Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview 2019

Aston Villa v Derby County

(Sky Sports Football/Main Event 2:oopm, kick off 3:00pm)

Well that flew by didn’t it: the most boring ‘richest’ game in the world is here once more, although let’s not get too excited.

The recent history of the final has been dominated by low scoring games, half of which had to go to extra time to be settled. The last time we saw more than two goals scored and both finalists actually scoring was in 2012: five of the last six matches finished 1-0 and on average we had to wait about an hour for a goal

However, the fact that a 5th v 6th final is such a rarity may mean that it’s a tendency breaker – but as you’re about to find out, that may not be a good thing for one of the teams involved.

And let’s not forget that one of these teams will become the first club since Crystal Palace in 2013 to be promoted to the Premier League having won fewer than 80 points.

Aston Villa

Beaten finalists 2018. Last ten regular season away games: 5-3-2 13-9 – almost exactly the same as last season.

Their current streak of seven games without an away defeat is Villa’s best form on the road this season, but all of those games were against sides with an average finishing position of 14th, including two wins against  teams that were relegated and ‘that’ equaliser at Leeds last month that was possibly a parting gift from Marcelo Bielsa. Then there’s this interesting stat: they had the second worst home defence last season (only Rotherham conceded more) but the fourth best away defence in the Championship – and that could be crucial, considering Derby finished with an away goal difference of -5.

Villa scored the sixth most away goals last season but that was still 18 fewer than they did at Villa Park. They also failed to beat any of the teams that finished above them on the road but won 3-0 at Derby in November:

Overall: don’t be fooled by the ‘big name’ nonsense – Villa weren’t actually as good as they were in 2017/18, but that was one of the reasons Steve Bruce was replaced in October and Dean Smith seems to have got the best out of the team. However, let’s not forget that they finished thirteen points behind runners up Sheffield United, which is more than twice the difference from 2017/18, when they finished six points behind Cardiff – who were relegated from the Premier League in April. Villa might be a big fish in a small pond in the Championship, but if they go up that situation will be reversed.

Derby County

Winners: 2007; Finalists: 1994, 2014; Semi Finalists: 1992, 2005, 2016, 2018.

Last ten away regular season games: 1-5-4, 9-16

Take a look at that record: over the last 25 years, The Rams have reached the playoffs seven times and have only been promoted once – and then were historically awful.

With the benefit of hindsight, Derby’s win at Leeds in the playoff semi final might actually just be an indication of how dramatic Leeds’ end of season implosion actually was rather than showcasing Derby’s promotion credentials. Before they won at Bristol City (with the help of card happy referee Darren Bond) they’d gone eight games without a win and hadn’t won an away game in 2018; those last ten games mentioned above were all against similar teams to those that Villa have done well against recently.

Derby did win their regular season games at WBA and Norwich but remarkably they also only picked up one point from nine available at those teams that will be playing in League One next season. The Rams also conceded in all but three of their away games last season and had the tenth best away defence in the Championship; they’ll have their hands full with Tammy Abraham but it’s also fair to say that they’ve been over reliant on Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson for goals.

Yet it’s not inconceivable that Derby will win promotion: they earned four more points that Blackpool did in 2009/10 and the same amount as Sheffield Wednesday earned when they reached the finals in 2015/16 but it was Blackpool who went up. In terms of Derby’s play-off history, this season’s team won three more points than the side that lost to Leicester in the 1994 final, but nine points fewer than the iteration that lost so dramatically in the 2014 final.

Head to head: Villa have won six of the last ten meetings and only lost twice – both of those defeats were at Derby.

Previous finals – last ten only:

Today’s game is only second time that a sixth placed team has actually reached the final over the last decade. The last sixth placed finisher to win the final was Blackpool in 2010.

It’s the first 5th v 6th final since West Ham v Preston in 2005 – West Ham won 1-0.

Higher placed teams have won exactly half of last ten finals.

The last six finals have all featured under three goals, the last time both teams scored was all the way back in 2012 (West Ham 2-1 Blackpool)

Verdict: history is against Derby here. They finished 3rd when they lost to QPR in the 2014 final and that team was a lot better than this season’s version but as you can see here, this year’s team seems to have more in common with the QPR side that beat them five years ago – which might be very significant.

