The EFL Championship: Season Preview

The Championship and the challenge for the riches of the Premier League is just a couple of weeks away, with one of the most competitive leagues in the world looking fairly open this year.  The three promoted teams of last season showed that differing approaches work and there is no fool-proof model to follow in challenging for promotion.

There are some big names in the league and there are a number who could realistically challenge for automatic promotion and more who could reach the play-offs.

As part of our preview, we taken a brief look at the chances of all of the sides and made our picks for the season ahead.

 

Challenging for Automatic Promotion:

Aston Villa: The current favourites with the bookies were a massive disappointment on their first season outside of the Premier League, but it’s not difficult to see why they are now favourites for the title.  Steve Bruce may be an unfashionable name but he has a fantastic record at this level (and above) and should have Villa off to a stronger start than last season.  They’ve spent big over the last year, brought in some big names; John Terry being the obvious one to point to, and have a massive squad to see them through the season.  However, the recruitment strategy does look a bit slapdash, based on names rather than need, and if they are reliant on a 36-year-old Terry to get through a 46 game Championship season they could come unstuck at some point.

Fulham: Based on the form of the second half of the season, Fulham were right up there with the best last season should challenge for promotion this year.  Slavisa Jokanovic has proved himself a very good manager at this level and with another pre-season behind him he can potentially push Fulham to the next level.  The squad does look a little sparse so they will need to strengthen again, whilst they will need to replace Chris Martin’s goals, but if they can reach the same levels as last season they will be a force in this division.

Middlesboro: Until last week I wasn’t convinced of their prospects for promotion, but over the last week they have bought well and look a much better prospect for automatic promotion.  I’m still not fully convinced of Garry Monk’s credentials, as I think the job he did at Swansea is often overstated and he looks like a manager who is still learning his trade – although you have to give credit for his work at Leeds.  The past few seasons ‘Boro have struggled for goals but the signings of Patrick Bamford (last season) and Britt Assombalonga should give them goals at this level, whilst the acquisition of Darren Randolph should solve another problematic position.  They’ll be challenging at the top and will have money to spend but they just lack something for me.

Sheffield Wednesday: After play-off disappointment in the past couple of seasons, Wednesday must go down as one of the most consistent sides in the league and should have the potential to challenge for promotion again.  They’ve kept faith with Carlos Carvahal and the stability that brings could take them a long way, whilst they look like a side full of goals with the likes of Jordan Rhodes, Steven Fletcher and Fernando Forestieri.  They look a safe bet for a top six finish.

 

Play-Off Potential:

Derby County: Derby made yet more managerial changes last season and it’s hard not to feel a little schadenfreude due to the lack of patience the chairman shows managers.  Gary Rowett looks like a solid appointment based on his track record and he should have them challenging the top-six, which he’ll have to do to keep his job.  The squad looks good enough to challenge the play-offs and the return of Chris Martin should bring more goals, but they have lost pace and goals in Tom Ince and might just lack a little to challenge for automatic promotion unless they strengthen further.

Leeds United: A season of relative stability last season actually saw Leeds progress and they only just missed out on the play-offs after a late-season drop in form.  Some of that stability disappeared with the defection of Garry Monk to Middlesboro, but after the recent takeover and buy back of Elland Road, Leeds still look to have a lot of positivity around them.  The appointment of Thomas Christiensen will have taken many by surprise and having spent his managerial career in Cyprus, it’s tough to say how he will perform in The Championship.  They’ve spent big, compared to recent years, and look to have strengthened so they won’t be without a chance of challenging but much will depend on how the manager and mostly overseas signings settle.

Norwich City: As one of the favourites for promotion last season they had a disappointing season and have taken a big change in approach off the back of that, appointing a Sporting Director and Head Coach.  The approach has worked elsewhere but you’d have to be concerned of it taking time to bed-in, but they’ll be hoping new Head Coach can follow in the footsteps of his predecessor at Borussia Dortmund, David Wagner, and can make an immediate impact on the Championship.  They should be pushing for the play-offs but look to be missing a bit of quality to challenge any higher at this point.

