Championship – Quarterly Review 2018/19

0

EFL aficionado Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) made his team-by-team Championship guides and predictions in the summer. With a quarter of the season gone, how is his pre-season analysis looking?

Sheffield United

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Sheffield United had a relatively positive campaign last season and the signings of John Egan and Dean Henderson could complete one of the best defensive units in the division. 8th

Current performance: Egan and Henderson have certainly made an impact for the Blades, who sit top of the table.

Strengths: Recruitment. Chris Wilder has re-invested the money for David Brooks expertly, with David McGoldrick proving an instant hit while Oliver Norwood has been a revelation in midfield.

Weaknesses: It seems churlish to point out any weaknesses at Bramall Lane, but the lack of pace in forward areas could potentially hinder them in games in which they aren’t able to dominate the midfield.

Stick or twist? Stick. A great start, but Sheffield United began last season in similarly impressive form and results plateaued; for all Wilder’s brilliance, remaining top dog with a middling squad will be easier said than done.

West Brom

Gab’s pre-season prediction: Giving Darren Moore the gig appeases fans, but it remains to be seen whether the rookie can deliver the overhaul the squad desperately needs. West Brom begin their campaign with plenty of unknowns. 13th

Current performance: The Baggies sit pretty in 2nd and, with 31 goals in 12 games, they are the EFL’s top goalscorers.

Strengths: Strikers Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle have already scored 15 goals between them. Leicester loanee Harvey Barnes has enjoyed some very eye-catching moments in the 10 role, meaning West Brom’s front-three has been very productive, relative to the amount of possession they receive in the final third.

Weaknesses: West Brom are trying to play out from the back with Kyle Bartley and Ahmed Hegazi, who lack the quality of distribution to do so effectively. For three-quarters of a lot of their games, therefore, they have looked static and short of ideas.

Stick or twist? Stick. Granted, West Brom might finish higher than 13th, but have only been impressive in the final third and need to produce more complete performances to sustain their promotion push.

Leeds

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “It is very plausible that Marcelo Bielsa will elevate his players to levels they never thought possible. Leeds have the potential to take the division by storm. 1st

Current performance: The Whites sit third; their blistering start to the campaign has been tempered slightly by a run of one win in four.

Strengths: Bielsa’s high-intensity coaching means that a lot of players have improved immeasurably; Kalvin Phillips, for example, has been transformed from a mediocre midfielder who might pop up with the odd goal, to one of the best anchor men in the Championship.

Weaknesses: Injuries. Leeds have recently been without four key players in Gaetano Berardi, Kemar Roofe, Patrick Bamford and Pablo Hernandez; the fact their last match-day squad contained four unproven youngsters suggests the small squad could be stretched.

Stick or twist? Stick. Many of their key men will be back after the international break and normal service should be resumed.

Middlesbrough

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Boro should threaten from set pieces but, without Traore and with a defensive manager, could lack creativity in open play. This is based on Pulis leaving and a more innovative coach coming in to elevate the squad. 9th

Current performance: They’ve had a good start, sitting 4th with 22 points from 12 games. The Teessiders look a well-drilled unit, helped by having five players who have started all 12 league games.

Strengths: The defence. Daniel Ayala and Aden Flint have – at least until the 2-0 defeat to Forest – been excellent at the back, while Jonny Howson presses intelligently and cleverly wins free-kicks in midfield.

Weaknesses: They’ve not looked great going forward. Most of their August goals came from set pieces, then more recently it’s been a case of them pouncing on opposition errors, but there’s evidence to suggest the current rate of 14 goals in 12 won’t necessarily improve.

Stick or twist? Stick. Pulis deserves some credit for his side’s impressive organization, but relying on good defending can be a dangerous game at the top of the table.

Nottingham Forest

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Costel Pantilimon, Michael Dawson, Ben Watson and Lewis Grabban form an experienced spine with a glut of Portuguese talent around it. However, Aitor Karanka might under-estimate how much the Championship has evolved since he last won promotion. 10th

Current performance: Saturday’s 2-0 win at Middlesbrough puts a positive emphasis on their start, which now leaves them 5th with one defeat in 12.

Strengths: Danny Fox has normally been thought of as a left-back, but has been moved to centre-back this year and his excellent displays have made him one of the team’s unsung heroes.

