Gabriel Sutton gave us his Championship Season Preview in the summer and, with Christmas approaching, our EFL pundit returns with his revised predictions in his Championship Season half-way Review.
Read Gabriel’s League One Season Half-Way Review 1-24 here.
Read Gabriel’s League Two Season Half-Way Review 1-24 here.
Season Preview Prediction: 3rd
In the first month of the season, Norwich were languishing among the embryonic bottom half and Daniel Farke was urging patience.
Team dynamics would settle down, he felt, once the transfer speculation surrounding the top young talent had settled down.
Supporters who had witnessed their team drop out of the Premier League with a whimper were sceptical then, but Farke has been vindicated.
Since Ben Godfrey was sold on transfer deadline day, the Canaries have collected a whopping 39 points from 15 games, giving them by far the best record in that sequence.
Many players have benefited from clarifying their immediate future, not least Emi Buendia, who has been the creative inspiration behind Norwich’s fine form.
Most players who operate on the right of a 4-2-3-1, without notable pace, tend to be left-footed, because the through balls are easier.
Buendia though is right-footed and his role works because, firstly, he has a unique ability to chip through balls with the outside of his boot to an elite level of accuracy.
Secondly, the Argentine floats around the edge of the final third popping short passes around and waiting for the moment to produce a subtle increase of speed to find pockets of space behind the midfield line, then produce that killer pass that opens teams up.
Buendia has been simply crucial to Norwich, who top the table despite having an injury list that, at the peak, extended to 14 players.
Returns for experienced goalkeeper Tim Krul, technical left-back Xavi Quintilla, utility man Bali Mumba and speedy wide forward Onel Hernandez will help the Yellows over the line – but they must retain their star Argentine.
Season Preview Prediction: 7th
Jason Tindall has found love at Bournemouth.
After relegation last season, there may have been a hope from supporters that the club would plump for an external appointment with experience as a number one, following Eddie Howe’s resignation.
Because there was such a short turnaround though, between the end of their Premier League campaign and their Championship return, the hierarchy went internal.
Tindall’s relationship with the existing squad as well as his knowledge of it, has helped him quickly compile a formula to make the Cherries competitive.
Surprisingly technical at 6’2”, Dominic Solanke has become one of the best strikers in the Championship with his willingness to drop deep and link play, as well as finding confidence in front of goal.
Solanke has brought the best out of magician David Brooks, who can attack the right flank or cut inside onto his fine left foot and unleash a delightful through ball.
The enigmatic Arnaut Danjuma, from the left, is therefore more likely to drift into the number 10 position to create in pockets.
The Netherlands international has undoubted quality, but Bournemouth have played well in his absence with a 3-5-2 instead of a 3-4-3, when Solanke has been paired up top with the springy Sam Surridge in heavy victories at Coventry and Barnsley.
Get attacking right-back Jack Stacey back fit, retain star midfield controller Lewis Cook and Tindall’s side will be swiping in the right direction.
Season Preview Prediction: 1st
Brentford have been getting similar results this season to the last, with a similar level of performance – but with a rather different feel.
In 2019-20, the Bees prided themselves on their ‘BMW’ trio of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbuemo and Ollie Watkins, of which only Mbuemo remains.
Plus, while Christian Nørgaard’s metronomic presence at the base of midfield was crucial to their fluid play last term, the Dane is now spending a lengthy spell on the sidelines. In his absence, VfL Bochum recruit Vitaly Janelt is not a like for like swap.
Thomas Frank’s side are less about the collective in attack, therefore and more about the individual.
Ivan Toney has scored 16 goals this season for the West Londoners and thus, open play attacks are geared towards laying chances on a silver platter for their marksman.
The West Londoners need a more diversified threat, though, if they are to mark their first season at the Brentford Community Stadium with a historic promotion.
The recent growth in Mbuemo’s form will help, as will the resurgence of Sergi Canos.
The head coach likes his sides to have one athletic centre-forward, one wide forward who will push directly into goalscoring areas and another wide forward who will create in pockets, something Said Benrahma did superbly last season.
Toney and Mbuemo have those first two remits locked down and while Canos is not quite at the same level as Benrahma – few are – he has more creative qualities which may be why Frank has favoured him on the left over the more direct Marcus Forss, who has been in good goalscoring form.
