Weekend Preview 9th April 2016

We’re now into the final month of the regular season and over the next couple of weeks the major issues at both ends will be decided. As I’ve neglected Buzzin’ League One Football over the past few weeks, today’s post is a shorter one so I can write a longer one over there.

The three matches to keep an eye on are all 3:00pm kick offs tomorrow and none are televised.

Bristol City v Sheffield Wednesday

City took a large step towards survival by not losing at home to Rotherham on Tuesday but the Robins can take an even bigger step if they avoid defeat tomorrow.  The bad news for City is that Wednesday are unbeaten in their last four away games and haven’t conceded a goal in that sequence; the good news for the Robins is that Sheffield Wednesday have won only one league game in ten at Ashton Gate since September 1973.

Derby v Bolton

A very simple scenario here: if Bolton don’t pick up at least a point at the iPro, they’ll be as good as relegated. Derby battered Hull on Tuesday night (the Rams were 2-0 up before Moses Odubajo was sent off) and only need three points to more of less guarantee a play off place at the expense of both Cardiff and Ipswich. If the Rams can score four goals without reply against Hull, you have to fear for Bolton’s chances tomorrow.

MK Dons v Rotherham

A vital game for both teams but one that the Dons have to win to stand any chance of avoiding relegation. Their recent home form has been patchy: one win and three defeats in the last six, although their only home defeat to one of the other strugglers was back in February, when they were beaten by Bristol City.

Rotherham’s recent impressive form has been based on a big improvement on their home performances and although they maintained their three game unbeaten streak on the road with a point at Bristol City earlier this week, they’ve not managed to go four away games without defeat since the middle of last season. When you consider that the Millers have only won one away game against the team in the bottom half of the table and have never won at Milton Keynes, Rotherham suddenly look unexpectedly vulnerable at completely the wrong time of the season.

This weekend’s televised games: Burnley v Leeds (tomorrow, 12:30 kick off, Sky Sports 1) and Nottingham Forest v Brighton (Monday, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports 1) 

I’ll be back next week.

Update: Bolton have been relegated to League One.

Game Of The Week: Brighton v Burnley

Welcome to the new look Buzzin’ Championship Football!

After several years of the old site, the rise of smartphones and tablets meant that we needed to update the design so it’s legible on both of those types of device. Buzzin’ League One football has also been redesigned but is currently suffering from teething troubles and is offline for the moment.

This weekend there’s a nicely crafted chronological narrative. This evening Middlesbrough could temporarily leapfrog into second place as long as they don’t lose at QPR (7:45pm Sky Sports 1), but the biggest game of the season takes place on Saturday lunchtime when Burnley travel to Brighton for a clash between the top two. That game is also televised –

Brighton’s recent good run of form – one defeat in twelve games since mid-January – has been down to two factors. Israeli international Tomer Hemed has scored seven times in that period, while Albion have kept eight clean sheets. That looks impressive until you consider the Seagulls’ record against teams currently in the top half of the table: they’ve only won three of their 17 games against those teams.

Amazingly, Burnley’s record against the current top half is almost exactly the same Brighton’s: three wins and four defeats in sixteen games, although the Clarets are currently protecting a 15 game unbeaten streak that began after they lost to Hull on Boxing Day. Sean Dyche’s side have won twelve of those last 15 matches but this is the first time Burnley have faced a promotion chasing side on the road since the start of February.

Verdict: it’s unlikely Burnley will win at the Amex – two wins in their last ten league games at Brighton seem to indicate that – but a low scoring game in which only one team might score looks highly likely.

At the bottom end of the table, MK Dons travel to Fulham in a vital game for both teams: it’s fair to say that if either side loses it would be a serious blow to their chances of staying up. The Dons are favourites for the drop: although they earned a decent point at Hull a few weeks ago, they’ve not managed three away games without a defeat this season and this is their debut at Craven Cottage.

That being said, Fulham have only recorded one home league win in 2016 and blew leads against both Burnley and Bristol City in their last outings at home. With a resurgent Rotherham a point ahead of them, a draw might be the worst result for both clubs (especially if the Millers beat Leeds in what could be a particularly passionate Yorkshire derby).

