Phew, it’s easy isn’t it, this Championship lark? What on earth were we playing at these last three years? After a pair of clean sheets, and another fine individual effort from Lucas Joao, Reading are sitting pretty at the top of the league. Still though, we’re not getting the respect we deserve on the xG front, and I’ll be tackling that today, among other topics.
And before I go on...
E-I-E-I-E-I-O! UP THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE WE GO!
Consider the two following statements. Reading FC started the game against Watford with five academy players on the bench (and one Lewis Gibson). Reading then chose not to make any moves during the final week of the domestic window. Now I’ll make this statement: after two more clean sheets, and just one more goal in the last two games, I’m happy with the squad depth.
I wrote about Reading’s astute business in the transfer window recently, signing two positions of need after the Watford game. It’s only been two games, but what I’ve seen from Alfa Semedo and even Tomas Esteves is promising in my opinion. Semedo appears a little clumsy, but he’s deceptively fast and he moves the ball forward. Esteves looked exciting too.
Mick Gooding suggested Esteves might struggle with Adebayo Akinfenwa on Tuesday because he “wouldn’t have seen anything like that before”. Putting aside the debatable idea that there aren’t big people in Portugal, frankly it looked like Wycombe Wanderers didn’t know what had hit them when Esteves came on as he darted inside and out on the right wing. We might have a real player there if he can show the defensive side of his game as well.
I do understand the worry that if we suffer another crucial injury we could really struggle. But we’ve put together this start to the season mostly without Andy Yiadom and John Swift. If you’d asked me who the two best Reading players are at the start of the season, I might have said those two. The team however is playing in a “next man up” mentality and I haven’t had significant complaints about the performance of an individual replacing a player who’s more suited than them yet this year. Tom Holmes in particular has (defensively at least) been a nice surprise.
I wouldn’t have minded a new winger in the window, but with two great players to come back from injury, this team appears to have more than enough to get us to the next transfer window (in just over two months) before we need to take another look at squad depth.
Expected goals vs finishing chances and defending stoutly
I stumbled across this xG table after five games from @eflstats this weekend, and let’s just say: it got me thinking about the problems with the ‘expected goals for’ statistic.
I totally understand how stats in general, and even xG, can help to illuminate the general play of a team, and I’m not averse to stats. I’m a big ice hockey guy, and we use a stat called “CORSI” in that, to analyse players down to how many shot attempts a team takes or concedes during their time on the ice.
In my opinion however, stats can only take you so far though if your team can’t pass the “eye test” or, in practical terms, finish those chances. My hockey team, the Boston Bruins, were Corsi darlings for years, but this hid the fact that they would take a lot of low-quality shots that would push up our Corsi without actually leading to us winning games.
Here’s the crux of the issue then: I worry that sometimes stats conceal the actual business of winning games. You win games by finishing your chances and defending your goal. Let’s explore that.
To me, expected goals has always seemed incompatible with one of the fundamental pieces of football knowledge: actual goals win games. This is all the pundits talk about every year when it comes to promoted teams finding their way in a new division. Teams struggle mightily when they can’t put their chances away because they’re missing top talent up front.
This is not a problem Reading have.
Lucas Joao has so far this year been the striker we’ve been waiting for seemingly since Shane Long left. He’s got three in five Championship games already this year, and six in six if you count his League Cup hat-trick. George Puscas is a fine backup too. We’d certainly like to see even more from him as Reading fans, but his first season in England gave us over 10 goals, and showed he can put chances away when he’s confident. Put simply: I trust Puscas and Joao to find the back of the net if they’re given good service.
There’s also more than one way to move the ball up the pitch, and Reading have averaged the most successful dribbles per game so far this year, with over 10. Many of our chances have stemmed from Ovie Ejaria trickery down the wing, or darts into the box from Yakou Meite, and when your chances are coming from close, you’re simply more likely to score.
Not convinced? Ok, then let’s go in the opposite direction: many of us will happily argue that goals win games, but defence wins championships. In that regard, Reading are still sitting pretty. Even using the xG stat, Reading are fourth in ‘xG against’ after the Wycombe win - a position much more befitting their current league status.
You could argue that Reading’s defensive start after six games is too good to last. I’d agree that I don’t expect to be conceding just one goal every six games (that would lead to us conceding just eight goals this year). However, our defence has been playing solidly now for the better part of a year and we’ve no indication that will end.
Since Mark Bowen’s introduction in October of last year, we’ve conceded just 38 goals in 47 games. That’s a full Championship season with, what is quite frankly, the defensive record of a promotion-challenging team. Indeed, Leeds United won the league last year with the fewest goals conceded, 35, and conceding 38 goals would’ve been good for second in goals conceded last year, or first (by a distance) in goals conceded the year before.
In summary: I see the use of ‘expected goals for’. It certainly helps to tell us who’s playing well at a glance. But for me: tangible things like strikers who can put the ball in the back of the net and a Championship-level defence are two things Reading fans can point to in order to suggest our hot start might not be a fluke.
Jem on the comms
Just a short little point to finish on today. Waking up on Saturday morning to watch the Middlesbrough game and learning that Jem Karacan would be the co-commentator was the kind of surprise that really gave me that warm fuzzy feeling. Like slipping on an old coat that smells of home and the 2011/12 Championship trophy.
Karacan is one of my favourite Reading players of all time. His tenacity and energy in midfield would have been mightily handy over the last three years, and his penchant for an occasional screamer endeared him to a teenage me. The moment he hit the post in the Play-Off Final we lost to Swansea City when we were storming back from a 3-0 halftime deficit will always be burned into my brain.
My personal highlight from Jem’s performance was his discussion of wingers tracking back with Tim Dellor. We all love Jimmy Kebe, but none of us can begrudge Jem for complaining about having to “do his doggies” for him!