Digging into the data: Who will win the Vanarama National League play-off final?

The play-offs are under the spotlight this week, with much of the footballing world’s focus on the battle for promotion from the EFL now that the Premier League season is over.

But while there’s little doubt that the Championship’s showpiece event is one of the biggest, or certainly most lucrative, games in world football – worth approximately £170million at the last count – another huge match is also set to take place at Wembley over the coming days.

Harrogate Town and Notts County are anxiously awaiting the chance to do battle for a place in League Two, when they meet in the Vanarama National League play-off final this Sunday. It may not be worth the huge sums of money associated with reaching England’s top flight, but it is arguably the second most significant promotion in the country’s football pyramid.

That’s not to suggest that movement between the EFL’s various divisions isn’t significant of course, but there is something particularly dramatic about the chasm between League Two and the National League.

From increased academy funding and a £500,000-a-year “basic award” from the EFL to an annual £450,000 solidarity payment from the Premier League, reaching the fourth tier is a huge step for teams at the summit of non-league football.

Harrogate Town's Jack Muldoon takes a free-kick.

The value of promotion has never been greater than it is now, with the financial uncertainty of a post-COVID-19 economic landscape making any extra revenue all the more sought after. But which of the National League’s play-off finalists are best placed to reach the promised land of the EFL?

This year’s edition is certainly one of the toughest to call in recent seasons. Harrogate Town and Notts County finished second and third respectively – both when the regular season was curtailed and when points per game (PPG) was used to calculate the final placings.

The two teams also recorded convincing wins at the semi-final stage of the play-offs. Harrogate’s 1-0 home defeat of Boreham Wood saw Simon Weaver’s outfit put in an impressive attacking performance despite the narrow margin of victory, while Notts County beat Barnet 2-0 in a largely dominant display against the Bees.

With so little separating the sides, we’ve dug into the Wyscout data to try and find out where the battle for promotion could be won or lost this weekend…

This season's top goalscorers for Harrogate Town and Notts County.
This season’s top goalscorers for Harrogate Town and Notts County. Graphic produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.


On the face of it both teams are remarkably similar when it comes to attacking output. Their record of 64 (Notts County) and 62 (Harrogate Town) goals across the campaign are joint-second and third-best in the National League, and that’s backed up with Expected Goals (xG) too. Harrogate’s xG of 54.54 puts them top of the division, with the Magpies close behind in second place (53.02).

But it’s Harrogate who perform better when we take a look at a selection of other attacking metrics. The Sulphurites had the most shots per 90 in the fifth tier (12.87) and managed a very respectable 38.4 per cent of those efforts on target – only four National League teams were more accurate in front of goal.

It’s a different story for Notts County though. Incredibly they’re in the division’s bottom ten teams for shots per 90 (10.73) and the bottom half for shots on target (35.3 per cent). While they’re well-stocked with players who can pull of the spectacular (notably Enzio Boldewijn and Callum Roberts), these stats suggest that Harrogate are potentially more likely to create shooting chances and make the most of them on Sunday.

The positives for the Yorkshire-based side don’t stop there either. If we look at touches in the area per 90 (16.32 v 12.63), successful dribbles (55 per cent v 51.7 per cent) and key passes per 90 (2.37 v 2.24), Harrogate come out on top in all the relevant attacking attributes. Everything points to Weaver’s side creating more chances than their opponents, based on their records across the whole season.

Notts County's Connell Rawlinson.
Notts County’s Connell Rawlinson.


Notts County have the National League’s second-best defensive record (38 goals conceded) and rank fifth when we look at their Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 42.3. With Harrogate conceding marginally more (41) and having a significantly worse xGA (52.4), their upcoming clash could well be a case of attack versus defence.

Harrogate have allowed a sizeable number of shots against them in 2019/20, with only four clubs having a worse record than their 11.62 shots against per 90. While they would point to a 63.1% success rate when it comes to defensive duels as evidence of their strength at the back (County only managed 59.8%), there is a sense that the Magpies have the edge here in terms of defensive solidity.

A statistical comparison between Harrogate Town and Notts County. Graphic produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.
A statistical comparison between Harrogate Town and Notts County. Graphic produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.


The two finalists have only played each other once (as a result of the regular season’s curtailment) and that was way back in August, so it’s hard to read too much into that match. The game in question finished 2-0 to Notts County, thanks to a Kristian Dennis penalty after Will Smith was sent off on 45 minutes and a late Boldewijn strike.

Harrogate played a 3-5-2 system that day (in contrast to the 4-4-2 they’re expected to use at Wembley) and dominated possession at Wetherby Road despite being down to ten men for much of the game (58.3 per cent v 41.7 per cent). That’s a surprise when you consider that Notts County have made the most passes per 90 this season (359.64) and are second for passing accuracy with an average success rate of 78.6 per cent. Might the Magpies find it more difficult to dominate the ball than they have done for much of the campaign?

Harrogate Town's Connor Hall.
Harrogate Town’s Connor Hall.

Star men

Jack Muldoon has produced the greatest attacking output of any of the players who will line up for either team at Wembley. The Harrogate forward has a combined total of 20 goals and assists (14 goals, six assists), which was only bettered by three National League players this season.

He’s not the only dangerman for the Sulphurites either. Winger George Thomson has registered a more than commendable 3.4 shots per 90 this season, while veteran striker Jon Stead is one of the division’s sharpest shooters – 51.11 per cent of his chances have been on target throughout the campaign. Neal Ardley’s men should watch out for tricky Sunderland loanee Jack Diamond too, who has attempted more dribbles (10.38 per 90) than any other player in the fifth tier.

Notts County also have plenty of individuals who could make the difference on Sunday, not least Kyle Wootton. The former Scunthorpe United frontman has attempted 21 headed efforts on goal in 2019/20, resulting in five headed goals. His strike partner Dennis is another notable aerial threat, having scored six headers this season.

The Magpies have been excellent in possession and Michael Doyle has arguably been the star of the show in central midfield. He may be 38 years old but the Irishman tops the National League’s passing charts with 55.71 passes per 90. Boldewijn’s ability to play the ball into dangerous areas is noteworthy too – the wideman has made the joint-most key passes (24) in the division.

Some key attacking metrics for Notts County's Enzio Boldewijn. Graphic produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.
Some key attacking metrics for Notts County’s Enzio Boldewijn. Graphic produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

The verdict

While Notts County have a solid defence and typically dominate possession, it’s hard to ignore Harrogate Town’s superior attacking stats over the course of the season. County may have improved as the season has progressed and perhaps have the more eye-catching stars on paper, but Harrogate’s potency in the final third may give them a slight advantage. This game is almost too close to call, but the statistics hint at a strong showing from the Sulphurites and potentially a first-ever promotion to the EFL.