EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bets for the League One Play-Off final as Sunderland and Wycombe do battle for a place in the Championship.
Where does the time go?
It seems only yesterday that Sunderland’ double demotion saw them drop into League One, but the alternative to a return to the Championship on Saturday is a fifth consecutive season in the third tier.
Wycombe Wanderers, meanwhile, are vying to bounce back instantly: they were officially relegated on the final day of their Championship campaign and are looking to write the next chapter of their incredible journey under Gareth Ainsworth.
The sub-plot is Adebayo Akinfenwa, who would be making his last ever EFL appearance at Wembley before leaving the Chairboys this summer.
Having called for managers to “hit me up on WhatsApp” after scoring a decisive penalty in the League Two Play-Off Final for Wimbledon in 2016, Ainsworth will be glad he did hit ‘Da Beast’ up on the instant messaging service, given what followed in the subsequent six years.
Akinfenwa is one of the most recognizable figures in the lower league game by more casual observers – so could he finish his esteemed EFL career with a bang?
Alex Neil’s side will feel they deserve their place at Wembley, even if the Semi-Final with Sheffield Wednesday was not all plain sailing.
The Mackems had the better of the play in the first leg, which they won thanks to Ross Stewart’s strike, and patches of the second at Hillsborough – although Patrick Roberts’ crucial injury-time strike came somewhat against the run of play.
What’s more, the Wearsiders have a manager in Neil who is proven to deliver in big games: the Airdrie-born boss has won a Scottish Championship Play-Off Final with Hamilton and a Championship Play-Off final with Norwich.
Plus, while Sunderland are not frequently hitting threes, fours and fives past opponents like they often did under Lee Johnson, they are better at grinding out points in tight games and getting results when not at their best – which had been a real issue under the previous regime.
For that reason, they are in a better position going into this final for having the current incumbent rather than his predecessor.
Just how big an achievement it is for Wycombe to finish in the top six is difficult to quantify.
On the one hand, Ainsworth will rightly point out how far the club has come, the strides that have been made to defy the odds: what was accomplished in 2019-20 was one of the greatest achievements in EFL history.
This season is slightly different – not in the sense that the Chairboys have not had another very impressive campaign, but that there is more expectation.
The club have external investment from the Couhigs, they have a proper structure with improved facilities, they have a B Team that has already produced budding stars like Anis Mehmeti and Chris Forino, they can afford former Wales international Sam Vokes, proven Championship experience in Josh Scowen and Garath McCleary, plus they have not had to sell anyone they did not want to bar Uche Ikpeazu.
We can remark about Little Old Wycombe being in a League One Play-Off Final, but expectations change with circumstance – otherwise it would still be incredible that Wanderers are playing in the EFL, rather than having derbies with Slough Town in the National League South.
The Tactics Board
Sam Vokes holds the key to Wycombe’s performance, and perhaps ultimately their result. If the former Burnley target man wins most of his headers, the Chairboys have a great chance of bringing the likes of McCleary and Daryl Horgan into the contest.
Vokes might not be able to dominate against Danny Batth, who will operate in the middle of the back three and is very much an aerial specialist.
The veteran might have more joy against 6’0” Bailey Wright, on the right of the trio, although the Aussie is an experienced centre-back, but the number on target man has to be Dennis Cirkin, also 6’0”.
Last summer’s recruit from Tottenham is a left-back by trade who has been converted into a three, and will not have experienced many duels quite like those against Vokes in his career so far.
It could be a ploy for Wanderers, therefore, to get Vokes to stand on Cirkin for diagonals from technician Joe Jacobson, then get on-runners attacking the box.
If Wycombe can get this pattern of play right, they stand a good chance, because defensively there is reason to trust them: the Chairboys had their issues earlier in the campaign, but have shipped just six goals in their previous 14 encounters.
And, while the Buckinghamshire outfit deserved the two-goal lead they took to MK Dons with an outstanding first leg display, they also defended that advantage impeccably in the second leg and rarely looked like conceding in a critical second half.
Scowen has been arguably Wycombe’s most consistent performer this term and will get through lots of destructive work, as well as stopping Sunderland’s creator-in-chief, Alex Pritchard.
Dom Gape, meanwhile, has incredible stamina and is more than capable of joining Scowen in a double-pivot when required, while Jordan Obita’s athleticism should counter any attempts Lynden Gooch makes to attack the right flank.
McCleary is a highly intelligent operator as well, and may look to cut out passes between Cirkin and left wing-back Jordan Clarke, who is right-footed and may at times be forced to drive infield, which is where all the traffic will be.
If the likes of McCleary and Scowen can force turnovers, then Wycombe need only play an early ball into Vokes and straight away, Horgan will be on his bike, racing beyond the main striker to potentially expose Sunderland.
The Black Cats could fall short for a lack of creativity from deep, with Luke O’Nien and Corry Evans unlikely to have the craft to maximize the space they may be afforded, although Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton offer appealing options that could change things up from the bench.
Wycombe, though, have two big centre-backs in Anthony Stewart and Ryan Tafazolli, for whom both, aerial ability ranks as a primary strength: so Ross Stewart may not be able to dominate in the same way Vokes can at the other end.
The Betting Angle
Wycombe to be promoted
While Wycombe’s calibre of first XI will not be too dissimilar to that of Sunderland, there is less pressure on the Chairboys – even though they are the ones who have been to the Championship more recently.
Ainsworth is an outstanding psychologist, playing down expectation whilst simultaneously talking his team up and he will keep his side in the right frame of mind going into the game.
That’s not to say his opposite number will not, but the Black Cats may feel the weight of expectation to secure victory, given the history of the club in the higher divisions.
Considering the above, Wycombe to win promotion looks the value play at 11/8.