FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on the Championship outright market ahead of the 2017/18 Championship season.
WLB Season Preview 2017/18 | Championship: Promotion
Picking the winner of the ultra-competitive Championship is normally a thankless task, one highlighted by the fact that 14 teams can be found at odds of 20/1 or shorter in the Outright Winner market.
It’s a far cry from 12 months ago when Newcastle were lining up as 19/10 favourites, a price that represented the shortest ante-post odds in Championship history, leaving only six clubs at 33/1 or shorter.
Rafa Benitez’s boys took title honours – only the second ante-post favourite to justify their position this century – and it’s probably fair to say the Toon were far from imperious en-route to clinching top spot.
I’ve managed to nail Middlesbrough and Brighton’s promotions over the past two seasons so here’s hoping 2017/18 brings similar joy.
Middlesbrough (8/1 Black Type)
Burnley, Hull and Newcastle have all bounced back to the Premier League at the first time of asking over the past two seasons with the Magpies also becoming the fourth relegated side to conclude the campaign as champions in 15 years.
Middlesbrough have been priced-up as almost joint-favourites alongside Aston Villa and trend hunters will be keen to hear, five of the past nine pre-season jollies have secured Premier League promotion.
Gabriel Sutton has already penned an excellent piece outlining why the Villans aren’t worthy of their prohibitively short pre-season quotes and the stats also aren't too pleasing for Villa fans; since the Premier League's inception, 73 clubs have been relegated with 20 (27%) returning at the first attempt – just seven (10%) secured promotion in their second season.
But as much as I detest backing a market leader, it’s hard to find too many faults in Middlesbrough. In eight of the previous 11 Championship campaigns, a recently relegated top-tier side has won promotion immediately back to the promised land whilst over the past 12 seasons, relegated clubs have a solid 50% record of reaching the top-six.
Normally reserved, softly-spoken Boro chairman Steve Gibson claimed his team would “smash the Championship” back in May and the loyal owner has certainly put his money where his mouth is, signing three potentially excellent forwards following a dismal year in front of goal.
The Teesiders really stunk the Premier League out last year; Aitor Karanka’s charges were unambitious, unadventurous and lacked any sort of edge. But it’s an area that’s been well addressed during the off-season.
£15m man Britt Assombalonga is a one in two man, when fit. Despite his injury issues, the all-round forward made 32 appearances in 2016/17 and racked up 30 goals in 47 league starts over the past two years for Nottingham Forest. He should spearhead a squad that’s also been bolstered by the captures of Cyrus Christie, Jonny Howson and Darren Randolph amongst others.
With each passing day, Ben Gibson’s future seems more and more likely to reside at the Riverside but even if the defender does leave, Boro’s solid base should stand them in good stead for the year ahead. No bottom-half Premier League club conceded fewer goals whilst Arsenal faced only five more shots on-target than the Teesiders last term.
Finally, an obvious plus point is the addition of Garry Monk in the managerial hot-seat. I’m not a great fan of Monk the man – he’s a wee bit snide and smug, if you’re asking– but his reputation rightly soared following an outstanding effort at Leeds.
I’d be really surprised if this side failed to fire and a top-six berth looks nailed on at 11/10 (Black Type). But I’m not tying up my cash for nine months on an 11/10 play – it’s Boro each-way at 8/1 (Black Type), for me.
Fulham (9/1 Bet365)
Cast your mind back 12 months and Fulham were 40/1 to take top honours in the second-tier. The Cottagers had lost 55% of their 2015/16 league goals following the departures of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele and head coach Slavisa Jokanovic had fewer than a dozen players left on the books.
Understandably, the West Londoners started the season slowly. Coming into the depths of October, Fulham had won just four league games and had scored more than a solitary goal on just four occasions. But as the cliché goes, the Championship’s a marathon (not a sprint) and the capital club soon found their stride.
Fulham accrued more points than any divisional rival across the final 31 fixtures (W18-D8-L5) whilst boasting a monumental +31 goal difference. Overall, the Cottagers secured 14 of their 22 triumphs by a two-goal margin or better whilst only three of their 10 regular season losses arrived by a two-goal margin or worse. Shot data fans were also very keen admirers of the side.
Jokanovic’s group concluded the campaign as the league’s joint-top goalscorers – the top (or joint-top) scorers have won the Championship in seven of the past 12 years – and should the Cottagers find a suitably system without Chris Martin, I’d be keen to keep this group well onside.
The only potential negative was a poor Craven Cottage record – their 10 home wins was the lowest of any side in the top-13 – and a disastrous conversion rate from the penalty spot.
The play-off semi-final exit was deeply disappointing for all concerned (and my bank balance) and questions could rightly be asked about Jokanovic’s insistence to stick to his principles instead of attempting a Plan B. But I’m confident this impressive young group can bounce back with lessons learnt and I like the arrival of defensive midfielder Ibrahima Cisse.
In four of the previous 12 Championship seasons, a team involved in an unsuccessful play-off campaign has returned as champions the following year. Brighton bounced back from their own despair to take a top-two finish in 2016/17 and with Tom Cairney committing his future to the club, Fulham seem to be in a good place for each-way backers at 9/1 (Bet365).
Brentford (25/1 Bet365)
In 11 of the past 12 Championship seasons, a 20/1+ shot has won promotion to the Premier League. Huddersfield (40/1), Brighton (33/1), Bournemouth (25/1), Burnley (80/1) and Watford (33/1) are just a few examples over the past five years.
So it can often pay to peruse the middle reaches of the Outright and Promotion markets.
One side that appears criminally underrated is Brentford (25/1 Bet365). The Bees have tabled fifth, ninth and 10th-placed finishes in the Championship since moving up from League One and arrive at 2017/18 in bullishly confident mood.
Co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen has said this season is about all execution on everything they’ve been building over the previous campaigns. The West Londoners have completed their revolution and succeeded in their evolution; it’s now all about execution.
Brentford were consistent top-six performers across the key performance data metrics last time out and the squad built for Dean Smith features two equally strong first XIs. The Bees may have lost top goalscorer Scott Hogan last January but have come back looking meaner, harder and stronger across the board.
There’s been no significant outgoings at Griffin Park but the additions of exciting young talent Ollie Watkins, highly-rated striker Neal Maupay plus physical South African midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo gives Brentford a significant edge on the side that finished 2016/17 with a flourish.
The fluid system employed by Smith ensures no individual absentee should majorly impact the side but the first-choice attacking trio of Jota, Lasse Vibe and Sergi Canos are irresistible at times and should strike fear into all second-tier defences this term.
Jota bagged 12 goals after following his return after Christmas whilst Vibe also tabled 12 goals in his final 17 appearances, suggesting the Dane is well capable of leading the Brentford attack this time around, should Maupay be eased into the action.
Goalkeeper Daniel Bentley is one of the hottest prospects in the Football League although defensively there’s certainly a bit of fine-tuning required. But overall, this Bees outfit boast the tools to penetrate the top-six and enjoy a serious tilt at promotion.
The club admit promotion is the expectation this year and at the prices available, I certainly believe there’s value in backing such claims. Brentford are 25/1 (Bet365) – back them each-way and you’ll receive place money should the Bees finish second or third.
Championship – Middlesbrough (8/1 each-way Black Type)
Championship – Fulham (9/1 each-way Bet365)
Championship – Brentford (25/1 each-way Bet365)
Championship – Brentford to win promotion (7/1 Ladbrokes)
Championship – Brentford to finish in the top-six (4/1 BetVictor)
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