The goalscoring burden on Toney must be reduced. But it says plenty that a club that has spent much of it’s existence hovering between the third and fourth tiers can be fourth in the Championship with impeccable shot data and still be criticized.
The biggest compliment one can pay Brentford is that they are being held to incredibly high standards.
Season Preview Prediction: 4th
Direct football is an ideology often associated with older managers, so Neil Harris is one of the remaining few young’uns flying the flag for route one play.
Harris’ methods might be unfashionable, yet it is perhaps that very unfamiliarity makes them hard to handle.
Heavy victories over Barnsley, Luton and Huddersfield prove, when the intensity is correct, it can be difficult for opponents to handle the aerial bombardment provided by centre-back Sean Morrison and striker Kieffer Moore.
It is perhaps how the Bluebirds handle losing the latter until at least New Year with a torn hamstring that will define their Play-Off prospects.
Moore has a combination of height, strength, mobility, link-up play and goalscoring nous that is incredibly rare outside top flight football. Those qualities mean the 28-year-old can turn a hopeful long ball into an accurate one and, by extension, an average team into a good one.
Robert Glatzel is also tall, tidy and a good finisher but not as strong or mobile, which means long balls up to the German will not have the same effect.
One possibility, therefore, is that Cardiff become far weaker without Moore and continue to develop an unhealthy over-dependence on one player. But the other possibility is that they put more thought into the quality of their build-up play.
The one downside to having the former Wigan striker on the field is that, because the approach play does not need to be as good, because defenders can often get away with clearing the ball as soon as they come under pressure, the capital club are not especially well rounded as a team.
Harris must look at Moore’s absence, therefore, as an opportunity to exercise muscles in this Cardiff body that may be underdeveloped, so that their star striker can come back into a confident, well-rounded side.
Season Preview Prediction: 13th
Swansea have two thirds of a fantastic front-three.
In Andre Ayew, they have one of the divisions strongest forwards when it comes to flair, creativity and improvisation combined with an element of strength.
In Jamal Lowe, they have a forward who poses a huge threat in transition with quick, strong, direct running in behind.
Lowe’s finishing has been mixed though, despite recent good form, while neither Kasey Palmer, Viktor Gyokeres nor Yan Dhanda have fully established themselves as the default third man in this attacking trio.
At the other end, Swansea have an abundance of strong centre-backs, with homegrown Ben Cabango and Chelsea loanee Marc Guehi guided by the more experienced Ryan Bennett, a 2017-18 title-winner at this level with Wolves.
In midfield, the control of Matt Grimes compliments either the more dynamic energy of Jay Fulton or the defensive assurance of Korey Smith, who has put in some solid shifts since signing from Bristol City.
Grimes has completed the most passes for Swansea this season with 1018 but, surprisingly, the player to complete the second most with 903 is a wing-back.
Connor Roberts likes to make inverted runs toward the penalty area to pose a direct goalscoring threat which means, as a by-product, he is also heavily involved in the build-up play and a hard player to pick up for opponents not used to facing that type of wing-back.
Jake Bidwell, meanwhile, is very much a crossing specialist who will hold the width and wait for the diagonal, especially when play on the other side gets congested.
Roberts and Bidwell are Swansea’s two most creative players, with four assists apiece and need to be on their game if the South Wales club are to record another top six finish.
Season Preview Prediction: 18th
Much like Neil Warnock’s previous stint at Cardiff, the wily campaigner inherited a side in relegation danger, kept them up comfortably and turned them into promotion contenders the following season.
Unlike the stint in South Wales, though, Warnock has challenged a lot of the narratives surrounding him while at Middlesbrough.
Warnock’s promotion-winning Cardiff group was very experienced and many assumed the Yorkshireman’s outspoken methods were better suited to older players. Yet this Boro squad is the seventh-youngest in the Championship.
The 72-year-old has got the best out of ball-playing centre-back Dael Fry and energetic right-back Djed Spence, whilst resurrecting the Teesside career of left-back Marc Bola and coaching Marcus Tavernier to support the press superbly.
Each of those players are under 24 and each have started in at least 12 and featured in at least 15 of Boro’s 20 league games to date, which shows Warnock has adapted surprisingly well to a young squad.
