The Fantastic Four: 2021-22 Championship Play-off Preview
Will Sheffield United be promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking or can Huddersfield get a chance at redemption for a terrible 2018-19 top-flight campaign. Nottingham Forest are looking to make it back to the big time for the first season since relegation in 1999, while Luton Town’s shock rise could be completed with play-off glory. It’s all to play for.
Enjoy the ride.
Rising 17 places from last season is good going by anyone’s standards, let alone following a summer of bargain hunting on the likes of Tom Lees and Oli Turton.
With Huddersfield working very much ahead of schedule, there is no pressure on them to win promotion, but the stadium will be rocking for the return leg – barring a nightmare at Kenilworth Road.
Huddersfield have a positive goal difference of 17, but an expected goals difference of +1.5, which is a significant disparity. In fact, only Nottingham Forest (19.7) and Millwall (15.8) have a bigger negative gap between their actual goal difference and what the underlying numbers suggest is a more reflective story than the Terriers (15.5).
There may be concerns that as well as having done lots of things well this season, they have ridden their luck at times as well, with all three of their competitors faring better in the xG difference metric.
On the flip side, this may be partly because Huddersfield have spent 34% of their Championship in-play minutes this season protecting a lead, which is a greater proportion than each of their play-off rivals.
The West Yorkshire club have won 14 games by a one-goal margin, with no team in the Championship winning more games in those circumstances.
Invariably, Corberan’s side come under pressure later on in those games, which has given their xG difference a distorted look.
Carlos Corberan has opted for a back-three in 32 of his side’s 46 league games this season and it’s wing-back systems he has favoured for the last four games – wins over Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Coventry and Bristol City.
The Spaniard, who worked with Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds, has copied El Loco’s preference for deploying two centre-backs against a lone striker and three against a front-two, which Luton are likely to play with Elijah Adebayo and Harry Cornick.
They’ve coped with injuries well.
Lee Nicholls, Matty Pearson, Lewis O’Brien, Sorba Thomas and Danny Ward have all been extremely important to Huddersfield this season and having some of those players back for the play-offs would be an enormous boost.
However, the West Yorkshire side have won in the absence of each of these key men, which shows that not only is Corberan a highly flexible tactician, but also that the squad depth is strong despite using just 28 players – the fourth lowest tally in the Championship this season.
Jonathan Hogg is a Terriers legend – he broke his leg in a defeat at Bristol City in Spring 2016-17 and still recovered to play a part in an iconic promotion that season.
Although Hogg has etched himself into Town folklore as a tenacious ball-winner, he is now limited in how much ground he can cover at 33 years of age and has more recently been converted into a half-back.
The veteran has acquitted himself with predictably admirable professionalism in that role, but at 5’7”, he could be vulnerable in aerial duels with Elijah Adebayo – and theoretically Sam Surridge if Huddersfield were to face Nottingham Forest in the final.
How They Hope It’ll Go
Lewis O’Brien and Sorba Thomas get back to full fitness and sharpness ahead of schedule, with both able to start at Kenilworth Road.
Huddersfield quieten the home crowd by forcing Luton back and, in doing so, deprive them of opportunities to get any kind of quality service into Adebayo, with Jon Russell sweeping up all the attempted diagonals from his number six role.
Town finish the tie off at a packed John Smith’s Stadium, then beat Sheffield United at Wembley, just like they did 10 years ago, before another 17-place rise next season – finishing sixth in the Premier League. The 11-team European Super League title can wait until 2023-24.
How We Think It’ll Go
Superior strength in depth to defeat Luton in the Semi-Finals; may just fall short at Wembley, but with plenty of pride with which to go into the summer and beyond.
Attack the play-offs like a steam train.
When Cooper took the reins, Forest were bottom of the Championship with four points from their first eight games and it’s been a meteoric rise since then.
The Reds have accrued 76 points from 38 games under the former Swansea boss – more than any other side in the division in that timeframe – winning 22 times and with the best defensive record to boot (0.74 goals conceded per game).
Cooper’s side enter the play-offs therefore, with an air of almost invincibility and while complacency is a danger, natives will feel they are comfortably the side best-placed to win them – not without cause.
Of the four sides in the play-offs, Forest have statistically the most trouble defending set pieces, conceding an average of 0.32 xG in those scenarios (excluding penalties) per game – above Sheffield United (0.26), Luton (0.24) and Huddersfield (0.25).
6’4” Worrall and 6’2” McKenna will need to be at their best in the air, 6’3” Ryan Yates being fit would be a huge plus in that department and others while striker Sam Surridge may have a crucial part to play in his own box, as well as that of the opposition.
Forest will look to use the combination play between Djed Spence and Brennan Johnson to maximum effect. The fact it’s a double-threat, rather than one brilliant individual, makes it harder to quell, especially given the positional intelligence of both players.
Spence has always been an athletic right-sider but, working with Cooper, he has acquired the ability to interpret space intelligently and veer inside if the game opens up accordingly.
Johnson, meanwhile, has the pace to carry a threat on the counter-attack, but it’s not as simple as denying him space, because he is such an agile operator, capable of weaving in and out of defenders before cutting the ball across or getting a shot away.
