Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

It’s the last game of the season (Saturday, 3pm, Sky Sports 1) but let’s set the hype aside and try take an objective look at the match. I always treat the final as an away game for both teams and unless specifically stated the stats I mention are from the last 20 seasons.

You can make a case that Derby and QPR were unlucky to run into two very high quality sides this season. Leicester and Burnley dominated the Championship in the same way as Newcastle and WBA did in 2009/10 and Reading and Sheffield United did in 2005/06. From Valentine’s Day onwards the competition was a two horse race.

Derby are favourites to go up, which isn’t that much of a surprise now but would have been when Nigel Clough was dismissed in September after the Rams lost at Nottingham Forest. Their tenth place finish at the end of 2012/13 was their best performance since relegation from the Premier League in 2008 and with hindsight the decision to let Clough go and appoint Steve McClaren – who was Harry Redknapp’s assistant at QPR at the time – was correct. Derby were clearly underachieving – ultimately The Rams’ points haul would have been good enough for automatic promotion in four of the last ten campaigns and would have been good enough to win the Championship in 2008. One of the reasons for their success this season is that on the road, Derby’s record was comparable to Leicester’s: the Rams were one of only four teams to lose less than ten away games in 2013/14 and only Brighton no longer have the chance of playing in the Premier League next season.

Derby were also this season’s leading scorers with 84 goals, a lot considering the Championship averaged just 2.60 goals per game in 2013/14. However, scoring a lot of goals during the regular season is not necessarily a recipe for play off success, as over the last decade only two of the seven sides that finished in the playoff positions and scored 80 goals or more have been promoted. That being said, Derby are comparable to both West Ham (2012) and Wolves (2003) in as far as those clubs were promoted via the playoffs with a goal difference of +30 or better whereas the teams that missed out were prolific goalscorers that weren’t as good defensively. Or to put it another way, seven of the last ten clubs promoted via the playoffs had conceded more goals than Derby have this season.

QPR have a lot of significant statistical trends against them. There’s The Curse Of Fourth plus the fact that they’ve never been promoted immediately after they’ve been relegated. Then there’s the record of the record of  teams that had been relegated from the Premier League in second tier playoff finals since 1993/94: one win (West Ham, 2012) and four defeats. After that, they face the problem that only one team (Swansea, 2011) has been promoted via the playoffs after winning exactly 80 points. Additionally, over the same period no team that scored fewer goals than QPR did in 2013/14 have been promoted via the playoffs and 32 of the 33 promoted sides scored more. The exception: Birmingham in 2009 and the Blues – who finished second behind Wolves – had a far better defensive record that season than QPR had in 2013/14.

Before getting a barrage of criticism and being accused of being a Derby fan (I’m not), statistics don’t win football matches. You need goals to do that but unfortunately for QPR goals away from Loftus Road have been scarce. They failed to score in 11 of their last 20 away games in the Championship – including at Wigan in the semi final – and failed to score an away goal against any of the other top five teams this season.

Furthermore, only five away wins in the Championship since mid-October is nothing to write home about, especially if you’ve also lost six of your last ten road trips: I’ve written this before, but Rangers were far better at Loftus Road than they were away from home. if you look at this season’s away form as a stand alone league table, QPR would have finished tenth, ten points behind Derby but also with Bolton and Birmingham (!) ahead of them. They also had a worse goal difference than Middlesbrough, which suggests to me that this is a team that has yet to get to grips with the tougher aspects of the Championship and isn’t anywhere near as good as they appear to be.

Head to head record: very tight. Four of the last ten meetings have ended in draws and Derby’s win in February was the first time they’d beaten QPR since a 2-0 win at Loftus Road in September 2008. Only four of those ten games have produced more than 2.5 goals.

Before delivering my verdict, some general observations about the Championship playoff final:

This is the seventh time in the last ten seasons that the third placed team has reached the final; within that period the ‘second runners up’ have five wins. Within a wider context, the club that finished higher at the end of the regular season has won half of the last twenty finals.

This will be the sixth time that third has played fourth in the final in the last 20 seasons and the first time this combination has happened since 2008, when Hull beat Bristol City. The higher placed team has won four of the ‘3rd v 4th’ finals; the last time the fourth placed side won was when Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties since 1998. That was also the last time the fourth placed team won promotion via the playoffs; the last time the fourth placed team won promotion via the playoffs without needing penalties was when Leicester beat Derby 20 years ago.

Four of the last finals featuring the third and fourth placed teams have been settled over 90 minutes with the fourth placed team failing to score in the last three of them – a fact that seems very relevant indeed considering QPR have problems scoring away from home. The last time a fourth placed team scored in this game was when Craig Hignett scored for Barnsley against Ipswich almost 14 years ago!

Only four of the last 20 finals went to extra time and only two of those games needed penalties.

Both teams have scored in less than half of the last 20 finals; in fact only one team has scored in seven of the last ten finals and six of the last ten have finished 1-0. Seven of the last ten have been decided by a one goal margin – as were both of the games between Derby and QPR this season.

Verdict: looking back on my predictions over the last three years, I don’t have a great record. I thought the 2011 final would be a low scoring game; instead it was the highest for years. I favoured Watford last year and they lost. So I’d advise anyone that considers commenting that I have been wrong in the past and will be wrong in the future 🙂

I wasn’t sure about QPR’s chances at the start of the season but after having taken another look back at various stats I’d be genuinely amazed if they win promotion back to the Premier League. From a statistical point of view, Derby have almost everything in their favour: good form coming into the game, goalscoring ability at home and away, a manager with something to prove and favourable comparisons to previous winners. On the other hand, Rangers won’t have the home advantage that’s been crucial to their success (they didn’t win either of their away games in London this season), their away form is unconvincing , if you stop Charlie Austin you stop them and Harry Redknapp is 67 years old. If they go up, they will struggle mightily.

So I’m backing Derby to win in a low scoring game and/or by one goal that won’t need extra time and penalties. But The Curse Of Fourth will have to be broken at some point and I wouldn’t be surprised if QPR are the team that do it.

I’ll be back with an update on either Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but I’m off now to compose the preview for the League One playoff final between Leyton Orient and Rotherham, which will be posted at Buzzin’ League One Football by the end of the week.

Update: QPR 1, Derby 0.  Bobby Zamora scored the winner for ten man Rangers: the Curse of Fourth has been broken.

Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.