Plus, in the absence of a classic target man – though Ashley Fletcher when fit and recruit Chuba Akpom will at least complete in the air – Warnock has tweaked his playing style.
The eight-time promotion winner has rejuvenated the career of Paddy McNair, who carries the ball from defence into the opposing half to get attacks going and full-back Anfernee Dijksteel, who has thrived on the right of a back-three.
Underestimate Warnock at your peril.
Season Preview Prediction: 2nd
Watford are among the automatic promotion contenders on paper, but performances do not suggest a team ready to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
That was not entirely the fault of manager Vladimir Ivić, though the strict Serb has recently been replaced by Xisco Muñoz, who has won eight of his 11 games in charge of Dinamo Tbilisi.
Muñoz inherits a squad that will look hugely imbalanced, at least until steady left-back Adam Masina and nimble midfield operator Will Hughes return from injury, with Ken Sema being their only left-footed outfield player.
Sema has brought a creative spark from the left and good set piece delivery, but that alone has not been enough.
Christian Kabasele and Ben Wilmot have at times played on the left of central defence but, being right-footed, it has been easy for opposing teams to pressurise either because they naturally look inward for passing options rather than outward.
Kiko Femenia, at left-back, is right-footed and thus stops his forward movement whenever he receives the ball to check backward, which stifles the momentum of Watford’s play.
With few high-quality passes going in a leftward direction, the Hertfordshire outfit have looked disjointed in the first two thirds which has, by extension, limited what they can do in the final third.
Opposing teams have been able to invest numbers in stopping stars João Pedro and Ismaïla Sarr, who should both be lighting up the Championship but are instead fading into the background.
Season Preview Prediction: 8th
Stoke are one of the best defensive sides in the division.
The Potters have kept 11 clean sheets – the joint-most in the division – and their Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 0.94 is the Championship’s second-best.
Michael O’Neill, who elevated Northern Ireland to new heights with borderline world-class organisation of teams without the ball, is having a similar effect at Stoke.
O’Neill’s side have an instinctive knowledge of when and how to press their opponents, when and to what extent to drop off, which individual players to nullify, which to target and how to force them onto their weaker foot.
What’s more, it’s not just proven grafters like industrial front-man Steven Fletcher, persistent striker Jacob Brown and selfless holding midfielder Jordan Cousins buying into the 51-year-old’s methods.
We have also seen Nick Powell, long accepted as an enigmatic performer who needs to be given free reign to perform, following suit, which speaks volumes for O’Neill’s man management qualities.
Because Stoke are so well drilled, opposing teams cannot play through them and thus are forced into hopeful long balls and crosses, which feeds into the hands of centre-backs.
6’3” Danny Batth and 6’6” Harry Souttar are imperious in the air, so it can be incredibly difficult to find an effective way of creating chances against the Staffordshire outfit who, being so well organised, do not always need to be at their best going forward to keep churning out points.
The problem they do have, though, is the loss of wide forward Tyrese Campbell, who could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Unless a replacement can be found in January, or Tom Ince can replicate his mid-2010s form, Stoke will need to keep their rear-guard watertight – and hope young Joe Bursik continues to perform heroics in the absence of four injured senior goalkeepers.
Season Preview Prediction: 15th
Injuries scuppered Blackburn’s Play-Off chances last season and there has been no lady luck let up this year.
The attacking trio of mercurial Liverpool loanee Harvey Elliott, nippy goalscorer Adam Armstrong and direct runner Ben Brereton made Rovers the most incisive transitional side in the division.
Perhaps surprisingly to those reading this having just travelled six months in time, Brereton’s injury is affecting Tony Mowbray’s side more than that of dynamic midfielder Lewis Travis and advanced playmaker Bradley Dack.
The former Forest forward arrived for £7M in 2018-19 with the pressure of being the main goalscorer for Blackburn, when perhaps he is more suited to operating wide in a three.
Brereton’s stretching of the game with quick, direct running has not quite been replicated by Sam Gallagher and, because Harvey Elliott is not blessed with searing pace and likes to do his creative work drifting into pockets, the equilibrium has been disrupted.
Opposing teams have been able to put extra focus on stopping Armstrong, who has scored just one in four since Brereton’s injury.
