Battle Royale: Previewing the 2022-23 League One Season
The top of League One last season was congested. MK Dons got 89 points yet didn’t finish in the top two. Plymouth collected 80 points and didn’t even get into the top six. This season promises more of the same as up to 50% of the division will fancy they can mount a genuine promotion challenge. We look at the likely automatic candidates, the play-off schemers and the four sides most likely to end 2022-23 in the relegation zone.
Automatic Promotion: Sheffield Wednesday
Only twice in the last three decades have Sheffield Wednesday fallen into the third tier and both times, they’ve escaped after two years (via the play-offs in 2005 and automatically as runners-up in 2012). The four-time champions of England will be determined that their current stay doesn’t extend beyond 2022-23 – especially after reaching last season’s play-offs, where they lost to Sunderland in the semi-finals.
Wednesday have shown with their summer transfer business that they, well, mean business. In David Stockdale and Michael Smith, they’ve snapped up two of 2021-22’s standout League One performers; Stockdale kept a joint league-high 18 clean sheets for Wycombe Wanderers during the regular season (plus one in the play-offs), while Smith scored 19 goals for runners-up Rotherham United. Like Smith, Michael Ihiekwe – a consistently dominant centre-back at this level – rejected a new contract at Rotherham to move to Hillsborough, while Wales midfielder Will Vaulks has dropped down a level having been a Championship regular for the last four years.
They join a squad which was already teeming with talent – captained by club legend and creator-in-chief Barry Bannan, who fashioned 74 chances from open play last term, the second-most behind League One Player of the Season Scott Twine. Darren Moore has never won promotion as a manager, but he should have no excuses for not doing so with this group of players. Maintaining fortress Hillsborough will provide a more than solid foundation; Wednesday took a league-high 53 points from a possible 69 at home in 2021-22.
Automatic Promotion: Peterborough United
Promoted as runners-up two seasons ago, Peterborough are back in League One after relegation from the Championship with just 37 points (their third-lowest EFL total ever). But – while they won’t be spurred on by quite the same bitter disappointment* which prompted Director of Football Barry Fry to label their previous campaign at this level a “revenge season” – the Posh are well-equipped for another promotion push.
The club’s recruitment for their ill-fated second tier survival bid drew valid criticism, but this squad looks like one of the best at this level – not least in attack, where former League One Golden Boot winners Jonson Clarke-Harris and Jack Marriott could form a truly devastating partnership. Clarke-Harris finished as top scorer in 2020-21, notching 31 of Peterborough’s 83 goals, and has averaged 0.59 goals per 90 across his last three third tier seasons. As for Marriott, this will be his first third tier campaign since his Golden Boot-winning 2017-18 – when he ended his first Posh spell by registering 27 times.
So, Peterborough will be aiming to make an immediate return to the Championship – and recent history would appear to be on their side: in each of the last seven League One campaigns, at least one team relegated from the second tier has bounced straight back up (Rotherham have done it three times in a row). They did make the play-offs the season after their previous relegation from the Championship in 2013 – only to lose to Leyton Orient in the semi-finals then finish between seventh and 13th for the next six campaigns.
*Peterborough missed out on the play-offs in 2019-20 when the season was curtailed and settled on points per game due to the onset of Covid
Play-offs: Ipswich Town
After seeing their team relegated with the second tier’s eighth-lowest points total since 1992, realistic Ipswich fans probably anticipated a season of consolidation in League One – maybe even a couple of seasons, but expectations are high as the Tractor Boys prepare to embark upon a fourth consecutive campaign at this level. And so they should be; under Kieran McKenna, this quality packed crop is finally clicking.
Inheriting a squad overhauled for predecessor Paul Cook (Ipswich made a whopping 21 signings in the summer of 2021), ex-Manchester United assistant McKenna – the youngest manager in the country, having only turned 36 in May – picked up 41 points from his first 23 games (18 points/game). Produce that kind of form over the duration of this season and a play-off spot should be on the cards (it’s unlikely to take a total as freakishly high as the 83 points Wycombe needed for sixth last term).
A successful 2022-23 for Ipswich will no doubt be built on a rock-solid defensive base. Across McKenna’s 24 matches, Town conceded a measly 13 goals (0.54/game) from 17.1 expected goals against (0.71/game) – both league lows from the start of McKenna’s tenure onwards. The numbers suggest that they did underperform at the other end of the pitch over the same period – scoring 29 goals from 33.38 xG – but the summer arrivals of centre-forward Freddie Ladapo and winger Marcus Harness – two of the best at this level in their respective roles – should sufficiently sharpen the attack.
