Analyzing the Championship promotion race
Championship promotion races are notoriously tight and this season is no different. Whilst West Brom are currently leading the pack by some way, a cluster of teams behind the Baggies are all scrapping with each other to reach the Premier League, or even the top six.
With twelve games of the regular Championship season left, there is still plenty of time for twists and turns in the quest to reach the promised land.
There are currently around fourteen teams that have a somewhat realistic chance of at least reaching the play offs so the league table could have a completely different complexion by the end of the season. Half of the league may be in contention for promotion but this piece will examine the top seven teams in the Championship and rate their chances of reaching the Premier League.
West Bromwich Albion
After losing in a devastating play off semi-final penalty shootout to rivals Aston Villa last season, West Brom have gone from strength to strength under Slaven Bilic. With the ex-West Ham gaffer at the helm, the Baggies have played a brilliant brand of football this season and haven’t dropped out of the top two since early October. There’s just twelve games of the season left to play and West Brom look like firm favourites to return to the Premier League after a two-year absence.
Aided by their summer signings, West Brom boast one of, if not the best, squads in the Championship on paper and their league position reflects this as they sit at the summit by a sizable margin.
Following a disappointing end to the 2018/19 campaign, the Baggies significantly bolstered their squad in the off season with a plethora of quality players coming to the Hawthorns. Romaine Sawyers, Charlie Austin and Darnell Furlong all arrived for relatively small fees. Filip Krovinovic, Grady Diangana, Matheus Pereira and Callum Robinson have also joined on loan and have proved to be very smart pick ups.
Sawyers has proven himself to be one of the most technically gifted midfielders in the Championship and Matheus Pereira has been brilliant since his move from Sporting CP. Recruiting Slaven Bilic may have been West Brom’s best piece of business recently though as the Croat is steering them towards promotion whilst also helping the club distance themselves from the Tony Pulis era, playing an exciting style of football.
Their recruitment, with the exception of a few anomalies, has been spot on recently and this has been a huge factor in their success so far.
With West Brom sitting nine points clear of third place, it is hard to see them dropping out of the top two and they are firm favourites for promotion. However, their run in is fairly tricky as they are still yet to play fellow promotion candidates such as Preston, Brentford and Fulham. The Baggies have put themselves in an advantageous position and despite their difficult remaining fixtures, West Brom should be able to get across the line.
Like West Brom, Leeds have flirted with promotion in recent seasons. Marcelo Bielsa’s men are yet again in the pack of teams that are on the verge of reaching the Premier League, hoping to avoid “choking” again this year.
The Whites have been fairly consistent throughout the season and have been a part of the top two in the Championship alongside West Brom for large periods of time, rather than being constantly chasing other clubs above them.
Bielsa is undoubtedly the most tactically astute coach in the Championship. The Argentinian has awoken the sleeping giant of English football and the Whites now on the cusp of promotion back to the Premier League.
To Bielsa’s credit, Leeds haven’t spent huge amounts of money during his tenure at Elland Road. He has instead worked within his means, developing the talent he has available to him.
The likes of Kalvin Phillips and Luke Ayling have established themselves as two of the best players in the Championship under Bielsa’s tutelage. The eccentricity and controversy that often surrounds the ex-Marseille manager shouldn’t distract people from the fact that he’s done a very good job in reviving Leeds United.
The Whites have one of the best squads in the Championship and a tactical mastermind at the helm, they are in the perfect position to make the return to the Premier League.
Due to Bielsa’s demanding training schedule, many of his teams have suffered from a late season burn out over the years. The wheels came off of Leeds’ season in 2019 as they began to drop away from the top two in February, subsequently losing in the play offs.
The Whites have shown signs of possibly replicating this fall off in form this season, losing to QPR, Wigan and Nottingham Forest over the past month. Bielsa may have to adapt his relentless style of coaching in order to cope with the strenuous physical demands of the Championship. They are yet to play a few teams who could act as potential banana skins too, Leeds will have to make sure they don’t get complacent against the “easier teams”.
Whilst Leeds have suffered from dips in form throughout the season, there seems to be a general consensus around Elland Road that this is the year that the Whites return to the Premier League and this may well be true…
Fulham have bounced around the play off spots for large periods of time following an initial acclimatisation period in the Championship. Impressively, the west London club have coped with the devastation of relegation from the Premier League well unlike other recently relegated clubs such as Stoke and Huddersfield.
Fulham have managed to retain the large bulk of their squad whilst also adding new players such as Michael Hector, Anthony Knockaert and Bobby Reid. With players such as Ivan Cavaleiro, Aleksander Mitrovic and Tom Cairney in their side, the Cottagers have some of the best talent in the division. Fulham face tough competition to achieve automatic promotion but they will be hot on the heels of Leeds and West Brom, potentially capitalising on a slip up in form.
