The Championship is back behind closed doors on 20th June. Gabriel Sutton takes a look at the outright markets and predicts how the promotion race, the Play-Off scramble, and the relegation battle, among other matters, will all pan out.
Title: West Brom
The projected requirement for automatic promotion is 87 points, which sets the bar extremely high for those hoping to chase down Leeds and West Brom.
Unless third-placed Fulham, currently on 64, can amass a remarkable 23 points from an arduous final nine games, which see them not only host Brentford but also travel to Leeds, Nottingham Forest and West Brom, they will be in the play-offs.
For that reason, any late drama at the top of the Championship is likely to be found not in the automatic promotion race, but in the title showdown.
Leeds are the obvious pick – we tipped them for top spot back in pre-season – but their title odds of 2/5 seem a touch slim considering they are only one point above the Albion, who look generously priced at 2/1.
The Baggies boast a brilliant Brazilian in Matheus Pereira, arguably the Championship’s most creative player, a top midfield controller in Romaine Sawyers, and a very athletic centre-back in Semi Ajayi.
Plus, key left-siders Kieran Gibbs and Grady Diangana, who have struggled with injury at times this season, have been back training and are likely to be available along with powerful front-man Kenneth Zohore, which is a huge boost for Slaven Bilic.
🎯 Matty Phillips
🎯 Ken Zohore
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) June 13, 2020
In terms of shot data, Brentford have been the second-best team in the Championship.
The Bees average 1.51 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.85 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 63.98%.
Thomas Frank’s side have scored three or more goals on 13 occasions this season – they even hit seven against Luton – and in Bryan Mbuemo, Ollie Watkins, and Said Benrahma, they possess the division’s most exciting attacking trio.
Unlike previous Brentford sides, though, this one has the physicality and defensive organisation to pick up points when the champagne football is not flowing.
David Raya has had a fantastic debut season between the sticks, the athletic Ethan Pinnock has stepped up superbly after a great 2018-19 League One campaign with Barnsley, while Sweden international and former Leeds captain Pontus Jansson has brought experience and nous.
In midfield, meanwhile, Christian Norgaard dictates from deep as Mathias Jensen pushes deep into the opposing half, retaining possession high up the pitch while Da Silva supports attacks with his athleticism and sweet left foot.
This is Brentford’s last season at Griffin Park and promotion would be a fine way to say goodbye.
— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) June 13, 2020
To make the play-offs: Millwall
In some respects, the interlude came at a bad time for Millwall.
Gary Rowett shuffled the pack for an early March trip to Nottingham Forest and switched from 5-2-3 to 4-2-3-1, incorporating target man Matt Smith who bagged a first-half hat-trick in a 3-0 win.
That victory would likely have given the Lions some momentum for a play-off push, with Preston North End and Bristol City both failing to nail down sixth spot.
In other respects, though, the break might help Rowett, who is working with the smallest squad in the play-off hunt.
Fatigue is now less likely to be a factor in the final nine games, which could suit the Lions – and all of their remaining opponents are currently below them.
The South Bermondsey outfit boast a threatening right-sided combination of the athletic Mahlon Romeo and the direct Jed Wallace, giving opponents double danger on that flank.
Plus, while Bristol City and North End have struggled to establish their best midfield combination, Millwall have had a future Ireland star in terrier Jayson Molumby extend his loan deal from Brighton to partner technical maestro Ryan Woods.
They possess three worthy centre-backs in the experienced Shaun Hutchinson, aerial specialist Jake Cooper, and born leader Alex Pearce, meaning the Londoners have excellent protection for top shot-stopper Bartosz Bialkowski.
I'm missing this! #Millwall
— BermondseyBoy5.0 (@LovelyGeezer65) June 7, 2020
Top half finish: QPR
One of Mark Warburton’s main strengths as a manager is his ability to encourage his players to be brave on the ball, to make bold forward movements, to take risks, to experiment at times, and to believe in their own potential.
Those principles have been important for Queens Park Rangers because, although Ebere Eze was hotly sought after before Warburton’s arrival, 2019-20 has been undoubtedly his most consistent season to date and one that has drastically heightened his value.
Skillful speedster Bright Osayi-Samuel and agile creator Ilias Chair have also had their best seasons at Loftus Road, Ryan Manning has been outstanding at left-back while summer recruit Dominic Ball has enjoyed the best season of his career to date.
