Expected Something

Game 3

Shamrock Rovers 2-1 Dundalk

Something I’ve learned recently is that ‘Expected Goals’ can make you feel much better about a defeat. There are some defeats that are worse than others for sure, but there are some losses when viewed through the eyes of a cold statistical model that can make you think “hey, we weren’t that bad!”. I’ve decided to view Friday night in Tallaght as one of those games.

I’ve been reading ‘The Expected Goals Philosophy’ by James Tippet over the last few weeks to try to get a better understanding of the expected goals model and what it actually means in an attempt to enlighten myself and make myself a more well rounded football nerd.

So for people who don’t know, Expected goals (xG) is a predictive model used to assess every goal-scoring chance, and the likelihood of scoring. But it works for assists and other aspects of the game too. It’s very difficult for me to explain so there’s a helpful video here which explains it for me.

You probably have heard about this before and you’ve almost definitely heard someone completely dismiss it too. When people laugh at the expected goals concept and dismiss it outright it makes me think about Moneyball. Moneyball is one of my favourite films, mostly because I’m fascinated with people who try to evolve sport and the inevitable push back that they receive when they try to break from the norm.

Some pretty large betting companies have done quite a lot to discredit xG and make a mockery of it. That has nothing to do with xG being developed as a way to beat betting companies. Not at all.

‘Football men’ were very quick to dismiss xG as anything other than ‘nerd nonsense’ which was to be expected I guess, but over time it’s become more accepted as a method of analysing football matches and players. So I thought, let’s try to apply this to a Dundalk game and see what happens.

According to Tippets book, a Swindon Town fan named Charles Reep in 1950 was so annoyed watching his team lose games that he started to collect and use statistics as a way of understanding what was going wrong with his team. He brought a pen and paper to the game and jotted down anything of note, shots, corners, free kicks and tried to make some sense of what he was seeing.

I channeled my inner Charles Reep on Friday night. I decided I would try to make notes as the game went on as a way of trying to keep a decent perspective on what I was watching. What I learned though is that there are things that cannot be accounted for by statistics. Brian Gartland’s injury after 90 seconds had a negative impact on Dundalk’s set-up and then performance. I spoke on the Town End Podcast about the reaction to this and the tactical adjustments that were made or not made in the aftermath of the injury.

In the first 30-35 minutes, Dundalk did not play well at all. I had counted 6 Rovers chances before the fella from Made in Chelsea scored. In that same period Dundalk had created one chance from open play and one from a corner. Things did not look good.

Then with the formation change there was an uptick in chances created. Before half time there wasn’t much by way of chances but they at least found themselves in more dangerous positions with the ball.

In the 2nd half I counted 8 chances including hitting the post and the bar on separate occasions. That doesn’t include the goal Hoban scored or the offside chance that he had. If it feels like I’m just trying to make myself feel better about the performance and that none of this is relevant at all because Rovers scored two goals and Dundalk scored one then, fine, thank you for reading. I see where you’re coming from but I don’t 100% agree with you.

If you think that last week against Finn Harps they created very few chances and the difference in performances from week to week is symptomatic of a much larger problem within the club and the coaching set-up then we can have a conversation.

On the podcast we discussed how the difference between the sides on Friday night was down to the performance of both goalkeepers. The stats from the game would back that up. Now, can I accept that? Can I accept that once the formation changed Dundalk were the better side? That if it weren’t for a mistake from Abibi that Dundalk would have gotten a point from this game? I honestly don’t know that I can.

I understand the benefit of the system but it doesn’t allow for emotion or the psychological affects of Rovers being a goal up and feeling superior and not worried that Dundalk were creating half decent chances. Like I said in the beginning, the xG system can make you feel much better about a defeat because you can see how many goals you were expected to score.

The system has flaws but I can absolutely see the merits of it and when used correctly it can give an extra layer of analysis. It will never allow for the ball slipping under a goalkeepers arms or coaching staffs making the wrong decisions or being forced into a substitution after 90 seconds.

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