There’s a full programme next Tuesday, I’m not sure how the land lies in terms of a preview but I’ll try to post one if I can.

All Change At Bolton And Forest

This past week has all been about managerial changes: two that happened and one that didn’t. I’ll deal with one that didn’t and one that did in the appropriate match previews, but my thoughts on Nottingham Forest are as follows.

Since I started writing for Buzzin’ Championship Football about six years ago, Forest have had eight full time managers and their average finishing position at the end of each season has been tenth. This is currently their longest continuous spell in the second tier since between 1926/27 to 1948/49. They have been in League One more recently than the Premier League and haven’t won anything of note since 1998. In other words, a typical mid table Championship team that’s going nowhere.

Good luck to the next incumbent at the City Ground. Moving swiftly onwards, here are the four big games this weekend.

Middlesbrough v Hull (tonight, 7:45pm, Sky Sports 1)

It’s rather confusing when a club issues a statement that the manager is staying with the club, but that’s exactly what Middlesbrough did when they confirmed Aitor Karanka was going to remain on Teeside despite rumours that he was leaving after some kind of training ground argument. It’s not hard to see why Karanka almost walked away – Boro are hopeless away from home at  the moment – but tomorrow’s game is at the Stadium of Light, where they’ve only lost twice in the league this season. That being said, they’ve failed to keep a home clean sheet in 2016.

Hull are almost a mirror image of Boro. The Tigers are finding home wins hard to come by at the moment but have won four of their six aways in the league in 2016; they have a reasonable looking run in and only have one remaining road trip to another team in the top six this season – if Derby are still in the top six, which is apparently going to be down to Harry Redknapp’s role as Dumbledore to Darren Wassall’s Harry Potter. They’ve already lost at Brighton and Burnley this season, but both of those defeats were by a single goal, but Middlesbrough away has been a very unsuccessful fixture for Hull over the years. They’ve not won a league game there since March 1986 and have lost eight out of their last ten visits.

Fun fact: only one team has scored in seven of the previous ten meetings in the league on Teeside.

Bristol City v Bolton

Since arriving in the Championship in August 2012, Bolton have only employed three managers: Owen Coyle (now managing Houston Dynamo in the OAPs home called MLS), Dougie Freedman (sacked by Forest last weekend) and Neil Lennon, sacked earlier this week because of a combination of the new owners wanting to go in a new direction, poor form and presumably three consecutive Scottish managers resulting in some kind of obscure curse. They’re bottom of the form table, they’re eleven points from safety with nine games left, several bookies have already taken them off the board for relegation and they haven’t played in the third tier since 1992/93. I might not mention Bolton again this season until I can confirm that they’re down.

City’s home form has been extremely unpredictable this season. They’ve only won four times at Ashton Gate and only Rotherham and Fulham have conceded more goals at home this season, but three of those wins have come against teams in the top half of the table. One of the reasons for this bizarre form is the redevelopment of Ashton Gate is far more noticeable this season: home fans now occupy two and a half stands while the new West Stand is under construction and it’s fair to say the atmosphere – or lack of it at some matches – is a bit like moving into a new house when you’re a kid: it’s home, but it doesn’t quite feel like it. City have won six of the last ten league meetings at Ashton Gate but only half of the last four and they’ve not beaten any of the teams around them at home this season: after this one, the next home game is against Rotherham. If the Robins avoid defeat in both of those games, they should be appearing in these posts next season.

MK Dons v Brighton

I don’t remember who it was, but someone tweeted that Karl Robinson is the only manager at a team in the bottom half of the table who hasn’t been sacked this season. There’s a reason for that: he’s the most successful manager the Dons have ever had and if he steers them away from relegation he’ll be there for a while longer. However, it’s a big if: although MK have only lost three of their last ten games, they’ve only won twice over the same period and have struggled against the teams who may be in the Premier League next season. If the Dons are in the Championship next season then Robinson will have done well, but unless he recruits a striker before August the Dons could be up against it from the word go next season.

