The Championship season is around the corner and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his Championship season preview complete with his 1-24 predictions.
Read his League One preview here.
Read his League Two preview here.
The last time Brentford reached the Championship Play-Offs in 2014-15, their debut season at this level, it was a huge surprise.
It is a credit to owner Matthew Benham, along with co-Directors of Football Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen, that not only did the Bees finish in the top six in 2019-20, they were expected to do so throughout.
This summer’s move from the club’s 116-year home of Griffin Park only enhances the sense that the West Londoners are becoming one of the bigger fish at this level, as does their retention of star forward Saïd Benrahma up until late-August.
Ollie Watkins is likely to depart for Aston Villa, which would worry Bees fans if they had not seen their club replace their best players successfully every season for six years – indeed, retraining Watkins into his current position was Thomas Frank’s solution to Neal Maupay’s exit to Brighton.
The club have more than earned faith in it’s recruitment policy and, with no first teamers leaving for a fee at this stage, they should be able to capitalize on a fantastic 2019-20 campaign.
David Raya, if erratic at times, has been a frequent part of a reliable defence that kept 16 clean sheets last season, with organiser Pontus Jansson successfully partnering athletic distributor Ethan Pinnock at centre-back, while Rico Henry starred with powerful forward surges from left-back.
Christian Nørgaard dictates play with metronomic precision at the base of the midfield, allowing fantastic left-footer Josh Da Silva and tidy Mathias Jensen to push on.
Although, the latter was outperformed post-restart by Emiliano Marcondes, arguably a more incisive passer through lines while Joel Valencia’s summer form from the bench could make him a threat to the talented Bryan Mbuemo’s right-sided berth.
Further competition will be hot with centre-back Charlie Goode, rampant right-sider Mads Roerslev and all-action midfielder Shandon Baptiste plus strikers Marcus Forss and Halil Dervişoğlu all in the mix for minutes in a squad rich on depth.
Brentford have had a player hitting 25 goals in both of their last two seasons and whoever does start up top will get enough chances to find similar form, so the Bees could be well-placed to end their 74-year wait for top flight football – and take top spot in the process.
Watford are recruiting this summer to win the league, according to owner Gino Pozzo.
Ambitious? Yes. But it fits with their appointment of Vladimir Ivić, fresh from successive titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv, overseeing just two league defeats in two seasons.
Ruthless, demanding and reliant on coaching staff for approachability, Ivić ensures players are physically primed for an intense, aggressive style and luckily for the 43-year-old, he will not be short of mobility in attack, even if Gerard Deulefeu departs.
Ismaïla Sarr, who tore apart Liverpool in a stellar Premier League campaign, could play to the right of agile finisher Luis Suárez, who lit up the Segunda División with 19 goals on loan at Real Zaragoza and 18-year-old João Pedro – strong, quick and skillful – who hopes to build on a meteoric rise in Brazil away from the elite limelight.
The Hornets’ top young talent includes midfielders Domingos Quina, who could quickly match the level of £27 million-valued Abdoulaye Doucoure – the subject of a failed Everton bid – and tidy technician Tom Dele-Bashiru as well as defender Ben Wilmot, who enjoyed a strong loan stint at Swansea.
To guide them, Watford also possess a core of experienced professionals including seasoned stopper Ben Foster, defender Craig Dawson, top anchor man Etienne Capoue and club legend Troy Deeney – though Ivić may not see the latter’s influence as exclusively positive.
Deeney’s outspoken character may represent a perceived challenge to the Serb’s demand for total authority and how the boss, undoubtedly clever but unfamiliar with English culture, handles his attempts to get it will define the Hornets’ season.
Avoid a power struggle and Watford could dominate.
The key ingredients are in place. Norwich have a better training ground, an open Sporting Director in Stuart Webber, a title-winning manager in Daniel Farke and a young squad filled with growth potential.Gabriel Sutton
When Norwich City were last relegated to this level in 2016, they had an aging core of players and a lagging infrastructure, which meant they needed a massive revamp across all departments the following summer.
This time around though, a run of 10 straight defeats and a bottom-placed finish has led to 10 new players coming in. The key ingredients are in place. Norwich have a better training ground, an open Sporting Director in Stuart Webber, a title-winning manager in Daniel Farke and a young squad filled with growth potential.
All of this means the Canaries can challenge in these first two seasons back without widespread structural change, even if the midfield has undergone surgery:
Jacob Sørensen signs from Esbjerg fB as a technical yet bulky sitting midfielder to partner the more energetic Oliver Skipp, on loan from Tottenham, behind dynamic attacking midfielder Kieran Dowell, who loves a pop from range.
Dowell’s direct runs into goalscoring areas could compliment the canny movement of Teemu Pukki, who is expected to remain first choice striker, though his poor post-Christmas form means the addition of bulky all-rounder Jordan Hugill and the rise of speedy striker Adam Idah is welcomed.
La Masia schooled left-back Xavi Quintilla joins from Villarreal to provide insurance for Jamal Lewis’ possible departure and, at present, the club are only looking to strengthen one more area: a centre-back to partner fit again organiser Christoph Zimmermann over Ben Godfrey, who struggled in defence last term.
