The Pathway to the Championship Playoffs
It’s kicking off at the top. It’s kicking off at the bottom. It’s kicking off in the upper-middle. Well, it would be if anything ever kicked off again. Eventually the games will return (we hope) and if the remainder of the season gets played it'll be a heck of a run in.
Typical of a Championship season, with just nine games to go there’s still plenty to be sorted. The relegation battle is dragging a new team into it on a weekly basis, whilst the two-horse race for the title continues to flip between West Brom and Leeds. Fulham, Brentford and Nottingham Forest are near certainties to make the playoffs, but who joins them?
All of Preston, Bristol City, Millwall, Cardiff, Blackburn, Swansea, Derby and Queens Park Rangers are separated by six points between the final play-off spot in 6th and 13th in the table. That most of them have endured poor recent form only makes the situation more curious. Let’s look into their respective chances.
6th: Preston North End
I wrote a bit on Preston’s season just a month ago describing how their form tailed off after a hot start that saw them in 2nd in early November. As noted, their drop in form since then, which leaves them clinging to a playoff spot, is largely due to a significant reduction in the number of penalties they manage to win and injuries to key players that disrupted their rhythm.
The story hasn’t changed much since then. Their form over the last third of a season has swung pendulously, offering hope of a recovery then quickly snatching it away.
Data-wise, there really isn’t much to it. Over the course of the season, Preston rank 6th in expected goal difference, which doesn't include the penalties that’ve helped them along the way (Preston’s 10 penalty goals are the most in the Championship by a fair distance). It's clear that across the season they’ve done a lot right and are far from in a false position.
The major concern at this late stage is the output of their forwards. Attacking midfielder Daniel Johnson is the top scorer with 11, but 6 of those were penalties. Winger Tom Barkhuizen has done his bit with 9 goals, but Sean Maguire (4 goals), Jayden Stockley (2) and David Nugent (1) have all failed to pull their weight. As a collective, they’ve underperformed their xG to the tune of nearly eight goals.
Like each of these sides, it’s hard to believe Preston will actually go on to win the playoffs. But in terms of getting there, as long as their core players stay fit and play together for once, and the forwards start finishing a bit closer to expectation, there’s a good chance Preston will consolidate their position in the top six.
7th: Bristol City
Assuming that you’re reading this because you have an interest in both the Championship and football analytics, then chances are you’ve probably already heard murmurs of the mystery surrounding the Robins’ playoff push. If not, let me inform you.
For virtually the entire season, Bristol City’s goal difference trends at a higher rate than their xG difference; in other words, their results are better than their performances. This is evident even in the raw shot numbers. Of course, the quality of the shooting opportunities matters — hence the invention of expected goals — but Bristol City’s shot differential (shots taken — shots conceded) across the season is -183. Their opponents average five more shots per game.
Of more concern to their playoff chances is that whilst results have finally seemingly caught up with performances, with just one win in their last seven, their actual performance levels are declining.
A goal difference of -2 doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughts of a promotion charge, but given the memory of Huddersfield achieving promotion with a -2 goal difference just three years ago remains fresh, it can't be ruled out.
Since taking over in October, Gary Rowett has had the Lions roaring up the table (sorry), improving the on-pitch process at The Den to the extent that Millwall are now rightful contenders for the top six.
Rowett’s turned them into something of a defensive beast, the 5-2-3 formation making them very hard to play through. Since Rowett took charge, in just 6 out of 25 Millwall matches has a team generated more than 1.0 xG against them; looking at the league as a whole Millwall have the 3rd best defence in the league by xG conceded. When you consider that against Leeds and West Brom, the league's best two teams, Milwall conceded a collective 6.88 xG, they’ve really yet to put in an unexpectedly disappointing defensive performance this season
Whilst Rowett remains philosophical about the team’s playoff chances, probably rightly given he only took over five months ago, there’s no denying the opportunity is there for the Lions to chase promotion. Add in that each of their nine remaining fixtures are against teams below them in the table and one might argue that it’s even in their own hands.
9th: Cardiff City
You might be forgiven for forgetting that Cardiff finished 18th in the Premier League last season, such has been their rapid acclimatisation to being a steady-but-not-much-more Championship side. As it quickly became clear that Neil Warnock wouldn't lead them to an instant return to the top tier, Neil Harris has been trying to get the Bluebirds singing again since November.
