With Barrow seven points clear at the top of the Vanarama National League table, there have been suggestions in some quarters that this season’s title race is as good as over.
Former Torquay United manager Chris Hargreaves certainly implied as much, when appearing on BT Sport’s National League Highlights Show last Saturday.
“They (Barrow) are creeping away, aren’t they? I think it’s affecting a few of the teams below because that psychological gap is seven points,” he said.
“They’re super organised, really difficult to beat, they’ve got goalscorers in the team, they’ve got a manager with the bit between his teeth – Ian Evatt.
“At the moment, seven points clear, perhaps ten, it’s done. No one’s saying that yet, but if you get to ten points clear in this league then you’ve got half a chance.”
Hargreaves was speaking before Barrow’s midweek game in hand against Dover Athletic, which the Bluebirds surprisingly lost 2-1. But his point still stands – are there any weaknesses in this Barrow side, and do any of the chasing pack have what it takes to push the leaders all the way this season?
The stats certainly suggest that the division’s other promotion contenders shouldn’t give up all hope of a title challenge just yet.
Barrow’s expected goals (xG) total for the season so far is a very healthy 46.05 (the fourth-best in the league), but it’s a long way off the 63 times they’ve actually found the net in 2019/20.
Of course, the spectacular finishing ability of players like John Rooney and Scott Quigley goes some way to explaining this discrepancy, but questions should still be asked about whether Evatt’s men can continue to outperform their xG to quite the same degree.
After all, their xG per shot (0.104) is way down in 12th place, despite registering the second-most shots per 90 at 12.44. And while Barrow fans will be buoyed by the fact that only Woking have placed a greater percentage of their shots on target than the Bluebirds (41.7% to Barrow’s 39.6%), there are still reasons to be cautious ahead of the business end of the season.
Not a single player from the Cumbrian side is in the top 5 performers when it comes to xG, even though Quigley tops the goalscoring charts with 18 goals and Rooney’s 17 strikes put him joint second. Their individual xG totals of 10.43 and 9.43 respectively are some way off both players’ actual output, suggesting that they may not hit the back of the net with the same regularity over the coming months.
Despite this, a whole host of metrics paint Barrow’s season to date in a far more positive light. They have had the most touches in the box per 90 (16.58) and have allowed fewer shots against them than any other Vanarama National League team (9.09).
When you also consider that they’re inside the division’s best five sides for expected goals against (xGA) with 34.04, it becomes more and more apparent that Evatt’s team are built on sturdy foundations.
On balance, the prognosis for Barrow is a positive one, partly because there are doubts over whether any of the chasing pack can sustain the kind of form that will allow them to close the gap at the top.
With Yeovil Town in the midst of a poor run (winning just one league match in January), Harrogate Town, FC Halifax Town, Boreham Wood and Notts County appear to be the form teams looking to seize the Bluebirds’ position at the summit.
But a quick glance at the league’s expected points (xP) table shows that only Notts County have the kind of statistics to lend weight to a potential title challenge.
Barrow top the pile with an xP of 52.4 (over ten points less than their actual total), but the Magpies are only marginally behind at 50.5 (just 0.5 more than their actual return) and have played a game less.
With a healthy seven-point lead at the top, it would be a bold statement to bet against Barrow having enough to win automatic promotion to League Two this season. But it’s far from a foregone conclusion, and the Vanarama National League title race certainly isn’t over yet.
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