The overall quality of the Championship has been improving every year, and it has been by far its most interesting this season. Fans attacking players, defenders going in goal, brawls on the pitch, manager meltdowns. It’s been a season where there has always been a headline. So with a playoffs approaching, and my own Championship knowledge not being as vast as I would like, let’s preview the biggest games of the season, to see which side will earn promotion into the Premier League.
While Marcelo Bielsa joining Leeds was a huge move at the time, I had my doubts. Bielsa has had a reputation of starting seasons very strongly, but eventually his sides tire and begin to show cracks near the end of the season. It occured with his most well known sides with Bilbao, Marseille and Lille all starting much better than they finish. Nevertheless, it was a positive move that showed the club at least had ambition to compete and were serious about promotion.
Leeds have been excellent this season, and it has by far been of Bielsa’s finest achievements in recent years. While Leeds don’t neccessarily have a bad side, it wasn’t a side that was tipped for promotion, with a midtable finish being expected for the Argentine’s debut season. With the Championship season being longer than any league he has managed in recently, it made sense. Bielsa’s system is one that demands a lot from its players, it seemed unlikely that they could play at their best for the whole season. While this has been true (we’ll touch on that late), it should not take away from just how good they have been all season. The team has bought into what Bielsa is asking of them, and has given new life to some of these players. The manager has built a team that doesn’t rely too heavily on certain players, with the key to the team being the system. Leeds move the ball up the field with great speed and intelligence, with players constantly moving to find space. It’s a system that needs extremely good centre backs, an intelligent striker and midfielders who can help exploit the space in the final third that is created from said striker. It’s meant that Leeds have been the best at creating goal scoring opportunites, with the Yorkshire side taking 17.2 shots a game, 1.8 more than winners Norwich. Their average the highest possession in the divison, and they face the least amount of shots per game in the league, with 9.4. To say that these players have flourished under Bielsa is an understatement. Leeds are putting in numbers that are reminiscent of all of Bielsa’s previous sides. They put in more tackles than any other side with 19.6 per game, and their high line means they catch more opponents offside than anyone else. They have stood out in so many departments that it explains why they were favourites for automatic promotion for a majority of the season.
There are a lot of players in this side that have truly stood out. Let’s start with the defenders, where Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson have been absolutely fantastic. Both defenders already possessed great athleticism and strength, which made them perfect for this system. Both have been putting in 2.3 interceptions per game, the most in the side. Out of the pair, Liam Cooper has been the stand out. The Scotsman has average more passes per game than any other player in the side, with 67, and ranks 3rd in the team for long balls. His range of passing has helped Leeds distribute effectively from the back, and has given a strong backline to a side so attack focused. Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich have been important attackers for the side, with the pair contributing to 22 goals between them. They have been a huge reason on why Leeds have kept so competitive, even with players suffering from injuries. However while both players have been important, no one has been more vital to the side than Kalvin Phillips. The 23 year old has been the most defensive out of the midfield. He has given freedom to both Hernandez and Klich to push on help the attack. Phillips is usually the player who drops deep to receive the ball and help start attacks, with the midfielder ranking 2nd in the squad for long balls a game, showing how he move Leeds up the pitch. He also ranks 1st in tackles, showing how important he is in recovering the ball and ensuring that Leeds remain dominant. Bielsa has also given opportunities to younger players in the squad, with Jack Clarke, Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts given runs in the team. Bielsa isn’t afraid to give less experienced players a chance, when he thinks they are ready.
With all of those positives, let’s look at some of the negative sides of the team, firstly being their convertion rate. While they take the most shots in the league, they are 5th for goals with 73, 20 behind Norwich’s 93. It could be due to a lack of a consistent striker, with both Roofe and Bamford suffering from injuries throughout the season. Norwich and Sheffield United’s main strikers Pukki and Sharp respectively started most of the season. It definitely had an effect on the side. The difference between Roofe and Bamford is clear. While Bamford is a good finisher, he doesn’t offer the same movement as Roofe, which means that Hernandez and Klich the same chances as they would with Roofe. It’s meant they haven’t had a consistent attack, and struggled in tough games where Bamford has started. They also suffered the usual Bielsa effect. They were favourites for promotion for most of the season, but in the final 10 games, they only managed to win 4 games, with defeats to Ipswich and Wigan putting a sour taste in the fans mouth.It’ll be interesting to see if they recover from this blip in form. Leeds have always been known as one of the nearly teams of the last 10 years. They always get so close and miss out near the end. They have already missed on automatic promotion and now have a real fight on their hands
West Bromwich Albion
This season was set to be a very romantic one for West Brom. They made some great business in the summer, with the side making many smart loan signings with the intention of bouncing straight back into the Premier League. Add that with a couple of experienced Championship players in Sam Johnstone and Kyle Bartley. They even gave Darren Moore job on a permanent basis, which was deserved after he managed to give a poor side a fighting chance at survival. It was all looking so promising, until the club decided to sack Moore, which is still rather baffling, arguably more baffling than appointing Alan Pardew. The club were desperate for automatic promotion, and as soon as that wasn’t possible, it was game over for the former West Brom player. It is a very unfair sacking. While they were humiliated by Leeds, losing 4-0 to their promotion rivals, they weren’t doing that badly, and had a good chance to make it through the playoffs.
