Quick intro to expected goals (xG): This stat measures the quality of a shot by its location in reference to the goal. For example, a shot from a yard out may be worth 0.95 xG as players score from that distance 95% of the time, whereas a shot from the halfway line (looking at you Charlie Adam) might be worth 0.01 xG. ‘Outperforming xG’ refers to a player or team that consistently has scored more goals than their xG would predict – i.e. Reading this season. Overall, xG is widely regarded as the stat that offers the best indication of a team’s ability to create high-quality chances.
In the never-ending hunt for grandiose truths throughout the chaotic EFL landscape, the October discourse has decided that Reading are a satanic cult of fortuitous frauds, whose demise shall be both inevitable and glorious. Soothsaying podcasts echo the warnings that such success is fated to end at each kick-off. Thankfully, there are avenues to dispute these stats-based forebodings without mournfully howling ‘sample size’ in front of a full moon.
As the story goes, Reading attempt the fewest shots in the league, at 6.87 per 90, yet have 15 goals, the second highest. Their xG created is a lowly 6.85 (@experimental361) - again the lowest in the league. These are not good stats to have. However, a stat without context is like a soup without seasoning: why even bother?
Football and data analytics are in a complicated marriage. Without a doubt, statistics can unveil new angles that were hitherto unseen, yet too often, they are ineptly presented as a definitive truth. The truth is often subject to a matter of perspective - especially when the debate centres around whether a team is underrated or overrated. Stats are the evidence in the court of football discourse, but evidence is always subject to interpretation by a judge. The lawyers will endeavour to enshroud the evidence with their context, just as pundits will use stats as a tool to accredit their narratives. Stats are rarely useless, just misused.
Infogol has a “fairness rating” for matches based on the xG score line versus the actual score line. The implication is that Reading, by winning away at Blackburn Rovers while amassing a lower xG figure than Blackburn, had an ‘unfair’ win, which largely misses the point of the exercise. Scoring four goals from five shots isn’t unfair, nor is it lucky; it is a display of efficient finishing. Of course, it is rare, but it should never be a criticism.
The typical conclusion from Reading’s early form is that the results are “unsustainable”. Barring its tendency to give me flashbacks to GCSE geography coursework, the prediction simply lacks imagination - partly because a drop-off is so blindingly obvious: 22 points from eight games puts the Royals on course for 127 points. I am not sure if anybody is aware, but the record is 106 points.
Furthermore, “unsustainable” implies a rigid consistency. The criticism lacks the universal foresight to recognise inevitable change. A football team is not the daily rate of methane emissions from Didcot Power Station. Football teams fluctuate and evolve from week to week. John Swift and Andy Yiadom are still to return from injury. Dai Yongge may be inclined to invest in the first serious opportunity of promotion since his arrival.
Each week, Paunovic reiterates that his team is still improving. Yes, the shot conversion rate is unlikely to maintain, but to blindly foreshadow a sudden demise simply lacks imagination. When a team is scoring an unusual amount of goals compared to their analytics, the process is subject to change, just like the result. There are infinitely more exciting questions that can be asked about the credentials of the early pacesetters.
So, why are Reading breaking the metrics?
Causality plays an important role. Reading have an abnormally high shots-to-goals ratio, but is that because they often score from the first shot? In each of the last three fixtures, the first shot on target has resulted in a goal. Evidently, that seems unlikely to continue, but that hardly implies a sudden demise.
Football matches are a delicate ecosystem. The slightest variation can result in exponentially different results. There is a reason that “goals change games” is a popular cliché. A team with a scoreboard advantage is naturally less purposeful in attack, for they have lost the desperation to score. Reading are an extreme example of this law, as they are yet to be trailing in any of their eight games so far. In total, the Royals have been drawing for 56% of their games and winning for 44%.
