Arguments for and against the Championship’s play-off quartet

Date published: Saturday 1st May 2021 8:00 - Nathan Spafford

Ivan Toney, Dominic Solanke, Cauley Woodrow and Andre Ayew

The Championship play-off teams have been decided, if not the positions. Brentford, Bournemouth, Swansea and Barnsley each have pros and cons.

 

Brentford

Why they will go up:
Currently sitting top of the best of the rest pile, Brentford have been threatening promotion to the Premier League for what feels like an eternity. While their first season in the new stadium has been overshadowed by largely having no fans in attendance, Thomas Frank’s outfit are in pole position to mark their first campaign in new surroundings with elevation to the top flight for the first time in the Premier League era.

With two games of the regular season remaining, they are the division’s highest scorers with Ivan Toney a shoe-in for the second tier’s Golden Boot. Over the course of two to three games, outscoring their opponents in short bursts could be a surefire way to win the Wembley lottery.

With such nerves tested during the end of season play-offs, experience in such moments can be crucial, so while final defeat to Fulham in last year’s delayed season was painful, the Bees can use such heartbreak to their advantage this time around. They already have experience of victory in the semi-finals against potential opponents Swansea City, while much of the squad remains from that 2-1 extra time loss to Scott Parker’s Cottagers a year ago.

 

Why they won’t go up:
To be Frank, the manager is still a big part behind why Brentford are not already plying their trade in the top flight. Many still quantify Brentford’s success to the Dane, but their greatness is largely misunderstood. Brentford are succeeding despite Frank, not because of him. Like last season, despite having the best attack in the division, one of the Championship’s best-rounded midfields and potentially three future England internationals in their ranks, Brentford have dropped out of the top two late in the season due to a combination of poor in-game management and a safety-first approach which belies the quality in their squad.

Brentford have also proven they are yet to shake off the big-game monkey from their backs which haunted their run-in last term, seeing them drop out of the automatic promotion race after football’s resumption. Beating Bournemouth a fortnight ago was all well and good and could bode well should the two teams face each other at either stage of the play-offs, but that was when the pressure was off and Watford had all but secured their immediate return to the top flight. Both the team and the manager have to prove they have learned from last year; there is little evidence to suggest that is the case.

Thomas Frank

 

Bournemouth

Why they will go up:
It would certainly make sense, given the two teams that came down with the Cherries from the Premier League last season have already wrapped up their immediate returns to the top flight. For all three to bounce back would be – and there is no better word for this – dull. But for Bournemouth, it would represent fantastic success given how wrong this season could have gone.

Swiping right on Jason Tindall to change the ethos of the club’s results from a season having been Eddie Howe’s right-hand man for the best part of a decade was optimistic at best, while hiring Jonathan Woodgate, who performed admirably but was so far out of his depth at Middlesbrough in 2019/20, has all the hallmarks of a club finishing closer to the bottom than the top of the league.

So the fact that Bournemouth are not only in the top six but also come in as one of the form sides, save for that Brentford defeat in mid-April, is testament to the work that Woodgate has put in at Dean Court in his half a season in charge so far. If they’ve got this far, you can’t help but wonder what can stop them from coming out on top once more.

Factor in Team of the Season winger Arnaut Danjuma weaving his magic on the left flank and Bournemouth are an incredibly dangerous proposition.

 

Why they won’t go up:
When it came to thinking up this piece, I presumed Bournemouth would provide the most reasons of the four play-off contenders as to why they wouldn’t win the whole damn thing, but when it came to writing there is no obvious issue holding them back. However, the same factor behind what makes their involvement in the play-offs quite so bewildering could also hinder them. To call Woodgate’s work on the south coast to date admirable would be condescending. The interim man has done a job managers with much more more experience would have struggled to, but the play-offs are a different beast entirely.

In his short reign at hometown club Middlesbrough, Woodgate allowed the pressure to get to him, particularly in pre and post match press conferences. The pressure never tells more than when promotion is on the line, and when the pressure tells on the manager it can very easily spread to the team.

