GOTW: Sunderland v Millwall

It’s one of those weekends where everyone will be pleased that the international breaks are over for 2017, but not much will change regardless of what happens on the pitch.

There might be some change in order of the top and bottom four, but that’s about it. With five of the top six playing away from home this weekend, Cardiff have a opportunity to move back into second place following their defeat at Bristol City in the most recent Game of The Week:

This week’s game of the week is from the bottom of the table, which doesn’t bode well but is an opportunity for the clubs involved to earn some much needed points.

Sunderland v Millwall

It’s fair to say that more was expected from Sunderland that Millwall before the season started, but now the overall shape of the table has formed it’s clear that both clubs have not had the easiest run of games so far.

By now everyone should know that Sunderland haven’t won at home in a League game for almost a calendar year and with Aitor Karanka and Paul Heckingbottom apparently the favourites for the job without any apparent progress being made in appointing an successor to Simon Grayson, the Black Cats limp into this one. There are some mitigating circumstances though:x eight of their games so far have been against teams in the top ten, so I think it’s a good idea to factor a tough schedule into their poor start.

Millwall are currently 21st in the away games only table but they’ve only lost half of their aways so far this season: the big problem is goals – they’ve been shut out in six of their eight road trips in 17/18 – but once again, context is important. The Lions have had a tough schedule to contend with and the game at Sunderland is the first of a pair of away games against teams in the bottom half of the table before the end of the November. I suspect we may find out more about Millwall’s chances of avoiding the drop before Christmas.

Head to head: this is the first meeting between the clubs in the North East since October 2004 – since October 1978, Millwall have only won twice at Sunderland, their last victory there was when I was on my honeymoon fourteen years ago, but I’m pretty sure those facts are unrelated.

One of this evening’s games is worth monitoring, unfortunately it’s not the one that’s being televised:

Burton Albion v Sheffield United

One more home defeat and The Brewers will have equalled the unenviable record that they set last winter and having conceded the most goals at home in the division this season, I can’t imagine there’ll be much optimism at the Pirelli Stadium later. Burton have earned one point and haven’t scored in their five games against the current top six

The Blades have lost just two of their last six road trips so far, but they’ve not drawn an away game yet and have a 100% record in games against sides in the current bottom six

This is only the second meeting at Burton in the league: Albion have never beaten Sheffield United at home – and have only scored once against the Blades, a single goal in the old JPT six years ago.

Televised games: Preston v Bolton (this evening, kick off 7:45pm), Fulham v Derby (Saturday, 5:30pm) and Leeds v Middlesbrough (Sunday 1:15pm). The Lancashire Derby is only the third meeting between the clubs at Deepdale this century, the game at Craven Cottage is yet another match that’s less than 45 minutes away from the Sky Sports HQ. By default, the pick of the week is the game at Elland Road: Leeds haven’t won at home since the end of September and have lost seven of their last ten outings, Boro are on a six game undefeated streak away from the Riverside.

Don’t forget there’s a full midweek programme next week, but I’ll be back next Friday.

 

GOTW: Bristol City v Cardiff

We’ll start this week with another managerial casualty.

The powers that be at Sunderland had clearly had enough with Simon Grayson: although a lot has been made of exactly how bad the Black Cats have been over the past year and Grayson was supposed to turn that round, it’s clear that there are serious problems on Wearside and the 3-3 draw with Bolton on Tuesday highlighted one of the main issues: both teams have scored in 12 of Sunderland’s 15 games this season. That being said, Sunderland had only lost two of their last six games prior to Grayson’s dismissal.

Sheffield United are the only team that can overtake either Cardiff City or Wolves this weekend; at the wrong end of the table the bottom four will remain the same although their order could be different by the time the last match of the weekend is over.

Bristol City v Cardiff (noon, Saturday)

An important one for both sides: the Severnside Derby is usually just for bragging rights but with both teams in the top six and having not played their traditional rivals for some time, there’s an added significance to this one. Not only that, it’s a contest between two of the most improved teams this season (only Wolves have improved more) and could give us an indication of how the rest of the season pans out for both sides. Looking back at the pre-season previews for both clubs, it’s now abundantly clear I underestimated both of them.

