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A trophy win is vindication for St Johnstone, this season’s ultimate underachievers

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The full-time whistle blew and Callum Davidson let out a roar that spoke a thousand words. St Johnstone had clinched the 2021 Betfred Cup, the club’s second ever trophy, and the 44-year-old knew he had etched his way into St Johnstone folklore. His debut season has brought the ultimate success in silverware, giving fans a rare opportunity to cheer amidst these challenging times for football.

This trophy success, however, was not the surprise result of a flash-in-the-pan cup run. St Johnstone may sit eighth in the SPFL Premiership table, but the stats suggest they should be much higher. They have outperformed the majority of their opponents this season, but the lack of a clinical edge in front of goal has hindered their league progress. With an Old Firm-less Betfred Cup beckoning, their performances were finally vindicated with the results they deserved.

The Perth side are currently eighth in the table with 33 points.They are one point clear of ninth placed Motherwell having played one game fewer, and are six points behind sixth placed St Mirren with a game in hand – and they play a further two prior to the split. They are embroiled in a tense battle to finish in the top half.

The numbers suggest that they shouldn’t be in this battle. In fact, they should already have confirmed their top six status. On top of that, they should be well and truly in the battle to achieve European football next season. If St Johnstone had achieved their Expected Points up until this point, they would be fourth in the standings; behind only Rangers, Celtic and Hibernian, and ahead of Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen side. 

Expected Points are a metric used to determine how many matches a team should have won based on their number of Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Goals Against (xGA). These, in turn, are calculated by measuring the quality of the chances created by a team and the chances their opposition creates. 

A basic example of this can be taken from St Johnstone’s most recent league match; a 3-0 win over Motherwell. Throughout this game, St Johnstone accumulated an xG of 3.1, and they scored three goals. Motherwell’s xG was 0.04, and they failed to score. Unfortunately for St Johnstone, it’s not always that simple.

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Throughout the 2020/21 campaign, St Johnstone have continually underperformed. Their 33 points pale in comparison their Expected Points tally of 54, a total that would propel them into the top four. This is because St Johnstone have both been failing to take their chances and have been conceding when they statistically shouldn’t have been.

St Johnstone have an average xG of 1.26 per 90 minutes so far this season; in short, they should have scored an average of 1.26 goals per game. Instead, they have underperformed in that regard by actually scoring, on average, 1.03 times per game – 0.23 less that expected.

Quite simply, Davidson’s side have suffered from a lack of ruthlessness up front – and this is exemplified by looking at the xG stats of their two top goalscorers, Stevie May and Chris Kane. May has averaged an xG per 90 of 0.38, but has a conversion rate of just 0.3 per 90. Kane is also underperforming, though not quite to the same extent; his xG per 90 of 0.32 means he is marginally underperforming with 0.31 goals per 90. The proof is in the pudding, however. St Johnstone aren’t taking their chances, and have suffered.

There have been problems at the other end of the park as well, with the Saints conceding more than they should have. With an xGA average of 1.02 per 90 minutes, they’ve actually let in 1.3 goals per game. St Johnstone should have scored more and conceded less than their opponents on average, but have actually done the opposite; they’ve scored less and conceded more. 

This can be highlighted further by looking at St Johnstone’s Expected Goal Difference, which I calculated by analysing their xG and xGA in each of their Premiership games this season. According to the stats, they should have a goal difference of 6.99 (we can round that up to 7 for talking’s sake). Their actual goal difference, however, stands at -8, which is sixth worst in the league. St Johnstone have been massively underperforming. 

Both Davidson, his players and the club’s fans should take solace. These underlying numbers show that St Johnstone have actually been playing well over the course of the season, dominating a significant percentage of their matches in terms of quality chances created. They have suffered from defensive mishaps and a failure to take chances when it matters. If they can make things click at both ends of the pitch, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

That’s why this Betfred Cup win is no coincidence. Davidson has his side playing good quality football and they reaped the rewards against Livingston on Sunday. It was fitting that they performed to their xG in that game; an xG of 0.86 and an xGA of 0.28 suggests the game was likely to finish 1-0 to St Johnstone, and that it did.

The semi-final win over Hibernian was also a breath of fresh air, with the Saints temporarily burying their xG demons by massively overperforming for that game. The stats suggest they should have lost the match 1.8-1.19, but they ultimately triumphed in a 3-0 victory. The Betfred Cup has rewarded them in the best possible fashion for their consistent performances.

St Johnstone have created a solid foundation to build on. Their underlying numbers have been good all season, and the performances impressive. They now have a trophy to show for their efforts, and still have a chance of reaching the top six. If they are able to sign a clinical striker this summer or improve the output of May or Kane, don’t be surprised to see them making a crack at the top four next season.

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