While Blackburn are taking time to rediscover the formula that has allowed them to score three or more goals on five occasions this season, they must at least be solid.
It hardly helps, therefore, that Daniel Ayala, Scott Wharton and Derrick Williams are all in the treatment room, forcing Mowbray to pair centre-back Darragh Lenihan last time out with midfielder by trade Bradley Johnson.
Blackburn have a first XI more than capable of challenging for promotion but, once again, injuries may be undermining their efforts in too many areas.
Season Preview Prediction: 16th
With their best XI in place, Reading can beat anyone in this division.
Andy Rinomhota and Josh Laurent have formed an extremely tenacious, ground-covering double-pivot.
The duo’s work is crucial to allowing extra freedom to Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria to unleash their huge potential by drifting into pockets of space, then using their quick feet and agile minds to create.
When Olise and Ejaria are doubled up on, though, Rinomhota and Laurent do not enjoy having long spells of possession and thus the Royals need an outball, in the form of Lucas Joao and Yakou Meite’s physicality.
It’s easy to see, therefore, how Paunovic’s side can falter when operating without those first team players who are so important to the system, though the forthcoming return of John Swift may help.
Defensively, meanwhile, Michael Morrison has been a calming presence at the back while left-back Omar Richards, pre-injury, was enjoying the best season yet of his career.
The lack of depth, though, could hinder the Royals: of the nine-man substitutes bench in the 3-1 loss at Brentford just before Christmas, only Sone Aluko had not come through the academy.
Season Preview Prediction: 10th
Millwall have one of the best defences in the Championship.
Stalwart Shaun Hutchinson brings bags of experience at the back, Jake Cooper’s aerial prowess makes him a dominant force in both boxes while Alex Pearce brings the leadership qualities one would associate with a true Millwall captain.
Going forward, though, the Lions have done little to set pulses racing.
Much like last season, Gary Rowett’s side remain reliant on right-sided forward Jed Wallace, because they have not been able to find a complete centre-forward capable of leading the line effectively.
Summer recruits Troy Parrott and Kenneth Zohore were hoped to be the answers for Millwall but both have been held back by injury troubles, while neither Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Matt Smith nor Tom Bradshaw have proved a complete line leader.
Rowett has tried to address these issues by dropping the 5-2-3 he has used for much of his reign and opting for the 4-2-3-1 that is more associated with his spells at Birmingham and Derby.
Pearce, the man sacrificed for this formation change, has in some ways been a victim of his own success – all the Irishman is guilty of is being part of a group of three centre-backs strong enough to prove Millwall only need two.
The former Reading man’s exit from the XI, though, means Rowett can incorporate Bradshaw and a more physical striker ahead of him capable of winning initial duels with defenders, to create space for the 28-year-old to poach.
This new formula may give Millwall a stronger attacking dynamic, but a greater sample size is required to judge whether this recent improvement will be strong enough to elevate them into Play-Off contention.
Season Preview Prediction: 12th
Barnsley are getting their head coach appointments right.
Daniel Stendel led the Reds into the Championship, Gerhard Struber kept them up from nine points adrift last season and now, Valérien Ismaël has converted them into one of the division’s form teams.
The gap in reputability between the Championship and the Austrian Bundesliga, from which division Struber and Ismael have been poached, is greater than the gap in quality.
That means coaches and players of a high-quality for the level embrace the opportunity to play in English football’s second tier, because they are just one league below the most famous league in the world – and that is something Barnsley, on a low budget, have exploited to maximum effect.
Dominik Frieser has made an impact since joining in the summer from LASK Linz, with the 27-year-old bringing energy and selfless movement on the right of Tarn’s attack.
Conor Chaplin, meanwhile, adds athleticism on the left and with both pressing so well, Cauley Woodrow is freed up to unleash his technical qualities, in a more advanced role than we saw last season.
The attacking trio have chances due to the wide play of Callums Brittain and Styles, with the former offering drive down the right and the “Bury Baggio” providing sublime quality from the left.
With Mads Andersen coming on leaps and bounds whilst partnered by the more mature Michael Sollbauer and aerial specialist Michał Helik, plus Alex Mowatt battling next to Matty James in midfield, Barnsley look well-placed to secure a top half finish.