Bristol City’s recent home defeat by Leeds now looks like a outlier – especially as City haven’t lost consecutive home games since January – but with only four wins in the last ten league games against Cardiff at Ashton Gate this is not a game the hosts have performed well in recently. Replacing Tammy Abraham seemed to be the biggest problem for the Robins to overcome, but – much to everyone’s surprise – midfielder Bobby Reid is tied with Wolves’ Leo Bonatini for the top scorer in the section.

Cardiff haven’t won consecutive aways since the start of the season and although the Bluebirds aren’t the most prolific scorers on the road this season (so far fifteen clubs have scored more goals on their travels, including Sunderland) they’re solid defensively. In seven away games so far, Neil Warnock’s side have only conceded two first half goals and they lost both of those matches. Nine different players have scored at least once this season, with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Junior Hoilett finding the back of the net four times.

Verdict: there hasn’t been a draw between the clubs at Ashton Gate since March 2009 when both of them were in similar positions in the table, but that could be the case on Saturday lunchtime. This season there’ve already been 11 games between the clubs in the current top six and only two of them have resulted in away wins – including Cardiff’s victory at Wolves in August – but this could potentially be a ‘defence first’ type of game and might not be as exciting as it could be.

Other games to monitor:

Derby County v Reading

The Rams have arrived in top six on the back of a five game unbeaten streak at Pride Park, the foundation of which is built on four clean sheets since mid-August. I’m not entirely sure how good they are though: in four games against the other sides in the top six, they’ve earned one point and conceded nine goals. Despite beating Nottingham Forest earlier in the week, Reading’s playoff hangover continues, have only kept two clean sheets in their last ten regular season away games in the Championship: will Jaap Stam last the entire season as Reading boss?

Fun fact: Derby have only won two of their last ten home games in the league against Reading.

Barnsley v Birmingham City

A team that hasn’t won at home since August against a team that hasn’t won an away game since the end of last season. The Tykes aren’t actually that far off last season’s performance that saw them eventually finish 14th, but the Blues are one of four teams that are currently earning less than a point per game. We all know what that usually means.

Fun fact: Barnsley haven’t beaten the Blues at Oakwell since April 2007. Current Tykes manager Paul Heckingbottom started the game on the bench.

Televised games: Wolves v Fulham (7:45pm kick off this evening, Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event) was a late replacement for this weekend’s game of the week when Avon & Somerset police objected to a Friday evening game at Ashton Gate for operational reasons, Brentford v Leeds United (5:30 Saturday, Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event) is Sky Sports’ excuse not to have to travel too far and Middlesbrough v Sunderland (12:15pm Sunday, Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event) might be the pick of the week, even though the last time Sunderland won at Middlesbrough in a league game outside the top tier of English football was before The Beatles first single had been released.

Unless I’ve got time for a quick recap early next week, there won’t be a post next weekend due to yet another international break, so all being well I’ll see you in a fortnight.

The Championship: The Story So Far

Even though it’s mathematically incorrect, this weekend’s games mark the point at which all clubs have played at least a quarter of their games.

Regular readers will know that I think that it’s the period between now and Boxing Day that’s the most vital for those clubs either chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation, so let’s take a look at how the rest of the season might progress.

The Contenders

At the moment any of the clubs currently in the top ten could theoretically win promotion even though only Cardiff City, Sheffield United and Wolves are currently earning an average of two points or more per game. I can’t see any of them sustaining that pace over the winter but that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, simply because only Wolves are on target to at least equal the points totals won by Brighton and Newcastle last season.

Unlike last season, the chasing pack looks much more competitive and that seems to be down to last season’s unsuccessful playoff finalists suffering a collective hangover – although Fulham (my pre-season pick for promotion) still have time to turn that round. Bristol City and Preston improved almost beyond reognition whilst Aston Villa, Ipswich and Norwich are better than they were in 2016/17. Leeds‘ recent run of poor form indicates that despite a bright start, they’re currently no better than they were last season which could mean another potential playoff disappointment.

In Danger

Bolton and Burton were predicted to struggle this season and so it won’t come as much of a surprise that the bookies have written The Trotters off completely – over the past few posts I’ve written more than once that Bolton are currently far worse than Rotherham were last season. Nigel Clough has apparently decided to borrow the keys to the bus from Jose Mourinho and although I try not to let my personal feelings show in these posts, Burton’s brand of anti-football deserves to fail.

