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.

Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

It’s the last game of the season (Saturday, 3pm, Sky Sports 1) but let’s set the hype aside and try take an objective look at the match. I always treat the final as an away game for both teams and unless specifically stated the stats I mention are from the last 20 seasons.

You can make a case that Derby and QPR were unlucky to run into two very high quality sides this season. Leicester and Burnley dominated the Championship in the same way as Newcastle and WBA did in 2009/10 and Reading and Sheffield United did in 2005/06. From Valentine’s Day onwards the competition was a two horse race.

Derby are favourites to go up, which isn’t that much of a surprise now but would have been when Nigel Clough was dismissed in September after the Rams lost at Nottingham Forest. Their tenth place finish at the end of 2012/13 was their best performance since relegation from the Premier League in 2008 and with hindsight the decision to let Clough go and appoint Steve McClaren – who was Harry Redknapp’s assistant at QPR at the time – was correct. Derby were clearly underachieving – ultimately The Rams’ points haul would have been good enough for automatic promotion in four of the last ten campaigns and would have been good enough to win the Championship in 2008. One of the reasons for their success this season is that on the road, Derby’s record was comparable to Leicester’s: the Rams were one of only four teams to lose less than ten away games in 2013/14 and only Brighton no longer have the chance of playing in the Premier League next season.

Derby were also this season’s leading scorers with 84 goals, a lot considering the Championship averaged just 2.60 goals per game in 2013/14. However, scoring a lot of goals during the regular season is not necessarily a recipe for play off success, as over the last decade only two of the seven sides that finished in the playoff positions and scored 80 goals or more have been promoted. That being said, Derby are comparable to both West Ham (2012) and Wolves (2003) in as far as those clubs were promoted via the playoffs with a goal difference of +30 or better whereas the teams that missed out were prolific goalscorers that weren’t as good defensively. Or to put it another way, seven of the last ten clubs promoted via the playoffs had conceded more goals than Derby have this season.

QPR have a lot of significant statistical trends against them. There’s The Curse Of Fourth plus the fact that they’ve never been promoted immediately after they’ve been relegated. Then there’s the record of the record of  teams that had been relegated from the Premier League in second tier playoff finals since 1993/94: one win (West Ham, 2012) and four defeats. After that, they face the problem that only one team (Swansea, 2011) has been promoted via the playoffs after winning exactly 80 points. Additionally, over the same period no team that scored fewer goals than QPR did in 2013/14 have been promoted via the playoffs and 32 of the 33 promoted sides scored more. The exception: Birmingham in 2009 and the Blues – who finished second behind Wolves – had a far better defensive record that season than QPR had in 2013/14.

Before getting a barrage of criticism and being accused of being a Derby fan (I’m not), statistics don’t win football matches. You need goals to do that but unfortunately for QPR goals away from Loftus Road have been scarce. They failed to score in 11 of their last 20 away games in the Championship – including at Wigan in the semi final – and failed to score an away goal against any of the other top five teams this season.

Furthermore, only five away wins in the Championship since mid-October is nothing to write home about, especially if you’ve also lost six of your last ten road trips: I’ve written this before, but Rangers were far better at Loftus Road than they were away from home. if you look at this season’s away form as a stand alone league table, QPR would have finished tenth, ten points behind Derby but also with Bolton and Birmingham (!) ahead of them. They also had a worse goal difference than Middlesbrough, which suggests to me that this is a team that has yet to get to grips with the tougher aspects of the Championship and isn’t anywhere near as good as they appear to be.

Head to head record: very tight. Four of the last ten meetings have ended in draws and Derby’s win in February was the first time they’d beaten QPR since a 2-0 win at Loftus Road in September 2008. Only four of those ten games have produced more than 2.5 goals.

Before delivering my verdict, some general observations about the Championship playoff final:

This is the seventh time in the last ten seasons that the third placed team has reached the final; within that period the ‘second runners up’ have five wins. Within a wider context, the club that finished higher at the end of the regular season has won half of the last twenty finals.

