One Week To Go!

We only have to wait another week until the return of the EFL Championship!

Next Friday’s opening game is televised, so here’s the list of games that will be shown on Sky Sports over the next couple of weeks:

Friday 3rd August

Reading v Derby (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 8:00pm)

Saturday 4th August

Sheffield United v Swansea City (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 5:30pm

Sunday 5th August

Leeds v Stoke (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 4:30pm)

Monday 6th August

Hull v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 7:45pm)

Tuesday 7th August

Nottingham Forest v WBA (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 7:45pm)

Saturday 11th August

Derby v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, KO 5:30pm)

Remember, if you don’t have Sky, Quest TV is the EFL’s new TV partner and their 9pm highlights show on Saturday evening will be available on various different platforms.

I’m having a couple of issues with the new format I wanted to display the previews in, so they may not appear until some time next week. The next scheduled post is next Friday afternoon, in which I’ll be taking a look at what might happen in 2018/19.

The Last Post of 2016/17

The playoff final highlights (such as they were):

That ginger kid in the blue shirt at the top is priceless. Your team wins promotion to the Premier League and rather than celebrating it, he’s filming it on his bloody phone. Kudos the girl next to him – she’s absolutely delighted.

Managerial Changes:

The one that looks as if it’s a shrewd move is Garry Monk to newly relegated Middlesbrough. I underestimated Monk’s ability at this level last season and yet he managed to transform Leeds into playoff contenders, so it’ll be interesting to see how he does on Teeside.

Of the other three appointments, they fit the same old tired pattern. I’ve heard of Leonid Slutsky (Hull) but Daniel Farke (Norwich – cue the ‘Silly Farke’ headlines) and Nuno Espirito Santo (Wolves) are new to me. None of them have managerial experience in England. Norwich clearly think that Farke will be the next David Wagner and in their infinite wisdom, the new Wolves board have appointed yet another goalkeeper, who also presided over FC Porto’s least successful season for decades.

I’ll be surprised if two of the three are in jobs by the end of next season: I won’t be surprised if Nuno is the first to go.

Update: on Thursday, Leeds appointed Thomas Christiansen as their new manager. His managerial experience: a couple of seasons in the Cypriot Super League, although the party line will be that he coached APOEL Nicosia on their run in the Champions League a few seasons ago.

I’ll be back next month – the previews for next season are well under way.

2017 Play Off Final Preview

Huddersfield v Reading

(Sky Sports 1, starts 2pm GMT, kick off 3pm GMT)

I mentioned at the beginning of last year’s preview that there was about an even chance of the winners of that final being relegated, which is exactly what happened to Hull at the end of this season.

Whichever team wins this is going to struggle mightily in the Premier League. Reading had the 15th best defence in the Championship in 2016/17 – Wigan conceded fewer goals and Blackburn just one more. Thirteen teams scored more goals than Huddersfield, who finished in the top six with a negative goal difference overall – the first time that’s ever happened since the second tier became the Championship thirteen years ago. A lot has been made of the fact that three of the four playoff teams this season finished in the bottom half of the table a year ago and those statistics indicate to me that both sides have overachieved without adequately papering over the cracks this season, let alone next.

Huddersfield are the favourites, but the bookies are expecting extra time.

Huddersfield Town

Last ten aways: 4-3-3 (I’m counting the semi final playoff win at Sheffield Wednesday as a draw over 90 minutes), goal difference -4

Playoff record at this level: winning semi-finalists 2017

Looking back at the season, it was a hot streak between December and March in which the Terriers only lost twice in eighteen games that saw them record their highest league position since the early 1970s. Since then they’ve not been as impressive (five wins in their last fifteen) but they maintained they spent all season in the top five without ever genuinely threatening either Brighton or Newcastle.

Strength: home form, which is irrelevant today.