The rest of the season seems to be about who is going to accompany Bolton down to League One. The surprise teams at the wrong end of the table this season are Reading and Sunderland: I didn’t think either of them would do particularly well this season, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad either. Last season’s bad defending has finally caught up with the Royals and – as we mentioned last week – the Black Cats seem to be in one of those tailspins following relegation from the Premier League that has happened to Norwich, Southampton and Wolves over the past decade.

Birmingham were another club that I felt would struggle before the campaign started and the recent appointment of Steve Cotterill as manager following the departure of Harry Redknapp seems like a gamble, although if the owners require a gaffer who can get them out of League One they’ve made a good choice. The other team that have struggled so far is Brentford, although the bookies still seem to think Barnsley will be in the mix for relegation even though the Tykes aren’t significantly worse than they were last season.

Back to the present now: there are three candidates for game of the week, I couldn’t pick one as they’ll all have an impact at either end of the table.

Bristol City v Leeds

The Robins have only lost one of their last ten games – a meaningless 1-0 defeat by Birmingham City in the last match of 2016/17 – and haven’t conceded more than one goal at Ashton Gate since April. Leeds have lost half of their last ten aways and haven’t won on the road since the end of August. Since the turn of the century Leeds have won three of their five trips to Ashton Gate in Championship games but their last win in Bristol was in September 2012.

Wolves v Preston

Wolves’ only home defeat this season was against Cardiff in mid-August: at this point last season they’d already lost twice at Molineux and were about to be beaten by Leeds, so it’s fair to say their home form has improved. Preston have only lost one away game so far and are unbeaten in their last four aways – but arguably should have won at Fulham on Saturday after taking a two goal lead at Craven Cottage after less than half an hour. The last six meetings between the sides in Wolverhampton have been evenly distributed, but Wolves have only lost four of the last ten encounters in the Black Country.

Sheffield United v Reading

An impressive start at Bramall Lane has seen four clean sheets in six games since promotion and it’s fair to say that the Blades like to have their home games wrapped up by half time. Reading’s win at Leeds last weekend was unexpected: the Royals still haven’t won at the Mad House since August and had lost three of their previous five road trips. There’s another possible upset here: Reading have won five of their last visits to Bramall Lane for League games although it’s been nine years since they last came away with all the points.

Televised games: Millwall v Birmingham City (tomorrow evening, 5:30pm kickoff, Sky Sports Football), Ipswich v Norwich (Sunday lunchtime, noon kick off, Sky Sports Football/Sky Sports Main Event). The former always reminds me of a vital game at St Andrews in the old Second Division towards the end of the 1971/72 which Birmingham won to ruin Millwall’s promotion chances: it was the first time I can remember a second tier game getting a lot of attention on BBC radio and could well be one of the reasons that I’m writing this post over 45 years later. The Old Farm Derby is always worth watching.

There won’t be a post next Friday, but the next scheduled post after that will be on Friday 3rd November even though that’s just a week before the next round of international dates. Don’t forget that there are four Championship clubs in action in the League Cup next week – although none of those games will be televised.

Annual Premier League Survival Battle Has Taken Its Toll On Sunderland

“Rotherham v Sunderland” (CC BY 2.0) by Chris

Just a few months after being relegated from the Premier League, Sunderland find themselves faced with the realistic prospect of dropping divisions for a second consecutive season. The clubs are currently sat second-bottom of the Championship table, having won just one of their 11 games.

During their time in the top flight, the Black Cats were regular candidates for relegation from the top tier and from the outset were just 4/1 to be relegated in last season’s Premier League betting relegation odds. Pressure at the bottom isn’t strange to them, then, but life is looking anything but rosy at current and dropping down another tier could, of course, cause them serious financial harm. Economically, the northeast club were one of the worst performing clubs during their time in the top flight with only two of the league’s richest club’s (Manchester City and Chelsea) making less profit since 2008.

As a result, the club are ill-prepared for the financial commitments required to haul themselves back to the top flight at the first attempt. For fans of the club who were perhaps hoping that relegation would offer a chance to regroup and come back stronger, their illusions have already been shattered. And new boss Simon Grayson has done little so far to suggest that the club can at least consolidate their position in the second tier with any ease.

