Sometimes you set out to prove something and you find you’re gratifyingly accurate. Sometimes you find you’re devastatingly wrong. And sometimes you discover something surprising. I thought I’d have a look at where Wrexham’s goals are coming from and ended up drawing some a surprising conclusions.
My theory was simple. Plenty of attention has been focussed on Andy Bishop this season. His struggle to find the net has been cited by many as a key factor in our faltering form, and I’m certainly not about to pretend that I didn’t expect to get more return for our Summer investment than we’ve enjoyed so far.
However, I thought I’d have a look at where our goals have come from in Andy Morrell’s 4-3-3 as I suspected that the central role in the attacking three wasn’t as prolific as one might expect. What I discovered backed me up, but also threw in a surprising twist.
Basically, I assumed that the central striker’s role in this set-up has tended to be to hold the ball up and create opportunities for players cutting in on the diagonal to score. My thought was that in each of the last two seasons our really prolific players have been coming in from the wide areas, as a glance at our top scorers under Morrell shows. Jake Speight got twenty goals cutting in from the left two seasons ago and in our last campaign Danny Wright got eighteen, predominantly from the other side.
While Dean Saunders’ 4-3-3 tended to be quite fluid up top, with the forwards interchanging positions regularly (I used to enjoy Gareth Taylor’s stints as a wide man!), Morrell tends to opt for a more static approach which makes it easier to keep tabs of which position a player was playing from when he has scored.
So I had a look back at every Wrexham game under Morrell and worked out which attacking positions the goals came from. In 2011-12 and 2012-13 I found my assumption was correct. In the first of those seasons, we achieved a remarkable uniformity in this respect: 37% of the goals our strikers scored came from the left flank, 37% from the right and just 26% from the central forward. Or to put it another way, three quarters of goals came from the wide men and just a quarter from the middle, turning on its head any old-fashioned notion that a 4-3-3 attack relies on the centre forward for its goals.
The pattern was maintained last season. The balance between flanks wasn’t there as Wright’s right side accounted for 40% of goals and the left for just 26%. Still, between them the wide men still outscored the central striker pretty comfortably, managing 66% of our forwards’ goals between them.
This season, however, the trend has been bucked in a very surprising way. Almost half of our strikers’ goals have come from the central striker (43%), with 57% from the wide forwards (43% from the right, 14% from the left)
The first conclusion to draw from this is that perhaps it’s an indication of something which has gone wrong with the system. If our usual pattern isn’t maintained then the two most obvious reasons would be that we’re trying something different, which doesn’t really seem to be the case, or it isn’t working properly. There are possible reasons why the left flank hasn’t been contributing so heavily: we’ve often played Johnny Hunt there, and his value in an attacking role is in terms of his positional play rather than his goalscoring. Also, it should be pointed out that Adrian Cieslewicz had a pretty unproductive last half season when cutting in from that position, and when Brett Ormerod has played there he’s been hampered by injury, tiredness and now suspension.
This all opens up an interesting question: should we challenge the conventional wisdom in trying to discern what’s going wring this season, and instead of looking vertically at the side and splitting it into defence, midfield and attack instead split it horizontally and consider if our problem’s the left flank? I suggested earlier this season that too many assists for the opposition had been coming from that side of the pitch: now the statistics seem to be suggesting that the left side of our attack isn’t chipping in with as many goals as it ought to.
The other issue to consider here is the judgement we make of Bishop. He’s been playing in the central role for the vast majority of games this season (he’s started there in twenty five of our thirty three games) and it has yielded more goals in comparison to the flanks than it usually does. So could it be that, while the evidence before our eyes suggests he ought to be scoring more, in actual fact he’s over-performing, scoring more than central strikers are supposed to in Wrexham’s system? It’s a surprising thought, but an interesting one.
Of course, there are a couple compelling statistical counter-arguments to this. Firstly, are the front three contributing the same ratio of goals as they usually are? If not, then the central striker’s contribution won’t be as valuable in the big scheme of things. But in this respect the current side stands comparison with the last two seasons: the front three has scored 52% of the side’s goals this season compared to 48% last season and 53% under Morrell in 2011-12.
The other question is whether the side in general is as prolific as it has been over the last two seasons. A higher percentage of goals in a side which isn’t scoring as easily as in the past is obviously not worth as much. In this sense the current side does lag behind, but not significantly. Under Morrell we averaged 1.76 goals a match in 2011-12. Last season, surprisingly, we actually exceeded that figure with 1.79 a game. While we’ve dipped below that standard this season, 1.64 a game is still a decent return. Clearly the side is still functioning going forward and the central striker can hardly be criticised for not contributing his share.
So there you go. Undoubtedly Bishop is lacking confidence in front of goal; no doubt he could have enjoyed a more successful start to his Racecourse stint. But the figures suggest we’re getting better value our of our central striker as your eyes might tell you.