The dearth of whispers about right-sided additions might hint at a quiet confidence that the club can retain at least one of speedy full-back Max Aarons and his mercurial wing-partner, Emi Buendia.
Do that and Norwich look well placed to secure their Premier League return, this season or next.
Most of the Championship’s best young managers tend to be keep-ball connoisseurs. So it is refreshing to see Neil Harris be successful at this level with more direct football.
Harris guided low-budgeted Millwall to an impressive eighth-place finish in their debut season at this level in 2017-18 and has also done superbly so far at Cardiff.
The former striker lifted the Bluebirds from 14th at the time of his mid-November appointment to fifth, thanks to a superb return of 52 points from 30 games – more than West Brom accrued in the same time.
The 43-year-old has established a fine centre-back pairing of Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson, with the latter providing much-needed mobility at the back, whilst getting the best out of reliable left-back Joe Bennett and long throw specialist Will Vaulks, a workhorse in midfield next to seven-goal man Joe Ralls.
While Cardiff can counter through the wide pace of Josh Murphy, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Gavin Whyte, they can also open teams up through the subtle creativity of Lee Tomlin, the reference point that mobile target man Kieffer Moore will provide after signing from Wigan and shrewd substitutions.
Several players including enigmatic wide man Junior Hoilett, versatile warrior Callum Paterson and technical front-man Robert Glatzel have all changed games from the bench and, this season especially, strength in reserve could be key.
Amid the modern game’s technical evolution, Harris is proving that old-school methods still have their place.
Nottingham Forest had, on paper, their best season since 2010-11 last term but, after the final day 4-1 capitulation against Stoke saw them miss out on the Play-Offs, one would have had to search Trentside wide and far to find an upbeat Red.
A deserved 2-0 win over eventual title-winners Leeds in early February prompted automatic promotion hopes, but the 1-0 home defeat to would-be relegated Charlton three days later was symptomatic of their season: six wins against top six opposition, of which five were followed directly by dropped points against sides below them.
Those trends could even out this season, with fewer fans to ferociously fire Forest forward in crunch clashes or perhaps grow slightly restless in others, but there are also stylistic issues at play.
The East Midlanders are built to absorb pressure through Brice Samba’s shot stopping, linked away Joe Worrall’s excellent defending and Ben Watson’s discipline at the base of the midfield next to the energetic Samba Sow, then counter-attack.
Rampaging right-back Matty Cash was a vital outlet in transition along with wing-partner Joe Lolley, who loved to cut inside and either create or curl shots with his delightful left-foot.
When more conservative opponents nullified Cash and Lolley’s threat, Forest had to vary their approach play which is where the comparative inconsistency of left-siders Yuri Ribeiro and Sammy Ameobi became problematic, as well as the shortage of goals and assists from playmaker Tiago Silva, whose debut campaign was little more than passable.
Fresh ideas from Lamouchi and continued clinical finishing from Lewis Grabban along with Charlton recruit Lyle Taylor would lay final day ghosts to rest – and keep Forest in the mix.
Preston North End
With one of the Championship’s lower budgets, Preston North End have almost always been in contention for the Play-Offs.
That is credit to the coaching capabilities of manager Alex Neil, who has been working with a squad that had, last season, two massive limitations: the absence of a natural, attacking left-back and the absence of a complete centre-forward.
Andrew Hughes and Joe Rafferty were deployed at left-back but the former rarely enjoyed crossing the halfway line while the latter’s right-footedness affected the tempo.
Former fan favourite David Nugent re-joined the club last summer but that may have been a striker of owner Trevor Hemmings’ choosing rather than Neil’s and the veteran failed to complete 90 minutes.
In terms of alternative options, Jayden Stockley’s lack of mobility, Louis Moult’s injury issues and Tom Barkhuizen’s lack of hold-up experience all limited North End, as did Sean Maguire’s preference for playing on the left.
Scott Sinclair also played a fair proportion of games on the left after joining in January and brought some quality, while the other addition last season was that of leader Patrick Bauer, who formed a fine centre-back pairing with Ben Davies.
The latter, one of the most complete Championship defenders last term, has so far stayed at Deepdale, as has the influentially tenacious Ben Pearson.
It has taken Neil some time to identify the strongest midfielder to partner Pearson and operate just behind the creative Daniel Johnson, who thrived with a freer rein last term; all-rounder Tom Bayliss, driving stalwart Alan Browne, technical veteran Paul Gallagher and the energetic Ryan Ledson are the current candidates.
Neil is likely to rotate between that quartet in a congested fixture schedule with what is, despite no additions by late-August, arguably a squad deeper in quality than the Lancashire club has seen in over a decade.
Jordan Storey, Josh Earl, Josh Harrop, Billy Bodin and Brad Potts will all be reliable fringe players in what could be the long-awaited top six finish – if North End can address the two key areas that held them back last term.