Season Preview Prediction: 11th
Relative to the low expectation of fans following the appointment of rookie manager Dean Holden, Bristol City are performing well.
Relative to the way they started though, City’s current position of ninth might feel underwhelming.
Chris Martin started the season as the Championship’s assist king, with the experienced striker using his poise and physical presence every week to control the ball in a crowded penalty area and tee up a teammate.
There was a big hope, after the run of four straight wins with which Holden’s side started the season, that Martin’s subtle hold-up play would make him a more effective target man than Famara Diedhiou, who is strong and willing but lacks the close control.
Martin alone, though, has not been able to tip the Severnsiders into promotion contention and as the season has gone on, balance issues have occurred.
Antoine Semenyo has thrived on the right of the front three with his skill and trickery around the edges of the penalty area, but Nahki Wells – a poacher by trade – has looked uncomfortable on the left.
The key problem, though, is the absence of Andreas Weimann; City had 14 points from seven games when he picked up an anterior crucial ligament injury in October and have since collected 17 from 14.
Weimann and Jamie Paterson, acting as two number eights either side of Tyreeq Bakinson were crucial to the south west club’s strong early season form, but “Pato” too has not been able to play in December due to a hip injury.
With Alfie Mawson and Jay Dasilva also sidelined, injuries could see Bristol City drop into the bottom half.
Season Preview Prediction: 22nd
Huddersfield are a mixed bag.
Sometimes the bravery with which they operate, pushing full-backs Pipa and Harry Toffolo so high up the pitch, brings high reward, yet other times they can get picked off in transition.
Carlos Corberán might have been rewarded for his brave approach with a top six tilt had Josh Koroma stayed fit after scoring five goals in eight. But the energetic wide forward’s three month lay-off is a sizeable blow.
Town now need Bohemians recruit Danny Grant to prove an adequate replacement, as well as a continuation of Isaac Mbenza’s resurgence under Corberán.
Selfless runner Lewis O’Brien and classy playmaker Carel Eiting having the potential to be part of a reasonable midfield trio, if Corberan can find another ball-winner to reduce the minutes of veteran Jonathan Hogg.
In the goalkeeping department, meanwhile, Ryan Schofield has had a positive start and looks a fabulous shot stopper. But, at 21, he should not be expected to maintain those levels for another 28 Championship games.
Huddersfield look a fun, inconsistent side that will win a lot of games with exciting football, but Corberan may need a summer to iron out the vulnerabilities before they enter the top half.
Season Preview Prediction: 20th
Every Luton victory feels like another vindication of Nathan Jones’ outstanding ability as a manager.
Every Luton defeat, though, feels like another reminder of the challenges they face at this level, with a squad that has come so far so quickly.
That’s not to say though, that the Hatters are unworthy of being 14th in the Championship because, while this level can at times be a stretch for the old guard, they have used the loan market superbly.
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has been an inspired addition since joining from Leicester, bringing dynamism and craft in various midfield roles.
Sheffield United’s Rhys Norrington-Davies, meanwhile, has a fantastic engine that allows him to get up and down the pitch at will, whilst bringing a high standard of deliveries.
Norrington-Davies’ abilities mean Luton’s play can at times be skewed towards the left, because James Bree’s injury means they do not have an equivalent at right-back, where Matty Pearson and Martin Cranie have filled in to provide solidity rather than thrust.
That does not matter too much, though, when either player has ahead of them Jordan Clark. The summer signing is a direct winger who loves to create. His arrival highlighted Jones’ willingness to drop his beloved 4-1-2-1-2 system, which has not been used at all this term.
Jones was criticized at Stoke for sticking to the same strategy which did not suit the personnel but, with seven other systems used in his second stint at Kenilworth Road, the fiery Welshman has proved diamonds aren’t forever.
Season Preview Prediction: 5th
A club with a rich history, a manager in Chris Hughton who has won promotion before and an experienced squad full of theoretical quality should, on paper, be a recipe for a serious top six tilt.
Instead, Nottingham Forest will enter 2021 with work to do to allay fears of an unthinkable relegation to League One, having accrued just four league wins.
There are two reasons why the contrast between the results Forest expect and the ones they are getting is so stark.