Weaknesses: Fox is the only outfield player to start all 12 league games, which would suggest Karanka has found it difficult to identify his best eleven.

Stick or twist? Stick. Forest have been involved in a lot of even games this season and while fans are understandably ambitious, are top half finish would represent a reasonable campaign.

Sheffield Wednesday

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “A lack of pace in forward areas could be problematic. Stay fully fit and this squad could threaten in the top half, but Wednesday risk their season once again being derailed by fitness issues. 20th

Current performance: Wednesday have had an excellent start, sitting 6th with 19 points following an impressive 2-1 win at Bristol City.

Strengths: Fernando Forestieri is one of the most technically gifted players in the Championship and has looked very motivated in recent weeks. Adam Reach has scored more than one stunning strike while young full-backs Ash Baker and Matt Penney have adjusted to this level very well.

Weaknesses: Managing leads. Atdhe Nuhiu is an excellent workhorse but, when Jos Luhukay has needed a quick forward to stretch play late on, Lucas Joao hasn’t always delivered and thus there is the danger that they invite pressure.

Stick or twist? Twist. Overall, the Owls have performed far better than anticipated and look likely to finish in the top half.

Brentford

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Brentford play some sumptuous football as wide forward Ollie Watkins continues his impressive rise. If they can find an extra bit of knowhow at both ends of the pitch, they could challenge for promotion. 4th

Current performance: The position of 7th seems almost underwhelming, which is in many ways a credit to how the club have kept standards high without a massive budget.

Strengths: Home form. A fine attacking trio of Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins and either Sergi Canos or Said Benrahma enables them to dominate most games at Griffin Park, where they have taken 14 points from a possible 18.

Weaknesses: Away form. Josh McEachran and Lewis MacLeod aren’t given the same space to strut their stuff on the road and the team tends to struggle when they need to do more of the nasty work to earn the right to play.

Stick or twist? Stick. The 1-1 draw at Leeds shows that Dean Smith is starting to use the industry of Kamohelo Mokotjo and Nico Yennaris to solve the midfield conundrum.

Derby

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “No longer will the Rams play with a slow double-pivot; attacks will be constructed with more runners from deep. After being the nearly-men for so long, Derby can finally win promotion. 2nd

Current performance: Derby sit 8th which is worse than last season on paper – the current return of one league win in five needs to improve – but the football has been more aesthetically appealing and got fans on board.

Strengths: Young stars Mason Mount, Fiyako Tomori and Harry Wilson have lit up the Championship this year and they played with unerring poise at Old Trafford.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency. Defeats at Millwall, Rotherham and Bolton shows this youthful side has to motivate itself for the less glamorous encounters.

Stick or twist? Stick. Now that Lampard has tasted his first two months of management, consistency should soon follow and Derby are more than capable of closing the six-point gap on the automatic promotion spots.

Norwich

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Norwich’s transfer policy appears to have become increasingly modest and frugal. Without arguably three of their best players from last season, the Canaries risk losing key men as quickly as they develop them. 14th

Current performance: Questions were asked of Daniel Farke following a low-quality East Anglian Derby draw, but a six-game unbeaten run prior to the Stoke defeat means they are now ninth, which must be considered progress.

Strengths: Young talent. Full-backs Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis have shone, as have creative talents like Emiliano Buendia and Todd Cantwell, in a side that plays at a higher tempo this year.

Weaknesses: The board’s ambition could be tested in an inflated January market, if good offers come in for key assets.

Stick or twist? Twist. With Teemu Pukki’s quality in the false nine role and Jordan Rhodes to come in, they might have the makings of a top half side.

Blackburn

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Bradley Dack more than deserves his shot at the second-tier. Rovers press well and threaten in transition, which could see them adjust better than their fellow promotees. 11th

Current performance: Tony Mowbray’s side find themselves in 10th – above Wigan and Rotherham – and have adapted to the level with seamless comfort.

Strengths: They’ve got Dack. The attacking midfielder produces pin-point deliveries and has chipped in with an impressive six goals, with the shackles on him loosened by the discipline of wide men like Elliott Bennett.

Weaknesses: Only four teams have scored fewer home goals than Blackburn’s six; if we’re nit-picking, they could perhaps be more clinical at Ewood Park.

Stick or twist? Stick. Mowbray continues to do an excellent job at Blackburn, who have already shown that they are a top half outfit.