In the period between mid December and mid January, Brighton looked as if they were about to drop out of the top six altogether, but due to a combination of one defeat in their last eleven and their immediate rivals slipping up, the Seagulls are back in the automatic promotion places. Tomorrow’s game is a good indicator of whether they’ll stay there: they’ve been inconsistent recently but are one of the best defensive units in the Championship and that should hold them in good stead against one of the most anaemic attacks in the competition; Sam Baldock also almost always seems to find the net against his former teams.

Fun fact: Brighton have never won at Milton Keynes in any competition.

Sheffield Wednesday v Charlton

Just when it was all going so well, Wednesday had a wake up call a fortnight ago when they lost at home to Rotherham for the first time since August 2002. That defeat was also only the second time they’ve lost at Hillsborough this season. They’ve earned four points and kept two clean sheets in a pair of away games since then, but if they fail to win promotion then one of the reasons is their away form against the top half of the division (one win in nine) and their inexplicably poor form against the current bottom four (three defeats in six games). I’ve got them in a five way tie with Derby, Ipswich, Cardiff and Birmingham for the last two playoff spots and this situation will be the one to watch over the next few weeks.

Charlton – who beat Middlesbrough at the Valley on Sunday afternoon – have only lost twice in seven league games at Hillsborough since the turn of the century, but are still five points from safety and have only beaten one club in the top half of the table this season. The current three game unbeaten run is the best stretch of form since the first few games of the season, but this feels like too little too late and it’s worth remembering that the Addicks haven’t won consecutive home games in the Championship since this time last season, when they were a far better side than they are now. Any team that’s already used 31 different players in a season will always struggle.

There won’t be a post next weekend (even if someone is sacked) as it’s both the international break and Easter. So have fun and I’ll see you in a fortnight.

The Art Of Draw

Here’s a quick run down before we get to the first op-ed of the season.

Burnley took over at the top after a late win over Bolton, who are now seven points from safety. Hull and Middlesbrough both failed to take their opportunities to overtake the Clarets, although Boro still have a game in hand. At the bottom, Rotherham could overtake MK Dons this weekend – although the Millers have to travel to Sheffield Wednesday – while Charlton remain marooned in the relegation zone after they came from 3-1 down to lose 4-3 at home to Reading.

This week’s post confirms a hunch I had a couple of weeks ago. When preparing for these articles I normally take a look at the table from different points of view and I found myself wondering if there had been more drawn games this season than usual. The simple answer is yes, so here are the numbers:

* From 2006/07 onwards, eight of the last ten seasons (including this one) there have been fewer than 30% drawn games – including a low of 22% in the first season mentioned.

* We’re currently on target for the highest percentage of drawn games since 2007/08 – at the moment, 31% of the games in the Championship have finished all square.

* Almost half of the drawn games this season have finished 1-1.

* The highest number of draws by one club in a single season is 20 (or 43% of their total) by Swansea in 2008/09 and Ipswich the following season. Neither side finished in the playoffs.

Going back to the current table, only eight teams have drawn fewer than ten games this season and that includes two at the top (Hull and Middlesbrough) and one of the strugglers (Rotherham), but that doesn’t take into account Brighton and Bolton. The Seagulls have drawn ten of their seventeen away games this season (including six in a row between the end of October and Boxing Day) whilst the Trotters have drawn nine of their seventeen home matches in 2015/16, although to be fair to Bolton they’ve only drawn once at the Macron in 2016.

So what – if anything – does this mean?

Looking at the other two divisions in the Football League, the combined number of teams that have drawn more than ten games in Leagues One and Two is still fewer than the clubs that have drawn more than ten games in the Championship, which implies that any of this weekend’s games in the second tier has far more of a chance of finishing all square than in the other two divisions. If all teams were equal and 31% of tomorrow’s games (ie three out of ten) should be draws then the odds for a draw this weekend should be 11/5, but with the exception of Brighton’s game at Preston all the other matches tomorrow have bigger odds than that. Statistically speaking, the games at Bristol City, Derby, Leeds and MK Dons are all with five percentage points of that 31% figure so if you’re draw hunting they may be good places to start.

