A detailed look at the race for League One promotion and how Sunderland and their rivals are shaping up

Jack Ross said that deep down, he had been encouraged by the frustrating draws against Blackpool and Accrington Stanley.

Tuesday, 26th February 2019, 8:27 am
Updated Tuesday, 26th February 2019, 8:34 am
Jack Ross has been encouraged by an improvement in performances from his Sunderland side

He felt those games had shown his side back to looking like their usual selves after a worryingly unproductive spell in front of goal.

It was backed up by the numbers, Sunderland’s attacking statistics spiking even as they gave some chances away at the other end.

That performance was taken into the Gillingham clash, a much-needed win that was backed up with a controlled display at Bristol Rovers.

The Black Cats boss appears to be settling on key partnerships all over the pitch and will be pleased that his side are starting to consistently outplay their opponents.

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Optimism on Wearside was further boosted as no other side in the top six managed a win in the weekend’s fixtures.

So how is the fight for the top two shaping up?

Can Sunderland expect anyone to fall away or surge clear?

We crunched the numbers and assessed the mood at each of the top five to find out....

LUTON TOWN

FORM: DWWWW

What the numbers are saying....

Luton’s remarkable winning run came to an end on Sunday but they should have sealed the win when Allan McCormack missed a glorious chance right at the death.

Coventry played well but Luton have been impressive and there has been no drop off whatsoever following the departure of Nathan Jones.

Mick Harford has stuck with the system that served Jones so well and it has worked perfectly.

In fact, their expected goals per game average over the last five games has improved to 1.9 from 1.8, with George Moncur settling in quickly and former Black Cat Kazenga LuaLua starting to make an impression.

As it stands they look in very good order.

What the mood is....

Chief Executive Gary Sweet has been clear that the biggest result for the club this season would be permission to build a new stadium.

That was cited as a key reason to stick with Hardford until the end of the season and it has proved an inspired choice, the bookmakers installing them as 1/25 favourites to go up.

The only doubt will be how Harford handles any potential downturn in results.

BARNSLEY

FORM: DDWWW

What the numbers are saying....

Daniel Stendel’s side were perhaps lucky to get away from Fratton Park with a point on Saturday, Adam Davies saving a late penalty.

That was their second frustrating result in a week, having failed to come out on top in a very narrow game against Burton Albion earlier in the week.

Their attacking output over the last five games has actually seen a significant improvement to their general performances over the season, but that is skewed by a 4-1 win over Gillingham in which they were utterly dominant.

Ultimately, there has been nothing to suggest their form will decline considerably despire the last two results, which came against good opponents.

Their numbers across the season are very similar to Sunderland and it looks certain to be a very close battle over the coming weeks.

That clash at Oakwell looms large.

What the mood is.....

Very positive despite the last two results.

They have dealt with the January departures of George Moncur and Brad Potts well, with Cameron McGeehan thriving in recent times.

A win against Portsmouth would have made it their best run in the football league since 1984.

The return of Kieffer Moore from injury this weekend is also timely as they look to get back on the scoring trail.

PORTSMOUTH

FORM: DDDDD

What the numbers are saying....

Portsmouth are arguably the most interesting side in the top five at the moment.

After beating Sunderland before Christmas they were the overwhelming favourites to go and win the title, but have just one league victory in 2019.

Their expected goals average for the last five games is 1.56, compared to 1.58 for the season so far as a whole. In terms of goals against it is 1.09 for the last give against 1.11 across the season.

While they posed little threat against Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle, the numbers suggest that the actual performance level of Kenny Jackett’s side have not dipped considerably and certainly not irretrievably.

What will be key is whether the obvious lack of confidence that winless run produces will see their output reduce.

Clearly, Jackett’s biggest challenge is to get is attacking players who sparkled in the early part of the season, such as Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis, to rediscover their clinical streak in front of goal.

Not unlike Sunderland before their recent upturn, they are rarely forging more shots on goal than their opponents and that would help to explain this long sequence of draws.

What the mood is....

One of frustration, clearly.

One of the most notable aspects of the recent dip in form is that while earlier in the season Jackett was rarely making changes, now they are frequent.

Jackett still seems to be searching for his best XI post January and how best to fit the likes of Omar Bogle into the team.

The loss of defender Jack Whatmough to injury and midfielder Ben Thompson, who returned to parent club Millwall, has been keenly felt.

The poor run of results, and in particularly the way his side threw away a three-goal advantage at Southend, has raised the pressure but after missing a penalty against Barnsley that would have won the game, Jackett felt his side were getting back to their best.

He pointed to better passing and better service to hsi wide players as signs that the slump was coming to end.

They face managerless Bradford City on Saturday before a massive game away at Charlton.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

FORM: WDDLD

What the numbers are saying....

Charlton had arguably the toughest January window of all the contenders.

Jonny Williams arrived but the influential Karlan Grant left for Huddersfield without a replacement arriving.

That broke up one of the best front lines in the league and the effect is obvious, their expected goals average over the last five games dropping to 1.1 from 1.4 over the season as a whole.

What the mood is....

Lee Bowyer said after the Sunderland game that Charlton would win promotion.

While that optimism may have been checked somewhat, he defended his side.

He pointed to the absence of Lyle Taylor, available again, as a key reason for that.

Nevertheless, they will need a real sequence of wins to force their way into the automatic promotion picture.

They look certainties for the play-offs at this stage.

VERDICT:

There is little reason to expect that any of the top four will fall away considerably over the coming months.

The positive for Sunderland is that their recent performances suggest they are playing as well as any side in League One.

Ross will also feel that the way his players have handled the expectation so far this season will stand them in good stead for the crunch part of the campaign.

This race will likely go right to the wire but Sunderland are well placed.