Relegation is never enjoyable, but what Bournemouth’s drop last season brought to an end was five consecutive seasons in the top flight: a fantastic achievement for a club with a background in the third and fourth tiers.
Eddie Howe’s wonderful association with the Cherries, spanning a combined 23 years, has been ended by mutual consent and the 42-year-old has been replaced by long-term assistant Jason Tindall, which may represent a missed opportunity to freshen things up with new ideas.
The West Country club have not yet made any new signings, either, for their Championship return, so Tindall must get more out of last summer’s recruits like winger Arnaut Danjuma, who did not play like a £13.7 million player.
Left-sided centre-back Lloyd Kelly, though, was immense after returning from injury, pushing left-footed Nathan Ake to his unnatural right side before the latter earnt a £40 million move to Manchester City.
Some of the Ake money and the £18 million received from Sheffield United for star goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale may not be used for first choice replacements: stalwart Steve Cook could partner Kelly at the back, with Chris Mepham also in the mix, while young Mark Travers could be Tindall’s stopper.
Instead, Bournemouth could bring in a natural left-back to play instead of right-footed Adam Smith, as well as two more wingers, with David Brooks linked away.
Width though will be provided by Jack Stacey and the marauding right-back should be comfortable at this level, having been key to Luton’s 2018-19 League One title win.
Injury-hampered Callum Wilson, though, may be a different striker to the one that led Bournemouth’s last title win and fellow forward Josh King has interest, so much pressure could be on 22-year-old Dominic Solanke to deliver on his teenage promise.
Powerful midfielder Nnamdi Ofoborh, meanwhile, could contend with Columbia international Jefferson Lerma after a great loan spell at Wycombe, but assistants turned managers are rarely successful and Bournemouth look the weakest of the relegated trio.
Stoke have been the Championship’s biggest underachievers since their Premier League relegation in 2018.
Gary Rowett then Nathan Jones failed to get the best out of an expensive squad but now, in Michael O’Neill, the Potters have a manager with successful international experience.
Drastic improvement under the former Northern Ireland boss, who has overseen an impressive 14 wins in 31 games in charge, was hinted at by performances under Jones – opposing nets lived a charmed life under the fiery Welshman – but O’Neill turned a promising team into an efficient one.
Sam Clucas has been pivotal to the turnaround, with the 29-year-old showing the energy, adaptability and hunger – stemming from his non-league start – to slot seamlessly into five different roles, aiding O’Neill’s formation changes.
Clucas has featured in seven different divisions yet could partner a former Champions League winner in John Obi Mikel, a classy midfield presence behind enigmatic creator Nick Powell.
Behind touchline-hugger James McClean, Stoke needed a steady left-back and Morgan Fox fits the bill after signing from Sheffield Wednesday along with Steven Fletcher, who will provide a more workmanlike version of target man Sam Vokes; the Scot will hold the ball up for speedy forward Tyrese Campbell.
At the other end, a possible swap deal involving Jack Butland and Angus Gunn at West Ham would be a great move for the Staffordshire club, who have re-signed experienced defenders James Chester and Kevin Wimmer whilst now being able to call upon towering centre-back Harry Souttar.
Stoke entered late August with 33 senior professionals: such depth could be a hindrance if O’Neill’s tinkering becomes disruptive but is more likely to help in a congested campaign.
Mel Morris will not be splashing the cash this time, despite the high-profile recruit of Wayne Rooney – the chairman wants 50% of his club’s 2020-21 squad to be made up by academy graduates.Gabriel Sutton
Derby County’s 10th-placed finish last season was on paper their joint-lowest position in eight years, but natives are optimistic that 2019-20 marked the start of an exciting new project under Phillip Cocu.
Success is relative to investment so, while the Rams have mounted many stronger promotion pushes in recent seasons, they have also risked more financially in that time and still not been able to stop their Premier League exile from extending to 12 years.
Mel Morris will not be splashing the cash this time, despite the high-profile recruit of Wayne Rooney – the chairman wants 50% of his club’s 2020-21 squad to be made up by academy graduates.
Ambitious on paper, perhaps, but the rise of adventurous right-back Jayden Bogle has inspired left-back Lee Buchanan, attacking midfield talent Louis Sibley, controller Max Bird, relentless presser Jason Knight and energetic forward Morgan Whittaker to make first team breakthroughs last season.
Right-back Festy Ebosele, aerial centre-back Eiran Cashin, versatile defender Archie Brown and poacher Jahmal Hector-Ingram are all expected to feature more and one or two could make a real name for themselves in the same way Sibley did last term.
Derby still have some proven Championship quality amid the youth, though, in defender Andre Wisdom, left-back Scott Malone, utility man Krystian Bielik, versatile forward Martyn Waghorn and enigmatic dribbler Tom Lawrence.
The task for Cocu will be to balance the immediate need to get the results to keep them among the Play-Off contenders with the wider need to carry out Morris’ 50% plan – there could be times when those requirements conflict.
Just as Neil Harris’ decision to part company with the club he had spent a combined 18 years with benefited his latest employers, it has also benefited Millwall.
