GOTW: Preston v Wigan

Just a quick one this week as we’re only one game in.

Only one game ended in a draw last weekend, which just happened to be the first match of the EFL season:

Going into this week, we’ve got thirteen unbeaten teams, but only Barnsley, Millwall and Birmingham kept clean sheets. Brentford, Fulham and Preston failed to score in their first matches – it may be significant that of the latter trio, only Brentford (at Middlesbrough) are away this weekend. Arguably the surprise result last week was Charlton winning at Blackburn; the Addicks scored all three goals in a 2-1 win.

League Cup: Birmingham are already out of this season’s competition having lost 3-0 at Portsmouth. The Blues will be able to concentrate on the league until January. Everyone else plays next week.

Preston v Wigan

Lancashire derbies will be few and far between this season – the next one won’t be until the end of October – and as this is the only match up fitting my traditional ‘top six v bottom six’ parameter, it’s a bit of no-brainer.

The Lillywhites lost at Millwall last weekend for the first time since 2011 (when they were relegated) but are tough to beat at Deepdale even if they find it hard to win at home – Preston have only lost two of their last ten outings there, even though they’ve only won twice in the same period.

Wigan’s away form last season was awful: they beat Leeds in April but hadn’t won on the road in nineteen previous attempts after a victory at Stoke almost a year ago.

HTH: Only the fifth meeting between the Lancashire rivals at preston since the turn of the century – Wigan have failed to win the last three and were battered 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last season having gone two goals behind before Darron Gibson was sent off.

Only one televised game this weekend and it will come as no surprise to long term readers that it’s Leeds v Nottingham Forest (Saturday, Sky Sports Main Event, kick off 12:30pm) which those imaginative b*stards at Sky Sports normally schedule for Boxing Day afternoon.

Back next week…

 

Sky Bet Championship Preview 2019-20

The hard facts are as follows:

If you want to win the Championship you need to earn at least 90 points and to go up without a detour via Wembley you’ll need at least 89 in the bag.

Those amounts have changed a bit over the last couple of seasons, but something else has to0 – even though at the moment it may only be possible to draw provisional conclusions.

Consider this – odds quoted below are for promotion, regardless of how it’s achieved:

Of the twelve teams that won Automatic Promotion over the last six seasons only two had been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the previous season – indicating that despite receiving parachute payments not only were those clubs not good enough to stay in the top tier but that they also weren’t good enough to finish in the top two at the end of the following season. If you look at the same stats over the last decade, only four of the new arrivals from the Premier League were promoted.

However, for me the main change is where the teams that eventually won automatic promotion had finished at the end of the previous season in the Championship.

Seven of those 12 – including two of the last six winners – had finished between tenth and fifteenth at the end of the previous season. I was going to to consider the teams that finished in those positions last season, until Hull and Sheffield Wednesday changed managers but at time of writing – a day before the season starts – Wednesday still haven’t replaced Steve Bruce and although Grant McCann is a good choice for Hull, I can’t see the Tigers making waves in 2019/20.

That being said, Preston (14th – 10/1), Brentford (11th – 9/2) and Swansea (10th, 10/1) are worth considering. Brentford in particular had a strong finish to last season, Preston recovered well after a poor start and Swansea now have a full season in the Championship under their belts.

The obvious contenders are Leeds (7/4F) and WBA (4/1), but there’s as much chance of both of them having playoff hangovers as there is of them finishing in the top two.

Leeds were the second lowest scoring side in the top six last season, whilst only ten teams conceded fewer goals than the Baggies; three of them were relegated. Slaven Bilic might be a step in the right direction, but his recent body of work is unconvincing and although he’s managed West Ham in the Premier League, he has no experience in the Championship. Leeds’ fans should also be aware of the fact that only two of the favourites to win automatic promotion over the last decade actually achieved a top two place.

Moving on to the playoffs, a couple of seasons ago I would have said that 70 points was enough for a top six finished, but that’s also changed: now the magic number is 72.

The post season is where the teams relegated from the Prem tend to have their best chance of an immediate return but it’s been three seasons that a club that had been relegated won at Wembley: the last two winners were teams that had reached the semi finals at the end of the previous season (so Leeds and WBA again!)

I’d still expect teams that finished in the top half to be competing for playoff spots but probably only Cardiff (7/2) from the teams that weren’t good enough to stay in the Premier League to challenge for the post season and that’s almost entirely down to Neil Warnock’s knowledge of how to win promotion.

Again, when I started writing this preview I’d included Birmingham (18/1) and Nottingham Forest (13/2) in the ‘possibles’ list but I’m going to discount them as I’ve got no idea what’s going on with either of them. Forest are overrated at the start of every season and you’ll be reading about the Blues in a moment.

The one team that should at least be making a serious attempt at a top six finish is Bristol City (15/2). The Robins have come close to the playoffs over the last couple of seasons and a combination of managerial stability and impressive recruitment over the summer might push them into promotion contention – although like so many other clubs, they need a proven striker.

