Walsall’s ascension to the heights of the League 1 table is all the more impressive because of the good form of their opponents. The same form handicap has afflicted troubled Blackpool, whereas Southend and Oldham have enjoyed contrasting fortunes on the pitch despite favourable opponents.
Following on from the previous post looking at the form of League 2 opponents to discover who has had the ‘easiest’ first half to the season, this post continues the theme by looking at League 1. The full explanation of why and how this has been done can be found here, but in short I have looked at the form from the last (up to) six games of the opponents of League 1 clubs, home and away, and assigned a points-per-game (PpG) average based on the form. Using this, we can rank clubs from favourable (e.g. their opponents have a low PpG, or poor form) to difficult (their opponents have a high PpG, or good form).
This data includes games up to and including 2nd January.
Home Games: Oldham struggle despite favourable fixtures
Southend and Gillingham have both enjoyed having opponents to Roots Hall and the Priestfield Stadium respectively who have been in poor away form preceding the visit; Southend’s opponents have managed just 0.75 points per game on average before playing the newly promoted side, whereas Gillingham’s opponents have managed 0.87 PpG. As a result, both teams have taken advantage and are in the hunt for promotion places. By contrast, Oldham have squandered their opportunity; opponents to Boundary Park have away form of 0.66 PpG, and yet the Latics have won just one of 11 games at home and find themselves in the relegation places.
Scunthorpe have endured a much tougher first half of the season, with their visiting opponents having recent form of 1.25 PpG on their travels. Similar fortunes have afflicted Blackpool, Walsall, Rochdale and Swindon, all of whom have opponents with 1.15 PpG or higher. However, this needs to be placed in context: League 2’s most disadvantaged sides, Luton and Stevenage, have had to endure visitors with an average form of 1.46 PpG. This indicates that away form in League 1 is not as competitive as it is in League 2, or rather home form is much stronger.
Away Games: Blackpool also endure tough away trips
The analysis that home form is much tougher in League 1 than in League 2 is confirmed here, where we see that away teams face hosts that are consistently in better form than their League 2 counterparts. Barnsley have the most favourable away fixtures in League 1, with their hosts averaging 1.05 PpG prior to their arrival. However, in League 2 Luton have the most favourable opponents with 0.98 PpG. At the other end of the scale, Shrewsbury’s burdensome 1.70 PpG opponents are much harder than the League 2 equivalent, Morecombe’s 1.54 PpG.
Blackpool again feature in the lower end of the spectrum, indicating that both home and away they have been forced to play opponents in better form than many of their peers. Following relegation last season and unenviable, bitter off-the-field problems, Blackpool fans are arguably deserving of some better fortune than the fixture list has provided to them.
By contrast, Burton’s wonderfully successful recent past has cumulated in them sitting top of the League 1 table at the start of 2016, following a promotion from League 2. However, it should be noted that they have been the beneficiaries of favourable fixtures with fellow promoted side Southend, who again feature in the top end of the spectrum.
Bury feature on both lists, having experienced good home fixtures but treacherous away games, and perhaps unsurprisingly they have won more home games (45%) than away (31%), suggesting that they are taking better advantage of the home fixtures.
Rankings: Walsall impress despite tough home and away fixtures
The below graphic shows the rankings for both home (horizontal) and away (vertical) games, ranked from 1-24 against the other teams in the division; a ranking of 1 in both, towards the bottom left of the chart, represents poor form of opponents in both home and away games, whereas the further to the right and top of the chart the harder the opponents become based on form.
The top right of the chart shows that Bradford, the aforementioned Blackpool and Rochdale have endured tough fixtures both home and away, and their current league rankings (12th, 21st and 9th respectively) are perhaps not a surprise, with the possible exception of well-performing Rochdale. However, great credit must go to Walsall who are also in the top corner of the chart but have not let their adverse fixtures affect them, currently 3rd in the league. The consistency afforded by Dean Smith’s four year tenure as manager is surely a factor in them being about to take on all comers, and it remains to be seen whether they can continue to experience success following his recent defection to Brentford.
Conversely, Southend and Oldham have both enjoyed comparatively easier starts to the season, frequently playing teams both home and away who are not in form. As previously mentioned, this is a damning indictment of Oldham who currently sit in the relegation zone.
In summary, there are clearly some teams who have benefitted from the fixture list and others who have been disadvantaged by it. However, it must be noted that it is not an indicator of potential, as evidenced by the wasteful Oldham and the resilient Walsall. It is also worth mentioning that in comparison to League Two, away games are tougher overall, suggesting that it is important to make home advantage count.