GOTW: Bristol City v Sheffield United

And we’re back…

I’m still not sure how the international ‘break’ is anything of the sort, considering  how all it means is that there’s a full midweek programme next week. It’s never going to go away though, so I’m going to stop moaning about it from now on.

Having proclaimed a fortnight ago that the least likely result of the top of the table clash between Leeds and Middlesbrough was a draw, that’s precisely what happened at Elland Road. I would have posted the highlights, only the neutral consensus was that there weren’t any and I couldn’t find any on either of the official YouTube accounts.

However, that result means that Leeds and Boro are the only unbeaten teams left in the Championship. Aston Villa, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest all lost their most recent games: I’ll return to the former pair in a moment, but Forest haven’t won a game since the middle of last month and are beginning to look like one of those teams that are difficult to beat rather than being genuine contenders for promotion.

Bristol City v Sheffield United

If Forest were overrated before the season began, then arguably these two clubs were slightly underrated. Generally speaking, teams that finished in the top ten but missed out on the playoffs at the end of the previous season are those that might take a big step forward during the following campaign.

Let’s also not forget that last time out both City and United both beat unbeaten sides by 4-1 scorelines although I’ve got to say that Sheffield United’s victory was more of an eye catcher than Bristol City’s win. Here are the highlights from Bramall Lane:

Bristol City lost three of their key players during the summer, with only Aden Flint staying at this level following his move to Middlesbrough. Given how City have a habit of going on long runs of either fantastic or terrible form it’s probably too early in the season to assess exactly how good or bad they are at the moment, but the signs are encouraging. As I mentioned above, they battered Blackburn a couple of weeks ago for their first home win of the season (and first at Ashton Gate since March) and they’ve only lost three of their last ten home games in the division – including by the odd goal in five against tomorrow’s opponents at the start of May.

The Blades had an inconsistent end to 2017/18 that meant any chances of reaching the playoffs gradually faded away, but they’ve started brightly this season and have won four consecutive games – their best run of form for year – and their opening day defeat at Middlesbrough has been their only reverse so far. Interestingly, although City lost three key players in the summer, only six of the Blades team that won at Ashton Gate started against Villa two weeks ago: both Ryan Leonard and Lee Evans are on loan at Millwall and Wigan Athletic respectively

Head to head: Bristol City last beat Sheffield United in November 2010 – current Robins’ manager Lee Johnson was a second half substitute – and The Blades were relegated at the end of that season. However, since then United have won three straight at Ashton Gate (sorry, couldn’t resist that)

Verdict: you can’t ignore Sheffield United’s record at Ashton Gate over the last decade, so the big question surrounding this game is whether or not that run is going to come to an end tomorrow. There’s only been one draw between them in Bristol (almost a decade ago) and so it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends all square.

However, I also have a compelling reason to think that Sheffield United could return to South Yorkshire with all three points and if that turns out to be the case I’ll tell you what it is next weekend…

At the bottom of the table there are two games worth following: Hull v Ipswich and Preston v Reading. This week your televised offerings are Birmingham v WBA (this evening, Sky Sports Main Event/Football 7:45pm) and Blackburn v Aston Villa (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event/Football 5:30pm) – once again, Sky’s criteria for game selection appears to be teams that used to be in the Premier League but with a bonus point for local derbies.

I’ll be back next weekend unless someone gets sacked…which gives me an idea for next week’s post.

Why Stoke Are Still A Good Bet For Championship Promotion

Britannia Stadium” (CC BY 2.0) by yellow book

Many early season predictions from fans and commentators pointed to Stoke City getting promotion from the Championship and regaining their place back in the Premier League.

But after a poor start to the season, even the Staffordshire club’s own fans have started to think the worst.

There’s even some bemoaning Stoke’s high-paid but currently poor-performing players could lead the Potters to another relegation. But that’s the sort of short-sighted thinking that follows a disappointing result.

Stoke City still have a very good chance of finishing the season in the play-off spots or earning automatic promotion. And here’s why. For starters, the relegated Midlands club, which spent a decade in the Premier League having won promotion in 2008, were the early season favourites with bookies to top the league. Manager Gary Rowett has accomplished some astute business in the transfer market, while retaining a number of players with Premier League experience, including veteran striker Peter Crouch.

They’ve importantly still got Welshman Joe Allen in the heart of midfield. He’s Premier League class and could quite easily fit into most squads in the top division. He did, of course, play for Liverpool for four years. Prior to that, he was a regular for Swansea, while he was a crucial part of Wales’ successful run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals. A hard-working midfielder who always wants the ball, Allen is the sort of intelligent first-teamer who will help Stoke dominate possession while providing solidarity when the Potters don’t have the ball.

