Game Of The Week: Huddersfield Town v Wolves

Before I go any further: Shane Duffy deserves a mention for his two own goals and a red card against Cardiff a couple of weeks ago, although to be fair to him he played a huge part in saving Blackburn Rovers from a shock defeat by Crewe in the League Cup this week. He’s also reportedly on his way to Brighton before deadline day…

It’s been ten days since the last post and although no-one has a 100% record, five teams are still unbeaten, only Blackburn have yet to win in the Championship and – as you’d expect at the end of August – there’s only a three point gap between QPR in sixth place and Rotherham in 22nd.

Huddersfield v Wolves

This is the only match between two top six clubs this weekend and although I can’t see the Terriers being able to sustain this sort of improvement, it’s great to see them doing so well at the start of the season and it’s far too early to write them off – even though they’ve only kept one clean sheet in their last ten games in the Championship.

It’s worth remembering that Wolves have now only lost two of their last fifteen league games, their last ten visits to West Yorkshire have only been rewarded with two wins, the last being a 4-1 victory in February 2015. It may also be significant that despite currently being in third place, Wolves have yet to play anyone in the current top half of the table.

Honourable mention: Blackburn v Fulham. Rovers have won just once in their last seven league games at Ewood Park and – as I mentioned above – struggled to beat Crewe in the League Cup earlier this week. Fulham have only lost three games on the road since the end of January, but haven’t won at Blackburn since May 2005 despite playing nine games at Rovers since then.

Televised games: Burton Albion v Derby (tomorrow, SS1, kick off 7:45), Newcastle v Brighton (Saturday, SS1, kick off 5:30pm). The first is a bit of a no-brainer considering the obvious Clough family angle. The second is a bit more tasty: Newcastle have now won consecutive games and this is a good chance to see how the Toon perform against a side that has been amongst the better performers* in the Championship over the past few seasons.

There were no major shocks involving Championship teams in the Second Round of the League Cup and with over half the section still in the competition it possible that the final stages could be very interesting.

Next week: a brief look at the market movers as it’s the first of the ‘International Breaks’, not that they seem to make any bloody difference to English football.

*Not counting that terrible season when Sami Hyppia was manager.

Welcome To The Twilight Zone

We all know the Championship can be a bit weird sometimes. We’re only two games into the season and it’s fair to assume that some clubs are either over or underperforming and the overall situation will change, it’s still not obvious which teams that will apply to. The first midweek games of the season could give us some clues – or they might confuse things even more.

For now, we have four clubs with two wins, including three who finished in the bottom half of the season. At the other end, five teams have no points – but apart from Newcastle, can anyone say that the other four strugglers are surprises? Anyway, here are the three games that could see some meaningful changes in position depending on the results.

Brighton v Rotherham

In 2015/16 Albion won all ten home games against teams that ultimately finished 15th or lower, they haven’t lost at home since New Year’s Day and haven’t conceded more than two goals at home since December. One of the reasons Rotherham are still in the Championship was their run of away form under Neil Warnock, but last season they also lost five of their six away games to those teams that finished in the top six. The Millers haven’t won in Sussex since November 1997 and lost 3-0 at Aston Villa on Saturday: this looks like one way traffic to me.

Brighton 3, Rotherham 0

Leeds v Fulham

It’s hardly a surprise that Leeds already look out of sorts: only Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers have conceded more goals at home. Going back to the end of last season, Leeds have now gone five games without a win and although they drew both games against Fulham last season, the last time Leeds beat Fulham at Elland Road was when both of them were in the Premier League. The Cottagers haven’t won consecutive away games in the Championship since the end of 2014 but have only failed to score in three of their last ten aways. A Fulham win wouldn’t surprise me.

1-1. A very late goal from Chris Wood saved Leeds from a home defeat.

Norwich v Bristol City

Game of the week, purely because both are in the top six. I outlined the case for Norwich doing well this season in the previews but Bristol City weren’t on anyone’s radar and this game should give us an indication of who may go on to have the better season: the Robins have only won two of their last ten trips to Carrow Road in the league. There could be a few goals in this one: Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham has scored half of Bristol City’s goals this season and is currently top scorer in the section alongside Gavin Ward of Ipswich. If City don’t lose, that may be an indication that they have improved beyond expectations.

