Luton Town vs. Sunderland. Middlesbrough vs. Coventry City. Four teams. Two ties. One aim: to reach the so-called promised land of the Premier League. As we (neutrals, at least) prepare to enjoy the drama only the EFL play-offs can produce, we run the rule over the contenders to assess who will win the Championship play-offs in 2022-23.
In 2013, Luton Town made headlines by beating Premier League Norwich City in the FA Cup as a non-League team. Fast-forward 10 years and the Hatters have just finished 10 places and 18 points above the Canaries in the second tier – and are three games away from spending next season a division above them.
It’s been a whirlwind 16 years for Luton. Beginning in 2007, they tumbled from the Championship to League One to League Two and, finally, to the National League in consecutive seasons – their downfall expedited by a whopping 30-point deduction in 2009-10 for financial breaches, a punishment which ultimately ended their 89-year EFL stay. After four years in the wilderness of the fifth tier, the Hatters made steady progress back up the pyramid. Returning to the EFL in 2014, they were a Championship side once more by 2019.
Luton were so nearly founder members of the Premier League – only to be relegated by two points in the final season of the old First Division, 1991-92. Now, they’re three games away returning to the top-flight – having recorded their best league finish in 31 years. That’s despite changing managers midway through the campaign: in November, the hugely influential Nathan Jones left the club for the second time in three years and was replaced by Rob Edwards – who had recently been sacked by… Luton’s archrivals, Watford. How’s that for #narrative?
We analysed Luton’s successful campaign in great detail before April’s 2-0 derby win over the Hornets, but Edwards has built upon Jones’ success to make the Hatters even stronger. At the time of Jones’ departure for Southampton (which turned into one of the worst managerial spells in Premier League history), Luton sat ninth in the Championship after 20 games, two points outside the play-offs. The Hatters were ticking along at 1.45 points per game – a rate which, had they sustained it across the rest of the regular season, would have seen them just miss out on the play-offs. Under Edwards, their PPG has surged to 2.00/game – the third-highest in the league behind champions Burnley and runners-up Sheffield United.
Luton’s comfortable third-placed finish – they finished five points clear of fourth-placed Middlesbrough and 11 clear of Blackburn Rovers in seventh – was built on one of the very best defensive records in the Championship. A seriously tough nut to crack, only Burnley conceded fewer goals or a lower expected goals (xG) in their 46 regular-season games than Luton’s respective figures of 39 and 44.6.
Relative to most of the teams around them in the table, Luton don’t score many goals – and summer signing Carlton Morris accounted for more than a third (20) of their 57 in the regular season. But the Hatters’ direct approach – the most ‘route-one’ in the division based on their league-high direct speed of 1.81 m/s – complemented by a relentless press – no side forced more turnovers during the regular season than their 390 (8.5/game) – has put them on the brink of scaling dizzying heights. They will first have to do something they’ve never previously managed at any level of the EFL, though: get to a play-off final.
Tipped by many in pre-season for automatic promotion, if Middlesbrough are to end their six-year top-flight exile, they’ll have to do it the nail-biting way. And they’ll be hoping it’s a case of third time lucky in the Championship play-offs – having lost in the semi-finals five years ago and the final three years previously. In fact, it’s been so long since Boro went up via the end-of-season lottery that the last team they beat to do so was… Chelsea – way back in 1987-88, when the play-offs, in the second year of their initial two-year trial phase, pitted the teams placed 18th to 21st in the old First Division against those placed third to fifth in the Second Division.
It’s testament to the phenomenally transformative job done by head coach Michael Carrick – in his first managerial role – that Middlesbrough find themselves in with a shout of promotion. When the former Manchester United and England midfielder succeeded Chris Wilder in late October, Boro were languishing third from bottom of the Championship – but, after starting with a loss, Carrick and co. rallied resurgently to chalk up 17 wins from 22 games between November and March, taking 53 points from a possible 66. Just like Luton under Edwards, only Burnley and Sheffield United averaged a higher PPG than Middlesbrough under Carrick (1.93) in the regular season.
Middlesbrough’s form faltered towards the end of the campaign – they enter the play-offs in the worst form of any of the four sides involved, having won just three of their last 10 games – but they won’t have done their confidence any harm by recovering from 1-0 down to draw 1-1 at home to Coventry on the final day. That was just the ninth draw of a somewhat all-or-nothing 2022-23 for Boro, though – only Sheffield United (seven) recorded fewer Championship draws – which could augur well for some pulsating semi-final action.
The same can be said of Middlesbrough’s offensive record. Only Burnley banged in more goals during the regular season (87) than Boro’s 84 – which included 64 from a league-high open-play xG of 53.4 – and only Sheffield United amassed more non-penalty xG (71.4) than Boro’s 67.7. No team found the net four or more times in a single game more often than Boro – who did so on five occasions, with four of those coming under Carrick.
Of course, it helps when you have the league’s leading marksman in your ranks. Chuba Akpom notched 28 goals – seven more than the next-highest scorer, Viktor Gyökeres of Coventry – in 38 appearances at a rate of 0.81 goals/90. It’s just a pity the Middlesbrough fans don’t seem to have clocked how perfectly the ex-Arsenal youngster’s name would suit a chant to the tune of Tom Jones’ Sex Bomb.
Statistically sitting among the slowest and most intricate teams in the Championship stylistically, Middlesbrough could be said to somewhat recall the metronomic composure of Carrick in his playing days. Expect quite a footballing culture clash with the discernibly more direct approach of Coventry in the battle to make it to Wembley.
To the wider football world, Mark Robins is probably still most famous as the scorer of the goal which (supposedly) saved Sir Alex Ferguson from the sack at Manchester United. The Coventry boss – the third longest-serving in EFL after Simon Weaver of Harrogate Town and John Coleman of Accrington Stanley – is close to making managerial history of his own, though.