Additionally, the teams that have drawn more than ten games in all three divisions are more likely to be contending for promotion than battling relegation even though Bolton and Oldham in League 2 don’t fit that pattern. From 2007/08 onwards, only four teams in the Championship that have drawn more than 15 games have been relegated – Bolton are on course to become the fifth – while almost four times as many have finished the top six. On a very basic level, that means the games at Bristol City and Derby might end as draws because Cardiff (tomorrow’s visitors to Ashton Gate) are on the cusp of the playoffs and have already drawn 13 times this season, whilst Derby are currently fifth and have already drawn 12 games in 2015/16.

There’s a full midweek programme on Tuesday but I’m giving myself the evening off and so I’ll post a quick update when tomorrow’s results are in. Otherwise I’ll be back next Friday.

Update: there were draws at Preston and Reading – Burnley remain top after beating Blackburn, but they could be overtaken by Middlesbrough if they lose at Fulham on Tuesday. The situation at the bottom remains more or less the same, although after Rotherham unexpectedly won at Sheffield Wednesday yesterday, the gap between the Millers and MK Dons is down to three points. Charlton also won, which means Bolton are bottom again.

Game of the Week: Hull City v Sheffield Wednesday

It’s interesting how the fixtures in both the Sky Bet Championship and League One have fallen this weekend – there are four big games in League One and three here.

As for the midweek programme, not much actually changed. I couldn’t have got the Bristol City/Brighton game more wrong, it finished 4-0 to the visitors and was basically a throwback to the form both sides were showing in the autumn but fortunately for City other results at the foot of the table went their way. Derby beat Blackburn for their first win at home in five games: despite having conceded 24 fewer goals than Bristol City, Rovers are only above the Robins on goal difference.

Here are the big three games this weekend:

Hull v Sheffield Wednesday (tonight, Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm)

Four consecutive home clean sheets are a testament to Steve Bruce’s defence first philosophy that’s been well documented here over the years. It’s clearly one of the more effective strategies in the Championship but it could be tested by Wednesday, who have scored in twelve of their sixteen away games this season. However, away wins are rare in games between the current top six: this evening’s visitors to the KC have already lost at Middlesbrough and Burnley and will have to play at Brighton and Derby after this game and and at the risk of repeating myself, although Carlos Carvalhal has been successful at Hillsborough this season, I think his team will be one of the favourites for promotion next season. Hull have won three of the last four meetings between the clubs when they’ve had home advantage.

Bolton v Burnley

With their future apparently sorted out after Monday’s decision by the High Court, Wanderers merely have to concentrate on staying in the Championship. The big problem appears their away form: at the Macron Stadium they’re not too bad – one defeat in the last six – but they’ve failed to beat any of the teams currently in the top half of the table. Burnley haven’t lost on the road since Boxing Day but haven’t picked up three points on their travels since the middle of last month: however,  they’re the opposite of Bolton – their away defeats this season have come at sides in the top half of the table. If Bolton win this one it’ll be a major surprise: this season only two of the seven Lancashire derbies have resulted in home wins.

Blackburn v MK Dons

Apart from the thrashing by West Ham in the FA Cup last weekend, Rovers haven’t been too horrible at home, but wins at Ewood Park have been few and far between and this is the first of a pair of home games that could define the rest of the season, but this has to be regarded as a chance to put even more distance between themselves and the bottom three. The Dons have been awful on their travels: the win at Derby a couple of weeks ago was their first since August and they’ve still not managed more than one goal per game on their travels since then. Looking at head to heads between the current bottom six, away wins are rare. First ever meeting between the clubs in Lancashire, but it’s worth remembering that the Dons have won both previous games between them.

I’ll be back next Friday with a look at one of the statistics about the Championship that seems to have eluded a lot of people, although Birmingham v Hull is on Thursday evening and if the Blues are back in the playoffs by then I’ll attempt a Thursday posting.