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Port Vale continue to excite at the top of League Two. Their battle with Gillingham¹ is becoming a real ding-dong at the top of the division and they seem to be feeding off one another as they gradually pull away at the top of the table.

I had a look at some of the reasons for that a while ago, but we’re into a new year now, and I think its time to have a look at some more of the season in a bit more depth. Also, seeing how popular my last Port Vale post was, I thought there’s some Valiants might want an update (hello and thanks to you all – your visits are what makes writing this stuff worth it) – there’s a bit more data to play around with.

Form
If I start off with league form, so we get a basic picture of how Vale’s season has unfolded. One of the more revealing things I’ve found when looking at form is to look at a running form table; it highlights good runs and bad runs particularly well – I use six games, so this graph is, after each game, Vale’s form from the previous six games.

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They’ve lost only five games this season, as it happens, and those defeats have been pretty well spread (Game 2, and then unbeaten runs of 6-7-6-4-3*). Curiously, too, all their defeats have been by two goals to nil. That’s always a positive sign – ‘bounce-back-ability’. The nadir of the graph comes after a run of three draws and a defeat, part of a five game run without a win that represents Vale’s longest of the season so far. That, then, was their ‘blip’ – certainly, you can see the spell around it being the only prolonged spell below the average form. The gold ‘trendline’ is the overall points per game for the season thus far, if you were wondering.

How Have They Done It?

It is no news to anyone, but Port Vale score a lot of goals. In 28 league games, they’ve netted 58. That’s 2.07 per game. So far, Vale have scored more than twice eleven times (winning all 11 of those games) suggesting that they’re really laying into a lot of teams that they find inferior when they come up against them. Certainly, anecdotally, the game at Gillingham where Vale raced into a 2 goal lead before the hosts settled and fought back, would agree with that idea. I’ve balanced goals for and against (again, in running six game format) in this graph and the goals for tally is consistently frightening, albeit tempered a little from earlier in the season.

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They’re not water-tight in defence, but the way the two lines follow each other, in the main, suggests that there’s been no real danger in a lot of games (though in the 17 games Vale have scored 2 or fewer, they’ve kept only 3 clean sheets, compared to 6 from 11 when they’ve scored three or more). There’s a leaning (3.4 v. 3.0) to Vale’s home games containing more goals than the away, but both figures are high, and the defeats have been scattered both home and away; either way, its certainly scoring the goals that’s doing the business rather than keeping them out.

The main threat in that regard, of course, has been Tom Pope.

The Continuing Amazement of Tom Pope

Tom Pope is having a season for the ages. I’m sure, in his wildest dreams, he wasn’t expecting to have scored this many goals by this point (25 in the league thus far). Its impressive in and of itself, but I was wondering how much Port Vale rely on him – it was always a worry for Huddersfield relying on Jordan Rhodes’ goals and, with him continuing to be such a high scorer, I thought it worth looking at whether Vale have any such trouble, of course, as they buckle their swash through League Two.

The impressive thing about these figures is how steady the reliance on Pope has been. Since about 8 games in, both the number of shots and the number of goals Pope has contributed have been steady
(percentage-wise) within the Vale total; just under 25% of their shots – not bad for a striker, and about 42% of their goals.

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That steadiness is important. Its not as if there’s spells where Vale are leaning on him more, and there’s not been any particular periods of drought where other players have carried the goal-scoring can. There’s obviously something special at work. Whether it is just an extended purple patch, or whether Vale have happened on a system that plays to Pope’s strengths is difficult to say; certainly a fair few of his goals have been from close-in; perhaps he’s staying in that central position more, which is allowing a better ‘quality’ of chance than in previous seasons, a chance he is better able to take.

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It is worth noting, mind you, that purple as Pope’s patch may be, his rate of scoring (shots per goal) is slowing as the season goes on; not drastically – he still takes only 2.64 shots per goal, but that’s the highest figure its been all season, and it is rising slowly. Now would probably be the time to add a seasoned goal-getter to really cement the promoti… oh, Lee Hughes, you say? That might do it.

What Does It All Mean?
Three (points) is the magic number. So long as Port Vale keep creating chances, and Tom Pope keeps taking them (even if he slows a little), you’re looking at a team who will score a lot of goals which, even with the defence being a little less effective than it was (one might suspect that’s bound to happen as players, particularly defensive ones, will miss games through suspension at this time of year) will still be enough to win more of their games than they lose – with an eight point lead over the team in 4th already, its difficult to see them being caught.

Where Next, Then?
It will be interesting to see how the arrival of Lee Hughes bears onto Tom Pope; whether Hughes takes some of the goalscoring over, or whether he becomes an additional threat – that’s too early to tell yet. Its not often Lee Hughes will be compared to Faustino Asprilla, but I’m sure you understand the relevance. Beyond that, the big issue is that given Pope’s numbers from previous years, this season does feel a little bit like one of those seasons (like Gary Bennett’s for Wrexham in the mid-90s) when a good striker is in the right team at the right time, and next year will return to some level of normalcy. Time will tell, and who am I to say he can’t keep going?

¹I should point out here that, with Mrs Marco being a Gill, I will always favour the men from Priestfield, but I don’t have any problems with Port Vale at all.

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