Firstly, the lack of quality ball progression from midfield, where normally at least two of Harry Arter, Samba Sow, Jack Colback and Ryan Yates play simultaneously and do similar ball-winning jobs.
Cafu has started more recently and looked capable of interchanging defensive and attacking responsibilities at times, but there has generally been a rigid feel.
Secondly, the lack of pace in forward areas, with wide men Sammy Ameobi, Anthony Knockaert and Joe Lolley all on the slower side, as well as advanced playmaker Luke Freeman and strikers Lyle Taylor and Lewis Grabban.
Fans hope the solution is found in Alex Mighten, who looked bright from the bench in September but did not feature under Hughton until December, which has seen him start successive league games – scoring in the 1-1 draw at Millwall.
Not only is Mighten right-footed, unlike many of Forest’s attacking players, he also has a willingness to take on opponents directly and run in behind.
The 18-year-old is not at the same technical level as his positional rivals, but what he can offer is so unique to the squad, so crucial to the equilibrium of the attacking play, that he could very quickly go from being an outsider waiting for an opportunity to one of the first names on the team-sheet.
Hughton must deliver a promotion push in 2021-22, but his immediate task is to troubleshoot the two major issues that have held his side back this term.
Season Preview Prediction: 9th
Since Wayne Rooney ditched the shirt and donned the jacket, Derby County’s form has improved markedly.
There was an initial sense of anarchy after Phillip Cocu was dismissed, with Rooney and Liam Rosenior both wanting the manager’s job, which may have led to some muddled leadership.
Rooney removed himself as a playing contender in late November, though and Derby have since accrued 10 points from six under his management, leaving them in the drop zone only on goal difference.
Curtis Davies’ injury has seen the former striker pair Andre Wisdom, a right-back by trade, with Matt Clarke at centre-back and the results are promising: Clarke makes adventurous runs to ball-play in the left channel, but Wisdom has the pace to cover his partner.
Derby have got better at neutralizing opposing counter-attacks, too, since Krystian Bielik returned from injury to anchor the midfield with the Pole’s poise and presence.
Bielik’s compatriot, Kamil Jóźwiak, brings quality when drifting in from the left into the number 10 role, while returning forward Martyn Waghorn pushes directly from the right into goalscoring areas next to Colin Kazim-Richards.
Some were sceptical of the Turk’s arrival on a free in October, but Kazim-Richards has been a surprisingly efficient focal point and has scored twice already under Rooney.
At the other end of the age spectrum to the 34-year-old, Derby possess exciting young talent in attacking left-back Lee Buchanan, versatile presser Jason Knight, two-footed controller Max Bird and vibrant midfielder Louie Sibley.
The long-term future is bright but, before Rooney can dream of following in Frank Lampard’s glitter-laden footsteps, he must first focus on leapfrogging Rotherham in the Championship dogfight.
Preston North End
Season Preview Prediction: 6th
North End are stagnating.
Two or three years ago, they had a young, vibrant, dynamic side that looked two or three touches of composure away from being a real Championship force.
The problem for the Lilywhites is that the correct additions have not been made and thus the squad has not evolved.
During Alex Neil’s reign, he has needed, at different points, a goalkeeper to challenge Declan Rudd, a left-back to offer more attacking thrust than Andrew Hughes, an heir to veteran Paul Gallagher’s throne, a young understudy to Ben Pearson and a replacement for striker Jordan Hugill.
None of those areas have been addressed with the right quality, at the right time: Emil Riis Jakobsen, for example, has proved a handful up top since signing from Randers in Denmark, but arguably joined two-and-a-half years too late.
These failings in recruitment, as well as the lack of investment in youth development and absence of an Under-23s squad to compensate, has arguably cost the Lancashire club even more in the long run.
North End look set to lose key Bens Davies and Pearson for far less than their true values, due to letting contract situations stagnate, with both deals expiring this summer.
That means less income with which to re-build this declining squad – it’s no wonder Alex Neil is beginning to look burdened by the challenges of the manager’s job.
Season Preview Prediction: 17th
Since relegation in 2011, Birmingham have spent seven seasons looking over their shoulders and just two harbouring any Play-Off hopes.
With that in mind, it has been a solid first half of the 2020-21 campaign for Blues, who are six points above the relegation zone and statistically on course to avoid another final day showdown with the drop.