Although Fulham’s squad is very experienced and is of proven quality, Scott Parker is a relative novice compared to the likes of Slaven Bilic, Marcelo Bielsa and Alex Neil. In a high pressure situation, such as a promotion race, the experience of these managers may show whereas Parker could be exposed in the final few games of the season.
Fulham suffered an embarrassing 3-0 loss against Barnsley recently which shows that their squad definitely has weaknesses. Fulham have been unremarkable yet fairly consistent so far this season, they should make the play offs but will they be able to reach the Premier League?
After years of gradually building, Brentford look like they are finally ready to launch a promotion push. The Bees are a very well run club and are renowned for constantly buying relatively unknown players, developing them and selling them on for large fees.
This efficient model has worked incredibly well and Brentford have transitioned from League One to the verge of the Premier League in recent years. This season, under Thomas Frank, the Bees have slowly advanced up the table and have now consolidated their spot in the play offs but have so far been unable to break into the top two.
Brentford boast the best attack in the Championship with the trio of Bryan Mbeumo, Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma helping propel the Bees into the Play Off spots. The “BMW” forward line have been directly involved in fifty-six of Brentford’s Championship goals which exemplifies their importance to the team.
It is credit to the Bees’ recruitment department that they own three Premier League quality attackers that cost just over £9 million. Their attack must be the envy of many other Championship clubs, especially the extremely wasteful Leeds United. The trio have the star quality that may well help send Brentford to the Premier League.
Despite their sensational attack, Brentford have been unable to keep up to pace with the likes of West Brom and Leeds. They’ve been stricken with inconsistency recently, allowing Leeds to gain a six point advantage over them.
The Bees have dropped points to Blackburn, Birmingham, Huddersfield and Millwall since Christmas as well as also losing to Nottingham Forest in a crucial top six clash. Although Brentford don’t have a particularly tough remaining fixtures, it seems unlikely that they’ll break into the top two considering their disadvantageous position. Thomas Frank’s men may struggle to reach the Premier League via automatic promotion this season but success in the play offs is still a very realistic possibility for the Bees.
Similarly to Leeds United, Nottingham Forest are a huge club that may be on their way back to the Premier League. After coming relatively close to the play offs last season, Forest are well and truly in the promotion race this time round.
Managed by Sambri Lamouchi, the East Midlands side have been fairly consistent all season and have even flirted with the automatic promotion spots on occasion. A short winless streak in December is the only time where Forest have wobbled but they recovered to win three games on the trot.
After seasons of mid table mediocrity, it appears that Forest may be finally launching a promotion charge. Wins against Leeds, Fulham and Brentford have proven that the Reds are able to compete with the best teams in the division which is a very promising sign if they do qualify for the Play Offs.
The Forest squad is a great blend of experienced Championship players and foreign flair. Samba Sow is a destroyer in midfield and his partnership with veteran Ben Watson is proving to be an unlikely but successful combination. Lamouchi has reinvented Matty Cash as a right back and he’s flourished in his new role which is a testament to the Tunisian’s managerial acumen. Forest have top quality players dotted all over the pitch and have radically improved under their new gaffer.
Despite their vital victories over the better teams in the Championship, Forest have been uncharacteristically poor against sides that you’d expect them to beat. Lamouchi’s men have dropped points against QPR, Charlton, Birmingham and Reading recently which has resulted in them dropping away from the top two.
Forest also only have one win in their last five games which is a worrying statistic considering that the business end of the season is approaching. Their remaining fixtures are somewhat generous but the Reds have tripped up against lesser teams in the past. Forest can’t afford to keep on dropping points if they’re to make the top six come the end of the season.
Nottingham Forest have been doing well under Lamouchi but their promotion hopes have been significantly dented by their poor run of form recently. If Forest can return to winning ways they should be able to finish in the play off spots but automatic promotion seems like a bit of a stretch.
Preston North End
Preston have proven to be one of the surprise packages of the Championship season, unspectacularly mounting a promotion push. North End look like, after years of being labelled as “dark horses” for promotion, reaching the play offs which is a tremendous feat considering their relatively small budget compared to the likes of Fulham and West Brom. The Lilywhites have spent a fair amount of time in the top six this season, picking up results without ripping up many trees.
Whilst Preston don’t really have any stand out players, their squad is incredibly well rounded and there seems to be a great deal of camaraderie within the dressing room. Akin to Premier League teams such as Burnley and Sheffield United, the Lancashire outfit have a team rid of any big egos or clashing personalities which will undoubtedly work in their favour during a high pressure situation such as a promotion race.