Weakness: Goalscoring away from home. Huddersfield only scored more than two goals in one away match this season: the 3-2 win at Rotherham on Valentine’s Day was also the last time they scored more than once in an away game. Town failed to score in seven road trips, losing all of those games.

Ones to watch: Nakhi Wells and Elias Kachunga. Both strikers reached double figures this season but neither of them has been particularly prolific away from home – they haven’t scored on the road since February. If Town stand any chance of either winning promotion or staying in the Premier League, Kachunga and Wells have to contribute this afternoon.

Reading

Last ten aways: 3-2-5, goal difference -8

Playoff record at this level: Runners up 1995, 2011. Beaten semi finalists 2003, 2009

I still find it remarkable that a team that lost a game 7-1 at the start of last month is in the playoff final. After an inconsistent start, the Royals hovered between third and fifth from the end of October onwards and – like Huddersfield – never really threatened the automatic promotion playoffs. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but their form away from the Mad House isn’t very good: if this was a home game I’d not have any problems backing them but three of their five away wins in 2017 were against teams they ought to have beaten and two of those were settled in the last minute.

Strength: home form. Only Brighton earned more points at home than Reading and no club lost fewer home games. Once again, irrelevant today.

Weakness: away defence. In 2016/17 the average Championship defence conceded 34 goals in away games: Reading conceded 14 more goals than that. They conceded in 18 of their 23 matches away from home and let in more than two goals on eight occasions.

One to watch: Yann Kermogant. The veteran French striker is having his best season since he helped Bournemouth win promotion to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago: just over half of his goals this season have been scored in away games and if the Huddersfield defence don’t keep an eye on him then they could be in for a torrid time.

Final Stats Over The Last Decade:

The Higher side that finished higher at the end of the season has won six of the last ten finals. The third placed side has also won three of the last four finals between clubs that finished in third and fourth positions. Advantage: Reading.

Both teams haven’t scored in seven of the last ten, also less than 2.5. Settled by one goal in eight of last ten, only one AET in the last decade. Six of last ten have been 1-0. The last ten league games between today’s finalists have been pretty equal: two draws with the remainder split evenly.

Verdict: the stats above indicate that Reading might win by the margin of one goal, but I’ll be amazed if the final score is 1-0 to either team. It’s been five seasons since both teams have scored or we’ve had more than two goals in the final and considering how bad both of these defences were in away games during the regular season, this particular final could turn into a shoot out.

An update will follow immediately after the game is over.

Not the best advert for Championship football. Huddersfield won on penalties after extra time. There’ll be an end of season round up posted as soon as possible.

Play Off Semi Final Preview

Remember the curse of fourth? Well that’s not really the case anymore – two of the last three PO winners had finished fourth at the end of the regular season, but what’s really noticeable is that over the last decade third placed teams have been promoted as many times as fourth, fifth and sixth place sides combined.

If the trend over the last decade continues, Reading will be back in the Premier League next season and Fulham will still be knocking around in the Championship. However, this is the Championship and nothing is straightforward: the mini league based on the games between the four qualifiers indicates that Fulham and Reading were far better than the others and Huddersfield were appreciably worse than the other three.

Basically, each team has an obvious weakness and if that can be exploited by their opponents we could have some interesting games. I have a feeling that whoever wins promotion to the Premier League may last only one season: with Middlesbrough rejoining the Championship after losing at Chelsea earlier this week, that’s a distinct possibility.

Fulham v Reading (Sky Sports 2, Saturday, 5:30pm)

Only one defeat in their last ten games at Craven Cottage, but the thing that stands out straight away is that they’ve conceded in nine of those ten games and they’ve had to come from behind in two of them. Only Barnsley and Rotherham conceded more goals at home than Fulham this season, but only Brighton, Newcastle and Norwich scored more goals in front of their own fans. Fulham’s strong point is their home record against the teams that finished in the top half of the table: they lost 2-1 to Brighton at the start of the year, but that’s it.