West Brom play a counter attacking style of football, with their aerial dominant defenders winning the ball back. Using their good creators like Phillips and Johansen (since Barnes returned to Leicester) to help move the ball and create chances for Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. It has been very effectiveto say the least, with the pair scoring 45 goals between them, forming the best partnership in the league. The Baggies also take advantage of set pieces, ranking 3rd in the league for set piece goals and 2nd for penalties. While they haven’t been as fun to watch as other sides in the league, they have been very efficient in front of goal. Another part of their play I really like is their balance. In many teams, therw will always be certain side they will focus attacking down, usually the side with a team’s best creators, but West Brom are different. They rank midtable in frequency of attacks down the left side, the middle and the right side. It shows that they don’t rely on a certain player or side to attack, and instead can switch it up if neccessary. They are a balance side who are able to take advantage of dead ball situations, which can make them a massive threat against whoever they play.
Moving onto the stand out players in the side, the goalkeeper deserves a special mention. Sam Johnstone finally left Manchester United on a permanent deal, after loan spells at Aston Villa showing the clear promise he had. He’s played in every game for the Baggies, and has shown himself to be a very solid shot stopper. When looking at goalkeepers who have made over 30 appearances, Johnstone ranks first for saves per game with 3.2. He has been so important for his side and could be vital in the playoffs. One of my favourite things about this group of players is they have taken some massive risks. Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs, Kyle Bartley and even Gareth Barry. They’ve put a lot of faith in the squad they came down with, and has mostly worked well for them. One player who has stood out for West Brom has easily been Mason Holgate. The Everton loanee has really increased his reputation during this loan spell. The defender has ranks top of the squad for tackles per game with 2.6 and even ranks joint 1st for interceptions (1.6). Holgate is a player I never thought too highly of at Everton because I wasn’t sure what he was. He still doesn’t have the quality to be able to play as a full back, but has never looked too assurred of himself at centre back. However he has improved in both areas during his time in West Midlands.
There are still some things to be worried about for West Brom. The loss of Harvey Barnes was massive. The midfielder was a huge reason on why West Brom were so threatening in the final third, and while Johansen has done a good job in covering his absence, he has been missed. One other area in which the Baggies should be worried about is their finishing. While Rodriguez and Gayle have been fantastic, they have been games (their defeat to Derby comes to mind) where they had chances to win the game, but didn’t take it. They have to make sure to be more clinical in the playoffs, otherwise they could be punished for it.
Moving onto their Midlands rivals, Aston Villa are back in the playoffs once again, but this time it could be their best chance of finally rejoining the Premier League. After a truly terrible start under Steve Bruce, he was sacked and replaced with Dean Smith, who has clearly realised just how good his attackers and built a team around scoring goals, and it has worked very well. They had a lot of issues under Bruce, including an over reliance on Jack Grealish to perform miracles, and a defence that sat too deep. The championship is a league that has been taking steps towards playing a more modern style of football, in regards to higher defensive lines and less of an emphasis on long balls to their striker. Dean Smith implimented all of these things. He pushed Tuanzebe and Chester to the half way line. Both are intelligent defenders, and Tuanzebe especially is very comfortable on the ball and can keep possession. By pushing the centre backs further forward, it meant that there could be more players to help in the final third. It was no longer Grealish driving with the ball, but McGinn, Hourihane and El Ghazi all contributing to goals. While Villa rank bottom for both tackles and interceptions in the league, they make up for that by being one of the most possession heavy sides in the divison, ranking 6th with the side averaging 53% possession per game. They also rank 4th for highest pass accuracy, with Smith’s side averaging 79.5% pass accuracy per match, more than Bielsa’s Leeds. While those are all impressive, it’s in the attack where they truly shine. They’re 4th for shots per game with 14.3, and rank 3rd for shots in the 6 yard box, showing how they can create high quality chances. Just like their promotion rivals West Brom, they also get a lot of out set pieces, with the Villans ranking 1st with 24 goals from set piece situations. Only Norwich and West Brom have scored more than their 82. If they had Dean Smith from the beginning, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be much closer to Norwich. With their new found attacking style, this could be their best chance of earning promotion.
