FOOTBALL LEAGUE fanatic Tom Love (@TomLove_18) runs the rule over the runners and riders in the Championship play-offs ahead of the semi-finals, sharing his views on who might be celebrating promotion at Wembley later this month.
Leeds (15/8 William Hill)
It looked for the majority of the campaign that this Leeds side would stride into Premier league, no problem at all. But the doubters were aware that Marcelo Bielsa sides notoriously tail off towards the end of the campaign and that has been the case.
Some of the football the Whites have produced this season has been phenomenal and on the whole Leeds fans will be overjoyed with the refreshing nature the Argentine has brought to Elland Road. However, they have dropped off since the turn of the year and they’ll need to be fully recharged to give themselves the best chance to return to the promised land.
Data Darlings – One feature that has become common knowledge to Leeds and Championship fans alike is how they project on the underlying key performance data metrics.
Leeds boast a clear best 64% Shots In The Box ratio, 5% better off than the next best on that metric. Bielsa’s boys also top the table on Expected Goals (xG), xG from open play and home xG ratio. It all shows that they constantly create presentable opportunities.
Fluid Formation – Bielsa is quite manoeuvrable on where his players go on the pitch. You’ll usually see Kalvin Phillips drop deep in between the two centre-halves who split and naturally push the full-backs on. Mateusz Klich, usually a holding midfielder, has been given license to join attacks and he’s repaid the gaffer by chipping in with double figures on the goals front.
Pablo Hernandez, for the most part, has been superb. Twelve assists and 12 goals the Spaniard has provided and with goals seemingly hard to come by in Leeds games in recent times; throw in the cagey nature of play-off games, he could be a possible match winner for LUFC.
Wasteful Whites – For all the strong data they’ve posted over the season, ultimately Leeds haven’t finished in the top two. That’s down to their profligacy in front of goal and that was most evident in their home defeat to 10-man Wigan recently.
Bielsa was damning of his sides inefficiency in front of goal in Thursday’s press conference. He said “In the last four games our statistics have worsened. Usually we needed six chances to score, in these games we needed 12.”
Patrick Bamford hasn’t warmed himself fully to the Elland Road faithful and he’s suspended for the first leg. Kemar Roofe isn’t displaying the same levels as he was earlier in the season and ultimately the favourites for promotion have lacked a consistent number nine to put those chances away.
Energy Sapping Season – As mentioned before, many predicted this Leeds side to run out of steam in the final furlong given the historic record of Bielsa sides. They were too much for pretty much every side in the first half of the campaign with their intense pressing and willingness to win the ball back early. That style of play does take its toll though and is usually unsustainable.
Not only is it physically demanding on the squad but it must have a mental impact too. That could be a reason that they’ve not been able to take as many of their chances in the back end of the campaign, the concentration suffers from fatigue just as much the body does.
I think the fact they knew they would be going into the play-offs a week prior to the final day of the season will benefit Leeds. It gives them a bit of extra time to prepare, they should be well up for it against Derby too after the Spygate incident and the sour relationship between the pair that has ensued since.
They do have the second leg at a packed out Elland Road which is a plus point. However, they come into this stage in patchy form and I’m not convinced they should be favourites to go up. I would expect them to probably have the edge over Derby but I think the prices have them a bit too short to do so.
Value Rating – 2/5
Aston Villa (2/1 Coral)
As Leeds have blown up in the end straight, Aston Villa have embarked on a magnificent run to go from mid-table mediocrity to comfortably in the play-off picture. I was impressed with their appointment of manager Dean Smith from Brentford and he’s done a sterling job since taking the helm.
Smith’s Brentford side were well known for their excellent performance data and chance creation and he’s brought that ethos to Villa Park. Going forward they’ve been hard to stop and even without Tammy Abraham they’ve still managed to get some results.
Jack’s Back – It’s no surprise that Villa’s impressive 10-game winning streak was complimented by the return to fitness of home town boy Jack Grealish. When he’s on-it he’s probably the best individual talent in the league. His close control means he can glide past defenders effortlessly.
His overall output isn’t as high as many would think with six goals and six assists but he brings much more to the party than meets the eye. Opposition defences and midfields are preoccupied with stopping him from getting on the ball in dangerous areas and almost magnetically he draws them towards him. This in turn give much more space for the likes of John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi and Albert Adomah to do their thing.
Constant Creators – After being middle of the road on the stats prior to Smith’s arrival, Villa have really picked up in the final third. Regularly getting dangerous crosses into Abraham and Jonathon Kodjia, they’ve moved into second place in the xG ratio rankings (62%) when playing at home. They will be hoping to get a few in the first leg against West Brom as they do the majority of their good work at Villa Park.
Arguable Away Days – One interesting quirk with this Villa team is in how their performance data differs between home and away. On their travels Villa actually project as 16th out of 24 in the league for xG supremacy with a disappointing 48.3% ratio return.
The Claret & Blue have the second leg away, which isn’t what they would’ve hoped for, therefore a win in the first leg could prove vital. If they have to chase in the second leg it could prove too much of a stretch to reach Wembley.
There’s a lot to like about this Villa side. When everyone is available they have bags of attacking quality and creativity; Abraham was not risked in the dead rubber against Norwich last week and should be back fit, which is a big boost. With him and Grealish in the side they have proved so hard to stop.