The club’s epic struggle to survive in the top flight has taken its toll on a club whose owner has seemingly lost interest and whose better players have moved on to pastures new. Last year’s decision to hand responsibility for survival to David Moyes proved to be a misguided one as the club sunk to a new level of despair and negativity.

“Villa Park” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by jwillier2

With no funds to compete with the Championship’s new breed of big spenders, the future does not look good at the Stadium of Light. Even former Premier League regulars Aston Villa could only manage a 13th-place finish in the Championship last term, despite spending £72m during the two transfer windows. This year, the Midland side are improving slowly but they have plenty of experience in their side and a boss who knows what it takes to get out of this league. If teams like Villa have found it tough going, Sunderland may be left wondering just what hope there is left for them.

The recent international break may have come at just the right time for Grayson and his men, who would have been desperate to get back on the training ground after their recent draw against Preston North End. If they are going to break their nine-game winless streak and haul themselves out of the drop zone then they will need to make the most of the talent they have available. With three of their next four matches at home and on-loan striker Lewis Grabban and highly-rated youngster Josh Maja set to return, October could be a crucial month for the Mackems.

If there is no sign of improvement during this period, Grayson’s future will surely be debated. Although it is hard to imagine who else would want to take on what looks increasingly like a thankless task.

GOTW: Preston v Sunderland

Well that was an action packed week – more than the usual amount of video content in this post as there was a lot to cover!

Last week’s game of the week lived up to expectations:

But then Leeds imploded on Tuesday evening – they were 2-0 down at Cardiff City before Liam Cooper was sent off. You’ve got to wonder if that was a game too far for the Yorkshire club.

Cardiff’s victory means that they’re two points clear of Sheffield United going into this weekend’s games, although both Leeds and Wolves could overtake the Bluebirds if Cardiff lose at home to Derby.

At the wrong end of the table, Bolton are now four points adrift of Sunderland, who are two points behind three clubs on eight points. As I mentioned last week, Bolton are currently worse than Rotherham were last season and are now as short as 1/4 for relegation.

Preston v Sunderland

Just over 80 years ago, the clubs met in the FA Cup Final:

Tomorrow’s game is under slightly different circumstances: Preston are currently fifth in the table and their transformation under former Norwich City boss Alex Neil is one of the stories that hasn’t been given credit so far. The Lillywhites have lost once this season and have only lost once at Deepdale since Boxing Day 2016. Add four clean sheets in five home games this season into the mix and it’s clear that Preston are currently in the top six on merit.

Sunderland – with former Preston boss Simon Grayson at the helm – have been awful so far. They’ve not won since the middle of last month and haven’t managed a victory in a league game at the Stadium of Light since beating Watford in the Premier League just before last Christmas. The main problem is defence: almost half of the 19 goals they’ve conceded so far this season have been scored in either the first or the last fifteen minutes of the game and they’ve already blown leads at Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday. Grayson’s already used 23 different players in league games with George Honeyman and James Vaughan as the only ever presents, which highlights another issue: Honeyman was promoted from the under 23 side and last season Vaughan was playing in League One for Bury. If the Black Cats continue their poor run, it’s not exactly difficult to see what the problem is.

Head to head: first meeting at Deepdale in a league game since October 2006, which Preston won 4-1. The Lillywhites have won half of the last ten league games between the clubs in Lancashire, Sunderland’s last win at Preston came in August 2003. Both teams have scored in eight of the last ten meetings with an average of 3.4 goals per game: considering how bad Sunderland’s defence is at the moment, that might be worth a punt!

The other game to monitor is at the Pirelli Stadium in Burton, where Wolves are the visitors. The 2-0 loss at Sheffield United on Tuesday was Wolves’ first defeat in five games but they’re still only three points behind Cardiff. After a poor start Burton seemed to have turned the corner recently, but a comprehensive 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa (who finally seem to have got the hang of this) earlier this week underlined The Brewers’ defensive fragility.

Televised games: QPR v Fulham (Friday, Sky Sports Football, 7:45pm kick off) is the usual lazy planning, Reading v Norwich (Saturday, Sky Sports Football 5:30pm kick off) would have looked good on paper before the season started but if Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sunday, Sky Sports Main Event, 12:15pm kick off) is as entertaining as last week’s Steel City Derby was then we’re in for a treat…

No scheduled post next weekend, so all being well I’ll be back in a fortnight with a general look at the first quarter of the season.