Can a 20-goal striker really lead to promotion success?
Last season in League Two, the top two sides, Leyton Orient and Stevenage, achieved automatic promotion to League One. Both teams together conceded just over 70 goals between them, with a well-organised defensive unit one of the key factors behind their recent success.
What may be more surprising is that neither side had the top scorer in the league. That accolade fell to Andy Cook (28 goals). Despite his best-ever goalscoring return for Bradford City, the Bantams failed to make automatic promotion and endured heartbreak in the playoffs.
There is a similar pattern when looking at the top goalscorers last season in League One. Jonson Clarke-Harris, David McGoldrick, Colby Bishop and Alfie May were in the top-five list of goalscorers, each scoring 20+ goals and amassing a huge 88 goals in total between them, yet Peterborough United and Derby County came close (but not close enough) to promotion via the playoffs. Meanwhile, Portsmouth finished further back and Cheltenham Town ended up in 16th place.
Now, there’s no doubt that any of those four experienced EFL strikers would be a significant addition for any side (the bidding war for Alfie May was a transfer saga that played out throughout this summer before his move to Charlton Athletic). However, there’s no doubt that more and more sides are achieving promotion success minus that leading (and incredibly expensive) star striker who may lead the goalscoring charts but doesn’t guide their side to the next tier.
Let’s look at the three key factors why we will likely see more teams achieve promotion in League One and Two without a 20-goal striker this season:
In League Two, the key to both Leyton Orient and Stevenage’s promotion achievement was down to spreading the goals across their strike force. Champions Leyton Orient’s top scorers last season were Paul Smyth (10 goals) and Ruel Sotirou (9). Stevenage’s top scorers were Jordan Roberts, James Reid and Luke Norris with 10 goals each.
This season, if promotion favourites, including Gillingham, MK Dons and Salford, (who have all made good starts to the season) are to achieve success, they are going to need all of their strikers contributing.
The Gills don’t have a guaranteed 20-goal striker in their side, but they have strikers that have all scored goals regularly over the last few seasons. Ashley Nadesan, Tom Nichols, Ollie Hawkins and new signing Macauley Bonne will all need to contribute this season if they’re to maintain the top spot in League Two.
The key to Stevenage’s success was goals across the team, including the defence. Boro captain Carl Piergianni was a rock in the back line, having won the second-highest number of aerial duels in League Two with 385. Nevertheless, his aerial abilities also made him a vital asset from set-pieces. He scored seven goals last season – his contribution at the other end of the pitch (winning Stevenage several points) was the difference between automatic promotion and entering the luck of the draw in the play-offs.
Goalscoring centre-backs are a big tick in the box, but who doesn’t love a forward-thinking full-back capable of providing that much-needed attacking width?
Plymouth Argyle’s Bali Mumba was the top-scoring full-back last season for Plymouth Argyle. Six goals and seven assists later saw the side achieve promotion to the Championship. The 21-year-old has a very bright future in the game and another season of goalscoring contributions will be critical to the Green Army’s success this time out.
Leyton Orient signed attacking midfielder George Moncur from Championship side Hull City last summer. It was arguably the best (and most eyebrow-raising) signing last season in League Two, with the midfielder already having two promotions to the Championship on his CV prior to success with the O’s last term. His nine goals from midfield were a huge reason why the side achieved automatic promotion.
Plymouth Argyle, meanwhile, had their best-ever season in recent memory and that was without a 20-goal striker. Midfielders Morgan Whittaker and Finn Azaz’s goalscoring contributions were essential to their side’s success in the previous campaign.
Barry Bannan’s wand of a left foot has caused defensive devastation for several years. The 33-year-old assisted 13 times last season, along with seven goals to help lift Sheffield Wednesday back into the Championship after a three-year absence….and again….that was without a 20-goal striker.
Whether it’s wingers, attacking midfielders or box-to-box midfielders, goals from midfield can win promotion.
There will certainly be a team or two this season that achieves promotion thanks to a 20-goal striker. Northampton Town (Sam Hoskins), Carlisle United (Kristian Dennis) and Ipswich Town (Conor Chaplin) earned promotion last season thanks largely to their star striker.
However, we’re seeing a greater number of teams attain success thanks to the three aspects mentioned in this piece.
If a side have got defenders contributing from set-pieces, goals from midfield and strikers that you can rotate (and still give you match-winning moments), then it’s more likely that said team will have an excellent season in League One and Two.