Reading: Jaap Stam had a fantastic first season in charge and though they overachieved there will be disappointment that they failed to get over the line in the play-offs.  There is a danger that could lead to a hangover this season but Stam looks to be a coach of great promise and he should have them fully prepared for the new season.  They were somewhat reliant on the goals of Kermorgant last season and they’ll need more players to chip in this season, but they’ve made some interesting signings in the close season and should be value to challenge for the play-offs again.

Wolverhampton Wanderers: The departure of Paul Lambert has brought in Nuno Santo, who was last seen at Porto, and further Jorge Mendes clients to the playing squad.  They have spent big money on individuals and they could conceivably challenge the top-six if they can pull it together and the individuals gel as a team, but on the other hand you could also easily see the approach turning into a disaster.  Wolves will be looking for an improvement on the 15th place of last season, which should be more than achievable with their resources but a top ten finish might be more realistic.

 

Mid-Table Safety:

Birmingham City: With one of the strangest and most unsuccessful managerial changes of recent years, The Blues sabotaged their own chances of mounting a promotion challenge and just survived relegation last season.  The somewhat surprising appointment of Harry Redknapp was a success to a certain extent and he has stayed on as manager this season.  He obviously comes with a big reputation but I’m not convinced of his suitability for this level with little recent experience of The Championship and it’s hard to see him sticking around if things aren’t going well.  They should finish higher than last season and if they can get off to a good start they could challenge for the play-offs, but if they hit a poor patch of form you could easily see Redknapp walking as he has done at other clubs and Birmingham having another crisis.

Brentford: Some have criticised the approach used at Brentford but it’s clear to see it has worked in recent years and they now look like a relatively stable Championship club.  I expect more of the same this season with another safe, mid-table season on the cards.  They don’t have the biggest of squads, which could cause problems, but as long as they avoid any injury crises the squad has enough young talent to pick up enough points and cause problems for bigger sides on their day.

Cardiff City: Finished with mid-table safety after a very poor start to the season and, like him or not, Neil Warnock did a great job after he came in, as he generally does at this level.  They look to be in a period of transition and will be looking for some further stability after big changes to the squad.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if Warnock got more out of the squad than he should but a mid-table finish without much drama would rank as a good season for Cardiff.

Hull City: Almost stayed-up under Marco Silva last season but that was a massive overachievement if anything and it’d be a surprise if they could make an immediate return to the Premier League.  Made a surprising managerial appointment in Leonid Slutsky, the ex-CSKA and Russia manager, which could go a number of ways, the most probable being either a massive disaster or inspired in the vein of David Wagner at Huddersfield.  However, they have continued to sell players of late and the squad looks to lack depth.  They may spend late-on or be able to use the Abramovich link-up to secure loan players from Chelsea, but it’s hard to see them finishing better than a squeeze into the play-offs at this point in time.

Nottingham Forest: Survived by the skin of their teeth last season but will now be looking to kick-on under Mark Warburton, who came in late last season.  His reputation might have taken a slight hit in his time at Rangers but their recent performances suggest he might have done better than some first thought.  Forest should be looking for some stability and the opportunity to build with a young squad before pushing on in future seasons.  I expect them to do better than last season but a mid-table finish would be a good result.

 

Bottom Half at Best:

QPR: The spending years’ look to be behind them as there has been an apparent change in approach over the past 18-months or so.  Ian Holloway was a bit of a shock appointment last season and it can hardly be said things ran smoothly, but there were also moments of promise among the runs of poor form.  They have a young looking squad and it could be a bit of a struggle again this season, with home form and confidence key to avoid any long periods of poor form or results.  If things click and they can put a few runs together they may be able to challenge for top-half but a bottom eight finish looks more realistic.

Sheffield United: Finally promoted after a long-period spent trying to get out of League One.  Even if they were one of the bigger clubs in League One, Chris Wilder still did a fantastic job to get them out of the league in such convincing style when so many others had failed to do so before him.  Wilder has been a solid and successful manager in the lower leagues and it could be a challenge at a higher level, but a manager who gets so much confidence out of his teams should be able to get results at a higher level.  The squad might lack a bit of quality for this level and the biggest challenge will be to get Billy Sharp scoring at this level again, but The Blades’ will simply be aiming for survival and should be good enough for that.

