In July, we gave our predictions for the 2019-20 Championship season. Here are our updated picks.
Pre-season prediction: 1st
Summer verdict: “Although Leeds United have finished seventh, 13th and third in their last three Championship seasons, they all followed similar patterns: early signs of huge potential, but with promotion hopes dashed by a bad run. The challenge, this year, is therefore to take enough points in the first two-thirds of the campaign to leave no room for any psychologically damaging narratives to ever rear their heads. This could be the year that Leeds defy the self-fulfilling ‘falling apart’ prophecy and go up as champions.”
Leeds United have been caught before in similar positions at this stage of previous seasons, but something feels different this year.
The Whites have been playing scintillating football with Jack Harrison and Patrick Bamford going up another level from last season; Mateusz Klich is making excellent runs deep into the final third and Helder Costa has brought pace and quality from the right, too.
The big question was how they would fare without Pontus Jansson, whom Marcelo Bielsa purposefully sold to Brentford, but replacement Ben White has become the most complete in the Championship, next to a spirited leader in Liam Cooper.
While full-backs Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas have not always been able to stay fit, we have seen the likes of Stuart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski slot in with minimal fuss – and sometimes Bielsa has plumped for a risqué 3-3-3-1 formation, with no full-backs or wing-backs, to keep opponents guessing.
The West Yorkshire outfit look less reliant on Pablo Hernandez for creativity this term and although midfielder Kalvin Phillips has been slightly below-par in recent weeks, they have all the ingredients to secure top spot – defying narratives in the process.
2. West Brom
Pre-season prediction: 13th
Summer verdict: “Although West Brom finished fourth last season, it never felt like they were likely to win promotion. The Baggies were very productive when they got into the final third, as any team who scores 87 league goals must be, yet much of their general play was static and disjointed – now, with Gayle, Rodriguez and Barnes departed, they cannot rely on individualism. Slaven Bilic must develop an identity to assert more control – but have the right changes been made?”
Huge credit must go to Slaven Bilic for the way the first half of West Brom’s season has gone.
Yes, the Baggies finished fourth last year but, after losing a lot of key players from 2018-19, the Croat has had to re-build very quickly.
It is therefore impressive that not only have they displayed as much individual quality as we saw last year, but there has also been more cohesion about their all-round play; that has been helped massively by the signing of midfielder Romaine Sawyers.
Bilic will want to stop his side falling behind quite so often – they have done that in 12 league games – but a haul of 20 points from losing positions highlights shrewdly-judged substitutions as well as strength in depth.
Filip Krovinovic, for example, looked a compelling technician in the early weeks but his starting berth has since been taken by the outstanding Matheus Pereira.
Matt Phillips and Grady Diangana may have the edge over the competitors for starts on the right and left of the attacking quartet respectively, but there is no shortage of options up top.
Recently, Slaven Bilic has often picked the hardworking Hal Robson-Kanu to lead the line in his 4-2-3-1, but he can bring arguably one of English football’s best finishers outside the elite in Charlie Austin off the bench; Kenneth Zahore is back fit to offer his running power, too.
Albion fans may seek a tenacious midfielder with whom to rotate with Jake Livermore this month, but the squad looks strong enough to last the course.
Pre-season prediction: 3rd
Summer verdict: “It will help rookie Scott Parker to have playmaker Tom Cairney and target man Aleksandar Mitrovic, key members of the 2017-18 promotion-winning side, on board; fellow recent promotion-winners, Wolves’ Ivan Cavaleiro and Brighton’s Anthony Knockaert, add much-needed wide quality, so there is reason to think Fulham will be well in the mix for promotion.”
Fulham should have, on paper, as good a squad as the existing top two.
In Mitrovic, they possess a beast in the box and the division’s top goalscorer with 18 goals, while the history of Cairney, Cavaleiro and Knockaert tells us that, theoretically, they ought to be among the league’s top performers.
That is not to say that the Whites have a perfect squad; Cyrus Christie does not provide anything like the drive and thrust from right-back that we saw from Ryan Fredericks two seasons ago and, with Kevin McDonald declining, Fulham have not found a deep, midfield metronome to let Cairney and Stefan Johansen off the leash.
Another difference between Fulham and the current occupants of the automatic promotion places though, could be the manager.
While Bielsa and Bilic are two respected figures on the global stage, Parker is merely cutting his teeth and has not always been able to structure the team correctly.
The Whites look good enough to reach the Play-Offs, but some way short of Leeds and West Brom’s standards.
Pre-season prediction: 5th
Summer verdict: “Thomas Frank has been determined to perfect the work his team does in every phase of play – attacking, defending and transitions – he believes he can build a better-rounded team. Julian Jeanvier added much-needed physicality and will now be flanked by Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock; both were among the EFL’s best-performing centre-backs last term, so Brentford look well capable of reaching the Play-Offs.”
Thomas Frank’s side have produced some excellent performances this season.
