Re-wind to 7th May 2023, and Boreham Wood were 2-1 up away from home at Notts County in the National League Play-Off Semi-Finals, and just minutes away from a Wembley appearance for a shot at promotion to the Football League. A late equaliser in normal time and another late goal at the end of extra time sent Notts to Wembley, where they beat Chesterfield to win promotion.
Since then, Boreham Wood have picked up 21 points from their opening 20 matches of the 2023/24 National League season, and find themselves in 19th position – ten points off of a Play-Off place.
But what exactly has been the reason for Boreham Wood’s descent? Why have a team who were so close to promotion just six months ago suddenly dropped off of the pace at the turn of the new season? In this data analysis article, I will attempt to dig into the reasons behind Boreham Wood’s decline – primarily looking at the numbers behind their season so far.
Style of play
To understand the reasons behind Boreham Wood’s shortcomings, we first need to consider their style of play.
Generally speaking, Boreham Wood are a side who place a large emphasis on their out-of-possession approach. They use a 5-3-2 formation, and often utilise an aggressive man-to-man marking system, which makes it difficult for opponents to find space and time on the ball. This allows them to have an effective high press. Boreham Wood allow their opponents on average 9.33 Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), which gives them the fourth most effective high press in the National League so far this season. If possession is turned over high up the pitch as a result of Boreham Wood’s high press being successful, then they obviously have a high chance of creating goalscoring opportunities as they are close to the opponent’s goal, where they may only have a few players back to defend. If their opponents manage to beat this high press, Boreham Wood are very quick to transition back into their mid-block, and then low-block once they have been forced back towards their own penalty area.
In the event of Boreham Wood regaining possession closer to their own goal, their two strikers are both extremely physical (both in terms of pace and power), meaning they can challenge for duels after receiving long passes from the defence, hold the ball up, and run the channels. This makes the long ball strategy a pragmatic one, as Boreham Wood have the profile of players in attack to suit the style. During offensive transitions (that is, when Boreham Wood win possession back and switch from their out-of-possession shape into their in-possession shape), their wing-backs and #10 are all quick to support the two strikers to attack the opponent’s penalty area.
Boreham Wood don’t tend to have too much possession in matches. So far this season they have averaged a 44.0% possession share, which ranks 21st against other National League sides. This means that they lack the ability to control matches through possession, but because they are so organised out-of-possession, they are very good at limiting the quality of chances that their opponents create for themselves. Boreham Wood concede on average 0.111 expected goals against (xGA) per shot, which ranks fifth. This basically means that for every shot that their opponent takes, there is on average an 11.1% chance of that shot resulting in a goal – which is low compared to other teams. Boreham Wood basically try to stay in control of matches by not giving much away and taking their chances when they come, rather than by controlling possession themselves.
This again is a very pragmatic approach, and it suits Boreham Wood considering the resources they have at their disposal. There are bigger clubs at National League level who could potentially attract a higher calibre of player, and in turn could control possession more – for instance Chesterfield, Rochdale, Oldham Athletic, and Southend United, as well as Notts County and Wrexham from last season.
However, having possession isn’t the only way to win football matches, if you have a sound out-of-possession approach – as Boreham Wood showed last season. It just means that over a whole season you’re unlikely to exert the amount of control on matches that you need to, to be challenging for league titles. But if Boreham Wood aren’t anticipating challenging for league titles, then it doesn’t matter how you play, as long as you are pragmatic with the resources you have at your disposal to pick up results in any way possible.
This is why it’s advantageous for Boreham Wood to play the way they do. They can’t control possession consistently enough over a whole season to be challenging right at the very top of the division, but if they can make their out-of-possession approach faultless, keep matches tight, play to the strengths of their forward players, and be dangerous from set-pieces, they can be successful. Of their 31 league matches that were either won or lost last season (excluding their 15 draws), 19 were settled by a one goal margin. Additionally, 12 of Boreham Wood’s 19 league victories last season were by one goal. This is what makes them so dangerous in knockout matches. A lot of Boreham Wood’s matches are settled by fine margins, they’re a difficult side to play against out-of-possession, and they have players who can create moments of magic at just the right time. This added together with Manager Luke Garrard’s ability to motivate them for a short Play-Off campaign where matches come thick and fast, or a one-off league or cup match, and they can be a nightmare to play against. Boreham Wood reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in the 2021/22 season.
Last season, Boreham Wood scored 1.17 goals per 90 minutes against an expected figure of 1.37. This means that they scored roughly 0.20 goals fewer than expected every 90 minutes. This season they have scored 1.11 goals per 90 minutes versus an expected figure of 1.40. So their expected goals (xG) figure is actually slightly improved from last season, although they have actually scored at a lower rate, and have underperformed more in front of goal. However their xG isn’t the only metric that has improved. Compared to last season, Boreham Wood have taken more shots, have attempted more crosses also with a better completion rate, have made more penalty area entries into their opponent’s penalty area, have had more touches of the ball in their opponent’s penalty area, and have made more passes to the final third also with a better accuracy.
Now it’s easy to consider that Boreham Wood are scoring goals at a lower rate so far this season compared to last (despite their improved underlying numbers), and conclude that this is the sole reason that they find themselves lower down the table this time around. Obviously this makes a huge impact, however I think it’s deeper than that.