Game state is no exact science, but the base psychology behind it is sound. Veljko Paunovic does not substitute Lucas Joao for Tom McIntyre on Tuesday night if the score is not 4-2. Conceding the first goal would offer a fresh new challenge. Perhaps the additional time afforded to Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria against a deep defence would benefit their creative powers, perhaps not. We must wait to see how the league leaders cope with adversity. Until then, Reading have the confidence to see out leads with ease.
This new-found confidence stems from a resolute defence. Reading have kept six clean sheets in eight games, which makes defeat an unlikely prospect. The Royals’ rearguard is so reliable that Paunovic does not need to invoke desperation in his attack. He knows that, while the Wycombe Wanderers performance was underwhelming, a single moment of inspiration from a striker would be enough to secure victory.
On Tuesday night, Reading held a two-goal lead from the 18th minute. Blackburn, the league’s best attack, scored one goal and created ~1 in xG (@experimental361) in that time. They were kept at arm’s length and that was the worst defensive display of the season. There is no rush to score because, in 75% of games, Reading required just one goal in 90 minutes.
Now, of course, this is not a positive appraisal of the front line. League-winning sides usually score more than once per game, but, if supply keeps outweighing demand, the wins will keep on coming. Whatever happens with Veljko’s attack, the defence offers a solid platform that Reading will have the confidence and opportunity to win any game.
Is a shot following a dribble more likely to be successful than a first-time effort? Perhaps. Carlo Ancelotti is converting Dominic Calvert-Lewin into a gorgeous reincarnation of Filippo Inzaghi on the back of one-touch finishing. For Reading, Joao is the anti-poacher. Think of his turns against Colchester United and Cardiff City, or his runs against Wycombe and Blackburn. His profile is a rare one for a striker – he uses his frame as an asset to his dribbling, rather than as a conventional target man. Only one of his 14 goals for Reading have come from his head.
So, why does this matter? Well, if ever a player were to transgress against the boundaries of modern shot data, it would be the 6ft3 striker with feet like Diego Maradona. Just watching his goals would support this hypothesis. Often, Joao will hold his shot until he has beaten the man, retained his balance and ensured there will be no block.
Evidently, a shot with only the keeper to beat is preferable to shooting through a crowd. Indeed, he does transgress. The Portuguese has a track record for being an exceptional finisher. In the past few seasons, he has scored nine goals from 5.91 xG, 10 from 4.38 xG, seven from 4 xG and is currently on five from 2.20 xG this season. His finishing quality has never been in doubt - more his ability to get himself into dangerous areas.
How does this bode for Reading this season?
Amid discussions about xG and shot-conversion rates, winning football matches is still paramount. The main benefit of winning so many matches is all the points you get. It’s one of those sneaky side perks they give to really good football teams and, in this post-pandemic footballing world, nothing can be taken for granted except the points on the board.
The longer this incredible start continues, the easier it will be to coast into the play-offs. Last season, Swansea City swanned into sixth place with 70 points, or 1.52 points per game. With the 22 points Reading have won already, they theoretically only need around 48 points from the remaining 38 games – just 1.26 points per game. Probability has no memory and the theory of xG karma is yet to be proven, so a regression to the mean would not be a disaster. Paunovic’s side will drop off but are unlikely to drop out of play-off contention. Their head start, combined with a steely Serbian backbone and some mercurial attackers, should ensure an exciting season finale.
It’s only October, people.
Football’s desire for definitive narratives has led to a compulsion to pass judgement in the shortest of time frames. Veljko Paunovic has been in a job less than two months and has managed only eight league games. There is no need to decide today if Reading will win the league or finish 14th. To make such a confident prediction would be absurd. The stats are bizarre, yes, primarily because of a tiny sample size in an already unpredictable league. Remember when Steve Clarke was second in October…
I’ll leave you with a quote from the late Maya Angelou. I am not entirely sure she was referring to a glorious season of the SkyBet Championship, but her wisdom is universal. Just sit back, relax and watch every single shot go flying in.
“We spend precious hours fearing the inevitable. It would be wise to use that time adoring our families, cherishing our friends and living our lives.”