Brentford always play good football and naturally, their track record of recruitment inspired confidence that they could threaten without Neal Maupay.
Sure enough, the attacking combination of Saïd Benrahma, Bryan Mbueno and Ollie Watkins has been delightful.
Benrahma’s flair and trickery belongs at a higher level while Mbuemo, a threat cutting in from the right at pace, has a huge future as a France Under-21s international.
The biggest surprise is how well Watkins has adjusted to being the main striker; the former Exeter man, a recognised wide forward, has turned into this strong, focal point who has scored 17 goals, including six headers.
Crucially, Frank has made the team more powerful, more adaptable and better organised over the last 12 months and Jansson has performed as well as expected since signing from Leeds.
Fellow recruits, Mathias Jensen and Christian Nørgaard, have brought class and control to the midfield, handing the Hovedstaden-born head coach healthy headaches with six goal man Josh Da Silva and all-action dynamo Kamohelo Mokotjo also in contention.
This is Brentford’s final season at Griffin Park – it looks possible that they could say goodbye to it by celebrating promotion.
5. Bristol City
Pre-season prediction: 2nd
Summer verdict: “Bristol City have progressed every season for the last five years. Early in Lee Johnson’s reign, the Robins showed creative potential but looked a soft touch at times; in 2017-18, they improved their work without the ball then last season, they became more adaptable with the ability to mix up the approach play. Every year they add something new to their game and if the current rate of progress continues into 2019-20, we could be looking at the complete package.”
City are within touching distance of the top six, even if they are not the complete package they might have hoped to be.
Lee Johnson’s side have won 2-1 at Fulham and thrashed Huddersfield and Luton – but they have also lost 3-0 at Luton and 2-0 to a weakened Blackburn side.
The Robins have gone 10-games unbeaten this season, but also lost four on the spin.
The adaptability, earlier described as a potential strength, could become a hindrance; they have already used 27 different players and their most-used formation, 3-5-2, has been deployed in only nine of the 26 league games, amongst five other systems.
Injuries though, have not helped.
The Robins have often been aided by needed metronomic influence of Adam Nagy, as well as the dynamism of Han-Noah Massengo; those two players have only started a combined 27 out of 52 league games.
Plus, Benik Afobe began the campaign in excellent form and may have been the clinical striker to compliment a selfless runner in Andreas Weimann, but only played five times.
Johnson has struggled to maintain a consistent defence, too, with Taylor Moore, Tomas Kalas and Nathan Baker all unable to stay fit – more than three appearances from talented left-back Jay Da Siilva would have helped, too.
That is not to say that the management team are immune to scrutiny; winger Niclas Eliasson, for example, has arguably shown enough quality to merit more than nine starts, although formation is a factor.
Get their best XI together and maybe a winning streak can propel Bristol City back into the mix.
Pre-season prediction: 16th
Summer verdict: “Had Millwall played out a carbon copy of their 2018-19 campaign the year before, just after promotion, no questions would have been asked; the Lions, operating on a bottom-three budget, secured their Championship status and reached an FA Cup Quarter-Final. Standards, however, had been raised by their unlikely rise into Play-Off contention in 2017-18, so while fans would have tolerated a bottom half finish, a 13-place drop and a significant dip in performance levels was difficult to swallow. Millwall cannot rely on Rotherham’s wastefulness, Bolton’s cashflow issues nor Ipswich’s no-show again, so performances must improve, but they have the players to do it.”
Millwall have looked strong under Gary Rowett.
The former Birmingham boss has got the Lions well-organised and they attack quickly down the right through wing-back Mahlon Romeo and wide forward Jed Wallace; keeping the latter this month will be crucial to maintaining the efficiency of the 5-2-3.
Defensively, the Lions have looked very solid, conceding just 13 goals in 13 games since the change of manager with leader Alex Pearce having established a strong understanding at centre-back with aerial menace Jake Cooper and the experienced Shaun Hutchinson.
The rear-guard is helped by Bartosz Bialkowski’s ability to make 86 saves, the second-most out of all the goalkeepers in the Championship this season, but the midfield blend is good.
Millwall boast the energetic Jayson Molumby, who presses with the hunger to win the hearts of natives, while Shaun Williams can dictate with his sweet left foot.
The South Bermondsey outfit still require more thrust and quality on the left, either from the wing-back or wide forward position – although a run of form for Connor Mahoney would help in the latter case.
In target man Matt Smith and the intelligent Tom Bradshaw, they have two strikers bringing different qualities and, much like the 2017-18 side, could become surprise contenders for a Play-Off berth.
7. Nottingham Forest
Pre-season prediction: 7th
Summer verdict: “Evangelos Marinakis’ call to dismiss manager Martin O’Neill, then replace him with Sabri Lamouchi 19 minutes later, further fuelled the public perception of Nottingham Forest as a sacking club. The board though had to make the decision that would give the club the best possible chance of competing for promotion in 2019-20 – and the evidence is that they have done just that. Albert Adomah and Tiago Silva join a core in aerial centre-back Alexander Milosovic, mazy-running wide man Joe Lolley and powerful front-man Lewis Grabban who can all perform to a high-level.”
