10 League Titles and a Concrete Cow: Previewing the League One Play-Offs
The League One play-off scene is so eager this year that it all kicks off before the other divisions have finished. The first legs of the semi-finals start tonight at Adams Park when Wycombe take on MK Dons, followed by Sunderland hosting Sheffield Wednesday 24 hours later. The latter pair have won the English league title on six and four occasions respectively, but all 10 of those honours did arrive before the Second World War. Wycombe have been around since 1887 but only became a league side in 1993, while MK Dons have the least history of all. Wycombe and Wednesday are looking for an immediate return to the second tier after relegation last season, while Sunderland are desperate to end four years of purgatory in the third tier. All four clubs approach games in their own way, but what does the data say about these semi-final match-ups?
Wycombe Wanderers vs. Milton Keynes Dons
Buckinghamshire clubs collide in the first of this year’s play-off ties – and so do styles, as Gareth Ainsworth’s fast and direct Wycombe Wanderers face Liam Manning’s slow and intricate Milton Keynes Dons.
Wycombe – looking to make an immediate return to the Championship, which they reached for the very first time via the play-offs two years ago – have begun to shift towards a slightly more possession-based style, but their MO remains one of getting the ball forward quickly.
Over the course of the regular season, the Chairboys had a league-high direct speed of 2.27 metres/second – but they did out-possess their opponents four times during the 12-match unbeaten run which ultimately secured them sixth place, having done so in only six of their first 34 games of the campaign.
Ainsworth’s side also come into this clash having averaged the shortest sequence time (4.76 seconds) and fewest passes per sequence (1.88) in 2021-22, as well as having completed by far the fewest sequences of 10 or more passes (24 – 20 fewer than next-ranked Rotherham, who went up automatically as runners-up).
Jumping around the technical area in his leather jacket, rock ‘n’ roll locks flowing, Ainsworth is one of English football’s most energetic and instantly recognisable touchline presences, and his team play very much in his image. They’ve been accused of ‘anti-football’ by many a snob, but aesthetic appeal isn’t a priority for Wycombe – and why should it be when their provenly effective approach has just yielded their highest-ever third-tier points tally (83) and seen them finish as joint-fourth top scorers with 75 goals (of which only one was a penalty)? They have committed a league-high 588 fouls (in stark contrast to MK Dons’ league-low 393), but they’re niggly rather than nasty, averaging a yellow card only every 8.1 fouls (the second-highest bookings to fouls ratio in the division). It also saw them keep 18 clean sheets (enough for goalkeeper, pundit and philanthropist David Stockdale to share the Golden Glove award) – seven of which came during the aforementioned undefeated streak, including a still-active six in a row at home. Freakishly leaky performances against Ipswich Town (a 4-1 loss in November) and Cheltenham Town (an utterly bonkers 5-5 draw in February) aside, Wycombe have generally been rock-solid at the back (if last-ditch at times).
Keep an eye on: Sam Vokes
Rescued from a miserable stint at Stoke City, Sam Vokes arrived at Adams Park last summer as one of the most high-profile signings Wycombe have ever made. Ainsworth described the former Premier League striker and Welsh international as “the ideal man to lead the line for us … this season” – and so it has proved.
With 16 goals and seven assists, Vokes has been at the forefront of the Chairboys’ attacking threat in 2021-22. And that’s before you even consider his exceptional ability when it comes to flick-ons in dangerous areas; only one striker (Vadaine Oliver of relegated Gillingham) to contest 50 or more aerial duels in the regular season won a higher proportion than Vokes’ 57.1%.
When then-manager Russell Martin left for Swansea City on the eve of the new season, it looked like fans of previously hotly-tipped MK Dons might have to temper their expectations. Martin had his side playing some of the most attractive football in the whole EFL; could anyone come in at that short notice and pick up where he left off?
As it happened, yes – and his name was Liam Manning. Appointed as the club’s first-ever head coach, Manning had retired from a non-League playing career in his mid-20s and gone on to work with Ipswich’s academy, before taking charge of West Ham’s U23 side then Belgian second tier outfit Lommel SK.
In an October interview with The Athletic, Manning labelled his footballing philosophy “extreme” for League One – and it’s not hard to see what he meant. MK Dons can pass opponents into submission like no other team in the third tier; their average of 11.54 sequences of 10 or more passes/game puts them comfortably ahead of next-ranked Ipswich (9.08/game). Unsurprisingly, they also rank first in terms of average sequence time (10.08 seconds) and build up attacks (2.45/game).
And Manning’s means aren’t just easy on the eye; they’re highly effective too – as evidenced by the fact that MK Dons finished one spot and point off automatic promotion. Like Wycombe, they scored a solitary penalty in the regular season – with their total of 78 goals bettered only by Sunderland (79), Oxford United and champions Wigan Athletic (both 82). That, paired with a joint-second best defensive record of 44 goals conceded, would appear to make them the most balanced team in the League One play-offs – on paper. They are also effective from distance too, with a total of 14 long range goals only beaten in the EFL this season by Stoke City in the Championship and… their play-off opponents Wycombe.
This will be MK Dons’ fifth appearance in the play-offs, having previously been involved three times at this level and once in League Two; they’ve lost in the semi-finals on all four occasions to date.
