The new Championship season is nearly upon us and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his 2022/23 season preview, complete with his 1-24 predictions.
Live odds subject to change
Live odds subject to change
Live odds subject to change
Live odds subject to change
Live odds subject to change
Almost everything went right for Middlesbrough and Chris Wilder last season, in more ways than one.
The Boro took 48 points from the 54-year-old’s 29 games in charge, having accrued 22 from the previous 17, though it wasn’t quite enough for a top six berth.
So much of the Teessiders play went through right wing-back Isaiah Jones, who enjoyed an unexpectedly stellar, break-out campaign after a loan at Queen of the South the year before.
Jones gave Middlesbrough searing pace, but also showed dazzling skill whilst having the composure to lift his head up at crucial moments and make the right cut-backs.
The wide combinations of Jones, outside centre-back Anfernee Dijksteel, lanky through ball merchant Matt Crooks and a striker like Andraz Sporar or Aaron Connolly, meant Boro could unhinge opponents on that flank, which was a huge part of their attacking output.
Once teams nullified that side of the pitch, however, Wilder’s side were found wanting for alternative ideas: not having much to offer on the left cost them a top six berth.
That should change this year, with Ryan Giles joining on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Unlike last season’s options, Giles is a genuine wing-back full of attacking intent, capable of bringing direct running to the table, as well as sublime close control and an exquisite standard of deliveries, both from set pieces and open play.
Middlesbrough will have wing-backs stretching the game on either side, meaning more space for midfielders like Crooks, leader Jonny Howson and Riley McGree, who will bring drive and thrust from the middle.
There should also be far more chances created for Boro’s strikers, with quality loans expected late in the window: Fulham’s Rodrigo Muniz has been linked – watch out for the bicycle kicks if he joins.
At the other end, Blackburn recruit Darragh Lenihan is a strong, aggressive centre-back who can help Boro to many clean sheets, along with on-loan Man City goalkeeper Zack Steffen – he’s a regular for the United States.
The direction of the ball might change this season, but Middlesbrough’s place in the standings could stay the same all season.
“He won’t be judged on results” claimed Sheffield United’s board, when Paul Heckingbottom was given a five-year contract as the club’s curiously named ‘Football Manager’.
Despite this, ‘Hecky’ has certainly delivered them, after inheriting a side that was underperforming under Slaviša Jokanović.
From his late November appointment, the Blades accrued fewer points only than Play-Off finalists Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest, more than automatic promotees Fulham and Bournemouth.
The S2 outfit earnt a top six berth thanks to that stark turnaround, but a Semi-Final defeat to Forest leaves them hoping they can extrapolate the form over a full campaign, whilst continuing to develop youth.
The latter would explain why 10 players have permanently left Bramall Lane this summer and three have joined: the club intends to develop the likes of Under-23s title-winning defender of 2020-21 Kyron Gordon, multipurpose Malian midfielder Ismaila Coulibaly and striker Daniel Jebbison.
The latter became the youngest ever player to start on his first Premier League start in 2020-21 and has since impressed on loan at Burton Albion: with height, pace and finishing ability, the 18-year-old is one to watch.
Midfielder Tommy Doyle, forward Reda Khadra and Ciaran Clark arrive on-loan, while fellow centre-back Anel Ahmedhodžić joins on a permanent deal.
Doyle is an all-action, box-to-box type, who will aid Heckingbottom’s subtle evolution of this Blades side from the patient triangles witnessed under Wilder, to something more vertical and incisive.
Clark, meanwhile, brings experience to defensive ranks while Ahmedhodžić is a regular for Bosnia and Herzegovina, so injuries to Chris Basham and John Egan won’t be quite so problematic as last year, while there’s less pressure on Jack O’Connell’s return.
Khadra, meanwhile, is direct, explosive and capable of a fierce effort from outside the box: he will have learnt a lot from a promising first senior loan at Blackburn last season.
With a midfield of John Fleck, Oli Norwood and Sander Berge, everything is in place for a top two tilt: it’s a pity Hecky won’t be judged on results…
From his late November appointment, the Blades accrued fewer points only than Play-Off finalists Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest, more than automatic promotees Fulham and Bournemouth.Gab Sutton
Many outsiders sneer at the thought of Watford fans getting excited about a new head coach.
The club has changed boss seven times since Javi Gracia left in September 2019, and while other clubs have been trigger-happy, it’s the story around the Hornets that seems to stick.
It could be argued that CEO Scott Duxbury and others deserve as much criticism for choices of manager, as propensity to let them go.
The club must have appointed Vladimir Ivić, for example, with full knowledge that he was an obvious disciplinarian, yet the Serb wasn’t backed over the players when it came to the crunch.
Xisco Muñoz was the opposite of Ivić in terms of man management, but took six weeks to work out that playing Ismaïla Sarr in his best position was more important than starting Andre Gray and Troy Deeney simultaneously.
It hasn’t since worked out with Claudio Ranieri or Roy Hodgson either, but the board hope they have landed English football’s next hot managerial property in Rob Edwards.
The 39-year-old won the League Two title with Forest Green Rovers, but the bigger factor behind his appointment is his reputation at youth level, having previously done excellent work with Wolves Under-23s, as well as leading England Under-16s and coaching the Under-20s.
Edwards will be looking to implement a progressive 3-4-1-2, with extremely attacking wing-backs and a pressing number 10, but the personnel at Vicarage Road is not a perfect fit after a slow summer.
The Hornets are short of three main ingredients: a quick right centre-back strong in one-on-ones, a technical right wing-back who is as confident attacking the outside as venturing infield and a ball-carrying midfielder like Cagliari’s Nahitan Nández, who was linked earlier in the summer.
The good news for Edwards is that, even if Watford are unrefined in the first half of the season, his side will have the individual quality to carry them through.
