factors, perhaps the next step to be taken in Wolves' journey to the top is through their own headspace.