FOOTBALL LEAGUE analyst Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on the League Two's play-off final from Wembley as Newport take on Tranmere.
Newport v Tranmere | Saturday 25th May 2019, 15:00 | Sky Sports
Cast your minds back to early August, days before the 2018/19 EFL season commenced, and few fans were pinning their colours to either Tranmere or Newport’s masts in the various promotion-based markets. Bookmakers too were happy to overlook the duo in the running for top honours with Rovers 25/1 shots for outright glory and County 50/1 no-hopers.
With 13/2 jollies Notts County suffering a shock relegation, plus the likes of Northampton (12/1) and Swindon (14/1) failing to justify pre-season expectations, opportunity knocked for a clutch of outsiders. Forest Green (50/1) fit that bill, alongside Tranmere and Newport as surprise top-seven finishers, along with a highly-rated, well-funded Mansfield (10/1).
Tranmere produced a thoroughly professional two-legged job against Forest Green to reach Wembley. The Super White Army benefitted from red cards across both fixtures – playing against 10 men for a combined 98 minutes (54%) of the semi-finals – but progressed with a 2-1 aggregate victory that was backed up by largely imposing and dominant display.
Micky Mellon’s men were mature in their approach, clever in possession and managed the tie superbly. Star striker James Norwood impressed leading the line despite his profligate finishing, David Perkins was assured and influential in midfield with Ollie Banks, whilst Manny Monthe and Sid Nelson were again strong and adept at centre-back.
Rovers pressed Forest Green high, disrupting their preferred possession-game and reduced their opponents to an Expected Goals (xG) output of just 0.40 across the two legs – 0.10 of which arrived from open play. In contrast, Tranmere generated 1.80 xG with 1.40 xG via open play as they enjoyed 72 touches in the box compared to Forest Green’s 33.
Newport’s battle with Mansfield was much more open despite a goalless second leg that required penalties to separate the sides. Over the full 210 minutes of the tie, the two teams traded 43 shots in the box and a total xG value of 6.90, with Newport enjoying 4.30 xG (a 62% share). The Exiles also hit the woodwork twice and missed a penalty over the two ties.
Goalkeeper Joe Day continued his sparkling campaign by saving the crucial spot-kick to allow County to progress, although Mike’s Flynn men could easily have been out of sight following a dominant first 45 minutes that saw Newport spurn numerous opportunities. Avoiding defeat extending the Exiles’ unbeaten streak to 12, their best run since 1938.
Tranmere’s third successive Wembley appearance
Tranmere feature in their first EFL play-off final since 1991 on Saturday, although this will be the Wirral-club’s third consecutive season contesting a play-off final at Wembley following their two previous campaigns in the National League. The hosts are 13/8 (SkyBet) favourites to seal promotion with a win in 90 minutes, odds that imply a 38% chance of victory.
Mellon looks set to field an unchanged XI with no new injury issues to contend with. The loss of midfielder Luke McCullough in April was a major blow for Rovers but the squad have coped admirably with his absence. And in front of their well-oiled defence, Kieran Morris and Connor Jennings offer plenty of threat from wide areas behind Norwood in the 4-1-4-1.
Full-backs Jake Caprice and Liam Ridehalgh are underrated components for the Whites – their tenacity, delivery and service can be key to Norwood’s game as a lone striker – and this side aren’t afraid to go long knowing the 30-goal forward is capable of mixing it with the best backline operators at this level.
Raw results show that Tranmere have returned just W2-D4-L3 since the start of April and their W3-D6-L5 efforts against top-seven sides could be slightly concerning for favourite backers. However, you can be absolutely sure that this Rovers outfit are unlikely to roll over meekly and an ultra-competitive display is on the cards.
Newport’s remarkable rise
Newport clinched survival in stoppage-time on the final day of the 2016/17 season as Flynn took charge with the Amber Army 11 points from safety with 12 games remaining. The Exiles boss now says reaching the play-offs just two years later was a greater thrill than masterminding the Great Escape after overseeing a 12-game unbeaten streak (W6-D6-L0) – leaking just four goals – to close out the campaign.
Flynn says his side have hugely overachieved with a “relegation-level budget” to finish in the top-seven and the Welsh club will be buoyed by recent play-off trends in League Two that show the side finishing seventh has won the play-offs in five of the last nine campaigns, including two of the last three. The 21/10 (SkyBet) underdogs also boast cup pedigree.
Over the past two seasons, County have provided FA Cup giant-killing moments against Leicester, Middlesbrough and Leeds, whilst also providing Manchester City and Tottenham with awkward assignments. The majority of their best work has been achieved at their Rodney Parade base but this reasonably rigid side are very capable and uber-organised.
Newport offer plenty of punch from set-pieces and Micky Demetriou’s long throws, and in attack the physicality of Jamille Matt alongside the clinical Padraig Amond ensures County are always a tough proposition. Their general 3-5-2 system keeps the Amber Army in charge in the midfield battle, whilst Flynn is renowned for his marginal gains approach.
Remarkably, if Newport are promoted, they would be only the second team in Football League history to be promoted without a positive goal difference during the regular league season (GD – 0) after Huddersfield in 2016-17, who were promoted from the Championship with a minus two goal difference.
The betting angles
As standard, this play-off final is very tough to call with two very well-matched clubs on show. I have a slight preference towards Newport – mainly due to the odds on offer – but I won’t be recommending a play on the Exiles in what’s an especially tight tussle to call.
Instead, I’m opposing goals as the potential for a high-scoring thriller appears very slim. The two regular season meetings between the teams produced a solitary strike and their collective four semi-finals featured just five goals; include regular season encounters against top-seven rivals and the pair have delivered 16/24 (67%) Under 2.5 Goals winners.
Since 2003/04, 60% of EFL play-off finals have seen fewer than three goals and 47% have witnessed just one strike or none at all. Meanwhile, 12 of Newport’s last 16 matches have produced no more than two goals, and with seven of Tranmere’s last nine also falling below the three-goal mark the case gets stronger for a low-scoring duel on Saturday.
The bookmakers are already hot on the likelihood of a goal-shy game with Under 2.5 Goals no bigger than 3/5 (Betway). Instead, head to the Asian Goals market where Under 2.25 Goals is 4/5 with Matchbook – this selection would see us earn a half-stakes pay-out should exactly two goals be scored with a full-stakes profit made if two goals or fewer are netted.
Meanwhile, 14 of the last 19 League Two play-off finals this century have seen the two competitors level at the break, with nine of these encounters goalless after 45 minutes. Eight of Newport’s 12 matches on their current unbeaten run have been goalless at the interval and a repeat appeals at Wembley this weekend at 6/4 (BetVictor).
Finally, considering the expected nature of the low-scoring meeting, I’m happy throwing an interest dart at the 13/2 offered by William Hill that a penalty shootout will be required to settle matters.
Newport v Tranmere – Under 2.25 Goals (4/5 Matchbook)
Newport v Tranmere – 0-0 Half-Time Score (6/4 BetVictor)
Newport v Tranmere – Penalty Shoot-Out: Yes (13/2 William Hill)