Reading have won four of their last ten aways but they also lost 7-1 at Norwich over that period, failed to score in three of those games and only kept two clean sheets. However, even though only Brighton, Fulham and Newcastle only won more away games this season, the Royals’ hot streak away from home came in the early part of the season and it’s noticeable that when they were beaten 5-0 at Fulham at the start of December they weren’t nearly as impressive. If they’d not had consecutive last minute away wins at Blackburn and Bristol City it’s fair to say that Reading may not have been in this position: they may be about to be spectacularly exposed.

Verdict: there’ll be goals in this game. Five of the last six meetings in the league between these sides in the league at Fulham have produced at least three goals. Reading have only won two of those encounters, their last victory coming in a Premier League game in May 2013.

The game finished 1-1, but Fulham had to come from behind to earn the draw after Jonathan Obita had given Reading the lead.

Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (Sky Sports 2, Sunday, noon)

On paper, this looks like a classic Yorkshire derby with little to chose from between the clubs. Dig a bit deeper and you start seeing it from a very different perspective.

Town’s highest league position for 17 years indicates that they’re here on merit, but their win over Reading in mid-February was their only victory against their competitors in the playoffs and they’ve only won three of their last ten games – and that includes only half of their last six at home. This season they lost both games to Sheffield Wednesday without scoring and since 2000 they’ve only beaten Wednesday twice in nine games where they’ve had home advantage.

Ominously, Wednesday have been here before and although playoff success following playoff failure is rare, it’s not unknown. They’ve only lost twice on the road since January and were one of only four teams last season that had a positive away goal difference, which is one of the vital statistics for a team looking for promotion. That’s one way of looking at it: the other is that the away wins at Newcastle and Huddersfield were Wednesday’s only victories against teams that finished in the top half of the table and they’ve not improved in that respect since last season.

Verdict: I can see this going two ways. Either it’ll be a cagey, low scoring draw or Wednesday will take a decisive lead into the second leg. I think it’s entirely possible that Huddersfield may be ‘pleased to be here’ rather than having any real expectations for promotion, but I’ve been very wrong before about the playoffs.

Update: cagey, low scoring draw. 0-0.

In other news, Hull City have been relegated from the Premier League. As there’s only one team left to be confirmed in next season’s Championship line up, I’m going to start researching the previews 🙂

Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

The match kicks off at 5:00pm on Saturday afternoon and the talking heads will be indulging in their usual breathless hyperbole from 4:00pm on Sky Sports 1. As I pointed out before last season’s game, there’s a 90% chance of the winners finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League next season and about an even chance they’ll be relegated – which exactly what happened to Norwich this season.

Anyway, I digress.

This will be the first ‘fourth v sixth’ final since 2009/10 (when Blackpool beat Cardiff) and only the second game featuring what we might call the ‘outsiders’ in the last decade.

Interestingly, the lower placed team at the end of the regular season has won four of the last ten finals -which might be good news for Hull fans but is counterbalanced by the fact the Tigers finished fourth. Although the Curse of Fourth was broken by QPR a couple of seasons ago, it’s still arguably the worst place to finish in the Championship if you’re seeking play off glory.

Before I launch into the team previews, it’s worth remembering that both finalists have failed to score in seven of the last ten finals, with six of those ten games producing under 2.5 goals. As we’ve got the second and fifth best defences in the Championship facing each other on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a low scoring game.

Hull City

Last ten away games: 4-1-5 (10-11)

Play off record (second tier only): winners 2008

Three of the last five Championship play off winners have been clubs that have been relegated at the end of the previous season, so that’s another reason to believe that Hull be involved in a battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League this time next year.

Hull have been a yo-yo club over the last decade: dangerously close to relegation from the Championship nine years ago, they’ve spent the last eight seasons either being in the race for promotion from the Championship or being not quite good enough to last more than two seasons in the Premier League.

