Here’s a look at some of the main questions as the 2017/18 EFL Championship season approaches, brought to you by the Not The Top 20 Podcast. We’ve slipped in some tips and, like a Maths GCSE, included our working where possible…
The Championship has always been an excellent division, but over the last few seasons its quality has improved significantly. A blend of foreign coaches with fresh ideas and a new generation of British managers with updated philosophies have helped to create a more diverse competition.
There are fewer identikit teams in the second tier these days, so you can even allow yourself to enjoy the guilty pleasure of a Neil Warnock or Mick McCarthy side. Predicting the Championship’s outcome, however, is never easy…
The obvious place to start is with the teams recently relegated from the Premier League. There’s an argument – basic though it may be – that the considerable parachute payments should see them challenge for the title by default.
Thankfully, it’s not that straightforward. According to data journalist Ben Mayhew, only 50% of relegated teams finish in the top six the following season. There is no exact science for overcoming the damage caused by relegation, and year after year clubs struggle to turn things around.
Sunderland and Hull are doing little to persuade fans or bookmakers that they are well positioned for an immediate return. Both teams are in the arduous but necessary process of shifting the dead weight and, while Simon Grayson has started adding some new faces at the Stadium of Light, neither squad looks to have the requisite depth or quality to maintain a 46-game title push. Both Grayson and Leonid Slutsky were interesting appointments, but neither will find it easy to hit the ground running.
Middlesbrough start the season among the favourites (8/1 with Bwin – bet here) and look set to remain a strong defensive team – they conceded the fewest goals in the bottom half of the Premier League last season despite relegation. They struggled in front of goal, however, and have tried to remedy that problem by bringing in more firepower in Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite. With Garry Monk swapping Leeds for Teesside, Boro will surely be up there.
It’s easy to understand why Aston Villa are well-fancied (7/1 with Bet 365 – bet here). Unlikely to be stylish but sure to be defensively sound under Steve Bruce, Villa already had a strong squad and the experience of John Terry and Glenn Whelan should help to focus the dressing room. Bruce may find it hard to accommodate attacking stars Scott Hogan, Jonathan Kodjia and Jack Grealish in the first XI, but there’s a positive atmosphere at Villa for the first time since Tim Sherwood’s side bantered their way to an FA Cup final. They’ll be one of the teams to beat.
Fulham and Norwich (14/1 with Betway – bet here) will also expect to challenge for the two automatic promotion spots. Norwich have appointed former Borussia Dortmund II manager Daniel Farke, and his recruitment team have acted quickly to bring in a mixture of German-based players and talented English loanees such as Southampton’s Harrison Reed. Yes, you have heard this one before. Norwich’s Sporting Director Stuart Webber was involved in the Wagner Revolution at Huddersfield, and has stuck to a winning formula. Norwich’s struggles last season were never down to a lack of quality, so expect Farke to whip the squad into shape as he bids to go one better than Wagner’s play-off winning Terriers.
Fulham were the Championship’s best team from Valentine’s Day onwards, picking up five more points (and 34 in total) than any other side over the last 16 games. The way they attacked, conducted by the glorious Tom Cairney, was breathtaking to watch. With some intriguing additions – including defensive midfielder Ibrahima Cissé from Standard Liege – and the retention of highly sought-after duo Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon, the club are in good shape heading into the season. May’s play-off semi-final defeat to Reading raised questions about Slavisa Jokanovic’s ability to adapt in-game against disciplined opponents, but his Plan A might be enough to finish above the play-offs altogether.
Reading baffled bookies and analysts all season before falling in the play-off final against Huddersfield. Their squad has never seemed hugely strong, but perhaps Jaap Stam truly is a managerial genius? We’ll find out for definite this season.
Sheffield Wednesday may have hamstrung themselves recruitment-wise with the expensive addition of Jordan Rhodes. He was meant to fire them up last season after joining on loan in January, but scored only three goals in 18 matches and wasn’t even a starter by the time the Owls lost in the play-off semi-final. There’s a threat of things going a little stale under Carlos Carvalhal after two seasons of missed opportunity.
Take a look at Brentford and Cardiff. Bookmakers project both to finish in the bottom half of the table, but they could easily upset the odds. Brentford’s recruitment this summer has been typically impressive, with a number of well-priced signings – such as young French striker Neal Maupay from Saint-Etienne – expected to contribute straight away. Crucially, they have so far kept hold of Jota, a sensational performer in the last few months of the previous campaign.
Cardiff (5/6 for a top half finish with William Hill – bet here) were the ninth best team in the league after Warnock’s appointment in October, and the board have backed him in the transfer market. In former Bristol City forward Lee Tomlin, he’s added a little more flair to the solid spine of a side that no team enjoyed playing last season.
Could go either way
Assisted by super-agent Jorge Mendes, Wolves have signed, among others, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota, two players that could be playing at Champions League level according to those in the know. Added to the mercurial Helder Costa, there’s a chance that Wolves will be the most talented Championship team we’ve ever seen. Yet without a striker to get excited about, and a sneaky suspicion that it may all be too good to be true, it’s hard to throw too much weight behind them. New manager Nuno Santo will want to make a strong start to avoid speculation around his future.
With Leeds, who knows? They start yet another season with a new manager, a raft of new signings from all over Europe, and an attractive ex down the road at Boro. Harry Redknapp’s Birmingham City are similarly a tough team to forecast. With smatterings of class in the squad – Craig Gardner, Marc Roberts and David Stockdale, who left promoted Brighton to move to St. Andrews – a lot will depend on Redknapp’s management approach as he enters his seventies. Plenty has changed since he last found himself at this level with QPR.
Aside from the favourites Burton, Barnsley, Bolton and Millwall, there are concerns about Ian Holloway’s Queens Park Rangers (4/1 to go down with Bwin – bet here). An inconsistent side that ended the season in miserable form, expect them to struggle again this year. As for Bristol City, so much depends on the ability of £5.3 million record-signing Famara Diédhiou to adapt to a new league and score goals at the rate of former loanee Tammy Abraham. It’s a squad low on match-winners, and manager Lee Johnson divides the fan base.
As part of a strong Norwich side that should be reinvigorated by their new manager, expect a fit and focused Nelson Oliveira to score plenty (20/1 with Sky Bet – bet here). Strong in the air and a good finisher with both feet, he has the pedigree to tear up the league this season. Elsewhere, look to Lasse Vibe for a good return. His clever movement has seen him thrive at Brentford thanks to the service provided by Jota and Sergi Canos. At a bigger price, Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore is a real handful and showed an ability to plunder goals towards the end of last season.