Harris’s impact has been gradual rather than instant. Cardiff’s points-per-game has increased from 1.31 to 1.57 since his appointment but, like most of their playoff rivals, their form since the turn of the year hardly suggests an imminent run to glory.
Where they do have the edge over their rivals and even over the rest of the league is in the set play department. Cardiff lead the Championship in both set piece xG and set piece goals, scoring 19 of their 52 goals this way. A number of players are able to pose a threat from dead balls; centre backs Sean Morrison and Aden Flint are notoriously deadly at this level whilst Curtis Nelson is an able deputy. The danger they pose in these situations could make them an uncomfortable opponent to come up against in the playoff format should they get over the line.
10th: Blackburn Rovers
While a section of the fanbase would have you believe their season is over already, in fact they find themselves in the middle of a race to the playoffs that they have every chance of winning should they get their act together in the remaining nine games. That Blackburn are in touch with the top six is a commendable achievement for Tony Mowbray, given this is their second season post-promotion and they’ve had to do it without their jewel in the crown, Bradley Dack, who blew his ACL in December.
That they haven’t missed Dack to a greater extent is largely down to England youth international Adam Armstrong, still just 23, having the most productive Championship season of his career so far. Crucially, Blackburn’s goal difference of +7 is the best of the playoff-chasing sides, something that could play into their favour at the season's end.
11th: Swansea City
Making a case for Swansea to win the race is a little difficult when they’re in this position mostly because of a hot start six months ago. Take their opening six games, in which they picked up 16 points, out of the equation, and their form is that of a lower-mid table side. They’ve picked up 37 points from 31 games since then.
That’s not to denigrate the work Steve Cooper’s doing. The Swans are clearly a side in transition and the need to trim the wage bill whilst bringing in cheaper replacements since their relegation from the Premier League is well-documented. One of the Championship’s brightest lights plays his football at the Liberty Stadium this season, ironically so given he was one whose wages the Swans tried to shift in the summer window. André Ayew hasn’t come cheap, but the experienced winger looks to have offered sufficient return on the wages invested.
Perhaps surprisingly — given they don’t have a reputation for it — Swansea lead the Championship in high press shots (shots generated within 5 seconds of a possession turnover in the opposition half). The Swans rank between 7th and 8th for pressures and counterpressures in the opposing half, so it’s a positive sign that the team is clearly adept at converting these turnovers into goalscoring opportunities.
12th: Derby County
There’s something a bit strange about writing about Derby in a promotion context. This is a side that’ve spent most of the season muddling through, trying to close their ears to multiple sources of off-pitch distraction, and have only recently found their feet under Philip Cocu and started putting a spell of good form together.
It may well be out of their hands anyway should the EFL decide their crimes off the pitch are worthy of a points deduction, but a playoff berth seems as premature as it does unlikely. Their position in the league table is powered almost entirely by their good record in home matches against bottom-half teams, picking up 27 points from 11 matches as opposed to 24 points in the other 26 matches, so Derby will have to start beating those above them in order to make the top six, something they’ve struggled to do all season. The odds are stacked against the Rams given five of their remaining nine fixtures are against current top six teams. But at least Wayne Rooney’s had a positive impact.
13th: Queens Park Rangers
Well done for making it this far. Thirteenth in the table but just six points of sixth, QPR round us off. A real bastion of inconsistency this season, it looks like the Hoops might be coming into one of their purple patches at the right time of season, arguably the form side of all of the contenders.
In simplistic terms, QPR started the season good, then were bad, but are now good again. How long that’ll last is anyone’s guess, but they at least seem to have shaken off their mid-season malaise.
We all wondered whether midfield magician Ebere Eze would manage to sustain his outstanding early season form and luckily for QPR he has, continuing to be as influential as ever in recent matches. He's now aided by the emergence of electric winger Bright Osayi-Samuel, who not only provides able support to Eze in attacking output but also opening up more space for him, ensuring opposition defenders now have two major problems to worry about in QPR’s attack.
What goes against QPR is that it may just be too late to make up the gap. Six points and an eight-goal swing is a lot for just nine games. Should one of the league’s best players in Eze and able sidekick Osayi-Samuel continue their hot form it'd be foolish to rule them out of it.