Withdrawn forward João Pedro is a prodigious talent and almost certain to stay, deep-lying playmaker Imran Louza is ready to scrap for the ‘Orns too, while it’s likely at least one of Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis will remain.
With the right final third progression, a trio of Sarr, Dennis and Pedro is capable of destroying this league, but it might not all amalgamate straight away.
If it doesn’t, the key is the boss. Unlike some of his predecessors, Edwards has outstanding people skills which will allow him to connect with the fanbase and manage upwards, keeping everything together during the rockier spells.
Contrary to popular opinion, Edwards could be the one at Watford who just might stick…
Continual progression over multiple seasons is the ultimate test of EFL managers, and Mark Robins has passed it with the flying colours of Sky Blue.
So many bosses serve an initial purpose, then get found wanting for alternative ideas, but Robins has kept things fresh throughout.
From the gritty template to get out of League Two to counter-attacking in League One, then the expansive 3-4-2-1 that won them the title at that level, right through to pragmatism in comfortably keeping Coventry in the Championship and the high-press earnt his side a top half finish, the former striker adjusts to the needs of every season.
At 52, he gets overlooked for bigger jobs where those 10 years younger might be considered, but that means the Midlanders have dugout stability on their side, as they target another year of progress.
Coventry might not have been hugely active in the transfer market, yet that’s partly a reflection of the fact Gus Hamer, Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres are still in situ – at the time of writing, it’d take a mammoth offer for either to leave.
Hamer’s technical brilliance, O’Hare’s relentless pressing and Gyokeres’ all-round centre-forward play make the trio three of the best players in the Championship: they will have a huge say in Cov’s chances.
Robins has strengthened in the loan market, with defenders Jonathan Panzo and Callum Doyle arriving from Nottingham Forest and Manchester City respectively – both offer excellent ball-playing qualities – while Crystal Palace’s Tayo Adaramola is expected to come in imminently.
If Adaramola offers more attacking thrust from left wing-back than Coventry had last season, allied with Fankaty Dabo’s all-round reliability on the right, they’ll continue to create chances.
The Sky Blues were the joint-sixth highest goalscorers in the league in 2021-22 but could easily bag more once O’Hare adds finishing to his repertoire, while Gykores is likelier to improve on last season’s 17-league goal haul than see his numbers drop off.
Everything’s trending upwards for Coventry. Clear skies lie ahead.
Millwall are the Championship’s specialists in solidity.
In Gary Rowett’s 125 league games as manager, the Lions have conceded no goals or one on 88 occasions.
Charlie Cresswell should enhance that defensive doggedness: the England Under-21s international arrives on loan from Leeds with rave reviews, while Jake Cooper, Shaun Hutchinson and Murray Wallace bring the knowhow.
Goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski’s stunning 138 consecutive starts reflects the reliability of Rowett’s rear-guard, so the South Bermondsey outfit’s Play-Off prospects will be decided further forward.
Jed Wallace departs for West Brom on a free and the inside forward’s individual magic was often crucial to deciding tight, low-margin games: replacing the 28-year-old was task numero uno for Rowett and co.
The management team hope to have emphatically ticked off that objective with the signing of Zian Flemming, for £1.6M up front, from Fortuna Sittard.
Billed as quick, intelligent, technical, strong in the air, proficient from set pieces and selfless enough to work for the team, Flemming has all the ingredients to thrive in tandem with Benik Afobe.
The Congolese striker found a home at the Den last year and brings a physical presence to the attack, as well as finishing: 12 goals in 2021-22 was a decent return for the 29-year-old.
With energetic midfielders George Honeyman and Jamie Shackleton coming in to augment the tough-tackling of homegrown hero Billy Mitchell, Millwall can operate with a higher press this year which could spark an even more raucous atmosphere at the Den.
Roared on by ardent support, Millwall will be aggressive, unified and, in their bid for a top six berth, intend to give nothing away. Really, the clue is in that second syllable.
When Russ Martin first arrived at Swansea, he had just five days to equip his side for the new season. This time around? 84.
Preparation is everything for any manager, but perhaps especially one who employs extreme, possession-heavy methods.
There were some initial teething problems last year but from early February, only Fulham and Nottingham Forest scored more goals than Martin’s side, thanks to a devastating front-three.
A trio from agile creator Jamie Paterson, powerful technician Oli Ntcham, left-footed finisher Joel Piroe and athletic striker Michael Obafemi combined seamlessly, with Piroe sometimes accommodating the latter by operating on the right.
Those forwards should be even more productive, now the Swans are likely to be better versed when it comes to progressing into the final third.
Harry Darling, picked from MK Dons and Matthew Sorinola, on loan from Union SG, have both played under Martin before with much success.
Darling will be essentially a Championship version of Thomas Vermaelen, while Sorinola is an agile wing-back: the 21-year-old weaving in and out challenges is fun to watch.
Harvey White is heavily linked with a move on loan from Tottenham and, captain of their Under-23s, should bring leadership as well as talent in midfield, next to Matt Grimes, although another playmaking stalwart, Joe Allen, is now back in the mix as well while 18-year-old Cameron Congreve has starred in pre-season.
With Middlesbrough recruit Nathan Wood and long-serving Kyle Naughton amplifying that fine blend of youth and experience in defence, this team is ready to make huge strides.
Tiki-taka wheels are in motion. The Swansea Way is back. Last season was about getting used to Martin’s methods – now it’s time to deliver.
In Gary Rowett’s 125 league games as manager, the Lions have conceded no goals or one on 88 occasions.Gab Sutton
Norwich’s prospects are not quite as they might seem to the casual observer.
Back-to-back 20th-placed Premier League finishes were entwined with successive Championship titles, so many outsiders assume the Canaries will blitz the second tier for a third time running.
Back in 2020-21, however, the club responded to relegation by freshening up the squad with 10 first team signings, something they could afford because outlay had been nominal the previous summer.