Keep an eye on: Scott Twine
The newly-crowned League One Player of the Season, Scott Twine could find himself in the Premier League next season – never mind the Championship. The highly versatile 22-year-old has taken the third tier by storm in 2021-22, with 20 goals and 13 assists making him the joint-highest goal contributor alongside Wigan’s Will Keane.
As MK Dons thrashed Plymouth Argyle 5-0 on the final day of the regular season, Twine bagged four goals – the first of them directly from a free-kick, his sixth such strike of the campaign (the most of anyone in the top four divisions). That free-kick was also the former Swindon Town man’s ninth goal from outside the box overall this term; no other player in the top four tiers has managed more than six.
Sunderland vs. Sheffield Wednesday
This might just be the most decorated third tier play-off tie there’s ever been; between them, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday have won 10 top-flight titles and lifted the FA Cup six times.
But those glory-laden pasts count for nothing in the comparatively undistinguished present – and Sunderland will be trying to make it third time lucky in the League One play-offs, having lost the 2019 final against Charlton Athletic to a 94th-minute winner and gone out to Lincoln City in the semi-finals last term.
The Black Cats should beware the curse of the red and white stripes, though. In 44 years of the play-offs, teams with red-and-white-striped home shirts have gone on to win them on just four out of 45 occasions (a success rate of 8.8%). Potentially worse still, clubs whose home kit traditionally comprises red-and-white-striped shirts with black shorts have lost 17 out of 18 finals (Sunderland have lost all three in which they’ve featured).
Considerably less ominously, Sunderland enter the end-of-season extravaganza unbeaten in 13 – the second-longest active streak in the country behind Liverpool. Since Alex Neil succeeded Lee Johnson as boss in mid-February, they have lost just one of 15 games (2-1 to MK Dons in the Scot’s first home match in charge) – and having taken 24 points from the last 30 available in the regular season, they are the most in-form of the four promotion hopefuls.
That turnaround has been built on markedly strengthened defensive foundations. In the 31 matches prior to Neil’s arrival (two of which came under the caretaker charge of Mike Dodds), Sunderland shipped 43 goals at an average of 1.38/game; in the subsequent 15, they let in 10 at an average of 0.66/game (a decrease of 52.1%). There’s been no sign of a repeat of the 6-0 demolition by Bolton Wanderers which cost Johnson his job.
Holding the third tier’s second-best home record in 2021-22 (51 points from a possible 69) and set to be roared on by the biggest crowd of the semi-finals, Sunderland ought to be confident of taking a lead to Hillsborough for the second leg. However, the only side with a better home record (53 points) are… Wednesday.
Keep an eye on: Ross Stewart
At one point one of five Ross County players named Ross, Ross Stewart joined Sunderland on January deadline day last year. And with three goals in 468 minutes before the end of the 2020-21 season, the quite old-school, beanpole centre-forward gave fans a nice taste of what to expect.
The brilliantly-nicknamed ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ has proved suitably monstrous this season, banging in 24 goals to finish second to Will Keane (26) in the Golden Boot race. And how’s this for a positive omen? Those 24 included a hat-trick in December’s 5-0 hammering of Wednesday at the Stadium of Light.
Like Wycombe, Sheffield Wednesday are aiming to bounce straight back up to the Championship – which they finished bottom of last season, always hamstrung by a points deduction for breaching EFL profitability and sustainability rules.
It’s been something of a season of two halves for Wednesday, who took a solid yet unspectacular 37 points from their first 23 games then 48 from their final 23 – of which they won 15. Among those successes were crucial comebacks against Fleetwood Town and Portsmouth in the final two matches as Darren Moore’s men showed the kind of character which stands you in good stead come the play-offs.
Per expected goals, only Oxford were more threatening from open play in the regular season than Wednesday, who racked up 49.7 open-play xG at an average of 1.08/game. – and they performed slightly above expectation, scoring 54 open-play goals (out of 78 altogether). That said, if they do make it to Wembley, they’ll face one of the five teams who registered more.
But Wednesday will back themselves to outscore any opposition; from 1 January onwards, no team chalked up more goals than their 48 – which included four against Plymouth, Cheltenham and Portsmouth, five against Burton Albion, and six against Cambridge United.
Last time Wednesday were involved in the play-offs five years ago, they were vying for promotion to the Premier League – losing to Huddersfield Town in the semis (having been beaten by Hull in the 2016 final). Their only previous third tier play-off campaign came back in 2005 and culminated in a thrilling 4-2 extra-time win over Hartlepool United at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Keep an eye on: Barry Bannan
A modern-day club legend, Barry Bannan has inspired his side this season as skipper and string-puller-in-chief. Only Accrington Stanley’s Sean McConville (72) created more chances throughout the regular season than Bannan’s 57 (of which six were assists).
The diminutive former Scotland international also notched five goals of his own, with his outrageous, 40-yard, half-volleyed lob in last month’s 3-2 triumph at MK Dons earning him the EFL Goal of the Season award. Everyone associated with Wednesday will be keeping everything crossed that Bannan is fit to deliver crosses after he limped off late on in Saturday’s 4-1 victory against Portsmouth.