As is usually the case, as we approach the Championship play-offs the teams vying for the spots from third to sixth can be divided into categories with regards to how they end the regular season.
While consistency in this division is difficult to come by Huddersfield Town and Reading have come as close to it as possible, never really looking in great danger of missing out. Then there are those that could be considered in and out of form.
Both Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham certainly fall under the former while a dismal run for Leeds United has seen them slip out of the top six, potentially losing their chance at a long awaited top-flight return.
There are still two vital games to play in the season. But the sense is already building that the momentum is with the two sides in fifth and sixth. It’s not uncommon for a team to mount a late charge and where Huddersfield have been relatively assured of their spot, they’ve perhaps subconsciously been able to ease off the gas a little more than those in the position of Wednesday or Fulham.
Play-off myths busted
It’s led to a misconception that the team that finishes third invariably doesn’t get the final promotion spot their regular season record has warranted. It is, in fact, a complete mixed bag with regards to the team that wins football’s most lucrative match.
While only one of the last seven play-off winners since the turn of the decade has finished the season in third, last year Brighton & Hove Albion were the first of those in five years not to make the final. By contrast, the last team to go up having finished sixth was Blackpool in 2010.
Nevertheless, there’s no question that form is everything ahead of such high pressure fixtures, right?
Well, over the same timeframe – perhaps disappointingly for the likes of Wednesday – that’s not really been the case either. Whether you consider form to be over a prolonged period of ten games or the six that so many seem to justify it, only one of the last seven winners has been promoted off the back of the best end to the season of those competing in the play-offs.
Perhaps by no coincidence that was the Norwich City side of 2015, who just happen to be the aforementioned sole third placed victors to boot. The Canaries beat Middlesbrough 2-0 to clinch an automatic return to the top flight.
The combination of picking up more points both over the course of the entire season and in the run in is the ideal scenario that any play-off competitor would hope for but so few over the years have managed.
Finding form at the right time
Carlos Carvalhal’s side have hit their stride of late with five consecutive wins, in contrast to an abject end to the previous season that saw them finish as beaten finalists, there’s no trend to suggest that it would give them the advantage when it matters most.
So what of Leeds? What of their chances to bounce back from the blow of a poor end to the season should they claw their way back in? Some might suggest that the damage to morale is irreparable.
Again, that would be an inaccurate assumption. The Whites’ nosedive should be a concern but the key for any side is to remember the regular season is over and the boiling pot of the play-offs is a different matter entirely.
One only need look back four years to a Crystal Palace side that picked up just eight points in their final ten games of the 2012/13 season. That didn’t prevent the Eagles from knocking out the form team of that year’s play-offs, fierce rivals Brighton – who had earned 19 points over the same period – before beating third-placed Watford in the final.
The play-off lottery
What’s clear is there are a number of long-standing beliefs about the play-offs that recent history has dispelled. The team that finishes third doesn’t always miss out and there is no great benefit or disadvantage to ending a season in flying or feeble form.
The play-offs are an unpredictable lottery, which is what makes them so entertaining for the neutral and so testing for those involved. There’s hope for Leeds yet, just as there are no guarantees that the likes of Sheffield Wednesday or Fulham will profit from the confidence a strong finish can breed.
What is arguable is that the teams liable to endure the kinds of peaks and troughs of the aforementioned three are perhaps the most fragile. It’s the ability to bounce back from defeat or keep one’s composure when in a strong position that is most vital, with those able to end the season in something close to the same vein of form they managed all season often in best stead.
Six of the last seven winners have ended the season in solid if unspectacular form, picking up between 17 and 21 points over the last ten games of the campaign or between ten and 13 over the last six. Just as Leeds will hope that their tailspin doesn’t see them miss out once again, Sheffield Wednesday’s concern is that they are perhaps peaking too soon.