Aston Villa recorded perhaps their easiest victory of the season with a 4-0 demolition job of wayward Ipswich Town at the weekend to confirm their position in the playoffs. The Tractor Boys are currently managerless after Mick McCarthy’s departure and have nothing to play for and proved perfect opposition to maintain what looks to be a strong end to the season.
Of course, there is a massive sense of ‘what if’ around Villa Park at the moment and if only one of those losses to QPR, Bolton Wanderers and Norwich City had been a victory we’d still be in with a decent chance of automatic promotion.
However, the result at Portman Road seemed to have a feel of accepting our fate in the playoffs. That we could just enjoy the ride without worrying about the destination at last. In truth, it was little more than a training ground exercise, especially after Grant Ward’s dismissal just before half-time. Whilst the table shows that we are still in with a shout, the vast majority of fans simply seemed to just enjoy these three points without worrying about having to still chase down second place in the table.
Of course, there are still concerns about our chances in the playoffs. Many people would rather see Fulham edge Cardiff to automatic promotion just to eliminate the possibility of having to face them and there is a general nervousness about having to navigate our way through uncertain waters in order to gain promotion.
Personally, I think we should feel pretty ballsy about our chances regardless of who we play. There are a lot of factors in our favour. The emergence of Lewis Grabban as a regular goalscorer is perhaps the thing that is currently filling me most with confidence. Imagine if we’d had him from the outset, or even a fit Jonathan Kodjia.
Similarly, Jack Grealish is in the form of his life and Conor Hourihane appears to be emerging from his dip in form just in the nick of time. Defensively, we’re beginning to look tough to break down again after our spell of generosity to the opposition.
With just two games to go, we look like we’re beginning to at least peak going into the playoffs. However, there is still a notion that the whole system is somewhat of a ‘lottery’ and that form goes out of the window. In fact, there are several scaremongering generalisations made about the playoffs. Which made me take a closer look at an attempt to bust the myths.
I was interested to see first of all if there was any sort of correlation between where a team finishes in the table and whether they go up. We know that the playoffs can be incredibly cruel and unfair. Especially when that team who have been languishing around mid-table all year and finally managed to win several games at the end of the season to sneak into sixth place always seem to go up. But is that actually just a bit of an illusion?
I looked at each season since 1992-93 up until last year, which is 25 years in total. In that time, just four teams who have finished in sixth place have gone on to win the playoffs. Furthermore, Blackpool in 2009-10 is the only team to manage that feat in the last twelve years.
Similarly, there also isn’t much truth in the theory that teams finish finishing third are mentally broken by missing out on automatic promotion. Eight of the last eighteen finals (44% since 1999-2000) have been won by the team finishing third. Even more impressively, in the same period a whopping thirteen teams finishing third, or 72%, have gone on to at least contest the final.
However, at the same time, only one team in the last five years that finished third was triumphant in the final (Norwich 2014-15). So is there a trend that is changing?
Perhaps one anomaly, however, is that the team finishing in fifth place has a better record than the team finishing in fourth position. That is a trend that Villa looks like they will need to ensure does not continue should we end up in that position, which at the moment looks likely. Just five teams have gained promotion from fourth spot in those 25 years, compared to eight from fifth place.
It’s worth bearing in mind that fourth and fifth always first meet in the two-legged match and so can never contest the final which has an effect on this stat to an extent. That is always more likely to be a more evenly matched affair in comparison to third playing sixth. And the fifth-placed side gets two games over which to beat the team in fourth.
Yet, again over the last five years, both QPR (2013-14) and Hull City (2015-16) who each finished in the fourth position gained promotion. So perhaps that advantage is beginning to show a little more in recent times.
On the first inspection, our fears about facing Fulham if they finish third looks to have some sort of merit. But then surely what we are actually concerned with is facing the form team?
So I then decided to look at the form of each team going into the playoffs since 1992-1993. Specifically, their last five games of the season, excluding the actual playoff matches.
Only seven of the teams (28%) with the best form at the end of the season went on to actually win the playoffs, suggesting that having a slight wobble at the very end of the season isn’t the be all and end all.
However, at the same time, going into the playoffs with the worst form absolutely does have an effect, with just three of the worst performing teams, equating to a miserly 12%, going on to win in the last 25 years. Interestingly, one of those included Huddersfield Town last season who picked up just four points from their last fifteen available. Perhaps even more amazingly, the other teams involved in last years event (Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham) all picked up at least twelve points during their run-ins and were in good form.
In fact, teams can look absolutely nailed on to tear up the playoffs and spectacularly fail. Both Ipswich Town (1997-98) and Leicester City (2009-10) took a maximum fifteen points en route to the playoffs and didn’t even progress to the final.
On average, teams winning the playoffs take 9.24 points in their last five games of the season. Solid but unspectacular form.
So after all that, what can we deduce from past trends? Whilst I still don’t subscribe to the playoffs quite being a ‘lottery’ it is clear that there are plenty of anomalies. However, we can see for example, that there is a clear disadvantage to finishing sixth and also coming into the playoffs in disastrous form. We look to have avoided both of these pitfalls at least and debunked a couple of playoff myths by looking into this a little. Although maybe we have strengthened the argument for finishing third to gain a slight advantage!
Gaining the psychological edge and nabbing third place would be great if at all possible. But again, it isn’t the be all and end all. Injuries and suspensions and other factors come into it all also which can’t be discounted. If Fulham were to lose Aleksandar Mitrovic for example, would we fear them quite so much? Probably not, and I don’t believe we should fear playing any team anyway.
Overall I do believe that this will be in our own hands and that we are more than capable. Wherever we finish, no one will want to come up against us. We’ve shown we can beat anyone in this league and in style at times also. Maybe, like last weekend, we can at least have a couple of more weeks of just enjoying the football before we let the nerves set in for that first leg match of the playoffs.