All Change At The Top

Isn’t it amazing how quickly things can turn round in a few weeks?

Liverpool and Leeds have both been caught from behind in the Premier League and the Championship, but arguably the biggest transformation has been at the top of League One.

Exactly a month ago Luton were five points behind Portsmouth with Barnsley in fifth place: now the Hatters are six points clear of the Tykes with Pompey now in the first of the playoff spots.

Portsmouth’s recent decline in form needn’t be fatal but considering something similar happened to them last season – they were in the playoffs in January but were mid-table in mid-March – it remains to be seen if Kenny Jackett’s team has learned from that experience. Having been knocked out of the FA Cup earlier this week, the only other competition they’re involved in is the EFL Trophy but with the semi finals at the end of the month, should Pompey be concentrating on the league?

Barnsley and Luton have been on fire recently – the Hatters unbeaten streak goes back to October when (ironically) they lost at Barnsley – and the Tykes haven’t lost since before Christmas and haven’t been beaten at Oakwell in the league since last March.

There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Game of the Week this weekend, but there are three where the outcome could change the landscape at the the bottom of the table. Bristol Rovers host Shrewsbury: the Gas have only lost twice since Darrell Clarke left in December but haven’t won at home since Graham Coughlan took over. Despite their recent FA Cup heroics, Shrewsbury haven’t won a game since beating Coventry before Christmas.

Barnsley travel to Gillingham, where they’ve only lost twice in seven visits since 1980 – knowing that both Portsmouth and Sunderland could overtake them with wins at Plymouth and Oxford respectively. Gillingham haven’t won a league match at Priestfield since  beating Portsmouth on Boxing Day – the only time so far this season that they’ve beaten any of the top six at home. Oxford are currently on a run of four games without defeat but are still paying for a poor start to the season and they haven’t beaten Sunderland at home since December 1991.

Following the FA Cup replays earlier this week, AFC Wimbledon and Doncaster will be the only clubs from League One left in the competition and although I’ll return to the competition in next weekend’s post, it’s fair to say that home ties in the Fifth Round would have been something that both sides would have probably been happy with when they entered the competition back in November.

Back next week!

League One Christmas Preview 2019

Welcome to the 2019 Christmas Post.

For those of you that are new readers, it’s basically a chance to take a look at what might happen over the second half of the season based on what’s happened between August and December.

Before I go any further, there’s a League One team in the semi finals of the League Cup – here’s how Burton Albion did it:

Last week’s game of the week ended all square:

OK, now for the main course: any of the stats you read from this point on are based on the table follwing the Boxing Day fixtures over the last five seasons. The correlation between that table and the standings at the end of the season is arguably not as strong as it is in the Championship, but the overall trends are quite compelling.

At the top, you need to be in the top three in order to win promotion without taking part in the playoffs, but that’s not a guarantee. 60% of the teams that were in the top three at the end of play on December 26th went on to compete in the Championship at the start of the next season; in three of the last five seasons the team that lead the table on Boxing Day eventually finished in the top two. Although I’m not expecting Portsmouth to crash and burn dramatically, if the lack of goals that affected them in the latter half of last season happens again, they might find themselves in the playoffs.

Of the remainder, all but one qualified for the playoffs but got no further than that – including one club currently in the middle of League Two (Swindon) and one now playing in the National League (Leyton Orient). The exception to both cases: at close of play on December 26th 2014, Gillingham were third in the table, but only won six games in the second half of the season to eventually finish ninth.

As for the playoffs, the last three winners were all outside of the top six at the end of Boxing Day, but two of them were inside the top ten. There’s no need to go over the second half of Barnsley‘s 2015/16 season again – you can read it here – but suffice to say there’s always one team that makes a hash of the second half of the season, just as there’s always one that suddenly finds form and makes a run at the playoffs.

As for who that might be this season, if Fleetwood or Blackpool suddenly find a regular goalscorer or two they could find themselves in the mix.

Now off to the bottom of the table.

