Despite not being the country’s elite football league, the English Championship is one of the most popular, most-watched and competitive leagues in Europe. With gameweek 36 taken care of last weekend, there are ten games to go to the end of the regular season and the start of the play-offs, so we figured this is a good moment to take a look at the current situation at the top of table and at the teams involved in the race for promotion. If you would like to join in discussions on any of the clubs or players involved then go to the fiso forum topic on the 2018/19 Championship.
How does it work at the end of the regular season?
After 46 games, the top two teams get promoted to the Premier League directly. Numbers three to six in the ranking will enter the play-offs to compete for the final promotion spot. Third plays sixth in the first semi-final and fourth plays the fifth in the second semi-final (two legs each). The winner of the final reaps one of European football’s most coveted rewards: promotion to the Premier League. The players will also see a large in increase in their salaries because the average championship salary is much lower than the average Premier League remuneration.
|1||Leeds United *||73|
|3||Sheffield United *||71|
|4||West Bromwich Albion||61|
|6||Bristol & Derby County||55|
The current top six after 36 gameweeks. Note: *Middlesbrough have played 35 games. Leeds & Sheffield Utd have played 37 games.
All the spying aside, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa has turned the Whites into a prime candidate for direct promotion to the Premier League. Where there was initially a fear that the Chilean’s trademark brand of high-energy football wasn’t going to last in the gruelling Championship, the current second place in the table tells us otherwise. United haven’t played in the Premier League for 15 years, but it looks like they’ll be back amongst the elite for the 2019-20 campaign, if they can keep it up for the business end of the season. On a good day, Bielsa’s Leeds are probably the best team in the league and possibly one of the best collectives to have graced the competition in recent years. A major setback to United’s Premier League aspirations was the injury of club topscorer Kemar Roofe (14 goals in 26 games) a few weeks ago, so ex-Chelsea man Patrick Bamford will be looked at for goals. Assist king Pablo Hernández (11 assists in 29 games) and Polish playmaker Mateusz Klich are other important cogs in Bielsa’s machine, while fitness management is going to be a crucial factor for Leeds. If they can avoid over-exhaustion as a result of their fascinating but high-intensity style of playing, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t clinch direct promotion at the end of the season.
Under German coach Daniel Farke, Norwich have become one of the most attractive outfits in the league in terms of playing style. City tend to play an attacking brand of football, though they don’t shy away from betting on the counter when a game needs it. Their way of playing has made them the most productive team in the Championship this season (72 goals scored in 36 games), but this has come at the cost of defensive stability at times. There are currently eight teams that have conceded less goals than City’s 45. While finishing first in the hugely competitive Championship requires considerable squad depth, players like current league topscorer Teemu Pukki (24 goals in 33 games), Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul, and versatile forward Emiliano Buendía (9 assists in 31 games) are going to be crucial for the Canaries in securing a direct promotion spot. Apart from games against fifth-placed Boro and 9th-placed Aston Villa, Norwich are only facing teams from the current bottom-half of the table. It looks like we’ll be seeing the Canaries in the Premier League next season.
Under the leadership of up-and-coming English manager Chris Wilder, Sheffield United have become a hard-to-beat side that plays an organised kind of game. The Blades boast the second-best defense in the league (34 goals conceded in 36 games), behind fifth-placed Middlebrough, while their scoring record is excellent as well: only three teams have currently scored more than Sheffield United’s 61 goals. As a result, they’ve been able to stay close to the top two spots behind favourites for promotion Norwich and Leeds. United are just four points off the top, while there is a comfortable 7-point gap between them and fourth-placed West Brom. The team’s ability to grind out good results when games get tough is a quality that could very well bring them promotion, either directly or by winning the play-offs. One of the reasons for United’s defensive stability is the consistent threat of their attacking players. Billy Sharp is the second-most productive player in the Championship at the moment (22 goals in 32 games), fellow striker David McColdrick has made a more than decent 11-goal contribution in 35 games already, and central midfielder Oliver Norwood is on 8 assists as we speak. In the coming four games, United are facing Leeds at home and seventh-placed Bristol City away, so we’ll know a lot more about their chances of promotion in a few weeks time. At the moment, the Blades look like the top two’s main challengers.
