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The Mystery of Northampton Town

While much of the focus at Northampton may have surrounded the ownership issues with HMRC serving the club with a winding-up petition, the takeover issues 'tearing the club apart' according to Chris Wilder, Northampton's manager, and players that were not paid October's wages until this week. However, on the pitch, the team have been performing miracles and find themselves in third place in League 2 with only goal difference separating them from the top. Five straight wins in all competition and an unbeaten run stretching back eight matches, they have seemingly put the off-field issues to the back of their minds.
Chris Wilder has done a remarkable job under very difficult circumstances so far this season

However, looking at some of the stats, we find a couple of interesting observations. For a team that is joint-top of the division, they create remarkably few chances. As the table below shows, there are only six teams that have taken fewer shots than Northampton and all of them are languishing in the lower reaches of the table.
Now, we shall look in greater depth at these shots later, but it is interesting that they have managed to score the third most goals in League 2 with so few shots. Based on this, we might expect them to be very solid defensively. They are certainly better in this regard, but their 192 shots conceded puts them just 9th in terms of the fewest shots conceded - hardly the figures that we would expect from title contenders.

These shot statistics combine to give Northampton a total shots ratio (TSR) of 47.5% for the season so far (15th in League 2), a shots on target ratio of 51.8% (10th in League 2), but a PDO of 111.0 (2nd in League 2). Could we possibly make an argument that Northampton are significantly overachieving their underlying statistics?

Going back to their shots, while they have not created that many chances, we find that their 11 shots from 'Very Close Range' is actually the second highest in League 2, only behind Leyton Orient. These shots generally result in a goal in just over 50% of occurrences, meaning they are very valuable chances to create. However, interestingly, we find that not only have they created a lot of chances from this area, but that their 11 shots conceded is actually third highest behind only Morecambe and Newport County.
Here we can see a remarkable difference in the conversion rate for those 'Very Close Range' chances created by Northampton and conceded by Northampton. They have scored 9/11 of the chances that they have created, which is well above the League 2 average, while only conceding 2/11. Maybe Northampton are incredibly efficient at converting these chances while somehow doing something to prevent their opponents scoring them? Alternatively, they may just have been lucky and both of these figures will start to revert toward the mean.

If these chances start to be converted at lower rates, the worry for Northampton becomes where the goals will come from. Their 52 chances from the 'Centre of Box' is the fourth lowest in the division, so they will need to start to find a way to create more opportunities. Indeed, their 25% conversion rate from this area is the fifth highest in the league. Maybe these combined suggest a high level of finishing ability among their strikers?

As we might have suspected, these shot figures do not translate into particularly promising ExpG numbers. We might have expected them to score 22.6 ExpG, which is well below the 33 goals that they have actually scored, while the 22 goals that have been conceded is lower than the 27.4 ExpG that they might have conceded. Indeed, their ExpGD of -4.8 is actually only 17th in League 2 - massively different to the 3rd place that they find themselves in.
If we simulate the season 20,000 times based on the shots that have been taken in each match, we find that Northampton Town would have 40 points in just 12 of those simulations, or 0.06% of the time. As the chart shows, we would expect to find them somewhere between 22-27 points, which would put them somewhere between 12th and 18th in the current League 2. In fact, the modal position for them in the 20,000 simulations was actually 16th. They were only inside the Top 3 in 0.8% of simulations and were only even in the Top 7 in 8.1%.

Unless Northampton are doing something special that the basic shots data is not picking up, then we might expect to see their incredible run come to an end in the near future and unless they can improve their underlying metrics, sustaining a title challenge may be beyond them.

As an interesting aside, it was noticeable that Chris Wilder, during his spell at Oxford United, had several seasons where his team started incredibly well, outperforming the basic TSR and SOTR figures, to find themselves high up in the table before falling away as they regressed back toward their underlying stats and injuries began to hamper them. This could be coincidence or maybe there is something about how Chris Wilder prepares his teams as the season progresses.


"we might expect Plymouth to drop down the table in the coming months, we might also expect AFC Wimbledon to move up into the promotion reckoning"
In the last League 2 article, I concluded that we might see Plymouth start to struggle in the coming months. Whilst it has only been three matches since then, we have seen the league leaders pick up just 2 points from matches against Exeter, Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge. Their five point lead has disappeared and it will be interesting to see how they progress from here.

AFC Wimbledon have not quite lived up to the prediction, although their remarkable ability to fail to convert strong shot stats into results has continued having outshot Leyton Orient 15-2 away from home last weekend. Before that, they lost 1-0 to Dagenham & Redbridge, despite the shots figures suggesting that they would have won that match 79.6% of the time. 

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