Thinking inside the box?

Listen to Episode 5 (published 29th November) of The Hit Row Z Podcast – now on iTunes – subscribe and share!

See why Hit Row Z’s ‘Shots in the Box’ analysis indicates Fulham are the team most in trouble in the Premier League.

‘GET IT IN THE MIXER!!!’ – A cry that can be heard on football fields across the country, from Premier League grounds right through to the muddy sidelines of Hackney Marshes or my old stomping ground at Ralph Gardner Park.

While too often this becomes shorthand for just lumping the ball long for a 50/50 tussle between attacker and defender and hoping you’re able to get on the end of the second ball to stick one away, there is a certain logic to it.

Take the Premier League this season, for instance. In the one hundred games played so far, 240 goals have been scored. If we delve a little deeper we can break this down further:

Figure 1: Breaking down the shots and goals scored in the Premier League to date

Key factors to note, then:

* A little over half of all chances created come from inside the box;

* But 80% of goals come from shots taken from inside the box;

* This reflects the fact that a shot taken from inside the box is generally easier to convert, or is more difficult for the goalkeeper or defenders to stop, than a shot taken from outside of the box

Ultimately, football is a game decided by goals. Based on the general assumptions set out above, and all other things being equal, it would seem logical that teams that are consistently better able to create chances in the opposition box, while at the same time protecting their own area, should generally be more successful (score more and concede fewer) than those that aren’t.

To test this hypothesis, the relative performance in terms of chances created in their box, and that of the opposition, of each Premier League team so far this season is presented in the following diagram:

There is clearly a general trend – teams that are better able to create chances in the opposition’s area are also more likely to prevent the opposition creating chances in their own.

However, it is worth noting that there is not a direct read across between the data presented and a team’s position in the league. This is likely to be because of the small sample size which is subject to sharp short term variance.

That said, and as the graph illustrates, there are some informative inferences that can be made regarding the relative performance of Premier League games so far this season, indicative trends, and insights on individual team styles. Given this, then, what conclusions can we make regarding team performances and styles – and where might teams look to improve – as we head into the Christmas period?

* Fulham – based on these metrics, Fulham appear to be the team most in trouble. In the ten games they have played so far this season, they have averaged less than four shots in the opposition’s box per game, while they are conceding more than ten per game in their own. Based on the league averages referred to above (approximately seven shots in the box necessary to score a goal, on average), this is as good as giving the opposition team a goal head start. If Fulham are to increase their chances of picking up vital wins then these stats will likely need to be rebalanced – is Martin Jol the man to save them from the drop, or is it time to bring in a new man with fresh ideas?

* Cardiff, Norwich, Crystal Palace and Sunderland – together with Fulham, I expect these teams to make up the bottom five. Based on the data recorded so far, none of these teams are creating enough chances in the box, and Norwich and Cardiff especially are conceding far too many.

* Manchester City – would appear to be the team to fear at the other end of the table. However, it is a drawback in the approach taken that it smooths out the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ performances. While City have been devastating against Newcastle, Manchester United and Norwich this season, too often they have lacked consistency, falling to defeats at Aston Villa, Cardiff and rivals Chelsea. Perhaps it is telling that while City concede fewer than five chances in their box per game, they have conceded eleven goals – should Joe Hart shoulder the blame for this?

* Newcastle United – fans may be surprised to know that only Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City have ‘created’ more chances than the Magpies this season. However, those who have watched Newcastle this season will be unsurprised to see that only Fulham, Cardiff, Palace, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Hull have had fewer shots from inside the box. For me, this gets to the core of Newcastle’s underlying problem – too often, they are reliant on long-range ‘brilliance’ from the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa. This is borne out by the fact that just 39% of Newcastle’s chances come from inside the opposition’s area (remember the league average was 55%), where we have seen that the chances of scoring are far-reduced (to score one goal from a shot outside the box requires on average twenty-five attempts…). While the likes of Cabaye and Ben Arfa do have the ability to come up with a long-range stunner, surely Alan Pardew should have a better Plan A going into games?

* Southampton and Tottenham – both teams boast the best defences in the league, and it is little wonder when you consider the amount of chances they each give away in their own areas – both teams concede fewer than six chances per game in their in box. Interestingly, despite having forty more shots in total this season, Spurs have had the same number of chances in the opposition box as the Saints (78) – are Spurs suffering from the same syndrome as Newcastle appear to be? Is there room for more efficiency in how they use the ball?

It is worth remembering that we are only a little over a quarter of the way through the season. Nevertheless, this new way of analysing team’s performance that is being pursued by Hit Row Z is already providing some key insights. Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of articles that seek to provide some views on the following key questions:

* What has greatest impact on a team’s ability to pick up points – conceding fewer chances in their own box, or creating more in the opposition area?

* What can you infer from the data in relation to a team’s style?

* How can this data be used alongside other metrics to improve a team’s performance?

Listen to Episode 4 (published 6th November) of The Hit Row Z Podcast – now on iTunes – subscribe and share!


  1. Jhonny Canuck says:

    Excellent piece! Did you include penalty shots and direct free kicks?

    • Hi, glad you liked the piece. Penalties were included as shots in the box, yes. Direct free kicks as shots from outside of the box – I’d be interested to know how many of the goals from shots outside of the box were direct free kicks.

      • Jhonny Canuck says:

        Hi, James. Thanks for reply.Penalties are scored at a much higher rate than any other shots. As far as I know in EPL over the last five seasons penalties are scored at a rate 75%. That’s why I think penalties lift conversion rate of the shots from inside the box. Maybe it makes sense to remove penalties to get a better picture.
        This season in EPL 13 direct free kicks converted into goals so far. MU,ManCity – 3 goals each,Stoke, Everton – 2, Chelsea, Villa, Southhampton -1. The rest of teams have zero goals from direct free kicks.

  2. stevowills1 says:

    I think stats and numbers can often be misleading. Using league wide averages isn’t fair as some teams are better at converting chances from outside of the area. Also for example a player takes a shot from outside the area, leading to a corner or a penalty. Both could result in goals converted from inside the area which can at least partially be credited to the shot from outside the area. If discouraged from shooting from outside the box the corner/penalty chance never happens.
    Using the data above, Spurs have had 78 shots within the box, Fulham less than 40, yet Fulham have scored more times this season.

    I guess the point i am trying to make is statistics in football are not of huge importance IMHO, there will never be a formula to make it work, which is part of the beauty of it


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