Football League Playoffs Preview
We’ve officially reached the “all or nothing” stage of the football season.
No, not the release of Amazon Prime’s latest documentary series, but the beginning of the Football League’s playoff fortnight.
The season proper concluded last weekend, but there’s no time to allow the dust to settle, as across the three divisions, the playoffs are all set to get underway next week. With a select group offered one final shot at promotion, everything is on the line.
Just three games are now all that stand between you and the division above. In the case of the Championship, that division above is so hugely wealthy that just one season in it can alter a club’s trajectory for years to come.
The playoffs will, as they do every year, provide high drama, so this week, I’ve looked ahead to the six ties that will be taking place, as four teams from each division lock horns for one last time this season.
Dorset, and the Vitality Stadium, is the location for the first match of this season’s playoffs, as sixth-placed AFC Bournemouth host the first leg of their battle with third-placed Brentford at 18:00 on Monday 17th May. The Bees are hoping this year will be a case of ‘second time lucky’ after an identical finish last year preceded a loss to neighbours Fulham in the Wembley final. Meanwhile, the Cherries are bidding for an immediate top-flight return after five consecutive years in the big time were ended following relegation last term.
Jonathan Woodgate’s men were the form team as the season came to a head, going on a six-match winning run from the start of April to rise as high as third. However, they then lost their last three games without scoring a goal to subside to sixth, the first of which was a 1-0 reverse at home to their playoff opponents Brentford. Woodgate has favoured a 4-2-3-1 since taking the reins from Jason Tindall in late February, with Dominic Solanke leading the line, but much will depend on whether left-sided winger Arnaut Danjuma can also deliver goals. With Bees right back Mads Roerslev not in the best of form, Danjuma might well be licking his lips at that particular battle.
Even when Bournemouth’s recent barren spell is taken into account, there is still every chance this tie could be high-scoring. Thomas Frank’s Brentford are the Championship’s top scorers, with 79 goals – Bournemouth are third with 73 - and the Bees feature the league’s individual high-scorer Ivan Toney, who has hit 31 of those 79. Frank has utilised a 3-4-1-2 in the last few weeks of the season, with Brentford winning their last four games, but he may also spring a surprise in returning to the 4-3-3 he has used over most of the season, in order to pack as much goalscoring threat into his side as he can, with Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canós either side of Toney.
Immediately after the clash in Bournemouth, the action heads north to Oakwell, where fifth-placed Barnsley commence their tie against Swansea City at 20:15 on Monday. Following their final-day escape from relegation last season, the Tykes have lit up the second tier this season with their underdog story. The Swans, meanwhile, are more experienced in the art of the playoffs, having won promotion through them a decade ago, and after losing in the semi-final last time out, will be hoping to return to the Premier League after a three-year absence.
Barnsley were 500/1 to reach the playoffs at the time of Valérien Ismaël’s appointment in October, but have defied all expectations, and won many admirers in the process. The Tykes broke into the playoffs with a 12-match unbeaten run between January and March, and they should line up in the 3-4-3 that has worked so well for them this season, with either Cauley Woodrow or American loanee Daryl Dike leading the line. In-form centre-back Michal Helik will be charged with marshalling the defence, and eyes will also be on skipper Alex Mowatt to come up with the quality in central midfield.
Steve Cooper’s Swansea have suffered a similar fate to Bournemouth, and come into the playoffs on the back of an uncharacteristic run of bad form, with the Swans having shipped eight goals and won just once in their last five games. However, Barnsley should underestimate them at their peril, especially given that the aggregate score between the two this season is 4-0 to Swansea. Cooper uses a similar formation to Ismaël, with Ryan Bennett at the heart of a three-man defence and Conor Hourihane in midfield, but prefers to deploy two forward men, one of whom should be Andre Ayew. While the other tie feels like it might be a shoot-out, this is a far more fascinating battle, and may just come down to who blinks first on defence.
The action continues to come thick and fast, as Tuesday 18th May sees the third tier join the party when sixth-placed Oxford United entertain third-placed Blackpool at 17:00. The Seasiders have bounced between all four of English football’s top divisions since being relegated from the Premier League in 2011, and are one of only two sides to have won all three divisional play-offs. The U’s were promoted from the Conference in the same season Blackpool reached the top flight, and have spent the past five seasons in League One.
Karl Robinson’s Oxford confirmed their place in the playoffs with a 4-0 thrashing of Burton Albion on the final day of the season, and enter having won four of their last five. They are the third-highest goalscorers in the division, with much of that down to Matty Taylor, who plays as the central striker in a 4-3-3 formation. The former Bristol City man has scored 18 goals this season, with the man to his right, Elliot Lee, a January loanee from Luton Town, also in good form. It’s a good job for Oxford that those two are able to find the target regularly, as their defence is also the leakiest of the four playoff teams.
Blackpool have endured a volatile decade, but things do seem more settled at Bloomfield Road of late, and a spot back in the Championship would be a huge step forward. Neil Critchley has been far more fluid with his formation than Robinson this season, but has favoured the traditional 4-4-2 above all others, with top scorer Jerry Yates ever-present. Yates has hit 22 goals this season, but the Seasiders have relied more on their defence, which is the stingiest in the league and is spearheaded by goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, who has kept 21 clean sheets this term, to carry them to the playoffs.
The other tie also sees a side recently in non-league take on former Premier League opposition, as fourth-placed Sunderland travel to fifth-placed Lincoln City exactly 24 hours later, on Wednesday 19th May. Anyone with a Netflix account knows of the Black Cats’ recent plight, with back-to-back relegations in 2017 and 2018 seeing the club enter the third tier for only the second time in their history. Conversely, the Imps have only been above the third tier once since 1962, with this being their second consecutive season in League One.
