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How Good Are Swallows FC? Can They Mount a PSL Title Challenge?

How Good Are Swallows FC? Can They Mount a PSL Title Challenge? Laduma Analytics analyzes the surprise packages of the DSTV Prem.

Moroka Swallows FC Tactics Truter Gamildien

The question on everyone’s mind after the 1-1 draw with champions Mamelodi Sundowns this past weekend is this – Just how good are this Swallows side, and can they mount a serious title challenge?

Brandon Truter will take a point away to Sundowns as a positive, especially when you consider that it was a 97th minute equalizer that secured them the point. Swallows were reserved and a bit underwhelming in the first half, barely creating any meaningful chances. The xG shot map below shows the only shot they had in the first half, a Gamildien effort that was blocked and didn’t even trouble Onyango.

They found more spaces in the second half, and created more chances as well, with the ongoing pressure paying off with Musa Nyatama’s equalizer deep into injury time. Sundowns had opportunities to stretch their lead in the second half, but none were taken.

Are They Dependent on Penalties?

One of the most talked about aspects about this side is the number of goals they have scored from penalties. No team has been awarded more penalties than Swallows (joint-most with four). Only one of the penalties they have scored has not been a decisive goal, the other three ensured one draw and two wins, securing 5 points for the side. Yet, even without the points, they’d be sitting comfortably in third on the table. Do penalties really make this side?

Looking at Swallows’ Expected Goals (xG) may give us a better idea of how good this Swallows team has been over the season. xG approximates the quality of chances a team is creating, and the reverse (Expected goals Against or xGA) measures the quality of chances the team are conceding. Over time it can help us see if teams have been overperforming, underperforming, lucky or just unlucky. For example, last season we wrote about how Chiefs were overperforming their xG in the first half the season (they were scoring some really low quality chances at an unsustainable rate), and the second half of the season evened out. In Swallows’ case, it may help us to see beyond the penalties.

The chart above shows their Expected Goal difference in their matches (TTM and Baroka games not televised). It excludes penalty goals, so we can look at how good their chances are without penalties, which currently make up almost a quarter of their goals. While the Dube Birds don’t create too many chances (they are ninth in the league for chances created per 90 mins), the few they create have been good enough. 

So far, the Maritzburg game is the only one that can be said they won undeservedly. If anything, Swallows were improving on the creative offset as the season went. The last few games shown have seen them create better chances than their opponents, except against Sundowns on Saturday. Overall, they average 0.94 non-penalty xG per game, which is close to the one non-penalty goal they actually score per game.

The defence, however, is where the issues could lie. It has been a key part to their impressive results, conceding eight goals in 13 games, with only Sundowns conceding less. However, their average of 0.46 non-penalty goals conceded per game is almost half their average 0.92 xGA (Expected Goals Against), indicating their opponents have just not been ruthless when allowed to shoot at Virgil Vries. Put simply they have conceded six non-penalty goals, which is about six fewer than they should. Should things remain the same over time, we’ll probably start to see Swallows leaking more goals.

Ageing Players

Njabulo Ngcobo and Vuyo Mere are the only players to have played every minute of every match for the club. At 36, Mere is in his 20th PSL season since making his top-flight debut in 2001. As this extraordinary season goes on, age could become an issue for a squad whose average age is 28. One wonders if the ageing defence, which has shown signs of cracking with the high xGA, will still be able to hold out.

The Age Utility Matrix shows how often players have been utilised relative to their ages, with the top right quadrant full of players above the average age getting above average minutes. It will be interesting to see if this reliance on older players like Mokoena and Mere continues as the season goes on. We touched on how this is a very unusual season – 57 games, almost one quarter of the season, will be played in January alone. Already, four players have started in every game this season; and another three have missed just one.

Questions to Ponder?

Are there youngsters that can fill in the key roles as the season goes on, as the team plays two to three times a week for the next few months?

Have Swallows benefitted from having just league action to contend with so far, and is the squad deep enough to mount a challenge as this unprecedented season goes on?

One can argue that these are the same players that were part of a Championship winning side. The same players had the legs to go on a remarkable run in the second half of last season, losing once in the final 17 games. But these are the questions that Sundowns can probably answer easily, which Swallows FC will have to prepare for as time goes on.

For now, the fairytale continues for at least another week, before Swallows FC return to Pretoria to face the side that has dislodged them from second.

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