2018/19 Championship Playoff Preview

Here we are again!

Four teams that weren’t quite good enough to win automatic promotion competing for a position in the bottom half of the Premier League and there’s a good chance that at least one of them will back here next season.

Aston Villa and WBA have played in the Premier League within the last five years, but neither Derby nor Leeds have played in the top tier for over a decade.

The odd thing about this season’s playoffs is that although Leeds were one of the most improved teams this season, both Villa and Derby weren’t as good as they were in 2017/18. That’s also emphasised by looking at the head to head record between the four teams: Leeds only lost once in their six games against other teams in the playoffs, whereas the other three sides lost at least twice – Derby lost four of their six games against playoff teams and actually had a goal difference of -7. The other thing to note is how few draws their have been in these games: just the one, when Leeds drew with Villa a couple of weeks ago.

Villa and Leeds are the favourites, but it’s been a while since losing playoff finalists returned to the final and won it – the last occasion was when West Ham won in 2005 after losing to Crystal Palace in 2004.

Finally, does anyone remember the Curse of Fourth? It’s been joined by the Curse of Sixth: only three teams in the last decade that have finished in either fourth or sixth place have been promoted via the playoffs. Bad news for Derby and WBA in that case.

Therefore statistically speaking, it looks like Leeds should go up. It’s never that simple though.

Aston Villa v WBA (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 12:15pm)

A local derby in the playoffs so that’ll be fun for the neutrals. Until last weekend Villa had won five consecutive home games but the defeat against Norwich was the first time VIlla had lost at home since mid-February. This season they’ve been beaten at Villa Park three teams but have drawn twice in their next home outing. A draw wouldn’t be the end of the world for either team today, but would definitely give the Baggies an advantage next week.

The head to head record at Villa Park is interesting: WBA have won two of the last three matches there but those victories were the first since 2011. Villa have only won two of the last six.

Verdict: this is going to be a tight one.

Derby v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 5:15pm)

Just three home defeats all season indicate that Derby are a force to be reckoned with, but two of those reverses were heavy defeats against Villa and Leeds and they only won three of their nine games at Pride Park against teams that finished in the top ten. The other side of the argument is that Leeds need to stop Derby scoring this afternoon, something that has only happened five times this season – and the Rams have only lost twice when they’ve failed to hit the net.

Leeds are on a four game streak without a win and haven’t won on the road since before Easter, but as I mentioned earlier, their away record against the top six – and indeed the top ten – is much better than Derby’s. The other problem Leeds have in this game is that they’ve got a poor record at Derby: although United won convincingly at Pride Park in August, before then they’d only won one of their last ten league games there.

Verdict: anything could happen here, but overall it’s going to be down to which manager prepares his team better. I don’t actually think Frank Lampard’s made much of a difference to Derby, but after what happened a couple of weeks ago against Aston Villa, my opinion of Marcelo Bielsa has gone up – even if my opinion of Pontus Jansson hasn’t.

I’ll update this post ASAP after today’s games and there’ll be a short post once we know who’s going to reach the final.

Aston Villa 2-1 WBA

Derby 0-1 Leeds

Update: Aston Villa will face Derby in the final. Villa won on penalties and Derby won at Elland Road in a very dramatic 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.

West Ham Promoted To The Premier League

A goal two minutes before the end of the game from Ricardo Vaz Te meant that West Ham returned to the Premier League after beating Blackpool 2-1 at Wembley Stadium yesterday. Carlton Cole gave the Hammers the lead after 35 minutes, but Blackpool’s Tom Ince equalised shortly after half time.

With the win, West Ham become the fifth club in the last two decades to have won two playoff finals and also became the fifth 3rd placed club in the last ten seasons to win promotion via the playoffs.

I think it’s relatively safe to say that following yesterday’s performance Blackpool should be challenging at the top end of the Championship next season, although it’s always worth pointing out that the odds of the Tangerines earning an automatic promotion spot are slim. Since 1991/92 only three clubs have won the Championship after having lost the playoff final at the end of the previous season and only three have gone on to achieve promotion via the playoffs – and none have finished in the runners-up spot. However, I can’t see Blackpool finishing outside the top ten and trends aren’t set in stone.

With West Ham’s departure to more lucrative pastures, there’s only one spot left in next season’s nPower Championship left. I’ll be back on Friday to take a look at the League 1 playoff semi final between Huddersfield Town & Sheffield United: we’ve already got three clubs from Yorkshire in the Championship and there’s room for one more!

Can Blackpool Beat West Ham?

So this is it: the end of another season. 556 games played and arguably the last and most important one takes place tomorrow afternoon when either Blackpool or West Ham will be promoted back to the Premier League.

Like the rest of the mini tournament, Saturday’s game is unusual as it features two clubs who are looking to ‘bounce back immediately’ (to quote Messers Kean, Coyle and Connor – although Stale Solbakken presumably hasn’t said anything yet) to the Premier League: although any fans of Bolton, Blackburn & Wolves who are reading might want to skip the next paragraph…

In the last decade, there’s only been one playoff tournament that’s featured more than one club that had been relegated from the Premier League in the previous season (2003/04) and over the same period none of the relegated clubs were promoted via the playoffs: West Ham (2004) and West Brom (2007) both lost in the finals.

I’ll have more thoughts about ‘bouncing back immediately’ before the start of next season, but the correct response from any of the current Championship clubs to the recent outbreak of misplaced optimism from the management of the newly relegated clubs should be amusement.

