With the Wembley final of The Championship play-off estimated to bring the winner an extra £200 million for their craved return to the Premier League, it is no surprise that all four teams fighting for this right are pumped up and ready to give it their all. Below are the strengths and weaknesses of the sides.
The Rams enter these play-offs in poor form having won just 4 of their last 16 league matches at the end of the regular season. In addition, keeping clean sheets is proving very challenging for Derby. Since early February they have managed just 3 shut outs in the last 16 games.
Derby’s attacking tactics are to give the ball to the team’s best striker Vydra and let him go to work. The Czech scored 21 goals during the regular season – the highest goal tally in the league from a Derby player since 1984/85 – and the fact that he takes an average of 1.9 of Derby’s miserly 4.0 shots on target per match shows how dependant the Rams are on him in attack.
All of this makes Derby’s forward play predictable and they have struggled to mix things up on numerous occasions this spring. Derby lost 1:2 at home against Fulham and Middlesbrough in March and April respectively.
Derby are actually the only team in the play-offs with a negative balance both in terms of possession percentage and shots per game – the Rams enjoyed only 48.6% of the ball during the regular season and they also took 10.1 shots per match, while allowing their opponents an average of 12.6 attempts.
This could easily explain why Derby have the second poorest away record of all sides that finished in the top ten positions in the Championship. Clearly the Rams must make the most of their home games in the play-offs if they are to stand any chance of earning promotion to the Premier League.
Bitterly disappointed to miss out on direct promotion in the last round of the regular season when suffering their first league defeat of 2018, Fulham will be eager to bounce back and make it to the top flight the hard way.
Without a doubt the Londoners enter these play-offs as the team to watch after winning 18 of their last 26 league matches. Fulham’s attack has been almost unstoppable this calendar year with Jokanovic’s men scoring at least one goal in all of their last 24 league matches!
The winter arrival of striker Mitrovic transformed the attack. Before the Serbian was brought in on loan, Fulham were taking on average 11.7 shots per game. However with him in their ranks this tally increased to 14.0 and saw Mitrovic score 12 goals in just 15 starts.
Ryan Sessegnon has also been sensational this campaign and he was rightfully elected Championship Player of the Season. The 17-year old also became the first non-Premier League player nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
During the regular season Fulham created 448 scoring chances, 18 more than Aston Villa, with Derby and Boro not even reaching the 400-mark.
Defensively Fulham have been also very solid. They have registered 16.1 tackles per game and have managed 5 clean sheets in their last 8 matches. These numbers make them the best team in 2018 from a defensive point of view.
The appointment of Tony Pulis transformed Boro’s season and despite entering these play-offs as slight underdogs according to many pundits, the Reds have an experienced squad and a very wise manager. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pulis come up with a game plan which works for them in the Play Offs.
Middlesbrough ended the regular season scoring 2 goals or more in 5 of the last 6 rounds and despite enjoying only 49.5% possession, they still managed to amass 12.9 shots per match.
Boro use a very direct approach in attack and attempt the most dribbles of all play-off sides in 13.8. This suggests that wingers Traore and Downing play very important roles in the team. Between them they have notched up some 17 assists.
Boro also tend to be very effective from set pieces, the Reds having scored an impressive 18 goals from dead-ball deliveries during the regular season. Defender Ayala managed to net 7 of these goals, all scored after Pulis took charge, and he is officially the best scoring centre-back in the Championship this season.
That said, an inability to keep more of the ball brings with it regular problems for Boro on the road. They have managed just 2 wins in their last 9 league away matches.
Aston Villa had the best defence during the regular season with Bruce’s men keeping an impressive 20 clean sheets, including 5 in the last 8 rounds. Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone has been sensational between the posts with just 41 goals conceded in 45 league starts, not to mention 3.2 saves per match.
Villa’s defenders have also helped considerably at the other end of the pitch. Bruce’s men are officially the most effective team in The Championship from set pieces, scoring some 21 goals from dead ball deliveries.
The Villains also have the second best scoring record from the four sides contesting these play-offs, only Fulham register more than Villa’s 13.0 shots per match and again only the Londoners scored more than Villa’s 72 goals during the regular season.
Interestingly Villa don’t use typical centre forwards much and their goals tend to come more from the wingers and after runs from deep. The following chart listing the team's top goalscorers demonstrates this very clearly:
1) Albert Adomah (winger) - 14 goals
2) Conor Hourihane (holding midfielder) - 11 goals
3) Lewis Grabban (striker) - 8 goals
4) Robert Snodgrass (winger) - 7 goals
The other major factor for Villa in these play-offs will be the invaluable experience of their coach Steve Bruce, who is going for a record-breaking fifth promotion from The Championship to the Premier League.
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