The Sky Bet EFL play-offs are here with 12 teams all holding aspirations of achieving promotion. Sporting Life’s Tom Carnduff takes a look at the semi-final ties in each of the three divisions.
Four teams battling out for their involvement in what is often described as the 'richest game in football' - the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final. Leeds United's involvement has upset the typical status quo with the club often found bouncing around mid-table at this point. Marcelo Bielsa has managed to guide The Whites to third in the table in his first full season in charge. Aston Villa and Derby County are in for the second consecutive seasons while West Bromwich Albion have secured top-six as many expected following their relegation from the Premier League.
What we have though is an incredibly strong line-up with each of the four teams able to make a case for good enough to take on England's elite in August. The first of the semi-finals is a West Midlands derby as Aston Villa host West Brom in the first leg before the return fixture at the Hawthorns on Tuesday. Aston Villa have set a club record for most consecutive wins this season with ten, and the fact that the run came in the second-half of the season means many have put them down as the favourites for the Play-Offs.
The winning run came to an end in final week, though. A draw away at Leeds, where Bielsa ordered his players to allow Villa to score in an act of extraordinary sportsmanship, was followed by a defeat to Norwich City on the last day.
West Brom's form hasn't been exceptional but they are an incredibly difficult side to face at the Hawthorns. The Baggies have won their last five in front of their own supporters, fantastic form despite the surprise sacking of Darren Moore which some expected would damage their post-season prospects.
A concern for James Shan will be their record on the road in recent weeks. Before heading to Leeds, West Brom were one of the best away sides in the division but since that 4-0 hammering at Elland Road they have won just one away game. Its three defeats in five away since then which could set this up to be a tie which will be all but decided in the first leg. That said, the circumstances show that it was a difficult run of games.
They faced a Derby side who had to win to secure a Play-Off spot and the same applies to Bristol City and their play-off aspirations when they travelled there at the beginning of April. There have also been visits to Reading and Millwall, who were both battling the drop, but the solo win during that time offers hope. They beat Brentford 1-0 who, despite finishing in 11th, had the third-best home record in the division.
Aston Villa's aspirations have obviously been boosted since that late run but it'll be intriguing to see how they can bounce back now that has come to an end. While Villa are the form team, West Brom have been a constant feature in the top-six throughout the campaign.
Waiting for them in the final will be Leeds or Derby. Leeds are favourites to win the play-offs - but their recent form has left some questions. They've finished the regular season on the back of four winless games, two of those against teams at the bottom who only had ten men. Bielsa isn't worried and he’ll be hoping his squad feel the same. Leeds have been superb throughout large parts of the campaign but their issue is putting the ball in the back of the net, despite creating plenty of opportunities.
The one positive for The Whites going into this tie is the fact they have dominated Derby twice this season already. They hammered them 4-1 at Pride Park in the second week of the campaign, while also securing a convincing 2-0 win at Elland Road. Leeds need to find that spark again and it is there. A lot has changed since those two regular season meetings which sets it up to be an encounter that could go either way.
In Derby, they take on a team in great form with defeat a rarity at the end of the campaign. Frank Lampard’s debut in management has seen the Rams return to the play-off picture and whatever happens in the end, the four teams can view their seasons as a success. It's not a certainty - but finishing higher does give you a slightly better chance of success according to the history of this competition.
In 14 play-off finals since the league was re-branded to the Championship, only three teams have failed to make Wembley when finishing in third (Brighton and Hove Albion in 2016, Nottingham Forest in 2010 and Ipswich Town in 2005). In 50 per cent of those finals, the team finishing in third has been promoted to the Premier League. Most recently that was Fulham in 2018, and prior to that it was Norwich in 2015 after they beat Middlesbrough at the national stadium. Blackpool (2010) and West Ham United (2005) are the only teams who finished in sixth and went on to win the play-off final.
Probability of success based on recent history:
- Leeds - (3rd - 7/14)
- Aston Villa (5th - 3/14)
- West Brom (4th - 2/14)
- Derby (6th - 2/14)
All eyes will be on Sunderland's performance in the League One play-offs after missing out on their initial aim of automatic promotion, and they face one of the toughest ties available in the division by coming up against Portsmouth. Jack Ross' men were beaten by Pompey at the Checkatrade Trophy final and Portsmouth were the only team in the top-seven who were able to beat Sunderland in the league.
A team that have picked up points in 41 of their 46 games this season would usually end up promoted but Sunderland finished in fifth. Draws held them back throughout the campaign, their 19 being considerably higher than the majority of other teams in League One. They are the team that most people have followed based on their recent history. The Black Cats suffered consecutive relegations from the Premier League and Sky Bet Championship, the downfall documented for all to see on on-demand TV.
There was the expectation that they would bounce straight back up but it may not work out like that. The positive is that the club has found itself again with supporters re-engaging at their lowest point. It's a tried and tested formula that has worked for teams in the past and Sunderland will have to do the same. Those that have struggled often benefit from the drop to then get promoted and come back stronger - that's the aim for Ross' men.
