In the battle to gain one of the coveted three automatic promotion from the fourth tier of English Football, four teams have slightly distanced themselves from the chasing pack. An additional number of clubs are in contention, all within 5 points of the automatic promotion places. EFS has analysed all teams involved to see who is likely to be promoted, and who is in the play-off lottery come the end of May.
Swindon Town currently lead the table on 50 points, sitting 3 points clear of Exeter City and 6 points clear of fourth-placed Bradford in the first play-off position. Both Exeter and Bradford have played a game less than Swindon. The foundation of Swindon’s success has been their away form. Away from the County Ground, they have recorded 24 points in 13 games. This is the highest points tally away from home in the league.
Swindon’s success is built on a relentless attack. They have scored 46 goals in the league, which is tied with Crewe for the highest total in the league. This is 8 more than any other team. This shows up in the number of goals they have scored away from home; they have scored 25, which is 5 more than any other club.
One concern for Swindon is maintaining their scoring rate. Question marks surround their main 2 strikers. Eoin Doyle has been recalled from his loan spell by Bradford, and Jerry Yates may potentially be recalled by Rotherham. However, Richie Wellens’ side have shown themselves to be one of the best teams at creating chances, and this should continue regardless of who is leading the line.
Swindon is in the middle of a run of very difficult fixtures. Of their 10 opponents covering their last 5 matches and next 5 matches, only 2 are in the bottom half of the table. In the previous 5 games, they have recorded a respectable 8 points. A similar points tally in their next 5 should be enough to keep them in the promotion places before their schedule eases. It will be a major surprise if Swindon are not playing League One football next season.
Exeter is in the midst of an excellent run. They are unbeaten in 8 games, winning 5 of those. This has propelled them up the table into 2nd place. Whereas Swindon has reached the top of the table leaning on their potent attack, Exeter have relied more on their defence. 10 of their 13 wins this season have been to nil, which is the highest figure in the league. Both teams have scored in only 11 of Exeter’s 25 games, the 44% is below the league average of 50%.
Exeter performed well against strong teams over their last 3 matches, winning 3 and drawing 2 against teams placed in midtable and the play-off positions. This gives confidence that they can maintain their strong performance going forward, as their upcoming fixtures are difficult, as shown in the table below.
4 of Exeter’s next 5 games are all against teams in the top 13, with the other against Grimsby Town, who have recently appointed Ian Holloway as manager. This is a serious test of Exeter’s credentials as a promotion contender. If they can survive this tough run of fixtures, it would be expected they would go on to secure promotion in May.
Crewe are arguably the surprise team of the season so far, with few experts predicting they would be battling for promotion this late in the season. They appear to be in the race on merit, as they feature the most lethal attack and the most exciting games in League Two.
Crewe’s games have seen 3.1 goals per game, which is 0.7 goals more than the league average. This is the most goals per game of any team in the league, with no other team average more than 3 goals per game.
Crewe has scored 46 goals this season, which is tied with Swindon for the most in the league, although Crewe have played 2 games fewer. Crewe have also seen both teams score in 16 of their 24 games, whereas the average League Two team would have seen both sides score in 12 games out of 24
The downside of the excitement of watching Crewe is they have the leakiest defence of any team in the top 9. This is despite playing at least 1 game less than most of their rivals. If Crewe can become more resilient in defence, they have the firepower in attack of a promotion-winning side.
Crewe is coming off a more comfortable 5 game stretch against teams all in the bottom half of the table. They performed well in those games, picking up 10 points. Their next 4 games are much trickier, as they face 3 teams on the road, including league leaders Swindon. Scunthorpe have been in excellent form, and despite their off the field troubles, Macclesfield have only lost once at Moss Rose all season. Crewe are worth watching very closely over these 4 matches; if they can keep pace with the league leaders, then they have every chance of gaining promotion.
Bradford City have had a solid campaign so far as they aim for an instant return to League One, following their relegation last season. They have made Valley Parade a fortress, winning 9 of their 13 matches, gaining 29 points, and only conceding 8 goals. Both are the best figures in the league.