Unlike his predecessor, Gary Rowett had no prior association but there is something about his connection with the club that simply feels right: and it has felt right on the pitch, with the Lions taking 54 points from his 35 games in charge.
Rowett has drilled the South Bermondsey side into one of the Championship’s best defensive units with Bartosz Bialkowski – arguably the second-tier’s strongest stopper in three of the last four seasons – protected by three excellent centre-backs in the aggressive Shaun Hutchinson, leader Alex Pearce and the gangly Jake Cooper.
The latter could be a key reference point from set pieces while Millwall’s attacking threat from open play will come predominantly from Ryan Woods’ midfield control then Jed Wallace.
The 26-year-old will start on the right of a front-three in Rowett’s 5-2-3 setup before cutting inside, a licence that helped him become the Championship’s only player in 2019-20 to attain a double-figured number of goals and assists.
The partnership of Wallace and wing-back Mahlon Romeo, both direct runners, means much of Millwall’s play goes down the right flank and little, the left.
That problem would be countered by a permanent deal for athletic wide forward Mason Bennett, who impressed on loan from Derby, as well as the arrival of an attacking left wing-back, which would allow Murray Wallace, a centre-back by trade, to offer much-needed cover in his natural position.
At the other end, Troy Parrott could be the complete striker the Londoners lacked last term – the Tottenham loanee is more mobile than target man Matt Smith, but taller and stronger than the hardworking Tom Bradshaw – and gives them vital depth up top.
In most other areas though, Millwall look short on quality in reserve so during the busiest periods, Rowett must show immense adaptability and imagination to keep them in the mix.
Pessimism seemed prevalent after Bristol City’s appointment of Dean Holden as head coach.
The club passed up the opportunity to appoint an experienced promotion winner in Chris Hughton and some perceived owner Steve Lansdown to have shown a lack of ambition by taking the cheap option.
If there is ever a climate in which to take the cheap option, though, it is this one and City already possess a big squad that Holden has deep knowledge of and trust in, whereas a new man with immediate Premier League ambitions might demand an overhaul.
That would have been a shame, because shot stopper Max O’Leary, quick centre-back Taylor Moore, controller Liam Walsh, dynamo Tyreeq Bakinson, all-rounder Joe Morrell, wide technician Jonny Smith and mobile forward Sammie Szmodics all enjoyed strong loan spells in Leagues One and Two.
Each possess the potential to become top six Championship players in the next two or three seasons, so it makes sense to have a head coach who can nurture them on manageable wages.
Walsh, Bakinson and Morrell though face huge tasks to displace strong midfield options in metronomic mind Ádám Nagy, energetic teenager Han-Noah Massengo, Wigan recruit Joe Williams, enigmatic creator Jamie Paterson and winger-by-trade Niclas Eliasson, who could play some games as a number 10.
Andreas Weimann would also be on this list after his form with Paterson as the two number eights in Holden’s 3-5-2, but the former Derby man may revert to a more advanced role to cover for the shortage of central forwards. Famara Diedhiou does not quite provide the type of movement that Holden may want, so a full season of fine form from Nahki Wells is essential.
Jay Dasilva will play a key part in setting up Wells with his attacking runs from left wing-back and the diminutive 22-year-old also hopes to protect Nathan Baker who, as City’s only natural left-sided centre-back going into late August, must stay fit like Tomas Kalas and Jack Hunt.
While Holden might not be the man to end City’s 40-year wait for top flight football, he could be the man to develop a squad that can.
Barnsley will be the Championship’s most exciting outfit without the ball.
They close down their opponents with relentless tenacity and while athletes Jacob Brown and Conor Chaplin are furthest forward on paper, numerous midfielders like fearless left-footer Alex Mowatt and even defenders like attacking right-back Kilian Ludewig – who returns on loan – are encouraged to follow up on good hassling work by chasing the ball right up to the opposing goalkeeper.
This innovative pressing structure, which we might describe as “inverted total football”, will be demanding in many ways, but it could also be an advantage in a congested fixture list because, rather than Brown and Chaplin carrying the team off-the-ball by doing all the running, the workload is divided more evenly.
Previous head coach Daniel Stendel introduced pressing principles to the Reds in the League One promotion season but his replacement, Gerhard Struber, has expanded on his predecessor’s ideas and implemented them more successfully at this level.
In 30 games since the Austrian took charge, Barnsley have taken 40 points, giving them the Championship’s 13th-best return in nearly two-thirds of the season – form comparable to most Play-Off contenders.
The Reds possess a consistent young goalkeeper in Jack Walton, a defensive leader in Michael Sollbauer – who assisted Mads Andersen’s improvement in form after joining in January – and a technical left-back in Clarke Oduor.
The latter, along with creative force Callum Styles, are expected to manage more than last term’s combined 17 league starts and both could become stars of the Championship; Styles’ post-restart performances, combined with the form of Elliot Simões creates healthy competition for Cauley Woodrow, arguably Tarn’s most technical forward.
Once they ended last season’s 17-game win-less streak in November, Barnsley were a very captivating side and it might not take much for them to turn into a top half proposition.
