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 justĀ 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.

Welcome To The Twilight Zone

We all know the Championship can be a bit weird sometimes. We’re only two games into the season and it’s fair to assume that some clubs are either over or underperforming and the overall situation will change, it’s still not obvious which teams that will apply to. The first midweek games of the season could give us some clues – or they might confuse things even more.

For now, we have four clubs with two wins, including three who finished in the bottom half of the season. At the other end, five teams have no points – but apart from Newcastle, can anyone say that the other four strugglers are surprises? Anyway, here are the three games that could see some meaningful changes in position depending on the results.

Brighton v Rotherham

In 2015/16 Albion won all ten home games against teams that ultimately finished 15th or lower, they haven’t lost at home since New Year’s Day and haven’t conceded more than two goals at home since December. One of the reasons Rotherham are still in the Championship was their run of away form under Neil Warnock, but last season they also lost five of their six away games to those teams that finished in the top six. The Millers haven’t won in Sussex since November 1997 and lost 3-0 at Aston Villa on Saturday: this looks like one way traffic to me.

Brighton 3, Rotherham 0

Leeds v Fulham

It’s hardly a surprise that Leeds already look out of sorts: only Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers have conceded more goals at home. Going back to the end of last season, Leeds have now gone five games without a win and although they drew both games against Fulham last season, the last time Leeds beat Fulham at Elland Road was when both of them were in the Premier League. The Cottagers haven’t won consecutive away games in the Championship since the end of 2014 but have only failed to score in three of their last ten aways. A Fulham win wouldn’t surprise me.

1-1. A very late goal from Chris Wood saved Leeds from a home defeat.

Norwich v Bristol City

Game of the week, purely because both are in the top six. I outlined the case for Norwich doing well this season in the previews but Bristol City weren’t on anyone’s radar and this game should give us an indication of who may go on to have the better season: the Robins have only won two of their last ten trips to Carrow Road in the league. There could be a few goals in this one: Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham has scored half of Bristol City’s goals this season and is currently top scorer in the section alongside Gavin Ward of Ipswich. If City don’t lose, that may be an indication that they have improved beyond expectations.

Norwich 1, Bristol City 0

There’ll be an update on Thursday morning, but I might not be able to post a full preview for this weekend’s games as I’m attending a family birthday.