At least two of the clubs that have been relegated have been in the bottom six after the Boxing Day games have finished and in three of the last five seasons the club that’s bottom on 26/12 has been relegated – but unlike the Championship, this is not set in stone and there’s usually at least one club that’s had a mediocre start to the campaign turns into a disaster in second half.

As you’d expect, it’s normally teams in the bottom third of the table that are most at risk but there’s almost always an outlier: on Boxing Day 2013, Notts County were in eighth place and just two points outside the playoff positions, but they lost 14 of their next 25 games and were relegated. Five years later and the Magpies are in serious danger of losing their place in the Football League. Chesterfield – who were only below Notts County on goal difference on Boxing Day evening and only just missed out on the playoffs – are now fighting relegation from the National League.

This season there are a number of interesting angles in the battle against relegation: Wimbledon have the most to do, but sacking Neil Ardley was recognition that something needed to change, whereas Bristol Rovers might well regret not parting company with Darrell Clarke earlier than they did. It remains to be seen if Plymouth can pull off the same trick they managed last year (they’re only one point worse off than they were last season) and there are a couple of clubs who were playoff regulars over the last couple of seasons who are now struggling to avoid the drop, which brings me nicely on to the highlights of the holiday programme.

Saturday 22nd December

Portsmouth v Sunderland, Bradford City v Scunthorpe.

At the top of the Championship a few years ago there was a massive Boxing Day game between Cardiff and Crystal Palace that was a season defining game for both sides and – with no offense intended for Luton Town – the clash between the two pre-season favourites for promotion would normally have been game of the week. It’s the first time that they’ve have met in a league game for almost a decade (when both clubs were in the Premier League) and although Sunderland haven’t won at Portsmouth since November 1997, they’ve not lost any of the four games they’ve played this season against the other clubs currently in the top six. On the other hand, Portsmouth have only won half of their four games against the same opponents…

In the last few seasons, Bradford City v Scunthorpe would have been a top of the table clash: both clubs seem to have missed their chances of promotion to the Championship and now seem locked in a battle to avoid relegation. Whether that’s due to playoff hangovers, self destructive off field issues or a combination of both is a discussion for another day, but the facts are that despite winning their last two home games without conceding a goal, Bradford have only won two of their last six home league games against the Iron

Boxing Day

Scunthorpe v Luton, Sunderland v Bradford City, Wimbledon v Plymouth

The bottom of League One is hardly going to be the focal point of the public imagination on Boxing Day, but with three games featuring four of the teams currently in the bottom six, there may could well be some changes at the foot of the table. Spare a thought for the Luton and Plymouth fans making round trips of 320 and 424 miles respectively on Boxing Day. That makes the 109 mile journey from Bradford to Sunderland look like a trip to the corner shop.

So to sum up, if you’ve got time on Boxing Day evening to look at the tables:

  • There’s a good chance two of the top three clubs will be promoted.
  • There’s a good chance that most of the top six teams will at least reach the playoffs, but the actual playoff winners may not be in that group.
  • Two of the three teams that will be relegated will be in the bottom six, with the bottom team most likely to be playing in League Two next season.

I’ll be back at the start of 2019 with the FA Cup third round preview, but that’s me done for the year. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas 🙂

GOTW: Barnsley v Portsmouth

Portsmouth failed to take the opportunity to take an unassailable lead into the Christmas period when they lost by the odd goal in three at Fratton Park on Tuesday night.

A win would have put them nine points ahead at the top, but as it stands they can’t be overtaken this weekend.

Last weekend Oxford continued their impressive run at Peterborough:

160 miles to the north west, a record crowd at Accrington was left disappointed when the game against Sunderland was abandoned by ref Oliver Langford with 15 minutes left – to be fair, the conditions were atrocious as you can see below:

Barnsley v Portsmouth

The Tykes have now gone three games without a win but still haven’t lost at home at Oakwell this season. They were second in mid October but their defence has let them down recently: no clean sheet in three games and the prospect of three consecutive defeats for the first time since the start of this year.

As I already mentioned, earlier this week Pompey suffered their first defeat since start of October but Portsmouth haven’t lost on the road this season and they’re favourites for automatic promotion. They’ve got a couple of huge games coming up over the next couple of weeks, but before you start thinking that this looks straightforward for the visitors, here’s something to ponder: since 1990, Portsmouth have only won once in 13 visits to Oakwell, with their last victory coming in a 4-1 win in September 2001.