On the other hand, history is also against Villa. The last team to return to a playoff final after losing it at the end of the previous season were West Ham in 2005, even though Crystal Palace (1997) and Leicester (1994) had both managed that feat before then. Villa fans can take some comfort that in both of the previous all-Midlands finals the higher placed finisher won both.

Now bearing in mind that I have a record of getting these wrong, I’m going to back Villa to win promotion – especially if they score first, as I’d also expect them to get another within ten minutes as Derby have to adapt tactically. It’s also worth remembering that Derby failed to score in both games against Villa this season and they were particularly vulnerable to Conor Hourihane.

Update: Derby and Charlton will be playing in the Championship next season.

 

EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.

2018 Playoff Final Preview

Saturday’s game is the eighth playoff final I’ve covered for this blog.

Before we go any further, I have to warn any Fulham fans that I don’t have a great record of accurately predicting the outcome of this game.

Aston Villa v Fulham

(Saturday 5pm kickoff, Sky Sports Football/Main Event will begin broadcasting at 4pm)

Statistically I always treat this as an away game for both teams and there’s a big difference between them in this respect.

Aston Villa

Last ten aways: 5-1-4, 14-9. Five clean sheets, failed to score in four games.

Don’t read too much into those numbers. Only two of those five wins were recorded against teams that finished in the top ten and Villa’s away record against the other teams in the top six was worse than that. Although their win at Middlesbrough in the first leg of the semi final duplicated the result at the Riverside at the end of December, it’s worth remembering that they only picked up 13 away points from 33 available against the other clubs in the top half of the Championship and Steve Bruce’s side failed to beat Brentford, Derby and Millwall either at home or away. Indeed, Preston had a better overall away record than Villa.

Villa have been pretty settled this season – four players have appeared in 40 or more games – and their main sources of goals are Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane, who have scored 25 times between them this season. A note of caution here: Adomah hasn’t scored away from Villa Park in the league since mid-November and hasn’t scored at all since the start of February. He’s currently 3/1 in the ‘anytime goalscorer’ market.

Fulham

Last ten aways: 6-2-2, 16-9. Three clean sheets, failed to score in one game.

This season Fulham’s away record against the other teams in the top six was far better than Villa’s. The Cottagers earned nine more away points against the teams in the top half of the table than their opponents did (only Wolves had a better record on the road this season), but interestingly one of the reasons Fulham are playing in the final rather than watching it is that they failed to beat either Brentford or Bristol City this season. It’s also interesting to note that Fulham are going into the final having not won on the road since beating Millwall in April: they haven’t lost three away games in the Championship since the end of 2014.

As you might expect, Fulham have also been settled this season: six of their squad have made 40 or more appearances this season including the phenomenal teenage ‘defender’ Ryan Sessegnon, who has an extremely bright future ahead of him regardless of whether he stays at Craven Cottage or not. The arrival of Serbian international striker Aleksandar Mitrovic from Newcastle at the start of February was an inspired managerial move by fellow Serb Slavisa Jokanovic: unlike Albert Adomah, Sessegnon and Mitrovic have both scored away goals recently and are first and second favourites in the ‘anytime goalscorer’ market.

Head to head

This is where it starts looking ominous for Villa. They’ve only won three of their last ten games against Fulham and only two of the last six.

Random stats

I’ll be returning to this theme in a moment, but the last five finals have produced a grand total of just four goals in 90 minutes with two going to extra time. The last time both teams scored in the final was six years ago when West Ham beat Blackpool.

This is the first final between teams that have finished 3rd and 4th in the final table since 2015, when Norwich beat Middlesbrough. Generally speaking, the higher placed team have won half of the last ten finals.

Six of the last ten playoff winners have won at least 80 points, including five of the last six. In four of the last six finals, both teams have won at least 80 points. That’s significant – as is the fact that no team over the last decade has reached the final having won more points than Fulham did this season.