Results can be deceptive.
Swansea City might have reached the Play-Offs in Steve Cooper’s first season in charge, with a four-place and five-point improvement on the previous campaign, but they arguably looked a more complete, entertaining side in 2018-19.
Graham Potter, their manager that year, co-ordinated fluent, exotic patterns of play that unhinged opponents and made the Swans one of the Championship’s most spatially aware outfits.
Although Cooper, like Potter, favours possession football, there has been far less positional rotation under his watch so issues like the dearth of full-backs who can attack the flank individualistically and the absence of a strong, dynamic midfield partner for deep-lying playmaker Matt Grimes have come to the surface.
The one thing Cooper does have over his predecessor is contacts. A World Cup winner with England Under-17s in 2017, the 40-year-old had the luxury in January of being able to loan in some of the globe’s best teenage talent in centre-back Marc Guehi, attacking midfielder Conor Gallagher and striker Rhian Brewster.
Gallagher’s final third incision and Brewster’s clinical finishing, combined with wide flair from Andre Ayew, masked a lot of structural issues which will need to be resolved this term, even if Freddie Woodman returns on a second loan spell from Newcastle.
Cooper will lean on the loan market again in hope of another top six berth but a bottom half finish feels likelier: sustainable results cannot be found by asking a group of short-term stars to turn an average team into a good one.
Queens Park Rangers
What Mark Warburton gets praised for and what he gets criticised for are two sides of the same coin.
Warburton encourages his players to be brave on the ball, make bold forward runs and play with freedom, which is a big part of why his QPR side scored 67 goals, their highest tally in nine years, but also why they conceded 76.
The trade-off is worth it for most Rs fans, because the club now has a massive asset in Ebere Eze, linked with a Premier League move – he might not have developed accordingly under a different manager.
Agile creator Ilias Chair could help offset the on-field deficit from Eze’s expected exit by increasing his output, but a natural replacement will be crucial with newly contracted Luke Amos set to assume a box-to-box role next to strong sitter Dominic Ball.
Other stars include speedster Bright Osayi-Samuel on the right of the attacking quartet and midfielder turned left-back Ryan Manning, who will bring tenacity, drive and a cultured deep delivery for Lyndon Dykes.
The Livingston recruit will aim to score 20 goals for the Hoops, which is attainable in a Warburton setup designed to create chances. They have a defender in Yoann Barbet who is valued more for his contributions on the ball than off it.
QPR averaged 1.5 points per game last season with Barbet and 0.8 per game without him, so a full campaign of classy diagonals from the Frenchman would help – as would the continued development of defenders Conor Masterson and Osman Kakay – while Seny Dieng’s excellent distribution makes him an intriguing contender for the number one jersey.
Another developmental season looks in the offing.
Tony Mowbray will always have a place in hearts of Blackburn fans regardless of events hereon, but this season may define how much further the marriage can progress.
Inspire an unlikely promotion push and “Mogga” will reach untouchable hero status, but a bottom half finish and the Yorkshireman may come to be remembered as the man who did a smidge more than the stabilizing job that was asked of him.
Mowbray’s side are likely to enter this season with an imbalanced squad as struggles to replace last season’s sponsor have set the club back even further financially, making it hard to attract the right senior goalkeeper, centre-back, left-back, wide forward and centre-forward, all of which the group arguably needs to gain promotion credentials.
Yes, the Lancashire outfit were just seven points off the Play-Offs last season but the shot data ranked them bottom six when it came to creating and denying goalscoring opportunities, with a gap in performance between their top five players and the rest.
Centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo brought class in possession next to the aggressive Darragh Lenihan, Ryan Nyambe offered thrust from right-back, Lewis Travis provided positive midfield dynamism while Adam Armstrong delivered craft and guile when cutting in from wide.
That quality quintet is reduced by Adarabioyo’s return to parent club Manchester City and while a fully fit season from advanced creators Bradley Dack and Lewis Holtby could boost Rovers, neither represent a natural fit for Mowbray’s 4-3-3.
Some key areas could be addressed by younger players and 22-year-old centre-back Scott Wharton has more than earned minutes after a series of positive loan spells. It is in this situation that Rovers will be grateful for having, outside the elite, one of the country’s best academies.
Nevertheless, this season could be about keeping the drop zone at arm’s length, whilst the club gets its financial house in order.
When Mark Bowen took over at Reading last season in mid-October, his job was simple: keep them up.
Bowen did just that and oversaw top half form with effectively the same side that had taken just eight points from the prior 11 games.
The former Stoke assistant got the best out of midfield playmaker John Swift, consistent right-back Andy Yiadom and defensive organiser Michael Morrison, whilst promoting young left-footed defender Tom McIntyre after the restart.
Despite fantastic results on paper, many natives felt uneasy about the Welshman leading the club into 2020-21, with the dearth of a clear tactical identity in place being the primary reservation.
It is highly likely, therefore, that the 56-year-old will leave his post as manager and become Sporting Director, having been a Technical Consultant before taking the manager’s job.