Play-offs: MK Dons
Considering they missed out on automatic promotion by a single point last season – before losing to Wycombe in the play-off semi-finals – then (albeit expectedly) lost star man Scott Twine, there might be fears of a hangover for MK Dons going into 2022-23. There shouldn’t be; this is a club with a robust structure in place to achieve their target of Championship football.
Tasked with delivering what MK so deeply crave is head coach Liam Manning, who took over following the departure of Russell Martin on the eve of last season – something which had, at the time, seemed like a hammer-blow to the team’s promotion hopes. But the transition to the Manning era could not have been more seamless; the 36-year-old – who was previously in charge at Belgian second tier outfit Lommel SK – has implanted his own highly effective version of Martin’s ultra-possession-based blueprint.
In 2021-22, MK continued to play some of the most aesthetically-pleasing football in the whole EFL, averaging 3.71 passes per sequence – more than any team bar Championship winners Fulham and Martin’s Swansea City – and a sequence time of 10.08 seconds – again, placing them behind only Fulham and Swansea. ‘Manning-ball’ can be blunted – as Wycombe proved in the play-offs, winning 2-1 on aggregate despite their Bucks rivals completing 361 passes over the two legs – but only champions Wigan Athletic (8) suffered more defeats than MK (9) in the regular season. Provided the likes of Mo Eisa – who notched 12 goals at a rate of 0.46/90 last term– the returning Will Grigg, and on-loan Aston Villa starlet Louie Barrie fill the Twine-shaped void up front, MK ought to combine style and substance to fine effect once more.
Play-offs: Wycombe Wanderers
Beaten play-off finalists last season, Wycombe will pin their hopes of a third successive League One top six finish on the enticing attacking triumvirate of Sam Vokes, Garath McCleary and Anis Mehmeti. Pre-assists included, at least one of those three was involved in 41 of the Chairboys’ 63 goals last term; Vokes scored 17 – none of them from the spot and seven with his head, the most of any player set to feature in League One in 2022-23.
Having played only 809 minutes during his final campaign with Stoke, it was understandable that Vokes took 29 appearances to reach double figures for Gareth Ainsworth’s side (at a rate of 0.38 goals/90) – before netting seven times in his next 14 outings (0.49 goals/90). With a full pre-season under his belt this time around, he could well reach the 20-goal mark for the second time in his career (having previously done so for Burnley in their 2013-14 Championship promotion-winning campaign).
If the former Wales international does find himself in Golden Boot contention, McCleary and Mehmeti will do doubt have played their significant part. Now 35, McCleary has found a new lease of life at Wycombe, creating a team-leading 75 chances and 12 big chances last term. He’s also taken 21-year-old Mehmeti under his wing, although Wanderers fans sense that the prodigious one-time Tottenham youth player is about to tear this division apart (only one non-striker averaged more touches in the opposition box in 2021-22 than Mehmessi’s 5.75/90).
Play-offs: Bolton Wanderers
Last October, manager Ian Evatt proclaimed Bolton to be “the best team in the league”. “People will say that’s arrogance,” he continued – and they did, but his assertion was hardly ridiculous; his side were playing well and sat eighth at the time, just five points off top spot; a play-off push wasn’t out of the question by any means. Then they went and lost nine of their next 13 games… Evatt was roundly mocked.
The former Blackpool defender (he appeared in all 38 games of the Tangerines’ 2010-11 Premier League campaign) was more or less vindicated in the end, though; from 1 January onwards, Bolton averaged 1.96 points/game – more than top two Wigan and Rotherham, and fewer than only third-placed MK Dons and fourth-placed Wednesday. For more than half a season, the Trotters – who ultimately finished ninth and 10 points off the play-offs – performed like automatic promotion contenders.
And, seeing as they’ve suffered no cataclysmic losses (so far) this transfer window, there’s every reason to believe Bolton can sustain a top-six challenge in 2022-23. The Trotters’ last two seasons have been campaigns of two halves – but they’ve both followed extensive summer rebuilds. This time around, there has been no such overhaul – because there hasn’t needed to be; this is a settled squad which should be on it right from the get-go.
Bottom Four: Cheltenham Town
This summer saw the end of an era at Cheltenham, as boss Michael Duff climbed the managerial ladder to take over at Barnsley. Under the bona fide club legend, the Robins soared to the third tier for the first time since 2008-09 – winning the 2020-21 League Two title – and came 15th, finishing higher up the pyramid than ever before in their 135-year history.