This will be the sixth time that third has played fourth in the final in the last 20 seasons and the first time this combination has happened since 2008, when Hull beat Bristol City. The higher placed team has won four of the ‘3rd v 4th’ finals; the last time the fourth placed side won was when Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties since 1998. That was also the last time the fourth placed team won promotion via the playoffs; the last time the fourth placed team won promotion via the playoffs without needing penalties was when Leicester beat Derby 20 years ago.

Four of the last finals featuring the third and fourth placed teams have been settled over 90 minutes with the fourth placed team failing to score in the last three of them – a fact that seems very relevant indeed considering QPR have problems scoring away from home. The last time a fourth placed team scored in this game was when Craig Hignett scored for Barnsley against Ipswich almost 14 years ago!

Only four of the last 20 finals went to extra time and only two of those games needed penalties.

Both teams have scored in less than half of the last 20 finals; in fact only one team has scored in seven of the last ten finals and six of the last ten have finished 1-0. Seven of the last ten have been decided by a one goal margin – as were both of the games between Derby and QPR this season.

Verdict: looking back on my predictions over the last three years, I don’t have a great record. I thought the 2011 final would be a low scoring game; instead it was the highest for years. I favoured Watford last year and they lost. So I’d advise anyone that considers commenting that I have been wrong in the past and will be wrong in the future 🙂

I wasn’t sure about QPR’s chances at the start of the season but after having taken another look back at various stats I’d be genuinely amazed if they win promotion back to the Premier League. From a statistical point of view, Derby have almost everything in their favour: good form coming into the game, goalscoring ability at home and away, a manager with something to prove and favourable comparisons to previous winners. On the other hand, Rangers won’t have the home advantage that’s been crucial to their success (they didn’t win either of their away games in London this season), their away form is unconvincing , if you stop Charlie Austin you stop them and Harry Redknapp is 67 years old. If they go up, they will struggle mightily.

So I’m backing Derby to win in a low scoring game and/or by one goal that won’t need extra time and penalties. But The Curse Of Fourth will have to be broken at some point and I wouldn’t be surprised if QPR are the team that do it.

I’ll be back with an update on either Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but I’m off now to compose the preview for the League One playoff final between Leyton Orient and Rotherham, which will be posted at Buzzin’ League One Football by the end of the week.

Update: QPR 1, Derby 0.  Bobby Zamora scored the winner for ten man Rangers: the Curse of Fourth has been broken.

Derby v Brighton: 2nd Leg Preview

A quick post today as I can’t guarantee I’ll be around tomorrow. The game is on Sky Sports 1, kick off 5:15pm.

How the second leg pans out depends on the approaches that Steve McClaren and Oscar Garcia want to take under the circumstances. As it stands, Brighton need to win 2-0 to qualify for the final without extra time and need a 1-0 win to force extra time.

Derby have won eight of their last ten home games by an average of 3.5 goals (which is a better strike rate than for the rest of the season -see below) and have only lost once at home (Millwall) since NewYear’s Day. Although they beat Brighton and QPR at the iPro Stadium this season, they lost all three home games against Leicester, Burnley and Wigan without scoring; I know it sounds obvious, but if you can stop Derby scoring you can get a positive result.

Brighton have won four of their last ten aways and only lost twice in that sequence. On paper a 4-1 win at Leicester was their best result of the season, but that was after the Champions had won promotion and I’m not sure that result is a reliable indicator of how good the Seagulls actually are. If there’s one thing Oscar should be worried about, the defence has only kept one away clean sheet in the last five and they need to do that tomorrow.

Head to head: Derby have only lost two of their last ten home games against Brighton in the league and kept clean sheets in half of those games.

Verdict:

Brighton need to score and to stop Derby scoring to stand any chance of reaching the playoff final. The problem for the Seagulls is that Derby and Leicester both averaged exactly two goals per home game in 2013/14; fourteen teams – including Yeovil and Birmingham – scored more away goals than Brighton did this season. If the Rams score first, this semi final is over.

Will Hughes opened the scoring for Derby and the Rams won 4-1.