Verdict

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I picked Fulham for promotion before 2017/18 began so I can’t go against them now. One thing that may go in their favour is that the weight of expectation on Aston Villa – who have never appeared in a playoff final – may be too much: Steve Bruce played down reports of a ‘feisty’ training session earlier this week – which is odd, considering how Villa ‘won’ the Fair Play title in the Championship this season.

However, I do think there will be a few goals in this game. Nobody scored more away goals than Fulham this season – nine more than Villa – but eight teams (including Villa themselves) conceded fewer away from home than Fulham did.

In their away games this season, Villa have vulnerable in the fifteen minutes after half time: just over a third of the goals they’ve conceded on their travels have been scored during that period. However, almost a quarter of the goals they’ve scored have come between the 61st and 75th minute.

It’s the final 15 minutes that could be explosive. Fulham have scored 35% of their away goals in that period. However the Cottagers are defensively vulnerable at the end of each half whilst Villa often go on a defensive footing during that period: indicates that it might come down to Fulham looking for a late winner and seeing how the Villa defence holds up.

Owing to yet another family occasion, it’s unlikely there’ll be an update immediately after the game but I’m hoping to have something in place as soon as possible.

Fulham are up after a 1-0 win on Saturday – report to follow ASAP.

It’s Play Off Time!

Over the last few seasons, I’ve spent a fair amount of time musing about The Curse Of Fourth but then QPR earned a jammy victor over Derby a year ago and so this year it’ll have to be The Disadvantage Of Finishing Fourth. Unfortunately, my old laptop has finally given up the ghost and may have taken all my spreadsheets with it; as I also have a family birthday to attend this weekend, this preview is an overview. With any luck, I’ll be able to write a comprehensive preview for the final.

Brentford

Last ten games: 4-4-2

Record against the other playoff teams: 1-1-4 (lost twice to Middesbrough, failed to score in both games)

Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1990/91, 1994/95, 2004/05, 2005/06 (third tier), losing finalists 1996/97, 2001/02, 2012/13 (third tier)

Doesn’t look good does it? You don’t qualify for the playoffs by being an average team but it’s pretty clear to me that those four defeats in six games against their immediate rivals indicate that the Bees aren’t good enough to go any further this season. How they react to any potential disappointment will be crucial, especially as Mark Warburton will be leaving as soon as the season is over. Getting this far might be the high point in this particuar era at Griffin Park; the Bees are the first team to reach the Championship playoffs after having won promotion from League One at the end of the previous season since Bristol City in 2008 and that didn’t end well for the Robins.

Ipswich

Last ten games: 5-2-3

Record against the other playoff teams: 2-1-3 (lost twice to Norwich, failed to score in either game)

Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1986/87, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 2003/04, 2004/05 (all second tier)

The signs of a revival in the fortunes of the Tractor Boys started when Mick McCarthy took over the reigns at Portman Road in November 2012 and the incremental improvement – including a very good defensive record at home – has resulted in their first playoff spot for a decade, but the sad truth is that Ipswich have been victimised by their near neighbours recently. Their playoff history is disastrous and sixth placed teams do not have a good record in the Championship playoffs. Last winners: Blackpool in 2010. Even if Town don’t go up, I doubt they’ll be playing in League One in five years time.

Middlesbrough

Last ten games: 6-1-3

Record against the other playoff teams: 5-0-1 (beat Brentford by an aggregate score of 5-0)

Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1990/91 (second tier)

In form, good record against the other three teams but although there’s no longer a full blown Curse of Fourth, it’s fair to say that over the last decade fourth placed teams have not done well. One win – last season – and three losses in four finals in that period does not bode well. That being said, Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship in 2014/15 based on a very tight record at the Riverside (only Sheffield Wednesday scored more than twice) and my initial doubts about Aitor Karanka’s suitability for the job have long since disappeared. So basically in a good position to return to the Premier League after six seasons in the second tier, just as long as Karanka doesn’t send Dimitrios Konstantinopoulous up for a corner…

Norwich

Last ten games: 6-3-1

Record against the other playoff teams: 3-0-3 – only one side scored in all of those games, which the punters amongst you might want to take note of.

Playoff record: none.

