The dust has settled on the first season under Steve Bruce.
Arguments continue on social media about whether the current manager has done a good job or not. He may have had some good fortune in some matches, but the players are playing for him and he achieved survival with comfort.
Considering the situation he inherited, his first year has to be considered a success based purely on results. However, the performances have been dire and the underlying metrics that we will look into below show that Bruce has been lucky.
With clubs already starting to sign players and the season only weeks away, the current hierarchy can’t allow this summer to drift. The takeover may or may not happen, but an immediate conclusion isn’t in sight.
We need to be active in the market, otherwise another relegation is a real possibility.
The league table never lies is a popular line trotted out by pundits, but the rise of football analytics has led to some questioning that.
Understat calculate expected goals (xG) for Premier League matches and publish a league table based on this. Some within the game refer to this as the truth table. On any day, a team can get lucky to pick up points and therefore, the league table may not be a fair reflection of the performances of teams.
xG is calculated by giving the value to each chance created by a team. An open goal from three yards out might be given an xG value of 0.9.
Meanwhile, a 30-yard-shot through a crowd of bodies may be given an xG value of 0.02. Therefore, a team that has a higher xG for is one that creates more clear cut chances, thus they are considered more likely to score goals. On the other hand, a team that has a high xG against is more likely to concede goals.
This is a basic explanation, but more detailed descriptions of the metric can be found online. In a single match, a team can outperform xG and win a game that it doesn’t deserve to. However, over time, it should even itself and xG is considered a good barometer of a team’s abilities.
Back to Newcastle, Understat has us as the worst team in the Premier League when it comes to xG. They have calculated the xG for and against in every game, with the model expecting us to collect 31.92 points (xPTS) over the course of the season.
At the end of the season, we had 43 points, therefore we overachieved based on the performance of the team.
This is a worry, as teams can outperform xG in a single year, but it is rare for a team to continue to do this. Therefore, those that believe in the metric would expect us to be one of the relegation favourites next season unless performances improve. This is why the takeover seemed crucial. Bruce may have maintained the Premier League status once, but if the team continues in the same vein, it is difficult to see him doing it again.
The main reason for this is seen to be luck, with our chances and performances not warranting the number of points we have collected. However, the presence of Martin Dubravka has been key.
Although it is important to have a good goalkeeper that can add value to the team, we need to ensure our performances are much better.
A crumb of comfort can be taken from Understat’s xG table for the matches following lockdown. During this period, we are 15th in the Premier League for xPTS with 10.04 from nine matches. Four Premier League teams to also stay up had a lower xPTS post lockdown according to Understat. These were Crystal Palace, Burnley, Everton and Brighton.
It is clear that the change to four at the back helped the team perform better. However, injuries towards the end of lockdown saw us return to a previous way of playing and we didn’t perform well in those matches.
The upcoming weeks are crucial. The club can’t afford to wait on a takeover as they need reinforcements now. If the club sits still and performs similarly next season, we might not be so lucky.