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The data behind Leeds United’s play-off chances

Can Leeds United make a return to the top-flight of English football?

There are few clubs in English football like Leeds United.  Few who are so vociferously loved by their supporters and despised elsewhere in the game.  Fewer still who have achieved the trophies and accolades of Leeds while latterly fall from grace in way that would have made Icarus wince.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then the Wikipedia entry for ‘Doing a Leeds’ should fill in the gaps.  The fact that the page exists at all should tell you plenty.

Love them or loathe them, there are few in football who would not like to see Leeds United return to the Premier League.  They’re the closest they’ve ever been since they lost their Premier League status in 2003, finishing 3rd in the table this season and stepping in to a play-off competition with a winner take all final at the end of May.

We’ve applied some of our digital campaign analysis to look at the current and historic data that surrounds the EFL Championship play-offs in an attempt to gauge Leeds’ chances of getting back to the Premier League.

Top at Christmas

Christmas, in the football calendar is traditionally used as an indicator of a club’s likely promotion chances and on Christmas Day 2018, Leeds were top of the league, a point clear of Norwich City.

We looked at the Championship table from the 2000/01 season to-date.  That shows that the team who were on top at Christmas went on to achieve promotion 83% of the time.  Each time however, those promotions have been achieved through the top-2 automatic spots.  Only Ipswich in the 2004/05 season have dropped from top at Christmas to 3rd at the end of the season and they failed to make the final, losing their semi-finals to West Ham 4-2 on aggregate.

History says that if you’re top at Christmas and then finish 3rd, you’re 100% likely to stay in the Championship.  OK, it’s a sample of 1.  There must be something else.

Finishing 3rd

Ipswich finishing 3rd but missing out on promotion will not give hope to Leeds fans, but the significance, historically of that 3rd place is important.

Since the 2000/01 season the team finishing 3rd has gone on to win the play-offs 44% of the time.  The team finishing 5th have gone to achieve promotion 28% of the time.

This should give plenty of hope to Leeds supporters who might just be looking for something good to cling to as the play-offs get under way.  With Aston Villa in 5th at the end of this season and Leeds in 3rd the 2 favourites for the Wembley final look in the best place historically to go up.

Form

History is one thing, but we’re operating in the present and who is playing and how well is going to make a massive difference to the Championship playoffs.  Of the 24 clubs in the Championship, from Christmas until the end of the season, Leeds finished 10th in the form table with 11 wins from a possible 23 and 10 defeats.  Their form is the worst of all the play-off teams.  Aston Villa are the ‘in form’ play-off team with 12 wins from 23 and only 4 defeats.

Leeds’ form in their last 6 games looks even worse, with them sitting 16th overall in the Championship form table, while Derby County are second, managing 5 wins from the last 6 games of the season.

A lot is made about momentum and form as the play-offs approach, but historically, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.  Since 2000/01 the average number of points acquired by the promoted team is 11, Leeds picked up 7.  There’s only been 1 team before this year to be promoted with form of that kind – neighbours and local rivals, Huddersfield Town who were promoted in 2017.  In that season, Fulham reached the play-offs with 16 points from their last 6 games, yet they failed to reach the final.  Leicester City reached the 2009/10 play-offs on the same streak and also failed to reach the final.  Leeds’ form is certainly better than in 2005/06 (when they last reached the play-offs) with only 1 win in their last 6 games.  Historically it seems, form is over-valued.

Leeds are an attacking side – forcing 48 corners in their last 6 games.  Aston Villa are their only play-off rivals who earned more (57) but Leeds maintain a better ratio of corners for and against, creating 2.4 corners for every 1.1 conceded.  Villa come in at 1.9 for every 1.1 conceded.

And it’s Leeds’ wastefulness in front of goal that seems to be the issue.  In their last 6 games, they’ve had 126 shots of which 38 were on target (30%) and they scored only 7 goals.  That’s a conversion rate of 5.6%.  Derby County, who Leeds face in the semi-finals made 92 shots of which 46% were on target.  They scored 14 goals, giving a final conversion rate of 15%.

Strike rates

 

We also reviewed the 4 clubs’ comparative strike rates – that is the number of shots they need to score.  Leeds have the worst strike rate of all the play-off clubs, requiring 18 shots to score, versus West Brom and Derby who each require around 6.  With key striker Patrick Bamford banned for the 2 semi-final legs, this is a worrying statistic for Marcelo Bielsa.Leeds United Strike Rate Table

Head-to-head

You can only beat the team in front of you, so it’s important to look at the head-to-head statistics and judge how things look.

Leeds United head to head table

Leeds clearly have no-one to fear here, with only 1 defeat in 6 games against the other playoff contenders.  They’ve also scored in every game.  The away defeat to West Brom is the only heavy stain in an otherwise impressive record.

Conclusions

Leeds’ fans will feel disappointed not to have achieved automatic promotion.  For all of their heartbreak, it’s hard to argue that Leeds United have had anything other than a great season.  2018/19 represents their best league finish since they were relegated from the Premier League.  A squad who under-performed and failed to meet up to their promise under a raft of previous managers have been transformed in to a promotion chasing side.  Leeds’ enigmatic coach, Marcelo Bielsa has done an amazing job and has lived up to his reputation as one of world football’s best managers.

The data suggests that both history and current form stand between Leeds and the top division.  But hell, it’s a game of 2 halves, the lads’ll give it 110% and goals win games.  Only time will tell whether this will be Leeds’ year, and as a life-long supporter, I desperately hope it will be, but the signs aren’t good.

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