Villa won more games in 2019 than any of the other play-off side and with them coming into the last couple of weeks assured of their place in the top-six they should be well rested.
Value Rating – 4/5
West Brom (4/1 Bet365)
The Baggies sacked gaffer Darren Moore with two months left of the season whilst still nestled in the play-offs. It was a move that took many by surprise, maybe they were too open for the hierarchy. Either way, it wasn’t an expected move, however, caretaker manager Jimmy Shan has overseen a respectable record since he’s arrived in the hot-seat.
Shan has brought Steven Reid and Michael Appleton to the club to freshen things up and add a bit of experience, it seems a canny move to me. Many are fancying Villa and Leeds in this play-off picture and that could mean slightly less pressure on WBA.
Goal Getters – The Baggies aren’t shy in front of goal – they’ve scored so many this season with the majority of those coming in the first half of the season. Strikers Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle have their own personal top scorer battle with the former on 22 goals and the latter on 23. They always pose a threat and regularly take the chances when they’re presented.
Boing Boing – It’s a term synonymous with them. This club is used to getting promotion from this division and that experience could be pivotal. They’ve bounced between the first and second division more than anyone else since the turn of the decade so it’s nothing new to Albion.
Lack Of Clean Sheets – For all the Black Country boys are good going forward, they seldom keep them out of the other end. They’ve conceded in 37 of their 46 games in the league this season. Both Teams To Score is a bet that’s landed in 67% of WBA games so expect goals at both ends when they’re involved.
Live Life Dangerously – The Baggies are probably the most carefree side in their approach out of the quartet, and it can be to their detriment, as well as their benefit. One stat that catches the eye is how many shots in the box they give up; only seven sides allow more strikes inside the 18-yard box as WBA (7.85 on average) – that should be music to the ears of Abraham, one of the best from close range.
West Brom have probably got the toughest semi-final but they keep themselves competitive and are always a goal threat so I can’t rule them out. If they managed to upset the odds and get past Villa, I’d fancy them in the final.
Value Rating – 3/5
Derby (9/2 Ladbrokes)
Derby won the race for sixth after an impressive end to the campaign. Four wins and two draws meant they pipped the likes of Middlesbrough and Bristol City to that final play-off berth – fair play to Frank Lampard and his team.
Momentum is something that’s regularly banded about when looking at the play-offs and Derby certainly have it on their side. If we stretch their record out, they’ve lost just the once in their last 11 games and they have key men fit and available, something that wasn’t the case in the midpoint of the season.
Talented Tomori – One player that has gone slightly under the radar to the general football fan is how well centre-half Fiyako Tomori has performed this term. The Chelsea loanee worked with current Derby assistant manager Jody Morris in the youth system at Cobham, and Morris has got the best out of the England U21 international.
Tomori’s calmness and maturity on the ball and bravery to step out into midfield is that of a player a few years senior to him. He’s improved continuously and has ironed out some deficiencies in his game the more minutes he’s had. He possesses good pace too so any mistakes that are made can be recovered swiftly. His partnership with Richard Keogh is a good one and a major contributor to the Rams’ pick up in form.
Lively Loanees – As well as Tomori, Derby have utilised the loan market to their advantage. Once again, the Chelsea links came in handy when getting attacking midfielder Mason Mount to the club and he has been a revelation. When Mount features, all his teammates seemingly up their game to make Derby a scary prospect for opposition.
Harry Wilson is another highly-rated youngster who has spent the season at Pride Park. He’s popped up with some crucial goals, non-more so than his late brace against QPR a few weeks back. The Welsh international takes a mean free kick and his left foot always has teams wary. Let him have space 20/30 yards out to your peril, he’ll probably score.
No Number 9 – Derby have looked pretty well stacked in most positions but one area they have been lacking all campaign is a figurehead striker to get the goals. Reliance has been on midfielders chipping in and Lampard has rotated the likes of Martyn Waghorn, David Nugent and Mason Bennett but none have managed to fully convince.
Data Defying Derby – It’s no secret that the Rams have struggled when getting into the final 20 yards. Their finishing from outside the box has been outstanding, probably the best in the league. Ultimately though, that’s relatively unsustainable and if opposition teams can man mark the likes of Wilson and Mount and not allow them to shoot them Derby struggle.
County rank as 18th in the Shots In The Box stakes, with just a 46.9% ratio. Unbelievably, there are only five teams that rank worse than Derby in the xG column, something you would rarely see for a side that’s finished in the top-six. Derby are reminiscent of Jaap Stam’s Reading side a few years back when they defied the data to reach the play-off final. It shows just how clinical they have been with their chances and it also highlights how they’ve been a bit lucky at the back.
I think Derby, more than any other team, will have to rely on their key players to step up if they’re going to make it back to the Premier League. They create a lot less than any of their three play-off rivals and that’s backed up by the underlying numbers. It’s no surprise therefore that they’re rank outsiders at 9/2.
County, alongside Aston Villa probably come into this stage with the best form though and that confidence could see them trouble Leeds. I do think they are gettable though and if they got to the final I would expect whoever they will meet to get the better of them.
Value Rating – 2/5