I can’t see either Derby (13/2) or Middlesbrough (11/2) doing much this season. Frank Lampard’s move to Chelsea belies the fact that he did next to nothing with the Rams and Jonathan Woodgate is going to need at least one season to change the legacy of Tony Pulis’ defence first style at the Riverside.

Moving swiftly downwards…the odds quoted below are for relegation.

As a general rule over the last half dozen seasons, anything less than a 1.1 points per game and you’re in trouble as is any team finishing below sixteenth place at the end of the previous season.

Using that criteria, Reading (3/1) and Millwall (4/1) are the obvious contenders for the drop this season. As for other possible strugglers, in four of the last six seasons at least one of the promoted teams have struggled and I think this is where Luton (9/2) could be candidates. The last team to win successive promotions from League 2 was Rotherham a few seasons ago and the Millers never finished higher than 21st before being relegated at the end of 2016/17.

Both Charlton (9/4F) and Barnsley (5/2, 2F) have relatively recent experience at this level but that’s doesn’t mean either can be complacent. At one point over the summer it looked as if Lee Bowyer wouldn’t be with the Addicks for much longer whilst The Tykes have something of a reputation as a yo-yo club and haven’t finished in the top half of the second tier since it was renamed the Championship.

If you’re looking for outsiders, even though I’m a fan of Mark Warburton I think QPR (7/2) might continue to struggle and after a couple of seasons where Birmingham (9/2) had apparently turned the corner, I’m expecting the Blues to regress back to the team that struggled especially as the appointment of Pep Clotet is baffling, considering he did nothing at all at Oxford and didn’t last a full season at Malaga either.

It’s also highly unlikely that any of the new arrivals from the PL will be relegated to League One: Sunderland remain the only team since 2013/14 to have completed that particularly unenviable double.

TV Games: one a day from Friday to Monday – all Sky Sports football, kick off times in brackets.

This evening: Luton v Middlesbrough (7:45pm), Saturday: Forest v WBA (5:30pm), Sunday: Bristol City v Leeds (4:30pm), Monday: Huddersfield v Derby (7:45pm)

I’ll back next Thursday with a brief preview, but from now on it’s uninterrupted coverage until the first international weekend of the campaign…in a month.

Opening Weekend 2019/20

The fixtures for the new season were released this morning, here are the opening weekend’s games:

Friday August 2nd

Luton v Middlesbrough (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)

Saturday August 3rd

Barnsley v Fulham, Blackburn v Charlton, Brentford v Birmingham, Millwall v Preston, Reading v Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke v QPR, Swansea v Hull, Wigan v Cardiff, Nottingham Forest v WBA (5:30 – Sky Sports Football)

Sunday August 4th

Bristol City v Leeds (4:30 – Sky Sports Football)

Monday August 5th 

Huddersfield v Derby (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)

We already have a number of new managers: Birmingham and Hull have yet to name replacements for Garry Monk and Nigel Adkins respectively, but Luton, QPR, WBA. Middlesbrough and Swansea all have new managers.

The League Cup fixtures are out later on today but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Right, guess who’s off to start putting a preview together…

Ay Karanka…

A few seasons ago there were three particularly dysfunctional clubs in the Championship, but that appeared to have changed – until last weekend.

To be fair to Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s have more or less left the club to run itself over the past few seasons.

But then we come to Leeds and Nottingham Forest. The current leaders appear to have known nothing about Marcelo Bielsa’s spying mission before last weekend’s game against Derby although if it had been described as ‘scouting’ it wouldn’t have generated as much comment.

Aitor Karanka’s departure from the City Ground came after I posted last Friday, so I was unable to react to it.

I’ve been pretty clear that Forest had taken a big step this season under Karanka as they’ve moved into the ‘difficult to beat’ category from being a team that could have easily been relegated a couple of seasons ago. That being said, I also thought the best case scenario for them in 2018/19 was the playoffs and that next season could be a better chance for promotion. Yet not for the first time, a toxic mixture of nostalgia, unrealistic expectations (stop me if you’ve read that before) and unwanted advice has taken over at the City Ground. Martin O’Neill hasn’t managed a team in English domestic football for six years and it’s been almost a quarter of a century since he managed a team at this level: it’s also a big risk to return to a club where you were a legend as a player, so we’ll see how this pans out. Give it until next Christmas.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended all square – if anyone’s keeping count that’s the fourth draw in 11 games of the week and the second in the last three.

There was no real change at either the top or the bottom of the table after last weekend’s games. This week there are no outstanding candidates for the game of the week, but there are three games where teams from the top six face teams from the bottom six.