The games at Charlton (against Wimbledon) and Sunderland (where Bristol Rovers are the visitors) could be worth monitoring: it was only a matter of time before Darrell Clarke left and the timing of his departure from the Memorial Ground was probably right. The Gas can’t escape the bottom four this weekend and never won a league game at Roker Park – Rovers have never played at the Stadium of Light – so why prolong the misery?

Next scheduled post is next Friday…and it’s the Christmas Special.

Weekend Preview 23/24 November

It’s a short post this week as I’ve been far busier than usual.

There won’t be much change at the top this weekend: only Sunderland can overtake Portsmouth this weekend and although both of them are away from home, I’m not expecting any surprise results.

The top five will stay the same regardless, although there’s another group of five directly behind them that are only separated by goal difference.

At the bottom Bradford, Plymouth and Wimbledon will remain in the bottom three even if they win: any of the six teams above them might drop into the bottom four if things don’t go there way. There’s one game between the strugglers this weekend: Oxford travel to Bradford, where they’ve only won once in the last two decades.

A couple of other games of note between potential playoff teams and those trying to avoid the drop: Charlton host Bristol Rovers, whilst Luton travel to Gillingham.

I’ll be back next week with a preview of the Second Round of the FA Cup.

GOTW: Gillingham v Bradford

Peterborough’s poor form continued last weekend, although there were a few more people watching the game than it appears:

However, Posh snapped their five game spell without a win after a Rhys Bennett goal earned all three points against Fleetwood at London Road on Tuesday.

Suffice to say, Portsmouth have exploited the poor form by their immediate rivals for promotion and have now established a four point lead at the top: they cannot be overtaken this weekend, even if they lose at Accrington tomorrow.

There were a few candidates for game of the week this weekend – the obvious choice was Accrington v Portsmouth – but as the bottom of the table is more likely to change than the top I thought I’d pick…

Gillingham v Bradford

With both Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers facing clubs in the top six, the game at Priestfield is a crucial one for the chances of survival for both teams. Gillingham have lost four of their last five home games and haven’t won anywhere since their surprise victory at Portsmouth at the start of the month. Bradford – who dropped into last place when Plymouth beat Gillingham earlier this week – have lost four consecutive games, three of those defeats by at least two goals , conceding three penalties and earning two red cards during that period.

Head to head: all you need to know is that since their first meeting in Kent in October 1961, Bradford have never won consecutive away games at Gillingham. The Bantams won last season’s encounter at Priestfield.

Verdict: more or less the only thing to go on is the ten games that have already happened between the teams currently in the bottom six, in which case it might be bad news for Bradford. So far there have only been two away wins in this mini league, although one of those was Bradford’s win at Wimbledon at the start of this month. Taking the head to head stat into account, Bradford’s best hope seems to be a draw.

AFC Wimbledon v Luton and Barnsley v Bristol Rovers are the other games to watch out for at tea time on Saturday afternoon. Barnsley – along with Luton and Sunderland – are the only teams yet to lose at home.

Monday’s FA Cup draw produced only three all League One ties (two of which could be described as derbies), and although ten League One clubs face non-league teams, all but three have been drawn away to opponents outside the EFL. I’ll expand on that in the next post, which will be in a fortnight as I’m away over the next week – father in law’s 80th birthday in the South of France don’t you know 🙂

GOTW: Peterborough v Accrington

First post for a couple of weeks – there should have been one last week but I forgot as I was getting ready to go to the NFL game at Wembley.

Portsmouth now have a three point lead over Peterborough; at the start of the month Pompey finally lost (at home to Gillingham) and Plymouth finally won (at home against Wimbledon) but those results have made little difference to the overall picture.