If opposing teams can handle Spence and Johnson, they go a long way towards stopping Forest, but it’s a huge ask. These two players top the chances created from open play metric in the Championship for Forest in 2021-22, with Johnson leading the way on 57 and Spence behind on 39.
Cooper has not only shown the charisma to win fans over and the coaching credentials to improve individuals, he has also shown tactical flexibility.
The 42-year-old is not averse to altering formation mid-game, and often, the switches help move the game in his side’s direction.
In the 1-1 draw at Hull on the final day of the regular season, Cooper took off defender Jonathan Panzo and put on wide forward Johnson to facilitate a switch from 3-4-1-2 to 4-3-3 – this type of move.
Unlike his predecessor, Cooper is proactive with substitutions and is even not afraid to make one before half-time if he sees fit.
Lewis Grabban and Keinan Davis are absent for the Reds, and while it’s possible the latter could return, Steve Cooper is not exactly spoilt for choice if Surridge is having a tough time.
Additionally, if opposing teams can deny space for Johnson and Spence, squeezing them out of the game – easier said than done – there could be limitations on the other flank.
42% of Forest’s play this season has gone down the right, which suggests that is where they want to angle their attacks, so Sheffield United and any final opponents could be well-advised to force the play towards the left.
Jack Colback may not be fit enough to start, in which case Joe Lolley may get the nod as he did on the final day draw at Hull City – that was the forward by trade’s first game at left wing-back of the season.
Lolley is unlikely to pose as much of a threat, so opponents can try to shepherd the ball to his side of the field.
How They Hope It’ll Go
Ryan Yates returns from a shoulder injury in time to be fully fit for Saturday’s trip to Bramall Lane.
Spence, Johnson and co. decimate Sheffield United in the semi-final, thus healing the pain of 1993, sending Forest to Wembley brimming with confidence.
Cooper’s canny tactics see the former England youth coach fist-pumping to Wembley, celebrating Forest attaining top-flight football for the first time this millennium.
How We Think It’ll Go
Forest have been comfortably the best team in the Championship over the last 38 games and that consistency should count for a lot in those two legs with Sheffield United, and in a prospective final. They’re our winners.
Make the most of the old guard.
Paul Heckingbottom was promoted from Under-23s coach to “Football Manager” – yes, the hierarchy saw the need to confirm the sport Sheffield United play – with a view to strengthening the link from the youth system to the first team.
While “Hecky’s” five-year contract suggests a long-term plan from the hierarchy, the Blades still have a core of players who secured a ninth-placed Premier League finish as recently as 2019-20.
With an average starting XI age of 28 years and 57 days this season, Sheffield United’s is the oldest in the Championship.
Oli Norwood, Chris Basham, John Egan, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick, John Fleck, George Baldock and Billy Sharp, though, are all 29 or older and it’s hard to predict how many of these players will maintain current performance levels, so this is a big chance to secure promotion while they have a crop of proven Championship winners.
Of the four sides in the Championship play-offs this season, Sheffield United boast the most threatening attack based on expected goals. Their non-penalty xG average per game is 1.53 – the fifth best in the competition overall and higher than Forest (1.41), Luton (1.30) and Huddersfield (1.22).
Their defensive numbers are also the best of the four teams, with an average non-penalty xG conceded per game of 1.07.
Even if opponents do get through their solid defence, the Blades can always rely on Wes Foderingham in goal, who has kept 18 clean sheets and conceded just 22 goals in 32 league games. His saves have given him a league-high goals prevented value of 8.4, meaning his 22 goals conceded (excluding own goals) should have been nearer 30 based on the quality of shots on target faced (expected goals on target).
Slavisa Jokanovic could justifiably claim not to have been suitably backed as Sheffield United boss, having taken charge last summer with the remit of adding a third Championship promotion to his CV in South Yorkshire.
The Serb, though, persisted with 4-2-3-1 despite not having the personnel for a back-four, having inherited a squad that had enjoyed its glory years under Chris Wilder with the famed 3-5-2.
Heckingbottom has since reverted to the back-three and the results are obvious: 59 points from 31 games with wing backs, a return which would put them level on points with Bournemouth over a full campaign.
However, this has not exactly been a case of going back to the Wilder template: the Blades play with a touch more urgency and verticality than perhaps they did under the legendary figure.
Sheffield United are comfortable keeping possession – they’ve averaged 54% under Heckingbottom, which is a value that only three teams can boast higher than. However, if there is an opportunity to play the ball into forward space, they will take it and the new football manager’s results are there for all to see.
The Wolves loanee is a lively, creative, ball-carrying, goalscoring force for the Blades who brings a multitude of qualities and has been by far their top performer this season.
Of players to have played at least 600 minutes of Championship football this season, Gibbs-White has the highest open play expected assists per 90 average of anyone (0.28) and has created a team-high 54 chances for team-mates – 20 of these from ball carries.
The Steel City club rely on Gibbs-White heavily, but if the 22-year-old is at his best, he can cause Forest plenty of problems.