Bowen’s replacement as boss could be Veljko Paunović, who has had some success at youth level with Serbia and in the MLS with Chicago Fire.
It is reported that the club are set to make six to eight new signings to support Paunović in his attempts to deliver Premier League football, though any new additions will have to settle quickly.
Reading will hope to address last season’s problems up top, with Yakou Meite often considered to lack the touch to lead the line and while the expensive George Pușcaș had his moments, the Romanian is better at putting the finishing touches to moves than being an initial reference point.
The Royals might already have the solution, though, in fit again Lucas João, who has elements of both Meite’s physicality and Pușcaș’ quality, making him the ideal front-man for the rotating 3-4-2-1 that would at least have been Bowen’s blueprint.
Dynamo Andy Rinomhota and Shrewsbury recruit Josh Laurent, both extremely energetic, could lead the press, then perhaps drop back once the ball is turned over to clear the stage for creative technicians like Michael Olise and theoretically Swift, though the latter is wanted by Sheffield United.
If Swift stays, Reading’s midfield looks strong even without recruits and, in Rafael Cabral, they have a goalkeeper who can bail the team out on off days.
Two of the new signings, therefore, are likely to be a left wing-back to compete with Omar Richards and a right-footed centre-back to play wide of Morrison and McIntyre.
Restructuring at the club suggests greater immediate short-term ambitions than had been hitherto anticipated, but the Royals could do with a full season without fearing the drop.
Since relegation in 2013, that has been a rarity.
15-year-old Jobe Bellingham featured in the club’s kit reveal video for the new season but is another year off being eligible to follow in his brother’s footsteps.Gabriel Sutton
Birmingham have gone into three of their last seven final day encounters fearing relegation and it would be four in seven, without Wigan Athletic’s 12-point deduction last season.
Any optimism from the 13-game unbeaten run just after New Year promptly dissipated following the restart, when a paltry three points from the closing nine encounters saw the season end on a sour note.
18 goals were conceded in those games, so it’s a good job that Blues’ seventh manager in four years, Aitor Karanka, is a natural organiser.
Karanka’s Boro side won promotion in 2015-16 by conceding just 31 league goals, which remains the fewest anyone has shipped at this level since 2001-02 and the thought of a watertight unit at St Andrews is to die for – former colleague George Friend will bring leadership.
Karanka will love fit again Dutch destroyer Maikel Kieftenbeld, who could form a tenacious double-pivot with Ivan Sunjic, who may have a higher technical ceiling than displayed last season; the duo will protect the gangly Marc Roberts, who may thrive if paired with a mobile and cultured left-footed partner.
Intelligent full-back Maxime Colin and classic winger Jeremie Bela could form one of the division’s better right-sided partnerships, though strengthening is needed on the other flank due to Jude Bellingham’s high-profile move to Dortmund.
Major concerns lie in attack, where Lukas Jutkiewicz is one of the Championship’s best target men when paired with a quick partner but cannot line-lead alone, which suggests he could undertake a more peripheral role if Karanka deploys his usual 4-2-3-1.
The B9 club, therefore, urgently need a striker with a healthy mix of pace, strength and quality. Their ability to sign such a front man will be pivotal to any top half aspirations.
Entering late August with just 15 proven performers, though, Birmingham may lean on their academy and could do with another Bellingham.
Figuratively, we mean this and not literally – 15-year-old Jobe Bellingham featured in the club’s kit reveal video for the new season but is another year off being eligible to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Neil Warnock kept Middlesbrough up last season by overseeing a return of 12 points from eight games in charge but, since the club committed to the wily campaigner for the 2020-21 campaign, he has not had things all his own way.
Warnock reportedly targeted centre-back Charlie Goode, midfielder Joe Williams and striker Kieffer Moore on his shopping list but the club missed out on all three.
As of late August, the club’s only acquisition is that of Grant Hall – released by QPR – and while the 28-year-old has worked with Warnock before and will add much-needed know-how at the back, that signing alone represents underwhelming business to date.
Many latecomers would be required if Warnock is to have a squad that he believes can secure him a ninth promotion of his managerial career.
The 71-year-old last achieved the feat with an experienced Cardiff squad, whereas this Boro crop’s main selling point is it’s young talent.
Talented shot stopper Aynsley Pears, energetic right-back Djed Spence, attacking left-back Hayden Coulson, slight technician Ben Liddle, attacking midfielder Connor Malley, direct runner Marcus Tavernier and creative wide forward Marcus Browne along with England youth stars Nathan Wood and Ste Walker are all potentially key assets – and yet, key assets that Warnock may not maximize.
The former Sheffield United boss’ sides always play direct and while the athletic Ashley Fletcher has enough of a spring to pose an aerial threat from advanced, quality deliveries, he is only 6’1” and might struggle to make an effective default reference point for long balls from deep.
Warnock and Boro could be a mismatch.
Most EFL managers aim to command respect by posing an unshakably tough exterior, yet Rotherham United’s boss is having joy by doing the opposite.
