IT has long been accepted that Leeds and West Brom were the two stand-out teams in the Championship – EFL connoisseur Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) asks whether we should revise that perception after recent results.
Is the Championship promotion race as clear-cut as once thought?
Leeds lose local derby
Leeds United have recently been defeated 2-0 at home to Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, a defeat that will have stung that bit more given the ill-feeling towards visiting boss Garry Monk.
Should we overreact to that result? No, because the Whites still had their chances through Patrick Bamford.
It appears, however, that Marcelo Bielsa’s side have struggled to exert the same control on their games since November – and that the once seemingly impenetrable defence is now shaking.
Kalvin Phillips is not quite the dominant influence he used to be while the experiment of Stuart Dallas playing in central midfield has yielded unsatisfactory results.
Defensively, they have looked vulnerable down their left channel with Ezgjan Alioski struggling defensively without the insurance of a third centre-back that he has enjoyed for Macedonia. With Mateusz Klich pushing deep into the final third, Leeds have at times left themselves open in transition.
Of course, the sensible conclusion is to back Bielsa, a world-renowned coach, to come to the right conclusions and solve these recent problems – but they mean Leeds are not quite the shoe-in for automatics that they were a month ago.
West Brom’s wobble
Albion’s powers of recovery are a massive reason why they are top of the league. Slaven Bilic’s side have taken 38% of their points from losing positions, which shows that there is a lot of spirit in this side and that they possess plenty of strength in depth in forward areas.
The Baggies, though, have not been able to eradicate their defensive imperfections and recently, they have lost some of the attacking prowess that they needed to compensate. The Midlanders have been, by mid-January, winless in five league games and without a clean sheet in eight, looking vulnerable from crosses and set pieces.
Part of the problem, in open play, is that the full-backs and midfielders have at times been too slow to close down opponents when the cross comes in. Although Jake Livermore had a good first half of the season, there appears to be an over-reliance on the former Hull ball-winner for tenacity.
From set-pieces, meanwhile, the zonal marking system is not being executed as effectively as Bilic might hope; centre-backs Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi have not been as aerially commanding as their size might suggest.
Bilic must address these issues quickly – especially with Brentford breathing down his side’s neck.
The team most likely to profit from Leeds and West Brom’s recent blips is Brentford.
The Bees boast an irresistible attacking trio of Bryan Mbuemo, Saïd Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, arguably the most consistent forward combination in the Championship. BMW are ably backed up by the class of Mathias Jensen, the left-footed power of Josh Da Silva and the dynamism of Kamohelo Mokotjo.
Thomas Frank’s side also possess the best defensive record in the division, thanks to the signing of Pontus Jansson; the former Leeds skipper has formed an excellent centre-back pairing with Ethan Pinnock.
The West Londoners will be highly motivated to say goodbye to Griffin Park by celebrating promotion and the current crop is capable of doing just that.
Fulham will strengthen
Yes, Fulham are yet to click in to gear.
Granted, they remain reliant on individualism. Of course, Scott Parker is still to stamp a coherent identity on his team. Despite all this, though, the Whites are only seven points off the automatic promotion places after a 1-0 victory at Hull and are more than capable of coming alive.
The Cottagers possess the division’s top goalscorer in Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is not expected to pursue a Premier League move this month; they boast wide magician in Ivan Cavaleiro, who bagged the winner last time out as well as second-tier specialists in Tom Cairney and Anthony Knockaert.
Cairney and Knockaert could come to the fore if Fulham make two additions this month:
Firstly, they need a long-term replacement for a declining Kevin McDonald, who can reliably anchor the midfield to allow Cairney – and to an extent Stefan Johansen – off the leash more.
Secondly, they need an athletic right-back to provide the pace and width that Ryan Fredericks offered in the most recent promotion-winning season.
Address those key areas and they could be onto something.
Reds late risers?
If we are including Fulham as an automatic promotion contender, then it seems only fair to mention Nottingham Forest, who have one fewer point (44) but have a game in hand as of 13th January.
It is, perhaps, harder to see Forest troubling the automatic promotion places, just because they have so often relied on individuals:
Goalkeeper Brice Samba averages 1.9 saves from inside the penalty area per game – more than any goalkeeper who has managed over 20 starts – while striker Lewis Grabban has scored from 27% of the shots he has taken.
The Reds have been posting unconvincing shot data at an Expected Goals Ratio (xGR) of 52.08%, only the 11th-best in the division – large portions of their displays mirror that of a midtable side.
It’s possible that the Tricky Trees could challenge the top two, but they need more creativity and control in central areas.
Leeds should pull through this rough patch to take top spot, but Brentford could make the automatic promotion race interesting if they win their mid-March hosting of West Brom.
If the Bees do miss out, they will be a serious threat in the play-offs.