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ISL Analysis: Frugal Bengaluru FC bemoan wastefulness in stop-start beginning of their title defence

FEATURED COLUMNIST
Feature
30 Nov 2019, 18:11 IST

Sunil Chhetri has scored half of Bengaluru FC
Sunil Chhetri has scored half of Bengaluru FC's ISL goals so far this season

Bengaluru FC have had four draws and two wins to start their ISL season, and despite the defending champions still being unbeaten, it has not been the happiest of starts for Carles Cuadrat's side.

But, what if someone told you that it is not all doom-and-gloom for Bengaluru, despite the four thoroughly avoidable draws, and the shocking wastefulness they have maintained.

Well, we are telling you that. Bengaluru are still an amazing football team, playing some superb football. They have been unlucky.

Unlucky. It is a controversial word to use in football. It is also controversial because of the metrics sometimes used to quantify luck.

For example, take the 2014-15 season of the Bundesliga in Germany. On the 4th of February 2015, with more than half the season, Borussia Dortmund found themselves bottom of the table. Jurgen Klopp, he-of-Liverpool-Champions-League-winning fame, was under big pressure.

According to 21st Club Consultancy's Performance League Model, Dortmund’s underlying performances were still very much of a top-four standard, despite them being bottom of the league. Sure enough, results would improve over the next 15 games, and Dortmund would finish that season seventh.

It is a similar story for Bengaluru now. Their underlying numbers have been stellar. It has just been a combination of poor finishing and bad luck that is holding them back. Out of the six games so far, Bengaluru could consider themselves the deserving winners in all six.

But how do we quantify luck? Grey Area Analytics, a company run by Chennai-born Amrit Murali, has done just that with its calculations of 'Expected Goals' (xG) for the ISL.

What is xG then? In the simplest terms, it is a more accurate metric to determine the probablity of a team scoring. Each shot a team takes is given a particular xG score, based on the probabilty of it ending up as a goal. So for example, a tap into an open goal from two yards out would be an xG of 0.95 (95% probability of scoring), while a shot from 40 yards would be an xG of 0.04 or so (4% probablity of scoring).

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The ISL season so far
The ISL season so far

So, what do those numbers say for Bengaluru this season? They have won the xG battle rather convincingly in their six games far. The xG for their game against FC Goa is pretty even, but that is only because of the penalty that Ferran Corominas scored, in a game that Bengaluru definitely dominated.

Cuadrat was one injury-time Ashique Kuruniyan misgiving away from being rightfully hailed as the man who delivered a masterclass that suffocated Goa's attackers, and got the win at Fatorda, something that not many teams can do very often.

Instead, the post-match press conference and the few press conferences that followed, saw him answer questions about whether Kuruniyan was actually suited to playing at left-back, and whether the Spaniard was "ruining" a young Indian career, by playing him out of position.

Talk about fine margins. Well, Football is about fine margins, as Bengaluru have found out, over the course of the last couple of seasons.

Cuadrat will know that this isn't the time for undue panic. Last season, for example, Bengaluru won a fair few games, where they had been convicingly on the receiving end of an xG battering. The home games against Delhi Dynamos, ATK and NorthEast United stand out, all of which Bengaluru won by a solitary goal. 

The xG Chart for ISL 2019-20 so far
The xG Chart for ISL 2019-20 so far

Going by the numbers, Bengaluru have deserved to win every game they've played so far, Murali says. "This year both the top two teams are kinda dominating every game on xG but aren't picking up the results," he opines of Bengaluru and FC Goa, who he believes are the top two teams.

"ATK and Jamshedpur have the ability to do the opposite," he also says.

The numbers show that along with Bengaluru, Chennaiyin have also been desperately unlucky, with a combination of outstanding goalkeeping and poor finishing meaning that the two-time champions are still languishing near the foot of the table.

One way to look at Bengaluru's season, is that the goals will come eventually, if the underlying xG numbers remain this strong. But, on the flip-side, do Bengaluru have a goal-scorer, Sunil Chhetri aside?

That question will only be answered in the coming weeks, but as Cuadrat has stressed repeatedly, it is not time for Bengaluru to panic, at least not just yet.

Cuadrat's quest to improve his side's goal-scoring has seen him try Manuel Onwu upfront, only in vain. The Onwu project was shelved to make Chhetri the central striker, and the focal point of the attack, and the skipper has responded, with three goals in three games that he has started up front.

But, where are the goals coming for Bengaluru apart from that? They are a superb set-piece team, as exemplified by the troubles they caused Chennaiyin FC from long throws and corners, before Erik Paartalu scored off a Dimas Delgado corner.

That set-piece threat will be even stronger when Rahul Bheke comes back, with his arrows from long throw-ins, and the likes of Paartalu and Juanan Gonzalez will only have more ammunition then.

Bengaluru have the highest xG difference in the ISL so far
Bengaluru have the highest xG difference in the ISL so far

Raphael Augusto could be the answer to Bengaluru's problems in front of goal. With Delgado and Paartalu behind him, the Brazilian has been given the license to get into the box, and support Chhetri, but his finishing so far has been abysmal.

But with his technique and ability with the ball at his feet, you should think that this will correct itself over the course of the season. Murali also agreed that by the end of the season, the xG figures should more or less reflect on the actual table as well, barring a couple of exceptions.

"ATK and Jamshedpur are definitely in the mix for the top spot, although I do expect Goa and Bengaluru to definitely finish within the top 4," he said.

For Bengaluru, it has been a question of fine margins that always dictate this sport. They have a foreigner spot vacant, and that might well be used in January to fill the void up front. If they can get a proven goal-scorer, the likes of a Miku, who they so terribly miss, who's to say that they cannot go on another winning run, like the six-game run they went on at the beginning of last season.

Bengaluru are creating more xG/game than they did last season. They are conceding lesser xG/game than they did last season. And yet, the table doesn't tell you that story.

And it won't, unless Bengaluru can sort out their issues in the final third, and maybe have a little more luck with them, in terms of refereeing decisions. The Blues have been denied at least three clear penalties so far this season, and especially in the game against Hyderabad, the referee's miss of Gurtej's handball was costly.

A 2-0 lead midway through the first-half would have put Bengaluru out of sight. But again, those are the margins.

They have also conceded only two goals, which is a reflection of the strength of their defence, although the xG numbers show that will correct itself to a less ridiculous average by the end of the season.

The underlying numbers are strong, Bengaluru are individually playing some outstanding football. To the analytical eye, the conclusion is that the goals (and results) will follow suit very soon. But, this is a funny sport. And for once, what if the margins go against Cuadrat and his defending champions?

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