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There’s Still Hope For The Soccer Team That Can’t Score

Crystal Palace is making history in the English Premier League. In six games, the Eagles have conceded 13 goals and scored zero. No other team in the 129-year history of the English top flight has ever lost its first six matches without scoring a single goal.

It’s not even October, but Palace is already on its second coach of the season, having fired Frank de Boer and brought in former English national team manager Roy Hodgson after the fourth loss. It hasn’t helped. Palace suffered its worst loss last weekend in a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City. To make matters worse, the team’s seventh game will be Saturday at Manchester United, which has only given up two goals this season.

But perhaps the most curious thing about Crystal Palace is that many of the EPL’s most embarrassing campaigns belong to teams that had been recently promoted and were woefully underprepared for the top level. In 2007-08, for example, Derby won one game and finished with 11 points after making the jump (though even they scored 20 goals). By contrast, Palace has been up for four years and has high-caliber scoring talent like striker Christian Benteke (66 career goals in the EPL) and winger Wilfried Zaha (signed to a $38 million contract over the next five years). Even more unusual is this: The team’s underlying numbers this season are not really bad — despite the awful results.

With 80 shot attempts in six matches, the Eagles rank ninth in the Premier League. And Crystal Palace hasn’t just failed to score because all of its attempts were taken from long distance or hampered by heavy defensive pressure. Eight attempts were marked as “big chances,” which the shooter should be expected to convert about 42 percent of the time. And according to expected goals (xG), a stat that measures the quality of scoring chances, one would expect Crystal Palace have scored about six goals, not zero. Benteke — who is now out six weeks with a knee injury — has the most xG (1.9) of anyone in the Premier League who has not yet scored a goal, and he has failed to convert three clear chances. In his five years in the Premier League before this season, Benteke had scored on 30 of 72 non-penalty clear chances.

So if you want to project the rest of Crystal Palace’s season, you should not simply compare the Eagles to the worst teams in history, but rather to those teams that struggled early while putting up underlying numbers that are less dismal than their overall results. By applying this method to the top four European leagues,1 we get a list of 14 teams that, since 2010-11, took no more than three points from their first six games and created at least two more expected goals than goals scored.

The best of soccer’s worst

Teams that scored less than four points in their first six games but had at least two more expected goals than goals scored, since 2010-11

ACTUAL GOALS MINUS EXPECTED GOALS
TEAM LEAGUE AFTER 6 GAMES FULL SEASON RELEGATED
’17-18 Crystal Palace EPL -6.18 ? ?
’15-16 Stuttgart Bund -5.29 -9.37
’10-11 Deportivo Liga -5.07 -6.41
’14-15 Hamburg Bund -4.37 -9.62
’15-16 Malaga Liga -4.23 -3.86
’16-17 Ingolstadt Bund -4.21 -6.83
’10-11 Everton EPL -3.93 -1.57
’11-12 Sporting Gijon Liga -2.88 +2.89
’14-15 Sassuolo Serie -2.58 +3.13
’14-14 Burnley EPL -2.55 -11.36
’12-13 Norwich EPL -2.52 +0.03
’12-13 Chievo Serie -2.44 +0.94
’16-17 Hamburg Bund -2.32 +2.36
’13-14 Sunderland EPL -2.18 -5.41
’12-13 Augsburg Bund -2.08 +1.37

Among teams in the top four European leagues. Expected goals does not count penalty shots.

Source: Opta Sports

Here’s the good news for Crystal Palace: These teams mostly managed to right the ship. On average, the finishing problems they displayed in their first six matches eventually dissipated — eight of the 14 teams outperformed their expected goals over the rest of the season. Only Burnley scored less than a point per match over the rest of its season.2

But for several teams on this list, their recovery was not dramatic enough — five of the 14 were relegated despite improvements. Likewise, FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index projections think Palace has a 48 percent chance of relegation, which is the highest in the Premier League, even though the Eagles’ rating is better than those of Bournemouth, Brighton and Huddersfield.

The problem Crystal Palace faces, then, may not be its squad but its record. In the last seven seasons, teams with Palace’s profile tended to improve a lot, but more than a third of the time, they were relegated anyway. The team cannot count on simply improving to the level that its underlying stats suggest it ought to achieve. The Eagles will require real improvements — perhaps buying new players in January or developing new tactics now — if they hope to escape the drop after this unfortunate start.

Footnotes

  1. EPL, Serie A, La Liga and Bundesliga.

  2. There are only 34 matches in a Bundesliga season, so even though Augsburg, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart all took similar total points to Burnley over the rest of their seasons, they did so over four fewer matches.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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