Forest have got into promotion contention through having a strong spine.
Brice Samba has been outstanding in goal, as has Joe Worrall at centre-back with Ben Watson protecting the defence and Lewis Grabban firing in the goals.
The Reds can pose a threat in wide areas too, with the right-sided combination of direct runner Matty Cash and inward drifter Joe Lolley.
Their performance data, however, has always been one of the reasons to have reservations.
The Tricky Trees average 1.24 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.14 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 52.10%,
only the 11th-best in the division.
They have been efficient without quite playing like a top-six side – and December’s 4-0 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday offered an indication into the dangers of losing their usual solidity.
Knowing how ruthless owner Evangelos Marinakis can be and knowing that the club historically is not one to give managers much leeway, it is possible that Lamouchi, too, will leave and thus start another cycle of instability.
8. Swansea City
Pre-season prediction: 6th
Summer verdict: “Graham Potter’s work on passing sequences last season, combined with Matt Grimes’ control at the base of the midfield, means there is already a tactical identity in place for new head coach Steve Cooper to maintain and enhance. Swansea play wonderfully audacious football and could be surprisingly competitive.”
Swansea are getting better results than they were last season, but with less impressive passages of play.
Under Graham Potter, we at times marvelled at the passing sequences of this Swans side, yet they fell well short of the top six.
Under Steve Cooper, they are currently in the top six, but have relied more heavily than they would like on strong goalkeeping performances from Freddie Woodman.
The Newcastle loanee’s star performances have been key to Swansea scraping 20 points from 12 away games this season.
The Welsh outfit average 1.31 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.44 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 47.68%; only the 15th-best in the Championship.
Borja Baston started the season with five goals as many games but the Spaniard netted just once for the remainder of 2019 so Rhian Brewster needs to make an impact.
One could be forgiven, too, for hoping for more productivity from Bersant Celina, who might have been seen as their go-to magician when Daniel James left.
On the plus side, they have Andre Ayew, who links play very well coming inside from the right with Connor Roberts overlapping him from right-back effectively.
George Byers has looked full of energy when breaking forward from midfield and appear braver in getting shots away this year – Ben Wilmott has shown he can step up as the centre-back partner for Joe Rodon when Mike Van der Hoorn is out, too.
Swansea, though, will need to lift their performance levels to hold onto their top six berth.
9. Preston North End
Pre-season prediction: 9th
Summer verdict: “While a lot of Championship teams are working out how to play out from the back, North End’s aggressive pressing and swift transitions could come to the fore; they are all about the tenacity of Ben Pearson, the drive of Alan Browne and the direct running of Tom Barkhuizen. While fans are understandably disgruntled by the slow transfer activity – two key voids are still unfilled – it is important not to underestimate the current squad.”
Preston North End impressive in the first third of this season.
Alex Neil should be credited for freeing up Daniel Johnson and using him in the number 10 position, which has maximized his creative qualities; right-sided forward Tom Barkhuizen remains a threat, too and Ben Pearson is the best ball-winner in the Championship.
The Lilywhites, though, have hit poor form at a bad time.
Having been second in mid-November, a respectable December return could have left them well-placed to attract potential recruits in January.
Instead, eight points from 10 games up to New Year’s Day saw the Lilywhites drop outside the top six and recent performances highlight three glaring squad weaknesses which we have known since pre-season.
Firstly, they do not have a good goalkeeper, secondly, they do not have a left-back to provide width and thirdly, perhaps most importantly, they do not possess a complete striker.
Declan Rudd averages only 2.2 saves per 90 minutes this season – 24 Championship goalkeepers average more – and the fact the 28-year-old has still started every league match implies limited competition.
Neither the right-footed Joe Rafferty nor the conservative Andrew Hughes have offered much going forward from left-back, which is problematic in a 4-2-3-1 side that presses narrowly from the front.
Additionally, each of North End’s strikers have at least one flaw: Louis Moult has struggled to stay fit, David Nugent rarely lasts longer than 90 minutes and Jayden Stockley is little more than an aerial specialist.
That is not a huge problem if midfielders and wide forwards are frequently chipping in, but the usual suspects – Sean Maguire and Alan Browne among others – have not quite been as productive as hoped, so there has been a big reliance on Johnson’s quality in open play and Paul Gallagher set piece proficiency.
For a side that has prided itself on recruitment over the last half-decade, North End have not quite addressed key areas over the last 12 months and for that reason, it is hard to have confidence in the board making the deals to turn a top half squad into a top six one.
