The fixtures for the new season were released this morning, here are the opening weekend’s games:
Friday August 2nd
Luton v Middlesbrough (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)
Saturday August 3rd
Barnsley v Fulham, Blackburn v Charlton, Brentford v Birmingham, Millwall v Preston, Reading v Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke v QPR, Swansea v Hull, Wigan v Cardiff, Nottingham Forest v WBA (5:30 – Sky Sports Football)
Sunday August 4th
Bristol City v Leeds (4:30 – Sky Sports Football)
Monday August 5th
Huddersfield v Derby (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)
We already have a number of new managers: Birmingham and Hull have yet to name replacements for Garry Monk and Nigel Adkins respectively, but Luton, QPR, WBA. Middlesbrough and Swansea all have new managers.
The League Cup fixtures are out later on today but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Right, guess who’s off to start putting a preview together…
(Sky Sports Football/Main Event 2:oopm, kick off 3:00pm)
Well that flew by didn’t it: the most boring ‘richest’ game in the world is here once more, although let’s not get too excited.
The recent history of the final has been dominated by low scoring games, half of which had to go to extra time to be settled. The last time we saw more than two goals scored and both finalists actually scoring was in 2012: five of the last six matches finished 1-0 and on average we had to wait about an hour for a goal
However, the fact that a 5th v 6th final is such a rarity may mean that it’s a tendency breaker – but as you’re about to find out, that may not be a good thing for one of the teams involved.
And let’s not forget that one of these teams will become the first club since Crystal Palace in 2013 to be promoted to the Premier League having won fewer than 80 points.
Beaten finalists 2018. Last ten regular season away games: 5-3-2 13-9 – almost exactly the same as last season.
Their current streak of seven games without an away defeat is Villa’s best form on the road this season, but all of those games were against sides with an average finishing position of 14th, including two wins against teams that were relegated and ‘that’ equaliser at Leeds last month that was possibly a parting gift from Marcelo Bielsa. Then there’s this interesting stat: they had the second worst home defence last season (only Rotherham conceded more) but the fourth best away defence in the Championship – and that could be crucial, considering Derby finished with an away goal difference of -5.
Villa scored the sixth most away goals last season but that was still 18 fewer than they did at Villa Park. They also failed to beat any of the teams that finished above them on the road but won 3-0 at Derby in November:
Overall: don’t be fooled by the ‘big name’ nonsense – Villa weren’t actually as good as they were in 2017/18, but that was one of the reasons Steve Bruce was replaced in October and Dean Smith seems to have got the best out of the team. However, let’s not forget that they finished thirteen points behind runners up Sheffield United, which is more than twice the difference from 2017/18, when they finished six points behind Cardiff – who were relegated from the Premier League in April. Villa might be a big fish in a small pond in the Championship, but if they go up that situation will be reversed.
Take a look at that record: over the last 25 years, The Rams have reached the playoffs seven times and have only been promoted once – and then were historically awful.
With the benefit of hindsight, Derby’s win at Leeds in the playoff semi final might actually just be an indication of how dramatic Leeds’ end of season implosion actually was rather than showcasing Derby’s promotion credentials. Before they won at Bristol City (with the help of card happy referee Darren Bond) they’d gone eight games without a win and hadn’t won an away game in 2018; those last ten games mentioned above were all against similar teams to those that Villa have done well against recently.
Derby did win their regular season games at WBA and Norwich but remarkably they also only picked up one point from nine available at those teams that will be playing in League One next season. The Rams also conceded in all but three of their away games last season and had the tenth best away defence in the Championship; they’ll have their hands full with Tammy Abraham but it’s also fair to say that they’ve been over reliant on Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson for goals.
Yet it’s not inconceivable that Derby will win promotion: they earned four more points that Blackpool did in 2009/10 and the same amount as Sheffield Wednesday earned when they reached the finals in 2015/16 but it was Blackpool who went up. In terms of Derby’s play-off history, this season’s team won three more points than the side that lost to Leicester in the 1994 final, but nine points fewer than the iteration that lost so dramatically in the 2014 final.
Head to head: Villa have won six of the last ten meetings and only lost twice – both of those defeats were at Derby.
Previous finals – last ten only:
Today’s game is only second time that a sixth placed team has actually reached the final over the last decade. The last sixth placed finisher to win the final was Blackpool in 2010.
It’s the first 5th v 6th final since West Ham v Preston in 2005 – West Ham won 1-0.
Higher placed teams have won exactly half of last ten finals.
The last six finals have all featured under three goals, the last time both teams scored was all the way back in 2012 (West Ham 2-1 Blackpool)
Verdict: history is against Derby here. They finished 3rd when they lost to QPR in the 2014 final and that team was a lot better than this season’s version but as you can see here, this year’s team seems to have more in common with the QPR side that beat them five years ago – which might be very significant.
On the other hand, history is also against Villa. The last team to return to a playoff final after losing it at the end of the previous season were West Ham in 2005, even though Crystal Palace (1997) and Leicester (1994) had both managed that feat before then. Villa fans can take some comfort that in both of the previous all-Midlands finals the higher placed finisher won both.
Now bearing in mind that I have a record of getting these wrong, I’m going to back Villa to win promotion – especially if they score first, as I’d also expect them to get another within ten minutes as Derby have to adapt tactically. It’s also worth remembering that Derby failed to score in both games against Villa this season and they were particularly vulnerable to Conor Hourihane.