Arguably the in form team of the quartet, but their form against the other three teams is either boom or bust and they have no previous form in the post season. Not only that they somehow managed to lose twice against an unremarkable Reading side this season, but the Canaries failed to beat Rotherham and also lost both games against Middlesbrough without scoring. Alex Neil has been an excellent appointment but he may have to finish the job next season. Third placed clubs have reached the final in eight of the last ten seasons, but have only won half of those finals. The last triumph in the Championship playoffs by a third placed team was West Ham, who’d also been relegated from the Premier League at the end of theprevious season.

Verdict: Norwich are the favourites to reach the final at the very least, but over the last decade newly relegated teams are three times more likely to lose in the semis as they are to win the whole thing. That leaves the door open for Middlesbrough, who ultimately lost out on automatic promotion after that mad game at Fulham but who weren’t that far off the pace of either Bournemouth or Watford. Ipswich are an intriguing prospect and could be amongst the pacesetters in the autumn; Brentford are a genuine wild card, but both of them face an uphill battle in the semi finals.

Title, Playoff Places On The Line

So who’s ready for the last day of the regular season?

At the top:

Either Watford or Bournemouth will win the title. Middlesbrough could theoretically be promoted, but there’d be a very serious enquiry if that was the case. Ipswich, Derby, Brentford and Wolves will have to divide two playoff places between them, with a very real possibility of a Norwich/Ipswich playoff semi final.

Bookie’s verdict: The Hornets are short priced to win the title; but they can’t split Norwich or Boro to win the playoffs. Surprisingly, Wolves are the rank outsiders.

At the bottom:

Just the sound of apathy and broken dreams combined with tumbleweed.

Where to watch it:

Sky Sports have two live games (Derby v Reading, SS1 and Blackburn v Ipswich on SS2), which means that in all likelihood the ex-pros on Sky Sports news will spend a couple of hours screaming and making daft noises every time something even moderately exciting happens between noon and 2pm. If for some reason you miss everything, the one thing the Football League Show will probably be remembered for are their time stamped montages and so you’ve got the choice of waiting until almost midnight to watch the highlights on BBC1 or recording/downloading/whatever.

What to watch out for:

Sheffield Wednesday have only won twice in their last ten league visits to Vicarage Road and haven’t won consecutive league games there since the mid 1980s; they won last season’s game…Bournemouth have only won two of their eleven away games against the teams in the current top half of the table in 2014/15 – remarkably, that includes their astonishing 8-0 win at Birmingham City in October. Stat of the entire season: the Cherries have only ever won four times at Charlton in the league, but the last two victories were forty years apart. The last success: April 1975.

Three of the four teams competing for the last couple of playoff places are at home: the odd men out are Ipswich, who haven’t beaten Blackburn at Ewood Park in the league since August 1991. Town’s victory at Watford last month has been their only win in their last half a dozen away games; I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but I think it’s a case of ‘there’s always next season’ for Ipswich.

It’s not that straightforward for the other three either. Between them, Derby and Wolves have failed to beat Millwall, Reading and Wigan at home this season, which goes some way to explain why both of them are having to go the long way round to reach the Premier League. Brentford drew with Millwall and beat Reading at Griffin Park, but with both the Bees and Wolves having to play teams that have already been relegated it’s hardly a walk in the park. For the record, Wigan have won four of their last five league games at Griffin Park, Reading have won four of their last five league games at Derby…and Millwall haven’t won at Wolves since August 1928.

Something you may have missed (I know I did):

Last week Blackpool became the first team to go an entire season without an away win in the second tier since Bradford City ‘achieved’ that feat in 1989/90. Their last away success was a 2-0 win at Wigan just over a year ago…

There will be an update as soon as the games finish, but you’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out if either Preston or MK Dons will be joining Bristol City in next season’s competition.

Update: Bournemouth won the Championship with a win at Charlton forty years after their last one; Watford drew with Sheffield Wednesday. Norwich/Ipswich and Middlesbrough/Brentford are the playoff games. Reading won their fifth game at Derby in the last six to send the Rams down to eighth place and emphasising once again that the defeated playoff finalists from previous seasons don’t have much of a chance to win promotion at the end of the following season.

I’ll be back on either Wednesday/Thursday with the playoff preview.