West Bromwich Albion
After their relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season, West Brom were one of the favourites to get back up again straight away at the beginning of the 2018-19 Championship campaign, not in the least thanks to the large Premier League parachute payment and the presence of several Premier League-worthy players. From that point of view, the current fourth place could be considered somewhat disappointing, especially when taking into account that the Championship play-offs are some of the hardest, unpredictable games in the top flights of English football. When talking about the Baggies’ direct promotion aspirations, the recent 4-0 drubbing against number two Leeds and their 0-1 home loss versus number three Sheffield United gave those a serious dent. Despite the overall under-performance, Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle have formed quite a formidable partnership up front, scoring 17 goals (in 36 games) and 16 goals (in 29 games) respectively. Everton loanee Mason Holgate has turned out to be an excellent signing at right-back, while midfield veteran Gareth Barry has quickly become the beating heart of this West Brom team. The top two seems out of sight for the Baggies, but anything less than a top six finish would be extremely disappointing, if not unacceptable. The play-offs will show which team’s nerves are made of the strongest steel.
Tony Pulis didn’t take long to turn Boro into a trademark Tony Pulis team. In comparison to the other contenders for promotion, like Leeds, Norwich and Sheffield United, Middlesbrough play a rather conservative type of football, based on a sturdy defence and a very high work ethic. There are only five teams in the entire Championship that have scored less than their 36 goals. This hasn’t always been greeted with cheers from the fans this season, especially because Boro’s home form has been below par. As a matter of fact, in terms of results in home games, Boro sit in a shocking 16th place. Still, the Smoggies currently find themselves in fifth place and look set for the play-offs, though the gap between them and the seventh place is close. In other words, Pulis and his men have their work cut out for them, especially with home games against leaders Norwich and Bristol City coming up in the next five games. Top scorer Britt Assombalonga has scored 10 goals in 31 games, but the real star of the team is ex-Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel. The Nigerian international was signed from Chinese outfit TJ Teda for free and has immediately become one of Boro’s best players. They don’t score enough to have top two aspirations, but the trademark Pulis solidity should end with a spot (and a chance) in the play-offs.
Bristol City is the most surprising name amongst the current top six in the Championship. Under manager Lee Johnson, the Robins have earned themselves the label of “surprise package”, not in the last place due to the outflow of players last summer. Bobby Reid (£10 million to Cardiff), central defender Aden Flint (£7 million to Boro), and left-back Joe Bryan (£6 million to Fulham) were some of the biggest names to leave Ashton Gate last summer. A spot in the play-offs would be a magnificent achievement for City, but they still have a tough run of games coming up in the last ten gameweeks, including encounters with Leeds, Sheffield United, Boro, West Brom and Derby. It’s of course all still in their own hands, but it’s going to take hard work and probably a bit of luck. The Robins are fine on the defensive side of things (only two teams have conceded less than their 38 goals in 36 games), but the attackers will need to raise their game in the coming games (only ten teams have scored less than City’s 45 goals).
Derby County and Nottingham Forest are the two teams currently sitting in seventh and eight place, respectively, with 55 points (the same as Bristol City) and 53 points, respectively. Manager Frank Lampard’s Derby camped in the top six for much of the season, but a recent run of four consecutive losses gave their play-off hopes a serious dent. Still, with loanees Mason Mount (Chelsea) and Harry Wilson (Liverpool) in great form, the Rams could well find a way back into the top six before the end of the season. Forest, on the other hand, have surprised many pundits with their current eighth place and realistic hopes of play-off football after just barely fighting off relegation last season. The Reds are ambitious, as usual, but to be realistic, the play-offs are probably still a bridge too far for them, especially when looking at the quality and/or form of the current top six. Still, they are in the mix and just two points off sixth place, so the experienced manager due of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane might just pull it off and give Forest a fighting chance of reaching the Premier League.
If the above piques your interest in Championship football then have you considered playing Fantasy Telegraph Championship? You can see discussion about the game on this fiso forum.