This time around, the Norfolk outfit had spent approximately £53M in transfer fees for equally doomed top flight efforts, thus scope for renovation is more limited.
City have taken a huge risk, therefore, in putting their transfer market eggs in the basket of Gabriel Sara, for a reported £11M up front, from São Paulo.
The potential rewards are obvious: the 23-year-old is a highly-rated number eight who loves a first-time pass and a cheeky backheel as well as being a workhorse not shy to a dual – who knows what he could become?
Not only must the Brazilian acclimatize to a new continent, however, he is also fighting to get fully fit after ankle surgery in May: if fitness was to become a problem for Sara, it’s hard to see where fresh impetus could come from for Norwich with little left in the budget.
The only other addition has been Isaac Hayden, on loan from Newcastle, as manager Dean Smith seeks a stronger, tougher midfield.
Those qualities should be in evidence in central defence, where Smith will have to leave out one of 2020-21’s champions, Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson due to the talents of Andrew Omobamidele – he’ll be one to watch this year.
Speedy right-back Max Aarons, consistent Championship midfielder Kenny McLean, advanced creator Todd Cantwell and hardworking striker Teemu Pukki are remaining in Norfolk, having been key parts of previous title wins.
Left-backs Dimitris Giannoulis and Jacob Sørensen plus physical striker Jordan Hugill also helped the Canaries win the league two years ago and are out to make history repeat itself.
Elsewhere, inside forward Danel Sinani could be like a new signing after an impressive year at Huddersfield, while there’s hope that last year’s attacking gambles, Josh Sargent and Milot Raschica, come pay off at a lower level.
If rejuvenation can come from youngsters like midfield all-rounder Liam Gibbs, energetic forward Tony Springett and Jonny Rowe (let’s have a go), then maybe a third consecutive triumph at this level is on.
That’s a lot of pressure on kids stepping up from a successful Under-23s, though and there’s a perceived void of upstairs leadership.
For Smith to deliver a top six berth, he’ll need to channel his Walsall experience in managing a club as well as a team.
Perhaps relegation was what it took to shake Burnley out of a malaise.
11 of the 37 first team signings in the Premier League era were players in their 30s and it may be that Sean Dyche was such a reliable survival expert, that they rarely felt the need to think outside the box.
Dyche’s departure draws a successful era at Turf Moor to a close, but it begins a potentially exciting one under Vincent Kompany, if the Manchester City legend is as savvy a tactician as he is compelling a motivator.
Kompany didn’t exactly pull up trees at Anderlecht – on paper at least – with third and fourth-placed finishes, but it was a rebuilding stage for the Belgian giants and the former defender was popular with natives.
Now closer to his Manchester-based family, ‘Vinny’ intends to kick his managerial career into life with the Clarets, who seek a younger look after the seven-year top flight stay came to an end.
Taylor Harwood-Bellis might only be 20 but is already Championship proven, although a centre-back combination involving him and Oxford recruit Luke McNally may miss some organisational guidance.
Kompany knows all about incoming Josh Cullen, a midfield controller who excelled with RSCA, while Scott Twine looks ready for the step up: it was a staggering 33 League One goal involvements for the agile wide forward at MK Dons last year.
One question regards formation: 4-2-2-2 could be great in theory, if Twine, Maxwel Cornet, Dwight McNeil and Josh Brownhill dovetail as hoped, but the press will have to be on-point, so Josh Cullen and Samuel Bastien aren’t stretched on wide turnovers.
Kompany has excellent depth at his disposal in full-back positions, though and hopes goalkeeper Aro Muric fares better than in his last stint in the Championship, with Nottingham Forest.
The direction Burnley are moving in is exciting, and they could dish out a few hidings – but this shift towards youth may also lose them elements of the consistency and knowhow required to do it over 46 games.
A new era is afoot at Hull City.
Acun Ilıcalı, dubbed the “Turkish Simon Cowell”, appears to have the money and ambition to get the Tigers roaring, as well as the footballing background to know both the importance of what he’s protecting and what makes fans tick.
Six first-team additions have been made by late-July, the most notable of which being Jean-Michel Seri, who started 26 league games for title-winners Fulham the year before.
Seri is an excellent controller, but the task for the HU3 club will be to ally the Ivorian’s graceful, technical assurance with a touch of bite and grit.
Do that and the Tigers can run games, especially if Ozan Tufan comes good. The 27-year-old struggled with the pace of the Premier League in his four league starts for Watford, so it’s all about building a level of fitness that will allow him to show the quality that got him 65 games for Turkey.
Allahyar Sayyadmanesh won’t struggle with the pace, though: the 21-year-old presses relentlessly from the front, he’ll chase back and challenge if needed, he’s always stretching the line, is decent in the air but, to go with the raw fundamentals, he also has a trick or two up his sleeve.
Sayyadmanesh’s showings at the back-end of last season suggests he’s ready to rock the Championship, while fellow forwards Óscar Estupiñán, Benjamin Tetteh and Doğukan Sinik hope to do likewise.
Estupiñán hit 15 in the Primeira Liga (Portuguese top flight) last season, heading in more than Liverpool-bound Darwin Nunez, while Tetteh is 6’4”.
Once Hull control the central areas, therefore, they’ll look to work it wide to Lewie Coyle and Brandon Fleming, who will aim for the first-time cross to Estupiñán or Tetteh to utilize their aerial strength.
Sinik, meanwhile, is a replacement for star forward Keane Lewis-Potter in terms of position rather than goalscoring output – just four in 110 for Antalyaspor – but the other homegrown hero is staying on.
Amid the exotic additions, left centre-back Jacob Greaves gives Hull a sense of identity: he has the same gritty instincts as father Mark did when playing for City, but far more ball-playing quality, like middle centre-back Sean McLoughlin and even goalkeeper Nathan Baxter, who returns on loan from Chelsea.
