EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his bet to join Norwich and Watford in the Premier League next season – and it’s not who you probably expect.
Hear more from Gabriel Sutton in our EFL Playoffs Preview Podcast.
Why they will win it
Short answer: they have Ivan Toney.
The former Peterborough front-man was, by a country mile, the best player in League One last season and is starring equally in the second tier with 31 goals in 45 games, breaking a Championship record.
One would think that, to get that sort of return, a striker would have to be very selfish in the final third, so it is even more remarkable that Toney averages one key pass per game and is one of just six players to reach double-figures for assists.
On top of this, the 25-year-old has physicality, mobility and the persistence to hassle and harry defences for 90 minutes, so it seems there are no weaknesses to his game.
Having such a strong centre-forward makes Brentford’s work a lot easier – they come into this game off the back of four straight wins and five clean sheets in seven.
That is partly because organiser Pontus Jansson and the athletic Ethan Pinnock, who were such key parts of last season’s clean sheet machine, have returned from injury to start as wide centre-backs either side of last season’s midfield metronome, Christian Norgaard.
Thomas Frank has discarded the 4-3-3 he has deployed for much of the past two seasons in favour of a 3-4-1-2 and Norgaard, another player who has battled injury this season, can face the opposition goal when he collects the ball as a defender, whereas he would be more vulnerable to the press at the base of midfield.
📝 Ivan Toney writes his name into the history books having scored 𝟯𝟭 league goals this season, a record in a Championship season pic.twitter.com/neJoVs2CCg
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 8, 2021
Why they might not
One of the risks of Frank’s 3-4-1-2 system is that one of the two central midfielders is Mathias Jensen who, last season, thrived in a 4-3-3, pressing high in the right channel and swinging in left-footed crosses close to the penalty area.
If Jensen retains that attacking intent, he risks leaving dynamic Die Mannschaft destroyer Vitaly Janelt exposed to opposition transitions in the chasm between attack and defence.
Bournemouth might not have the pace to exploit that particular vulnerability but, in a theoretical final, Barnsley’s high-press would add to the risk while Swansea’s Connor Roberts would look to make use of those gaps with his inverted runs.
It is also possible that Ivan Toney’s form has masked areas in which Brentford have regressed from the following season.
Bryan Mbuemo has struggled to recapture his 2019-20 form while Tariq Fosu, though a reasonable technician in pockets, is simply not Said Benrahma.
Why they will win it
Swansea have the best ‘goals against’ record out of the four teams and there was even a stage this season at which it was wondered whether Steve Cooper’s troops would better the stinginess of 2001-02 West Brom and 2015-16 Middlesbrough sides.
That might not have quite come to fruition, but 20 clean sheets is great going by anybody’s standards and only the top two conceded more than once on fewer occasions than their nine.
Freddie Woodman has been a key part of that because, not only has the goalkeeper made 98 saves, he has also made 63 of them from inside the penalty area, which is more than all bar two Championship stoppers.
Athletic, ball-playing centre-back Marc Guehi has excelled on loan from Chelsea, complimenting the experienced Ryan Bennett, who has won promotion from this level before with Norwich and Wolves.
Connor Roberts, meanwhile, has featured in every league game this season and, from a right wing-back role, excelled both with potent long throws and direct, inverted runs into central areas which unhinges opponents.
Roberts’ runs create space for flair forward Andre Ayew and raw runner Jamal Lowe, who have both enjoyed strong individual campaigns, scoring 30 goals between them.
“He’s been the best right back in the league” 💪
In our Playoff preview, we asked Tom from @TotalSwansTV who will be Swansea’s key man? 🔑
Aside from Andre Ayew, he picked out Connor Roberts.
— The Second Tier (@secondtierpod) May 12, 2021
Why they might not
When opposing teams nullify Ayew and give Lowe no space to run in behind, Swansea miss a third forward to give them something to think about.
Young striker Liam Cullen, who started the league curtain-closer at Watford, has shown glimpses of potential but may be deemed too inexperienced to influence games of this importance.
Cooper has tried creative number 10s like Kasey Palmer, when he was on loan from Bristol City and Yan Dhanda, but neither found consistency, nor did striker Viktor Gyokeres.
Conor Hourihane was added in January on loan from Aston Villa in a shift from 3-4-1-2 to 3-5-2 and the Irishman started well with strong showings against Rotherham and Norwich, but 12 goals in their final 12 games suggests the Swans are missing some firepower.
There is also a tactical issue, because while Cooper has favoured wing-back systems throughout the campaign, he has recently moved to 4-3-3 without great results and goes into the Play-Offs not knowing his best formation.
On the one hand, imperfections in the 3-5-2 were sufficiently troubling for the head coach to tinker elsewhere, yet on the other, the 4-3-3 has not worked.
The pressure of the Play-Offs, alone, can be a lot to handle, so it hardly helps for players to be unsure of their tactical roles on top of that.
Why they will win it
As recently as February 2020, Barnsley were nine points adrift of safety having earlier that season gone 17 games without a win and they only just stayed in the Championship on the final day.
The Reds, therefore, can enjoy the Play-Offs with nothing to lose, because if they do not win promotion, they have still had an extremely memorable campaign and if they win, they will etch themselves into Tarn folklore.
Valerien Ismael’s side can let go of their inhibitions and execute their high-intensity, high-octane, unrelenting pressing game, which can truly scare teams.
