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Winds of Change: How Has Playing In Winter Affected The A-League?

 

The Australian A-League stands out from most of the other major football competitions around the globe as one that has traditionally been played throughout summer rather than winter. In a country known for its scorching summers, the topic of whether the competition should be shifted to a winter schedule has been cause for debate as old as the competition itself. Are there any early signs that those arguing for winter football have a good case?

By: Shane Miles

Since it was born in 2005, the A-League has been played across the Australian summer, which has meant that those in support of a shift to a winter schedule haven’t had much in the way of quantifiable evidence to suggest that it would be for the greater good of the local game. Extenuating circumstances have forced the 2019/20 A-League season to play a significant part of the schedule during the winter months, however, giving fans and officials alike the opportunity to properly assess what professional winter football means in Australia.

The winter has brought with it a less gruelling trial for players to endure during game time and as a result, we’ve seen marked increases in the amount of time the ball has been in play since the competition has returned:

A-League Game Averages 2019/20

PeriodPre-BreakWinter
Game Time97m 22s95m 50s
Ball in Play57m 32s59m 12s
Times Out of Play102100

The average ball-in-play time since the competition returned on July 17 has been 59 minutes and 12 seconds, exactly one and a half minutes more than the competition provided this season before the hiatus. This is occurring despite there having been a drop in the overall game time since the resumption. Over the course of a 143-game regular season such as the one in 2019/20, that equates to over three and a half extra hours of football across a campaign.

A-League Per Game Averages in 201920

Period  Pre-BreakWinter
Games11627
Goals  2.972.96
Expected Goals  3.222.68
Passes  936999
Passing Accuracy  81%83%
Total Shots28.526.1
Shooting Accuracy45%46%
Errors Leading to Shots0.50.4

These changes in available time have seen a change in the fundamental way that the game is played in the A-League. The longer, faster games have resulted in an average of 63 more passes per game alongside an increase in passing accuracy to 83% in the winter fixtures.

Shots became more of a premium, though, with over two shots fewer per game being registered since the competition returned. The shots that were made were made to count for more, although marginally, with an increase of one percentage point on the pre-break competition.

The volume of shots has had a negligible impact on the number of goals scored as well. The average number of goals scored per game in the winter fixtures (2.96) is all but the same as what we had come to expect previously in the 2019/20 A-League campaign (2.97). The key difference to note is that those goal tallies relative to Expected Goals (xG) stand on opposite sides of the coin.

Prior to the break, A-League games were expected to have a tally of 3.22 goals per game according to Expected Goals, but the actual number of goals scored was well below that. Since the competition returned, the average goals per game value that (so similar to that of the pre-break competition) is actually an overperformance of 0.24 (nearly one goal every four games) in comparison to the Expected Goals figure.

The competition has certainly had no shortage of high-profile, high-scoring teams to look out for this campaign, but the change in season has brought about a new playing field which has seen the rise of some familiar – but less likely – names.

Players in A-League 2019/20 (Min. 2 Winter Goals)

PlayerTeamWinter xG DiffPre-Break xG DiffSeasonal Change
Nick FitzgeraldNewcastle Jets1.72-2.554.27
Kristian Fardal OpsethAdelaide United1.37-1.913.28
Scott McDonaldBrisbane Roar FC1.44-1.823.26
Marco RojasMelbourne Victory2.350.302.05
Dylan Ruiz-DiazCentral Coast Mariners1.58-0.291.87
Dane InghamPerth Glory1.640.001.64

Nick Fitzgerald was a key catalyst in an explosive end to the season for the Newcastle Jets, who did nearly all they could to snatch an unlikely post-season berth. Like many players in the rejuvenated competition, he found goals when the odds were stacked against him.

The Newcastle Jets playmaker outperformed what our Expected Goals metric suggests he should have had for a goal tally by 1.7 goals. While it was not the most of any player during the winter period, it did represent the most impressive turnaround to his pre-break exploits. Prior to the break, Fitzgerald had an xG differential of -2.55, managing to swing it around by 4.27 to the impressive figure he logged during the winter session.

Adelaide United’s Kristian Fardal Opseth (3.28) and Brisbane Roar FC’s Scott McDonald (3.26) – of whom only McDonald will feature in the post-season – were the only other two players to swing their Expected Goal differentials by three or more from the pre-break A-League to the winter edition of the competition.

On a team level, the change to the friendlier climate in winter boosted no team more than Tony Popovic’s Perth Glory. Despite playing permanently away from home in the section of the season encompassed by winter, Perth Glory improved their possession figure from 48.2% pre-break to 57.6% in the winter games – a change of +9.3 percentage points, the best in the competition.

Possession by A-League Sides 2019/20

Team  Pre-BreakWinterSeasonal Change
Perth Glory48.2%57.6%9.3%
Newcastle Jets51.5%56.7%5.3%
Melbourne Victory47.8%51.0%3.3%
Western Sydney Wanderers FC46.4%46.3%-0.2%
Sydney FC51.4%50.7%-0.8%
Wellington Phoenix50.7%49.7%-1.0%
Western United FC48.8%47.2%-1.6%
Adelaide United51.4%49.2%-2.1%
Central Coast Mariners48.4%44.9%-3.5%
Brisbane Roar FC52.2%46.9%-5.3%
Melbourne City FC52.4%46.4%-6.0%

Fellow fast-finishers Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory were the only other two teams to improve on their rates of possession from before the interlude.

Overall, possession was spread a little less evenly in the winter months than it was in the competition beforehand. The pre-break A-League saw six teams with positive possession rates above 50%, but that number dwindled to just four in the winter fixtures. In fact, the Newcastle Jets – despite having a different manager in each period – and Sydney FC were the only teams to have possession of 50% or higher in both the pre-break and winter-run in the A-League.

The new territory for the competition in the winter months has certainly given a fresh perspective on whether the competition would not only be viable but potentially thrive with a shift to the middle of the year. The quality of the product on the pitch certainly paints an impressive picture in support of winter football.


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