PARTICK THISTLE are still in the early stages of what’s sure to be a campaign full of highs and lows, and it’s fair to say the Jags have produced something of a mixed bag whilst on league duty thus far. Commanding and comfortable victories were dished out against Dunfermline and Morton, but a run of three defeats in their last four Championship outings has taken some of the shine off of Thistle’s promising start.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, of course: a sixth of the way through the league campaign, the Jags find themselves occupying fourth place. Should they remain there come matchday 36, and they will have achieved Ian McCall’s goal of remaining in with a shout of promotion via the play-offs until the bitter end of the season.

This season has been typical Thistle so far in some respects. There has been thrilling, free-flowing attacking at times that has blown the opposition away, while there have also been a few costly clangers at the other end of the park.

The case for the defence

Individual errors at the back have proven costly for the Jags so far this season, which is naturally a concern, but the underlying data suggests that if the Thistle rearguard can cut them out, then those painful defeats at the hands of Arbroath, Inverness and Kilmarnock will become a lot less frequent.

Both Harry Stone and Jamie Sneddon have had their afternoons to forget this season, and both have committed costly mistakes at crucial junctures in games. Against Killie at the weekend, the first goal was something of a freak – Richard Foster cannoned the ball off Kevin Holt’s face and into the back of the net – but neither Holt nor his defensive partner Lewis Mayo will want to watch back the second. A long ball was floated forward, it bounced in between the centre-halves and Oli Shaw was at hand to apply the finishing touch in the deftest of fashions.

Despite the howlers that have plagued the Thistle defence in recent weeks, there is room for cautious optimism. Expected goals against (xGA) measures the probability of any conceded shot resulting in a goal, and Thistle’s xGA of 5.21 is only bettered by Inverness (3.51) and Kilmarnock (2.54).

What this means is that the rate at which Thistle have been conceding doesn’t necessarily tally up with overall performance. The discrepancy between the Jags’ goals conceded and xGA implies that the defence should tighten up if they can cut out the mistakes, should they maintain their current level of performance.

Holt and Mayo both find themselves in the Championship’s top 10 players for interceptions completed per 90 minutes played, and this aggressive approach should serve Thistle well. Additionally, Holt’s defensive duel success rate of 80.5% (the third-highest in the league) reflects his strong start to life at Firhill. However, the fact that Thistle have the lowest challenge intensity in the division should be a cause for concern. McCall’s side are currently averaging 5.9 duels, tackles or interceptions per minute of opposition possession – only Hamilton (5.8) are less industrious off the ball.

Building the play

Thistle boast the highest Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) in the Championship at this early stage, meaning the League One champions generally manage to string together more passes before losing the ball (13.3) than any other team in the league. However, that is not to say that the Jags are a possession-heavy team – their average possession of 44.5% is the second-lowest tally in the league.

The Jags like to move the ball forward quickly but at present there is an imbalance in the team. Most crosses are played from the left – in part due to the absence of a natural attacking right-back – but the deliveries could be better, particularly when Brian Graham is a willing target. Left-back Foster’s crosses find their man more than any other Thistle player, yet they are only successful 40% of the time.

Thistle rely on the whole team to progress the ball forward – no side averages fewer dribbles per game than McCall’s – but Scott Tiffoney is the exception in this regard. He attempts nine dribbles per 90 minutes (the fourth-highest rate in the league) and is successful 77.8% of the time – an outstanding return, and one that makes the former Livingston and Morton winger a unique weapon in Thistle’s arsenal. He completes 4.75 progressive runs (dribbles where the ball is carried at least 10 metres up the park) per game, the second-highest rate in the Championship, underlining his ability to stretch an opponent’s defence.

Midfield stalwart Stuart Bannigan has enjoyed a strong start to the campaign and the 29-year-old has been playing a crucial role in Thistle’s chance creation. He may not have any goals or assists to his name so far this season but a deeper dive into the numbers reveals his importance. Bannigan is currently producing 0.38 secondary assists – the pass that leads to an assist – in the heart of his team: the highest rate of any Championship player. His midfield partner Ross Docherty, meanwhile, could be a little tidier off the ball and is giving away 2.71 fouls per game; the third-highest rate of any player.

Much of Thistle’s play is focused on getting the ball into the opposition box. Graham and Tiffoney both find themselves averaging more touches in the box than most in the league, and the Jags have a serious reluctance to shoot from distance: up until the Kilmarnock match (where our data goes back to), Thistle had only struck 14 shots from outside the area, the lowest of any team in the second tier.

Chance creation

Thistle’s attackers have enjoyed a good start to the season and only Arbroath have more Championship goals to their name than the Jags. However, much like the case with Thistle’s defence, the data suggests that the current rate of goalscoring is unsustainable.

McCall’s men may be one of the league’s top scorers but their expected goals (xG) is decidedly average so far, sitting at 6.88. This implies that Thistle have been scoring low-probability shots and over the long term, fewer will go in. In Graham, though, Thistle have a reliable goalscorer (the striker’s xG and goals tend to marry up over the course of the season) and if he receives the right service, the goals will follow.


Tiffoney’s dribbling is a potent weapon going forward, while Bannigan’s ability to recycle possession means opponents must always keep a close eye on him. But it is a new arrival who has shouldered the majority of Thistle’s creative burden thus far: Kyle Turner.

The playmaker has four assists to his name this season – the most of any player in the league, and all the result of set-pieces – but the underlying data is encouraging too. Only Dunfermline’s Reece Cole averages more shot assists per game than Turner, and his expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes is among the best in the league.

One area that requires dramatic improvement if Thistle are to remain in contention for a place in the play-offs, though, lies within their passing. Only Ayr United and Raith Rovers attempt more through balls per 90 minutes than Thistle, yet only 17.6% of them find their intended target - comfortably the lowest return in the league.