Ismael has played a blinder by rotating as many as six forwards: the athletic Conor Chaplin, workhorse Carlton Morris, technician Cauley Woodrow, lively wide forward Dominik Frieser, powerful front-man Victor Adeboyejo and star man Daryl Dike rarely stay on the pitch for more than an hour, which means when they are present they can fully commit to the physical demands.
Alex Mowatt, whose tenacity and sweet left foot has made him one of the best midfielders in the division this season, is expected to recover from a minor injury to start in South Yorkshire on Monday.
Mowatt will be flanked by wing-back Callums Brittain and Styles, meanwhile, who have been inspired this season.
Like everyone in this Barnsley side, both have incredible energy levels but they use it in different ways: Brittain attacks the right flank to put low crosses in, while Styles cuts in from the left to produce moments of quality.
On top of that, Ismael’s side carries a real threat from set pieces, with tall centre-backs Michal Helik and Mads Andersen being directly involved in 12 goals this season – Helik is expected to be part of Poland’s squad at the Euros.
Callum Styles with young player of the season, Alex Mowatt with the players’ player of the season and Michal Helik voted player of the season.
All deserved but let’s also just take a minute to say a massive well done to every Barnsley player, what a season lads! 🙌🏻
— Joe Beardsall (@JoeBeardsall) May 8, 2021
Why they might not
Barnsley recruit young players because they suit their pressing style and must be credited for having a clear identity at a time where so many clubs do not.
If we look at recent Championship Play-Off winners, though, they have all had experience – and former Premier League players – in their ranks.
Norwich in 2015 had Russ Martin and Alex Tettey, Hull in 2016 had Michael Dawson, Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone, Fulham in 2018 and 2020 had Tom Cairney and Tim Ream while Aston Villa in 2019 had Ahmed Elmohamady and Neil Taylor.
Barnsley’s squad has just six Premier League appearances between them – and Cauley Woodrow’s showings for Fulham were back in 2013-14 – so they will hope to emulate Huddersfield, who went up without much big-game knowhow.
Critics, though, would say that Town went up by beating a rather mediocre Reading side, whereas Tarn must defeat stronger opposition.
Why they will win it
Each member of their most recent starting XI, barring Ben Pearson, has played Premier League football, which shows they have the pedigree and experience to thrive.
Pearson has the tenacity to relish one-off games and, in midfield, could compliment the presence and quality of Jefferson Lerma, who has played 23 games for Columbia.
The Cherries also have an appealing wide man in Arnaut Danjuma, though somewhat indulgent in possession, can either attack the flank or veer inside from the left and produce a moment of quality.
Danjuma, with 15 goals, has joint-top scored with Dominic Solanke, yet the latter has been at times a touch wasteful in front of goal, often looking more comfortable dropping into pockets of space in front of the defence than finishing off moves himself.
Bournemouth’s biggest goal threat may, in fact, come from midfielder Phillip Billing, who has bounced back from the criticism he received earlier in the campaign to finish the season in good form, notching five times in the final 10 games.
Oh, and they have one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship in Asmir Begovic.
Season Ratings each day of some players leading up to Playoffs.
🧤Asmir Begovic = 9/10@asmir1
What a man & what a player he has been this Season.
Ever present in the team with 45apps, 15 Clean Sheets & 1 Assist.
Won us & saved us numerous points
— Kirk Tovey (@KirkTovey) May 10, 2021
Why they might not
The Dorset side began life in the Championship well but four straight late-winter defeats cost Jason Tindall his job, with the mentality of the group questioned.
Jonathan Woodgate, a straight-talking, no-nonsense head coach got the players performing again but, after Bournemouth finished the season with three consecutive defeats, there is a fear that cultural issues are resurfacing.
This Bournemouth group have been criticized for showing a lack of desire at times and it is difficult to see them going from three meek, passive displays to one full of passion and vigour.
On top of that, the Cherries will not get much out of their full-backs in an attacking sense.
Jack Stacey has found starts had to come by due to his defensive positioning, so Adam Smith could start at right-back but, at 30, does not have the legs to overlap with too much gusto.
Left-back Lloyd Kelly, meanwhile, proves his pace in his recovery runs but, having developed as a centre-back for parts of his career, struggles to bring that pace to the fore going forward.
The likeliest winners are Brentford, who have a great chance of beating Bournemouth to reach Wembley.
The 6/4 on the Bees winning promotion, however, implies Frank’s side have a 40% chance of going up.
That seems dubious, considering the average team in a Play-Off competition has a 25% chance and the West Londoners have won just one more Championship game this season than Swansea and Barnsley, two more than Bournemouth.
A more accurate price might have been 2/1, so while there may be much to like about Brentford, it is difficult to justify backing them at such narrow odds.
Barnsley, meanwhile, are as big as 7/2 to win promotion, yet they have accrued 75 points from 40 games since Ismael was appointed in late October, two fewer than Brentford picked up in the same timeframe.
The Reds can press Swansea into submission in the Semi-Final and while Toney could threaten them at Wembley, they could keep the star striker out of the game if they stop Brentford at source by giving Norgaard no room to breathe.
While the concerns about Barnsley’s lack of Premier League experience are valid, it is also true that their ability to swarm round opponents in an instant is unlike any team that has ever graced this level, so the Reds may make up for not following the pre-existing Play-Off rulebook by writing a ground-breaking new one.
Frank is the frontrunner, but the value is with Val.