If it all clicks quickly, the Tigers could be a serious force with their audacious recruitment, but the jury is still out on manager Shota Arveladze.
While Play-Off hopefuls elsewhere are adding finishing touches to last season’s template, Hull are almost starting from scratch.
Three British Prime Ministers have resigned since Luton last finished a season lower than the one before.
And, if the Hatters were to build on their highest finish since 1992, they’d contend for automatic promotion, following last year’s Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Huddersfield.
Nathan Jones’ side hope to be stronger, too. Everyone they wanted to keep – except perhaps 30-year-old defender Kal Naismith – is still at Kenilworth Road, while Jones has strengthened his squad further with seven senior additions.
One of them is Carlton Morris, who’s arrival takes some of the burden off Elijah Adebayo, who had an outstanding first full season at the Kenny, scoring 16 goals in 40 league games as well as working tirelessly from the front and bringing others in.
Adebayo could rarely be rested or rotated last year, though, because the alternative was veteran Cameron Jerome: an excellent pro but capable of less physically at 35 than he used to be.
With Morris coming in to bring fresh energy, athleticism and back-to-goal play, Jones can shuffle the attacking pack this time around, so those facing his side will have no breathing room.
The Bedfordshire outfit possess a reliable core including all-action midfielder Allan Campbell, technical right-back James Bree and athletic left-back Amari’i Bell – who could also play on the left of a back-three depending on formation.
There’s every chance Alfie Doughty can thrive as a wing-back like the direct wide man did for Charlton at the start of his EFL career, while goalkeeper Ethan Horvath looks a promising loan recruit from Nottingham Forest.
Getting midfield stalwart Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and defender Gabriel Osho back fit will be like new signings in themselves – and who knows whether Carlos Mendes Gomes can come good in his second season?
What Luton are missing is a sprinkling of genius between the lines: Jones’ excellent coaching allows them to put opponents under pressure for long spells, but sometimes when they don’t carve teams open, their output from outside the box can leave something to be desired.
Recruits Cauley Woodrow and Luke Freeman hope to change that, but the former endured a tough end to his time at Barnsley while the latter hasn’t played regularly for three years.
Jones favours permanent signings – he didn’t make a single loan addition last year – which has been ideal for sustainable squad building and contributing to the depth they now have.
Loans, though, would give Luton an elite level of quality that they are otherwise unable to afford and if they forego that market, Horvath aside, this season might be slightly harder than the last.
All in all, it’s a great time to be Luton fan – they’re in at number 10.
Queens Park Rangers
“It would take me 15 to 20 years to become as good as Michael Beale as an on-pitch coach”, Steven Gerrard said of his former Rangers assistant.
Now leading QPR, Beale intends to take his esteemed reputation in coaching circles into senior management.
The 41-year-old inherits steady foundations thanks to the work of Mark Warburton, who ultimately wasn’t quite the man the Rs need to achieve a top six berth, but who contributed significantly towards progress.
Warburton played a huge role in the development of magician Chris Willock and agile technician Ilias Chair, who could dovetail delightfully in the two attacking midfield roles in Beale’s 4-3-2-1.
In that system, though, full-backs must provide an attacking thrust: Kenneth Paal, recruited from PEC Zwolle, will bring quality, including deliveries for target man Lyndon Dykes, who is hoping this season will be more like his first at Loftus Road than second.
It’s a similar story for Seny Dieng, who starred in 2020-21 before seeing the following campaign affected slightly by injury, but could be one of the best goalkeepers in the league if he can regain prior form.
Jake Clarke-Salter is a fine addition in defence, meanwhile and at 24, the former England Under-20s World Cup winner has plenty of time to show why he was so highly thought of at youth level, under Beale’s guidance.
Clarke-Salter is capable of forging one of the best centre-back pairings in the division with Rob Dickie, but more is needed in midfield, even if deep-lying playmaker Andre Dozzell kicks on: Luke Amos, Sam Field and Stefan Johansen are all injury prone.
Beale has taken the unusual step of naming a specific target for the season, citing a top half finish as a minimum expectation: make the right final additions and that’s well within their range.
It’s taken some time, but Bristol City are back trending upwards once again.
At the end of a promising but streaky Lee Johnson era, an alarming plummet out of Play-Off contention in 2019-20 was followed by a 2020-21 in which City were lucky the bar for comfortable survival was so low, so with debt mounting, last season could have been an awkward one.
Instead, the Severnsiders scored the most goals outside the top six: strong end of season form allowed them to go into the summer and beyond with optimism.
Chris Martin remains a nuanced chest and feet reference point, skilful Antoine Semenyo dazzles around the box to provide for Andreas Weimann, who has added goals to his impeccable work ethic – 22 last year.
On top of that, Bristol City now have the prospect of League Two’s 2021-22 Player of the Year, Kane Wilson, dovetailing seamlessly at right wing-back with fellow recruit Mark Sykes, who’s selfless energy may complement the former’s skilful inverted forays.
The picture looks rosy: more so if box-to-box dynamo Joe Williams stays fit and fellow midfielder Alex Scott builds on his European Championship triumph with England Under-19s, while Matty James offers the more experienced option.
Progression looks likely, the extent of it being dependent on defensive improvement: City can’t get away with shipping 77 this time around.
Nigel Pearson hopes to have addressed the issues by adding Kal Naismith from Play-Off Semi-Finalists Luton, in hope that the versatile Scot can bring organisational qualities, along with veteran Timm Klose – and 6’3” Rob Atkinson may go well after a year to adjust.
A top half finish would be a huge stride forward for City, especially if they use this season to refine assets and leave their balance in a healthier place next summer.
If it all clicks quickly, the Tigers could be a serious force with their audacious recruitment, but the jury is still out on manager Shota Arveladze.Gab Sutton
West Bromwich Albion
Six years of chronic mismanagement on from when Lai Guochuan first bought West Brom for a reported £200M, the club would now be worth an estimated £60M on the open market.