Last season, Boreham Wood picked up 72 points to finish in sixth position, and slightly overperformed when compared to their number of expected points. Expected points are calculated by considering the xG difference for every match a team plays, and assigning an expected points figure based on this xG difference for each match. At the end of the season these expected points figures for each match are added together to give a total figure.
As earlier stated, last season Boreham Wood scored fewer goals than they would have been expected to based on the shots that they took. This may be surprising when we consider that they did in fact qualify for the National League Play-Offs. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to me that the only reason for Boreham Wood’s decline is simply because they’re not scoring as many goals as they were last season, as they achieved Play-Off qualification despite underperforming in front of goal. This is where their xGA comes into play.
Last season, Boreham Wood conceded 0.94 goals per 90 minutes against an expected figure of 1.22. This season they have conceded 1.37 goals per 90 minutes versus an expected figure of 1.39. This tells us that they are conceding goals at a higher rate this season, which is running much closer to their expected figure, which has also significantly increased. It also tells us that last season, Boreham Wood conceded far fewer goals than they would have been expected to based on the shots they faced. This explains how they overperformed their expected points figure, despite underperforming in front of goal.
So why have Boreham Wood started to concede more goals this season? Many factors will come into play, but I wanted to focus briefly on their goalkeeper Nathan Ashmore. Last season he conceded 0.81 goals per 90 minutes against an expected figure of 1.02. This means that on average he prevented 0.21 goals per 90 minutes. So far this season he has conceded 1.21 goals per 90 minutes versus an expected figure of 1.09. Ashmore’s save rate (%) is also down from 78.07% last season to 71.11%, this.
It’s fair to say that Boreham Wood’s overperformance last season in terms of their defensive numbers was largely down to Ashmore’s performance. He isn’t performing poorly this season at all; it’s just that last season he was playing at an unbelievable level, and this time out he’s having more of an average season, statistically speaking. This added together with Boreham Wood’s increased xGA figure, and them continuing to underperform in front of goal, makes a replication of last season’s success seem unthinkable.
One more thing to consider – especially after we’ve already identified that a lot of Boreham Wood’s matches are settled by fine margins – is the importance of scoring the first goal in matches. Last season, Boreham Wood scored the first goal in 25 of their 46 National League matches, picking up 58 points in these 25 matches. From the 20 matches where they conceded the first goal last season, Boreham Wood only won 13 points (there was also one 0-0 draw). Their record when conceding first was poor, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise when we consider what we’ve already learned – that Boreham Wood didn’t score an awful lot of goals, and made the Play-Offs last season mainly through their defensive solidity, rather than their performance in front of goal. In fact, Boreham Wood only won two matches last season after conceding the first goal. In contrast, they only lost once after scoring the first goal.
When we look at Boreham Wood’s record when scoring and conceding the first goal this season, they have conceded first in 15 of their 20 matches so far, and have only picked up 10 points from these matches. They have also scored first in four matches so far, gaining 10 points in the process. So we can now see that Boreham Wood are scoring the first goal much less frequently so far this season, and this is of huge significance.
Furthermore, when we investigate Boreham Wood’s performance in each 15 minute segment of their matches so far this season, it gives us a deeper understanding of where their problems are coming from. After a fairly even 0-15 minute time segment, in the 16-30 minute segment this season, Boreham Wood create an xG of 0.12 on average, where their opponents create an xG of 0.35. This makes their opponents around three times as likely to score in this 15 minute segment than Boreham Wood are. A similar story is present when we look at actual goals scored in this time segment; Boreham Wood score on average 0.11 goals, and concede on average 0.37 goals. From 31-45 minutes, the xG is much more even, with Boreham Wood creating an average xG of 0.25 and allowing 0.23 xG. However their opponents are actually scoring on average 0.32 goals in this segment, where Boreham Wood are only scoring 0.11 goals.
After half-time Boreham Wood generally take more control in matches. From 46-60 minutes they create an xG of 0.32, and concede an xG of 0.16 – making them twice as likely to score than their opponents. This continues through to 61-75 minutes, where Boreham Wood create an xG of 0.24 and concede an xG of 0.13. Their matches then end fairly even during the 76-90 minutes time segment.
Boreham Wood are much more likely to score than their opponents when they are behind – creating an average xG of 0.81 per 90 minutes versus an average xG of 0.55 per 90 minutes. The problem is that Boreham Wood are also much more likely to concede at an even game state (when the scores are level). When drawing, Boreham Wood put up an xG of 0.66 per 90 minutes, with their opponents generating an xG of 0.85 per 90 minutes.
So we have now identified that, this season, Boreham Wood have started matches slowly, often conceding first, before taking control of matches after half-time and being more likely to score than their opponents after they have gone behind. We already know that they don’t score a huge amount of goals, and this therefore makes the likelihood of them overturning even a one goal deficit very difficult.
To summarise, we have learned that Boreham Wood are a side who aim to play to their strengths by making use of their out-of-possession structure, defensive solidity and athleticism in attack, which can make them a very difficult opponent in one-off matches. They don’t score an awful lot of goals, making a lot of their matches tight, and settled by one goal margins. This makes the first goal in their matches of huge importance, and means it’s crucial that they start well. However this season, Boreham Wood have generally started matches slowly, and have often conceded the first goal before gaining momentum after going behind, although by this point they often have too much to do to mount a comeback. They haven’t been helped by their worsened underlying defensive numbers compared to last season, and their goalkeeper has so far been unable to replicate his heroics of the previous season to add to their defensive solidity.