When talking about Aston Villa, there is only one player to begin with, and that’s Jack Grealish. The now English midfielder has arguably the best player in the division this season. Villa have a huge reliance on Grealish to perform and when they went on a difficult run during the winter period, a period in which Grealish missed 15 games, it showed just how much they need him. They only managed 2 wins in those 15 games, and it halted the good work they were doing. Looking at his numbers, it’s clear to see why they rely on him. He’s scored 6 and assisted 6 in 31 games, while not as impressive as other players in the league, what’s more important is how important he is when creating chances and driving his team up the pitch. He is the only player in the squad who is averaging over 2 key passes her game, and is second in the team for dribbles with 1.7. What’s most telling about his importance is how the opposition treat him. The winger is getting fouled 4.8 times per game. It’s also why they have been able to score so many goals from set pieces. Opposition players find him very difficult to contain, usually ending with Grealish giving his side a chance from a dead ball. He’s vital to how Villa play, and will need him to bring his best in the playoffs. Before moving on to arguably their second best player this season, a special mention deserves to go to John McGinn. The Scottish international has contributed to 15 goals from central midfield, and has been a similar threat as Grealish. he’s been taking 2.4 shots per game, and tops the side for dribbles completed. It has clearly helped that opposition players clearly have more focus on Grealish, giving McGinn more of an opportunity to get into goalscoring positions (similar to what Salah has done for Mane this season). One of the stars of the show has easily been Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea loanee had a difficult time at Swansea in the previous season, struggling with injury and playing in a side lacking any sort of creativity. Returning to the Championship was the right thing to do. He had a brilliant time with Bristol in the 16/17 season, scoring 23 goals. He’s done even better this season, scoring 25 goals and in 300 less minutes. While a lot is down to playing in a system that encourages attacking play, he has improved a lot from that successful loan spell with Bristol. His aerial duels won have gone from 2 to 2.9 and is now taking more shots. his chance creation has gone down, but there are plenty of players in this team who can do that, meaning it’s given more focus on Abraham to score goals, which he has done. At this point, It would be absurd for Chelsea not to even give him a chance in a team that can’t add any additional players. He has at least done enough to earn that.
So what is neccessarily wrong with Villa? For starters their goalkeeper situation throughout the season has been a problem. They haven’t been able to settle on one keeper, and have played 4 throughout the season. They seem uncertain on who their first choice even is. The last thing a backline needs is a position that important constantly being changed. At adds a level of doubt, that the other sides in the playoffs haven’t suffered from. Their rivals are fully away of who their first choice stopper is. While Leeds did change in January, it’s clear Castilla is their first choice now. It seems that Jack Steer is their starting goalkeeper, but having that doubt throughout the season isn’t great. The more obvious one is their over reliance on Jack Grealish. They’ve always struggled without him, and if an opposition completely nulifies his effect on the game, it could spell a lot of trouble for them. I do think they can go toe to toe with anyone, thanks to their attackers having stand out seasons.
Last but not least, let’s look at Frank Lampard’s Derby. The Rams have been way better than I expected them to be in the ex-Chelsea midfielder’s first season. The team has an interesting combination of young players and experienced Championship players, and has made them an interesting side to watch. With Frank Lampard still being a novice when it comes to management, it’s meant that this side isn’t perfect, but there is a lot to like. Derby usually play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 and focus on overloading the middle of the park, thanks to having intelligent wingers. They aim to dominate games and use their good passers in midfield to create chances. His side to like build up play using the centre backs’s good distribution to start attacks. Richard Keogh and Fikayo Tomori have played a combined 90 games this season, showing how they have built the solid partnership. The pair are top of the team’s average passes per game, and are very important in how Derby play. Their fullbacks play an important role in how Lampard’s side attack. 18 year old Jayden Bogle, arguably one of the breakout stars of the season and the more experienced Scott Malone are responsible for giving the side width. They are one of the most possession heavy sides in the league, with the Rams placing 5th in the league for average possession, ahead of both West Brom and Aston Villa. They also take a respectable 13.5 shots a game, more than runner ups Sheffield United. Derby have been a team who have been looking at quick fixes for a long time, but have found a manager with a long term plan, and the fans have shown that they are behind Lampard.
Moving onto the stand out players, Mason Mount has to be the first to be praised. The young midfielder has had a great debut campaign in the Championship. He’s started 35 games, scoring 8 and assisting 4. Now transitioning to an attacking midfielder, Lampard has brought the best out of the Chelsea loanee. He’s had a season to be positive about, taking 2.6 shots a game, making the most key passes in the team with 1.9 and even been putting 1.4 tackles a game. He has been mature in possession and is a very good passer. his confidence has grown as the season has progressed, and we could see the best out of him in the play offs. Harry Wilson is another who has been great. Taking his fantastic free kicks out of it, he has been great from outwide (and has given me hope as a Wales fan). He is Derby’s top scorer this season with 15 goals. While his shot location is a mess to say the least, he has turned out to be a solid long range shooter, and while it can lead to wasting chances, it’s telling how good he is when he is able to score that many. He is an intelligent winger who is great finding pockets of space near the box to exploit. He is another who will have to turn up if Derby have a chance in the playoffs.
So what exactly is wrong with Lampard’s side so far? My biggest problem is a lack of a good striker. They’ve been very lucky so far that Mount, Lawrence and Wilson have brought the goals, otherwise I doubt they would have finished in the top 6. he originally started with Jack Marriot, but he wasn’t performing and doesn’t offer enough on the ball. Waghorn came into replace him, and while he has been an improvement, he isn’t as good as the other side’s forwards. It’ll leave them lacking a vocal point and make them arguably the worst side in the playoffs this year. This isn’t to discredit them. I think given another season and a summer window, they will be better equipped to face sides who are just better.