Why the play-offs really are a lottery

The play-offs are a lottery’ is easily one of the best-used clichés in the game. But ahead of Rotherham’s two-legged semi-final with Preston over the next week, here are six points of stats and conjecture that totally contradict each other and prove that actually it is virtually impossible to predict what is going to happen. This is the post that tried to shed light on the play-offs but actually confused exactly what is going to happen even more!
Rotherham boss Steve Evans has been quick to let everybody knows he thinks Preston are the favourites for the play-off campaign, with bookmakers and most other people following suit. However, for the semi-final at least Rotherham should not be classed as the underdog, even though Evans would thrive on it. After all, Rotherham had a better season than Preston as they finished above them in the league, with more points and a better goal difference. They scored the same amount of goals at home and far more away, though they also conceded slightly more.
Preston’s baggage
Although Rotherham have never emerged victorious from their two previous outings in the revamped play-offs, their baggage is lightweight compared to that which Preston are carrying. North End hold the record for the most unsuccessful play-off campaigns with eight and they have never gone up that way. Two of those failures came as semi-finalists in the third tier in 1989 and 1999 and their most recent misery came in 2009 where they were beaten by South Yorkshire opposition at the semi-final stage, going down to Sheffield United.
However, their dismal record, which has to end at some point, could be balanced out by boss Simon Grayson’s impressive promotion record. Grayson has taken Blackpool, Leeds and Huddersfield into the Championship, two of those with successful play-off campaigns.
This season’s league results
The two league results against Preston in the regular campaign should be discarded as they have no relevance or pointer as to how the semi-finals will go. Famously in 1998/99 Rotherham were beaten inthe play-off semi-finals on penalties by Leyton Orient following 210 minutes of goalless action, which came after the Millers had beaten Orient by an aggregate of 7-1 over their two league games. Similarly in 2009/10 Aldershot had a league aggregate of 3-0 over Ronnie Moore’s side in the two clashes, the same score by which Rotherham progressed to Wembley.
Change in tactics
Rotherham will never go into their shell and park a bus, but despite an almost gung-ho approach in the regular campaign which has beared significant fruit, Evans has hinted that the Millers will be more restrained in the semi-finals. That’s something of a new mindset for the players to contend with and it will be interesting to see how that evolves into a performance. However, make no mistake, if the Millers need a goal or two in the final 10 minutes, Evans will have no qualms with playing five up front.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
Based on historical data, Rotherham are likely to end up going out to Preston at the semi-final stage. Since the revamp format of the play-offs in 1988/89, the side finishing in the second play-off spot (in this instance fourth) has gone out at the first hurdle 45 per cent of the time, winning just 19 per cent of previous finals and losing 36 per cent of them. Stats are a little better for the third tier in isolation, showing that 24 per cent of previous winners have come from the fourth-placed team, though that record is only worsened by the team who finish fifth. So according to these stats, the Millers are likeliest to be beaten by Preston at the semi-final stage because they finished fourth, but still have a better chance of winning the play-offs than North End! Does your head hurt too?
Form and momentum is a buzzword when it comes to the play-offs, but history doesn’t necessarily agree. Across the three divisions over the last five years, losing semi-finalists collected an average of 9.5 points from their final five games of the regular season, compared to that of 9.3 of the winners. But in terms of League One alone form does seem to count as the last five winners have collected an average of 9.6, compared to 8.4 of runners-up and 9.3 of losing semi-finalists.
The Millers collected eight points from their final five fixtures, though Evans rotated his side for the majority of those, and that was the lowest of all of the play-off qualifiers. Peterborough collected 10 points, while Preston and Orient both chalked up nine. Head still hurting?



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