When Conor Sammon's name is doing the rounds it's usually because a certain photo of…
Motherwell were knocked out of the Scottish League Cup on Wednesday night. Despite going a goal up thanks to Curtis Main in the 12th minute and then equalising to bring it back to 2-2 10 minutes from time, two last-gasp goals from Olly Lee and Steven Naismith in the 89th and 90th minute of the game snatched a semi final place away from Stephen Robinson’s side.
So far this season Craig Levein’s Hearts have probably been the most impressive team in Scotland, so losing a dramatic cup tie to the Jambos is no, great loss for Motherwell. However, the mid-week clash was the club’s fifth defeat in their last eight games. And points to a wider pattern that things aren’t exactly going to plan at Fir Park.
As things stand the Steelmen sit tenth in the Premiership table, just four points off bottom spot. And if not for a truly abject Dundee side sitting bottom on zero points, things could look a lot more drastic for Robinson’s side. So what’s gone wrong for last season’s League Cup finalists this time around?
Ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Hearts, Robinson was quite clear with what he thought had gone wrong with his side. “Possession doesn’t win you football matches,” remarked the Motherwell manager. “So we need to get back to putting the ball into areas where teams don’t want to play in, don’t want to defend in. That’s the small percentages that win you football matches.”
Indeed, the Motherwell manager was essentially stating that his team had to get back to playing a direct style of football. Yet when we look at his team’s stats that’s probably not where we’d suggest his major concerns should lie.
Last season the Fir Park side averaged 1.08 goals per 90 minutes. That figure has dropped slightly to 0.95 this time around, but there is very little evidence to suggest that his team are far less effective in front of goal on the whole.
Although Motherwell’s through passes per 90 minutes has dropped slightly from 3.88 to 2.37 and their deep completed passes in to the six-yard box per 90 minutes has also dipped from 6.6 to 5.84, the number of passes they make in to the final third per match has actually increased from 61.73 to 68.53. As has their touches in the opposing box, which currently stands at 14.53 per 90 minutes – higher than last season’s 13.11.
Similarly, Motherwell’s shots per game has actually gone up this season. Last season the Steelmen were averaging 10.36 per game, while so far in the current Premiership campaign they’re averaging 12 – with an almost identical accuracy of around 32% of those shots hitting the target. And their expected goals (xG) per 90 has also shifted very little from last season’s 1.22 to 1.17.
Essentially, Motherwell are getting as many balls in to the box and even more shots away than they did last season. And when we take a look at the club’s top goalscorers from the previous campaign and what Robinson has to work with this season we can once again see very little divergence. The graph above shows the top four goalscorers for the club last season and this season.
Naturally, Louis Moult sticks out like a sore thumb, but aside from that we can see that the likes of Danny Johnson, Elliot Frear and Conor Sammon are actually averaging a better goal scoring rate than what Robinson had to work with for much of last season. Even Curtis Main – who only has three goals from 10 appearances this season – is only down slightly on what he averaged for the club in the previous campaign.
Coupled with the team’s overall stats, this suggests that while Motherwell’s poor form may be down to a whole number of complicated reasons, it almost certainly can’t be put down to this season’s attacking intent alone.
Instead, when we take a look at Motherwell’s defensive record this season we may finally come to the crux of the club’s current run of form. Robinson’s side are currently shipping 1.58 goals per Premiership game, which is up from last season’s average of 1.23. And when we compare that to the amount of goals they should be conceding it makes for some alarming reading.
As things stand in the Premiership, Motherwell have the third worst defensive record with 10 goals conceded from six league games. Yet their xG against for those matches stands at just 6.34. And as we can see in the graph above, Robinson’s side currently possess the biggest gap between the amount of goals they should have conceded and the amount they actually have.
This, essentially, means that teams are pouncing on chances they really shouldn’t be getting a sniff at. And that Motherwell’s defence is far more porous than it was last season. Which makes sense when we dig a little deeper in to the team’s defensive stats.
Last season Motherwell averaged more interceptions per 90 minutes than any other Premiership side. Yet that figure (49.05) has fallen this season to just 41.05. Which has them currently sitting fifth in the table they used to top behind the likes of Hearts, Hibernian, Hamilton and Livingston.
That may not seem like a lot but it represents eight missed interceptions per game. Or, rather, eight times the opposing side were allowed to continue moving the ball in to the Motherwell half. And their unnaturally high amount of goals conceded compared to their xG against suggests that teams are taking full advantage of those additional chances in each and every game.
If Motherwell want to get back to winning ways they’ll need to tighten up a defensive line that clearly hasn’t found a way to replace the departed Cedric Kipre as well as they may have hoped. Once that happens, then Robinson and his side can get back to fine-tuning their attacking shape and tactics.