10. Hull City
Pre-season prediction: 21st
Summer verdict: “Hull fans now feel more apathy than anger towards the Allam family after a decade under their control; the owners’ lack of foresight remains problematic and has given way to an unnecessarily uncertain summer. There is much to like about Grant McCann, but structural issues at Hull means the manager must not only coach well, but also carry the whole club forward with relentless positivity as well as his predecessor. Staying up would be an achievement.”
Hull’s game, so far this season, has been all about Jarrod Bowen.
McCann has sometimes placed the academy graduate up top, but most often on the right of the 4-3-3 and Kamil Grosicki on the left; both players are given the license to stay high up the pitch.
On the one hand, this makes the Tigers a huge threat in transition: it has helped them produce outstanding counter-attacking performances, like October’s 2-1 win at Nottingham Forest and November’s 3-0 win at Fulham.
Conversely, certain teams have managed to find an edge over Hull in the middle third due to the lack of engagement from wide players in vicinity.
There are risks to McCann’s approach but they have paid off, because the Humberside outfit sit in the top half, within touching distance of the Play-Off places.
The test will come if, as reported, Bowen leaves this month for Aston Villa and Josh Bowler fills his place on the right of the attacking trio; the Everton loanee has pace and skill but is not as proven at this level in terms of end product.
That is not to say that Hull do not have strengths in other areas of the team: Reece Burke has formed a strong centre-back partnership with Jordy de Wijs, Eric Lichaj is an adaptable full-back, Jackson Irvine has a presence about him in midfield while the likes of Daniel Batty and Keane Lewis-Potter are bright, young talents.
How the team reacts to Bowen’s mooted departure would define their Play-Off chances, but they are on course for an impressive top 10 finish.
11. Derby County
Pre-season prediction: 11th
Summer verdict: “Phillip Cocu is arguably a managerial upgrade on Frank Lampard, but the wider issue is the delays the manager change has caused. The individual quality of Derby’s loanees was critical last season and while Kieran Dowell replaces Mason Mount, an obvious replacement is not in place for Harry Wilson, nor ball-playing defender Fikayo Tomori. The Rams are trying to get their existing squad on a par with the one they had last season, so it will be hard for them to improve it.”
This has not been a great season so far for Derby, on or off the field.
Having finished above 10th in each of their previous six campaigns, the Rams are currently languishing in the bottom half of the Championship – well adrift off the Play-Off places.
Phillip Cocu is taking a long time to impose a clear playing identity on this Derby side, who have accrued just seven points from 12 away games; that is before we consider non-footballing misdemeanours.
In 18 months, though, we could be looking at the 2019-20 campaign at Pride Park as one of necessary transition.
In refraining from signing expensive replacements from the previous campaign (Wayne Rooney’s arrival necessitates surprisingly little cost to the club), chairman Mel Morris has been able to cut the wage bill.
Youngsters such as Max Bird, a composed sitting midfielder and Jason Knight, an aggressive wide forward, have followed Jayden Bogle’s footsteps in progressing from an impressive academy, which Morris hopes will be represented by 50% of next season’s squad.
Cocu does need to make changes to re-balance the side and more width is required, but the Dutchman’s pedigree suggests he is the man to instigate an extensive re-build.
12. Sheffield Wednesday
Pre-season prediction: 22nd
Summer verdict: “There are significant structural problems at Sheffield Wednesday. Dejphon Chansiri has neglected facilities and, having brought no saleable assets, the club failed to comply with FFP and thus have been able to make just three permanent senior additions since the start of last summer. That leaves the permanent replacement for Steve Bruce needing to work entirely with the current squad, which posted the fifth-worst shot data in the Championship last season.”
Wednesday deserve credit for being in contention at this stage, despite Bruce’s destabilizing exit late in the summer.
Steven Fletcher has been a crucial reference point for long balls from deep; winger Kadeem Harris has been surprisingly influential since signing from Cardiff to add pace and width, too.
Plus, the star debut from Osaze Urhoghide at right-back in the 1-0 FA Cup win at Brighton suggests the athletic Dominic Iorfa can start at centre-back next to organiser Julian Borner, thus potentially saving manager Garry Monk from leaning on any centre-backs or right-backs who may be past their best.
Wednesday’s season will be decided, though, on how their squad is used.
Monk normally employs a 4-4-2 system, much like the one he used at Birmingham last term, but there is evidence to suggest he should have a re-think to freshen up the midfield.
When controller Barry Bannan and ball-winner Sam Hutchinson play, they can be stationed too close to the defence.
Massimo Luongo’s increased use and the return from injury of Kieran Lee has given Wednesday two midfielders who are braver in their positioning and the 1-0 FA Cup win at Brighton suggested a 4-3-3 including Luongo and Lee could be the way to go – even if that means leaving out their best technician in Bannan.
Monk though, liked to stick with the same systems at Leeds and Birmingham – his judgement on the perceived need for a shake-up after some stale league performances, including a three-game losing run, could define Wednesday’s Play-Off prospects.