Swansea

Gab’s pre-season prediction:“It remains to be seen whether there will be enough players at Swansea with both desire and knowhow; while Graham Potter finds that balance, this looks every inch a transitional season. 16th

Current performance: The position of 11th perhaps doesn’t do justice to the impact Potter has had on the Championship; Swansea’s delicate, one-touch football under the former Ostersund boss has been a delight to watch.

Strengths: Clean sheets. The Swans have kept six of them in the league – more than any other side bar Middlesbrough – which highlights the tactical intelligence of this side.

Weaknesses: Reliance on youth. A large proportion of the squad has had to adjust to this level very quickly and while many have performed admirably, it would be unreasonable to expect consistency.

Stick or twist? Stick, in terms of it being a transitional season, but they are likely to finish higher than 16th.

Wigan

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Now Nick Powell has his mojo back, he could be an asset, although Wigan might have to settle for a bottom half finish. 17th

Current performance: The Latics sit 12th and, while we are only a quarter of the way into the season, they already look very likely to still be in the Championship next August.

Strengths: As well as enjoying Powell’s impressive start to the season, Wigan possess one of the EFL’s best goalkeepers in Christian Walton, who has kept 33 clean sheets since the start of last season.

Weaknesses: It might seem a tad harsh considering the defensive record, but we reckon centre-backs Chey Dunkley and Cedric Kipre can be a tad erratic in open spaces. The front-four don’t offer too much width, as well.

Stick or twist? Stick. A change of ownership is expected to take place over the next six weeks, so a year of consolidation on the field would be positive.

Bristol City

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “The club is on an upward trajectory and playing pretty football to boot. Hefty fees have been received for key players and Lee Johnson’s side can use last season as a springboard for further progress. 6th

Current performance: 13th place seems an underwhelming position for a club that looked a genuine promotion contender last Christmas, but they are still in a better position than they were when Johnson took over and it’s worth pointing out that Stoke and Villa are both below the Robins.

Strengths: Josh Brownhill has been the stand-out performer thus far; the versatile midfielder has started all 12 league games and shown his technical proficiency by scoring two and assisting the same number.

Weaknesses: Without the likes of Joe Bryan and Aden Flint, who left in the summer, the team does look short of leaders.

Stick or twist? Twist. Although Bristol City are only three points off the play-offs, it is plausible that the summer departures have had a bigger impact than anticipated and thus, it is hard to see them getting back into contention.

Stoke

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Although Gary Rowett’s template has achieved relative success with other clubs, it isn’t insignificant that he is yet to oversee a promotion. Stoke are available at skinny prices and while they should finish in the top six, better value can be found elsewhere. 5th

Current performance: The 14th-placed Potters have been one of the biggest underachievers of the Championship season to date, although Rowett hopes back-to-back wins to nil can inspire a resurgence.

Strengths: Joe Allen is on paper an excellent player at this level, Ryan Woods has made an impact alongside him in midfield while Erik Pieters is a very driven character and has had a decent individual start to the campaign.

Weaknesses: Their better periods have come with Peter Crouch on the pitch and Rowett has admitted that he’s introduced the big man out of necessity, rather than design. That does leave one to question whether Stoke have confidence in their tactical identity.

Stick or twist? Stick. The jury is out on Rowett and they might have given themselves too much to do to make the top two, but the squad should prove strong enough to achieve a top six berth.

Aston Villa

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “New chairman Nassef Sawiris’ decision to stick with Bruce might have been down to convenience, rather than a feather in the gaffer’s cap. Due to delayed recruitment combined with the exits of Sam Johnstone and John Terry, Villa could be worse off than last season. 7th

Current performance: The 15th-placed Villans are drastically underachieving and a run of one win against Rotherham in 10 league matches – not to mention two shambolic EFL Cup performances – cost Steve Bruce his job.

Strengths: The squad possesses great quality on paper. John McGinn’s arrival from north of the border has reduced the creative burden on Jack Grealish, Yannick Bolasie is an excellent winger for this level while Tammy Abraham is a proven goalscorer.

Weaknesses: The defence. The club didn’t directly replace John Terry and, without a naturally aggressive centre-back, James Chester has looked burdened by the extra responsibility placed upon him.

Stick or twist? Stick. If current favourite Thierry Henry gets the job without a full summer to prepare, it would be a massive ask for him to lead them into the top six.

