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.

The Last Post of 2016/17

The playoff final highlights (such as they were):

That ginger kid in the blue shirt at the top is priceless. Your team wins promotion to the Premier League and rather than celebrating it, he’s filming it on his bloody phone. Kudos the girl next to him – she’s absolutely delighted.

Managerial Changes:

The one that looks as if it’s a shrewd move is Garry Monk to newly relegated Middlesbrough. I underestimated Monk’s ability at this level last season and yet he managed to transform Leeds into playoff contenders, so it’ll be interesting to see how he does on Teeside.

Of the other three appointments, they fit the same old tired pattern. I’ve heard of Leonid Slutsky (Hull) but Daniel Farke (Norwich – cue the ‘Silly Farke’ headlines) and Nuno Espirito Santo (Wolves) are new to me. None of them have managerial experience in England. Norwich clearly think that Farke will be the next David Wagner and in their infinite wisdom, the new Wolves board have appointed yet another goalkeeper, who also presided over FC Porto’s least successful season for decades.

I’ll be surprised if two of the three are in jobs by the end of next season: I won’t be surprised if Nuno is the first to go.

Update: on Thursday, Leeds appointed Thomas Christiansen as their new manager. His managerial experience: a couple of seasons in the Cypriot Super League, although the party line will be that he coached APOEL Nicosia on their run in the Champions League a few seasons ago.

I’ll be back next month – the previews for next season are well under way.

Game Of The Week: Birmingham v Huddersfield

First of all this week, I’d like to congratulate Brighton and Newcastle for winning promotion to the Premier League. Their last games will determine which club wins the title – Newcastle visit Cardiff this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm kick off) whilst Brighton entertain Bristol City tomorrow (Sky Sports 1, 5:30pm kick off) knowing that a win would make their lead unassailable.

Otherwise, there are all kinds of permutations at both ends of the table on the penultimate weekend of the season, which will no doubt get even more complicated after tomorrow’s games. The one outstanding match tomorrow is:

Birmingham v Huddersfield

Here are a couple of things to think about.

  • On the evening of Saturday 26th November 2016, both of these clubs were in the playoff positions.
  • Huddersfield haven’t lost a league game at St Andrew’s since November 2000 – the Terrier have won three of the last four encounters in the league in Birmingham.

The Harry Redknapp ‘era’ (interlude may be more appropriate in the long term) started badly with a derby defeat at Aston Villa last Sunday but with the Blues having both lost five of their last games at St. Andrew’s and facing a playoff team, the short term prospects for survival are looking dicey.

Huddersfield are in the playoffs after a win at Wolves earlier this week, but they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Home advantage in the first leg – regardless of their opponents – should be their priority.

QPR v Nottingham Forest

Both clubs could still be overtaken if Blackburn win their last two games so this is a game that neither can afford to lose.

QPR are in danger of dropping back into the third tier for the first time since 2003/04 because they’ve lost six straight. At the start of last month they looked as if they were comfortable in mid-table and they’ve not got a bad record at Loftus Road against teams below them – but any more defeats could be disastrous. I’ll probably revisit this idea in the summer, but regardless of which division they’re in come August, Ian Holloway is living on borrowed time.

Despite having won precisely one more point than Rangers this season, Forest haven’t won an away game since the end of November and have lost nine of their last twelve road trips, failing to score in seven of those matches. They’re probably in luck that their last game of the season is against Ipswich: Forest have only won two of their last ten league games against Rangers in the last two decades.

Reading v Wigan

The Royals could still miss out on a playoff berth due to their extremely dodgy defensive record in away games: Wigan are all but down but will no doubt try their best to postpone the almost inevitable for another week.

Before anyone gets carried away though, Reading haven’t beaten Wigan in Berkshire since a 3-2 victory in the Premier League in September 2007 and their current nine game unbeaten streak at the Mad House will have to end at some point. Are Wigan the team to do that or will we need to wait for the playoffs?

You may have to wait until Sunday for the update – for some reason I’ve become very popular this Bank Holiday weekend and I’m out both this evening and tomorrow.

Update: Sunderland have been relegated from the Premier League; Wigan have been relegated from the Championship to League One. The playoffs will be between Fulham, Huddersfield, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.

Game Of The Week: Leeds v Brighton

Last post before the International Break, so here’s how things stand before the run in begins:

Derby and Nottingham Forest have new managers and neither of the new bosses will need any introduction. Gary Rowett has taken over at Pride Park after being sacked by Birmingham in December and Mark Warburton has taken over at Forest after leaving Glasgow Rangers.

I think both appointments are excellent – both have Championship experience and both have a point to prove. Additionally, next season – assuming Forest avoid the drop and Derby miss out on the playoffs – will be very interesting. Coincidentally, Derby visit Forest this weekend.

At the top, I think the only issues left to be settled are whether Huddersfield can win automatic promotion and which team from Fulham, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday will miss out on the playoffs. At this point, my guess is that Fulham’s run in will prove too tough – they have to travel to half of the current top ten before the season ends.