Update: Derby and Charlton will be playing in the Championship next season.
Championship sides are often in an interesting position in the FA Cup.
They aren’t far down enough the English football ladder to prompt support for the magic of the FA Cup, but they aren’t fancied to take down the titans of the Premier League in most cases either.
But there are some Championship sides heading into next season who have a real shot at making some noise in the FA Cup, and upsetting the natural order of the tournament.
Wigan Athletic had one of the most interesting FA Cup runs of all-time, when they managed to win the entire tournament despite getting relegated from Premier League competition in the same season. Perhaps more interesting was who Wigan had to beat to earn that trophy, as they managed to hold a potent Manchester City attack scoreless in a 1-0 FA Cup winning victory that shocked the football world.
City, of course, are on the verge of yet another FA Cup title as they are the favourites to win the tournament as they reached the final against Watford. Paddy Power has the Citizens at 1/5 odds to win the game in normal time to secure the domestic treble for the 2019-2020 season, a feat that has not been performed by a Premier League side to date. If anything, the continued rise of City has made what Wigan did in 2013 even more impressive.
As for this year’s team, there isn’t a lot of resemblance between the Wigan side that won the FA Cup and the side now. But the club and its supporters know full well how to navigate the tournament, something that gives them an advantage over most Championship sides who have yet to experience the same levels of success in the competition.
Manager Tony Pulis said that he considered the season for Middlesbrough to be a successful one regardless of whether or not the team ends up in the Premier League again. But the team could be in for more success next season, as they look like they would have a real shot to disrupt the traditional powers in the FA Cup thanks to one of the most stout defences in English football.
Boro allowed just 41 goals in 46 league matches in the Championship in the 2018-2019 season, tying them with Sheffield United for the best defensive mark in the league. Boro only knocked in 49 goals for the year, which could be cause for concern against higher-profile opponents, but their defence will likely keep them in games against even the biggest teams in the England club ladder, which could help them pull off some upsets en route to a magical cup run.
There are a lot of things that can change that can derail one of these teams or elevate another Championship team. The additional of newly promoted or relegated teams into the league can affect the balance of power, as can transfers and other forms of player movement. But as it stands right now, don’t be surprised if Wigan or Boro turn some heads from the Championship in the next FA Cup.
Four teams that weren’t quite good enough to win automatic promotion competing for a position in the bottom half of the Premier League and there’s a good chance that at least one of them will back here next season.
Aston Villa and WBA have played in the Premier League within the last five years, but neither Derby nor Leeds have played in the top tier for over a decade.
The odd thing about this season’s playoffs is that although Leeds were one of the most improved teams this season, both Villa and Derby weren’t as good as they were in 2017/18. That’s also emphasised by looking at the head to head record between the four teams: Leeds only lost once in their six games against other teams in the playoffs, whereas the other three sides lost at least twice – Derby lost four of their six games against playoff teams and actually had a goal difference of -7. The other thing to note is how few draws their have been in these games: just the one, when Leeds drew with Villa a couple of weeks ago.
Villa and Leeds are the favourites, but it’s been a while since losing playoff finalists returned to the final and won it – the last occasion was when West Ham won in 2005 after losing to Crystal Palace in 2004.
Finally, does anyone remember the Curse of Fourth? It’s been joined by the Curse of Sixth: only three teams in the last decade that have finished in either fourth or sixth place have been promoted via the playoffs. Bad news for Derby and WBA in that case.
Therefore statistically speaking, it looks like Leeds should go up. It’s never that simple though.
Aston Villa v WBA (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 12:15pm)
A local derby in the playoffs so that’ll be fun for the neutrals. Until last weekend Villa had won five consecutive home games but the defeat against Norwich was the first time VIlla had lost at home since mid-February. This season they’ve been beaten at Villa Park three teams but have drawn twice in their next home outing. A draw wouldn’t be the end of the world for either team today, but would definitely give the Baggies an advantage next week.
The head to head record at Villa Park is interesting: WBA have won two of the last three matches there but those victories were the first since 2011. Villa have only won two of the last six.
Verdict: this is going to be a tight one.
Derby v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 5:15pm)
Just three home defeats all season indicate that Derby are a force to be reckoned with, but two of those reverses were heavy defeats against Villa and Leeds and they only won three of their nine games at Pride Park against teams that finished in the top ten. The other side of the argument is that Leeds need to stop Derby scoring this afternoon, something that has only happened five times this season – and the Rams have only lost twice when they’ve failed to hit the net.
Leeds are on a four game streak without a win and haven’t won on the road since before Easter, but as I mentioned earlier, their away record against the top six – and indeed the top ten – is much better than Derby’s. The other problem Leeds have in this game is that they’ve got a poor record at Derby: although United won convincingly at Pride Park in August, before then they’d only won one of their last ten league games there.
Verdict: anything could happen here, but overall it’s going to be down to which manager prepares his team better. I don’t actually think Frank Lampard’s made much of a difference to Derby, but after what happened a couple of weeks ago against Aston Villa, my opinion of Marcelo Bielsa has gone up – even if my opinion of Pontus Jansson hasn’t.
I’ll update this post ASAP after today’s games and there’ll be a short post once we know who’s going to reach the final.
Aston Villa 2-1 WBA
Derby 0-1 Leeds
Update: Aston Villa will face Derby in the final. Villa won on penalties and Derby won at Elland Road in a very dramatic game.