Norwich 1, Bristol City 0

There’ll be an update on Thursday morning, but I might not be able to post a full preview for this weekend’s games as I’m attending a family birthday.

Newcastle and Villa Both Lose

You can’t really tell an awful lot from the first week of games, but there could be some useful pointers.

Five of the six new arrivals lost their opening games, including all three of the promoted teams. The season started with a surprise: Fulham‘s defensive problems last season had been highlighted by just about everyone before last Friday’s victory over Newcastle – they’ve now kept consecutive home clean sheets in the Championship.

The game between Nottingham Forest and Burton produced seven goals, but consider this. The last time Forest scored four goals at home was in February in a 4-1 win over Bolton and in three of their last ten games they’ve conceded more than two. To me all that indicates is that both sides have poor defences.

The ominous result for both teams was Blackburn losing 4-1 at Ewood Park to Norwich. Rovers were three goals down after 25 minutes: once again, they’d been widely predicted to struggle before the season began but the ease with which the Canaries cruised to victory should send a message to the rest of the section.

The first round of the League Cup was the usual disaster: this time, eleven Championship clubs fell at the first hurdle, including Aston Villa – despite taking the lead at Luton, Roberto Di Matteo’s charges lost 3-1. Newcastle and Norwich have yet to join the competition, but with none of the first round survivors having been drawn against each other, there should be a reasonable amount of Championship teams left by the time the Third Round takes place.

I’ll be back on Tuesday with a look at the first midweek round of games as well as taking a look at what happened this weekend. The only contender for Game of the Week this weekend was QPR v Cardiff, but considering the visitors have failed to score so far this season – including during an extra time defeat at Bristol Rovers in the League Cup last night – and QPR have only lost three of the last ten league meetings, I can’t see the hosts losing.

The only televised game this weekend is Brighton v Nottingham Forest (tonight, 7:45pm Sky Sports 1). Forest only won twice on the road against teams that finished in last season’s top ten and have won only three of their last nine trips to Sussex since the turn of the century, so I can’t see them winning at the Amex.

I’ll be back on Tuesday for a look at the first midweek round of games this season.

Sky Bet Championship: What To Expect in 2016/17

At the top:

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Newcastle had already won the Sky Bet Championship.

However, only three of the last ten clubs that have won the Championship over the last decade had been teams that were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the previous season. Last season Burnley became the first club that had been relegated to win the Championship since Newcastle United in 2010, which makes you wonder if any of the relegate clubs will win the title this season. Indeed, only ten of the 30 teams promoted from the Championship over the last decade were those that had been relegated at the end of the previous season.

So if we’re assuming that it’s an established Championship team that will win the title, who are the favourites? It’s fair to say that any of the clubs that finished in the top seven last season are in with a shout as only two of the last ten champions finished outside that position and went on to win the title.

In that case, if Brighton, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday can put potential playoff hangovers behind them, they should be amongst the front runners. A word of caution about Wednesday here: they were one of the most improved sides last season, but were a surprise nonetheless. It’s a slightly different tale with Brighton, who had clearly returned to being the side they were a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic promotion is a similar story. The last time a club relegated from the Premier League finished in second place was WBA in 2010. Four of the last five runners up have played at least one season in the Championship before promotion and any of the teams that finished in the top half of the competition should have a fair shout.

The playoffs have been the most reliable route for relegated teams to return to the Premier League, but as always there’s a catch. Four of the last five finals have been won by teams that had been relegated from the Premier League, but it’s the teams that have earned at least 31 points before demotion that have been successful. Aston Villa‘s awful campaign in 2015/16 implies that they won’t be at Wembley in May. Here’s the fun part for anyone who follows a team that finished in the bottom half of the table though: six of the last ten playoff winners had finished in thirteenth place or lower.

