The Championship’s Biggest Movers in Early 2019

Blades 4-1 Tigers” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

The Christmas period can often play a crucial part in shaping the course of the league heading into the New Year.

With games coming thick and fast, teams can easily drop out or force their way into contention for automatic promotion and the play-off places.

This year has been no exception with some of the top teams faltering while a couple of upstarts have forced themselves into the reckoning.

Leeds United lost two games in a row in January at the turn of the year, but as of 16th January, retained a four-point gap at the top thanks to poor results for their rivals. That includes Norwich City, who went on a four-game winless run, and West Bromwich Albion, who drew two and lost one following their Boxing Day win over Wigan Athletic.

Blades at the sharp end

This opened the door for Sheffield United who won four in a row over the festive period, leapfrogging into second place. Prior to that, they had only won three in 11 and looked out of contention for automatic promotion. Chris Wilder’s men are now third favourites for the title in the Championship betting markets and priced at Evens to get promoted.

Robins bobbing along nicely

Looking a little further down the table, Bristol City are another club on an upward trajectory. The Robins bounced back from four straight defeats to go unbeaten from the end of November through to the middle of January. Before that run, Lee Johnson’s men were languishing down in 15th place, but they now sit in seventh, just two points outside of the play-off places. Despite their uplift in form, they can still be backed as long as 20/1 to achieve promotion.

Tigers on the prowl

Three points and three places further back, Hull City are the league’s in-form team. With five straight wins from the middle of December topping off an 11-game unbeaten run, Nigel Adkins’ men have powered their way into playoff contention. On 23rd October, they were second bottom with just nine points from their opening 13 games and looked certain to become relegation candidates.

Now, just four points outside of the playoff zone, the Tigers are still not getting much attention from the bookies, who had them as long as 25/1 for promotion at the time of writing, but no team has a better record over the last 13 games. If they can bolster their squad in January while maintaining their current momentum, they could well be in the mix come May.

Case in point

On November 5 last year, Fulham were 17th place in the table having won just four of their 16 games. They went on to finish third in the table losing just three of the next 31 games and secured promotion via the playoffs.

Winning runs don’t win Championships or promotion alone and all three teams mentioned will need to maintain consistency over a longer period if they are to stay in contention for ascension to the Premier League.

EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.

2018 Playoff Final: The Aftermath

ICYMI…

Congratulations to Fulham – I told you they’d win promotion a year ago 🙂

However, things have taken a turn for the worse for Villa. Yesterday CEO Keith Wyness was suspended from his position following suggestions that a winding up order had been issued by HMRC over an unpaid multi-million pound tax bill. This morning there have been reports that Dr Tony Xia might have problems selling the club: we’ll monitor the situation as it develops.

Next scheduled post is June 21st, when the fixtures are released. The pre-season previews will be appearing in the first week of July, but I’m not entirely sure what format they’ll be in this time round.

2018 Playoff Final Preview

Saturday’s game is the eighth playoff final I’ve covered for this blog.

Before we go any further, I have to warn any Fulham fans that I don’t have a great record of accurately predicting the outcome of this game.

Aston Villa v Fulham

(Saturday 5pm kickoff, Sky Sports Football/Main Event will begin broadcasting at 4pm)

Statistically I always treat this as an away game for both teams and there’s a big difference between them in this respect.

Aston Villa

Last ten aways: 5-1-4, 14-9. Five clean sheets, failed to score in four games.

Don’t read too much into those numbers. Only two of those five wins were recorded against teams that finished in the top ten and Villa’s away record against the other teams in the top six was worse than that. Although their win at Middlesbrough in the first leg of the semi final duplicated the result at the Riverside at the end of December, it’s worth remembering that they only picked up 13 away points from 33 available against the other clubs in the top half of the Championship and Steve Bruce’s side failed to beat Brentford, Derby and Millwall either at home or away. Indeed, Preston had a better overall away record than Villa.

Villa have been pretty settled this season – four players have appeared in 40 or more games – and their main sources of goals are Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane, who have scored 25 times between them this season. A note of caution here: Adomah hasn’t scored away from Villa Park in the league since mid-November and hasn’t scored at all since the start of February. He’s currently 3/1 in the ‘anytime goalscorer’ market.

Fulham

Last ten aways: 6-2-2, 16-9. Three clean sheets, failed to score in one game.

This season Fulham’s away record against the other teams in the top six was far better than Villa’s. The Cottagers earned nine more away points against the teams in the top half of the table than their opponents did (only Wolves had a better record on the road this season), but interestingly one of the reasons Fulham are playing in the final rather than watching it is that they failed to beat either Brentford or Bristol City this season. It’s also interesting to note that Fulham are going into the final having not won on the road since beating Millwall in April: they haven’t lost three away games in the Championship since the end of 2014.

As you might expect, Fulham have also been settled this season: six of their squad have made 40 or more appearances this season including the phenomenal teenage ‘defender’ Ryan Sessegnon, who has an extremely bright future ahead of him regardless of whether he stays at Craven Cottage or not. The arrival of Serbian international striker Aleksandar Mitrovic from Newcastle at the start of February was an inspired managerial move by fellow Serb Slavisa Jokanovic: unlike Albert Adomah, Sessegnon and Mitrovic have both scored away goals recently and are first and second favourites in the ‘anytime goalscorer’ market.

Head to head

This is where it starts looking ominous for Villa. They’ve only won three of their last ten games against Fulham and only two of the last six.

Random stats

I’ll be returning to this theme in a moment, but the last five finals have produced a grand total of just four goals in 90 minutes with two going to extra time. The last time both teams scored in the final was six years ago when West Ham beat Blackpool.