As mentioned above, Bradford has recalled Eoin Doyle from Swindon. While there are questions raised as to how he will fit into Bradford’s playing style, the move directly weakens a rival. If Bradford decides they Doyle does not fit, there is an opportunity to raise funds by selling Doyle. A player with his scoring pedigree will undoubtedly attract interest from League One and Championship clubs.
Bradford are in good form at the moment, they are unbeaten in their last 8 games, although they have drawn 5 of those games. The key point in those matches in their defensive strength, they have only conceded 3 goals. Overall, they have conceded 20 goals this season, which is tied for the fewest in the division.
Bradford’s next 5 fixtures are mixed, covering teams from both ends of the table. They are on the road for 3 of those 5 games, where they have been noticeably weaker this season. They have picked up 15 points away from home, which is slightly more than half of what they have gained at home. Ultimately, while their defence is proving as difficult to breakdown as it has been the last 2 months, they will be in the race for automatic promotion at the end of the season.
Although the above 4 teams are the leading teams in the race to secure a direct path to League One, there is a cluster of 5 clubs who are 3-5 points behind Crewe in the final automatic spot. Their chances are analysed below.
Cheltenham Town has lost the joint fewest games in the league. However, they have struggled to win games, which has led to a small slide down the table. At the end of October, they were in 3rd place, only 2 points off the leaders at the time. Since then, as the table on the right shows, they have only lost 2 matches, but have accrued 13 points from their 11 games, putting them 10th in the form table, despite playing more matches than most of their rivals.
Ultimately, it appears unlikely they have enough firepower to be able to win enough matches to be able to challenge for the top 3 placings. Their solid defence would be a strong asset in the play-off’s, and give them a chance in every match.
Plymouth Argyle currently sit in 5th, 3 points behind Crewe. Plymouth have had a distinct season of 2 halves, in their first season in League Two following relegation from League One. Consider the table on 26 September on the left, and since that date on the right.
Plymouth made a slow start to the season against expectations, sitting as low as 14th with 12 points from 10 games. However, they have turned it around, recording the second-most points, and the only team over that period to average over 2 points per game. They have been able to rely on a tight defence, as over that period, only 2 teams have conceded less than Plymouth’s 13 goals.
Plymouth has a prime opportunity to close the gap on the automatic promotion places, as their next 5 opponents all currently sit in the bottom 10. Given Plymouth’s excellent form over the last 3 months, it would be a surprise if Plymouth don’t win the majority of these games, and start to put the pressure on the top 4.
Forest Green Rovers
Forest Green Rovers were expected to battle towards the top following their play-off semi-final exit last season. For a portion of the season and as recently as 4 November, they were the pacesetters in League Two. However, their form has taken a significant dip since then, as evidenced below. They now sit in the final play-off place on 41 points.
The biggest issue facing Forest Green is scoring goals; they have scored 8 goals in their last 10 matches, with 4 of them coming in one game at Leyton Orient. As such, they are starting to lose track with the top 3. Although they are only 3 points behind Crewe in the final automatic promotion spot, they have played 2 games more. Similar to Cheltenham, it appears their lack of firepower will hold them back from achieving automatic promotion. However, another play-off campaign is more likely.
Colchester United have had a mixed season. After 15 games, they were sat in 12th, with the look of a midtable team. However, they have gone unbeaten over their last 11, winning 5, to put themselves on the fringe of the play-off places.
Of these 11 matches unbeaten, only 3 have come against teams in the top half of the table, which were all drawn. Their upcoming 2 fixtures are against teams towards the foot of the table. However, following those is a brutal 3 match stretch against 3 of the top 4. If Colchester want to be battling for automatic promotion, then they will have to show they can beat the teams at the top of the table. The likelihood is they will be fighting for a play-off spot.
Overall, the teams that are most likely to secure automatic promotion and avoid the play-off lottery are Swindon and Exeter. They have small questions to answer, but barring a disaster, both clubs appear well placed to return to League One next year.
The final automatic promotion place is expected to be fought out between Crewe, Bradford and Plymouth. Each team has more significant questions to answer than the top 2, and Crewe may struggle to strengthen in January to the extent that Plymouth and Bradford likely have the capability to. The race is expected to go on to the end of April and will be analysed further later in the season.
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