Back to the game. It’s obvious why West Ham are favourites to win promotion, but the closer you look at the game the less straightforward it becomes. The Hammers had no problems in either of the league games between the sides this season: an aggregate score of 8-1 with seven different players scoring in those games appears to give Sam Allardyce’s side a considerable psychological advantage.

Then there’s the historical edge that the Hammers have in their meetings with Blackpool. The last time they lost to Blackpool was in a 3rd round FA Cup tie in January 1971, when the Tangerines ran out 4-0 winners: Bobby Moore, Brian Dear and Jimmy Greaves had been out drinking the night before the game and all three were fined and suspended by Ron Greenwood. That was the last meeting between the clubs until the 0-0 draw at the Boleyn Ground in November 2010 in the Premier League.

So far so good. But here’s the counter argument: this game will be the fifth final in the last two decades between clubs that finished in third and fifth places and the lower placed team has won three of them. Blackpool won at Wembley two years ago as the lower placed team and seven of the starting eleven who beat Cardiff in 2010 are still with the team: in short, Blackpool have a crucial advantage of having ‘been there and done that’ which could be absolutely vital.

Ian Holloways’s team also fits the playoff winner profile in other respects. Blackpool were competitive this season without ever enough consistency for a sustained run at the automatic places – in fact, they have a lot in common with Hull (2008), Burnley (2009), Birmingham (2002) and Swindon (1993). They were never higher than fourth but never lower than mid table but Blackpool only cracked the playoff positions in January when late goals from Elliott Grandin and Chris Basham gave them a come from behind win against Crystal Palace at Bloomfield Road. They’re currently on a nine game unbeaten run, which is their best form of the season.

West Ham have been in the top five all season- and were top of the pile for a few weeks – but five consecutive draws in March effectively ended their hopes of automatic promotion. The Hammers haven’t lost in eight games since being turned over by Reading at the Boleyn Ground and in any other season would have probably won automatic promotion but this term there were two teams that were better than they were. If they win tomorrow then they’ll joined a very select band of clubs: only Charlton (1998), Ipswich (2000) and Bolton (2001) earned more points during the regular season than West Ham did this term and won the playoff final.

As there’s no home advantage at Wembley, the real key to the game could be the away records. West Ham were the best team on the road last season, but Burnley and Leeds – yes even Leeds – had better away numbers than Blackpool did and only four teams conceded more goals away from home than the Tangerines. Given that only Birmingham City scored more away goals than the Hammers did, it’s possible we might have a goalfest on our hands, especially as there’s a history of high scoring games between the two clubs. In the last ten meetings, there’s been an average of 3.5 goals with most of West Ham’s wins over Blackpool being by at least two goals.

It could well be a classic final and regardless of which club wins promoted they’ve both contributed to a memorable season. There’s been a lot of moaning on various other blogs recently about how boring the Championship is supposed to have been this term, but as I’ve made clear over the past months I think that’s down to the ‘safety first’ attitude of some of the mid table teams rather than the clubs that were involved in the promotion and relegation issues.

Enjoy the game: I’ll be back on Sunday evening with a recap as I’m making a day of it – my wife and I are going to a barbecue immediately after the game before watching the Champions League final.

Who Will Join West Ham at Wembley?

The first thing that struck me when looking at tonight’s game is how it’s a carbon copy of the second leg of the recent Champions League semi final between Barcelona and Chelsea. Blackpool don’t have to win but as long as they don’t lose by two clear goals or more then The Tangerines will be appearing in their second playoff final in the last three seasons.

The playoffs are never as straightforward as that though. Over the past ten seasons, only four clubs have won the first leg: the good news for Blackpool is that only one team (Ipswich in 2004) lost the second leg and were eliminated from the tournament. The bad news for Blackpool: only one club that finished fifth and won the first leg actually went on to win promotion in the playoff final – that was Burnley in 2010.

Birmingham finished fourth and lost the first leg. I mentioned the curse of fourth place last year and although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it looks very much as if it’s about to claim another victim. It’s been a long season for the Blues and you’ve got to wonder about the impact of playing in the Europa League at the start of the season: tonight’s match could be a game too far.

However, I’m sure that Ian Holloway’s side also won’t want to be reminded that in four of their last five league games at St. Andrew’s they’ve lost by two or more goals, including a 3-0 defeat in the Midlands on New Year’s Eve. Blackpool were already two goals down when ex-Bluenose Barry Ferguson was sent off, to be swiftly followed by Holloway who was dismissed for protesting against the decision a little vehemently for referee Craig Pawson’s liking.

With so much at stake tonight’s game could turn into a torrid affair, but the main aspect on the field will be how the defences cope. Birmingham have only lost once at home this season and had the best home defensive record, keeping clean sheets against Blackpool, Reading and Southampton and only conceding once goal against Cardiff and West Ham but they simply cannot afford to let Blackpool score.  If Kevin Philips finds the back of the net, I can’t imagine that he’d want to celebrate against the club he left at the end of last season.

As a neutral, although I was impressed with the way West Ham dispatched Cardiff over two legs, it felt as if something has been missing from the playoffs so far: hopefully we could be in for something less one sided this evening and we may not know the outcome until it’s almost time to go to bed.

As usual, there’ll be an update after the game: the next scheduled post will be before the playoff final on May 19th, but as we’ve seen over the past couple of days ‘silly season’ seems to have started earlier this year.

Update: Birmingham City 2, Blackpool 2: the Tangerines scored either side of half time and although the Blues fought back to level the game, it’s Blackpool who’ll be playing West Ham at Wembley. Let the cliches begin.