As well as Duff, Cheltenham have bid farewell to captain and key defender Will Boyle, who re-joined Championship Huddersfield Town after turning down a new deal in Gloucestershire. Minus Boyle’s leadership and aerial dominance, a back line which was breached 80 times last season could become even more porous. Fresh faces Caleb Taylor and Tom Bradbury will have to hit the ground running at centre-half.
New boss Wade Elliott – who was promoted to head coach after serving under Duff – has a bit of a rebuilding job on his hands, then. He’ll need to instil fresh belief in a team who – while they survived their first season back in League One by 16 points, recording famous wins over Ipswich and Sunderland along the way – dropped 30 points from winning positions; only fifth-bottom Fleetwood Town and relegated AFC Wimbledon dropped more. Cheltenham were able to offset that – picking up 20 points from losing positions, the third-most in the league – but that might prove more difficult without the inspirational Duff at the helm.
Bottom Four: Port Vale
In the last 10 seasons, only three sides promoted to League One have gone straight back down to League Two (Tranmere in 2019-20, and Northampton and Swindon the following campaign). The gap between the fourth and third tiers has generally been relatively easy to bridge in recent times – but it’s probably going to require a longer span this time around; the division looks top-heavy with few obviously weak teams after Gillingham, Doncaster Rovers, AFC Wimbledon and Crewe Alexandra all went down.
Fleetwood Town survived on goal difference with 40 points last term, but, adjusting to three points for a win, this was the first time a third tier team has ever stayed up with such a total; Vale themselves succumbed with 49 points five years ago. And, at the time of writing, the 2021-22 League Two play-off winners are arguably no stronger than at the end of last season – having lost two key men in the form of rampaging right-back James Gibbons and midfield pass-master Jake Taylor.
Wide man Gavin Massey and midfield Funso Ojo could both prove to be very useful additions, and Darrell Clarke has proven himself to be a highly adaptable manager – but Vale’s squad is still a work in progress that we won’t be able to judge until the transfer window closes. That said, anything above the dotted line will do for a club who were battling relegation to non-League only three years ago.
Bottom Four: Morecambe
Seemingly universally tipped for the drop ahead of the 2021-22 season, Morecambe finished their maiden third tier campaign in 19th, two places and two points above the dotted line – thus maintaining their record of never having been relegated. But they did it while conceding a league-high 88 goals.
In one way, that is mightily impressive – but is survival despite such defensive sloppiness sustainable? History says probably not; since 1992, only Rochdale in 2018-19 have conceded 85 goals or more and remained in the third tier. Talisman Cole Stockton’s 23 goals (including an outrageous 54.7-yard stoppage-time winner away at local rivals Fleetwood) went some way to offsetting the clear weak link that was their colander-like defence, but it remains to be seen whether the 28-year-old – who had never previously scored more than 13 goals in a single campaign at any level – can replicate such prolific form this time around.
Even if Stockton surpasses his extraordinary efforts from last season, Morecambe are unlikely to stay up with a points total as low as 42 this time around. With Derek Adams in the dugout, you can be sure that they’ll be well and truly up for a scrap (as is only appropriate now that they’re sponsored by local icon Tyson Fury), but one senses that the relegation-shaped net they’ve evaded for so long could finally catch the Shrimps in 2022-23.
Bottom Four: Burton Albion
During his first spell in charge, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink guided Burton to the 2014-15 League Two title – then set them on their way to promotion to the Championship a year later, a job completed by the returning Nigel Clough after the Dutchman left for QPR. His second spell – which began midway through the 2020-21 campaign – hasn’t been remotely as successful, with the Brewers stagnating in the bottom half of the League One table and recording successive 16th-placed finishes.
It’s in attack where alarm bells should be ringing loudest for Burton; last season, only the four relegated sides managed fewer open play goals their 30. Aside from loan sensation Daniel Jebbison – who netted seven times at an average of 0.51/90 before being recalled by Sheffield United – the Brewers’ top scorer was defender John Brayford with six. So far this summer, the Staffordshire club have made only one attacking addition: Victor Adeboyejo – who has just eight goals to his name since 2017-18, despite making 111 appearances across the three EFL divisions during that time.
Burton ought to at least pose a considerable threat from set-pieces – only four League One sides scored more such goals last term than the Brewers’ 19, while only the top two accumulated more xG from dead-ball situations than their 21.28 – but they’ll need to offer a fair amount more from open play if they’re to avoid getting dragged into the dogfight. How they could do with the goalscoring prowess of their manager in his prime right now.