Guochuan and company have already lost a lot of money in the Albion through poor recruitment and a lack of strategic foresight: more of that and the club is only going in one direction, in both value and league performance.
Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Ltd have put their faith in two experienced footballing people, CEO Ron Gourlay and manager Steve Bruce, hoping they can steady the ship.
Gourlay, however, was unpopular at Reading – to put it mildly – and while Bruce’s last six years in management have not exactly been a failure, his stock is not as high as it was.
Financial constraints mean the squad overhaul that some fans desire is impractical, although it’s hard to argue with individual signings.
John Swift and Jed Wallace were Reading and Millwall’s respective creators-in-chief for much of the last half-decade – both arrive on frees, vying to bring buoyancy back to the Baggies.
Yokuşlu is another free transfer: he aims to do more than Okay, having impressed at the Hawthorns in 2020-21 with his tenacious, ball-winning qualities.
Yokuşlu’s ball-playing capabilities are limited, though and Alex Mowatt’s best ever season came in a Barnsley team that didn’t have to pass.
Especially when Semi Ajayi is absent from central defence, therefore, John Swift may have to drop deep to collect the ball, which in turn risks making it harder for him to influence things in the final third.
If West Brom can keep Daryl Dike fit and the ball sticks to the physical striker, then maybe they can get Swift and Wallace involved in the right areas often enough to improve on last season.
If Dike’s injury troubles resurface, however, or if Bruce doesn’t start him, then Albion’s ball-progression issues may limit them, because going long won’t be a viable option: Karlan Grant is a goalscorer but he’s not a focal point…
Preston North End
From Ryan Lowe’s December appointment, a PNE side that had been languishing in 19th had a return bettered by just seven divisional competitors.
The Liverpudlian has lit a fire within this part of Lancashire, not just with his passionate, engaging approach, but also the stylistic shift.
North End had accrued some smash-and-grab results under Frankie McAvoy but it never felt sustainable, and while Lowe has not changed formation from 3-5-2, the application of it was far more attacking.
As opposed to three sitting midfielders, the Lilywhites now have two pressing number eights – often in Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne, although the energetic Ryan Ledson is also in the mix while Ben Woodburn has now joined from Liverpool – and one coolly cultured quarter-back in Ben Whiteman.
Johnson brings the advanced creativity, Browne the energy, drive and vigour, while Whiteman conducts play with delightful assurance: he can turn an opponent and land a ball on a sixpence 50-yards away.
Lowe is big on converting attacking players into wing-back roles, having done so with Nicky Adams at Bury and George Cooper at Plymouth Argyle: after signing from Bournemouth, Robbie Brady will bring elite quality at left wing-back – however, the athletic Alvaro Fernandez joins on loan from Manchester United to provide competition.
Plus, while McAvoy had favoured a more conservative option in Sepp van den Berg at right wing-back, Lowe shifted the Liverpool loanee to right centre-back, deploying either Brad Potts or Ali McCann further forward.
Lowe’s sides are quite simply designed to create a high-volume of clear cut chances and while Emil Riis Jakobsen did not benefit from this as greatly as expected, being the type who likes to carve out his own individualistically, the style did get the best out of Cameron Archer.
The on-loan Aston Villa striker impressed with seven goals in 20 appearances and has been replaced by Troy Parrott, who hopes this is the year he converts a great reputation at youth level into senior football, after showing some promise in League One with MK Dons.
Van den Berg must also be replaced however, while another right wing-back is required.
Make the right three additions and PNE could challenge for the Play-Offs with one of the best managers in the league, but there’s two major caveats.
Firstly, North End have just 21 senior players to date: this wouldn’t be problematic for clubs that train their youngsters in an Under-23s, but might for one without a Development Squad.
Secondly, it’s not obvious where the fresh investment will come from in a transitional time for the club at ownership level, so loan market brilliance would be a necessity rather than a bonus.
Even with Lowe, midtable might be the best they can do.
The previous two Decembers have seen Stoke occupying a top six berth, yet on both occasions, New Year form has seen them slump to 14th.
Manager Michael O’Neill may point to injuries to goalkeeper Josef Bursik, commanding centre-back Harry Souttar, technician Mario Vrancic, creator Nick Powell and speedy forward Tyrese Campbell – with that quintet fit for the whole of last season, it could have been a different story.
The Northern Irishman, who led his nation to the round of 16 at Euro 2016, has changed formation a lot in the Potteries, however, and been unable to establish a clear style of play in two-and-a-half seasons in charge.
That must change, now midfielders Gavin Kilkenny and Will Smallbone join on loan from Bournemouth and Southampton respectively: the former loves to switch play from deep, while the latter is a creative, spirited number eight with an eye for goal.
Kilkenny and Smallbone will be looking to fashion chances for Tyrese Campbell, if the speedy forward can find fitness again, and Dwight Gayle, who signs on a free from Newcastle: the poacher has had three Championship seasons in his career, hitting or exceeding the 20-goal mark each time.
The concern is style, after O’Neill deployed 33-year-old Aden Flint and 39-year-old Phil Jagielka as part of his back-three simultaneously in pre-season.
Try to play out from the back? Jagielka at 39 is at risk of losing his balance and misplacing passes, a problem Derby encountered last season.
Push right wing-back Liam McCarron high up the pitch? It won’t take a peak Mourinho on the opposition bench to work out that a quick, inside forward on the left can relish several one-on-one situations against Flint.
If O’Neill prioritizes experience above all else in defence, he risks entrapping himself in a tactical no-man’s land whereby any progressive blueprint means self-destruction at the back.
Stoke have a good squad, though including some talented, younger defenders like Souttar, Harry Clarke – on loan from Arsenal – Ben Wilmot and Connor Taylor, each of whom being happier than the veterans in a high-line.
