Spotlight: Expected Goals – ‘XG’ – Why It’s A Metric For Excuses

I don’t know when it happened. I’m 37 and now after years of watching and studying football I find myself at risk of being branded a dinosaur.

Instead of throwing the cabbages, a massive one is coming my way because I have a pet hate of the new buzzword, XG or ‘Expected Goals’.

From the confines of an analyst’s bedroom to the mainstream, in both the Premier League and across Europe, this new metric has taken social media by storm but what exactly is it and why do I hate it so much?

XG according to Opta the Premier League statisticians of choice, is the pure ratio of a chance going in. It is used to determine the quality of a chance. They have analysed over 300,000 chances to come up with a formula to decide how good they are and yet have left a number of anomalies on the table.

The Individual Player

The main gripe I have with this metric is the complete removal of the individual from the equation. In simple terms, we need to look at an example through claret and blue glasses.

Everyone’s favourite winger Anwar El Ghazi, has a habit of being the talking point no matter what happens, whether it is his exceptional performance in last year’s play-off final or his unique ability to miss the easiest of chances against Leicester and Everton.

What the XG metric does remove is his unpredictability from any calculation.

So, it could be Alan Shearer in his prime attacking the ball one yard out at the back post or our slightly less brave Anwar and XG would be the same.

How is this even a thing?

anwar el ghazi aston villa everton goal

Not many of us were surprised when Anwar managed to fluff his lines, yet we would have been amazed had Shearer done similar. So to have a true XG of a chance El Ghazi’s should be lowered, it’s only common sense.

If the ball drops 8 yards out on Neil Taylor’s bad foot or it drops to Conor Hourihane’s left peg. I know which one has the higher XG and I don’t need to watch it 300,000 times to tell you.

The Dangerous Deflection Tactic

Worse than not taking an individual player’s ability into account, XG has also now crept into Managers press conferences.

A lot was made of Dean Smith having finally worked out how to stop teams having as many shots at Villa after the half-time break. Unfortunately, in the bleak period of the first four games after restart none of us could see any benefit despite Dean reassuring us with XG stats.

Dean Smith Aston Villa Manager

With Villa having amassed a mighty two points from the available twelve at that point, Dean told Villa TV that the XG from those games meant we should have had two wins and two draws.

It led to many drunken rants to my long-suffering family, that XG was an easy deflection and was ruining the game. In effect, XG has become an easy excuse that managers could use in order to remain positive when in reality their team had been demolished on the pitch.

It Turns Fans Into Hypocrites

We all know Villa’s recruitment has rarely been up to scratch. However, that’s a piece for another decade all on its own.

XG and over analysis has also become a bone of contention on social media.

Popular Villa accounts will bemoan the signing of ‘unknown’ players without Premier League experience and in the same breath use XG as the defining reason why we are improving.

Signing players based upon any variation of the ‘Money-ball’ technique and XG are one and the same thing; they are taking the human indefinable element out of the conversation.

Entire swathes of our fanbase thought Samatta was the answer to all our headed woes based on his header against Liverpool in the Champions League. You could go back and see the tweets salivating at the thought of him turning a horrendous cross from one of our wingers into gold.

What actually watching Samatta told us was that he appears only to have the ability to use his head and having barely mustered an attempt with his feet, even his heading has left the building since lockdown.

Using Money-ball based scouting and XG are completely flawed in any argument as soon as the whistle blows to kick off.  So, the next time you see someone saying Villa’s recruitment method is flawed, yet praising our XG, just remind them that they are from the same computer screen.

Is XG Necessary?

The simple answer is no.

There were already more than enough stats in football without inventing a completely redundant one and adopting it as set in stone.

The simple shots on target is a beautifully elegant stat. Five shots on target in a match is enough for me to know the attack is at least functioning. I don’t need a pointless and counterproductive XG telling me that the other team and their one shot on goal actually had a higher chance of scoring and therefore winning the match.

We are fans of a league that has a TV Monitor at the side of the pitch to sort out issues and yet referees aren’t willing to use it. Do we really need to complicate things further?

The final demolition of the usefulness of the XG is the beloved penalty kick.

A penalty has an XG of 0.76, apparently.

So, it doesn’t matter if this is the kick Tammy Abraham took in the semi vs the Baggies or the consolation El Ghazi got against Man City. It is 0.76, pressure, the occasion, the mentality and experience of the player and all these elements are removed.

Why?  So people can offer up excuses to the fact that a team failed.

Failure is part of football, you learn from it and grow, or it consumes you and you fail.  That’s what competitive sport is, you don’t need someone telling you that if you make the same decisions again the XG says you ‘should’ score next time, you need to change something and make it happen.  This is perhaps advice our own Keinan Davis could do with being given over the summer.

In fact, there is an even better metric when it comes to matches.  It’s called goals scored. 

If you watched or played football before Football Manager took over, you may have experienced it.

37-year-old progressive dinosaur signing off.

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