Derby v Reading

Despite being in their usual position, The Rams have only won one of their last six league games and haven’t beaten anyone at home since the start of last month. On paper they’ve got a relatively easy schedule coming up – this is the start of five matches against the bottom seven before the end of February – but they’ve already lost at Bolton, Millwall and Rotherham in 2018/19 and any repeat of those results could have a huge effect on their chances of promotion. I’m still far from convinced about Frank Lampard: the Rams are currently not as good as they were last season.

Reading beat Nottingham Forest last weekend. but haven’t won on the road since beating Preston in mid-September. The Royals have lost all six contests against the teams currently in the top six and new boss Jose Gomez has lost three of his first five games in charge: but before anyone writes off the chances of a possible upset, consider this. Since August 2002 the clubs have met in 16 games at Derby and the hosts have only won five of those contests – and Derby won at Southampton on penalties in the FA Cup earlier this week.

Middlesbrough v Millwall

It may come as a surprise to those of you that don’t follow them, but Boro have only won three games at the Riverside since mid-September and seem to be having particular problems with mid table sides. Their home record against the bottom third of the table is fine though: ten points from twelve and no goals conceded.

Millwall’s impressive form over the holidays was undone by losing at home to Blackburn last Saturday evening; their win at Ipswich is the only away victory they’ve recorded this season. Although I hasten to add that the Lions have earned points at both Bristol City and Nottingham Forest and since the start of the decade they’ve only lost twice in six trips to Middlesbrough.

Bolton v WBA (Monday evening, 8pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

An interesting televised contest to round the weekend off.

When you’re involved in a relegation scrap, scoring less than one goal a game and having to play four of the top six over the next month or so far from ideal, but that’s the situation Bolton are in. They didn’t have a bad December at home – only one defeat in four outings – but their 2-1 win over Rotherham on Boxing Day was their first win in seventeen games.

WBA are still very much in contention for automatic promotion but seem to be having their first wobble since they went four games without a win in October/November. The New Year’s Day defeat at Blackburn ended a run of four consecutive away victories but the Baggies haven’t won at Bolton since December 2000 – the last time the clubs met in a league game in Lancashire that wasn’t in the Premier League.

The other televised games this weekend are Norwich v Birmingham (this evening, 7:45pm) and Swansea v Sheffield United (5:30pm tomorrow) – both are being shown on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event.

Back to the FA Cup next weekend, so I’ll see you then.

GOTW: WBA v Norwich

Collectively speaking, last weekend’s performances in the FA Cup were about as unremarkable as usual.

Half the division was eliminated at the first hurdle, with four teams beaten by opposition from further down the pyramid, including Sheffield United losing at home to Barnet.

Of the eight clubs that won their ties, only three are in the current top ten and only Middlesbrough and WBA are among the promotion contenders. Make of that what you will.

It’s back to the League for a couple of weeks now with two big matches at the top of the section, one televised. Before that, a quick recap of the Christmas games.

Leeds, Norwich and WBA formed the top three at close of play on Boxing Day, but Norwich had a particularly unproductive Christmas: they’ve now only won only once in their last five outings and blew the lead twice against Derby at the end of last month.

Hull, Millwall and Sheffield United won all three games over the holidays: that may have saved the former pair from any danger of relegation this season. It’s also probably cemented Sheffield United’s chances of reaching the playoffs – which makes the Blades’ performance in the FA Cup even more risible.

Ipswich – who were unsurprisingly four points from safety after the Boxing Day games – have had it. At this point Reading look likely to accompany the Tractor Boys into League One at the end of the season but after those two it’s not clear who will be the third team to be relegated at the end of the campaign. Wigan, Preston and Stoke all earned just one point over the holiday fixtures: with Stoke’s draw with Shrewsbury in the FA Cup last weekend heralding the end of Gary Rowett’s reign at the Britannia Stadium. He was replaced almost immediately by Nathan Jones (formerly of Luton), which is a nice idea on paper: the combination of Jones’ potential and the unpleasant dose of reality that Stoke have encountered this season might work, but we’ll see.

In other news, Steve Bruce was appointed Sheffield Wednesday boss on January 2nd.

This weekend starts with Leeds v Derby this evening (7:45, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) – Leeds haven’t lost consecutive league games at Elland Road since March, but this is the first of the four home games they’ve got to play against other clubs in the top six before mid-March. Derby won’t be pushovers: they’ve already won at Norwich and WBA and will be looking for revenge for the 4-1 thrashing by Leeds back in August.

The main event is WBA v Norwich tomorrow afternoon.  The Baggies are on a six game unbeaten streak at the Hawthorns but have only won twice in that sequence and have a very tough home schedule in February, with games against Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United . Norwich are on all eleven game unbeaten run away from home but they’ve not beaten any of their nearest rivals on the road. There is one thing in their favour though – Norwich have only lost four of their last ten visits to the Hawthorns in league competition, even though they’ve never won three consecutive games at the venue.

The televised game on Saturday evening is Millwall v Blackburn, but to be brutally honest that’s a pretty poor choice. On that less than positive note, I’ll sign off for the week…