13. Cardiff City
Pre-season prediction: 8th
Summer verdict: “While Cardiff lacked touches of quality last season on occasions, they were never found wanting for effort, commitment or leadership and so do not need the most extensive re-build to become competitive at Championship level. Warnock’s promotion record is impeccable – although the standard of the second-tier has arguably improved since Cardiff secured second spot in 2017-18.”
Since replacing namesake Warnock in the hotseat, Neil Harris has had a decent start to life as Cardiff manager.
The former striker has overseen a return of 16 points from his first 10 games in charge, propelling them closer to the Play-Off places.
The key has been coaxing the best out of Lee Tomlin, an enigmatic technician who has had an excellent two months.
The question, though, is whether Tomlin can be just as reliable throughout the second half of the season and be the main jewel in Cardiff’s crown – his recent history would imply doubt.
Nathaniel Mendez-Laing would be a threat but the right winger is out for the rest of the season through injury.
Neil Harris switched to an unorthodox 5-2-2-1 to respond to Mendez-Laing’s absence but the 6-1 thumping at QPR with that system may force him to go back to the standard 4-2-3-1, with the effervescent Gavin White starting on the right.
Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison were key centre-backs in the promotion season, but Aden Flint and Curtis Nelson are overtaking them as the most effective pairing.
The most concerning issue is that every member of their most used starting XI is over 24, with an underwhelming Robert Glatzel looking like the only player who could potentially improve over the next season or two.
One of the priorities for Harris will be to begin to assemble a younger, more energetic squad that can play with the high-line and at the high-intensity he requires next season.
Pre-season prediction: 14th
Summer verdict: “Jonathan Woodgate heads a new coaching team at the Riverside, with increased emphasis on high-pressing and youth development, which may lead to a transitional period. Chairman Steve Gibson had not made any senior outfield additions to the current squad up to late-July, so youngsters like Aynsley Pears, Hayden Coulson, Djed Spence and Ste Walker are expected to follow in the footsteps of Dael Fry, Marcus Tavernier and Lewis Wing in getting more first-team action. In some ways, an experimental campaign in the bottom half may almost be necessary for Middlesbrough to undergo the substantial re-build they need.”
Middlesbrough fans may be more upbeat about their 2019-20 campaign now than they were two months ago.
The Teessiders were languishing in 22nd in early November but, after the 4-0 loss at Leeds later that month, chairman Steve Gibson promptly called Jonathan Woodgate to assure him of his job security.
The following week, they flew out of the traps against Charlton and won 1-0, instigating a healthy return of 16 points from seven games prior to a 1-1 FA Cup draw with Tottenham.
Gibson should take credit for being incredibly supportive of Woodgate but the head coach, himself, has never stopped to question his suitability for his first job in senior management.
Rather, the former defender has intuitively thrown himself into every challenge, reacting to situations without overthinking them.
That is just as well, because injuries to various senior players has catalysed the introduction of academy graduates such as Aynsley Pears, a goalkeeper who has kept seven clean sheets in 12 league starts, Djed Spence, a rampaging right wing-back, Hayden Coulson, a technical left wing-back and Ste Walker, an energetic forward.
Ashley Fletcher had been shoehorned wide left at the start of the season to accommodate Britt Assombalonga, but since Fletcher has shifted into a central role, the intensity of Boro’s pressing has increased and the team is starting to do more of what Woodgate pledged upon appointment.
Patience upstairs means that, having been in a relegation battle, Middlesbrough now look on track for a progressive season.
15. Queens Park Rangers
Pre-season prediction: 19th
Summer verdict: “QPR have handed their managers free reign in the transfer market but, with eight bosses in four years, a coherent squad is yet to be built, so either Director of Football Les Ferdinand must be given power, or Warburton must be given time. While the Rs are incomplete, they are likely to be disjointed initially and perhaps susceptible to errors. It’s just a question of whether Eze and Chair can deliver enough moments of individual quality to mask the early teething problems.”
Ebere Eze is enjoying the most eye-catching season of his career to date and the playmaker’s jinking runs, delightful through balls and solo magic has been key to a progressive campaign for QPR.
Eze, though, is likely to be playing in the Premier League, himself, sooner than the team, which has looked suspect defensively.
The Rs did not record their first clean sheet of the season until December, when they secured successive 2-0 wins over Preston and Birmingham.
Recent victories, including the 6-1 thumping of Cardiff, have seen winger Bright Osayi-Samuel begin to take a fraction of Eze’s limelight.
Osayi-Samuel is great to watch but for different qualities: he will burst forward at any opportunity with searing pace, which makes him a real threat either when taking on an opposing full-back, or even cutting inside on the counter-attack.
Thanks to Warburton’s coaching, Eze and Osayi-Samuel have potentially trebled in value over the last six months – Ilias Chair has shown signs of following suit – and these players are now saleable assets, which will help the club continue to undo the financial damage from previous eras and re-invest.
