Premier League number crunch: who has run furthest and missed most chances?

Simon Burnton on 20 November 2018

Twelve games into the Premier League season, we have probably learned enough about each team, using the most basic statistical metrics of goals scored, goals conceded and points gained, to come to certain conclusions about their style and their prospects. But with international fixtures forcing the league into a pause there is time to take a deeper dive into the statistical swamp, which reveals a few interesting details.

Effort

There is a fairly clear statistical link between effort expended and results achieved. The 10 teams that have collectively run the furthest contain seven of the top 10 and all of the top six; of the seven teams that have run the least six are in the bottom half and three in the bottom four. The key exceptions are Crystal Palace and Huddersfield, eighth and ninth on the list but stuck in the bottom five, while Manchester United have outrun only four teams, yet retain European ambitions. While most of the 20 teams are fairly tightly clustered Cardiff have run more than 40km less than any other side, and more than 130km less than Arsenal, who top the effort table.

As for individuals, few will be surprised that N’Golo Kanté tops the charts for covering the most distance so far this season. But the clearest picture painted by these numbers is that the centre of midfield is no place for the lazy: only Marcos Alonso of the top 10 try-hards does not play there. Meanwhile only three players have covered more than 13km in a single game, and of the top five greatest single-player, single-game efforts every one was playing for a top-six team against another top-six team. The identity of the No 1 player for these lung-busting one-off efforts is unexpected, though: the only man to have three performances in the top 10, including the No 1 spot, is Bernardo Silva.

Distance run

Indolence

If central midfielders do the most grafting, despite the constant traipsing upfield for corners centre-backs do by some margin the least running of all outfield players. Indeed a ranking of the 25 players who have covered, per 90 minutes played, least ground includes no fewer than 20 centre-halves (one of those, Cardiff’s Bruno Ecuele Manga, has been used as a right-back this season but has clearly brought his bad habits to his new position) and only three forwards. Marko Arnautovic, who told the Guardian earlier this season about how David Moyes taught him to “work hard, run as much as you can and the other things will come”, could do with a few more lessons – there is only one attacking player in the Premier League who runs less than him. The other two sleepy strikers both play for Manchester United, with Anthony Martial bottom of the heap (on the plus side 42.86% of his shots this season have gone in, which of those who have scored five or more goals is the best in the league by a distance) and Romelu Lukaku averaging just 300m more per match (only without the goals).

Indolence

Optimistic crosses

You would expect that the teams which deliver the most crosses would also have the most headed attempts. That is pretty much the entire point of the exercise. Without the headers on goal, the crosses are just so much wasted time and effort. Given their league position it is perhaps no surprise to discover inefficiencies in Huddersfield’s play, but here’s one: Huddersfield are the league’s No 1 crossers, sending 202 balls into the box from open play, but have had only 24 headed shots on goal. Cardiff, meanwhile, have attempted a comparatively meagre 128 crosses, yet delivered a handsome 29 headers. Wolves suffer similarly: they are fifth in the cross charts with 164 and fourth bottom on headed attempts, with a cross-to-shot conversion rate of 12.8% (still quite a lot better than Huddersfield’s 11.9%). Crystal Palace, second-bottom of the cross rankings with 51 fewer centres than Wolves, have had precisely the same number of headed attempts on goal. Michael Keane, the league’s leading head-shooter, has had more headed shots (15) than the two joint least-head-shootiest teams, Arsenal and Watford (14).

Crosses

Finishing

It will come as little surprise that most of the teams that have missed lots of big chances have also scored lots of big chances: they just make lots of big chances. Manchester City, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Tottenham and Manchester United are all in the top (or bottom, depending how you look at it) six for missing these opportunities, which Opta define as “situations where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range”, and also in the top six for taking them. But there is one absolutely wild anomaly here: Watford have missed more big chances (25) than any side other than City (26), but while Pep Guardiola’s league leaders have scored 17 of them the Hornets have scored just five, placing them 18th in that particular table. Their chance conversion is, to put it mildly, abysmal. Burnley have missed 20 fewer big chances than Watford while scoring one more, converting 54.5% of them to the Hornets’ 16.7%.The most profligate team – over a full season – since Opta started collecting these statistics in 2010 is the Norwich City side of 2013-14, who were relegated with 33 points, and they tucked away a comparatively dead-eye 22.9%.

Fortunately Watford have scored with a lot of long-range piledrivers, mazy dribbles and crosses that accidentally float into the net. So though they have missed most of their good chances everything has evened out nicely: their expected goals this season is 17.13, and their actual goal tally is 17. The really unlucky team is Southampton, who have missed 18 big chances and scored six, would statistically be expected to have scored 15.96 goals and have in fact scored eight. That’s a 51.13% XG conversion rate: the next worst is Crystal Palace’s 61.49%, and 13 top-flight teams convert 97% or more (Arsenal have scored 26 goals to an XG of 16.51, a league-leading conversion rate of 157.48%, with Burnley second on 125.39%). Southampton rank fifth on shots, third on shots blocked, seventh on expected goals yet joint 18th on actual goals, making them by some way the division’s most hopelessly wasteful team.

Expected goals

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