Paul Warne is not afraid to at times show his insecurities and vulnerabilities: by doing this, he encourages his players to do likewise and has thus created a unique culture in which everyone feels connected on an emotional level; the psychological aspect may be giving Rotherham marginal gains.
Millers spirit was there for all to see in their last second-tier stint in 2018-19, when they just fell short through wayward shooting and momentary defensive lapses. The South Yorkshire outfit have fixed both problems since then.
Michael Ihiekwe is likely to be the Championship’s most aerially accomplished centre-back next to the courageous Angus MacDonald, while goalscoring midfielder Matt Crooks will be with the squad for a full rather than half-season at this level.
Next to Crooks in a 4-3-3, ball-carrier Ben Wiles is two years further down the line in his exciting development while a resigning of or replacement for Daniel Barlaser would complete a strong set of midfield options.
Doncaster and Hamilton recruits Kieran Sadlier and Mickel Miller will bring quality out wide and their arrivals suggest “Warniola” has learnt from two seasons ago, when his side were too defensive on the road and isolated tireless target man Michael Smith.
With Freddie Ladapo and Chiedozie Ogbene also now in contention, we can expect a narrower, more aggressive front three this time around.
That would mean width is required from full-backs and an athletic right-back – Matthew Olosunde or Birmingham recruit Wes Harding – should provide much more of it than Billy Jones or Zak Vyner did in their last relegation campaign.
A new left-back may be required to challenge 30-year-old Joe Mattock, but goalkeeper Jamal Blackman is an excellent addition on loan from Chelsea.
With two more additions, Rotherham can challenge their Championship reputation as perennial relegation fodder and Warne can challenge everything we thought we knew about sporting leadership.
If Luton Town fans had not forgiven manager Nathan Jones when he first re-joined the club, most will have done so now.
The fiery Welshman left the Hatters for Stoke City in controversial circumstances midway through the 2018-19 title-winning campaign, then returned to Kenilworth Road before the post-lockdown period last season, when he kept the club in the Championship from six points adrift.
A 5-0 home loss to Reading proved the anomaly of one defeat in nine under Jones who, having learnt a lot tactically from his disappointing period in Staffordshire, will likely have more vocal backing from natives when fans do return than he perhaps would have done when he arrived.
This time, though, the Hatters will be without two of last season’s three influential loanees in centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers, who brought much-needed ball-playing ability after joining on loan from Tottenham and Izzy Brown, among the division’s most creative players.
James Bree, though, re-joins to offer adventure from right-back as well as much-needed Championship pedigree which is lacking in this squad, of which 12 members were playing fourth-tier or below as recently as 2018 and another six have no EFL experience.
Versatile defender Martin Cranie, ball-winner Ryan Tunnicliffe, former Birmingham creator Andrew Shinnie and ex-Brighton wide forward Kazenga Lua Lua will be leaned on heavily for know-how – and these are players that the bulk of Luton’s divisional company would not desire.
James Collins adjusted surprisingly well to the level with a 14-goal haul along with some workmanlike performances – versatile forward Harry Cornick looked lively too – but if Luton stay up, it will not be because of the natural quality of their squad.
Rather, it will be through Jones’ sheer determination to implement his progressive ideas and technical demands.
Mark Robins has inspired two promotions in three seasons at Coventry, after last year’s title win.
The 50-year-old’s wonderful work means, despite stadium ownership disputes, the prior sense of doom surrounding the club has disappeared and last term, Robins converted the counter-attacking specialists of 2018-19 into an expansive, possession-based 3-4-2-1 outfit.
Controller Liam Walsh, on loan from Bristol City, performed so well in the absence of key enforcer Liam Kelly that Robins felt compelled to pair them behind two number eights – Zain Westbrooke and Jordan Shipley – to great effect.
The Sky Blues improved their distribution from deep thanks to goalkeeper Marko Maroši and any problems the Doncaster recruit had in commanding his penalty area were typically dealt with by the dominant Kyle McFadzean.
The former Burton centre-back was flanked by the assured Dominic Hyam and the physical Michael Rose; both Scots defended with intelligence and distributed with comfort.
At this level, though, Coventry defenders may face a higher press, which is where the dearth of quick wide forwards could be problematic.
Paderborn recruit Marcel Hilßner expects to play centrally rather than out wide – which suggests he’s a replacement for Westbrooke – and a permanent deal for the excellent Callum O’Hare also indicates no formation change.
Simple passes into PEC Zwolle recruit Gustavo Hamer – a Walsh replacement on paper – will work against low-block teams, but against more aggressive opponents, final third forays will be far harder to execute centrally.
Through results in games played predominantly on their terms, Coventry should stay up.
A lack of adaptability though could undermine any hopes of climbing the table, especially if they kick-off with a striker list of Matt Godden, Maxime Biamou and Amadou Bakayoko who, though capable, have neither huge growth potential nor experience in the top two tiers.
Huddersfield Town’s decision to sack Danny Cowley as manager might just be one of the biggest mistakes of the EFL season.
Cowley inherited a side joint bottom of the Championship with just one point from six games and changed the losing culture at the club, steering Town to safety with 50 points from 40 games.
