It will have escaped nobody’s attention that here at Argyle Life we are partial to a stat or two. Indeed, one admirer (I think that’s the word) labeled us a ‘strange statistics cult’, which we actually found pretty funny. So at just past the half way point of the season, what better way to kick-start the New Year than with a few juicy stats? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. I’m going to write this whether you like it or not.
The first thing to say is that going into game three of 2020, things are looking rather good at Home Park. In sixth place and with one or two games in hand over 13 of the top 14 teams, Argyle are just three points off an automatic promotion spot. With 12 wins so far and 22 games remaining, Argyle are just one win shy of the total for the whole of last season.
Speaking of last season, nobody needs reminding that Argyle were bumping along the bottom of League One over the 2018 festive season before a run of 24 points from 12 games, starting on New Year’s Day, took the club up to 12th position. Sadly, as we all know, a haul of just five points from the final nine games condemned us to relegation on goal difference. In contrast, the lowest league position of the current campaign was 14th, on 21st September, since when it has been a pretty steady climb up to sixth.
Let’s address the most important question right away: are we on track for promotion? After 24 fixtures, Argyle are averaging a little over 1.7 points per game and continuation of that form would put them on 79 points at the end of the season. The good news is that in each of the last 10 years that would have been enough to secure a League Two play-off slot, since an average of 71 points was needed to finish in seventh position. It is, however, short of the 85 points needed on average to finish in the top three over that period, so Argyle are going to have to up their game if they aim to secure automatic promotion.
One reason for optimism relates to Argyle’s remaining away fixtures. We all know that a key factor behind last season’s relegation was Argyle’s apparent inability to play away from home. A record of just four wins from 23 and an average of 0.7 points per game won on the road proved an insurmountable barrier.
Things are very much better so far this season, however, with Argyle averaging 1.4 points per game away from home (compared to 2.0 at Home Park). Even more encouraging is the fact that, on paper at least, we’re facing a much easier run of away fixtures in the second half of the season than in the first.
The current average league position of the 12 teams Argyle met away from home in the first half of the season was 9th. But the remaining 11 opponents sit in an average position of 16th. The season’s last five away matches look particularly tasty – Morecambe, Orient, Grimsby, Walsall and Oldham – whose average league position is 18th, and who have struggled to notch up even 1 point per game at home so far. It would be a strange twist of fate if our away form proved to be the key to success in 2020 after driving us to relegation in 2019.
It’s interesting to note that Football Web Pages’ continuously updated ‘Predicted Final Table’ has Argyle finishing third, in the final automatic promotion slot, with 88 points at the end of the season. The algorithm they use to make that calculation isn’t public – I believe it’s driven mainly by the recent form of the teams that clubs have yet to face – but let’s hope their boffins are on the money on that one. As far as the bookies are concerned, Argyle are currently fifth favourites for promotion which, since just four teams go up, suggests that they don’t expect to see us in League One next season. But what does Ray ‘Bet Naaaah!’ Winstone and his giant floating head know?
What about the goals?
Another interesting stat is that with 37 goals, Argyle are the fourth highest scorers in the division so far. Since many have identified a lack of a natural goal scorer as our main problem, that’s pretty good. Nevertheless, it is pretty remarkable that no fewer than 15 Argyle players have been on the score sheet in the league so far this season, with top scorer, Antoni Sarcevic on just five (25 players at other clubs have bagged more League Two goals). Compare that to, say Swindon, where Eoin Doyle has scored 22, almost half of their goals this season. The risks attached to reliance on a loan player were highlighted just a couple of days ago with the news that Doyle has been recalled by his parent club, Bradford.
That does beg the question of how many goals Argyle would have scored if there was a natural finisher in the squad, which, with the best will in the world, there isn’t at the moment, unless Luke Jephcott proves to be more than a flash in the pan. Or at least, one who isn’t regularly sidelined with injury (we’re looking at you, Dom Telford). On the upside, few would bet against Ryan Lowe bringing in a goal scorer in the January window and that could be the final missing piece of the Argyle puzzle.
Speaking of goals, among the many reasons to be glad you’re not a Stevenage fan is the staggering fact that they have scored just 15 goals in 25 games so far this season. So their supporters have to wait 150 minutes between goals on average; no wonder they were in such a bad mood when they visited Home Park last month.
Play good football and they will come
Another highly encouraging stat is that Argyle’s average League attendance so far this season is running at 10,079. That’s the second highest in the division after Bradford’s 14,224, it’s 2,631 ahead of third place Swindon Town and more than double the 4,684 League Two average so far this season.
Unsurprisingly, crowds at most clubs decline following a relegation, but Argyle have bucked that trend by beating last season’s 9,298 average. Equally striking is the contrast with the last time Argyle dropped into League Two (2011-12), when gates averaged just 6,915. There is surely no better manifestation of how far the club has come since those dark days eight or nine years ago. And after the 15,000 mark was breached on New Year’s Day, who would bet against the crowd climbing even closer to the new 18,500 capacity when our ‘friends’ from up the A38 visit in March?
It is also, not insignificantly, a vindication of the club’s ticket pricing policy. While Bradford City may still be pulling in around 4,000 more supporters on average, their gate receipts must be substantially lower given their policy of pricing season tickets at around half the level of Argyle’s. One of the many things that the new regime at Home Park has succeeded in doing is instilling a sense of financial reality. On the one hand, Simon Hallett has demonstrated remarkable generosity in financing the new Mayflower stand and generally shoring up club finances. On the other, he has made it clear that financial sustainability remains the ultimate aim, and that means supporters making a realistic contribution at the turnstiles to match their ambitions on the pitch. So far, it’s pretty hard to argue with that approach.
Finally, it’s good to know that other teams are benefitting from Argyle’s presence in League Two. On average so far this season, a visit from The Pilgrims has boosted their opponent’s home attendance by 23%. The ‘Argyle bonus’ at the ‘local’ derbies – Forest Green, Cheltenham and Exeter – has been even greater, with jumps of 48%, 51% and 58% respectively. So to all those small League Two teams, you’re welcome. And ‘Happy New Year’.