Sunderland: They were an absolute shambles under David Moyes last season, and for many more before that, and are a side I think could be in serious danger of successive relegations.  The appointment of Simon Grayson, though not inspiring should at least give them some stability and organisation at this level, but the squad still looks desperately poor and they’ll do well to challenge for the top half.  With parachute payments and player sales they could of course spend big in an attempt for an immediate return, but it’ll be incredibly tough to turn around a club who have had a losing mentality for so long.

 

Relegation Strugglers:

Barnsley: Paul Heckingbottom has done a brilliant job at Barnsley and had them punching above their weight in mid-table last season.  It will be tough for them to repeat that performance and a battle towards the bottom six might be a more realistic expectation unless the manager can get the squad to perform beyond the sum of its parts.

Bolton Wanderers: Promoted at the first time of asking, last season was the first in a long time where Bolton were actually in the ascendancy.  Phil Parkinson was a solid appointment as manager but now he faces a different challenge in keeping Bolton in The Championship, a league in which he has little experience.  The Bolton squad looks to be lacking in both depth and quality at this current time and it will be a struggle to stay in the league, with their chances likely to rely on being well organised and tough to beat.  Bottom six looks likely.

Bristol City: Struggled for large parts of last season but pulled clear after a late surge of form in the final six games of the season.  Judged by the form of last season, they look like a side who are reliant on confidence and will have runs of positive results followed by relatively long-slumps and that could lead to danger in such a competitive league.  They have lost the goals of Tammy Abraham and if they are not replaced, I could easily see The Robins’ in for a long fight against relegation.

Burton Albion: Nigel Clough did an amazing job to keep Burton in the Championship last season, given the massive gulf in budget between them and the rest of the division.  A sensible approach to running a football club has clearly paid off over the years and has given them an increase in resources, but they are still a massive way behind pretty much every other club in the division.  As a model club, it’s sad to say but it is hard to see them surviving and they face another battle to avoid the drop.

Ipswich Town: They won’t win any awards for aesthetically pleasing football but what Mick McCarthy will generally give you is safety at this level.  However, with the quality increasing and evolving in The Championship, the need for something more than being hard to beat is growing and I think Ipswich could be in serious danger of the drop this time.  At times last season they were absolutely dire and the squad looks short of any quality, so unless they secure some late signings or quality loans it will be a big struggle for them in the season ahead.

Millwall: Promoted via the Play-Offs last season they’ll struggle this season with their hopes probably pinned on their home record seeing them over the line to survival.  They lack a bit of quality at this point and the number of goals they conceded last season would be a big concern at a higher level.  They’ll be in the bottom six and anything above third from bottom would be a massive achievement.

Preston North End: Having lost Simon Grayson to Sunderland, there is the fear that the stability of recent years could be undone and a side who have punched above their weight could struggle.  However, the appointment of Alex Neil, who has some experience of the league and is still a manager with potential despite it not quite working out at Norwich, seems promising.  The squad lacks a bit of quality compared to others so they will naturally struggle at times, but if Neil can get them organised they should just avoid the drop.

 

VERDICT: Villa, with the money spent over the past year are worthy favourites and should have the muscle to challenge throughout, however, I just get a feeling that it smacks of chucking money at the problem rather than an actual well though through plan and they could come unstuck.  While the recent recruitment of Middlesboro looks shrewd and the stability of Sheffield Wednesday should take them close.

However, the strongest team in terms of form in the second half of last season were FULHAM and they have a manager who has done consistently well at this level; so if they can push on again they look pretty decent value at the prices on offer.

There are a number of sides who could sneak into contention who aren’t obvious for automatic promotion at first glance, with Norwich perhaps the most interesting based on their change in approach and transfer activity.

In the lower reaches the likes of Burton and Barnsley are the obvious smaller names but they are well-run clubs and could again escape at the expense of those who are more prone to self-destruction.  Bristol City look like a side heavily prone to slumps in form, so the 8/1 for relegation is tempting, but they will perhaps have just enough to pull clear.  However, the style of football on offer and tactics deployed by Ipswich are looking more and more out of date, this in tandem with a weak looking squad means they are looking like very good value at 10/3 for the drop.  Judged on their record last season, Millwall will struggle and also look a good bet for the drop.

 

 

SELECTIONS:

Fulham to Win The Championship @ 10/1 (32Red, Unibet)

Ipswich to Be Relegated @ 10/3 (Bet365)

Millwall to Be Relegated @ 12/5 (Ladbrokes)

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