The club’s hierarchy and new Head of Football Operations Leigh Bromby might say they want to move towards a clearer, more positive identity whilst promoting young players, which they are more likely to do under Carlos Corberán.
The problem, though, is that a structural change – and the squad overhaul required to support their new head coach – could be hard to implement.
Just 51 days stand between last season ending and the next commencing, while the financial climate is not conducive to heavy activity, so other clubs will be reluctant to take on high earners such as Terence Kongolo and Town may struggle to fund new additions without offloading first.
The Cowley brothers could eek results out of an imperfect squad and, because they had no default style, micro-manage each game whilst tailoring news ways of playing to different scenarios – qualities they are far less likely to get from Corberán.
Many players are yet to prove they could be good enough: goalkeeper Ben Hamer and full-back Florent Hadergjonaj along with wide forwards Josh Koroma, Isaac Mbenza and Adama Diakhaby.
Centre-backs could be unsuited to playing a high-line: Christopher Schindler, Tommy Elphick and Richard Stearman all in their 30s.
Striker Steve Mounié is only useful in aerial duals and ball-winner Jonathan Hogg, though a club legend, arguably a spent force; neither playmaker Alex Pritchard nor poacher Karlan Grant naturally fit into the expected 4-3-3.
Goalkeeper Ryan Schofield, right-back Dumeaco Duhaney, centre-back Rarmani Edmonds-Green, left-back Jaden Brown and technical midfielder Matty Daly, meanwhile are all deeply inexperienced.
Attacking left-back Harry Toffolo, energetic midfielder Lewis O’Brien and hardworking front-man Fraizer Campbell, therefore, are the only players the Terriers can trust.
Unless a glut of new players arrive before mid-September and all settle in instantly, there is a serious danger that Corberán will have to either lean too heavily on untested youth or shove square pegs into round holes in the midst of a relegation battle.
Wycombe Wanderers completed one of the biggest miracles in EFL history last season, when they beat Oxford 2-1 to win promotion and secure second-tier football for the first time ever.
Gareth Ainsworth worked wonders with the Chairboys who, with a bottom two budget, barely had 11 players in July.
One was Darius Charles, advised to retire with an arthritic hip, who became a Player of the Season candidate at centre-back next to the colossal Anthony Stewart.
Newly-contracted Jack Grimmer may adjust better to the speed of Championship football than full-back counter-part Joe Jacobson, who lacks Grimmer’s vigorous energy but is integral to the Blues’ set piece threat.
Jacobson’s deliveries will be aimed at athletic front-man Uche Ikpeazu, signed from Hearts to be a halfway house between the uniquely physical Adebayo Akinfenwa and persistent runner Alex Samuel.
The composed Dominic Gape looks a natural fit for the Championship but his ball-winning midfield partner, Curtis Thompson, may struggle as first choice at this level, having been dropped from the XI in the Play-Offs.
Alex Pattison – confident and driven but with just one league start in a year – may not be the ideal rotation option for legendary stalwart Matt Bloomfield.
“Blooms” enters his 18th season at Adams Park and the 36-year-old needs just 27 league appearances to reach 500 for the club. To hit that in the Championship would bring a fitting likely conclusion to a glorious Wanderers career spanning three separate decades.
The next three could be taken care of, with the trustworthy Couhig family at the helm.
Wycombe will give the Championship a gallant go and, even if they honourably fall short of staying up, there will remain much to look forward to for a club that now has stable foundations and a sustainable long-term vision.
Sheffield Wednesday begin this season on -12 points, after an independent disciplinary panel adjudged the club to have broken spending rules by including the sale of Hillsborough in their 2017-18 accounts, despite the ground having been sold later.
Garry Monk kept Birmingham up comfortably in 2018-19 after a nine-point deduction, but the former defender is less popular as manager of the Owls, who have taken just 47 points from 40 games under his leadership, with only four wins in 23 post-Christmas encounters.
A drastic improvement is essential to Wednesday’s chances of avoiding relegation – and this is without dependable left-back Morgan Fox and target man Steven Fletcher, who have both since moved to Stoke.
There have been suggestions that, if Monk is not able to add good full-backs, he may look at using Kadeem Harris and Adam Reach as wing-backs, which would get more thrust and quality into Wednesday’s wide play than we have seen in recent seasons.
The concern with a back-three, likely comprising of athlete Dominic Iorfa, organiser Julian Börner and Wigan recruit Chey Dunkley, would be that stalwart Barry Bannan, in midfield, could drop too close to defenders and possibly clog up build-up play in the Wednesday third.
A full season, though, from Massimo Luongo would give the Owls steel and drive in midfield while Izzy Brown, on loan from Chelsea, could replicate the creative qualities he displayed when fit at Luton.
Most concerningly, the South Yorkshire outfit enter late-August with Jordan Rhodes as their only centre-forward and the poacher will need somebody alongside him to win physical duels.
Wednesday have dropped alarmingly since Play-Off campaigns in 2015-16 and 2016-17 under Carlos Carvalhal and their decline could, this season, culminate in a bottom-placed finish.