The League One Play-Offs begin on Friday and EFL pundit Gab Sutton dissects the strengths and weaknesses of all four candidates for promotion, before picking his winner!
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Why they might win it
They’ve got to a club record-breaking 96 points.
Since the rules were changed from two points for a win to three in 1981, there have been 41 full seasons in which that tally would have sufficed for automatic promotion from the third tier – but in the one Wednesday needed it to, it didn’t.
Going four points shy of a centurion is a fantastic achievement, when one considers the injury crisis the Owls have suffered at different points: losing key men in George Byers and Josh Windass, along with defenders Michael Ihiekwe and Ben Heneghan, plus forwards Callum Paterson and Lee Gregory.
While the Owls don’t quite go into the Play-Offs with a clean bill of health, the timing is favourable: they have the strongest squad they’ve had available for some time, with key man Josh Windass back fit.
Moore’s side have accrued a whopping 80 points from the 35 games in which Windass has featured in, and a mere 16 from 11 from those he hasn’t: an 84% improvement in form.
When the former Accrington Stanley forward doesn’t play, the Owls miss his penetrative runs, both driving the team forward on the ball and stretching defences off it, which create far more space for the likes of Lee Gregory and Josh Windass in attack, or even Barry Bannan picking up second balls.
For a team that doesn’t exactly have great attacking wing-backs, and relies at times on individual quality, that penetration in central areas becomes even more integral, as without it, everything is played in front of opponents.
Bannan, himself, has arguably been an inch or two short of his full capability this season, but even that may be because he’s leaned on so heavily in the creative process.
Only Sam Morsy averages more passes per game than the Scot (52.2) from 12 midfielders with 40+ league appearances, which is huge, considering the 33-year-old has played as an attacking midfielder six times.
The Owls stalwart has the quality and pedigree to make a huge difference in games of this magnitude, as can target man Michael Smith, who has won promotion from this level three times with Rotherham.
Liam Palmer, meanwhile, brings outstanding leadership and is extremely fit and strong for a one-club man into his 13th season.
Why they might not
The quality of management.
Barnsley and Bolton have outstanding coaches in Michael Duff and Ian Evatt, who have established clear patterns of play, a smoothness about their game as every player knows what they’ll do before they get the ball, with relationships and combinations across the park.
Conversely, Peterborough have in Darren Ferguson the experience, the high-stakes knowhow, someone who’s been in the pressure positions before and come out with a trophy on the other side, winning five promotions in his career.
Darren Moore is neither on the same level as Duff and Evatt from a coaching standpoint, nor does he have the same credentials, pedigree and prestige as Ferguson.
Moore is a fantastic human being who represents his club impeccably, with an admirable devotion to community causes, and the achievement of getting to 96 points despite the injury crisis should not be discounted by any means at all.
Ultimately, though, Moore’s sides – West Brom, Doncaster and Wednesday – have all relied heavily on individual quality.
Plus, since George Byers’ injury in March, the points per game average has dropped from 2.26 to 1.58 as it became a struggle to find alternative midfielders.
There’s hope that a four-game winning streak against safe opponents, then 10-man Derby, has provided some answers, but it could still be that Byers is a huge miss in the crunch clashes.
Plus, for all Palmer brings in terms of leadership, he won’t help the Owls break a team down by providing the same quality as a Conor Bradley, for example, or the same pace as Jordan Williams.
Marvin Johnson, meanwhile, is an attack-minded wing-back, but he does have a tendency to check back inside once he gets into good areas.
That might not be a problem if he’s paired with an overlapping centre-back who gets forward quickly, like Reece James, but if it’s Michael Ihiekwe on the left – which is possible with Akin Famewo absent – then Johnson checking inside may slow the game down.
Barnsley, Bolton and Peterborough will all have full-backs or wing-backs who can directly influence the game in an attacking sense, and that could be where Wednesday are more limited, and reliant on a midfield that’s missing it’s top performer.
Why they might win it
They’ve got Michael Duff.
Since starting senior management in 2018-19, the Northern Irishman has delivered either huge progress, or record-breaking success in each of his five seasons.
Duff kept Cheltenham up comfortably in his first season from a tough position, thanks to exemplary home form, then led them into a first top seven finish at the level in seven years, then to a first EFL title, then to a highest-ever finish.
At Barnsley, the 42-year-old inherited a divided club and has instantly transformed the cultured, repaired relations between team and fans, recruited brilliantly, and built a team that plays with cohesion, quality and togetherness, with clear patterns of play and relationships all across the park.
Whether it’s the left-sided combination play between Liam Kitching, Nicky Cadden and Herbie Kane, or the right-sided link-up between Jordan Williams and Adam Phillips, the Reds have threats on both sides.
Allow them space in the middle and Luca Connell will ping the diagonals like nobody’s business, try to play out yourselves and Devante Cole and James Norwood will press you into submission.
Barnsley are an excellent team, and while it understandably took them three months to truly look like a team in Duff’s image, the last six months are a more realistic reflection of where they’re at now – and that’s a whopping 65 points from 31 games, with nobody else in League One taking more in that timeframe.
Why they might not
The Mads Andersen injury.
The Reds stalwart started the first 44 league games of the season, but pulled an abdominal muscle at completely the wrong time, and has missed the last two, inviting doubt over his availability for these crunch clashes.
One solution could be found by moving Bobby Thomas into the centre of defence, moving Jordan Williams to right centre-back and bringing Barry Cotter in at right wing-back, which is what Duff did for the final day 2-0 loss to Peterborough.
That option is sub-optimal, though, as it’s a bit like losing three players instead of one, because Thomas and Williams have to quickly familiarize themselves with new positions at a high-stakes point.