SkyBet Championship Play Off Trends

This is going to be a slightly different post season as one club that got relegated from the Premier League will definitely be at Wembley. This is only the second time in last ten campaigns that more than one relegated team has featured in the playoffs; there were three when West Ham won in 2012. Relegated teams have a dreadful record in the Championship playoffs over the last two decades: one win, six losing finalists and five losing semi finalists. Those numbers also dovetail nicely with the specific trend that indicates that teams promoted from the Championship have usually played at least two seasons in the Championship.

If that trend continues, my guess is that whoever wins the Derby/Brighton semi final may stand the best chance of joining Leicester and Burnley in the Premier League. So let’s have a look at the runners and riders: unless specified, the stats are based on the last 20 complete seasons (so from 1993/94 onwards) and the prices were taken from the Oddschecker website on Bank Holiday Monday.

Derby County (9/4 favourites)

Winners 2007, losing finalists 1994, losing semi finalists 2005. Sixth season in the Championship, this season’s finish is their highest since they won the playoffs in 2007. Best head to head record against the other other playoff teams including winning both games against Brighton.

Teams that finish third have got the best record in the playoffs since 1993/94: five wins in the last ten tournaments is proof of that. Yet as I mentioned recently, Derby might have a problem. Over the last 20 seasons, when teams that have finished third have lost the playoff final, the third place team at the end of the following season has failed to reach the final.

QPR (3/1)

Haven’t appeared in the Championship playoffs in the last 20 seasons; were relegated from the Premier League last season. Second best head to head record against the other playoff teams but failed to beat any of them – or score against those sides – away from home. Will also have to overcome The Curse Of Fourth; only Charlton (1998) and Leicester (1994) have finished fourth and won the playoff final in the last 20 years. Additionally, the fourth placed side hasn’t produced a playoff finalist since 2010 (Cardiff City)

Wigan Athletic (5/2)

The same as QPR in terms of playoff appearances and recent relegations. Worst head to head record against the other playoff teams, exacerbated – or possibly emphasised – by picking up just one point from nine available against Brighton, Derby and QPR at the DW.

Last season Crystal Palace became only the second club in the last decade to finish fifth and win promotion via the playoffs since Burnley in 2009; over the last ten years, four fifth place sides have reached the final and lost.

Brighton (10/3)

Beaten semi finalists last season; third season in the Championship after promotion from League One. Almost as bad as Wigan against the other remaining contenders but with the redeeming feature of a solid defence on the road. Sixth place has produced three playoff winners since 2003/04, but only one sixth placed team (Blackpool) in the last eight campaigns has gone up and the Tangerines are the only sixth placed finishers to reach Wembley since 2005/06.

General Statistics:

In the last 20 second tier playoff finals, the higher placed side at the end of the regular season has only beaten the lower placed side in half of the games, but Palace’s victory last season was the first time a lower placed side had beaten the higher placed side since Blackpool’s win over Cardiff in 2010.

If the trends indicate anything, there’s quite a strong chance that either Wigan or Brighton could win promotion as an analysis of whether the higher finishing team beats the lower finisher indicates that we’re at the beginning of a ‘no’ streak.

Another way of looking at the finals is to see who actually contested them. Since 1994, the breakdown is as follows:

7 times: 3rd v 5th (last: 2013, lower placed team has won four times )

5 times: 3rd v 4th (last: 2008, higher placed team has won four times)

4 times: 5th v 6th (last: 2005, higher placed team has won twice)

3 times: 4th v 6th (last: 2010. lower placed team has won twice) and 5th v 6th (last: 2005)

Once (and probably never to be repeated): 2nd v 3rd (1995, due to reduction of teams in the Premier League)

So overall, about as clear as mud until the first leg is over. And with that in mind, I’ll be back tomorrow with the Brighton/Derby preview.

Anti-Climaxes In Prospect On Last Day Of Term

Just two issues to be settled on the last day of the regular season: the last playoff team and who will join Yeovil and Barnsley in League One next season.