If attacking left wing-back Josh Tymon, midfield all-rounder Lewis Baker and relentless running front-man Jacob Brown all kick on, potential for a top six tilt is there.
It may not happen this season, though, or under the existing regime.
The most successful managers in Sunderland’s history have had little time for platitudes.
From Bob Stokoe to Denis Smith, from Peter Reid to Mick McCarthy or Roy Keane to Sam Allardyce: all of them straight-talkers who called a spade, a spade.
It’s the same with Alex Neil, who replaced Lee Johnson in February and was an instant hit with Wearsiders, who feel they have the man to lead them into a bright, new era.
Things are always bright at the Stadium of Light when Ross Stewart is around: the 6’5” centre-forward was the best in League One last year, bringing goalscoring nous, a fine work ethic and surprising mobility for his height.
After hitting 24 third-tier goals, the “Loch Ness Drogba” is out to make a splash in the Championship and could be worth eight-figures next summer, likewise centre-back Daniel Ballard, who signs from Arsenal after an outstanding loan at Millwall.
The capture of Ballard, plus left-footed defender Aji Alese from West Ham and winger/wing-back Jack Clarke, all on long-term contracts, shows Sunderland are making excellent investments for the future.
The aforementioned trio, plus goalkeeper Anthony Patterson, left-back Dennis Cirkin, midfield creator Dan Neil and dynamo Jay Matete are good enough, too, for the here-and-now.
Leading the way, meanwhile, are Bailey Wright, Danny Batth, Corry Evans and even arguably Luke O’Nien: the spirited utility man has been at it in pre-season – he even had Roma boss Jose Mourinho demanding his dismissal!
Talk of another promotion is a little extreme, though. The Black Cats didn’t exactly dominate League One games under Neil, they were just better at getting on the right side of them.
If it took late goals to unconvincingly beat relegated Crewe and Gillingham, for instance, they’re probably not ready to compete with the best at this level just yet.
Sunderland have more than enough in their armoury to secure a safe, midtable finish, then make a lot of money in 2023 off one or two of Ballard, Alese, Cirkin, Clarke, Neil and Stewart, which might help them to push on further.
It’s a two-stage process: the first is consolidation.
Steve Morison yielded midtable form out of a side that had just lost eight in succession last season.
It was a solid 7/10 job from the 38-year-old, stepping up from being Academy Manager, and the former target man is well deserving of his chance to reshape the squad in his image.
That reshaping has included parting with a lot of Championship experience: Leandro Bacuna, Aden Flint, Josh Murphy, Marlon Pack, Alex Smithies and Will Vaulks have made a combined 1,497 appearances in the top two divisions.
None of those players are huge losses individually, though, and the likes of midfield dynamo Andy Rinomhota, controller Romaine Sawyers and winger Callum O’Dowda are reasonably seasoned at this level.
The stand-out recruit could be Jamilu Collins: the Nigerian left-sided defender, billed as a tough-tackle who can dribble, was a fan favourite at SC Paderborn.
There should be creativity, too, to aid the stylistic shift under Morison: successful sides of previous eras have been big, ugly set piece specialists, but with Sawyers and Ryan Wintle in midfield, that image should change.
With 20-year-old former England Under-20s winger Jaden Philogene joining on loan from Aston Villa, hoping to build on a mixed first senior loan at Stoke, the big question lies up top.
Max Watters can finish while Mark Harris is a willing runner as a second striker, but both will struggle to occupy defenders in the same way Uche Ikpeazu and Jordan Hugill did in their loan stints in the second half of last season.
Get the right centre-forwards in and Cardiff may build on their progress under Morison, yet it remains to be seen whether the combined quality of their recruitment matches up to the quantity.
The squad is ever so slightly imbalanced, too. Perry Ng is an outstanding right-back yet he won’t play there, otherwise the club wouldn’t have signed Vontae Daley-Campbell and Mahlon Romeo, and using the 5’11” technician as a centre-back puts Cardiff at risk of aerial bombardment.
After such a huge overhaul, a continuation of last year’s midtable form under Morison should be the target: Play-Off hopes would be a touch fanciful.
Leam Richardson is untouchable in these parts.
What’s most impressive about the 42-year-old’s work as Latics chief, after serving successfully as Paul Cook’s assistant previously, is that he’s done two very different jobs in the same stint, both incredibly well.
At first it was a firefighting mission: with no structure, clarity or reassurances, Richardson had to work with a skeleton staff to hold the club together, and tread water with a tiny squad – the Latics, incredibly, stayed in League One.
Talal Al-Hamad’s takeover meant the West Lancashire club could go into 2021-22 in a far healthier situation and from there, Richardson inspired them to promotion ahead of schedule.
The signings of ball-playing defender Jack Whatmough, driven utility man Max Power and ball-winner Tom Naylor among others proved crucial to the ‘Tics title triumph, while Callum Lang and Will Keane kicked on from the year before.
Lang is a lively forward who has more than earnt his shot at this level, while Keane top-scored with 27 last year as well as bringing excellent link-up play.
Wigan will rely on the incredible togetherness Richardson has cultivated, because they don’t have players who have thrived at this level before – all-action left-sider James McClean aside – nor are they a young squad likely to rapidly grow with the step up.
Right-back Ryan Nyambe is a good signing from Blackburn – the 24-year-old already has 183 Championship games under his belt – but it’s the spirit of the collective that will keep Wigan heads above water.
Blackburn haven’t been the Championship’s most proactive club this summer.
Manager Tony Mowbray was reportedly given little notice as to the club’s plan not to offer him a new contract, other than the very absence of that offer.
Jon Dahl Tomasson has since replaced Mowbray, having just twice won the Allsvenskan with Malmö FF, but incoming activity has been slow for a club that lost 17 players including three loanees.
