Mike Holden thinks Barnsley should be too good for Oxford in Sunday's JPT Final at Wembley.
Over the past 14 years, the Football League Trophy final has been a cross-division affair nine times and the team from League One has lifted the trophy all but once. On seven of those occasions, the victory has been secured inside 90 minutes, and six times the margin of success has been exactly two goals.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is the frequency of the 2-0 scoreline - five out on nine. These are not coincidental figures, in my opinion. When you pluck two teams out of the bottom two divisions and put them on the biggest stage imagineable for a one-off showpiece, a common pattern of approach is bound to emerge.
Uncertainty avoidance reigns. Neither team has any valuable experience of playing against the other to call upon, so the capacity for taking risks and springing tactical surprises is reduced. The two teams tend to go out and play their normal game as best they can, and the primary focus is to avoid making that one crucial mistake that hands the initiative to the opposition.
Eventually, the superior team forces a breakthrough and the game opens up slightly until the weaker side overcommits in search of an equaliser, at which point they get done on the counter. In all nine of those previous examples, the League One team has broken the deadlock every time. On seven occasions, they also scored the second goal as well.
So the omens aren’t good for Oxford and neither is the team news. Barnsley welcome back 18-goal striker Sam Winnall after two games nursing a hip injury, whereas the Yellows must do without John Lundstram (suspended) with doubts also hanging over key defenders Joe Skarz, Johnny Mullins and Jake Wright.
All of which considered, a bet on Barnsley to clear the -1 handicap at nearly 5/1 should come as no surprise. It’s not necessarily a reflection of any gulf between the two teams, rather an acknowledgement that Barnsley are superior and how they might be inclined to make that superiority count in this particular setting.
Anything is possible on the day, of course, but the current market position that this is an each-of-two encounter is nonsense. The Tykes head to Wembley on the back of 13 wins in 17 league outings, scoring 32 goals and conceding just 10. On my 16-match ratings, they are comfortably the most dominant team in League One at present with a 67 per cent shot ratio.
Oxford, by contrast, have stuttered in recent weeks. On the evidence of 52 matches up to this point, there’s no doubt they belong in League One but confidence is a big part of their fluid, possession-based approach and draws against Stevenage and Cambridge over the Easter period suggest they are some way short of the standards they were setting in December and January.
Meanwhile, it would be rude to overlook that eye-catching 2-0 stat and the 14/1 quote about Barnsley netting twice without reply is more than acceptable. If Michael Appleton’s men reach the closing stages a goal down, they simply have to go for it. There’s no point leaving Wembley with any regrets.
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system