Pompey, Peterborough and Barnsley are the only teams that look like automatic promotion candidates at the moment, although any of the current top nine can’t be ruled out. Which leads me nicely on to the obvious candidate for game of the week:

Peterborough v Accrington Stanley

Posh would have to win by at least two goals at home against tomorrow’s visitors in order to overtake Portsmouth at the top, but having not won at London Road since mid August and only picking up two points from the last 12 available at home, that’s far from certain. Peterborough’s defending has become an issue – they’ve not kept a home clean sheet since last season – and they’ve conceded nine goals in four games since the start of last month, including four against Barnsley where they were three down after an hour. To some extent this is typical Posh: they’ve scored the most goals in League 1 so far, but Wimbledon have conceded fewer goals.

Accrington Stanley lost at Shrewsbury earlier in October but that was their first away defeat since promotion from League Two and ended a ten game unbeaten run. it was also the first time they’d failed to score in an away league game in 2018/19: after Tuesday evening’s game Luton, they entertain Portsmouth next Saturday, which might be enough evidence to assess their chances of consecutive promotions. Six of Stanley’s eight away goals this season have been divided equally between Sean McConville and Billy Kee, so Posh can’t say they weren’t warned in advance.

Head to head: Peterborough have won three of the four meetings between the clubs, including both home games – the most recent meeting was an 8-2 win for Posh in January 2008, which featured hat-tricks from George Boyd (now at Sheffield Wednesday) and Aaron Maclean (retired) and a brace from Craig Mackail-Smith (now Wycombe Wanderers)

Verdict: I don’t think there’s much chance of ten goals at London Road tomorrow, but as both teams have scored in all four of this season’s games of the week so I think that’s highly likely – especially considering the current state of Peterborough’s defence. The hosts need a home win, but I suspect Accrington Stanley are strong enough to deny that and may even be able to pinch all three points at London Road.

At the bottom only four points separate last placed Plymouth from Gillingham in 19th, with Bradford still looking calamitously out of sorts.

There’s one game between two sides in the bottom six: Bristol Rovers host Oxford is a clash between two clubs that have only won four games between them so far in 2018/19. The Gas have only earned four points from six games at the Memorial Stadium so far; despite not having won away from home this season, Oxford have only lost one of their last four road trips and have kept clean sheets in half of those games.

Back next Friday with a brief post as I’m off to Europe for half term…and don’t forget the first round proper of the FA Cup is only a couple of weeks away. The draw is on Monday.

GOTW: Peterborough v Portsmouth

Last weekend’s game of the week ended all square – although it ended in less than ideal conditions at Oakwell due to some kind of monsoon…

That result didn’t harm either club – both are still unbeaten – but a gap has appeared at the top.

Portsmouth’s draw at home to Shrewsbury means that Peterborough (who needed a late Ivan Toney winner at Southend) have a two point advantage at the top before tomorrow’s big game.

At the bottom of the table there wasn’t much change – Bristol Rovers and Plymouth remain in the bottom four after a goalless draw and Oxford lost at home to Coventry in Sunday’s televised game. This weekend Oxford travel to Wycombe in the only game between sides in the bottom six.

Peterborough v Portsmouth

Pompey are the only team that can overtake Posh at the top of the table this weekend, but they’ve won only one of the previous seven league games between the clubs at London Road – and that was few days before they received the ten point penalty that more or less ensured relegation to League One. The good news for Portsmouth is that they’ve only lost two of the remaining six encounters at Peterborough and this season have drawn at Doncaster and won at Blackpool.

Posh have only lost of their last ten at home, but so far this season they’ve only played one top ten side at home – against Doncaster at the start of the month – and they had to come from behind to earn a point against Rovers, who are now managed by former Posh boss Grant McCann. Next month they entertain Barnsley and Fleetwood as well as travelling to Sunderland and let’s not forget that it was around this time last year that things started to go awry for Peterborough.

Verdict: I mentioned just now that Posh have only lost one of their last ten at London Road, but although that’s a good indicator of their home form what it doesn’t tell you is that they’ve only kept clean sheets in two of those contests. That’s their obvious weakness: on the other hand, if we’re going to take Portsmouth seriously as promotion contenders, they need to improve on their away record against the better teams in the competition this season. In 2017/18 they only beat one of the sides that finished above them in an away game (Charlton) and failed to score in five of those matches. If they can’t find the net at London Road tomorrow afternoon they’ll be lucky to escape with a point – I don’t think Peterborough are going to lose, let’s put it that way. If Pompey lose, they could find themselves dropping out of the top two spots.