With that money, QPR can not only find similar talents who will develop at an extremely fast rate under Warburton, but also fix other areas of the team: they need a natural, attacking left-back, a ball-playing centre-back that can be effective in their own penalty area and, optimistically, a permanent deal for Luke Amos.
Possessing the second-best attacking record in the division and conceding the third-most, QPR are enjoying an entertaining re-build.
16. Blackburn Rovers
Pre-season prediction: 10th
Summer verdict: “The days of chronic instability are long gone and in Bradley Dack, Rovers boast one of the Championship’s most naturally gifted attacking midfielders, so it could be a case of building a team around him; Bradley Johnson will offer more presence from deep, although the defence needs work. Mowbray has targeted top 10 and there is reason to think that is a realistic ambition.”
The main question mark over Blackburn going into the campaign, the defence, has been answered, because the aggressive Darragh Lenihan has formed a formidable centre-back pairing with the neat Tosin Adarabioyo.
Any doubts over Rovers’ depth were also countered by December trip to Bristol City, where Tony Mowbray made six changes and still enjoyed a 2-0 win.
The dynamism of Lewis Travis and the presence of Bradley Johnson has made the perfect double-pivot in Mowbray’s 4-2-3-1 setup, too.
The question marks, now, however, lie over the team’s creative capabilities.
Bradley Dack has not been as impressive in 2019 as he was in 2018, while finding an effective, long-term replacement for 34-year-old Danny Graham has proved challenging.
Although the individualistic Adam Armstrong and the technical Stewart Downing have produced flashes of quality, Rovers are not as fluent in the build-up as Mowbray might hope, as the long-serving manager attempts to evolve the team’s play.
It does not help that raw running full-backs Ryan Nyambe and Amari’i Bell, now 22 and 25, are yet to refine technical and tactical aspects of their game – and the full-backs are crucial areas in an otherwise narrow outfit that operates with forwards and midfielders out wide.
In short, Blackburn are better than last season in some areas, but worse in others: the ultimate outcome should be roughly the same.
Pre-season prediction: 17th
Summer verdict: “Romance has already blossomed between Jose Gomes and Reading, although recent excessive spending on unextraordinary players means they are close to the FFP limit and should now cut their cloth. Not ideal, with the departures of key loanees leaving Andy Yiadom, Liam Moore and Andy Rinomhota as the only perceived guaranteed performers. Reading have work ahead to undo mistakes made largely by a previous regime, but the wheels of steady progress are in motion.”
The marriage between Gomes and Reading was not quite as long-lasting as hoped, with the Portuguese tactician having been dismissed just two months into the campaign.
Expectations were heightened by the late-summer signings of Pelé and Pușcaș, combined with the return of Matt Miazga and Ovie Ejaria, following loan spells last season.
The deft-footed Ejaria has stepped up another level and has, along with John Swift, become Reading’s joint-chief source of creativity, thus giving management teams a dilemma:
Incorporating Ejaria and Swift in the same midfield requires a disciplined anchor man, a description that befits summer recruit Pelé rather than Rinomhota, so the latter has not been the guaranteed starter he was last season.
Still, Mark Bowen has made the Royals harder to play through; wing-backs Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards operated very high up the pitch under Gomes, so the Welshman has placed emphasis on tightening gaps, a process that has yielded six clean sheets in 14 games.
Bowen has brought about better results than Gomes, although ironically, the sense of romance was more evident under his predecessor.
Bowen is undoubtedly the right man to lead Reading to safety this season, but there is scepticism as to just how far this new relationship can go.
18. Birmingham City
Pre-season prediction: 18th
Summer verdict: “In Birmingham’s last six seasons, only once have they gone a whole campaign without ever fearing the drop; they are often the team with the heart to thrive in relegation battles, but not the quality to avoid them. Pep Clotet plans to undo that trend and place more trust in youth whilst evolving Blues’ style of play; signing Dan Crowley is a good start. Still, this looks every inch a season of transition.”
An optimistic Birmingham fan would say that Clotet is beginning to evolve the squad as he desires and implement his ideas, which have taken effect in certain games – like the 2-1 win over Middlesbrough – as well as parts of draws and defeats against the top sides.
Ivan Sunjic has been a huge influence in midfield while the emergence of 16-year-old Jude Bellingham is a massive positive for the club; the right-sided combination of Maxime Colin and Crowley, when the latter is fit, can be very effective too.
More concerningly for Blues, though, is that Harlee Dean, although passionate, has looked erratic and error-prone this season; due to injuries to Marc Roberts and Jake Clarke-Salter at various points, it has been difficult to identify the calming centre-back partner he needs.
Plus, the B9 outfit are not yet quite strong enough going forward to make up for any defensive shortcomings; when opposing teams force them back, they do not have the pace to threaten on the counter-attack, although a more prominent role for Kerim Mrabti will help.
Birmingham remain unrefined and Clotet is taking the criticism for that, but he is also trying to alter the culture and mentality of the club, which is a process that needs to happen before possession football can ever work at St Andrews.
