Leeds Reverse Means The Worst For Hurst

The last seven days have proved that the Championship is anything but predictable.

Now we’re at the end of what our German friends call an ‘English Week’, the form book has been turned on its’ head and another manager has lost his job.

Middlesbrough got off to a good start last Friday evening in last week’s game of the week…

However, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that Rotherham would have travelled to the Riverside on Tuesday evening and earned a point after  a goalless draw. Sheffield Wednesday also lost at QPR and have gone from the top six to the bottom half of the table in a week; after some impressive recent performances, WBA were spanked 4-1 at home by Derby on Wednesday evening.

There were originally three matches that I’d considered for Game of the Week, but I ruled out Middlesbrough v Derby for being too obvious and neither Millwall v Ipswich nor Preston v Rotherham looked like headline grabbers – even though they’re both important games at the bottom  of the table.

As it’s the end of  October I thought I’d take a quick look at the teams who have either noticeably improved or deteriorated from last season.

The most improved teams so far this season are Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.  I thought Garry Monk should have been in the conversation for the September manager of the month award and he should be the obvious choice for the October award – the Blues are undefeated in ten games and have won for of their last six games and so far this season they’ve only lost once in seven games against the teams that are currently above them in the table.

The clubs that have taken at least one step back since last season are Aston Villa, Millwall, Preston, Ipswich and Hull. We all know about Dean Smith replacing Steve Bruce at Villa, but until yesterday afternoon my money would have been on Hull’s Nigel Adkins being the next manager to receive his marching orders.

That’s when Ipswich Town decided that – having dropped to bottom of the table after losing at Leeds – the Paul Hurst era was over after just fifteen games. The Tractor Boys haven’t won at home since April, have lost seven of their last ten away games and wouldn’t have escaped the bottom three this weekend even if they’d won. It’s a similar situation with Adkins: the Tigers have gone seven games without a win and conceded late goals in their last two games that effectively cost them four points.

I think it’s fair to say that there are some signs that Millwall and Preston may have just taken a while to get going rather than showing any damaging long term signs of regression, but now’s the time for Neil Harris and Alex Neil to make their moves.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows – shown on either on Sky Sports Football and/or Main Event unless stated: QPR v Aston Villa (this evening, 7:45pm), Middlesbrough v Derby (tomorrow, 12:30pm) and Leeds v Nottingham Forest (tomorrow, 5:30pm). The Saturday games looks most tempting and it won’t come as a huge surprise that QPR have been chosen again, whilst Leeds/Forest is always televised – although this season it’s actually relevant for a change.

I’ll back in a fortnight as I’m off to France for half term.

GOTW: Millwall v Sheffield United

The big news last weekend was that Leeds lost at home for the first time since March.

Two Che Adams goals in the first half an hour gave Birmingham their first away win since April and their third victory at Elland Road in the last five years.

And yes, I have tried to look for official highlights from either team but none seem to exist.

That result – combined with Middlesbrough’s goalless draw with Swansea – means that there’s now only a three point gap between Leeds and seventh placed Brentford.

At the bottom it was a fairly straightforward win for Reading:

The victories for Birmingham and Reading change the landscape at the bottom a little bit: nobody is in danger of being cast adrift this weekend but I’m beginning to wonder if Alex Neil will last the entire season at Preston.

There are two teams left in the League Cup: Derby (who beat Manchester United on penalties) and Nottingham Forest (who beat Stoke). For any casual Premier League fans reading this, Derby are slightly better than they were last season: Donald Trump could be their manager and they’d still finish in the top six without getting promoted.

We reach the ten game milestone this weekend – it’s hard to believe we’re already a third of the way through the season even though there’s another eight months left. After this weeks games we’ll have a far clearer picture of what’s going to happen although the next 15 or so games between now and Boxing Day will make it even clearer. If you’re going to win promotion or avoid relegation now’s the time to make a move: which is why this weekend’s game of the week is an important one for both teams.

Millwall v Sheffield United

The Lions aren’t that bad at home and I’d expect them to avoid relegation, but there are a couple of things Neil Harris needs to tweak. Only Ipswich and Rotherham have scored fewer goals so far and although Millwall have only lost two of their last ten games at the New Den, they’ve blown leads in three of their four outings in South London this season. Swansea beat them at the start of the month despite playing with ten men for most of the game after Courtney Baker-Richardson’s straight red card for an awful tackle on James Meredith.

The Blades recovered from their recent defeat at Bristol City by picking up four points from the next two matches. I know I’ve picked their matches for two of the last three games of the week but I think they’re a good measure of the comparative strength of the top six as I think there’s a possibility that they’re overrated at the moment. 80% of their points have been earned against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and they’ve got a habit of conceding late goals.