Michael Appleton’s Lincoln spent large swathes of the season in the automatic promotion places, before a sticky end to the season, where they won just four of their last 15, saw them drop into the playoffs. Deploying a 4-3-3, most of their goals come from the wide areas. Left-sided Jorge Grant and right-winger Anthony Scully have scored a combined 33 times this term, so they will be looking to keep the Black Cats’ full backs busy. The Imps’ own defence will have to be on form, but the fact that it is so settled will be a key positive. All of left-back Tayo Edun, centre-back Lewis Montsma, and right-back Timothy Eyoma have played nearly 4,000 minutes this season.
Fallen giants Sunderland are currently managed by former Bristol City boss Lee Johnson, and this is their second attempt to return to the Championship via the playoffs following defeat to Charlton in 2019. As might be expected from a club that changed managers halfway through a campaign, they have been varied with their formation, but Johnson has preferred a 4-4-2 with advanced wingers since arriving in December. The form of Conor McLaughlin at right-back will be comforting when considering that Lincoln’s top scorer in the league plays down the left, as will the goalscoring exploits of Charlie Wyke, who has scored 29 times this season. Having the quality of Max Power and Josh Scowen in midfield to supply Wyke will also be a headache for Lincoln.
Prior to Sunderland and Lincoln locking horns, the fourth tier’s playoffs also get underway, as at 20:15 on Tuesday 18th May, an Anglo-Welsh battle unfolds as fifth-placed Newport County host sixth-placed Forest Green Rovers. The Exiles have been continuously in League Two since achieving promotion from the Conference eight years ago, with a playoff final defeat in 2019 the closest they have come to promotion. The Green have also been continuously in the fourth tier since promotion from the Conference, which in their case came in 2017.
It is not usually the case that the higher-finishing team is at home in the first leg, but the ties have been swapped around because Newport’s Rodney Parade pitch is due to be dug up prior to the scheduled second leg. Given that Forest Green are involved, it’s hardly surprising that things aren’t being done in the expected manner, but interim boss Jimmy Ball will know ultimately where the game is being played won’t matter. He has the opportunity to take the club to the third tier for the first time in their history, and it should be an incredibly keenly-fought battle. Top scorer Jamille Matt’s injury is a blow, but if left-sided Aaron Collins, who has ten goals this season, can step up in his absence, Forest Green will be able to breathe a little easier.
Newport have become known for their FA Cup exploits in recent seasons, having knocked out Middlesbrough and Leicester City, but their league credentials this season have been just as impressive. They have the chance to reach the third tier for the first time since their reformation in 1989, and will do so under Michael Flynn, who has mostly favoured a 3-5-2 this term. That should mean whoever outmuscles the other in midfield will put themselves in the best position to win this tie, as neither has an all-star striker. Padraig Amond’s nine goals put him top of Newport’s scoring charts, but the Exiles will look to ever-present Josh Sheehan in midfield and Micky Demetriou in defence to grind out a win.
The complement of first legs are rounded out at 18:00 on Thursday 20th May, when seventh-placed Tranmere Rovers kick off against fourth-placed Morecambe at Prenton Park. A single season in League One for Rovers last time out ended in relegation, but they do have much playoff experience in the playoffs, having triumphed to reach the third tier the season before. The Shrimps have been continuously in League Two since reaching the Football League for the first time in their history in 2007, with their sole playoff appearance coming in 2010.
Keith Hill’s Rovers will get the backing of one of the Premier League’s most endearing characters - referee Mike Dean – in their bid to make an immediate return to the third tier. Hill has been incredibly fluid with his formations since taking charge at Prenton Park in November, so it remains very much a guessing game as to how his side will line up. He will no doubt, however, target Morecambe’s leaky defence with his two experienced strikers, Preston loanee David Nugent, and former Bradford man James Vaughan. If Tranmere can sneak through the holes in the Shrimps’ defence, it’s up to Jay Spearing in defensive midfield and Peter Clarke at centre-back to marshal Rovers’ back line.
Morecambe have played a very gung-ho style this term, and it has brought results. They have scored 69 goals on their way to finishing third, and although they narrowly missed out on automatic promotion, it has been a very pleasing season for Derek Adams’ men. To get them over the line in the playoffs will require more of the same, and in a 4-2-3-1 setup, they will target Tranmere’s right-back with left-sided winger Carlos Mendes Gomes and striker Cole Stockton looking to add to their 30 combined goals this season. Their porous defence means they will likely be confronted with a need to keep scoring, so this tie, in contrast to the tactical, attritive grind of Forest Green v Newport, looks like it could be particularly entertaining.
The second legs of both Championship ties will take place on Saturday 22nd May, with Bournemouth and Brentford at 12:30 preceding Swansea and Barnsley at 17:30. The League One second legs are scheduled across two days, with Blackpool and Oxford completing their tie at 19:45 on Friday 21st May, before Sunderland and Lincoln is sandwiched between the two Championship games at 15:00 on Saturday 22nd May. Both League Two second legs then take place on Sunday 23rd May, with Morecambe and Tranmere first at 12:30, before Forest Green and Newport at 18:30.
The finals for all three leagues are due to be held – barring any changes should the Champions League final be moved to Wembley – across the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May, with the Championship first on Saturday 29th, League One following on Sunday 30th, and League Two concluding proceedings on Monday 31st.
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