A season of patience could bear fruit, but whether the owners and fans have that patience remains to be seen.
19. Stoke City
Pre-season prediction: 4th
Summer verdict: “There can be little doubting Nathan Jones’ ability as a manager. The passionate Welshman had a hugely positive three years at Luton Town, where he implemented a fluid, attacking style of play so in theory, he and a Stoke squad with Premier League pedigree should be a match made in heaven. There are certain areas where it could be questioned whether Jones has precisely the ideal players to execute his expansive diamond system, but there is plenty of depth in this squad so a Top Six berth looks achievable.”
It did not quite work out for Jones, who was sacked with Stoke 23rd in the Championship in late October.
The performances under the fiery Welshman always suggested that the Potters would never be in deep relegation trouble, so the upturn under Michael O’Neill should not come as a huge surprise.
One of O’Neill’s core values, which was in evidence during his successful eight-year stint in charge of Northern Ireland, was the importance of teamwork.
The 50-year-old, therefore, must work out how to design this Stoke team to not only get the results to secure their Championship status this season, but to push further in the 2020-21 campaign.
The temptation is to build the side around Tom Ince, a Championship specialist, who has shown quality at this level primarily with Derby.
Ince, though, is very individualistic; he takes a lot of touches whenever he gets the ball, he takes on average two shots per game – and with just the solitary goal to his name, it could be questioned whether his attacking output is of the sufficient calibre to justify such a prominent role in the overall patterns of play.
Indeed, Stoke’s 5-2 win at Huddersfield on New Year’s Day came without Ince as Tyrese Campbell started on the left of the attacking trio in O’Neill’s 4-3-3; the youngster brought the pace and power to take players on directly and thus increased the tempo and unpredictability of the attacking play.
O’Neill may have found a formula to allow Stoke to climb the table and, one hopes, the only changes he will need to make to the current setup will be to replace Joe Allen and goalkeeper Jack Butland, linked with January moves to West Ham and Aston Villa respectively.
Allen can be replaced by Jordan Cousins, who could provide the defensive stability for the adaptable Sam Clucas and the technical Nick Powell to influence proceedings high up the pitch.
A new goalkeeper would be required regardless of whether the out-of-form Butland departs, because Adam Davies has underwhelmed in his appearances and Joe Bursik is inexperienced.
Still, Stoke should have enough to beat the drop.
20. Huddersfield Town
Pre-season prediction: 15th
Summer verdict: “The end of Dean Hoyle’s 11-year reign as Huddersfield chairman marks a new chapter for the club under the ownership of Phil Hodgkinson, while manager Jan Siewert is afforded a blank slate after overseeing the final five months of last season. Karlan Grant could be ready to fire consistently at this level while the mobile Josh Koroma, who signs from Leyton Orient, has looked lively in pre-season. Neither fans nor the board are expecting promotion, but they are expecting the team to challenge for the top half and produce performances to inspire hope of another journey.”
After a poor start, Siewert was dismissed as Town manager very early in the campaign to be replaced by Danny and Nicky Cowley.
The brothers have consistent success on their managerial CV, having thrived at Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and Lincoln City, and they made a positive impact at Huddersfield with a healthy return across October.
The Terriers are in a relegation battle, but they possess a key asset in Karlan Grant, who has netted 12 times.
Grant has led a 4-3-3 formation for much of the season but, in recent weeks, he has played off aerial reference point Steve Mounie in a 4-4-2, which seems to suit the team more.
The Cowleys will want to add pace to this Town side, with Adama Diakhaby and Isaac Mbenza reportedly free to depart this month, although Josh Koroma can bring energy with his runs in from the left.
Jon Gorenc Stankovic’s partnership with Christopher Schindler had won the former December’s Player of the Month award, although any notion that the defence is looking stable was thrown into question by New Year’s Day’s 5-2 home defeat to Stoke.
Town would benefit more from Jonathan Hogg if the 31-year-old was not bombarded with games when not fully fit, so a rotation option may be needed to help secure the club’s Championship status.
Pre-season prediction: 12th
Summer verdict: “Barnsley look better prepared for life in the Championship than they were when they last came into this division in 2016, when poor contract handling meant the loss of key players for far less than their value. While exits this summer of goalkeeper Adam Davies plus centre-backs Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock might be disappointing, it is better to lose them early at the right price and re-build quickly; getting Luke Thomas on a four-year deal was very shrewd business. There is potential in the recruitment setup, so the Reds could surprise a few.”
It may have been underestimated the extent to which Davies, Lindsay and Pinnock leaving Barnsley has had on their defence.
The trio were mainstays when the Reds kept 21 clean sheets in League One last season and, without them, they have conceded 49 goals in 26 league games; a huge shift, even accounting for the divisional jump.
Going forward, at least, Barnsley have carried a threat – they have taken on average 14.2 shots per game this season, which is the joint-second most in the division – and look more productive under new head coach Gerhard Struber.