Millwall have won seven of the last ten games between the clubs in South London – the last time the game ended in a draw was in a Third Division game at the Den in March 1980, so it’s about time that outcome happened again.

There are two other games to look out for tomorrow, both of which are bottom six/top six matches: Hull v Middlesbrough and Preston v WBA.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows:

This evening: 7:45pm: Bristol City v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Red Button), Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event); on Saturday at 5:30pm it’s Rotherham v Stoke (Sky Sports Football/ Main Event), which is a rare one as they’ve not met since August 2004 and Stoke haven’t won at Rotherham since April 1993.

Finally another reminder that there will be no post from me for the next couple of weeks, although if anything dramatic happens I’ll post a quick recap.

GOTW: Reading v Hull

Something a bit different this week, but first a quick recap.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended in 1-0 victory for Bristol City over Sheffield United, but the most significant action came at Carrow Road:

That was Boro’s first defeat of the season and their first setback on the road since April. The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been though as Leeds drew at Millwall and then both of the leading pair won their midweek games – which means Leeds are now a point ahead of Middlesbrough and are the only unbeaten team left in the Championship.

This week’s game of the week is between two clubs that are struggling at the moment. Rather than preview the game of the week, I’m going to take a wider look at the current situation at the bottom of the table, specifically where I think a managerial change might be imminent. There are five clubs that are seriously under performing so far this season:

Hull City

It’s been well over half a decade since Nigel Adkins had any sort of success as a manager: he’s been in charge at Hull for almost twice as many games as his predecessor (the hapless Leonid Slutsky) but is only fractionally more successful than the Russian was (0.23 of a point per game). As it stands, Adkins and his toothless tigers are lucky there are three teams worse than they are: if they survive this season, they may not get the same chance in 2019/20. Regarding tomorrow’s game, they’ve only lost three of their last ten aways in the Championship but only kept clean sheets in two of those matches – and as you’ll read in a minute, that’s cause for optimism at the Mad House.

Ipswich Town

Second favourites for relegation. Paul Hurst was only appointed at the end of May and hasn’t even been the boss at Portman Road for ten games, yet there were some dire predictions being made about Town’s fortunes this season before a ball was kicked in anger that I laughed off before the season but seem to be coming true. This time last season Ipswich were in the playoff places and were eleven points better off, but one win in their last ten games is cause for concern; the only other team without a league win so far are Birmingham, but they’ve only lost twice and seem to have turned something of a corner under Garry Monk.

Millwall

This is a ‘wait and see’ situation that is complicated by the presence of a club legend. The Lions didn’t exactly start last season particularly well either, but they improved a lot from December onwards. Don’t be surprised if that happens again in 2018/19 but also be aware that Neil  Harris has been in the job for three and a half years and since the start of the century only Kenny Jackett has been in the job longer. If their away form improves, they should climb up the table; if it doesn’t then Harris may be under pressure.

Preston North End

This is a surprise. After eight games in 2017/18 the Lillywhites were in fourth place and although they didn’t quite make the playoffs they were never out of the top ten after the end of January. I’m tempted to say that they’re in this position due to a particularly tough opening set of away games, but losing at home to Reading indicates a deeper malaise than I think anyone may have suspected. Alex Neil is doing a slightly better job with Preston than he did at Norwich, but that ultimately that wasn’t good enough to save his job in East Anglia and he may be heading the same way if the current poor run continues.

Reading

The Royals have been in the bottom seven of the Championship since last Boxing Day and are among the favourites for relegation. In a similar situation to Ipswich in as far as Paul Clement inherited a mess from the Jaap Stam era, but Clement has had 18 games to sort the situation out and doesn’t seem to have had any impact whatsoever. He didn’t last a full season at either Derby or Swansea and could make this an unwanted hat-trick if Reading don’t turn the corner soon. They’ve lost five in a row at home and haven’t beaten Hull at home for 13 years, despite having four attempts to do so.

Other games to watch out for this weekend: Leeds v Birmingham, Sheffield United v Preston and WBA v Millwall – all of those will have an impact on either end of the table.

Televised games: Wigan v Bristol City (this evening, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) and QPR v Norwich (Saturday evening, 5:30pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). The former – between two sides in the top ten – looks more attractive than the latter, which looks as if it was chosen because it’s not far from Sky Sports’ studios rather than because it’s a decent looking game.

A couple of bits of housekeeping for you: there will be no posts on Friday 5th October (nephew’s birthday), Friday 12th October (international break) and Friday 26th October (family holiday/birthday in France).

But I will be back next weekend 🙂

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.

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.