At the bottom, Bristol City won at Wigan last weekend but favourable results for Blackburn and Wolves on Tuesday evening saw the Robins drop back into the bottom three. There’s currently only a five point gap between Bristol City and Wolves and although the bookies have almost written Wigan off, the struggle to avoid relegation may very well go down to the wire. Burton have a particularly tough looking run in, with games against Huddersfield, Leeds and Newcastle to come over the next few weeks.

Over the weekend, there are two games that could indicate how the rest of the season might pan out: both feature sides from Yorkshire that have been unrecognisable from last season.

Bristol City v Huddersfield Town (Friday 7:45pm, Sky Sports 1)

City have only lost two of their last six home games, which is actually their best run of form at Ashton Gate since the autumn. They still haven’t beaten a team above them for a while – a 2-0 win over Ipswich before Christmas – and they’ve lost three of their five home games against teams currently in the top six. Despite that, the Robins have only lost two of their last ten league meetings in the South West against the Terriers, but it’s worth pointing out that so far this season, Huddersfield haven’t lost an away game to any side currently in the bottom half of the table and have only suffered one away defeat in the Championship since the start of December.

Leeds v Brighton (tomorrow 5:30pm, Sky Sports 1)

Brighton have probably been lucky so far that their recent patchy away from (two wins in their last six) has been partially overshadowed by Newcastle’s recent wobbles, but they can’t really afford to make any mistakes at Elland Road. Leeds have only lost once at home since the end of November and are clearly the ‘best of the rest’ of the teams that in all likelihood will have to navigate the playoffs to win promotion from the Championship.

One particularly interesting aspect of this game is that Leeds have been terrible against Brighton over the last six seasons. United have won just a single meeting between the clubs in that period, a 2-1 win in August 2013; Leeds have lost the six games.

I’ll be back in a fortnight. Enjoy the international break, it’s going to be intense when the Championship returns.

 

View From The Bottom

In case you missed it, here’s how the top of the table clash played out earlier this week:

Huddersfield v Newcastle (Saturday, Sky Sports 1, 5:15pm) would normally be the choice of game of the week, but I think I’ve been concentrating on the top of the table too much recently – and the bottom of the table is just as fascinating at the moment.

Only four points separate Wolves, Bristol City, Blackburn and Wigan. The Lancashire duo are the bookie’s favourites to join Rotherham in League One next season, but as we’ve seen over the past seasons there are usually a few twists and turns along the way and it’s not as if the four clubs are new to the wrong end of the table.

The big game in the battle to avoid relegation looks as if it may between Blackburn Rovers and Bristol City on Easter Monday, but rather frustratingly I won’t be around to cover it as I’m away for the previous week.

There are three games that look crucial this weekend:

Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic

Rovers have suffered just two defeats in their last six at Ewood Park and have won without conceding in both of their most recent outings in front of their own fans including a win over Derby on Tuesday courtesy of a goal from Craig Conway. A new manager bounce was inevitable, but the last seven years have not exactly made Tony Mowbray a household name when it comes to football management.

Wigan have only lost half of their last six aways, but they’ve only won twice since the start of December. The Latics still have to visit Newcastle and Brighton before the end of the season as well as hosting Bristol City and Rotherham, so they look as if they still have their destiny in their own hands. It’d be a shame if they only lasted one season before returning to League One, but considering the last two winners of that division are also struggling, I wonder if that’s a sign that the gulf between the Championship and League One is beginning to be as wide as that between the Premier League and the Championship.

Wigan have only won one league game at Ewood Park in nine attempts since 2006: a 1-0 win in the Premier League in May 2012, which meant Rovers were relegated to the Championship. Almost five years later, a similar result could contribute to Blackburn being relegated to the third tier for the first time since 1979.

Reading v Wolves

Despite losing at both Brighton and Huddersfield in quick succession, Reading are still pretty formidable at home, having only been beaten once since the end of November. Considering the Royals still have to host Blackburn and Wigan, they could still have a considerable impact at both ends of the table.

Wolves have only lost half of their last six aways but the damage is being done at Molineux, where they’ve lost four of their last five games and failed to beat Birmingham a couple of weeks ago despite the Blues playing most of the second half with ten men after Paul Robinson was dismissed.

Reading have only lost twice to Wolves in their last ten league games in Berkshire, but the last time the visitors won was in April 2005. Since then, three of the four games have ended in draws.

Bristol City v Burton Albion

The continuing mystery of why Lee Johnson is still in charge at Ashton Gate continues: one theory is that having been offered and signed a long term contract before it was adequately proven that he was the right man for the job, it’s too expensive for the club to get rid of him. For the record, City have won twice at home since November, during which time they’ve also blown leads at home against Reading and Cardiff.

Just like Wigan and Wolves, Burton have only lost half of their last six away games but they’re currently unbeaten in three and are currently in their highest league position this season. Something to look out for tomorrow: Bristol City’s home defence is about average for the Championship, but this season Burton haven’t lost an away game when they’ve opened the scoring.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this is the first meeting between the two sides at Ashton Gate. The last time City entertained a team from Burton in a league game was when Burton United lost 4-0 just before Christmas 1905. Bristol City won the Second Division title that season, finishing four points ahead of Manchester United.

I’ll be back next Tuesday for a quick look at the midweek games.