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…

Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview 2019

Aston Villa v Derby County

(Sky Sports Football/Main Event 2:oopm, kick off 3:00pm)

Well that flew by didn’t it: the most boring ‘richest’ game in the world is here once more, although let’s not get too excited.

The recent history of the final has been dominated by low scoring games, half of which had to go to extra time to be settled. The last time we saw more than two goals scored and both finalists actually scoring was in 2012: five of the last six matches finished 1-0 and on average we had to wait about an hour for a goal

However, the fact that a 5th v 6th final is such a rarity may mean that it’s a tendency breaker – but as you’re about to find out, that may not be a good thing for one of the teams involved.

And let’s not forget that one of these teams will become the first club since Crystal Palace in 2013 to be promoted to the Premier League having won fewer than 80 points.

Aston Villa

Beaten finalists 2018. Last ten regular season away games: 5-3-2 13-9 – almost exactly the same as last season.

Their current streak of seven games without an away defeat is Villa’s best form on the road this season, but all of those games were against sides with an average finishing position of 14th, including two wins against  teams that were relegated and ‘that’ equaliser at Leeds last month that was possibly a parting gift from Marcelo Bielsa. Then there’s this interesting stat: they had the second worst home defence last season (only Rotherham conceded more) but the fourth best away defence in the Championship – and that could be crucial, considering Derby finished with an away goal difference of -5.

Villa scored the sixth most away goals last season but that was still 18 fewer than they did at Villa Park. They also failed to beat any of the teams that finished above them on the road but won 3-0 at Derby in November:

Overall: don’t be fooled by the ‘big name’ nonsense – Villa weren’t actually as good as they were in 2017/18, but that was one of the reasons Steve Bruce was replaced in October and Dean Smith seems to have got the best out of the team. However, let’s not forget that they finished thirteen points behind runners up Sheffield United, which is more than twice the difference from 2017/18, when they finished six points behind Cardiff – who were relegated from the Premier League in April. Villa might be a big fish in a small pond in the Championship, but if they go up that situation will be reversed.

Derby County

Winners: 2007; Finalists: 1994, 2014; Semi Finalists: 1992, 2005, 2016, 2018.

Last ten away regular season games: 1-5-4, 9-16

Take a look at that record: over the last 25 years, The Rams have reached the playoffs seven times and have only been promoted once – and then were historically awful.

With the benefit of hindsight, Derby’s win at Leeds in the playoff semi final might actually just be an indication of how dramatic Leeds’ end of season implosion actually was rather than showcasing Derby’s promotion credentials. Before they won at Bristol City (with the help of card happy referee Darren Bond) they’d gone eight games without a win and hadn’t won an away game in 2018; those last ten games mentioned above were all against similar teams to those that Villa have done well against recently.

Derby did win their regular season games at WBA and Norwich but remarkably they also only picked up one point from nine available at those teams that will be playing in League One next season. The Rams also conceded in all but three of their away games last season and had the tenth best away defence in the Championship; they’ll have their hands full with Tammy Abraham but it’s also fair to say that they’ve been over reliant on Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson for goals.

Yet it’s not inconceivable that Derby will win promotion: they earned four more points that Blackpool did in 2009/10 and the same amount as Sheffield Wednesday earned when they reached the finals in 2015/16 but it was Blackpool who went up. In terms of Derby’s play-off history, this season’s team won three more points than the side that lost to Leicester in the 1994 final, but nine points fewer than the iteration that lost so dramatically in the 2014 final.

Head to head: Villa have won six of the last ten meetings and only lost twice – both of those defeats were at Derby.

Previous finals – last ten only:

Today’s game is only second time that a sixth placed team has actually reached the final over the last decade. The last sixth placed finisher to win the final was Blackpool in 2010.

It’s the first 5th v 6th final since West Ham v Preston in 2005 – West Ham won 1-0.

Higher placed teams have won exactly half of last ten finals.

The last six finals have all featured under three goals, the last time both teams scored was all the way back in 2012 (West Ham 2-1 Blackpool)

Verdict: history is against Derby here. They finished 3rd when they lost to QPR in the 2014 final and that team was a lot better than this season’s version but as you can see here, this year’s team seems to have more in common with the QPR side that beat them five years ago – which might be very significant.

On the other hand, history is also against Villa. The last team to return to a playoff final after losing it at the end of the previous season were West Ham in 2005, even though Crystal Palace (1997) and Leicester (1994) had both managed that feat before then. Villa fans can take some comfort that in both of the previous all-Midlands finals the higher placed finisher won both.

Now bearing in mind that I have a record of getting these wrong, I’m going to back Villa to win promotion – especially if they score first, as I’d also expect them to get another within ten minutes as Derby have to adapt tactically. It’s also worth remembering that Derby failed to score in both games against Villa this season and they were particularly vulnerable to Conor Hourihane.

