We’ve finally reached the half-way stage of the 25th and most unusual PSL season. The destination of the league title is still unclear (that’s good?), although Sundowns are showing ominous signs that the rest may struggle to catch them. Newly promoted Swallows have been the most consistent challenger and are unbeaten at the half-way stage, yet one wonders how far an ageing squad that has started to leak goals can go before the toils of top-flight football start really to kick in. In fact, even the usual challengers have flattered to deceive.
Unless the likes of Supersport, Pirates and Cape Town City start to find some consistency, the title will stay in Chloorkop for a fourth successive season. Or will Sundowns contrive to crumble in some way?
The Defending Champs
For the second time in three seasons, Sundowns were unbeaten at the half-way stage of the season. Last season, they showed that they can chase for a league title, but the last time they were unbeaten halfway through (2018/19), they went on to lift the title, despite only securing it on the last day. The overwhelming feeling at the beginning of the season was that the departure of Pitso & some of his technical team would lead to a drop in standards at the club. That has not been the case. If anything, the underlying numbers point to yet another season of dominance, even without their legendary mastermind at the helm.
Not much has changed in terms of xG per game between this season and last. Sundowns still lead in terms of xG per 90 minutes in 2020/21, as they did in 2019/20. If anything, there is a slight increase in xG per game (left frame) from last season (blue) to this season (orange), although it’s hardly recognizable. They have maintained their creative standards and probably improved on the defensive front – just seven goals conceded halfway through the campaign. Oddly, they are actually allowing a higher quality of shots per game than last season. The xG Against table (right frame) shows that last season’s defence was better at limiting the quality of shots opposition teams managed per game. This may even out as the season goes on, so don’t be surprised to see Sundowns concede more.
But if throughout a full season, it turns out that the defence has actually improved, then all the other teams have to seriously up their game. The benchmark is what Sundowns did last season – not just to improve on your own team’s results. But such has been the inconsistency of the challengers. The Covid pandemic could be an excuse for the yo-yo results seen among all PSL teams – no team has won more than 3 games in a row all season. Sundowns could be the first this weekend. It will take much more consistency to topple the 3-time defending champions. Or is our league very competitive?
Like most of life’s joys before Covid-19 and lockdown, the neck-and-neck title race of last season seems like a thing from a different century altogether. Exhibit A: the decline in results for Kaizer Chiefs. What happened there? Mental scars from the last-minute title loss, a new coach, an ageing core and the transfer ban can be pointed at. But the underlying numbers tell the story of a team that is not as bad as the results make them out to be.
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The xG table puts Chiefs in the Top 4 of the league table. Based on the quality of goal scoring chances created and conceded, Chiefs should be 3rd or 4th on the log. While they are not getting positive results, the fact that they are maintaining positive elements remains essential and should be a better measure to judge Gavin Hunt on. Pirates top the xG table before Sundowns’ last game. They have seriously underperformed, especially in front of goal, and no team has underperformed their xG as much as Pirates.
Another team that has threatened to challenge is Supersport, but the difference is that they are slightly overperforming at the current rate. Bradley Grobler has been the leading marksman in the league this season, scoring 12 goals by the half-way point. He is only the second player in the 30-game PSL era to score 12+ goals by the halfway stage of a season (Chris Katongo, 15 goals in 2006/7 is the other). But there is a danger that Supersport may rely on him too much. The chart below shows that he is among many players who average close to 0.6 xG per game.
Yet, he is the only one who has scored so many goals. This is usually an indicator of a striker scoring chances at a higher rate than normal, and this trend usually evens out over the season. 20 goals will be very difficult to manage at this rate, so Supersport will need others to chip in as well – something Gabuza has tried to do well.
The Dark Horses
While Chiefs may be underperforming (relative to their xG), the other team of the season, Swallows FC have been punching above their weight. Literally. Swallows’ half-season can also be broken down into two-halves, Q1 with the monthly awards and clean sheets. Q2 with the monthly awards, but without the clean sheets. We already covered before how Swallows may be seen to have been lucky defensively, with chances given away at alarming rates, but not taken by the opposition. Gamildien has been converting chances, but often scoring penalties and goals from 0,2, 0,3 and 0,1xG (think Harry Kane & Heugh-Min Son at the start of the English Premier League).
Like Supersport, they need other players to share the load if they are to last the distance. Not only does he score a higher proportion of his team’s goals than any other player (50%), the next best scorer at Swallows has just three goals. Four games without a goal in all competitions is not necessarily a drought, but it’s the longest he’s gone without a goal this season. When Gamildien doesn’t find the net, who will?
The most entertaining team all season (and the season before that, and the one before that) has been Cape Town City. With 26 goals in the first half of the season, they need another 29 in the second half to equal the PSL goalscoring record for a 30-game season. That is possible, but at what cost? City has statistically the worst defence in the league. They have already conceded 25 goals this season, which is more than thirteen of the last 18 champions already. No team has ever won the title having conceded more than 26 goals. 4-2, 4-2, 3-2, 2-3 results give you the tag of entertainer, but that may not be enough. Like Swallows, even the xG table shows that they have conceded chances at one of the worst rates in the league.
Individual accolades may come to the Mother City though – Mduduzi Mdantsane performing like a Player of the Season nominee. Only top scorer Badley Grobler (14 Goals and Assists) has more goal involvements than Mdantsane this season (12). The radar chart below shows his percentile ranking among his peers in other key metrics beyond goals & assists. He is in the top percentiles for Chances Created, Expected Assists & Expected Goals, and also in the upper echelons for key passes and shot accuracy.
A special mention to Golden Arrows too, who have exceeded expectations. According to @OptaJabu, Mandla Ncikazi’s men have set a new record for most points won by the club at the half-way stage of a PSL season (28).