QPR are arguably a top-six side in terms of their work going forward, having scored 58 goals – the third-most in the Championship and more than leaders Leeds – with 11 of them scored by Jordan Hugill.
With a favourable sequence of fixtures ahead and technical defender Yoann Barbet hoping to stay fit for the remainder, I expect the Rs to finish the season above their current position of 13th.
To finish bottom: Luton
One of the downsides to winning back-to-back promotions from League Two and League One is that it can be difficult to adjust to Championship level, on and off the field.
Half of Luton Town’s 26-man crop that have featured in the league this term played in the fourth-tier as recently as 2018 – and the task of building a squad to win promotion from League Two is very different from the task of building one to stay in the Championship.
Yes, the availability of holding midfielder Glen Rea and attacking midfielder Izzy Brown would help the Hatters, for whom Nathan Jones returns as manager, but they look short of the types of full-backs required to implement the fiery Welshman’s diamond system effectively.
Barnsley have been posting positive shot data all season – they average 1.26 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.43 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 46.85%, which would rank them 16th in the division in that metric.
Of course, there are reasons why they are currently bottom rather than 16th – raw shooting and naïve defending.
With three wins in their last six games, Alex Mowatt offering midfield tenacity, and Cauley Woodrow improved since moving to the tip of Gerhard Struber’s diamond formation, we expect them to at least avoid propping up the final Championship table.
Bottom 3: Charlton Athletic
Since selling Kamil Grosicki and Jarrod Bowen on January 31st, Hull City have taken a paltry two points from eight games.
They were 13th prior to those deals, 13 points above the drop zone, with the cushion sufficiently big for owner Assem Allam to be content to take a chance.
It made financial sense at the time: West Ham were willing to pay £22 million for Bowen, who was out of contract in the summer and Grosicki, at 31, had little remaining sell-on value.
Mallik Wilks and Marcus Maddison, though, have struggled to replace the star wide forwards and defensively, Hull have looked shambolic.
25 goals have been conceded in the aforementioned eight matches; nine more than any other Championship side.
The injuries to centre-backs Jordy de Wijs and Reece Burke were arguably as problematic as Bowen and Grosicki’s exits – throw in the absence of versatile technician Todd Kane, aggressive right-back Eric Lichaj, and lanky front-man Tom Eaves, and we have seen a toxic mix of problems.
Hull, though, should be in better shape than they were three months ago because De Wijs is back fit along with various other players who would have been out for the season in ordinary circumstances.
Charlton, meanwhile, will be without their best striker, Lyle Taylor, who is refusing to play for fear that another injury would ruin his chances of a bigger move.
Once an Addick….always an Addick ❤️
— Charlton Athletic FC (@CAFCofficial) June 15, 2020
The Addicks will be much weaker without Taylor; they average 1.59 points per game when he starts and 0.6 when he does not.
Macaulay Bonne is full of running and Tomer Hemed is a decent reference point, but neither of those players possess the range of qualities that Taylor has.
Charlton have conservative wing-backs in Adam Matthews and Ben Purrington while their midfield, since Connor Gallagher was recalled by Chelsea in January, has been workmanlike but limited, so without a centre-forward who can produce some individual magic they could be hit hard.
Wigan, who have enjoyed Play-Off form in 2020, have been getting the results their pre-New Year performances hinted at and should get clear of danger – especially with such a strong spine of Leon Balogun and Cedric Kipre’s defensive power, Sam Morsy’s midfield tenacity, and Kieffer Moore’s hold-up play.
Middlesbrough, meanwhile, have conceded just 21 goals in 18 games when Dael Fry and Daniel Ayala have started simultaneously. With those defenders likely to be back fit for Jonathan Woodgate’s side, along with creative forward Patrick Roberts, Boro too have a good chance of beating the drop.
In which case, it could come down to Hull and Charlton battling to stay up – which makes the first fixture of project restart for both look especially intriguing.
Top Goalscorer: Ollie Watkins
When Brentford sold Neal Maupay in the summer, it was unclear how they would replace his goals.
Although the club did add strikers Nikos Karelis and Halil Dervişoğlu, the solution has in fact been found internally.
Watkins had been a wide forward in his first two seasons with the Bees, but Thomas Frank has converted him into a central focal point, scoring 22 goals – 21 of which as a striker – and eight headed efforts including an aerial hat-trick at Barnsley in September.
We’re backing him to pip Aleksandar Mitrovic to the post… the two face one another in the first round of fixtures, which sees Brentford travel to Craven Cottage.