After what felt like an eternity of fractious debate around how to resolve the League One season, the third tier play-offs are finally set to get under way this week with a pair of mouth-watering semi-final clashes.
Wycombe Wanderers, Oxford United, Portsmouth and Fleetwood Town were the four teams lucky enough to finish in the play-off spots after the campaign was decided on points per game (PPG), with clubs deeming it unrealistic to complete the full season as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.
That saw some of the division’s big hitters like Sunderland and Peterborough United miss out on the top six, but their omission has done little to dampen enthusiasm among EFL fans for what promises to be a scintillating battle for a place in next season’s Championship.
The play-offs are almost impossible to call at the best of times. This year’s edition is the toughest yet when it comes to predictions – pre-coronavirus form counts for little and the players’ conditioning during the enforced break will have a major say in which teams come out on top.
You only need to look at the League Two play-offs to see the potential for an outsider to spring a surprise. Northampton Town won promotion earlier this week, despite being the lowest-ranked of the four contenders. The Cobblers beat Cheltenham Town – the form team before lockdown – in the semi-finals, before thumping Exeter City (who were just three points off automatic promotion) 4-0 in the final.
Could we see a similar situation arise in League One? We’ve crunched the numbers to try and work out where this year’s semi-finals could be won and lost…
Portsmouth v Oxford United
If you’re looking for entertainment then Portsmouth’s match against Oxford United on Friday (and the return leg on Monday next week) should be a safe bet. This is a match-up between two of League One’s top scorers, with only Peterborough United beating Oxford’s 61 goals this season.
On the face of it the Us look to have the advantage in the goalscoring stakes – Portsmouth’s 53 strikes is the fourth best record in the third tier, but some way behind Karl Robinson’s side. However, if we take a look at expected goals (xG) then Pompey’s 56.77 puts them ahead of Oxford (53.89) and second place in the overall xG rankings. If the South Coast side can convert their chances then they have a reasonable chance of outscoring one of the division’s most potent outfits.
Unfortunately for Portsmouth supporters, that’s far from guaranteed. While both sides are neck and neck when it comes to touches in the penalty area and shots per 90, Oxford United have managed to get significantly more of those efforts on target (38.3 per cent v 35.5 per cent). Pompey will need to improve in that department if they’re to make it through to the final.
Portsmouth’s best chance of success may be to take a more attritional approach to proceedings. Oxford’s passing accuracy (80.9%) and passes per 90 (395.64) are among the best in the league, but they have shown some weakness when it comes to aerial duels – winning only 47.7 per cent compared with Pompey’s 51.3 per cent. That could be the Achilles heel Kenny Jackett needs to exploit in order for his team to come out on top.
Oxford will need to watch out for aimless attempts to dribble at Portsmouth’s defence. They have attempted the most dribbles per 90 (30.02) this season, but have the second-worst success rate (49.6 per cent). But on balance they just edge ahead of their play-off opponents in most metrics and should be considered favourites to progress. It would certainly be unwise to bet against them with James Henry in their ranks. The winger has racked up an impressive total of 19 goals and assists for the Us – only Peterborough United star Ivan Toney has made more contributions in League One this season (28).
Fleetwood Town v Wycombe Wanderers
Fleetwood Town and Wycombe Wanderers are relative minnows compared with the other play-off semi-finalists, having spent the vast majority of their existence in the lower reaches of English football. Despite Wycombe finishing the season in third place on PPG, there’s a sense both of these sides are underdogs for promotion – certainly as far as the statistics are concerned.
While Oxford United and Portsmouth are dominant forces in a whole host of categories, it’s more of a mixed bag for the teams fighting it out in the other semi-final. The one thing both Fleetwood and Wycombe have in common is experience. They have the two oldest sides in the division this season, with average ages of 28.1 and 27.8 respectively – that could be invaluable in a play-off situation.
Joey Barton’s Fleetwood would appear to be the favourites to reach Wembley, certainly if we judge their performances this season on expected points (xP). The Fishermen’s xP of 56.5 sees them rank sixth in League One, exactly where they finished on PPG. However, the picture is markedly different for Wycombe. Their xP of 50.7 puts them in tenth place, suggesting they have significantly overperformed.
That is backed up by a number of other metrics. From goals per 90 (1.21) and xG (47.7), to shots per 90 (10.77) and shot against per 90 (10.34), there’s very little about this Wycombe side that stands out as being exceptional – both in an attacking and a defensive sense. But what they do have is some outstanding individuals. Only one player has had more touches in the box per 90 than colossal striker Adebayo Akinfenwa (5.38) for example, while Joe Jacobson ranks particularly highly for crossing accuracy (44.58 per cent) and expected assists (xA) at 6.44 for the season.
Fleetwood have talented stars of their own, not least 15-goal striker Paddy Madden, but are equally reliant on a notably resilient defence. The Lancashire-based team’s backline only allows 8.51 shots against them per 90, have the league’s second-best success rate when it comes to defensive duels (63 per cent) and their expected goals against (xGA) of 35.25 is in the division’s top four.
It’s fair to say Fleetwood Town appear to be favourites for this one, but people have been writing off Wycombe all season. They’ll revel in their status as outsiders once again when the play-offs get under way on Friday evening.