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.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 12/13th March

Welcome to the second blog post in as many days – don’t get too used to it, we’ve got an International Break coming up 🙂

Anyway, half of the bottom six are playing teams in the top six and two of the strugglers are playing each other so that’s what I’m looking at today.

Fulham v Bristol City

I suspect that when Fulham hammered the Robins at Ashton Gate in October, most people would have considered the Cottagers as promotion contenders. They were tenth in the table – just four points off the playoff spots – and had only lost four games at that point.

Four months and just three wins later, Fulham are only above City on goal difference and are only two points from safety. Only Charlton have conceded more goals and only Charlton and Bolton have won fewer games: since taking over in December, Slavisa Jokanovic has failed to win ten of his 13 games in charge. At this point last season, Fulham were only three points better off after 36 games: at the moment they’re probably lucky to have such a good goal difference and that three teams are worse than them, but Fulham could easily be dragged into the bottom three. On Tuesday they blew a half team lead against Burnley, which makes you question their collective state of mind at the moment.

Bristol City performed their party trick at Wolves on Tuesday, conceding a ridiculously late winner after having looked to have earned a vital point at Molineux. After apparently having turned the corner when Lee Johnson was appointed at the start of last month, the Robins have now lost three of their last four and are now only two points away from dropping back into the bottom three. Their next two games – at Fulham this afternoon and at home to Bolton next Saturday – are crucial to their chances of staying in the Championship, but City have a particularly tough looking set of games in April. To be fair to them, they’ve only lost one of their previous four away games against the other teams in the bottom six.

Head to head: since 1972, Fulham have only won half of their ten home league games against Bristol City, although it’s worth taking into account that this is the first league meeting between the clubs since December 1997. That being said, the hosts have been reasonably good at Craven Cottage against the bottom half of the Championship and City’s away defeat at Wolves was their first since the end of January; this game may come down to how well City’s defence copes with Fulham’s attack.

Hull v MK Dons

Second meeting on Humberside, Hull won the other 3-2 way back in October 2004. The hosts were thrashed in the FA Cup by Arsenal earlier this week, which left Reading as the sole Championship club in the competition until they lost at home to Crystal Palace last night. The Tigers have two games in hand but are now seven points behind Burnley and although they have only lost one other game at the KC this season (Derby in November), they’ve failed to score in front of their own fans since hitting Charlton for six in January.

I’d love to try to say something positive about MK Dons’ away record this season, but it’s been very poor. The recent win at Derby broke a fourteen game streak without a win on the road, but they’ve failed to score in half of their road trips so far. Even though they drew 0-0 at Charlton on Tuesday – yes, that’s right, the Dons couldn’t score against the worst defence in the Championship – they are averaging less than half a point per game on their travels and the bookies think it’s between them and Rotherham for the last relegation place. Yes, I know that’s assuming that Bolton and Charlton are already down.

Rotherham v Derby

Three straight wins have given the Millers a chance at salvation but considering that it’s been almost exactly 34 years since they won more than three in a row at this level – and that was with a playoff calibre team that finished above Chelsea – this might be a game too far. That being said, it’s not inconceivable that Rotherham could spring another surprise at the New York Stadium: they’ve not lost at home since the end of January and have won three of their five home games against the current top six.

As for Derby, four away defeats in six games since New Year’s Day have left them looking unlikely candidates for automatic promotion even though they could still finish second. This is the first of three away games against the strugglers, so it looks as if the Rams might have a big impact on both ends of the table: half of their last ten visits to Rotherham have finished all square and although Derby failed to score at QPR earlier this week, they’ve not been shut out in consecutive away games at this level for over a year.

Charlton v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, Sunday 3:30)

A nice TV windfall for Charlton: with the FA Cup taking priority for armchair fans over everything else this weekend, this is actually an intriguing – but potentially awful – game between two clubs who are both out of form at the moment. The Addicks haven’t won at home since the start of November, a couple of weeks ago they scored three goals in a home game for the first time since they beat Sheffield Wednesday and still lost and the relationship between the fans and the owners couldn’t really be any more toxic.

Boro have only won once in their last six away games and have been shocking in their away games against the current bottom six this season.  They’ve already lost at Bristol City and Rotherham in 2016 and have to travel to Bolton in the middle of April. That being said, Boro have won four of their last six league games at Charlton and have one of the best away defences in the Championship, so I’d be surprised if the Teesiders lose again.

I’ll be back next Friday, when it’s Middlesbrough v Hull. I wouldn’t expect too many goals in that one though…

Update: Nottingham Forest have sacked Dougie Freedman and all kinds of rumours are swirling around the internet that Aitor Karanka might walk away from Middlesbrough – and those were circulating BEFORE before lost 2-0 at Charlton on Sunday afternoon.

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.

Still Time To Back A Winner

With roughly about one third of the season left, now is a good time to search for any value bets in the Championship promotion and relegation markets. It’s also important to remember that you’re the customer and you should always try to find the best prices – websites that review online bookies can help.

At the top Hull and Middlesbrough are favourites to both win the Sky Bet Championship and for automatic promotion, but both are too short to back in the latter market. However, it’s worth noting that The Tigers haven’t won a divisional title since 1966 and over the last ten years just two teams who lost the Championship play off final have gone on to win promotion the following season – which indicates that Boro may be the better selection.

Let’s not forget that three teams will be promoted to the Premier League at the end of the 2015/16 season and so a potentially more profitable option is to identify a team that’s capable of winning the playoffs but could still make a run for automatic promotion. Before Christmas Derby would have been a popular choice for promotion but the surprise dismissal of Paul Clement last week indicates the tide may have turned for the Rams. At the start of the season Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday didn’t look like obvious choices for promotion, but the Seagulls are the most improved team in the Championship this season and even if going up might be beyond Wednesday this season, they should be amongst the pre-season favourites next summer.

Meanwhile, at the wrong end of the table Rotherham and Charlton were pre-season favourites for relegation and their current prices reflect that, but Bolton were outsiders for a return to the Third Tier for the first time since the early 1990s. Last summer both Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town had shorter odds for the drop than Bolton, but although Huddersfield are still available to back at about 25/1 for what must now be considered for a surprise relegation to League One, the Blues have outperformed expectations and could even win promotion.

With the current bottom three all at short prices for relegation, Bristol City and Milton Keynes Dons are probably the remaining value bets for a return to League One. However, the odds for the Robins going down have drifted considerably since the start of February and although the Dons seem to have a slightly easier run in, both sides seem to have recently begun to grind out results suggesting they’ve learned how to compete in the competition.

That leaves one intriguing option: Fulham’s defeat at Blackburn on Tuesday evening leaves them precariously close to the bottom three and they still have to host four of the five clubs immediately below them – all of whom will be desperate to defy their odds for relegation.

Whichever way you look at it, there’ll be an exciting climax to the 2015/16 Championship!