The German has coaxed the best out of Conor Chaplin, who has scored eight goals in 11 games since the change of manager, often starting up top with willing presser Jacob Brown and the more technical Cauley Woodrow dropping deep to link play in a diamond system.
If Struber can be backed to bring in an organiser at the back to ensure Barnsley maintain the correct distances, then they could go on to beat the drop.
22. Charlton Athletic
Pre-season prediction: 24th
Summer verdict: “After Charlton had been through the mill in recent years, promotion at Wembley was an overdue moment to celebrate and savour. Although the club have been winning it’s battles on the pitch, though, it is yet to win battles off it; Roland Duchatelet is still chairman and his disinterest leaves the Londoners with one of the Championship’s lowest budgets and, arguably, the worst squad short on second-tier knowhow. Charlton’s small group means they will rely on a lot of young players stepping up through necessity and while some could surprise us, relegation looks likely.”
The good news for Charlton is that a takeover is well on its way to being complete.
East Street Investments (ESI) are set to take charge to end a half-decade of misery under Duchatelet and, one hopes, give Lee Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson the funds to bolster the squad in January, with a December injury crisis leaving it perilously short on cover.
One of the players to thrive off the shortage of options is Alfie Doughty who, after an outstanding loan spells at Kingstonian and Bromley, has taken to the Championship like a duck to water – at least when deployed on the left.
Conor Gallagher, meanwhile, has starred on loan from Chelsea, providing an impeccable work ethic and a knack for arriving in the box at the right moments.
Bowyer favours a 3-5-2 setup with the best chances created through quick transitions in the opposing half; that is likely via striker Macaulay Bonne and possibly recruit Andre Green in the second half of the season, if Lyle Taylor spends time out injured along with Jonathan Leko.
When the Addicks are forced to have more of the ball, they ask wide centre-backs Tom Lockyer and Naby Sarr to swing deep crosses in from the right and left respectively, but the dearth of a natural target man can hold them back in those scenarios.
Charlton are arguably more impressive without the ball than with it; whether it is intelligent pressing or last-ditch blocks, they often have the spirit to stay in games – but there is a worrying lack of quality.
Bowyer’s boys are doing superbly to be as competitive as they are at this level, but to stay in the Championship, a positive January is essential.
23. Wigan Athletic
Pre-season prediction: 23rd
Summer verdict: “Paul Cook has done superbly as a manager in League One and Two, but the question is whether he can be as successful in the Championship, because his and Wigan’s first season at that level brought mixed results: the 10th-best home form but also a mid-season run of three wins in 24. The Latics lack defensive depth, they have struggled to implement their natural game as hoped in the second tier and it hardly helps that they have lost Reece James and Nick Powell this summer, so tough season could be in the offing.”
Wigan have rarely been found wanting for effort or endeavour this season.
The Latics possess an adventurous right-back in Nathan Byrne, a direct running left-back in Antonee Robinson, who is starting to shine after going under the radar last season due to the performances of Reece James.
In Jamal Lowe, Paul Cook’s side possess a speedy wide forward and Josh Windass loves to get in behind too.
There are things to like about the West Lancashire outfit, who have got themselves in front in eight games within a 10-match Winter sequence.
The fact they have taken just seven points from those eight games – and only secured their first away win in New Year’s Day’s 3-2 victory at Birmingham – indicates where the problem is.
Wigan are short on experience, knowhow and game management qualities to make the most of the favourable positions they find themselves in; they can also be short on craft in the final third.
A positive January could provide the solutions, but relegation feels more likely.
24. Luton Town
Pre-season prediction: 2oth
Summer verdict: “Continuity should be king for a club that has just secured back-to-back promotions, including the League One title last season, but Luton are in an unusual situation. Their last permanent manager, Nathan Jones, controversially left midway through the previous campaign and no like-for-like replacements have been made for full-backs Jack Stacey and James Justin, who were so important to the diamond system that got them here. There is enough quality to stay up, but the Hatters appear to be trying too hard to adapt to the Championship, when they are within their rights to make the Championship adapt to them.”
Luton have struggled hugely to adjust to Championship level.
The obvious challenge that comes with reacting to back-to-back promotions is that 12 of the 26 squad members were playing League Two football as recently as 2018, so competing in English football’s second tier is a big leap in standards.
Often, the benefit from jumping leagues is the continuity it brings, as well as the confidence a team can have in its own playing identity.
In Luton’s case, though, they have lost Nathan Jones, who was the undisputed inspiration behind the club’s rise – despite his controversial exit – and they no longer have full-backs who will provide the pace and quality to make the diamond system work.
In many ways, therefore, the Hatters are facing the challenges that comes with successive promotions without ever tasting the perks.
Manager Graeme Jones must take his share of responsibility for poor performances.
Luton average 1.03 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.69 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 37.77% – the worst shot data in the Championship, so there is little doubting that they deserve to be in the bottom three.