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Is anyone really that annoyed by expected goals? Football's strangest new culture war

Expected goals
(Image credit: PA Images)

There are many things in football worth getting genuinely wound up about: sub-par officiating, whether that involves VAR or otherwise; your team’s games repeatedly being rearranged for TV purposes at huge inconvenience to match-going fans; the foul-mouthed, non-stop nonsense-spouter sat behind you in the stands. All of these impinge upon one’s enjoyment of the game because they’re so inescapable. That’s something which doesn’t – or certainly shouldn’t – fall into the same bracket as expected goals (xG).

Last week’s Football Clichés podcast alluded to a spectrum of tolerance when it comes to the discourse surrounding xG. Either side of those appreciative of or ambivalent towards it, you have your ‘xG ultras’ – those who live and breathe the ‘underlying numbers’ – and your xG rejecters – those who actively rally against it on Twitter, in broadsheet columns and on the air, so often in a tone imbued with sarcasm and seemingly feigned ignorance and faux outrage. The original xG (expected goals) has come to be accompanied by a secondary xG (expected gripes).

One of the most expected gripes is that expected goals – allegedly – doesn’t tell us what’s happened. Two things: One, that’s false; it literally quantifies the quality of chances which occur, giving us an understanding of a team’s productivity and finishing ability that basic statistics just can’t. Two, even it were true, is football not half about speculation, ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ discussion? To insinuate that xG is in some way the stuff of make-believe is a cheap shot – a low-value shot, if you like.

Expected goals hasn’t actually replaced anything; it’s not as though there used to be a judging panel sat at either end of the pitch, studiously assessing every shot awarding it a mark out of ten. Equally, short of prompting a decrease in average shot distance every season since its inception in 2012, it’s not discernibly affected the way football is played or made it worse in any way – or better, for that matter. All it’s really done is provide another tool with which to scrutinise and dissect the game.

Where this obstinate scepticism towards xG comes from is open for debate, but is it unreasonable to assume that it’s largely borne out of stubborn resistance to change and a want to uphold the flawed adage that football is a simple game? Simple to follow, yes. Simple to refine into the slick product we enjoy today, no. But again, xG has not altered the fundamental workings of the sport. This is not the introduction of the back-pass law or a tweak to the offside rule or redefining of what constitutes handball.

The suggestion that ‘expected goals’ might cause some confusion by implying an element of prediction is a valid one – and perhaps ‘goal probability’ or ‘scoring chance’ (presented as a percentage) would be a more apt name. On the other hand, though, xG has been in the mainstream for some time now and clear, concise explanations could hardly be more readily available. There is a limit to how much you can try to spoon-feed progressive concepts to those apparently immovably dismissive of them as new-fangled nonsense.

Ultimately, until we start officially deciding games by expected goals rather than goals, there’s really no need to worry. If xG isn’t your cup of tea and you don’t want to use, or even acknowledge, it then what’s the issue? Is it making you feel like ‘the game’s gone’? Is it really? It’s a number – or collection of numbers; they run right through football and, although their application is now more advanced and pronounced than ever, always have done. Besides, if you’ve ever said, “He should have scored” or “He should have done better there” or something more post-watershed, guess what: You have used xG.

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