In fact, Ethan Walker signed from PNE in the only addition by late-July. The 19-year-old is not expected to go straight into the first team straight away: not everyone can do a Tyrhys Dolan.
The second signing was Callum Brittain, who looks a steady recruit from Barnsley: the energetic right wing-back was outstanding at this level in 2020-21, although his final product is hit-and-miss.
Moving in the other direction, though, are Darragh Lenihan and Ryan Nyambe to Middlesbrough and Wigan respectively, while the big question is over Ben Brereton Diaz.
The Chile international, who bagged 22 Championship goals last season, is out of contract in 2023 and Rovers may feel they have to grab at any late offers that come his way.
If ‘BBD’ were to depart, the Lancashire club would be left short of a go-to spine, barring reliable goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski and cultured left-footed defender Scott Wharton plus all-action midfielder Lewis Travis and creative number eight John Buckley.
Wharton, Travis and Buckley have all come out of the academy, one of the country’s best and something Blackburn may lean on this season, especially if striker Jack Vale can build on his pre-season promise.
A fit Dilan Markanday – compared stylistically to Riyad Mahrez – could make a difference, while committed right-back James Brown may step up in his first full season after signing from Drogheda United: he almost has to, now Nyambe has gone.
Rovers don’t have many proven performers in their ranks and, even if they thrive in the loan market, would do well to finish midtable.
Chances rest on whether the tight, reliable core can stay consistent for the whole campaign, and whether Tomasson can get the best out of lesser-established talents.
When perusing the handbook to a successful EFL campaign, there’s no chapter on losing the head coach in the same month as the season opener.
Carlos Corberán inspired Huddersfield to a Play-Off finish last season, when many had tipped them for a relegation struggle, but the Spaniard was reportedly unhappy with the lack of subsequent financial backing.
The decision to replace Corberán with Danny Schofield may be down to preference for an internal appointment to minimize disruption as much, cynics might say, as the credentials of the B Team coach himself.
Theoretically, had Huddersfield endured a poor season last year and Corberán been dismissed in May, would the club have gone for Schofield?
They might have done, but it’s likelier they would’ve taken more time to consider external options, so it’s possible Town aren’t starting this season on their own terms.
It looks an awkward campaign in prospect for the Terriers, who have lost key men Harry Toffolo and Lewis O’Brien to Nottingham Forest as well as last year’s key loanees, Levi Colwill and Danel Sinani.
Yuta Nakayama, David Kasumu and Jack Rudoni are the pick of the signings: Nakayama is a ball-player who impressed at PEC Zwolle, while box-to-box Kasumu and left-footed technician Rudoni have earnt a crack at this level after two good years in League One.
There is, though, a dearth of peak-age performers who are playing the best football of their careers. Eight members of the senior squad are aged 28 or above, 10 are 23 or under, leaving just four in the middle category.
Of those, Nakayama is settling into a new country, Will Boyle has only played two games at this level previously, while Connor Mahoney and Rolando Aarons have featured in 30 league games in the last two years between them.
It’s unlikely that all the older octet match last year’s high standards. For instance, 33-year-old Hogg will struggle to start every game yet when he doesn’t play, who can talents Kasumu, Jon Russell, Tino Anjorin and Scott High look to for stability and knowhow?
Schofield may prove an inspired appointment, but there’s little existing evidence to suggest that. The 42-year-old has neither a glittering coaching background nor experience in senior management, barring two caretaker spells.
Ince’s managerial pedigree is questionable at this level and there’s little evidence to suggest he can continue to keep Reading heads above water.Gab Sutton
It’s now or never for Paul Warne and Rotherham.
The former fitness coach’s record as a manager at this level reads three relegations in three, but there are significant mitigating factors on each occasion: the shambles he inherited in 2016-17, wayward shooting in 2018-19 and the COVID postponements in 2020-21.
Of course, the Millers are always competing with a miniscule Championship budget, so survival each time would have been a huge ask – this season is no different.
Michael Smith has departed for Sheffield Wednesday: the mobile target man is a huge part of the way Rotherham play and they’ll need to replace him adequately to have any chance of survival.
Tom Eaves and Conor Washington haven’t been brought in to start, thus much hangs on who else comes in: Ellis Simms from Everton and Uche Ikpeazu from Middlesbrough would be perfect, if either or, better, both arrived in South Yorkshire.
Peter Kioso and Cohen Bramall, meanwhile, give Rotherham pace in wing-back positions: the former is a serious athlete, while the latter can bring quality deliveries.
Kioso’s arrival, meanwhile, suggests Warne sees Chieo Ogbene operating higher up the pitch than in League One, as a counter-attacking option on the right of a front-three which could catch opponents out, especially if Jamie McCart’s diagonals are on point.
McCart is one of three defensive additions along with Cameron Humphreys, a ball-playing centre-back poached from Zulte Waregem, and Grant Hall, who will bring experience, leadership and aerial prowess in the middle of the back-three.
There may be more nuanced Championship tacticians than Warne, but his main strength is his ability to create fantastic working cultures, motivate people and connect them on a level few in the game can do.
That might be enough for Rotherham to beat the drop, if they keep it on the deck more this time around.
The Millers have got better defenders on the ball than they’ve had previously in the Championship, and a midfield trio of playmaker Dan Barlaser, ball-carrier Ben Wiles and energetic presser Oli Rathbone has to be trusted.
Neil Critchley’s departure has rocked Blackpool.
The former Liverpool youth coach injected life and passion into the club by getting the team playing aggressive, high-octane but well-coached football, whilst also connecting with supporters.
The circumstances of Critchley’s exit has hurt sections of the fanbase, who enter 2022-23 bruised more than buoyant, even off the back of a highest finish since 2012-13.
Chairman Simon Sadler has replaced Critchley with Michael Appleton, who has an outstanding reputation from within the game: if coaching ability was the only facet of the 46-year-old’s job, the Seasiders would likely have a similarly impressive season to last.