Billy Sharp’s fitness is in doubt for Sheffield United, so Gibbs-White may be deployed as part of a front-two with Iliman Ndiaye.
That’s not a disaster for the Blades, based on how the duo fared in the final day 4-0 mauling of champions Fulham, with Sander Berge pulling the strings behind them.
However, this game is going to be tighter than it was against the Whites and the absence of a recognized centre-forward could be problematic, especially if the football does not flow quite as easily.
How They Hope It’ll Go
Yates is absent for Forest, so Berge can pick up pockets of space in between the lines to release Ndiaye and Gibbs-White, while the big-game experience of Stevens, Baldock, Basham, Egan and Norwood comes to the fore in the Semi-Final and at Wembley, where the Blades banish their Play-off blues.
How We Think It’ll Go
Sheffield United have their key, experienced players fit in defence, midfield and the wing-back positions, which means they can make their two legs with Forest tight: Johnson and Spence might not have everything their own way.
Despite the creativity of Berge, however, Gibbs-White and Ndiaye may struggle to get the better of Forest’s centre-backs – especially Joe Worrall – with the Blades ultimately falling short in their quest for an instant Premier League return.
It’s tempting to say that Hatters fans go into the play-offs with a sense of wonder, given how far the club has come in a short space of time.
They were playing non-league football in 2014 and League Two as recently as 2018, so does Premier League football seem an alien concept?
To younger generations, perhaps to a point. To older supporters, it’s less of a shock: they saw the club play top-flight football for 10 years, between 1982 and 1992, winning the League Cup in 1988.
Whether you’re a younger fan experiencing the prospect of Pemier League football for the first time ever, or an older fan relishing the return of the good old days, what the two demographics share is excitement over the future of their club.
And why not? Luton have taken 46 points from 24 games since New Year’s Day.
No side have averaged better quality non-penalty shots than Luton Town in the Championship this season, with the average xG of their chances at 0.13. Only Fulham (13.7%) and Bristol City (12.8%) have converted a higher proportion of these shots, too. True, they have attempted the sixth fewest shots in the league across 2021-22, but it’s quality over quantity for the Hatters.
The Hatters are willing to be speculative when it comes to their passing, but not when it comes to shooting and when they do get into the final third, they would prefer to create a low volume of clear cut chances rather than a high-volume of half-chances.
The template with which Nathan Jones took Luton up from League Two, and led them into promotion contention in League One, is different to the one with which he has overseen this Championship success.
Jones implemented a diamond system in his first spell, with extremely attacking full backs in Jack Stacey and James Justin, then lots of rotations in the midfield quartet.
What the fiery Welshman learnt at Stoke, though, was that formational flexibility can be a virtue, and since returning to Bedfordshire, he has mixed things up a lot more in terms of systems and style of play.
Luton are now less possession heavy and more direct, with an emphasis on getting the ball in behind for Harry Cornick or feeding Elijah Adebayo early.
Only Birmingham City (2.1) average fewer passes per open play sequence in the Championship that Luton (2.2) this season, but the Hatters have shown that their direct style works for them.
The striker has come a long way in a short space of time, having been playing for midtable League Two side Walsall as recently as last season – and he was not even a guaranteed starter for the Saddlers the year before.
Adebayo has always had the physical attributes to cause problems but has more recently acquired the maturity to use that strength to the maximum and bring others into play.
The 24-year-old can beat a defender in a footrace in the channel, whilst producing great hold-up play, a unique range of qualities, so it’s no wonder Burnley and others are monitoring him. With 20 goal involvements (16 goals, four assists), he’s the first player to reach this tally in a Championship season since their return in 2019-20.
The Hatters, though, are sweating over Adebayo’s fitness, after he missed the final day 1-0 win over Reading, but there is hope he will be able to play.
Adebayo was one of six players who missed the final day over injury concerns, and the list of absentees was even longer back in April. Thanks mainly to the injuries suffered, Jones has had to make 127 changes to his starting XI across 2021-22 in the Championship – only Cardiff (130) and Blackpool (138) have made more overall.
Jones is already working miracles with a group of players who previously played in League One and League Two, on a modest budget, so his side do need a slice of luck on the injury front.
They may get it with the likes of defensive organiser Sonny Bradley and all-action midfielder Allan Campbell recently returning, as well as potentially Adebayo, but the 7-0 defeat at Fulham showed Luton can be vulnerable when not at full strength.
How They Hope It’ll Go
They then go on to comprehensively finish the tie off at home, before avenging cup final defeats to Nottingham Forest in 1959 and 1989 by beating Steve Cooper’s side at Wembley, in the process becoming the first ever club to play in the top flight, go down to non-league then back to the top flight again.
How We Think It’ll Go
Injury issues mean making it to Wembley might be a bridge too far but make no mistake: Luton are back on the map, back on the up.
With a new stadium on the horizon to go with an attentive board led by David Wilkinson, a top-notch recruitment team led by Jay Socik and a fantastic manager, Hatters fans have so much to be proud of – regardless of this season’s ultimate outcome.
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