The infamous Scottish comedy, “Still Game”, has an episode where protagonists Jack and Victor head to Canada to visit Jack’s family who have moved there. While in the Great White North, Jack and Victor visit The Rogers Centre in Toronto, home to the Toronto Blue Jays. Jack and Victor got to talking with a janitor at the Rogers Centre, admiring the 50,000 seat indoor baseball facility but describing an even more impressive stadium back home named Firhill. The janitor informs the boys that not only was he born and raised in Maryhill, but he was all too familiar with the state of Firhill, namely that it is a “shitehole”.
This was a long-winded way to say that while most of the SPFL Premiership have only 12 or 13 matches to complete this season, Partick Thistle due to a variety of reasons, including the state of the pitch at Firhill, have 15 matches to play still. Thistle will have a few games in hand as the business end of the season is approaching, and all of them will be important in deciding if they get drawn into a relegation fight with most of the league or move to safety. While Celtic have yet again built a 6 point lead at the top (though they have already blown such leads a few times this season), the race for the top 6 is tighter than ever. While the unique SPFL set up with the Top 6 split to the season has already seen the 6th place team finish with less points than the 7th place club, it could be feasible to see the 6th place club with a lower point total than clubs in 8th or 9th! Earning that 6th place birth when the pre-split schedule ends is more important than ever, as it prevents that club from being drawn into the fight against relegation and the relegation playoffs (with likely Hibernian or Rangers waiting for them). Let’s take a look at some numbers and graphs which might help us predict who will be safely on Top 6 island and who will be in the street fight in the bottom 6.
Looking at Expected Goals per game and Expected Goals differential, we see Celtic and Aberdeen leading the pack in both, supporting their place in the table. Beyond that is where things get interesting. Ross County has exceeded all expectations for them this season and currently sit 4th in the table, though their xG average (1.238 per match) and xG difference (8.03) are better than 3rd place Hearts. County sit 8 points behind Hearts with the Edinburgh club having 2 games in hand over the Staggies, so it will be tough to for County to move into a guaranteed European spot. They still could qualify for Europe with a 4th place finish and Celtic winning the Scottish Cup, but with the performances Ross County have been putting out they deserve a top 6 finish.
While expected goals seem to like Ross County, Hearts make a strong case to keep their 3rd place position with their impressive Total Shot Ratio and Total Shots on Target Ratio numbers this season. It is strange to think that a club that won promotion the previous season would be expected to succeed the following year, but most pundit assumed Hearts would be in the top half of the table. Hearts have been able to exceed even those expectations solidifying 3rd place thus far this season and their place in the table seems to have a lot to do with their TSR and TSoR numbers, 2nd in TSR in the SPFL Premiership at 0.5313, only behind Celtic and 3rd in TSoR at 0.5361 behind Celtic and Ross County. Getting more shots and shots on target than your an opponent is great indicator of success and Hearts have been able to manage this all season.
With the presumed top 4 of Celtic, Aberdeen, Hearts and Ross County (though by no means are County “safe”), the battle for the last two top 6 spots could come down to the very end, with a number of clubs bunched up. Dundee United are at the foot of the table and 11 points from safety might be too much to make up, though looking at their numbers confirm what a weird year it has been for United. Looking at average xG, xG differential, TSR, and TSoR, there are clubs with substantially worse metrics in all of those categories. Kilmarnock are in 11th place in the dreaded relegation playoff place, but only sit 6 points away from 6th place! Despite being within touching distance of the top 6 (!!!), Kilmarnock’s awful xG differential and TSoR point that they seem to be destined fighting for their Premiership lives against Hibernian or Rangers come may.
From there on out, you could make compelling arguments for any of the other clubs to finish in the last two Top 6 spots. If you are forcing me to choose two clubs to fill up the Top 6, I would put St. Johnstone and Dundee FC in those spots. St. Johnstone were flying high for most of the season, on the back of some good fortune, but a bad run has seen them return back to earth on the table, yet the Saints have averaged 1.18 xG per match this season, good for 4th best this season. Losing Michael O’Halloran may hurt the Saints attack slightly, O’Halloran had only the 4th best combined Goals and Assists per 90 minutes (min. 1000 minutes played) with St. Johnstone at 0.41 per 90 minutes. By comparison, the Saints Graham Cummins leads the club (and is amongst the top 10 in the entire SPFL Premiership) at 0.89 per Goals and Assists per 90 minutes, Steven MacLean has 0.75 per 90 minutes, and David Wotherspoon is at 0.52 per 90 minutes.
Dundee have found themselves in 6th place despite giving up the highest xG per game at 1.29, though are averaging a respectable 1.09 xG per game themselves. “Respectable” seems to be the theme of the year for the Dees, with decent but not spectacular numbers in xG (28.24) and xG differential (-5.25), yet a club like Motherwell has better numbers than Dundee in those categories and are within 5 points in the table. So why am I picking Dundee to finish above them? Kane Hemmings has been putting Dundee on his back and carrying them to their position on the table. I discussed Hemmings success and his ability to get around 77% of his shots on target and his good xG numbers and the Dundee striker shows no signs of slowing down. In a year that Leigh Griffiths and Adam Rooney are having remarkable years, Hemmings has been nearly as impressive and could have been a player of the year candidate if the strikers in Glasgow and Aberdeen would have not been there.