Unlike the Championship, there’s no midweek action in League One next week, so all being well I’ll be back next Friday.

 

GOTW: Barnsley v Walsall

Last weekend went pretty much to form.

Peterborough and Portsmouth remain at the top although Posh lost their 100% record following their draw with Doncaster.

Even though the game at Greenhous Meadow finished 1-1, Shrewsbury still haven’t scored at home this season: their equaliser at home against Bristol Rovers was an own goal courtesy of the Gas’ Daniel Leadbitter.

The surprise came at the Stadium of Light, where Oxford were leading and had a man advantage against Sunderland after just nineteen minutes before the hosts salvaged a point:

As it stands, there are only two points between the top five but there’s already a five point gap between fifth placed Walsall and seventh placed Doncaster. At the the bottom it’s much closer, with three points separating bottom club Plymouth and both Coventry and Wimbledon.

Barnsley v Walsall

It’s possible that whoever wins this match might find themselves at the top of the table – although Peterborough and Portsmouth have winnable looking games.

Barnsley’s record at this level – even though they spent a couple of seasons in the Championship – is impressive: since December 2015 they’ve only lost two home games in League One (one of which was against Chesterfield, who are no longer in the Football League) and even though they were relegated at the end of last season, they’ve not lost a league game at Oakwell since March.

Walsall were supposed to be amongst the strugglers this season: they won once in ten aways at the end of 2017/18 and finished only two points away from relegation but they’re currently on the best away form for about a year. It’s possible that the Saddlers may have exploited what’s beginning to look like an easy schedule: they’re unbeaten, but today’s game is their first of the season against any club that’s in the top six. That’s also the case with Barnsley, but Walsall have only managed to keep one clear sheet so far compared with Barnsley’s four.

Head to Head: the Tykes have only lost two of the last ten meetings between the clubs in South Yorkshire; the last regular season meeting was back in October 2015, when Walsall won 2-0 . At that point in time, Barnsley were two points off the bottom three and Walsall were in second, two points behind behind Gillingham. Yet seven months later, Barnsley walloped Walsall in the first leg of the playoff semi final.

Verdict: I think Barnsley’s defence holds the key to this one and if they perform at the level they have so far then it might be a long afternoon for Walsall, who have scored the fewest goals of any club in the top six.

Also worth keeping an eye on: the 1:30 kick off at the Memorial Stadium for the Bristol Rovers/Plymouth game (Rovers are pointless at home, Argyle are pointless away), Sunderland v Fleetwood, (which sounds like an FA Cup tie and could be a feisty one considering who Joey Barton used to play for) and what might be another one sided game at Fratton Park when Portsmouth entertain Shrewsbury.

There’s a rare televised game on Sunday, but whoever chose Oxford v Coventry (tomorrow, noon kick off, Sky Sports Football) probably didn’t anticipate that it would be a match between two teams that are currently at the wrong end of the table. After four straight defeats to open the season, Oxford have now picked up four points from their last two games (including the draw at Sunderland last weekend). Coventry only spent one season in the fourth tier, but nonetheless haven’t won an away game at this level since October 2016 and the only time they’ve ever won at Oxford was the first time they played the U’s, in a game in the old First Division in January 1986.

I’ll be back next Friday: no prizes for guessing the game of the week 🙂

All Change At Scunthorpe

There was an interesting game at Glanford Park last Saturday…

Josh Morris’ penalty was the first goal that The Tykes had conceded this season but Scunthorpe doubled their lead shortly after half time. However Barnsley came back to earn a point thanks to goals from Kieffer Moore and Dimitri Cavare and that was the end of Nick Daws’ reign as Scunthorpe manager: he’d lasted precisely five games and was replaced by Stuart McCall. Time will tell, but that looks like a decent appointment to me.

