Not what was expected: Ugly stats underscore Sky Blues’ woes

Sydney FC are the A-League’s biggest underperformers in front of goal this season, according to statistics that show how their inability to finish chances has become a team-wide problem.

The Sky Blues are hunting for a record third consecutive grand final victory, but with the season at the halfway point they are in danger of losing touch with the pacesetters after a 1-0 defeat away to Adelaide United on Sunday.

Bobo has been a bright spark in a Sydney FC team that seems to have forgotten how to score.Credit:Getty

Coach Steve Corica has regularly attributed his team’s indifferent results to a failure to convert chances on goal, while fans have rued the failure to replace English ace Adam Le Fondre with a similar calibre player.

An analysis by Opta – the A-League’s official stats partner – has backed these claims up using a performance metric known as “expected goals” or “xG”, which measures the quality of a shot, or the probability of a chance being converted into a goal based on variables including location on the pitch, which body part was used, and the build-up play leading up to the chance.

The metric, then, can be used to help understand the truth behind football truisms – such as whether teams who are “unlucky” in front of goal really are, or if efficient players like Le Fondre, who are recognised as “natural goal scorers”, are finishing difficult opportunities on a regular basis.

Opta’s numbers show that Sydney FC’s xG differential – the difference between how many goals they have scored, and how many xG suggests they should have scored – has dipped dramatically from 1.1 last season to -10.3.

That change of -11.4 is the biggest negative swing of any team in the competition. In contrast to teams like Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United, who have surged in the other direction.

Sydney have won just five of 13 games so far this season. In the eight they’ve either drawn or lost, only twice have they taken fewer shots on goal than the opposition, which shows how the issue is regularly costing them competition points.

A closer look at Sydney’s individual stats reveals almost every player is responsible for the goalscoring malaise to varying degrees.

Of those who have featured in their squad for the last two A-League campaigns, only four – Milos Ninkovic (0.9), Alex Wilkinson (0.7), Luke Brattan (0.4) and Calem Nieuwenhof (0.5) – have positive xG differentials this season. Only two – Ninkovic (+2.9) and Brattan (+1.6) – have improved the stat by more than one goal (1.0) this season.

None of Sydney’s recognised strikers come close to matching Le Fondre, who scored 21 of the team’s 52 goals and outperformed his xG value by 3.6 last season – the second-best figure of any Sky Blues player since Opta began collecting the data in 2015-16.

Kosta Barbarouses has come in for particular criticism due to his meagre return of three goals this season from a team-high 39 shots – and the New Zealand international remains Sydney’s biggest culprit, with his -3.2 last season worsening to -3.7 this term.

Barbarouses, still, is Sydney’s joint top-scorer – along with Bobo, Ninkovic and youngster Patrick Wood, who have all scored three times this season.

Trent Buhagiar, who Corica backed in pre-season to help replace Le Fondre’s output as a regular goal scorer, hasn’t played since the end of January due to a knee injury, which has sidelined him indefinitely.

Former captain Alex Brosque said the loss of Le Fondre had put undue pressure on players like Barbarouses and Buhagiar to score more goals.

“I think that was unfair. Kosta’s a guy who will get you 10 or so goals a season and he’s good at doing that, but Sydney still needed a marquee forward to get you 20 goals,” Brosque said on SEN Radio’s The Global Game this week. “The loss of Le Fondre can’t be underestimated – not having that person to just score a goal when you need it and when you might not be playing well, that’s really hurt them this year. They’re dominating most games, they’re creating chances – in a lot of them they’re just not converting.”

Sydney have an opportunity to play themselves back into form on Sunday against struggling Melbourne Victory, but it will take dramatic change in the final third for the reigning champions to be recognised as an A-League threat again.

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