Preston may also be underestimated by the rest of the teams pushing for promotion due to their lack of individual quality or big name players. So far this season, North End have recorded wins over the likes of Fulham and Brentford whilst also remaining unbeaten against Leeds. In Alex Neil, they have a manager who has experience of a successful promotion race as he helped Norwich City reach the Premier League back in 2015. His past experiences will prove to be vital during the remainder of the season.
Even the most optimistic Preston fan would admit that gaining automatic promotion will be a tough feat for the team. With six points, and three teams, separating them and second placed Leeds, the play offs are beginning to look like the most realistic route to the Premier League for the Lillywhites.
When matched up against the quality of teams likely to be involved in the play offs this season, Preston will be casted as outsiders for promotion. Their squad just pales in comparison to the likes of Fulham, Brentford and co. Preston have acted as the division’s “dark horses” thus far but will they be able to make the step up to the Premier League right now? The odds are stacked against them.
Preston face a stern set of remaining fixtures with West Brom, Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Bristol City all left to play. With Bristol City breathing down their necks, it’s essential that North End keep on picking up points despite their tricky run in. These clashes against other teams towards the top of the league will prove decisive in Preston’s fate.
Out of the seven teams on this list of promotion candidates, Bristol City are the least fancied for promotion. Although Lee Johnson has stated that he prefers the Robins to have the “underdog” tag. Despite the lack of belief other people have in their abilities to win promotion, it’s undeniable that Bristol City do pose a threat to the top six.
Lee Johnson, who’s won the plaudits of Pep Guardiola in the past, has done a terrific job at Ashton Gate since being appointed just over three years ago. Under him, the Robins look like a team capable of achieving promotion. Although they do sit outside the top six, Bristol City have the potential to string together another good run of form, like they did in January, which could propel them into the play off spots come the end of the season.
Bristol City have seriously struggled against the top teams in the Championship this season. They’ve been comfortably beaten by Leeds, West Brom and Brentford whilst only winning against a top six side once. Realistically, Bristol City’s main chance of reaching the Premier League will be through the play offs which means their lack of success against fellow promotion chasing sides is particularly alarming.
If they do reach the top six, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them get brushed aside by the top teams like they have been several times this season. As well as this, Lee Johnson’s men have proven to be incredibly inconsistent. His team won four games in a row in January but only after losing four on the bounce in December. Another poor run of form could see Bristol City slide down the table away from the promised land of the play offs.
The Robins are certainly outsiders for promotion, their inconsistency and failure to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the league has meant that they have so far failed to cement a place in the play off spots. After two successive losses, Bristol City will have to string together a run of good results to keep up with the top six which they have managed to do in the past. Don’t write the Robins off just yet
With twelve games of the season still to play, a team outside the top seven in the Championship could make a dash for the Play Offs at the final hour. As we saw with Aston Villa last season, a side can have a good run of form and suddenly propel themselves up the table.
Blackburn and Swansea seem the most likely to break into the top six out of all the potential “dark horses” but even Birmingham City, who are currently eleven points behind sixth place in fourteenth have a fairly plausible shot at reaching the play off spots. The Championship is one of the most unpredictable, dynamic leagues in Europe so don’t be surprised to see an outsider reach the top six thanks to a sudden good run of form.
After a slight dip in form, it looks like West Brom and Leeds are starting to tear away from the chasing pack again. The inconsistency of the trailing teams has allowed the top two to reinstate their lead at the summit of the Championship.
West Brom have been formidable since the start of February and look like they’ve stamped out any imperfections that they once had. Sitting 4 points clear of second and nine points from third, it’s hard to see Bilic’s side being toppled from the summit of the Championship.
Although Leeds are five points clear of third and have a fairly generous set of fixtures yet to play, they are prone to tiring out towards the end of the season and there is still plenty of time left for Leeds to have another wobble in form, potentially opening the door for the likes of Fulham or Brentford.
It seems like the automatic promotion may be a bit too far-fetched for Bristol City, Preston or even Nottingham Forest but they can’t afford to ease up now. It’s imperative that they keep on picking up results as any poor form could be capitalised upon by the plethora of teams below them.
As well as looking down, the teams currently placed second to sixth will also be keeping an eye on the automatic promotion spots. Whilst the west London duo of Brentford and Fulham seem the most likely to creep into second place, it’s entirely possible for any other team to have a late surge in form. The door for the Premier League is still wide open.
As we approach the business end of the season, it’s incredibly hard to predict who will gain promotion from the Championship. Whilst West Brom and Leeds are currently in the driving seat, the whole landscape of the table could change in a matter of weeks. The scramble to reach the Premier League is truly wide open and there is still a lot of drama yet to unfold with twelve games left to go.
By: Thomas Owen
Photo by George Wood/Getty Images