They're up against three very talented sides though who can all make a case for deserving a spot in the Championship next season. Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth and Doncaster Rovers are the other three teams who will be hoping that they will be lifting the trophy at Wembley.
The most intriguing tie comes from Portsmouth v Sunderland - two clubs who would have hoped to have finished higher than their respective positions. Sunderland can take confidence from the fact not many sides have been able to beat them. They're a tough team to come up against and the ability to avoid defeat is key here. The Black Cats have proven throughout the season that they can do it, although Portsmouth are one of the teams who have been able to get past them.
The benefit of that Checkatrade Trophy final is that the one side who make it to the Play-Off Final will have experience of playing on the big stage this season. That was the main focus of both managers after that game. The trophy was nice to win, but ultimately the primary aim is based on success in the league and the day itself can only benefit in the long-run.
In the other tie, Charlton's fantastic season has seen them sneak into third on final day and set up a meeting with Doncaster, who had to wait until game 46 to secure their top-six spot. Lee Bowyer has managed to keep the Addicks at the top end of the division throughout the course of his managerial career - guiding them to the play-offs last year which ended in a semi-final defeat against Shrewsbury Town.
They'll be better for the experience though and have kicked on with some decent recruitment. The headline addition has been Lyle Taylor, who has established himself as one of the division's top strikers during his season at the club. A defeat to in-form Oxford United is the only time they've dropped points in their last eight league games. Since that loss, it's been three wins, ten goals scored, with none conceded. This isn't just a team hitting form, it's a team which has form alongside the consistency across the 46-game period.
That's not to say that Doncaster have little chance of progression. Grant McCann has done a fantastic job with a talented group of players. The attacking element has been the most eye-catching, with John Marquis regularly finding the net. Mallik Wilks has enjoyed a strong loan spell from Leeds while there's been a balance of goal contribution from the midfield. The concern for Rovers, though, is a lack of consistency throughout the season.
They've been up there in the right part of the table, but the results have fluctuated between periods of success and ones with dropped points. Four wins through September and another run from March into April have been coupled with a five-game run without victory. A final day win may give them a boost given how it's been rare that they've failed to follow up victory with at least a draw the game after.
Unlike the Sky Bet Championship, the League One play-offs do not historically favour those who finish as the 'top seed' in third. Using the same criteria (the 14 seasons of the current division structure), the third-placed team have only been promoted on four occasions. The best position to finish in seems to be fourth, which will be good news for Portsmouth supporters. The fourth-placed team have gone up five times, most recently being Rotherham United in the 2017/18 season.
Bad news for Sunderland, the Play-Offs don't favour those who finish fifth. Only two teams who have ended in that position have been promoted to the Championship, and those teams were Sheffield Wednesday in 2005 and Barnsley in 2006. Doncaster are the outsiders but recent history has shown how those who end in sixth can finish as the winners. Millwall (2017) and Barnsley (2016) are two teams who have finished the lowest of the four sides but earned their spot in the Championship. They also join Scunthorpe United in 2009 as being the sixth-placed teams who would end up promoted.
Probability of success based on recent history:
- Portsmouth (4th - 5/14)
- Charlton (3rd - 4/14)
- Doncaster (6th - 3/14)
- Sunderland (5th - 2/14)
While history shouldn't be looked into with great detail when deciding a play-off winner, it does show us how the League Two competition is usually the most open. The phrase you hear the most around the time of the Play-Offs is that it's a "lottery". To some extent it is, but form and consistency across the season play a bigger part, although this division has proven to support the above cliche.
The final day decided who would finish fourth and who would come in seventh. Newport County managed to snatch that last spot with a late tap-in from Jamille Matt, while Mansfield Town were beaten by Milton Keynes Dons who leapfrogged them into the automatic promotion spots. It is the opposite of the other divisions here, with those who finish the lowest of the four teams having the better chance of success.
In the last 14 finals, the team who have ended in seventh have won on five occasions, most recently that was Blackpool in 2017 and then AFC Wimbledon the season before that. It is then a straight split between the other three positions. In the remaining nine finals, it's worked out that three teams in each position has ended up with promotion. You have to go back to Fleetwood in 2014 for the last side to finish in fourth and get promoted. While we often see the top seed in the final in the Championship, it's common that they don't make it to Wembley in League Two.
There are obviously the five teams who were beaten along the way by those in seventh. They are joined by Shrewsbury (2011), Bury (2009) and MK Dons (2007) as being the eight fourth-placed teams not to reach the final. That will give Newport fans some optimism - although it highlights just how much of a lottery the League Two Play-Offs typically are.
Probability of success based on recent history:
- Newport (7th - 5/15)
- Forest Green (5th - 3/15)
- Tranmere (6th - 3/15)
- Mansfield (4th - 3/15)