Bolton

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Bolton might not be under a transfer embargo anymore, but the eight permanent additions they have made are all frees. If they continue to be so defensive then, unfortunately, a tough season awaits. 24th

Current performance: Considering the off-field problems, the fact they are 16th at this stage is a credit to the work Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin have done.

Strengths: Bolton needed to be resourceful in the transfer market and right-back Pawel Olkowski looks a very shrewd capture from 1. FC Koln; the Pole has a powerful shot on him and has put in some solid shifts.

Weaknesses: With just 10 goals scored in 12 league games, the Trotters currently have a worse attacking record than Barnsley and Sunderland last season. That’s partly down to budgetary limitations, but the intent could be questioned too, with just 9.1 shots taken per game, the fewest in the Championship.

Stick or twist? Stick. As well as the club has done to achieve this solid start, sustaining it will be a massive ask.

Birmingham

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Birmingham are short of a few touches of quality in certain areas. Until they can add more technically refined players like Jota, midtable looks the most realistic target. 15th

Current performance: Blues are 17th on paper, but that barely tells half the story; they have been the more prominent side in each of their games apart from the deserved defeat at Middlesbrough and evenly-fought home draws with Norwich and QPR.

Strengths: Maikel Kieftenbeld is full of energy and tenacity in midfield, while Jota has been back to his best under Monk, forming a fine right-sided partnership with Maxime Colin. They remain the only team to topple Leeds, too.

Weaknesses: Seemingly most weeks they discovered a new, innovative way to not win a match. Wasteful finishing has at times been problematic, as has a failure to protect leads, with goalkeeper Lee Camp not always covering himself in glory.

Stick or twist? Twist, if a points deduction can be avoided. Birmingham might currently be below 15th but they have shown the potential to finish much higher.

QPR

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “In Steve McClaren, Queens Park Rangers now have a head coach who will encourage football on the deck, which might give attacking prodigies like Eberiche Eze the platform to shine. A top half berth looks within their reach. 12th

Current performance: The four-game losing streak with which QPR started the season rang alarm bells, but results have since stabilized while Amit Bhatia appears to be having a positive influence on the club off the field.

Strengths: They look at their best with just Nahki Wells up top running the channels, because Eze and Luke Freeman are given the creative licence which befits their surnames.

Weaknesses: The 7-1 loss at West Brom in August highlighted the dangers of leaving Toni Leistner and Joel Lynch wide open spaces to defend.

Stick or twist? Stick. 12th might be a tad ambitious, but they look likely to exceed pre-season expectations.

Rotherham

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Although on paper Rotherham would be in the bottom three, they could be kept afloat by a collective, burning desire to rid the 2016-17 skeleton from their closest. 21st

Current performance: It’s been a steady start for the Millers, with Ryan Williams proving a stand-out performer since moving to more of a central role. However, they need to get their first away point on the board pronto.

Strengths: The atmosphere around the club and the body language of the players has improved drastically since their last stint in the Championship. Paul Warne deserves credit for ensuring he brings the right types of characters into the building.

Weaknesses: Rotherham have what could be described as a League One squad. With little depth, injuries normally force key men to play out of position; Will Vaulks, 2017-18 POTY for his midfield performances, has started the last two games at centre-back.

Stick or twist? Stick. There will undoubtedly be challenging periods; while fans and players at other clubs in similar situations are likely to get itchy feet however, the unity at Rotherham could be the overriding factor which just about keeps them up.

Millwall

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “A big part of Millwall’s 2017-18 success was the element of surprise. While the Lions won’t necessarily get worse, their opponents might be better mentally prepared to handle them. 18th

Current performance: Neil Harris’ side were in the early drop zone and uncharacteristically tame performances like the 2-0 defeat at QPR offered cause for concern. The last two displays though suggest they are starting to get back to something approaching their bullish best.

Strengths: Set pieces. Arguably their most impactful player in an attacking sense has been, ironically, centre-back Jake Cooper, who’s height makes him an obvious target from set pieces, which is how they have scored six of their 13 Championship goals.

Weaknesses: The reliance on Steve Morison. The target man has been so crucial to them over the last three seasons, providing a unique range of qualities which are almost impossible to replicate. At 35 though he can’t play 90 minutes every game, so a big part of the task for Neil Harris this season is to prepare for life without him on the field. Whether Tom Elliott is good enough to take on that mantle remains to be seen.

