WLB Season Preview 2020/21 | Championship: Promotion
Picking the winner of the ultra-competitive Championship is normally a thankless task. Two seasons ago we were presented with eight clubs at odds of 12/1 or shorter in the Outright Winner market but it was Norwich (25/1) who took title honours, the joint-biggest priced winners this century. However, 12 months ago, 5/1 favourites Leeds dotted up.
The Whites were just the third Championship jolly after Newcastle (2016/17) and Man City (2001/02) to claim top honours since 2000/01, although 10 (45%) of the past 22 favourites or joint-favourites in that sample have secured promotion to the promised land, suggesting 13/2 (William Hill) market leaders Norwich could go close to claiming gold again.
Questions remain over the Canaries ability to turn the tide after an atrocious ending to Premier League life. But Daniel Farke will be keen to press the reset button and the East Anglian outfit have had ample time to prepare for the club’s return to the second-tier.
Astute moves in the transfer market, plus continuity and consistency in the squad, point to Norwich being the most likely of the demoted trio to enjoy a quick bounce back. However, relegated clubs have claimed only five Championship titles in the past 20 campaigns, posting average finishing positions that indicate a play-off place is more likely.
For what it’s worth, I fancy the fallen Canaries to feature towards the top end of the table. Smart succession planning behind the scenes had already prepared for this eventuality and the squad at Farke’s disposal is arguably stronger than the roster that romped to the top of the tree two years ago. It would therefore be a surprise if the Norwich didn’t challenge, although I prefer a few punts from elsewhere.
Brentford (7/1 William Hill)
Brentford threatened a promotion challenge in each of their first five seasons since arriving at Championship level but the Bees never came closer to ending their 74-year top-flight exile than 2019/20. Requiring two points from their final two regular season fixtures to secure a top-two finish, Thomas Frank’s team imploded on the final furlong.
The West Londoners steadied themselves to see off Swansea in the play-off semi-final, although further agony followed as near neighbours Fulham upset the odds at Wembley to leave Brentford questioning quite how they managed to miss out.
Like the majority of sides throughout the division, concern and doubt shroud their 2020/21 prospects. Will the Bees be able to shake-off last term’s nightmare? How can they cope with the impending sales of star duo Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma? And will the capital club lose a degree of home advantage as they prepare to move into a shiny new stadium?
All valid questions. But few teams across the country are more comfortable with the annual big-money outgoings and need for regeneration. The data darlings’ unique transfer model has seen the Bees cash-in on a collection of quality operators in recent summers with a raft of well-researched replacements waiting in the wings to replenish the first-team squad.
Watkins might be going but Brentford have already sealed a deal to sign League One’s standout striker last term, Ivan Toney. What’s more, last season’s business, coupled with Frank’s tactical tweaks, made the Bees a bigger, battle-hardened unit that rarely refused to be bullied. The more robust approach almost paid dividends and a further assault could be incoming.
After Marcelo Bielsa’s dominant Leeds team topped the performance data charts, Brentford were comfortably second in command. The Bees were exceptional creators, monopolised control of matches, and allowed limited opportunities in what was close to being a complete campaign.
Come close to those standards again and Brentford will be worth every inch of investment as title contenders, even if their outright odds have halved in 12 months ago. Only once since 2008 have the losing play-off finalists returned to secure a top-two finish but the Bees have enjoyed year-on-year progression and could be primed to finally make that step up to the Premier League.
Nottingham Forest (14/1 William Hill)
It might seem mad to suggest Nottingham Forest (14/1 William Hill) are capable of challenging for top spot after their royal capitulation at the end back end of 2019/20, and of course, there’s concern Sabri Lamouchi’s men will struggle to find their feet in time for the big kick-off. But I’m reasonably confident the Reds are ready to mount another challenge.
The Tricky Trees seemed all-but-certain to feature in the play-offs before the absurd implosion. Forest had performed with aplomb against the league’s elite, appeared defensively organised, comfortable out of possession and cocky in their system. The same structures remain in place for this term, bar the sale of rampaging right-back Matty Cash.
Where the Reds really fell down was in forward areas. An overreliance on Lewis Grabban in attack has been eased by the additions of Lyle Taylor and Luke Freeman, Joe Lolley is still in situ, whilst a more proactive approach promised by Lamouchi should ensure bottom-half opponents aren’t given such a generous ride at the City Ground this time around.
The average odds of a Championship champion since the start of 2000 is 14/1 with 10 of the past 15 triumphs featuring a side chalked up at 12/1 or larger. Forest fit the bill, possess the strength in-depth to last the course and have upgraded weak links to put them in the mix for promotion at a fair price.
Cardiff (16/1 SkyBet)
Cardiff completed the unexpected when sealing Premier League promotion under Neil Warnock two seasons ago. However, the Bluebirds top-flight stay only lasted a year and the capital club were heading into mid-table Championship mediocrity when the vociferous veteran mutually agreed to part ways in November.
Ex-Millwall manager Neil Harris was called upon to pick up the pieces. From the outset, the former striker looked a canny appointment; following a familiar on-field approach, the younger, fresher model didn’t take long to reinvigorate the Welsh outfit. A stunning 52-point return (W14-D10-L6) from Harris’ 30 games in charge parachuted Cardiff into the play-offs.
Despite defeat to Fulham at the semi-final stage, the Bluebirds demonstrated their set-piece strength, their aerial ability and robust nature. The defined direct style should not be considered a negative – Cardiff have displayed an ability to pick up results whilst ceding possession and utilising their assets with a coach and crew that suit each other’s strengths.
Adding Wales’ starting striker Kieffer Moore bolsters the Bluebirds’ attacking presence and the effective forward will be supplied by flying wingers Josh Murphy, Nathanial Mende-Laing and Gavin Whyte, with the mercurial Lee Tomlin pulling the strings from in behind. The side is underpinned by powerful centre-back pairing Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson.
Cardiff’s squad is unlikely to be picked apart between now and May and their consistency and continuity has to be considered a positive coming into the new campaign. Harris’ troops are devilishly difficult to beat and highlighted their capabilities in a superb six-month spell last term, and should be capable of challenging for Premier League football at a backable price.
Championship 2020/21 – Brentford to win outright (7/1 each-way William Hill)
Championship 2020/21 – Nottingham Forest to win outright (14/1 each-way William Hill)
Championship 2020/21 – Cardiff to win outright (16/1 each-way SkyBet)