No Ambition.” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

Rowett has been backed with the funds to improve the squad by owners who covet England’s lucrative top division. This has seen the club build the Championship’s best squad with plenty of talent in depth. Veterans like former Manchester United favourite Darren Fletcher and attacker Tom Ince, who played for Premier League survivalists Huddersfield Town last year, add guile and flair to the midfield.

Championship betting might have seen the club become a popular outside punt at 40/1 as relegation fodder given the high return after a disappointing start to the season. But Stoke still possess an experienced nucleus to their squad that should see them enjoy success over the long-term. We mustn’t forget they’ve got a top international keeper who went to the World Cup in Jack Butland and some excellent central defenders such as Ryan Shawcross.

And while Rowett is still relying on 37-year-old striker Peter Crouch, Saido Berahino is tipped to come good this season in a new deeper role. If the player who scored 23 goals in 105 appearances for former club West Brom could go from being a “one goal in four” player to a “one goal in three”, Stoke’s early-season fortunes will drastically change.

Stoke have dug themselves a hole they’ll need to emerge from but there are still reasons to be optimistic for Potters fans. They’ve got a strong squad, a decent defence and the potential to score plenty of goals. Swansea City, West Brom, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough will be in the mix but the smart money has to remain on Stoke.

GOTW: Leeds v Middlesbrough

The World Cup Final was less than seven weeks ago but this is the last post before we have the first of this season’s international breaks.

I still think it’s ridiculous having international football this early in the season but at least there’s a televised game of the week to tide us over for a fortnight.

Back to last weekend and QPR finally won – a goal from Tomer Hemed was enough to see off Wigan – but Nottingham Forest had to come from behind to draw at home against Birmingham in a game that I described last weekend as having draw written all over it.

Leeds v Middlesbrough

(This evening, 7:45 om Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

If there’s a winner in this one they’ll have a significant psychological advantage: if the hosts earn all three points then I’d be more willing to take them seriously as promotion candidates but if Boro win at Elland Road for the first time in seven years that would strengthen the case that they’ll likely return to the Premier League in May.

After five games last season, Leeds were in third place having earned two fewer points. They’re currently on a run of seven matches without losing a Championship game at Elland Road but arguably the toughest home game until they face Brentford at the start of October – which is about the time it all started going wrong last season. One of the reasons they finished in the bottom half of the table last season was their appalling record against teams in the top half of the table (17 points from 72 available, the only team from the top half that failed to beat them was Bristol City) and that has to change.

This time last season Boro had already lost twice: they didn’t really look like promotion contenders until Tony Pulis took over on Boxing Day but even so their record against the top half of the table last season was similar to Leeds. Middlesbrough won more points than the Whites but failed to beat any of the sides that finished above them, even though all of those games were close. Again, that’s something that needs to change in order for Premier League football to return to the Riverside again, as does their defensive record on the road: including the draw at Aston Villa in the playoffs last season, Boro have only kept three clean sheets in their last ten aways.

Stats corner: Leeds have won half of the last ten at home against Middlesbrough, but four of those wins were in the last five meetings and Boro haven’t won at Leeds since August 2011.

Verdict: it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but if you want to do well in a league competition it’s a good idea to minimise your home defeats. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side but based on the results between the top six at the end of last season and the recent history of this fixture, that’s the least likely outcome.

It’s a bit of a cop out, but I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in this one but I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: if either side wins, take them seriously. Leeds have started well, but three of their five games so far have been against clubs in the bottom half of the table: three of Boro’s five games have been against clubs in the top half.

Elsewhere, it’s the games at Birmingham, Hull and Preston that are worth noting. The Blues and the Tigers entertain QPR and Derby respectively – in one of those odd situations that comes up every now and again, it’ll Derby’s second trip to Hull this week and they’ll be hoping for the same result as Tuesday night’s 4-0 victory in the League Cup. Preston host Bolton in the first Lancashire derby of the season: the Trotters could close the gap at the top if the game of the week ends in a draw and they win at Deepdale for the first time since New Year’s Day 2001.

The other televised games this weekend are Millwall v Swansea (tomorrow, 5:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football), The Old Farm Derby (Sunday, noon, Sky Sports Football – Red Button)  and Bristol City v Blackburn (Sunday, 1:30, Sky Sports Football – Red Button) and  so I’ll see you in a couple of weeks time – unless something dramatic happens.

Eight Out Of Ten Stats

The last post of the month is going to be stats driven, so please be patient.

It’s still really early in the season, but after four games there seem to be some surprise team at both ends of the table.

First of all, here are the highlights from last weekend’s game of the week:

This isn’t the best stat of the week, but it’s been over a decade since Ipswich had a shirt sponsor that wasn’t Marcus Evans.