Market movers: as you’d expect,  there’s been a lot of money for Newcastle, who have been clear favourites to win promotion. However, the change of both ownership and management at Wolves has seen them cut to 6/1 to go up. I think that’s a ‘wait and see’ decision, purely because we have no idea what sort of impact Walter Zenga will have. It’s also worth remembering what happened when Kenny Jackett left Millwall a few seasons ago.

At the bottom:

Over the last decade it’s normally been the clubs that have finished lower than 15th or have been promoted from League One that have usually been relegated, although it’s fair to point out that in half of the last ten seasons all of the newcomers from the third tier have avoided relegation.

Having written that, I find it difficult to argue with the bookies about the favourites for the drop. By and large, League 1 was wide open last season and I’ve already argued that elsewhere that Wigan won the title because so many other teams managed to blow their chances at crucial points. I don’t expect the Latics to struggle, but Barnsley and Burton will. The Tykes put together a run of form at exactly the right time, but in the eight seasons before they were relegated from the Championship they finished no better than 17th: they also had a worse record last season than Yeovil did when they were promoted.

Burton have to be admired for their record since joining the Football League, but the Championship is both unforgiving and a huge step up in class. The big advantage Burton have is that Nigel Clough knows the territory whereas Paul Heckingbottom doesn’t.

That being said, there are a number of teams that have declined over the past few seasons to the point where they’re prime candidates for relegation. Blackburn, Fulham and Nottingham Forest all fit that description and the Cottagers look particularly vulnerable following Ross McCormack’s departure for Aston Villa earlier this week. Blackburn and Forest were two thirds of the trio that averaged one goal per game or less last season but weren’t relegated. It’s interesting to note that Preston‘s odds for relegation have shortened since the start of last month: the Lillywhites complete the goal shy trio, even though they conceded the same amount of goals as Sheffield Wednesday did in 2015/16.

Talking of which, the average number of goals per game in the Championship last season was 2.42, the first time that the average had dropped below 2.5 since the 2008/09.

Predictions:

  • Derby to win promotion. Rather like the Cardiff sides of few years ago, The Rams have been agonisingly close to a return to the Premier League. Nigel Pearson may have had a rather inglorious end to his career at Leicester, but he did almost all of the groundwork there and will want to remind his doubters of that.
  • Barnsley to be relegated. Once again, the similarities between last season’s Tykes and the Yeovil team that won the League One playoffs in 2013 are remarkable: both clubs were in the bottom third of the table in September – Barnsley were bottom of League One at the end of November 2015 – before putting together remarkable runs of form to win promotion. However, Yeovil were in the bottom three of the Championship by mid-September and eventually finished seven points from safety.
  • At least one semi finalist from the Championship in both the League Cup and the FA Cup this season, although it’s about time a second tier team won the FA Cup again.

Finally this week, here are the televised games this weekend, starting tonight. The times in the brackets are the actual kick off times: there’s usually half an hour of waffle before the game starts and – as usual – they’ve missed the game of the week, which is Derby v Brighton.

Friday 5th August: Fulham v Newcastle (7:45pm, Sky Sports 1)

Sunday 7th August: QPR v Leeds (noon, Sky Sports 1), Sheffield Wednesday v Aston Villa (4:30pm, Sky Sports 1)

I’ll be back next weekend.

Sky Bet Championship 2016/17 Preview Part 4

Here’s the final part of our club by club previews for the 2016/17 Sky Bet Championship season. The prices quoted were taken from the Oddschecker website at 11:00am on July 1st and will fluctuate as the season progresses.

Preston North End

Manager: Simon Grayson (February 2013)

Last 10: 1-4-3

Second season in the Championship

Promotion: 14/1

Relegation: 5/1

Dark Horse alert. Grayson’s defensive style of football was perfect for the Championship and with some tweaks the Lillywhites might end up in the play offs. A word of warning though: only four teams scored fewer goals and three of them were relegated. Preston actually scored more goals away from Deepdale and haven’t scored more than three goals at home in a regular season game since March 2015.

