The statistics behind Ireland's recent form

Wed, Nov 18 2020

Tate Donnelly is a student of Maths and Economics, studying football analytics at Trinity College Dublin. We’ve asked him to put together a statistical analysis of the Irish squad ahead of tonight’s UEFA Nations League tie against Bulgaria, exclusively for

What has been going wrong for Ireland?

The first thing to start with is bad luck with players being unavailable.

Of the 17 Irish players to play in the Premier League this year, 9 of them were unavailable to Stephen Kenny against Wales. Over 10 players have been unavailable for 4 out of our 6 Nations League matches.

This will continue to be the case for the game against Bulgaria at home. Ireland have 11 players who have played more than 180 minutes in the Premier League this year. Of these, only 2 (Kevin Long and Dara O’Shea) are available for the game against Bulgaria. A total of around 16 players are unavailable for the game as of Tuesday night.

Kenny hasn’t been able to put his best players on the pitch in the Nations League, and this will have impacted results.

Ireland have drawn 2 and lost 3 of their 5 Nations League games so far and have scored just 1 goal in the competition. Their 1 goal has them ranked joint 52nd out of 55 teams in the Nations League for goals scored. They have conceded 4, which is around average for a team who has played 5 games. So, the problem is quite clearly that Ireland just haven’t scored enough goals.

Why have Ireland not been able to score? Have we been failing to create opportunities?

Ireland have had 59 shots so far in the Nations League, or 11.8 shots per game, which ranks them joint 19th out of the 55 teams competing in the Nations League. Interestingly, our total shots and shots per game statistic is the same as Belgium’s, who are the top scorers in the Nations League with 12 goals in their 5 games.

We’ve had 17 shots on target in total, or 3.4 per game, which ranks us about average for the Nations League (Tied 31st from 55). Our goals per shot statistic of 0.017 is the second lowest in the entire Nations League, ahead of just San Marino who have failed to score. Our goals per shots on target statistic of 0.059 is again second worst in the entire Nations League, with just San Marino ahead of us.

These statistics would immediately make you think that Ireland’s chances haven’t been as good as those of other teams, or that Ireland have been taking more speculative shots on goal. Although that would make sense, it’s actually wrong.

Believe it or not, Ireland’s xG (Expected Goals) are estimated to be 1.04 per game, the 11th highest out of the 55 teams in the competition. The xG statistic takes into account every aspect of a quality of a chance, such as distance from goal, part of body being used, goalkeeper positioning, defender positioning, angle from goal, and more, and creates a statistic for likelihood to score. The sum of all of these makes up a team’s xG in a game, and Ireland averages the 11th highest.

To summarise the statistic best, Ireland have had the 11th best standard of opportunities to score in the Nations League so far. Yet they rank joint second last in actual goals scored! And to put it into perspective, we have the highest xG in our group of 4, meaning if every team were equally competent at finishing, we’d have the most goals in our group.

Our xGA (Expected Goals Against) is 0.66, meaning that on average we should have scored 0.48 goals more than we conceded per game. We’ve actually conceded 0.8 per game, which means we’ve underperformed on our defensive xG, but only slightly. We should have conceded somewhere between 3 and 4 goals in our 5 games, and we have conceded 4, so that statistic is pretty accurate.

So why the disparity between what we should have scored and what we actually have scored?

There are only 3 possible explanations for this, really : 

 - Poor Finishing

 - Great Goalkeeping

 - Bad Luck

Realistically, a mixture of the 3 are probably to blame. There is an abundance of examples of poor finishing over the 3 games, like Long’s missed header and Horgan’s missed double chance at home to Wales, or Duffy and Doherty’s misses away to Finland. But there are also ample examples of outstanding goalkeeping and bad luck going against us, such as the save from Ronan Curtis’ header away to Finland, the handball off the line from the corner at the end of the game away to Wales, where no penalty was given, or Enda Stevens hitting the crossbar away to Finland.

Some takeaways:

 - Stephen Kenny is not to blame. Despite his horrendous run of luck with players being unavailable, he has put out teams that have created more frequent and better-quality chances than those they have faced. It isn’t his job to put the ball in the net.

 - The reason we are not scoring is not that we are not creating enough good opportunities. Obviously, we could create more, but we rank well in the number and quality of chances we are creating, and the problem is our chance conversion.

Reasons to be positive:

 - There has been a total of 17 shots on target from Irish players in the Premier League this year, with 8 goals. This is an incredible return and shows that our top players are well capable of finishing their chances.

 - Most of our young talents coming through are forward players who are yet to reach their full potential, such as Michael Obafemi, Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah, Jonathan Afolabi, Ryan Cassidy, and Connor Ronan. These players will be quality finishers in years to come.

 - We are creating a high quality of opportunities. We are also having more possession than the opposition, are having a high number of passes and have a high pass completion rate (6th highest in the Nations League). This is a new style of football for the Irish team.

What can be done to score against Bulgaria?

We are missing over 15 players, but we still have all our most dangerous players from set pieces available. Conor Hourihane and Robbie Brady are our best set piece takers, and they are available for selection, and Shane Duffy is available too.

There has been a narrative that Shane Duffy is on a downward spiral in form of scoring from set pieces. There’s no evidence yet to suggest that that’s true. He has had 10 shots during the Nations League and scored 1. He also had 10 shots in Euro 2020 qualifying, scoring 1. In his entire club career, he has scored 11% of his shots. He has been as efficient at scoring as he ever has been, with 2 goals for his club this season too.

We also have Jason Knight available, who is the most fouled player in the Championship this season. (As an aside, Aaron Connolly, who isn’t available for selection against Bulgaria, has the second highest fouls drawn per game statistic in the Nations League so far).

If we have Jason Knight, Conor Hourihane, Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy on the pitch, we should win a high number of set pieces and be proficient with them. We also have players like James Collins and Ronan Curtis available to step in, who have high shot accuracy and goals statistics, which is exactly what the team needs.


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