Anyway, I’ve identified a number of teams who were playing in the Championship last season but are currently performing either above or below the level they were in 2017/18. I looked at how they’ve performed against (a) the current teams in the top six and (b) those sides currently in the bottom six, then compared the points they earned from those games against the grand total they’ve earned this season:

This seems to suggest the following:

  • Any club that’s earned more than 50% of their total points against teams from the bottom six has probably had an easy start: Bolton, Brentford, Leeds and Preston fall into that category – although the Lillywhites are currently underperforming compared to last season, which indicates this may be a bump in the road rather than a crisis.
  • Birmingham have had a bad start due to having already played Bolton, Middlesbrough and Swansea, but they don’t have to face another club in the current top six until the middle of next month. That being said, you have to wonder if the Blues would have been in this position if they’d had an easier schedule: I think it’s highly likely that the end of last season was something of a dead cat bounce.
  • I’d be very worried if I was a QPR fan. A couple of seasons ago Rotherham were relegated to League One after finishing 19 points adrift at the bottom but after four games The Millers had one win and three goals under their belts – which is a better record than Steve McLaren’s team currently has.
  • Nottingham Forest have improved – they couldn’t have got any worse without being relegated – but probably not enough to be considered promotion candidates. They to come from behind at both Bristol City and Wigan to earn draws, struggled to beat Bury in the League Cup and lots of teams are going to beat Reading this season.

Once again, although this is far too early in the campaign to make predictions, I think that Aston Villa, Brentford and Middlesbrough will be in the mix at the end of the season. It’s a ‘wait and see’ situation with Leeds (when isn’t it?) but I’d be very surprised to see Bolton in the top half of the table at Christmas. Overall though, I think it’s still wide open at the top.

At the bottom, it’s Birmingham, QPR and Reading who will need to look over their shoulders – I picked Reading out before the season began – but I’ll be honest and thought that QPR were the type of team that could do well. Of course, that could still happen. I deliberately haven’t mentioned any of the new arrivals in this post, but Stoke have had a dreadful start.

Elsewhere I’d suggest keeping an eye on Frank Lampard’s progress at Derby. It could go either way but at the moment I’d suggest their lowest finish in the Championship for half a dozen seasons is a realistic outcome: a guaranteed playoff hangover combined with an inexperienced manager is not a recipe for success.

This weekend’s televised games: Middlesbrough v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Main Event/Football) and Nottingham Forest v Birmingham (Saturday, 5:30pm, Sky Sports Main Event/Football). The first one looks like an interesting one, the second one has draw written all over it.

It’s the second round of the League Cup next week and I’ll cover that in next weekend’s post. I may not have a hangover by then 🙂

GOTW: Ipswich v Aston Villa

It’s mid August and everyone’s played at least twice.

Eleven clubs without a win, there are ten sides that are unbeaten and unlike League One, everyone’s scored or conceded at least one goal.

Last weekend’s game of the week was the first time Derby had been beaten at home by Leeds by more than one goal since March 1998, when the Rams were stuffed 5-0 in a Premier League game:

It’s hard to know how to interpret that result at the moment. We’re two games in and Leeds are either destined for the Premier League or it’s a repeat of last season’s fast start – United were top of the table until late September before dropping out of the top six altogether a month later. Derby scraped a late victory at Reading on the opening weekend before their heaviest home defeat since the end of March – against Sunderland, who were relegated.

Arguably the simplest interpretation is that Marcelo Bielsa is a better manager than Frank Lampard. Let’s see where we are at Valentine’s Day: I’ve added a reminder to my online calendar.

The game of the week is at Portman Road, where Ipswich entertain Aston Villa in a bottom six/top six match. The hosts have only won one of their last ten home games in the competition and haven’t beaten Villa in a league game since September 1984. Without counting the playoff win at Middlesbrough at the end of last season, Steve Bruce’s side have won half of their last ten aways: I find myself wondering if it’s Villa’s turn to score a few goals this weekend…

In the League Cup, only seven teams were eliminated at the first hurdle including last season’s semi finalists Bristol City. Four clubs needed penalties to win their ties including Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, who beat a pair of League Two sides (Notts County and Bury respectively) on spot kicks after being behind on three occasions (Boro) and for 88 minutes plus playing for most of the game with ten men (Forest).

This weekend’s televised games are Birmingham v Swansea (Friday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7:45pm kick off) and Preston v Stoke (Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 5:30pm). The first was clearly chosen for the Garry Monk angle and is the first time the clubs have met in a League game at St Andrew’s (I refuse to call it the new name) since December 2008; the first competitive meeting between Preston and Stoke was in the inaugural season of the Football League – on 6th October 1889 the Lillywhites thrashed Stoke 7-0 and went on to win the first ever league title by eleven points, the equivalent of 17 points these days.

There’s a full midweek programme next week, which means that next week I’ll be able to bring you some very early performance analysis. Not sure when that’ll be though, due to a Bank Holiday commitment…