QPR

Manager: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (December 2015)

Last 10: 3-4-3

Second season in the Championship

Promotion: 11/1

Relegation: 14/1

This season depends almost entirely on how well Hasselbaink does in his first full campaign as manager at Loftus Road: after a bright start, Rangers were no better than a mid table team and Chris Ramsey was sacked in November before being appointed as technical director two months later – tantamount to an admission that the board had made a mistake in the first place. The divisional draw specialists failed to beat any of the teams that finished above them on the road and scored fewer goals than MK Dons on their travels, so an improvement in away form is where Hasselbaink should start.

Reading

Manager: Jaap Stam (June 2016)

Last 10: 2-2-6

Fourth season in the Championship

Promotion: 10/1

Relegation: 12/1

I can understand why Stam wants to build a career in management in English football but I can’t understand why he’d want to manage a team that has finished 17th and 19th respectively in the last two seasons. It’s a brave decision to appoint him, but considering the fate of managers like Henning Berg, Sami Hyppia et al over the past few seasons, it probably won’t work. Those odds are far too optimistic and Reading will do well to avoid a relegation battle.

Rotherham

Manager: Alan Stubbs (June 2016)

Last 10: 3-5-2

Third season in the Championship

Promotion: 33/1

Relegation: 3.5

Second favourites for the drop and it’s not hard to see why. Spent almost all of last season in the bottom four and even though the Millers saved themselves last season following an eleven game unbeaten run inspired by Neil Warnock, the veteran manager was replaced by Alan Stubbs in May. Although Stubbs finally ended Hibs’ Scottish Cup jinx last season, he’s untested in English management. His priorities are obvious: Rotherham were a soft touch away from the New York stadium last season and their defence was awful. Are there three teams worse than them in 2016/17? Probably not.

Sheffield Wednesday

Last 10: 5-3-2 (not including the play offs)

Fifth season in the Championship

Manager: Carlos Carvalhal (June 2015)

Promotion: 5.5

Relegation: 33/1

A big improvement on the previous seasons and that’s largely down to the adjustments of Carlos Carvalhal, but if any of the play off teams from last season are likely to suffer a hangover it’s Wednesday. Their best league position since 1991 was overshadowed by an ordinary looking performance at Wembley a couple of months ago, which was entirely compatible with both their inability to beat any of the teams that finished above them and a mid-table record away from home. Not the worst position for a manager to be in, but Wednesday are no longer a surprise package and teams will be prepared for them this season.

Wigan Athletic

Last 10: 7-1-2 (League One)

Promoted to the Championship as winners of League One

Manager: Gary Caldwell (April 2015)

Promotion: 10/1

Relegation: 8/1

The Latics were both good enough and patient enough to exploit the lack of form of their rivals at exactly the right time and should be fine on their return to the Championship. Only one of the last five winners of League One has been relegated immediately (Doncaster Rovers in 2014) but Wigan’s final points tally last season was the second lowest amount to win the title over the last decade and was only three points better than Doncaster’s was. That may be significant, but I’d expect Wigan to be comfortably mid table. If they do better than that, expect Gary Caldwell to be linked with all kinds of jobs.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Last 10: 2-6-2

Third season in the Championship

Manager: Kenny Jackett (May 2013)

Manager: Walter Zenga (July 2016)

Promotion: 16/1

Relegation: 7/1

A disappointment last season although it’s fair to say the disruption caused by both injuries and Jez Moxey putting the club up for sale didn’t help and apart from a brief period around Christmas there was little or no consistency on the pitch. The takeover by the Forsun group and Jackett’s confirmation that he’s staying are both positives and should minimise any speculation this season: Wolves will remain hard to beat and could make a run at the play offs if all goes well, but like so many clubs in the Championship they need a proven goalscorer at this level and that seems to be why their price for relegation looks a bit harsh.

Update: Jackett was sacked after this part of the preview was posted and replaced by Walter Zenga, the former Italian international goalkeeper. Zenga has no experience of managing in the UK and doesn’t seem to hang around very long.

Next week: I’ll be looking at what to expect from this season’s 2016/17 Sky Bet Championship – with any luck, it’ll be in time for the first match of the campaign!