ASK Ian McCall about Partick Thistle’s ambitions for the season and it won’t be long until the concept of quarters is brought up. Rather than setting hard targets in stone, the Jags manager has always been adamant that the Championship campaign has to be viewed in four sections.

The logic is sound – by fragmenting the season, players and coaches alike remain focused on achievable short-term goals. Each second-tier side already plays each other four times a year. It’s a neat prism to view the season through.

McCall’s formula for success has been simple: every quarter, collect a minimum of 15 points and try to improve on the previous one. That way, he reasons, his team will be in with a shout of promotion come the end of it all.

A quick glance at the form table tells us Thistle are right on track in McCall’s eyes. In the opening rounds of the season his team collected 15 points and now at the halfway stage, they have a total of 31. So far, so good.

However, a points tally doesn’t tell the full story. While there have been notable improvements at Thistle during the second quarter, there are also areas of concern. The two quarters of the season so far could hardly be more contrasting for the Maryhill club.

Let’s start with the obvious improvement: the defence. Helped by a club-record run of eight consecutive clean sheets (with seven coming on league duty), the Thistle backline has been nothing short of immense in the second quarter. Eight clean sheets out of a possible nine – only Arbroath breached the Jags defence in that period – makes for impressive reading but when we dig into the under-the-hood stats, we can see this change has been coming.

In the first quarter, Thistle’s defence was leaky. They were shipping goals at a rate of 1.56 per game and to be frank, it could and perhaps should have been worse. The Jags’ expected goals against (xGA) per game stood at 2.11: essentially, they should have been conceding an extra goal every second game based on the quality and quantity of chances conceded.

This was McCall’s biggest problem in the first quarter and the former Ayr United manager has done well to rectify it since. Thistle’s goals conceded per game has plummeted to just 0.22 – an incredible reduction – and the stats suggest that this improvement has been well-earned. Thistle’s xGA has dropped to 1.05, meaning that they should still be conceding a lot more regularly than they are and they will likely revert to the mean at some point, yet it is notable that the defence is now twice as efficient in terms of the quality and quantity of the chances they concede.

The obvious downturn can be found at the other end of the park. After banging in 23 goals during the first quarter, the Jags have managed just seven in the second. Five of their nine matches have ended with Thistle failing to get on the scoresheet and their goals per game has dropped from 2.56 to 0.78.

That particular swing might cause some supporters to feel alarmed but the underlying statistics should put those minds at ease. In the opening exchanges of the season, Thistle’s attacking output was simply unsustainable. Their expected goals (xG) was sitting at 1.92 per game, meaning they were scoring an ‘extra’ goal every second match. In the second quarter, this figure has decreased to 1.07.

This suggests that Thistle are making significantly fewer high-quality chances during any given game but the encouraging news is that McCall’s team are now under-performing their xG. In short, they’re making good chances and given time, they’ll start to go in. The free-scoring Thistle from the start of the season might be difficult to emulate but we can expect the goals to come if things remain the same.

The marginal increase in the average number of points collected per game (from 1.67 to 1.78) will no doubt please McCall, and overall performances in the second quarter will be a source of pride. In the opening rounds of the campaign, Thistle out-performed their opponents’ xG on five occasions out of nine. In the second, they did so no fewer than seven times.

This would suggest that the Jags are beginning to get the hang of life in the second tier. Inverness are the only team to have comprehensively out-played Thistle in the second quarter going by the xG (Wyscout have it at 0.23 to the Jags and 2.76 to Billy Dodds’ men) and while things aren’t quite as end-to-end and free-flowing as they were at the start of the season, Partick Thistle are beginning to exert more control in their fixtures.

The defence has improved significantly but will likely ship more goals in quarter three. The goals have dried up at the other end but should start flowing again soon. If McCall can successfully recapture the devastating attack from the first quarter and marry it to the defensive resilience of the second, a legitimate challenge for back-to-back promotions is not out of the question. It’s been another quarter of contrast for Thistle, but another that offers plenty of grounds for optimism for the remainder of the campaign.