Arnaut Danjuma celebrates

 

Swansea City

Why they will go up:
Go to the Brentford section. Ctrl+C. Ctrl+V. Experience is largely key for the play-offs and despite suffering defeat to Brentford in the semi-finals last year, they retain Steve Cooper in the dugout and much of that squad, including the immaculate Ghanaian forward Andre Ayew. However important Toney is to Brentford, Ayew is tenfold that to the Swans. He is the calm exterior to the paddling legs beneath the water without him.

Also like Brentford’s attack, Swansea have the best defensive output in the play-offs despite a recent swell of goals against in recent months. Should they find that balance from the first three-quarters of the campaign, it is difficult to see any of their three potential competitors putting the Swans out of reach, particularly as long as Ayew is fit and firing.

Like many of the sides from yesteryear, including the outfit when the Swans defeated Reading 4-2 in the play-off final a decade ago, this team has been built on a strong team ethic but it is key players who could prove to be the difference when it matters. On-loan Newcastle United goalkeeper Freddie Woodman has had a stellar second campaign in south Wales, keeping 20 clean sheets with two games to spare, while Ayew is an obvious catalyst for promotion.

Woodman’s fellow loanee Conor Hourihane, on a temporary switch from Aston Villa, has dropped in form significantly since a stellar first three games in white and black, but his deadly precision for the spectacular could see the Irishman add his name to a long list of classic play-off moments should he get minutes on the pitch when it matters.

 

Why they won’t go up:
Of the four teams in the play-offs vying for the remaining 2021/22 Premier League spot up for grabs, three seem to be arriving in good form when it matters most. The odd team out? Steve Cooper’s Swansea City, of course. Having looked more likely for the top two until a late-season wobble, the Swans have seemed most likely to drop out of the top six altogether in recent weeks. It makes for a stark contrast to last season when a barnstorming run of form saw them make it at Nottingham Forest’s expense.

Then, that play-off campaign was a bonus as much as it was a genuine need to win. This time around, the tables are turned. This was the least that was expected of this side and this manager following last year’s near heroics. With the pressure on, it is time to find out whether the Swans will sink or swim.

Yan Dhanda lies on the floor dejected

 

Barnsley

Why they will go up:
Last but by no means least, the unknown quantity that is Barnsley. While two of their play-off rivals were in the end-of-season lottery last season and the remaining Bournemouth were defeating Champions League-bound Leicester City not long before, Barnsley were in the midst of a great escape from exiting the second tier. They now hope to do so through the ceiling rather than the floor.

A late winner against Brentford in the final regular league match at Griffin Park coincided with Wigan Athletic’s points deduction to miraculously keep Gerhard Struber’s side in the Championship, but he departed following a poor start to this campaign. Enter stage left, Valerien Ismael. The French-born German native has put the rest of south Yorkshire to shame and has a chance to do the same to his play-off rivals.

Proof that there is no right way to play football, the Tykes have made child’s play of their opponents in recent months with their uber-direct style of play. With two games of the regular season remaining, they have won more matches than any of the three teams above them.

The lack of pressure on Barnsley given how far they come in such a short space of time under Ismael means they can play the end-of-season competition like they have done much of this campaign: free and easy. With little expectation, such relaxation could help Barnsley complete the miracle.

 

Why they won’t go up:
The surprise with which Barnsley have taken the Championship is with good cause. They have by far the lowest budget of the four teams here, the least forward planning for the eventuality of Premier League football, and individually the fewest top quality players. They are very much the definition of a team being far more than the sum of their parts but in the play-offs, individual moments can, and often do, count more.

Think Charlie Adam’s Blackpool free-kick in 2010. Think the wonder goals scored by the likes of Alex Revell, Gary Alexander and Paddy Madden for Rotherham, Millwall and Yeovil Town respectively.

Think the penalty shoot-out saves, the match-saving tackles, the season-defining moments of genius and each of Brentford, Bournemouth and Swansea have more players likely capable of producing those.

Add in that Barnsley have lost more games and conceded more often than any of their play-off rivals and their dreams of a place back in the Premier League after two decades away could be over almost as soon as the play-offs begin in May.

Nathan Spafford is on Twitter

Carlton Morris, Cauley Woodrow and Valerien Ismael

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