Update: Derby and Charlton will be playing in the Championship next season.

 

GOTW: Bolton v Ipswich

Norwich beat Middlesbrough in last weekend’s game of the week:

That wasn’t the end of Middlesbrough’s misery either. On Tuesday evening they also lost at home to Bristol City, a result that leaves Tony Pulis’ side in eighth place.

Overall there wasn’t much change at the top last weekend: I think the top four have probably sewn the automatic promotion places up although there are still 21 points to play for and arguably any of the top seven sides could still reach El Dorado without negotiating the playoffs.

I’ll come to the bottom of the table when I get to the game of the week preview, but that situation hasn’t changed at all.

However, we know a little bit about how 2019/20 will look:

Steve McClaren was sacked by QPR earlier this week with former Watford and Derby midfielder John Eustace taking over as caretaker manager for their game against Norwich tomorrow lunchtime (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 12:30).

McClaren had been in charge at Loftus Road for almost a year but had recorded his lowest win percentage in club management since his stint at Newcastle a few years ago.

Surprisingly, we also know the identities of two of the clubs that have been relegated from the Premier League: Fulham and Huddersfield will be back after one and two seasons respectively in the Promised Land. This is the earliest that two clubs have been relegated from the top tier since Ipswich and Leicester at the end of the 1994/95 season.

Bolton v Ipswich

An important game at the bottom of the table but one that is unlikely to be the start of a miracle escape from relegation.

The tumult continues in Lancashire: the players took strike action in support of backroom staff on Monday, on Wednesday the club was given until May to pay off the remaining debt on the tax bill and although administration appears to have been avoided, this is hardly the sort of preparation the players need before such a big game.

On the field, the story for Bolton is dire. Two home wins since the start of October with just even goals in fourteen games over that period tell the story of how bad things are on the playing side.

Ipswich’s record on the road is just as bad, but there are signs that Paul Lambert has made them into a team that’s difficult to beat away from Portman Road. They’ve not lost an away game since mid-February but although they’ve not won on their travels since October, they’ve drawn their last three matches and were really unlucky not to win at Wigan at the end of February. That might stand the Tractor Boys in good stead next season, but has come too late to save them now.

Head to head: the last four encounters at Bolton have finished all square. The last time Wanderers beat Ipswich was in a Premier League game just over 17 years ago.

The other games worth tracking this weekend are matches where playoff contenders play teams that could find themselves relegated if the next few weeks don’t see an upturn in their fortunes. It surprised me to find out exactly how bad WBA‘s record at Millwall has been: admittedly the Baggies haven’t exactly been visitors to Bermondsey in recent years, but they’ve never won at the New Den and you’ve got to go back to April 1987 for their last win at the old Den.

Tomorrow will be Wigan’s fifth game at Ashton Gate since the start of the century but the Latics have only beaten Bristol City once, sixteen years ago. Three of those last five encounters have ended all square and with the hosts not having won at home since mid-February there’s a slight chance that might happen again….although Wigan haven’t won on the road since August and have lost five of their last six away matches.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday. Enjoy the weekend.

GOTW: Leeds v Sheffield United

Well the last week or so was eventful.

Whether Darren Moore’s departure from WBA was a shock or not seemed to depend on how closely you follow the Championship.

If you don’t follow the competition closely, it was a surprise. If you do, it wasn’t – his dismissal clearly falls into the category of ‘You were supposed to win automatic promotion’, which clearly shows how little research the WBA ownership had done. There were some structural issues too: the Baggies’ defence is not quite good enough yet. However, what Moore has now is invaluable: managerial experience at this level. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t heard the last of him.

I’m not going to waste my time recapping what happened at St Andrews last Sunday other than to mention the fact that Sky Sports repeated the incident as often as they possibly could – I’m old enough to remember the likes of Jimmy Hill and Brian Moore stating very clearly that they wouldn’t be showing footage of pitch invasions as it was providing hooligans with the publicity they wanted.

Game of the week is a no-brainer: Leeds v Sheffield United (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 12:30pm) is a Yorkshire derby between the clubs in second and third place who are only separated by two points. There have been four meetings in the league between the local rivals since the turn of the century – and Leeds have only won one of those matches, a single goal win in September 2010.

Other games to keep an eye on: Rotherham v Norwich and Wigan v  Bolton.

Championship involvement in the FA Cup may come to an end this weekend: the two sides left in the competition have home ties against Premier League teams: Swansea v Manchester City (BT Sport 2, 5:20pm) and Millwall v Brighton (BBC1, Sunday 2:00pm)

There’s an international break next weekend, so if it’s at all possible I’ll be back in two weeks.

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.