My thinking about The Curse of Fourth had to change after QPR beat Derby a couple of seasons ago. Hull are one of the best fourth placed sides over the last decade: only Middlesbrough (last season) and Preston in 2005/06 are probably better and this season’s Hull team are performing at a better level than the team that won automatic promotion in a dramatic finale in May 2013.

Best comparison: West Ham, 2011/12. The Hammers had been relegated from the Premier League in May 2011, but were top of the table in February 2012 (at about the same time Portsmouth went into administration & Neil Warnock was appointed manager of Leeds) and then fell away after a sequence of seven draws in ten games. Hull last lead the division in February but dropped out of the automatic promotion places for good after they failed to win any of their next five games and almost blew their place in the final last week:

Strength: during the regular season, Hull were fantastic at the KC Stadium but that perception changed dramatically in the game you’ve just watched the highlights of.

Weakness: Fulham lost fewer away games than Hull in 2015/16 and for a team that’s one game away from the Premier League, losing at two of the three clubs that will be playing in League One in August is far from encouraging. The big problem for the Tigers was scoring on the road – although they scored three times against Derby in the first leg of the play offs, Hull haven’t scored more than twice in an away league game since they beat Sunderland 3-0 in a Boxing Day game in 2014. This season they lost every away game in the Championship they failed to score in.

Player to watch: Abel Hernandez. The Uruguayan is the definition of a striker who hasn’t been able to cut it at the very top but is lethal at second tier level. He was disappointing in Serie A for Palermo and didn’t do much in the Premier League in 2014/15: 21 goals this season is testament to his talent. He also has one big advantage over his Hull counterpart, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

Sheffield Wednesday

Away form: 3-4-3 (10-10)

Play off record (second tier only): début

Here’s how Wednesday clinched their place in the final – it’s a bit long if you’re a neutral, but at least it’s got some commentary with it.

The only other team to have jumped from 13th to a play off final in the last decade was the Burnley team of 2008/09 and although Wednesday were never outside the top ten from mid October, they were never better than fifth in the table for the rest of the season. That was their best finishing position in the second tier for 25 years, but it’s fair to say that this season’s Wednesday team is both not as good as the Ipswich side that finished sixth and lost to Norwich in last season’s semi finals and under Carlos Carvalhal they’ve clearly over achieved this season.

Best comparison: Nottingham Forest 2010/11. Forest earned a point more and had a slightly inferior goal difference that this season’s Wednesday side but were knocked out of the play offs by eventual winners Swansea and have had one top ten finish since.

Strength: home defence. Which is going to be irrelevant on Saturday evening.

Weakness: away form. Including the play off semi final draw at Brighton, Wednesday have still only won three of their last ten away games in the Championship, the last victory coming at Huddersfield at the start of April, also last time they kept an away clean sheet. They only beat two teams in the top half of the table and failed to beat any of the relegated sides away from home and only picked up one point from six against MK Dons.

Player to watch: Fernando Forestieri. There must be something in the water in Sheffield as the Argentinian striker has scored 15 goals this season, which is more than twice his previous best (at Watford two seasons ago) and one third of his total goals in a ten year career. However, there’s a problem: he’s not scored on the road since the start of April (Abel Hernandez has scored four in Hull’s last ten aways) and having seen him play in person this season, if you can isolate him he’ll lose interest very quickly.

Verdict: Wednesday need to stop Hull from scoring to have any chance of winning promotion back to the Premier League, but they’ve not kept an away clean sheet since April and with all due respect, Huddersfield aren’t the best team in the Championship. Hull have ‘been there and done that’, have recent Premier League experience and know what it’s like to both win and lose at Wembley: so it’s Hull for me. 

Hull 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday. Mohammed Diame’s 72nd minute goal means that the Tigers will back in the Premier League next season. I’ll be back at the start of July for the first of the previews for the 2016/17 season.

Update: Barnsley are back, 3-1 winners over Millwall in the League One final.