Attack, defence and Middlesbrough’s title hopes

Earlier today, Jonathan Taylor looked at whether a strong attack or defend would be more likely to win you the league. He concluded that over the past 10 seasons, being the league’s top team in either scoring or conceding alone was not enough to guarantee automatic promotion. This makes sense; no matter how many goals you score, if you’re conceding just as many, you are unlikely to win a huge amount of your matches and vice versa.

The relationship between final position and goals scored and conceded is shown on two chart below, along with Middlesbrough’s projected finishing values, assuming they continue at the same rate as they have done so far. While there is clearly a relationship in each case, it isn’t especially strong.



  • As we can see, Karanka’s side are by no means tearing up the league with their attack; Watford’s 2010/11 side finished with more goals (77) than Boro are projected to score and finished 14th. However, Middlesbrough are clearly within the right ballpark and would not be out of place int he top 2.



  • This is where Boro come into their own; they are clearly have an elite defence, worthy of any title-winning side.

Combined attack and defence

So where does that leave us? Well, we can combine attack and defence into one metric, Goal Ratio (often abbreviated to GR). Goal ratio is calculated by dividing goals scored by the sum of goals scored and goals conceded. As a result, it gives a number from 0 to 1, which is the proportion of goals scored by a team in their matches. This allows us to account for teams like 2010/11 Watford who, despite scoring a lot, concede a lot too and teams who don’t score as much, but have a tight defence. In this metric, Boro’s current performance matches up extremely well against teams of leagues past. Note also how much less variability in each position there is than when we looked at goals for or goals against; this suggests that it is a much more effective way to evaluate current performance.


Can this be sustained?

The final question to ask, is can Middlesbrough maintain their current Goal Ratio over the rest of the season. To do this I will look at some simple shots ratios.

Shots ratios

This plot shows Middlesbrough’s share of shots on target (SoTR/Shots on Target ratio, calculated in the same way as goals ratio) and their Goal ratio. There is a fuller explanation of what the plot is here, but in short this is useful because teams which have much higher Goal ratio than Shots on Target ratio tend to be unlikely to continue scoring at the same rate in the future. We saw this early on in the season with Charlton, who have now dropped down the table. Likewise, Norwich have been dominating games’ shots all season and are now rising further up the table.


Fortunately for Karanka, the black line and dashed line remain fairly close together, which suggests that it is unlikely for Middlesbrough’s Goal ratio to change hugely before the season ends.

While recent results and performances have by not been excellent, Middlesbrough’ underlying numbers remain strong and the team is well placed to challenge for an automatic promotion spot towards the end of the season. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that in their remaining 13 games, they play each of the rest of the top 6, with 4 of those games away, but they can take encouragement in the fact that their promotion hopes are in their hands and that Karanka’s tactical nous has served them well in games versus their promotion rivals so far this season, with their underlying numbers and results staying strong even in tough periods of games:



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