This is the first final between teams that have finished 3rd and 4th in the final table since 2015, when Norwich beat Middlesbrough. Generally speaking, the higher placed team have won half of the last ten finals.

Six of the last ten playoff winners have won at least 80 points, including five of the last six. In four of the last six finals, both teams have won at least 80 points. That’s significant – as is the fact that no team over the last decade has reached the final having won more points than Fulham did this season.

Verdict

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I picked Fulham for promotion before 2017/18 began so I can’t go against them now. One thing that may go in their favour is that the weight of expectation on Aston Villa – who have never appeared in a playoff final – may be too much: Steve Bruce played down reports of a ‘feisty’ training session earlier this week – which is odd, considering how Villa ‘won’ the Fair Play title in the Championship this season.

However, I do think there will be a few goals in this game. Nobody scored more away goals than Fulham this season – nine more than Villa – but eight teams (including Villa themselves) conceded fewer away from home than Fulham did.

In their away games this season, Villa have vulnerable in the fifteen minutes after half time: just over a third of the goals they’ve conceded on their travels have been scored during that period. However, almost a quarter of the goals they’ve scored have come between the 61st and 75th minute.

It’s the final 15 minutes that could be explosive. Fulham have scored 35% of their away goals in that period. However the Cottagers are defensively vulnerable at the end of each half whilst Villa often go on a defensive footing during that period: indicates that it might come down to Fulham looking for a late winner and seeing how the Villa defence holds up.

Owing to yet another family occasion, it’s unlikely there’ll be an update immediately after the game but I’m hoping to have something in place as soon as possible.

Fulham are up after a 1-0 win on Saturday – report to follow ASAP.

Playoff Semi Finals Preview

Just like that, we’ve reached the playoffs again.

Once more the Championship becomes the most interesting element of English football. The world will hold its breath whilst waiting to see which team that wasn’t as good as Wolves or Cardiff will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League in May 2019.

Way back last July one of my pre-season predictions was that Fulham would win promotion and so I’m committed to backing the Cottagers this year. That’s usually been the kiss of death since I started writing for this blog, although it’s worth remembering that over the last decade the third and fifth placed teams have won seven of the last ten finals.

Having written that, it’s fair to say that nothing really jumps out from the dozen games between the four playoff contenders other than Aston Villa and Fulham  were better than Derby and Middlesbrough. There were only two home wins in those matches – Villa and Fulham beat each other once – but with Boro having quickly adapted to Tony Pulis’ style of football, I’d agree with the bookies and say that Derby are the outsiders.

Derby v Fulham (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

In a scenario that will have been horribly familiar to Derby fans but not entirely out of the blue for the rest of us, having been second at the start of February The Rams almost dropped out of the playoffs last month. A team that can lose 4-1 at home to Sunderland yet still has a chance of winning promotion is an outstanding example of not only how daft the Championship can be but also indicates that Derby’s record of five consecutive top ten finishes without promotion will probably continue next season. It’s fair to say that if you neutralise Matej Vydra you can stop them and the defence has only kept one clean sheet at home since February.

Defeat at Birmingham last weekend was Fulham’s first reverse on the road since before Christmas, so was that just a sign of things to come or just acceptance that automatic promotion wasn’t going to happen? Worryingly for those of us backing them, the Cottagers have now gone ten away games without losing, which usually means another defeat is just around the corner. On the other hand, no team scored more goals away from home during the season than Fulham and – combined with Derby’s defensive frailties – could be a recipe for success.

Since 2000, Derby have beaten Fulham in half of their last six league meetings at Pride Park. Fulham won at Derby at the start of March with early goals from Mitrovic and Sessegnon before Huddlestone replied for the hosts.

Verdict: it would not surprise me at all if Fulham won this evening but then drew at Craven Cottage next week.

Middlesbrough v Aston Villa (5:15pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Steve Gibson’s rather naive pre-season comment that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship was looking unlikely as early as October, although as I pointed just after Christmas, Middlesbrough couldn’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Although they didn’t crack the top six until the start of March and have only lost twice since then, Tony Pulis’ appointment on Boxing Day clearly suits the players he inherited from Garry Monk: only Cardiff conceded fewer goals at home this season but their ‘defence first’ style at the Riverside has resulted in them scoring more goals in away matches this season. Middlesbrough have only lost two of their last ten home games – they almost earned a point against Fulham – and it’s only a couple of years since they were last in the playoffs.

Aston Villa have been in the playoff spots for most of the season but never really looked like automatic promotion material after losing at Fulham in February and consecutive defeats a few weeks later confirmed that analysis. One of those games (Bolton) appeared to trigger some sort of crisis of confidence as Villa have only won one of their four aways since then; it’s also highly significant that they lost all three games without scoring when they travelled to the teams that finished immediately above them this season.

Head to head: this looks particularly bad for Boro – their last home win against Villa was in December 2004 and they’ve met on Teeside in the league on five subsequent occasions. Boro have lost four of those games.

Verdict: on paper any game between Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce always looks as if it could finish 0-0. However, if Middlesbrough want to win promotion they’ll have to win tomorrow because the prospect of travelling to Villa Park next week without any sort of advantage will be a mountain to climb. I don’t think Boro will lose, but that may not be good enough to reach Wembley.

I’ll be back with an update at some point over the weekend although it’s more likely to be late on Sunday. At that point we’ll also definitely know if Swansea will be returning to the Championship along with Stoke and West Brom.

Result from Friday evening: Derby 1, Fulham 0. I really am the kiss of death 🙂

Proper update: the most overhyped match in the entire history of the galaxy will be between Aston Villa and Fulham. The preview will be posted sometime next week.