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It is not a vintage time to support a Football League club whose name begins with P. Portsmouth are mired in financial trouble and struggling at the bottom of their division. Plymouth are mired in financial trouble and struggling at the bottom of their division. Peterborough are struggling at the bottom of their division. Port Vale are mired in financial trouble. It is the fact that they are not struggling towards the bottom of the division that is surprising, and, as yesterday, I want to see if their numbers suggest any reason for their progress, or whether they have just stumbled on gold almost without realising it.

The Simple Stuff

They’re scoring loads of goals, Port Vale are. Loads of ‘em. Twenty one in seven games. That’s, like, 3 PER game. A goal every 30 minutes! Its astounding stuff. Vale Park must be like the Camp Nou, and Micky Adams Tito Villanova. Seriously, though, 21 goals is phenomenal going and it can’t last. It would equate to 138 by the end of the season, and that is 4 more than any team has scored in a season ever. It would, perhaps more pertinently, be 70 more than last season’s Port Vale score. In short, it won’t happen. So Vale are in a rich vein of goal scoring form. They’re not shooting a lot, though; 8.86 shots per game is only the 18th highest in the division and pales in comparison to Fleetwood’s 16.14– they played each other at the weekend and remained true to form – Fleetwood had 17 shots, and Vale 10 – Vale scored 5, though, to Fleetwood’s 2.

This figure of 8.86 is a decrease from last season, but not by a vast amount (only 0.07 – certainly not an amount that would indicate why there’s so many more goals being scored). Also similar is the amount of shots on target. Of the 62 shots Vale have taken this season, 25 have been on target. That’s 40.32%, which is up only 0.17% from last season. But there is a vast increase in their shot efficiency; a goal from every 2.95 shots this season (is ludicrous) compares to a goal every 6.04 shots last season, which is far understandable. Here’s all those figures in graph form, because I’m nice like that (the % on target are set on the right axis, by the way)

portv1.jpgA Little More Depth

Of course, the most important thing about Port Vale’s season has been the turnover of players. I make it 12 players that featured for Vale last year that haven’t this (though Rob Kozluk was on loan) losing 218 appearances and, mainly through Marc Richards and Sean Rigg, 36 goals, which, from a tally of 68, is a lot. Now, the players who have been brought in, remembering that Vale are a team in administration, won’t have cost the earth. Ashley Vincent is a fine signing (and 3 goals in 7 league games is testament to that), but the real revelation, I think, is Tom Pope. Eight goals in seven games is Messi-esque, even if the contact wearing darts fan (thanks Wikipedia) is pretty unlike Lionel in any other way.

So I thought I’d have a look at Tom Pope’s purple patch, and see if it has any kind of precedent. The most striking thing about the 8 goals is that they’ve come from thirteen shots (nine on target), which is quite phenomenal. Here’s a graph I’ve made to illustrate quite how purple this patch is. The left hand bars represent shooting accuracy (a percentage of total shots that are on target) and the right hand bars represent chance conversion (how many of the total shots are goals). Firstly, there’s a graph of Tom Pope’s career to date, so you can see how unlikely this present spell is.

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Do you think it looks unlikely in comparison to the rest of Tom Pope’s career? Here’s another graph comparing those same figures to the best players in Europe last season. Now, the European players’ figures come from 2011/12, and represent a whole season, but I think we can safely say that Tom Pope will not maintain that record – though its being going an impressively long time now; he scored four goals in 31 minutes in a pre-season game at Athlone Town (and a few more goals in pre-season, too)

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It is inevitable, however fun it might be to speculate otherwise, that Tom Pope will not finish the season as prolific as he has started it; and without his goals, Vale would have scored 13 and conceded 9. The evidence points to a little discrepancy there, to be perfectly honest – if Vale are scoring once every three shots and their opponents once every six, then both those figures are a little low compared to the league average for scoring (8.10 shots for each goal). Vale might be playing very open football (certainly, averaging 55.1% possession suggests that they are) which would lead to games with more goals, but I don’t think their goals for figure is sustainable in the long term.

I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss their good form as a flash in the pan; there’s obviously some quality there – beating Rotherham and Fleetwood comfortably indicates that, much less having 57% possession against the former, but I can’t imagine a squad that size (23 players, of whom 6 have yet to be used) being able to sustain that form, either in front of goal, or in defence, over the length of the season. I’d like to see it – I think everyone loves seeing teams of gung-ho gunslingers doing well, and their cards are certainly falling well at the moment – I think that their inevitable regression to the mean, in terms of chance conversion, will catch up with them; and probably sooner than later. That said, if I was offering a Port Vale fan a start this good and a team this exciting at this point last season, I’m sure they would have taken it.

Good luck, Vale. I hope you prove me wrong.

Incidentally, Port Vale’s division’s best attack’s next game is against the division’s tightest defence, Gillingham, who will be the subject of my third and final ‘What’s Going On…’ tomorrow.

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