The trouble for Appleton is the political element: not only is he far from the passion merchant Critchley was, he’s not particularly fondly remembered from his first spell – that PNE tattoo doesn’t exactly help matters either.
To that end, the 46-year-old needs a good start, perhaps more so than most new managers, and he’s working with a group of players who have achieved what they have over the last two years largely because of Critchley’s style, coaching and the general atmosphere around the club.
Appleton will look to evolve the style towards something more possession-based, which may not suit veteran defender Richard Keogh, left-back James Husband, ball-winner Kenny Dougall and target man Gary Madine.
The loan signings of left-back Dominic Thompson from Ipswich, creative midfielder Lewis Fiorini and ball-playing defender Rhys Williams might help the transition, but the first two had to grow into their spells in League One last year while the latter is another North Ender hoping to enter enemy territory as smoothly as Tony Ellis and Brett Omerod previously.
With more subdued local vibes, we could see a drop-off from a squad that is neither young, nor possessing of proven pedigree at this level, at least beyond last year’s outstanding efforts.
Even the Tangerines’ star performers, defender Marvin Ekpiteta and withdrawn forward Keshi Anderson, have modest career histories in comparison with most Championship regulars in their mid-20s.
Appleton doesn’t tend to get his ideas across straight away, partly because of their complexity: even in his extremely successful jobs at Oxford and Lincoln, it was a stellar second season following a mediocre first.
That could be problematic here. No matter how good a coach and tactician the Mancunian might be, sceptics will have metaphorical sticks to beat him with if they’re not impressed from the outset.
The results of Reading’s ownership regime were best encapsulated by the angry scenes after February’s draw at Peterborough.
Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li do not communicate as often or effectively as fans would like as Majority Shareholders – they sometimes aren’t even in the country.
The directors have delegated day-to-day work to Dayong Pang, who has been criticised for a scattergun, agent-led recruitment policy.
By signing players who are available via a handful of immediate contacts, Reading have been able to bring in a decent calibre of player at times, but it’s never been within the context of discernible direction or strategy, which is an issue for the club as well as the team.
The various issues at Barnsley, Peterborough and Derby including the latter’s 21-point deduction meant the Royals had enough individual quality to stay up, even with six points knocked off their own tally.
Paul Ince did enough to keep the Berkshire club up after taking over in February, with 15 points from 14 games in charge, but the ‘Guvnor’ hadn’t managed for eight years beforehand.
Ince’s managerial pedigree is questionable at this level and there’s little evidence to suggest he can continue to keep Reading heads above water.
The 54-year-old has been trying veteran Junior Hoilett at left wing-back in pre-season, which may be enforced by circumstance but is a strategy that seems risky to say the least given the physical requirements of that role at Championship level, while not one centre-back is taller than 6’1” – aerial bombardment is a danger.
Top pro Andy Yiadom, left-footed ball-playing defender Tom McIntyre, enigmatic creator Ovie Ejaria and quality hold-up front-man Lucas Joao is a decent core of players, while the hardworking Jeff Hendrick and controller Tyrese Fornah – bulked up and battle-hardened from his loan at Shrewsbury last season – look decent additions in midfield.
Avoid the injury crises endured last year and it’s possible that either Ince surprises us as a manager or, more likely, his replacement can coax enough out of this squad including some bright academy talents – see tall forward Jahmari Clarke and speedy forward Femi Azeez – for Reading to stay up.
Morale at the club is low, though and after three of the last five campaigns saw the club finish 20th or 21st, this could be the year the club takes it’s medicine for previous mistakes.
Seven of Birmingham’s last nine seasons have been relegation dogfights, and each time they’ve wriggled out of it.
Blues have been fortuitous that they’ve had whole calendar years of awful form like 2017 and 2020 but not whole campaigns, while other times they’ve got away unscathed due to low points totals required for safety, like 2013-14, 2017-18 and even last season.
This era in B9 has been characterized by ownership woes and it’s hard to see that changing, even assuming the takeover from Paul Richardson and Maxi Lopez goes through.
Local businessman Richardson, a Blues fan and Lopez, an ex-Barcelona forward, are reportedly appointing Matt Southall – a man who shouldn’t be allowed near a football club – as CEO.
Birmingham have struggled with squad building, too, because 16 of the 35 players who featured last season were older than 27, while nine were loanees (two overlaps across the two categories), so 66% of the 2021-22 group had negligible sell-on value to the B9 outfit.
Permanent recruitment of players 27 or under has been rare over the previous two years, with only Alen Halilović, Jon Toral and Sam Cosgrove coming into the first team squad – and they’ve started 23 league games between them, with only the latter remaining.
The investment has been there, but the club has spent too long focusing only on the immediate bottom line, as opposed to investing in areas that will contribute to long-term growth.
Lee Bowyer at least brought some youthful exuberance into the mix last year by developing right-sided defender Nico Gordon and midfield all-rounder Jordan James, who both fared admirably last year and could push on again.
More are coming through the conveyor belt: big things are hoped for from powerful midfielder Tate Campbell, attacking midfielder George Hall and forward Jobe Bellingham – younger brother of Jude.
Bowyer, though, won’t be in situ: he’s been replaced as Head Coach by John Eustace, who has rave reviews from the coaching scene.
While manager of Kidderminster, Eustace transformed the style of play and his side were known as “non-league Barcelona”, while great coaching with QPR earnt him the assistant gig with Ireland under Stephen Kenny.
The 42-year-old was linked with Watford this summer and is unquestionably the right person for the job, so the prospect of him working with this exciting conveyor belt of homegrown talent gives Birmingham fans a glimmer of hope in a dark time.
No matter how good Eustace might be, however, he may fall victim to the accumulation of structural woes which long preceded his arrival.