The annual four-way royal rumble promotion-deciding showdowns are here, kicking off this Saturday with 12 semi-finals across the three EFL divisions packed into nine days back to back. The stakes are high, the football is daily.
The League One contest will be typically tight: Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth and Sunderland are all given a near-identical chance of going up by the bookmakers, with Doncaster Rovers given an outside chance. Who’s going to do it? Nobody knows, but there’s a case to be made for and against each side.
Despite finishing 3rd in the table, Charlton weren’t ever considered a serious challenger to the top two – their final position was actually the highest position they’d occupied at any point earlier in the season after a return of 32 points from their last 13 matches propelled them above Portsmouth and Sunderland.
This is Charlton’s second successive play off campaign and manager Lee Bowyer, a Champions League semi finalist in his playing career, has the Addicks in red hot form going into the season extension despite losing key forward Karlan Grant to Premier League Huddersfield in January.
An increasingly popular shape, Charlton’s 4-4-2 diamond leans heavily on the quality of their midfield and their recent strong form correlates with their first-choice players in this department getting fit and available at the same time.
Out of possession Charlton won’t look to press high, instead using the system’s numerical advantage through the middle to force their opponents wide before squeezing them against the touchline.
The numbers and quality they have in midfield allow them to play through the thirds in build up whilst up front Taylor and Vetokele are both willing runners, pulling wide and working the channels to allow their team to gain entry into the attacking third.
Have I mentioned their midfield? Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen are Premier League loanees from Arsenal and West Ham respectively, Joe Aribo has been strongly linked with Arsenal, RB Leipzig, and Benfica in recent months, whilst Jonny Willams is playing at a level lower than he ever has done, with 12 Premier League and 100+ Championship appearances to his name prior to this season. All are perfectly suited to the system, all are likely to play the majority of their future careers at a higher level.
It’s also worth noting Charlton’s hugely impressive record against their fellow top six sides: P10 W5 D3 L2 – putting them top of the ‘mini-league’ of matches played between the top six teams.
Zooming in on their underlying numbers, Charlton don’t really stand out as a team that should be strongly favoured for promotion. Their expected goal difference through the season has been solid, good even, but never in the sort of echelons to match their hugely impressive results.
They could be doing something that’s not picked up by expected goals as their season long expected goal difference per game stands at just 0.15. One theory is that their habit of winning penalties, a league-leading 15(!) penalties across the season whilst conceding just 5, with 12 and 4 respectively being converted, could mean that Charlton have simply not been pushing to create as much from open play due to already being ahead from the penalty spot.
Lyle Taylor is the outstanding goal threat with 21 goals, Naby Sarr has been very effective at building the play from centre-half this season, but it really is the midfield that will give Charlton the best chance of success. Picking just one is tricky, but Joe Aribo, probably playing his last games in a Charlton shirt, excels at everything required of him from the wide midfield role: breaking the play up, carrying the ball through midfield, whilst also contributing 9 goals in attack. Besides Taylor, he’s the most likely match-winner.
Title challengers until matchday 45, Portsmouth will be led into the play offs by one of the most experienced and respected coaches at this level. Kenny Jackett has accumulated more years and matches in management than his three direct competitors combined and has real pedigree at this level, having previously led Millwall to play off success in 2010 before breaking the League One points record in 2014 with Wolves. It’s been no surprise that his Portsmouth side have been title contenders up to now.
Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 makes up in substance what it may lack in style. Their mid-to-low block gives a stable base to play off, geared towards controlling the middle of the park and dominating their defensive third.
The bulk of the attacking work is left to the front four with the wide players particularly dangerous and one of the central midfielders, namely Ben Close, given license to bomb on and provide a goal-threat from deep.
Their underlying numbers are good on both sides of the ball. Defensively they’ve conceded an average of 0.96 xG per match across the season – the third best record in League One – whilst in attack their 1.34 expected goals created per game is again up there with the best, ranking fourth best.
They’re one of the strongest sides in the division on set plays with a goal difference of +7 on goals from corners and indirect free-kicks; scoring 15 and conceding 8. Regular readers in this parish will know all about how important this can be and all 3 goals in last season’s play-off final were scored from set play situations.
Their recent defensive record. Yes, they look good in terms of their underlying numbers but actual, good old-fashioned clean sheets are hard to come by on the south coast. Three clean sheets in the last 26 league games tells its own story and suggests that despite being generally quite dominant defensively, there’s a soft underbelly to this side that can be, and has been, penetrated on a regular basis.
They also don’t boast a particularly strong record in the top six mini-league. P10 W2 D5 L3, with their two wins coming rather fortuitously at home to Luton on the opening day and at home to Sunderland who were down to 10 men.
Matt Clarke is a dominant centre-half who’s future lies at a higher level. Ronan Curtis has contributed 12 goals and eight assists from the left wing. Potent forward Brett Pitman has adapted well to a deeper role behind the main striker. Jamal Lowe on the right wing has finished the season especially strongly though and will take some stopping, having already scored at Wembley this season in Portsmouth’s EFL Trophy win over Sunderland.