Bringing in Robbie Cundy for Anderson as a straight swap would minimize the tactical disruption, but the 25-year-old had been out of action between January and March due to injury.
Since then, the former Cambridge defender played a combined 35 minutes of football prior to the penultimate game of the league season, in which he started in a defensively chaotic 4-4 draw at MK Dons.
Neither solution is wholly convincing, and it’s also possible that Duff rushes Andersen back before he’s 100%.
Why they might win it
Eoin Toal and Ricardo Santos are back.
In contrast with Semi-Final opponents Barnsley, who may not have their defensive lynchpin available, Bolton do, and while Santos wasn’t quite at his sharpest in the 3-2 win at Bristol Rovers, he should have another gear in his locker for the big games.
Toal, when fit, is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and is crucial to the way they start moves off from the back with his tidy ball-playing ability: the Derry recruit is not afraid to join in the final third link-up play either.
With returnees potentially including Jack Iredale and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Wanderers have admirable squad depth: they possess around 24 players they would be happy to back to influence games of this magnitude, which may be more than any club can say in this competition.
This depth has allowed Evatt to rest key players for the final games, with neither goalkeeper James Trafford, star right wing-back Conor Bradley, midfield dynamo Kyle Dempsey, nor industrious strikers Elias Kachunga and Dion Charles kicking a ball at Bristol Rovers, yet still the team won 3-2.
Morley’s class and control can be called upon against Barnsley, but Ian Evatt also has the option of bringing MJ Williams into the fray for some extra midfield solidity at any point he sees fit.
Defender Luke Mbete and attacking midfielder Shola Shoretire are regarded among a Manchester giant’s top young prospects, at City and United respectively, yet the January loanees are expected to start the Play-Offs on the bench.
Why they might not
Out of 11, there are only seven players whom, it can be confidently predicted, will start: Trafford, Toal, Santos, Johnston, Bradley, Dempsey, John and Charles.
Of those, Toal and Santos have only come into the side recently after injury, and what Bolton gain in terms of freshness and tactical flexibility from having more options than their competitors, they may lose in continuity.
Sometimes it’s better to go into the Play-Offs with a set starting XI already in motion, with the group having played together in previous games.
That would mean, in times of pressure, they can fall back on the muscle memory, the familiarity of knowing what to expect from those around them.
When Sunderland went up last season, they made just one line-up alteration across the three Play-Off encounters, and only one of their substitutions in three games came before the 80th minute.
Alex Neil’s commitment to the XI was such that Dan Neil, one of the nation’s most prodigious talents, didn’t kick a single ball across the three games.
Sometimes there’s something to be said for deciding on an XI, and placing an unwavering trust in them for the pivotal games: it can bring an element of clarity which Bolton may not have.
Why they might win it
Darren Ferguson’s promotion knowhow.
After Simon Grayson won his fourth and most recent League One promotion with Preston North End in 2014-15, the Yorkshireman handed the baton of third-tier specialist over to Fergie Jr, who has now won three promotions from this level, five in total.
By contrast, Darren Moore, Michael Duff and Ian Evatt have two promotions between them, of which none were in this division.
10 of the last 15 League One Play-Off competitions have been won by a manager who had won promotion previously, and if we deem experience to be paramount at this stage, Ferguson is the person anyone would want in the pressure cooker.
Not to mention, the Posh come into the extended campaign off the back of their best performance of the season, at rivals Barnsley, which gives them excellent momentum to take in.
Oli Norburn has defied his doubters this season to become arguably the team’s most integral player in midfield, alongside Hector ‘the protector’ Kyprianou, who’s solidity allows Jack Taylor to make his dangerous driving runs in transition.
From an attacking midfield role, Taylor also has the quality of final ball to pick out hold-up front-man Jonson Clarke-Harris, as well as Kwame Poku and Player of the Year Ephron Mason-Clark, an inspired acquisition from Barnet.
Peterborough have won 13 of their 22 games since Ferguson returned for his fourth stint as manager in January, and will see themselves as a match for anyone on their day.
Why they might not
Despite the argument for Ferguson being a huge asset at the pressure cooker point of the season, the Posh have in fact struggled in some of the high-stakes games.
Beat Bolton and Play-Offs are in your own hands? Lose 5-0. Beat Cheltenham and close the gap? Lose 3-0. Cement your place by winning at Cambridge? Lose 2-0.
The form under Fergie Jr has been great overall, but when Peterborough have dropped points, it’s not tended to be a draw (only three of them in 22) or the wrong side of fine margins, it’s been defeat with a whimper.
Every team has an off-day, of course, but Ferguson’s side have had one too many to be considered reliable, which is a worry given what’s at stake.
Plus, Nathan Thompson and Nathanel Ogbeta are out for Friday’s first leg against Sheffield Wednesday, and Dan Butler has been overlooked as a replacement for the latter because he would be seen to reduce the attacking support for Mason-Clark, which Ogbeta has offered so well.
As such, Peterborough’s full-backs in the first leg could be Joe Ward and Harrison Burrows: Ward might be able to do a job at right-back through his selfless work ethic, though even he is naturally a more attack-minded player, but the versatile Burrows in a back-four is certainly a defensive risk.
Ferguson might feel he can away with that risk through midfield solidity: equally, any team who uses the wide areas well will feel they can get at Peterborough.
Sheffield Wednesday to beat Peterborough in one Semi-Final, Bolton to beat Barnsley in the other, with Wanderers victorious at Wembley!
It’ll be tight, but the combination of Bolton’s strength in the dugout will show, and their appealing depth will allow them to keep the intensity up throughout the competition.
At 10/3 third-favourites, Wanderers are certainly the value play.
Bolton to win promotion – 10/3