At the top there are three games that will determine the last playoff team. Despite what you might have read elsewhere, it’s still mathematically possible for Blackburn to reach the playoffs but it would take some very surprising results for that to happen. Long term readers will remember that it’s this type of team that could have a big impact in the following season: Leicester scraped into the playoffs last season but have won the title at a canter in 2013/14.

Blackburn v Wigan

Rovers have gone about their business quietly this season and it’s a tribute to those involved that they’re still in the hunt for a playoff spot with one game left. Unfortunately, they’ve not been higher than eighth this season and although they’ve not lost at home since mid March, they’ve not done well enough against the top six to be serious candidates for promotion this season. Next season might be another matter altogether.

Nottingham Forest v Brighton (12:15pm, Sky Sports 2)

Brighton are unbeaten in their last seven games but they’ve only won once in their last five road trips and that was against a Leicester side that had already been promoted. Although they probably won’t lose at the City Ground, Albion haven’t beaten Forest there for almost ten years.

Reading v Burnley (12:15pm, Sky Sports 1 – probably the one I’m going to watch)

A point against the Clarets might be good enough to see Nigel Adkins’ side into the post season, but a win against a team that’s already reached the Promised Land would finish the job off nicely. The problem for the hosts is that they’ve not beaten any of the other teams in the top six at home this season and the recent 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough was their first home victory since the end of January. The Royals have won five of the last six league encounters with tomorrow’s opponents in Berkshire.

I still think that the last place is Reading’s to lose, although if they were that good they should have had this spot tied up weeks ago and if they go on to win promotion back to the Premier League it might be a disaster. Brighton haven’t improved enough to merit serious consideration as promotion candidates and as I mentioned above, it’s probably a season too early for Blackburn even though the signs at Ewood Park are encouraging.

At the bottom, it’s even more congested with four clubs attempting to avoid the last relegation spot. All of them have things in common: terrible home records and an inability to score.

Blackpool v Charlton Athletic

The Tangerines need to be extremely careful here. If they lose to the Addicks at home, their appalling goal difference – only Millwall, Doncaster and Barnsley are worse – could be the end of them. Blackpool haven’t won at home since beating Huddersfield in March: that was only their second home win in the Championship since before Christmas.

Bolton Wanderers v Birmingham City

A recent mini revival in their away form with wins at Doncaster and Millwall combined with the fact that they’ve not lost three consecutive away games since last autumn might give even the most pessimistic Blues fan something to cling on to, but otherwise the diagnosis is bleak. Other games need to go Birmingham’s way and they’ve only won once in their last ten visits to Bolton.

Leicester City v Doncaster Rovers

Doncaster’s away record against teams in the top half of the table: played eleven, drawn two, lost nine. Goals scored: six, goals conceded 26. Doncaster’s away league record at Leicester: played 15, won one (in December 1902), drawn one, lost 13. Goals scored: 11. Goals conceded: 45.

If Birmingham lose tomorrow, Doncaster will be playing in the Championship next season.

Millwall v Bournemouth

Since he took over at The New Den, Ian Holloway has presided over five wins but three of those have happened in the current seven game unbeaten streak and the Lions need to win in order to stay in the Championship. The problem is that they’ve not won in South London for nine games and Bournemouth have only lost once in their last six road trips, but since the turn of the century Millwall have only lost once at home to the Cherries. I don’t normally pay much attention to manager of the month awards, but I was surprised to see that Holloway was on the short list for April’s award: the nomination seems to have been based solely on away form.

Anything could happen. Birmingham and Doncaster are the bookies favourites for the drop but although neither Blackpool or Millwall are entirely safe, the Tangerines in particular are capable of playing far better than their position suggests and I’m 100% certain that Ian Holloway will be able to inspire Millwall to get the result they need. I’ll go for Doncaster being annihilated by Leicester and Birmingham surrendering meekly at Bolton.

Updates as soon as the games finish including the playoff schedule.

Thursday: Brighton v Derby (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Friday: Wigan v QPR (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Doncaster are down.