The last few weeks have been disappointing for Blues fans - there is no doubt about that. However, the backlash has been utterly ridiculous, and anybody who claims that we should be getting in the playoffs is being hyperbolic and revisionist.
As a stats lover, it will come as no surprise that I read and enjoyed Moneyball and Why England Lose - if anyone has any inclination to learn about stats and analytics in football they are fantastic places to start. Anyway, it's estimated that wage bill constitutes at least 75% of variation in league places, and the only way to beat that is to outmanoeuvre the system.
In the Championship top 9, Blues only spend more on wages than Ipswich, who are also massive over-achievers, and reportedly Boro, though that sounds unlikely. Sheffield Wednesday was lower at the start of the year, but they have increased that massively since with big money signings and their transfer expenditure is massive.
All of the teams above Blues, bar Ipswich, have a player who cost more than in transfer fees than Blues' entire squad. Boro have Rhodes, Burnley have Gray, Brighton have Hemed, Hull have Hernandez, Wednesday have Hooper, Derby have Ince and Cardiff have Saadi (who I think cost £2.5m, but I may be wrong).
To overhaul those teams, Blues would need to take advantage of what Billy Beane calls market disadvantages. We need to find players whose skills are undervalued and thus are cheaper than they should be. Maikel Kieftenbeld is a fantastic example of this. He isn't the flashiest player, but for £140k he is a very solid midfielder at this level. He was undervalued due to his contract, unfashionable skillset (he isn't a tall, mobile defensive midfielder, or a silky passer) and due to coming from a league that there is a lack of knowledge of from the English leagues.
As much as I love Fabbrini, this might have been a deviancy from that plan. At £1.5m he is Blues' most expensive player and due to his exciting style of play he probably is slightly over-valued in that sense. That said, replacing Toral will be no mean feat given how incredibly good he is at this level. I think it is right to consider this a risky move, but it is not a bad signing. The problem with Fabbrini's signing is that is more of an opportunity cost - Blues needed a defender and a central midfielder at that point in time.
The argument I keep hearing is that because we finished 10th last year, finishing there again is not progress and would be disappointing, but I disagree. I think we were very lucky to finish 10th last year, and progress is not all about league position. We won a few games 1-0 at the end of last year which is often a sign of a bit of luck going your way in terms of conversion. Across the league, there is an average conversion rate (I think it's about 12% in the Premier League, but I may be wrong) and going over that is generally unsustainable, which is why shot numbers and shot on target numbers are so useful when evaluating teams. Consistent 1-0 wins are a good indicator of unsustainable finishing, though that is not always the case. In Blues' case, I think we were slightly fortunate at the end of last year and maybe a 12/13th place would have been fairer.
Blues have taken 463 shots from 39 games, with 43% on target, giving us 199 shots on target, or 5.1 shots on target a game. Last year, we took around 5.7 shots on target a game. So we are taking slightly fewer shots this year, but also, allowing less shots on goal. I only have stats for total shots allowed, which was around 15.5 a game last year and is now 14. This means that we now have a shot difference of -1.6 a game, which is up from -2.3 last year. (thanks to whoscored.com and squawka.com for the data)
Obviously, a negative shot difference is quite a worrying thing, but it is not the whole story. Many 'expected goals' models pin shots coming from counter attacks as more likely to be converted, and as many of Blues' shots come from fast breaks this should mean that Blues will convert shots at a decent rate. We also use a low block defensively - i.e, we sit very deep and allow the opposition to take a lot of shots from poor areas. This often means that conversion drops, which is why we allow 14 shots a game but don't concede loads of goals.
For more on expected goals, check out @MC_of_A or @footballfactman on Twitter for some interesting work on it.
Teams that use a low block tend to have very low goals conceded numbers compared to shots taken - see Atletico Madrid or Leicester for good examples of this. Chelsea did it very well last year, getting bodies between the ball and the goal making it incredibly difficult for the opposition to take clear shots and it also means that save percentages rise. A keeper who is a good shot stopper will be extremely tough to beat and it minimises the flaws they may have.
Blues use this defensive system which amplifies the amount of shots we allow and try and create high quality chances with slightly less frequency. That is why when we are not playing well we look so poor - when we are not creating high-quality chances, we do not create at all.
All in all, Blues are doing just fine at the moment. To say we have not progressed is not, in my eyes, true, though it may seem like I'm talking rubbish because we're only 9th, and we've missed out on the playoffs, but it seems like we are a better side than last year. However, I do think Rowett has missed a trick recruitment wise.
Will Buckley was a gamble, and I spoke about him on an earlier blog post, and it hasn't paid off. Ryan Shotton was theoretically a fine piece of business, but playing him at right back did not work. It seemed as though Rowett thought the problem was Caddis being exploited aerially, but that did not seem to be the case. Caddis has proven to be a fine full back at this level, and Grounds is a decent choice on the other side.
Kyle Lafferty could be a very good piece of business but the worry is that we are paying a lot of money wages wise, which would be a waste, in my eyes, at this point. However, in his last spell at this level, Lafferty was creating 1.76 chances per 90 and taking 3.42 shots, which would be a huge upgrade on Donaldson. However, Blues are a side who consistently fail to create for the centre forward and shots are balanced between the front four, so it is unlikely he will have that many shots.
Chances created is interesting however, because Donaldson, for all his hard work, creates just one chance per 90 minutes, and Lafferty was creating more than that for Norwich. I'd be very optimistic if we could bring in Lafferty permanently in the summer. I am a massive Donaldson fan however, and think the current criticism of him is very unfair.
We really should have signed a centre-back, as I don't think Robinson is good enough any more. I think we need a taller, stronger version of Robinson to help when we deploy this low block. It would help us deal with aerial bombardment and physical strikers better and in turn make us a better defensive unit, in my opinion.
Everything said and done, I'm not too disheartened by this season. We are, in my eyes, a better side, and if we can take advantage of some market flaws we will be a force to be reckoned with. A tall centre-back who is good in backs-to-the-wall situations, a central midfielder who can pass the ball (Gleeson is good, but I feel we can upgrade on him) and Lafferty would be great. We are stocked out wide and we have Fabbrini at number 10 with Shinnie coming back. Some would argue a left back who is good going forward for when we are playing sides who sit back, and I agree, but I think there are more pressing issues.
I think that's everything covered. As always, feel free to contact me at @RYB_BCFC or @ElliottBCFC if you want to discuss anything mentioned, and thanks for reading!