Not a season goes by without the words “Premier League” and “Best League In The World” being uttered in the same sentence. The statement does, of course, have some merit and, in terms of the quality of playing and management personnel, it’s probably true. However, look below it and you’ll find stalwarts of the EFL leagues who know that it’s rarely the most entertaining nor even the most competitive league in England, let alone the rest of the world. This season, League One has made a strong claim to be the most compelling with a heated title and automatic promotion race and a relegation battle that at the time of writing involves pretty much the entire bottom half with just a third of the season remaining. At the summit, there’s three places up for grabs in next season’s Championship table and as we now enter the home straight, it’s the perfect time to put the Championship elect under the microscope and see what they’re doing right – or wrong – in their attempts to ascend into the second tier.
If the season started from scratch, Doncaster would be much more favoured for a top two finish than they currently are now. Thanks to a run of poor form pre-Christmas, Donny fell out of the top six but a recent revival has seen them angle their way back in and it’d be a major surprise if they were to fall away now. Their expected goal difference of 0.41 goals per game across the season is actually the fourth best in the league up to now and comfortably so. Doncaster will be a force in the playoffs and could even be the team to fear going into them with their press looking more restrictive than ever. Developing the press has been a process and in fact defensive solidity has, up until recently, been Doncaster’s weakness – they’ve kept just eight clean sheets all season. Their expected goals conceded has been gradually trending downward however, a sign that the team could be starting to play to their full potential with manager Grant McCann still only in the job for eight months. Given their early defensive struggles, it sure helped to have a striker who’s one of the best around at this level. In John Marquis they have a forward who’s comfortably the team’s biggest goal threat, but who also creates chances for others and even defends from the front as well.
Currently in 5th you have Charlton. In context, they’ve had a very impressive season so far after a cruel run of medium-term injuries to key players meant several academy players had to start games and there’s even been occasions where they’ve been unable to name a full subs bench. Sadly though, their valiant run could be tailing off just as their injury problems ease. The break up of their 26-goal forward duo seems to be the main cause as Karlan Grant left strike partner Lyle Taylor and departed for the Premier League, sealing a cheap-looking £2million January move to Huddersfield. A recent three game spell immediately after Grant had left the club and whilst Taylor was serving a suspension highlighted the lack of depth Charlton have up front, with the team now looking overly reliant on Taylor to carry the goal burden he previously shared with Grant. Charlton were already wringing every last point from their 0.14 expected goal difference per game, just about enough to put them in the “playoff contender” category in underlying numbers terms, but with Grant not being adequately replaced – Josh Parker arrived from relegation candidates Gillingham on a short-term deal – it’s fair to say Charlton won’t be the favourites heading into the playoffs if they hold onto their top six place.
At one stage, Portsmouth were comfortably champions elect after a stratospheric W14 D5 L1 record to open the season that took them six points clear at the top. Portsmouth did (and do) actually have positive underlying numbers though and whilst a points return of that scale was always unlikely to be sustained, the drop off in the 14 games since has been unsettling for the neutral and outright horrifying for the fans, picking up just 15 points in that spell. Having conceded just 15 goals in their hot start, goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray played a big part in their push to the top of the table. StatsBomb’s post-shot expected goals model believes he saved close to five goals more than Portsmouth were expected to concede from the shots their opponents were taking. Unfortunately, he couldn’t sustain that form. In the 14 games where Portsmouth’s results have been more akin to that of a relegation struggler, MacGillivray has also been struggling and has now been saving below expectation. Of course, it’s not all MacGillivray’s fault and in recent games there’s been a clearly visible decline in Portsmouth’s attacking output too. With the top two looking increasingly out of reach, Portsmouth need to get their act together if they’re to recover their early season form and remain a serious contender for promotion.
Recently of Match of the Day fame but nowadays seen on Netflix, Sunderland initially took very well to League One and they have some impressive performance indicators to back it up. The team has lost just two games so far and are also the only team to have scored in every single league game this season. Trouble is, there are also some performance indicators that aren’t as impressive. In the first 20 games of the season, Sunderland wildly overperformed their expected goals in attack, scoring at nearly double the rate they were expected to. While that made fans understandably chipper about their prospects of an instant return to the second tier, it also foreshadowed the problems that followed. Since then, the Black Cats luck ran out, and they were recently on a barmy run of scoring exactly one goal in ten consecutive league games, a run that included six 1-1 draws and was only ended by a 2-2 draw. As you can see below, performances haven’t necessarily gotten worse, it’s just that they’ve started scoring to expectation. In truth, Sunderland hadn’t been playing like a side capable of automatic promotion all season but their last four games have all of a sudden seen them create a lot more chances than we’ve seen from them previously, ironically seeing them fail to get wins that they probably deserved. For now, the Black Cats claws cling onto Barnsley’s coat tails. Who knows, maybe these shot maps will make it into Sunderland Till I Die Season Two…
Occupying the first of two automatic promotion places, Barnsley look well set to return to the Championship at the first attempt. New boss Daniel Stendel has impressed since being imported from Germany, successfully implementing the counter-pressing style of play he promised when appointed. To great effect too. By StatsBomb’s numbers, Barnsley are actually the best side in the league by expected goal difference and their brief stint outside of the play off places was followed up by a return of 31 points from the next 39 available. And all this without an experienced head. Someone who’s been there and done that. This is a side that hasn’t given a single minute of football to a player over 26 years of age this campaign. Some may call it a smart strategy given what we know about the peak performance window in footballers, others may call it blatant ageism. That’s a fight for another day. Barnsley find themselves in 2nd place and one of three remaining realistic title contenders. Luton have a not-insignificant points advantage over their rivals, but Barnsley’s top performance appears to be of a higher level than Luton’s based on the underlying numbers. So what do Barnsley have to overcome in the home straight?
After a slightly tentative start to the season, Luton all of a sudden caught fire and have been a juggernaut ever since, knocking aside anyone who’s dared step into their path. Their approach play has received a lot of praise this season – they are top scorers after all – but defensively they’ve been equally, if not more, impressive and they’ve conceded the joint-2nd fewest goals and, again bar one team, have kept the most clean sheets too. Their underlying numbers support this. By expected goals, Luton have the most solid defence in the league with just 0.81 xG conceded per game. Look at their defensive radar and you can gain a greater understanding of why that figure is so low. Luton are just very difficult to create against. They rank 2nd in Shots Conceded per game but their xG per shot conceded is also 3rd best in the league, meaning not only are they great at limiting the quantity of shooting opportunities created against them, they’re successfully limiting the quality of those opportunities too. Another plus point is that whenever Luton have had an injury or suspension, the player coming into the side hasn’t hindered the quality of the side at all. Scoring Contribution is a metric that measures non-penalty goals + assists, per 90 minutes played. Here’s how Luton’s players rank this season. James Collins has been the only constant this season but the other attackers, Harry Cornick, Elliot Lee and Danny Hylton, have all had extended spells out of the side. As you can see, the output of all three has been very similar and the graph doesn’t even include Kazenga LuaLua (0.73 NPGoals + Assists per 90) as he doesn’t meet the minimum 600 minutes played threshold. Remove one of Luton’s limbs and they’ll just grow another one right before your eyes. It’s Luton’s title to lose, but seemingly just two names remain on the list of challengers.