McCall’s former side – Bradford City – became the first team to be beaten by Wycombe this season and Oxford also won; those results mean than only Shrewsbury and Plymouth have failed to win a game this season.

No candidate for GOTW but three to keep an eye on, two of which are ‘top six v bottom six’:

Portsmouth v Plymouth

The first ‘Dockside Derby’ of the season, but wins at Fratton Park are few and far between for The Pilgrims (two in almost 30 years), who haven’t won an away game since February and have been beaten in six of their last seven away from Home Park. Pompey have won four of their last five home games.

Sunderland v Oxford

First meeting between the clubs at Sunderland for almost 20 years and the last time Oxford travelled there, they were beaten 7-0. United have only recorded two league wins at Sunderland in 13 meetings and in their last ten aways they’ve only won once.

At the bottom:

Shrewsbury v Bristol Rovers

Rovers have lost their last five trips to Shrewsbury without scoring and until their recent win at Wycombe hadn’t won an away game since beating MK Dons in March. The Shrews have failed to score at Greenhous Meadow so far this season and are the only remaining side not to have found the net in front of their own supporters.

The four clubs left in the League Cup all got home draws, with Burton and Oxford entertaining Burnley and Manchester City respectively at the end of next month. Wycombe (against Norwich) and Blackpool (hosting QPR) will fancy their chances of beating a couple of Championship clubs that have had indifferent starts to the season.

It’s the first international break of the season next weekend (yawn) so League One will be taking centre stage in the EFL: I’ll be back next Friday.

Ridiculously Premature Analysis? Why Not!

Before moving on to the first statistical analysis of the 2018/19, here’s a quick recap of the last week.

There are now only five teams left unbeaten in League One but only Oxford have yet to win a point so far this season.

Wycombe and Oxford have now both scored at least once, but as you can seen from the highlights of last weekend’s game of the week it wasn’t exactly a happy trip to Hampshire for Karl Robinson’s team…

On to a bit of number crunching now.

I’ve deliberately left out the new arrivals from this bit of early season analysis as I don’t think four games is enough to judge any of the former clubs from the Championship or League One – although it’s worth noting that Barnsley haven’t conceded a goal yet and have the best goal difference in the division.

The Improvers

Portsmouth are leading the way in this category, but six of the twelve points they’ve won so far have been earned by beating Bristol Rovers and Oxford, both of whom you’ll be reading about in the next section. I’m prepared to take a ‘wait and see’ position with Pompey, but Peterborough look as if they could be the real deal this season: the pair meet at London Road next month in a contender for Game of the Week.

The other sides that have improved since last season include a genuine surprise (Walsall), a team that’s done well against the poorer sides but hasn’t had a top half finish at this level since they won the competition in 2013 (Doncaster) and a club that I was genuinely unsure about before the season began (Fleetwood) – I wrote that it would be a good idea to give Joey Barton at least ten games before making any kind of decision about the Cod Army’s season, but having scored nine goals in their last three games it’s fair to say he’s made a lot of people sit up and take notice.

In Decline

Earlier you had visual proof of just how bad Oxford are at the moment, but both Scunthorpe and Shrewsbury seem to have got classic playoff hangovers – the Iron were battered 5-0 at home by Fleetwood earlier this week. To be fair to Scunthorpe and Oxford, it looks as if they might have had more difficult fixtures to start the season with, but at the moment you can’t really say that’s true for the Shrews. Bristol Rovers and Charlton are also underperforming: the Gas – who haven’t won at home since the end of March – have been trailing at half time in three of their four matches so far whilst the Addicks have already blown half time leads twice and were unlucky to lose at home to late penalty against Peterborough.

Of course, it’s far too early to say whether these teams will continue in the same way over the next few months, but it’s interesting that Peterborough and Portsmouth were widely predicted for success before the season began. Of the current bottom six, the consensus was that Wycombe would struggle but it’s a bit of a surprise that Plymouth haven’t done better this month.

The only game to keep an eye on this weekend is the clash between Oxford and Burton at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday, although I think there’ll be a few goals at Bristol Rovers, Plymouth and Rochdale – who have already conceded eight goals in two games at Spotland and entertain Walsall this weekend.