Rangers much heralded defence have conceded just three goals from 14 games in the Scottish Premier League so far this season. Impressive as a stand alone figure, but even more so when you consider that Rangers have only conceded just 18 shots on target – with nine of those coming in just two games, the 2-2 draw with Hibs at Easter Road and the 1-0 win away at Rugby Park.

With that in mind, I have analysed these shots to determine whether Rangers defensive display is as effective as the headline numbers suggest.

Nine shots on target from the other 12 games is ridiculously dominant by any standard and the defence deserve all the credit they have received for this.

Are those statistics an accurate representation of the quality of chances Rangers have faced this season? Have we our goalkeepers to thank for making any huge saves? Were there any heroic last ditch tackles? Did Ryan Porteous miss a sitter for Hibs in the 2-2 draw at Easter Road?

Let’s get the numbers out of the way first.

Rangers have scored 37 goals so far in the league but have created enough high quality chances (expected goals) to score 40 goals. As mentioned earlier, Rangers have allowed just three goals against this season, but according to chances conceded (expected goals against) we could have conceded around 6 goals so far, almost double.

It’s a small number, but it’s almost double the actual number which is a relatively big difference so let’s dig a little deeper.

A shot is a shot

A shot is easy to define. Was it on target? It’s a shot on target. Was it off target? It’s a shot off target. Was it blocked? It’s a blocked shot. 

As with most metrics, context is key as all goals are not created equal. Kemar Roofe’s 50-odd yarder against Standard Liege and his five yarder against Hamilton at the weekend both only count as one goal at the end of the day.

So what if we applied that logic to shots as well? Less shots on target will literally equate to less goals – but not necessarily due to better defensive play. There are a number of factors to take into account such as player quality, location of shot, how many times that type of chance has been scored before. 

By this logic, it’s not unreasonable to assume that an off target shot could also be regarded as a better ‘chance’ than a shot on target, if some of the above factors were to change.

Here’s a dramatic example to nicely illustrate the point. Craig Sibbald shoots from inside his own half, which has Jon McLaughlin back pedalling but he does make a relatively comfortable save. xG of 0.01 given the distance from goal but it’s a shot against on target, which we generally consider to be bad.

Another example from that wild defensive display against Hibs is this well worked set piece from Hibs who used a blocker to occupy Filip Helander. Paul Hanlon loses Connor Goldson to win a header which forces a very tame save from Jon McLaughlin. This was a shot on target too, but this shot ranked as just 0.09xG meaning it only had a 9% chance of becoming a goal due to the distance from goal and difficulty of the chance.

Here’s Kirk Broadfoot heading wide inside the six yard box. A shot off target, but a much better chance than Hanlon’s above due to the location of the shot. This was ranked at 0.20xG or had a 20% chance of hitting the net.

So, if a shot off target can be a better chance than a shot on target, we probably want to look into what a ‘chance’ actually means.

What defines a good chance?

The concept of a chance is open to more subjectivity. At its heart, a chance is basically an opportunity for a shot and/or a dangerous moment but wouldn’t necessarily result in a shot on target. For example, we could define a ‘big’ chance as a player touching the ball within the six yard box but being tackled before he has a chance to shoot. It could be a dangerous cross into the box as we see in the example above, but rather than Broadfoot heading the ball, it could be Helander who makes a clearance.

Chances conceded closer to goal and within the width of the posts will always be the most likely to end up in a goal so lets take a look at some of the highest quality faced so far (This does not include George Edmundson’s own goal against Motherwell.)

Of the shots identified above, only three resulted in either McLaughlin or McGregor having to make a save. One was an excellent reaction stop from Ryan Porteous at point blank range and the other, a fingertip save to deny Kevin Nisbet after he did well to fashion a chance through the middle in the same game. We could throw in another here due to the importance of the save – Eamonn Brophy’s free kick from 20 yards out which was well saved by Allan McGregor at a hugely important time in the 1-0 win vs Kilmarnock.

In the fourteen games so far this season, only two of the chances listed above came as a result of Rangers being caught on a counter attack. Rangers have only faced 8 shots in total (0.57 per game) as a result of a counter attack so far this season. Last season in 29 league games, Rangers faced 25 (0.86 per game). Rangers are being caught less on the break this season due to a combination of aggressive defending high up the park and teams simply adopting a more defensive approach against a much more dangerous Rangers team. 

Of the two counter attack chances conceded so far this season, the first was Ryan Porteous’ chance below which is the highest quality shot faced so far and was excellently saved by Jon McLaughlin. 

Despite it being the lowest quality chance on the list, Callum Hendry’s chance for St Johnstone back in August is a bigger chance than suggested . A slack pass from Morelos to Hagi in St Johnstone’s half results in a counter which leaves Balogun one on one with Hendry advancing towards goal. Hendy does well to fashion a chance, but he could carry the ball further into the box and force a decision from the defence. As it was, he shoots from just too far out to really trouble McLaughlin and the chance is gone. 

Defending crosses into the box

I would class how Rangers defend crosses into the box as a medium risk given that 6/8 of the shots above have came from such situations, including two goals (three when you include Edmundson’s OG). 

There are also chances that do not result in any form of shot and therefore tend to be forgotten about when reviewing data but should still be classed as a dangerous situation. Rangers have faced 78 set piece crosses in the league so far this season with just over 60% of these coming down Rangers left hand side. This figure includes crosses which result in a free kick for Rangers due to offside or a foul by the opposition but in the main these have all been dealt with well by a combination of good goal keeping and defensive play.

This is from the first game of the season against Aberdeen. A decent delivery into the box from Aberdeen results in a stramash which Rangers could probably count themselves lucky to not concede from. No shot on target, no expected goals ranking but still a dangerous opportunity.

It’s also worth noting that Jon McLaughlin has been a commanding figure at coming to punch or catch cross balls – McGregor prefers to stay on his line – which has definitely helped to reduce the number of shots Rangers have faced this season.

Of the 10 shots analysed in the table above, nine of them would’ve had a material impact on the in-play result had they been converted with only Nicky Clark’s header coming when Rangers had a two goal cushion. Rangers haven’t conceded many shots on target, however the highest quality shots have undoubtedly came in important situations which could be a cause for concern as the season progresses. The positive from this is that Rangers have been able to escape relatively unscathed from these, the draw with Hibs aside.

Whilst Rangers could have conceded more goals based on the data, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The defensive performance is markedly improved this season, any casual observer could tell you that. The deeper positioning of the full backs in certain games (think Motherwell & Celtic away) allied to a more flexible midfield three has also contributed to a much more cohesive balance between defence and attack.

The combination of Goldson, Helander & Balogun have been much more aggressive in their play, keeping a high defensive line and squeezing the opposition at every available opportunity which makes a huge difference both in terms of limiting opportunities for teams but also in contributing more to the attacking phase of play. All three are very comfortable in possession and produce a high number of forward passes with Goldson in particular hugely improved in this area. If the ball spends more time in the opposition half than being recycled amongst defensive midfielders and centre backs then the chances of mistakes in dangerous areas are reduced.