If the B9 outfit are in this same position in 12 months’ time, though, more criticism may be levelled at Aitor Karanka, who has been questioned already based on his defensive style of football, tactical inconsistency, constant formation changes and use of substitutions.
The recruitment has been a positive of Birmingham’s season to date, with goalkeeper Neil Etheridge – 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough aside – intelligent defender George Friend, cultured midfielder Mikel San José, energetic midfielder Riley McGree and inverted winger Iván Sánchez all making an impact.
The problem is that heavy rotation, which Karanka would argue has been necessary to maintain fitness levels in a congested fixture period, has undermined Blues’ chances of finding a reliable equilibrium.
The midfield went from being too conservative against Watford with terrier Ivan Sunjic, ball-winner Maikel Kieftenbeld and box-to-box man Gary Gardner, to too slow against Middlesbrough a week later, when veteran anchor man Adam Clayton was paired with San José.
Birmingham have given away leads against Wycombe and Barnsley through dropping too deep and inviting pressure, which is not an effective strategy in the absence of pace up top.
If Karanka can add in January a striker with a wide range of qualities including pace and a left-back to compete with Kristian Pedersen, things may improve: but the Spaniard must home in on a playing identity for natives to understand and embrace.
Queens Park Rangers
Season Preview Prediction: 14th
QPR are just not the same without Ebere Eze.
Ilias Chair has shown flashes of agile creativity while Bright Osayi-Samuel, when fully motivated, has added product to his undoubted pace, but neither do quite the same job as the man who is now lighting up another part of London.
Chair and Osayi-Samuel are both final third players and while Eze could certainly deliver in that department, his neat feet in tight areas was more important in the middle third, opening the game up for the Rs in a way nobody has done this term.
Luke Amos could have been a partial solution but has missed much of the season through injury, meaning no real spark to compliment the measured presence of Tom Carroll.
It does not help, either, that neither Osman Kakay nor Niko Hamalainen have offered much quality from the full-back positions.
QPR are at least stronger defensively than the 2019-20 outfit, with Rob Dickie proving a dominant presence at centre-back next to the technical Yoan Barbet, while shot stopper Seny Dieng has excelled since returning from his Doncaster loan spell.
It would be unfair to ask Warburton to develop another Eze – the kid is simply a generational talent – but the QPR boss must ensure that players in other positions improve sufficiently to minimize the loss.
Season Preview Prediction: 21st
Fortune favours the brave and that has been the case this season for Coventry, who have looked far stronger when Mark Robins has deployed two up top.
On average this season, the Sky Blues score once every 90 minutes, but once every 52 when the physical Maxime Biamou and the nippy Tyler Walker are on the field simultaneously.
In the early weeks, lone striker Matt Godden looked isolated because wing-backs – two of Fankaty Dabo, Sam McCallum and Ryan Giles – were forced back into their defensive third, rendering the St Andrew’s tenants unable to replicate the possession-based 3-4-2-1 strategy that worked so well for them in League One.
With Biamou and Walker, though, the positioning of the wing-backs has been less problematic because Coventry have been able to bypass the press and get the ball into the final third earlier.
The Midlanders will be hoping, therefore, that the calf problem Walker picked up in the first half of the 1-0 loss at Sheffield Wednesday is an impact injury, rather than one that will derail his campaign.
Coventry will also be without key enforcer Liam Kelly for at least two months and, as their defeat at Hillsborough showed, they rely heavily on fellow midfielder Gustavo Hamer.
The Dutch-Brazilian is box office with and without the ball because, while he can put in some heavy challenges, he is also excellent technically and accurate set pieces toward Leo Østigård have been key for Cov, especially when the team has not looked creative in open play.
Østigård has also been a key figure defensively, with the Brighton loanee prepared to be firm in the tackle and assured in possession – both qualities are especially valuable when part of a back-three.
With a strong spine of Østigård, Hamer and Biamou, Coventry might have enough to beat the drop.
Season Preview Prediction: 19th
Paul Warne deserves immense credit for not only getting Rotherham out of League One twice, but also fostering a culture of togetherness, which makes the South Yorkshire club far better off for having had him in charge.
It must be questioned, however, whether Warne – a fabulous man manager – is learning quickly enough as a tactician, especially at this level.