Like Portsmouth, Sunderland had sustained a title challenge until the very late stages of the season, occupying second place as recently as matchday 42. Manager Jack Ross has just about hit par in his first season, failing to sustain that title challenge but some slack should be cut considering the serial failure surrounding Sunderland in recent years. Daniel Farke couldn’t even manage a top-half finish in his first season with Norwich – look at what they’ve achieved now after giving him time.
For a time they dabbled with a 4-4-2 shape in order to accommodate £4 million January deadline day signing Will Grigg in the side but that move was quickly abandoned with their midfield too exposed so expect Sunderland to deploy their most commonly utilised 4-2-3-1.
League One Team Of The Season member Aiden McGeady is unsurprisingly Sunderland’s main attacking outlet, expect their most dangerous attacking moves to come down the left.
The narrative around Sunderland is of a side that has never really ‘clicked’ this season and that still doesn’t know what it’s best XI is. Those things are probably more true than not and yet Sunderland still managed to score in 45 of 46 league games this season, a record certainly not to be sniffed at. They also lost the fewest games, five, with two of those coming in their last two games when Ross rested key players with little to play for.
They have a very respectable record in the top six mini-league: P10 W4 D5 L1 – the loss coming when down to ten men vs Portsmouth.
Lastly, we can’t talk about Sunderland without mentioning expected goals. Having been a major outlier in the expected goals table earlier in the season for massively overperforming their numbers, they’ve actually improved in the latter part of the season and are now posting the kind of underlying numbers you’d expect of a promotion contender. Because this is Sunderland though, obviously this has coincided with arguably their worst form of the season.
Whilst they boast the fewest defeats in the league, they also claimed the most draws and it’s their inability to pull away from teams that has cost them an automatic spot.
Of major concern is the starting XI though and the aforementioned cliché of the manager ‘not knowing his best team’. It may be true, but Ross hasn’t been helped by virtually all of his centre halves being out of form at the business end of the season. The 5-4 home defeat to Coventry in early April prompted both regular centre halves to be dropped with Alim Ozturk recalled to the side for his first appearance since December, keeping his place since. It’s not ideal preparation.
Bryan Oviedo and Aiden McGeady were both seasoned Premier League performers before Sunderland’s rapid descent to the third tier and the drop in class has certainly shown. The vast majority of Sunderland’s best moments come down their left flank and the pair compliment each other well with McGeady often coming inside on the ball, allowing Oviedo to attack the space out wide. Whether this ultra-attacking combination pays off in the knife-edge scenario of these play off games is another question.
Sixth placed Doncaster only confirmed their entry to the play offs with victory on the last day despite being in a position to wrap it up much sooner. A return of W5-D5-L5 from their last fifteen games paints an image of a side out of form and that is certainly true, but it also coincided with injuries to key players who, thankfully for Donny, have made their return in time to feature in the extended season.
Doncaster are a free-flowing, attacking side with the players given licence to interchange and get into offensive areas of the pitch. The strategy has paid off with a return of 76 goals, fifth best in the league, but also left them exposed defensively as they gave up 58, ranking them the 11th best defence.
It’s entertaining stuff and the players have spoken about how McCann has tried to instil the positive philosophy into his players, with even giving the ball away framed as a positive as it gives them the chance to immediately go and win the ball back.
Their attacking play. At their best, Doncaster are one of the best attacking units in the league and if they can get close to that level then they’re capable of scoring against anyone. They’ve unfortunately been far from their best in recent weeks with their current performance level in a real trough compared to the rest of their season, though they have had to do without influential midfielders Ben Whiteman and Herbie Kane through injury. Both have returned in time for the play offs.
Doncaster have one very obvious weakness their opponents should look to exploit and that is their inability to defend set plays, conceding 21 goals from these situations – meaning one in three goals Doncaster concede is from a set play.
The top six mini-league doesn’t bode well for Donny either, where they place sixth out of six. Their return of P10 W1 D5 L4 suggests that Doncaster could well just be proverbial flat-track bullies who get found out against the better sides. Even their best asset, their goalscoring, has fallen flat against the good sides; finding the net just five times in those ten matches.
John Marquis is the main man for Doncaster and was spoken about in the last piece I wrote for Statsbomb. A complete forward at this level; working hard out of possession whilst creating and converting chances in possession. Ben Whiteman dictates play from deep, Mallik Wilks has supported Marquis well in the goals department, but it’s Herbie Kane who’ll steal the show if he plays to his best.
It’s been a very successful season from the Liverpool loanee, he’s shown his potential time and time again. His form dropped slightly in the new year after playing through injury but a spell out of the side to fully recuperate looks to have done the job. As good a midfielder as you’ll get in League One.
Charlton vs Doncaster provide the first match up, one that Charlton are backed to come through. The other will be contested by the two EFL Trophy finalists, Portsmouth vs Sunderland, who could only be separated by penalties then with a similarly tight encounter a likely repeat. Four will enter, only one will leave. The prize of the Championship awaits the victor.