The fascinating numbers behind Bruce’s formation switch – 4 at the back > 5 at the back

This season has dragged on both literally and metaphorically. Since the appointment of Steve Bruce, the football has been tough to watch at times.

When arriving, he spoke of playing a more attractive brand of football, but stubbornly stuck with the defensive five at the back utilised by Rafa Benitez. It is boring to make comparisons between the pair, so we won’t be doing that here. 

Before we look into the numbers, it is important to explain the metrics we are looking at. Expected goals (xG) quantifies the quality of every chance created in a match, with a clear cut chance scoring highly and a long shot scoring low in this metric. Expected points (xP) are calculated based on the xG created and conceded in a match. If a team dominates the game and creates better chances, they may not win the match, but they will have a higher xP total. This is based on the idea that if the match was played 100 times, they would have won more often than not.

To provide an example, we managed to beat Chelsea 1-0 earlier this season. However, Understat have an xG scoreline of 0.89 – 2.05. We took the three points on the day, but if the game was played out in the same way 100 times, the Blues would be expected to win the majority of them. 

According to Understat, we are bottom of the table for xP. Over the course of the season, we have managed to collect almost 15 more points than our performances would be expected to earn. This is a marked overachievement and those that prescribe to xG would expect our results to revert to the mean over time. Those that accuse Bruce of being a lucky manager are very much supported by the performance indicators. 

Across the season, our xG created is 30.97 and our xG conceded is 55.41. Meanwhile, we have scored 33 and conceded 43. Our attack is performing in line with what would be expected, but at the back, we have conceded far fewer than we perhaps should have done. This can partly be explained by the excellence of Martin Dubravka and the profligacy of opposition strikers.

The above stats are very damning of Bruce, but there is a ray of light for the manager that suggests he could be the right man for the club. His decision to change to a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formation has improved things and the performances are starting to back up the results.

 Since he decided to change formation, we have played five Premier League matches. For fairness of comparison, we will compare the xG of these matches with the corresponding fixtures earlier this season. 
During our first meetings with Burnley, Southampton, Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Bournemouth, we collected nine of an available 15 points. This is a good return, the numbers show that the performances weren’t great. The team created 5.75 xG and conceded 9.04 xG. We scored six and conceded five times. Many of us will remember that we were somewhat fortunate to beat Southampton and Sheffield United in our earlier meetings.

When compared to the recent meetings against the five clubs, the improvement caused by the new formation is obvious. Newcastle have gone unbeaten and picked up 11 of an available 15 points. The more encouraging sign is that our performances were much improved. The team created 9.22 xG and conceded only 4.05 xG.

Not only did we create better chances, but we conceded much fewer of high quality. Considering we actually conceded twice, there is still a slight overachievement in defence. That can again be explained by the value of Dubravka.

Many, including Bruce, worried that a move to four at the back would lead to defensive issues. The early evidence would suggest that isn’t the case and the defence is actually more solid.

It is a small sample size and it needs to be caveated by the fact that two of these matches saw an opposition player sent off. However, there are signs for optimism that we can sustain the recent good form.

Earlier in the season, we all knew that Bruce was getting lucky with the results.

He now needs to get the players to continue performing at this level to convince his doubters that this isn’t a flash in the pan. 

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