Ahead of the action starting on Friday, we examine how much bearing a team’s final league position has on their chances of winning in the EFL Play-Offs.

There is something so special about the EFL Play-Offs. After a long and arduous campaign, 12 teams across the Championship, League One and League Two essentially have their season’s fate sealed in the space of no more than three games.

All that came before is pretty much meaningless; the marathon of a season becomes a sprint and the margins are finer than ever. One mistake could be the difference between semi-final elimination and eventually securing promotion at Wembley Stadium.

For three-quarters of the teams involved, the play-offs ultimately bring despair and agony, condemning them to at least another season of treading water at whatever level of the English football pyramid they’re at.

But for the three teams who do secure promotion via the play-offs, it’s ecstasy, like a double dose of jubilation as the glory of winning what is, in essence, a cup final marries up with the relief and excitement of earning promotion.

It’s no wonder Tony Mowbray, in charge of Sunderland in the 2023 Championship play-offs, concluded “it’s the best way to go up, undoubtedly; it’s better than winning the league”.

Speaking last April, he said: “I’ve [won a league title] as a manager, but the day you win promotion at Wembley is amazing. It’s like winning a cup final and promotion all in one.”

Of course, Mowbray’s Sunderland fell short, narrowly missing out to Luton Town in the semi-finals, with the Hatters going on to beat Coventry City on penalties at Wembley after a 1-1 draw. But that’s the nature of the play-offs – they can be brutal.

Tony Mowbray during the Play-Offs
Tony Mowbray during the 2023 play-offs

This season’s action begins on Friday with the first leg of the first League One semi-final between Barnsley and Bolton, and so it’s about this time every year that discussions around the play-offs invariably turn to identifying who the favourites are.

For many, it’s a simple answer: whichever team finished the highest in the table. It makes sense; that team accumulated the most points over the regular season, so that’s a pretty sound claim to being the best of the four sides involved. And the highest-placed team always faces the lowest-placed team in the semi-finals, thus theoretically giving them the easiest route to the final.

But we all know that’s not how things always turn out, which in itself encapsulates the brilliance of the play-offs. So, is it essentially a lottery, or does your final league table position actually have some bearing?

Looking back over every season in the Championship, League One and League Two since the 1989 play-offs, which were the first played in more or less their current guise, there is a similar trend across the three divisions.

In both the Championship and League One, 37% of play-off finals have been won by the team that finished the season in third place. Admittedly, that does include the 1994-95 Championship season, when Bolton Wanderers went up through the play-offs after finishing third, but in that campaign only one team went up automatically, so Bolton didn’t actually finish highest of the four teams in the play-offs.

Championship Promotion via Play-Offs
*Seventh qualified for the play-offs once, in 1990-91

Nevertheless, that’s offset by the fact that four years earlier, three went up automatically. Notts County won the play-offs that year having finished highest of the four teams involved (fourth).

When we then look at the outcome of the Championship play-offs more recently, over the last 18 seasons, that third spot looks even more important; 50% of the teams to win the play-offs over that period finished the regular season third.

League One doesn’t look much different in that respect over the last 18 seasons, with 44.4% of the teams to go up via the play-offs ending the campaign third in the table. That is massively influenced by the fact that four of the last five League One play-off winners came third, a nice omen for Bolton this season.

League One Promotion via Play-Offs
*Seventh qualified for the play-offs once, in 1990-91

On the face of it, League Two sees an even greater proportion of the highest-positioned team winning the play-offs over the full 35-season period; 42.9% of winners have ended the season third (in 1994-95, when only two went up automatically) or fourth. However, only three of those have been in the past 18 seasons; in that time, the team that’s finished seventh – the lowest-ranked of the play-off sides – has won the League Two play-offs most often (six times); cue wry smiles from fans of Crawley Town, this season’s seventh-placed side in League Two.

This would suggest that in League Two there’s less of a gulf in quality between the best and worst teams – or at least between the middling sides and those not quite good enough to earn automatic promotion. After all, three teams go up automatically, so the last play-off spot is a place lower in the table than in the Championship or League One.

League Two Promotion via Play-Offs
*Third qualified for the play-offs once, in 1994-95. Eighth qualfied for the play-offs once, in 1990-91

Another aspect we can take into consideration is form. There’ll be those who argue being on a good run is more important than your league position once you’re in the play-offs; momentum is a valuable commodity in football, so it stands to reason.

To get a measure of form, we’ve looked back at each team to reach the play-offs across the three divisions going back to the 1993-94 season and worked out whether the eventual winners took the most or fewest points out of the four teams over their final five league games.

Obviously, there are caveats here. Like, just because a team hasn’t won the most points over the final five games of a regular season doesn’t mean they aren’t “in form”; similarly, one team might have had a much trickier fixture schedule over the final weeks of the season. So, with that in mind, it’s not an exact science, but looking at how they finished their campaign does provide some indication as to a team’s momentum, at least in relation to the other teams they’re competing against in the play-offs.

For instance, in the Championship, 30% of the last 30 winners of the play-offs have won either the most or joint-most points of the four teams in their final five league games heading into the semi-finals. Just 13.3% of them have earned the fewest or joint-fewest points in their last five regular-season fixtures.

Form before the Play-offs

There’s a comparable split in League Two, with 30% of the last 30 winners going into the play-offs as the form team – or as the joint form team – and 16.7% having finished the league season with the fewest or equal-fewest points.

But in League One, it’s much more even. Sure, form teams edge it slightly with 36.7% of the winners falling into this category, but a third of the teams to go up via the play-offs have earned the fewest or joint-fewest points over their final five matches. Perhaps a reason for optimism then for Barnsley, who head into Friday’s game having taken just two points from their last five matches.

When it comes to form or momentum, Oxford United go into the League One play-offs in the best shape after taking 10 points from their last five; in League Two, Doncaster Rovers appear to have the edge there after dropping just two points over the past five matchdays.

The play-off spots in the Championship will be confirmed this weekend. Only Southampton are certain of a berth because Leeds United could yet usurp second-placed Ipswich Town while Hull City can still overtake West Brom and Norwich City, though the Canaries’ superior goal difference makes it very unlikely that they will ultimately miss out.

If Hull do make it either at the expense of West Brom or Norwich, they’d go into the play-offs having won the most points in their final five matches, with none of the five clubs directly above them in outstanding form.

The evidence suggests form or momentum do come into it – how could they not? But it’s an undeniable fact that teams that finish the highest in the table win the play-offs in each division more often than teams in any other position.

As noted, this is especially true in more recent times in both the Championship and League One, which is potentially a knock-on effect of teams having increasingly more money after dropping down from the Premier League. They might just get pipped to automatic promotion, but in the sprint of the play-offs, their better and bigger squads can get them over the line.

But, of course, nothing is guaranteed. If Leeds ultimately miss out on going up automatically this weekend, they might have statistically the best chance of winning the play-offs, but they’ll still have to earn it.

And that’s the beauty of the play-offs. Sure, it’s another bite of the cherry, but it’s also a second threat of failure.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.