The hope was that the Norwich-born boss had learnt from the 2018-19 campaign and would set his side up to show more intent away from home, to encourage wide forwards closer to target man Michael Smith and to have a clearer foothold on more games.
The squad is capable of doing that: Daniel Barlaser is better in possession than anyone Rotherham had in their last stay at this level, Ben Wiles can progress the ball superbly after two years of further development and the dynamic Jamie Lindsay is having a great season.
Barlaser, Lindsay and Wiles – if the latter is deployed centrally – are good enough to help Rotherham impose themselves with a touch more control than the side they had two seasons ago, which was very much about getting balls into the box at every opportunity.
From that campaign, only goalkeeper Marek Rodak – and perhaps Semi Ajayi – would significantly improve the current first XI, with lots of areas in which the Millers are stronger.
Right-back Matt Olosunde, wide forwards Florian Jozefzoon and Mikael Miller as well as forward Freddie Ladapo are all stronger than the options the S60 outfit had in those positions, as well as the aforementioned midfielders
Rotherham are stronger individually than the side relegated two seasons ago, but the way they are set up means they are no stronger as a collective.
Season Preview Prediction: 23rd
Wycombe will not go down on spirit.
Indeed, the very fact Gareth Ainsworth’s side are at this level for the first time ever is testament to the belief and togetherness in the camp.
The reason why Wanderers will spend Christmas Day bottom, though, is because they have not been able to master all units of their game simultaneously.
The Chairboys have been more creative than expected – with Garath McCleary and Anis Mehmeti bringing experience and talent since signing in-season – but there have been dips in that department too.
Goalscoring wise, they have relied – perhaps too heavily – on Scott Kashket, a man who started just 11 times in the League One promotion campaign. No other player has bagged more than twice this term.
That would not be a problem if Wycombe were consistently solid, but their defensive base has often been disrupted.
Aerial specialist Anthony Stewart, battler Darius Charles and left-footer Ryan Tafazolli have all spent time on the sidelines, meaning full-backs by trade like Jack Grimmer and Jason McCarthy have had to deputise at centre-back.
In midfield, meanwhile, the composed Dom Gape, ball-winner Curtis Thompson and ball progressor Dennis Adeniran have been absent for periods, rendering Wanderers unable to maintain a stable double-pivot.
The other factor is sheer bad luck: Wycombe have been on the wrong end of countless refereeing decisions this season and need fortunes to change if they’re to extend their remarkable Championship stay.
Season Preview Prediction: 24th
Since Carlos Carvalhal’s regime went stale in 2017, various Wednesday managers have struggled with a key tactical dilemma.
Neither Jos Luhukay, Steve Bruce, Garry Monk nor current boss Tony Pulis are possession-based coaches and the group have not shown enough ability to be worthy of an expansive style.
Financial restrictions due to previous overspending means the squad has stagnated with aging players like Tom Lees, Keiren Westwood and Liam Palmer, who have been at the club for too long.
Although the likes of Izzy Brown and Kadeem Harris have brought some Championship quality, the main way for managers to dilute this group has been to introduce raw, relatively unproven youngsters – Liam Shaw, Alex Hunt and Osaze Urhoghide, in Pulis’ case.
It has therefore made sense for previous managers to play direct, but this has led to other issues.
Barry Bannan is the only Wednesday player capable of producing a long pass with frequent accuracy and, being the best technician, is an obvious pick to start in central midfield.
Bannan, though, does not always cover the necessary ground when deployed in a midfield pairing and often ends up dropping deeper to protect the defence, which will lack pace even more than usual now Dominic Iorfa is out for the season.
If the Owls only start with one striker, though, they risk asking Callum Paterson or Josh Windass unreasonably to do battle with a whole opposing rear-guard for a loose ball – especially if Bannan is not the man playing the lofted ball.
Pulis, though, thinks he has found the solution to both aforementioned issues with a 3-5-2, which was deployed in December’s 1-0 win over Coventry.
With Joey Pelupessy and Shaw doing the running for Bannan, with Callum Paterson and Josh Windass both chasing loose balls, Wednesday might have a formula to beat the drop.
With a minimum of four points to bridge between themselves and safety, though, another run of one win in nine would scupper their chances.