EFL specialist James Potter (@thebettingdesk) shares his team-by-team analysis on the four League One candidates in the upcoming play-offs.
At the start of the season Infogol looked at the attributes of each team and gave Lincoln just a 11% chance of a top 6 finish with Oxford a 63% chance, Sunderland 60% but Blackpool weren’t even on their radar.
The bookies expected a Blackpool finish of around 9th, Lincoln 12th, Oxford 4th whilst Sunderland were favorites for automatic promotion, but here we are with these four teams looking to gain promotion to the Championship.
Sunderland will be disappointed that they didn’t go up automatically, whilst Oxford will be delighted to be here and come into this with momentum given they sneaked in on the last game of the season. It’s a mixed bag with teams in contrasting form but all with the same goal.
From 1986 the team the two teams that finish 3rd and 4th have tended to go up, claiming 65% of the playoff victories with the team to finish 5th only winning the Play offs three times in 34 seasons, so the odds are already against Lincoln.
The best odds available for each team to claim victory at Wembley are as follows:
- Sunderland 2/1
- Blackpool 11/4
- Oxford 10/3
- Lincoln 4/1
3rd) Blackpool – 80 points, 2nd xP
There was no matching the form of Blackpool at the end of the League One season. They won their final four games to take third place and should not be taken lightly here.
Neil Critchley’s side won their final four games of the season and lost just twice from their previous 22 matches including beating Sunderland. Their record against the top six this season is impressive with W6-D2-L1, with the defeat coming to Lincoln back in October, where a new squad were still settling in.
Over those opening months of the season, they went W1-D1-L5 before settling down and returning season figures of W23-D11-L12.
Blackpool were the lowest scoring of the four teams to reach the playoffs, but they boasted the best defensive record of them all by some distance, keeping clean sheets in 22 of their 46 games this season.
My rankings have them 5th at home and 3rd away. No side in the play offs has conceded fewer shots on target, but no side conceded more shots in the box than Blackpool this season with a huge 62% of all shots conceded coming from within the 18-yard box. With a 4th best league xG ratio they should do well.
Jerry Yates and Ellis Sims will be a handful for all the of the other sides with 28 goals between them.
Since their introduction in the 1986/87 season, Blackpool have gone up via the play-offs more than any other team (five from eight campaigns, winning 16 of 23 games). They are unbeaten in 10 semi-final matches and have only lost one of the last 15 altogether – the 2012 Championship play-off final against West Ham United.
4th) Sunderland – 77 points, 1st xP
The favourites for promotion. They probably have the best squad and with Charlie Wyke a goal scorer, who finished the season with 25 goals. The season started but they often struggled to break teams down and it was little surprise to see Phil Parkinson given the chop when they were 8th after 20 games eight points off the top having already lost at home to MK Dons, Wigan and Plymouth.
Lee Johnson came in having done well at Bristol City. He has lived up to his ‘streaky' reputation so far in his six months in charge of the club – going unbeaten for 11 games through February and March and then following it up with just seven points out of a possible 27 during April and May.
Sunderland didn’t carry a lot of positive form through to the end of the season. The Black Cats won only one of their final nine league games (D3 L4).
So that was a massive drop-off in form, and it suggests that they could struggle to battle through these playoffs.
However, the club has had its fair share of issues to contend with. There was a Covid outbreak in the squad just weeks into Johnson's arrival, which hampered the integral early stages of his reign, and a defensive injury crisis that has seen two midfielders playing in the back four for the majority of 2021. Despite this they scored in 41 of 46 league games this season.
The Black Cats failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last ten league games, which is a little odd as over the course of the season I have them as the best League One team home and away.
Of the four teams in the playoffs, Sunderland won the fewest amount of league games during the season. The obvious positive on the flip side is that they lost fewer.
5th) Lincoln – 77 points, 13xP
Had Lincoln held onto their 3-0 winning position against Peterborough they could have nicked 2nd place, but a very soft penalty clinched a 3-3 draw for the Posh and Lincoln were in the play offs and therefore it maybe not a surprise that they closed out the regular season with a three-match winless run (D2 L1). They conceded three goals in two of those three fixtures.
It was looking good for The Imps as we approached March as they were sat 2nd five points ahead of 3rd placed Hull, but injuries and Covid played their part and at one stage it looked like they may miss out altogether. However, they did produce some good form through April however and have lost only two of their last nine league games.
That poor run of form coincided with the loss of Jorge Grant. Without him they collected just 15 points from a possible 33. Their win rate drops from 53% with him to 33% without him.
The Imps have collected just 11 points from the other Top six teams this season and with a home record of W9-D5-L9, I have my concerns for them. They sat 11th for xG ratio and only Posh, Oxford and Sunderland managed more shots on target, but relegated Bristol Rovers managed more shots in the box than Lincoln.
They won only one of their final six home games of the regular season and in my rankings I have them as the 18th best home team with Northampton collecting just three points fewer than them at home. Their away record is impressive though and if they keep in the tie going into the return leg, they may have a chance.
I do have concerns about the squad size and the battles with Covid might come back to haunt them.
6th) Oxford – 74 points, 5th xP
Oxford have plenty to feel positive about ahead of the League One Playoffs. They deserved they play off chance having been one of the form sides and often going gung-ho playing very open and attacking. The U’s won 6 of their final 7 games of the regular season and often it’s the sides going into the play off in form that do well.
They love goals. The U’s scored at least three goals in six of their final seven games and it feels like they will have the backing of the neutral fans entering the play offs. However, they had a record of W1-D3-L6 against the other top six sides and a return of just six points from these games is the lowest among these four sides.
In fact, they failed to score in seven of the 10 games. It is no surprise to see that the majority of Oxford points this season has come against the bottom half. W18-D1-L5 compared to W4-D7-L11.
There is no doubt that their early season form was due to the play off defeat last season but their record against the top half of the division is so poor it’s hard to look past it. However, they have the 3rd best xG ratio in the division, only Hull and Posh scored 1.5+ goals in matches more often, only Sunderland had more shots in the box, and they sit 2nd for shots and shots on target. They should be good fun to watch.
There is no doubt that the pressure is on Sunderland to return to the Championship. They have a new manager, new owners and a host of players out of contract come June, so failure here could see a whole rebuild in the summer and that can sometimes take time to bed in.
I am really interested to see how Lee Johnson deals with the pressure and in turn his players deal with especially given the form of the team. Lincoln manager, Michael Appleton has talked a lot about stopping the crosses and if you do that you can nullify the Sunderland attack and whilst that’s easier said than done, he has a valid point.
I am reluctant to look too much into the form of the sides coming into the play offs as we have seen in the past that sides with form and momentum sometimes fail whilst sides that stumble into the play offs can often get promoted.
Oxford's record against the top half and more importantly the top six worries me and whilst they will be great to watch and have the value from a betting point of view, I am struggling to get behind him.
They kept just 13 clean sheets this season which obviously means that are going to have to score plenty of goals to have any chance. Generally, the play offs are tight nervy affairs, and I am not sure I can see Oxford not conceding in both games, which puts greater pressure in their attack.
Blackpool probably edge for me at the start of the play offs. Strong defence, good attack with an excellent record against the top six sides in the division with 20 points taken from a possible 30. They are well organised and play good football. For me, the side to beat. They seem relaxed and are focused on themselves rather than the other sides, which I always like.
League One – Blackpool to win promotion (11/4 Boylesports)