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Projecting the Championship Playoff Race

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The race for the top six may come down to the wire. What needs to happen for Fulham to make it?

Hull City v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

How things stand

The race for the top six is looking like it might not be decided until the last week of the season. Any of the teams in positions three through ten might still think they are alive. Though I’d argue that it will be hard for anyone lower than Fulham to make it in. Here’s how things look as of March 6th.

Current Playoff Race

Team Position Games Played Points Points Per Game Goals For Goals Against Goal Differential Pythagorean Points Pythagorean PPG
Team Position Games Played Points Points Per Game Goals For Goals Against Goal Differential Pythagorean Points Pythagorean PPG
Huddersfield 3 34 65 1.91 45 39 6 50.53 1.49
Leeds United 4 35 64 1.83 49 35 14 58.00 1.66
Reading 5 35 63 1.80 49 46 3 49.82 1.42
Sheffield Wednesday 6 35 61 1.74 47 34 13 57.51 1.64
Fulham 7 34 56 1.65 59 40 19 58.36 1.72
Norwich City 8 35 52 1.49 60 53 7 52.11 1.49
Preston North End 9 35 52 1.49 47 44 3 49.81 1.42
Derby County 10 35 51 1.46 38 32 6 52.47 1.50

Fulham are just outside and looking in as things stand today. However, there is a case to be made that Fulham have underperformed. They have the best goal differential of all the teams remaining and still have a game in hand. We have added to columns to this table based on the Pythagorean results. Using this formula, we can calculate what we would have expected to happen based on the goals scored and goals given up. Doing this shows that Fulham is the only team that has underperformed their goal scoring numbers.

As you may be aware, we’re firm believers in traditional stats not telling the full story. We’ve prepared the same table based on expected goals rather than the actual goals scored. Again, we have added columns to show the Pythagorean results.

Current Playoff Race Advanced Stats

Team Position Games Played Points Points Per Game xGF xGA xGD Pythagorean Points Pythagorean PPG
Team Position Games Played Points Points Per Game xGF xGA xGD Pythagorean Points Pythagorean PPG
Huddersfield 3 34 65 1.91 47.6 38.42 9.18 52.72 1.55
Leeds United 4 35 64 1.83 43.75 41.3 2.45 49.41 1.41
Reading 5 35 63 1.80 43.05 52.15 -9.1 42.10 1.20
Sheffield Wednesday 6 35 61 1.74 52.5 35.7 16.8 59.65 1.70
Fulham 7 34 56 1.65 56.1 43.52 12.58 54.28 1.60
Norwich City 8 35 52 1.49 52.15 40.95 11.2 55.33 1.58
Preston North End 9 35 52 1.49 47.25 42.7 4.55 50.88 1.45
Derby County 10 35 51 1.46 47.6 38.5 9.1 54.21 1.55

Based on what the numbers say should have happened, Fulham look better than they currently do. Although they aren’t underperforming their expected results, every other team is overperforming what we’d expect. Fulham are doing exactly what we think they should, but somehow the other teams are getting lucky (or they have found the magic sauce that lets them beat their projections).

Projecting the Future

By both traditional goals scored and expected goals, we would have expected Fulham to be in the playoff spots already. Unfortunately for Fulham, those games have already been played and what we expected doesn’t matter much. Except for one thing. How a team performs over their remaining games should be closer to what we expected in the past than what actually occurred. This phenomenon is known as regression to the mean. So even though Reading have accumulated 1.8 PPG, we would expect the rate going forward to be closer to 1.42 PPG or 1.20 PPG (depending on whether you use goals or expected goals).

Based on all of this, what can we project will happen after the final games of the season?

Projected Playoff Positions

Team Points Points Per Game Pythagorean PPG xG Pythagorean PPG Games Remaining Projected Points Pythagorean Points xG Pythagorean Points
Team Points Points Per Game Pythagorean PPG xG Pythagorean PPG Games Remaining Projected Points Pythagorean Points xG Pythagorean Points
Huddersfield 65 1.91 1.49 1.55 12 88 83 84
Leeds United 64 1.83 1.66 1.41 11 84 82 80
Reading 63 1.8 1.42 1.2 11 83 79 76
Sheffield Wednesday 61 1.74 1.64 1.7 11 80 79 80
Fulham 56 1.65 1.72 1.6 12 76 77 75
Norwich City 52 1.49 1.49 1.58 11 68 68 69
Preston North End 52 1.49 1.42 1.45 11 68 68 68
Derby County 51 1.46 1.5 1.55 11 67 68 68

If all the teams keep up the current paces, Fulham will remain on the outside looking in. Fulham would finish on 76 points, in seventh place. What happens if things regress to the mean? Based on the Pythagorean points per game, Fulham improves to 77 points. More importantly, both Reading and Sheffield Wednesday fall back to 79 points. Fulham still aren’t in, but making up two points in twelve games isn’t impossible. If we look at Pythagorean based on xG, Fulham falls off by one point to 75. However Reading FC falls back even further finishing just one point ahead at 76. If Fulham can just keep up their current pace, any slip by Sheffield or Reading could get Fulham into the playoffs. If Fulham can improve their pace, they may not even need those two teams to slip.

What do Fulham need to do?

Fulham have twelve games left: Leeds United (H), Newcastle (A), Blackburn Rovers (H), Wolverhampton (H), Rotherham (A), Derby County (A), Ipswich Town (H), Norwich City (A), Aston Villa (H), Huddersfield Town (A), Brentford (H), and Sheffield Wednesday (A). If Fulham win all their home games, and away to Rotherham, they’d finish on 77 points. That just might be enough to get them in. I would feel much better if they could manage to get to 80 points however. Getting three more points from Norwich, Newcastle, Derby, Huddersfield, and Sheffield on the road is going to be a tall task. All of those teams are currently ranked in the top seven by expected goals. This won’t be easy, but it’s not exactly impossible either.

The more likely scenario is that Reading slip up. The playoff projections at Experimental 3-6-1 have Fulham ahead of Reading for the final playoff spot for the first time. They give The Cottagers just over a 60% chance of making it. We’ve played three quarters of the season, and are playoff odds are like flipping a coin. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.