Should Robins guide Coventry back to the Premier League after 22 years away – during which time the club has faced financial turmoil and twice been exiled from its own stadium – he will become the second manager to take a team from the fourth tier to the top-flight in the Premier League era. However, unlike Eddie Howe – whose time as Bournemouth boss was broken up by a short stint at Burnley – Robins has been with the Sky Blues the entire time (although this is his second spell in charge).
Coventry are the outsiders in this season’s Championship play-offs – by one measure, anyway. The Sky Blues may have finished the regular season in fifth place, but they spent the least time in the top six of any of the four semi-finalists: just 17 days. By comparison, Sunderland occupied a top-six spot for 51 days; Luton for 104 days; and Middlesbrough for 130 days (and spare a thought for Blackburn Rovers, who spent 211 days in the top six, only to miss out on the play-offs altogether).
Robins’ side will look for inspiration from Nottingham Forest last season, who spent just 35 days in the top six but still won the play-offs – a current record for the fewest days spent in the top six to win promotion from the Championship (since the rebrand in 2004-05) to the Premier League and one which Coventry would break if they were to succeed in 2022-23.
Back in September, few would have tipped Coventry for a top-six finish. Robins’ side failed to win any of their first seven games of the season, losing four and leaking like a sieve – they conceded 13 goals in those seven matches – before eventually getting their campaign up and running by beating Middlesbrough 1-0 thanks to Viktor Gyökeres’ third of 21 league goals this term. The Sky Blues endured another rocky patch over Christmas and into the New Year – but since mid-February, they’ve lost just one of 17 games (an utterly anomalous 4-0 thrashing at home to Stoke).
One can’t put Coventry in the spotlight without doing likewise to Gyökeres, their absolute talisman. More or less ever-present, the Swedish international played 4,022 of a possible 4,140 minutes in the regular season – making 44 starts and two substitute appearances – during which he amply complemented his 21 goals with 10 assists, placing him first in the division for goal involvements (ahead of Akpom on 30 and Morris on 27).
Gyökeres might just be the best player in the Championship; Sky Blues supporters will hardly dispute such a tag if he inspires their team to the top-flight return which probably seemed impossible when they fell into League Two six years ago.
After finishing bottom of the Premier League in 2017 and propping up the Championship table the very next season, it took Sunderland four years to escape from League One – which they eventually did by defeating Wycombe Wanderers in last season’s play-off final. It could take the Black Cats just one attempt to win promotion from the Championship back to Premier League – where they feel they belong.
Sunderland are ahead of schedule – and their superb season feels all the more remarkable for two main reasons. First, head coach Alex Neil – who steered them back to the second tier and had previously taken Norwich to the Premier League (via the play-offs, no less) – surprisingly left for Stoke City less than a month into the campaign. Second, the Black Cats are the babies of the 2022-23 Championship – in the sense that the average age of their starting XI is just 24 years and 174 days, the youngest in the division – a combination of their own talent and some impactful Premier League loanees, primarily prodigious Manchester United winger Amad Diallo. The last team to win promotion from the second tier with a younger average starting XI age of were Wolves in 2008-09 (24y, 110d).
Also notable is how little time Sunderland have spent leading games: they’re one of nine Championship teams to spend less than a quarter of playing time in front this term (24%, to be precise – less than 19th-placed Rotherham United). Mowbray’s men may have comprehensively won 3-0 away to Preston North End to secure their play-off spot on the final day of the regular season – but they came from behind to salvage points in three of their four outings prior to that. In fact, over the course of the campaign, only Middlesbrough gained more points from losing positions (26) than the Black Cats’ 22.
In contrast to their fellow play-off participants, Sunderland didn’t have one of the Championship’s top three scorers at their disposal. While Luton, Middlesbrough and Coventry each had one star striker account for a third or more of their goals, the Black Cats’ goals have been more spread around. During the regular season, Diallo and Ross Stewart (the Scottish centre-forward brilliantly nicknamed the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’) found the net 13 and 10 times respectively – with Jack Clarke notching nine goals; Ellis Simms (who’s since returned to Everton to help in their fight against relegation) seven; and Dennis Cirkin and Patrick Roberts five apiece. Only Middlesbrough had more players score five or more goals in the regular season. Winger Clarke also ending up leading the Championship for total assists (11 alongside Middlesbrough’s Ryan Giles), with 2022-23 the campaign in which the 22-year-old finally had a breakout season after a disappointing period following a much-publicised £10m move from Leeds to Tottenham in 2019.
If Sunderland win the play-offs, they won’t be the first team to go from League One to the Premier League in the space of two years – but they will be the first to achieve that feat in 11 years. What’s more, the last two sides to do so – Southampton in 2011-12 and Norwich the previous season – went up automatically. Graham Taylor’s Watford claimed the third-tier title in 1997-98 then won the 1998-99 second-tier play-offs – but no side has ever climbed from the third tier to the top-flight via successive play-off triumphs.
Who Will Win the Championship Play-Offs?
The Opta Supercomputer has been hard at work crunching all the data ahead of the play-off semi-finals this weekend, and it makes Luton Town the favourites to reach the Premier League for the very first time since it began in 1992.
Rob Edwards’ side are given the highest chance of winning these play-offs at 30.8%, just ahead of Middlesbrough at 28.7%. Michael Carrick’s Boro side do have a slightly higher chance of making it to the final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 27 May, however, with a 57.7% chance of progressing past Coventry City over the two-legged semi-final.
Coventry are the outsiders to win promotion from these play-offs at 18.6%, which is lower than Sunderland’s (21.9%).