Stick or twist? Stick. Although Millwall have picked up of late, another incredible second half of the season surge looks unlikely.

Reading

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Reading have lost one of the Championship’s best centre-backs in Liam Moore and could struggle for creativity. A relegation battle looks likely. 22nd”

Current performance: The Royals sit 21st, outside the drop zone on goal difference; they have won just four times since Paul Clement took over in March.

Strengths: Athletic full-back Andy Yiadom has started seven games at right-back this season and five at left-back, looking equally adept in both positions; he enjoyed a man-of-the-match performance in the 3-0 win over Hull, which showed what Clement’s side can do on a good day.

Weaknesses: Second half sleeps. The Berkshire outfit have conceded 16 goals after the interval, by far the most in the Championship; they have led at half-time on three occasions and only won one of those games. Questions are rightly being asked of the current fitness regime.

Stick or twist? Stick. It looks very much like a long, hard season could be ahead for Reading.

Preston

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Preston have progressed every season for the last half-a-decade, evolving into a young, hungry outfit. They now have arguably a stronger squad than the one that finished seventh and offer potentially the best value in the Championship. 3rd

Current performance: It’s been a very disappointing start for the Lilywhites, currently 22nd, but the green shoots of recovery were in evidence in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Wigan, which saw the attacking trio of Tom Barkhuizen, Lukas Nmecha and Callum Robinson rotate impressively.

Strengths: Alan Browne has chipped in with three goals including a beautiful strike in the 2-2 draw with Bolton; the Irishman, who has recently won international recognition, could compliment the poise of Daniel Johnson and the tenacity of Ben Pearson in midfield.

Weaknesses: The defence. Preston have conceded 24 goals in 12 games and in an otherwise youthful defence, they perhaps need either Tommy Clarke or Paul Huntington to step up and lead.

Stick or twist? Twist – reaching 3rd from this position would be a rather tall order. However, they have only played one of the bottom six thus far and with a kinder run of fixtures between now and Christmas, they can certainly put a run together.

Ipswich

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “We shouldn’t expect fireworks from Paul Hurst straightaway, following the loss of loanees Bersant Celina and Callum Connolly. The new boss aims to rejuvenate The Tractor Boys – but limitations in his budget and squad means he has his work cut out. 19th

Current performance: Even if we accept that it’s a transitional period, Ipswich shouldn’t be 23rd. Positive away results at Birmingham and Swansea had more to do with clinical finishing than an improvement in performances.

Strengths: Midfielder Trevoh Chalobah looks a bright prospect while experienced forward Freddie Sears has offered some quality since coming into the side.

Weaknesses: Ipswich have tried to press as Hurst’s Shrewsbury side did, but with stalwarts Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse not especially quick or comfortable high up, we have seen indecision and thus gaps have appeared.

Stick or twist? Twist. Ipswich look in even more trouble than initially anticipated.

Hull

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “An extremely youthful squad could struggle if off-field tensions mount. Nigel Adkins’ pull-together positivity worked to an extent last season, but the ex-physio risks being perceived as a ‘yes-man’ too close to the Allam regime. 23rd

Current performance: The table-propping Tigers have lost eight of their first 12 games; although, it’s only fair to say that they have recently faced top teams in Leeds, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United and didn’t look out of place in either of those games.

Strengths: Tommy Elphick has added much-needed experience in the back-line. Since the 31-year-old, who led Bournemouth to the Championship title in 2014-15, signed from Villa, Hull have conceded just eight goals in six. That’s the same number as West Brom and one fewer than Sheffield Wednesday over the same timeframe.

Weaknesses: The lack of quality. The form of now-departed Abel Hernandez and Harry Wilson played vital roles in keeping them up last season, Kamil Grosicki might have been affected by personnel issues dating back to the summer while Jarrod Bowen cannot be relied upon at 21.

Stick or twist? Stick. Survival looks a big ask with so many problems on and off the field.

Share.

About Author

Profile photo of gabsutton

Gabriel discovered the betting world through his passion for English football; he had a mixed start in April 2014, landing a solid treble before being let down the week after by beleaguered Torquay winning at Bristol Rovers. Although he often follows his beloved Birmingham City, he also covers other teams in the Midlands and enjoys visiting new grounds further afield now and again. Quite likes sitcom Not Going Out, too.

Leave A Reply