- AFC Bournmouth
- FC Watford
- Norwich City
- FC Brentford
- Bristol City
- FC Barnsley
- Wycombe Wanderers
- Relegation battle
On today’s Friday the Championship starts into its new season. In addition to interesting and in some cases unexpected promoted teams, experienced Premier League teams will also be in the mix. The two biggest questions are, as usual, who will win promotion and who will be relegated. CREATEFOOTBALL takes a look at some of the most exciting teams for the upcoming season.
1. AFC Bournemouth
There are huge changes to be expected in Bournemouth. Due to relegation, many players from last year’s squad are too expensive for the Cherries and simply overqualified for the second division. In addition to the already fixed departures of Fraser, Ramsdale, Aké, Harry Wilson (whose creativity in the offensive third needs to be replaced → 1.8 shots/game; 7 goals) and Callum Wilson, Lerma, King, Brooks and Lewis Cook are also facing a transfer. But the decisive factor is of course Eddie Howe’s departure. After more than 450 games on the sideline, not only the person who led the club from third division to the Premier League is leaving, but also the philosophy that made the club so strong on and off the field.
After their numerous departures, Philip Billing (defensive midfielder) and Diego Rico (left-back) could now become new key players. While Rico, for example, is especially notorious for his ball conquests (3.1 interceptions/game) and his strenght in 1vs1 duels (2.3 successful tackles/game), at the same time he is also able set offensive accents with 1.2 key passes per game. Billing is convincing with his power in the air (3.3 won aerial duels/game) and his high running intensity. The comparison with West Ham starlet Declan Rice (who didn’t miss a single minute in the past PL season) for example, shows that Billing’s abilities, especially in defense, making important runs and strength in defensive aerial duels, definitely cannot be underestimated; the Cherries’ season could be decided by his performances.
However, individual players will not be able to fix it. Despite high transfer earnings, the first season back in the Championship will probably be one for Bournemouth to get used to. The fact, that they scored the third most goals last year according to standards fits well with the very physical league, but only 17 goals from open play in 19/20 show the weakness of the technically very talented team. In addition, there is a lack of transition play, despite great 12.5 interceptions/game, they are basically not starting any counter attacks. As by the start of September, the squad is still better than the average Championship side, but since there are still a few departures to come, a direct promotion back to the Premier League seems unrealistic.
2. FC Watford
The Hornets are one of the teams you can‘t really analyze right now. Their squad contains 34 players at the moment, 10 (!) of them are center-forwards. Abdoulaye Doucouré has already left the Vicarage Road, the main factor is, which players are keen on staying at the club and fight for the badge also in the second division. There are some rumours of Ismaila Sarr, Gerard Deulofeu, Will Hughes, Troy Deeney and Andre Gray leaving, but it is not clear who will actually stay.
But even if Watford doesn’t have to fear a sale like Bournemouth, there could be a bigger problem on the sideline. Vladimir Ivic is expected to lead the Hornets back into the upper house as the fourth coach in twelve months, but so far he has only coached in Israel and Greece. He would not be the first manager to suffer from a lack of experience in English football and the critical owners of Watford. Also there are already reports of his authoritarian personality causing discontent within the locker room.
During last years relegation, Watford was absolutly harmless from set-pieces (scoring only 4 goals) – although having many powerful, tall players in the squad. There is also a lack of a creative player (regista) who can provide excellent set pieces for elementary goals, especially in the championship. Otherwise the classic „kick and rush“ of the team (second least dribblings in the Premier League (8.4/game), 26% of the attacks are played through the middle via captain Troy Deeney in their center-based system) actually fits perfectly into the Championship. The Hornets have to be careful not to adapt the uncreative, low level of play of weaker teams that have a similar idea to score. Especially with Joao Pedro and Luis Suárez, the Hornets acquired promising striker talents, that can be used to deviate from long balls and actually play football if necessary. If this succeeds, even a starter like Deeney (Everton is interested) who was fundamental in the past could become obsolete. In the current system, his role is being a bumper and target man, he wins outstanding 7.3 aerial duels and set up 8 big chances for his colleagues in the past year.
Roberto Pereyra could also become a decisive factor, after underperforming for quite a long time now he could use his creativity to become a key player for Watford this campaign (similar to Said Benrahma for Brentford in 19/20). He could take over the part of Gerard Deulofeu, the Spaniard is set to leave for Italy or his home country. The team from the north of London remains one of the strongest in the league, despite uncertainties in terms of squad planning, of course, because a large proportion of the players have been with the club for a long time and are fine with trying to get back up. In general Watford’s experience, the squad strength and weak competitors make promotion (or at least the playoffs) quite probable, despite some negative factors here and there.
3. Norwich City
A season as bad as the last one (21 points) is not easy to forget for sure. But the Canaries as well, unlike Bournemouth, probably don’t have to worry about losing half of their starting 11. With the exception of left-back Jamal Lewis, Daniel Farke’s team has not lost any regular players – on the contrary: With Jordan Hugill and Przemyslaw Placheta, they have even boosted the offensive positions, while Jamal Lewis could be replaced by Xavi Quintillà, who has already played 26 games in Spain’s top flight. Especially newcomer Placheta is one you should look forward to. After already playing for RB Leipzig‘s U19 youth team and with Großaspach in the 3rd german division, the polish forward moved back to his home country for family reasons, where he scored and assisted 11 times for Slask Wroclaw last season and particularly impressed with his vision (9 expected assists; 0.7 key passes/game). The 22-year-old is a so-called “inside forward” – he rarely stays at the sideline, usually moves towards the center with speed, where he tries create shooting opportunities for his teammates as just described or finishes by himself (2.3 shots/game).
If key player Emiliano Buendia, who was one of the few players to stand out in the relegation year with creating 9 big chances (2.3 key passes/game) and 2.8 successful dribblings per game (rate of 72%), should leave the club in the last weeks of the transfer window, the creativity will heavily depend on Placheta’s performance and his harmony with Pukki & Co.! This man Teemu Pukki is the main reason why the club and fans hope for a direct re-promotion His 38 direct goal involments in two years ago are still unforgotten, the currently weaker overall level of the championship, as well as the experienced colleagues should set him up with a lot of scoring chances, especially in the penalty area (see the chart below). With Pukki, newly acquired Jordan Hugill (13 goals for Queens Park in 19/20) and youth academy product Adam Idah, there will be a big competition for the center forward spot, that should ideally help to push all three to the maximum.
The psychological aspect after this historically bad season will definitely play a role at Norwich, but depending on how quickly Farke can shift the players focus back to the present, direct promotion, or at least reaching the playoffs is very likely.
4. FC Brentford
Brentford FC with headcoach Thomas Frank struggled a lot in the last years league finish, missing out on promotion partly due to a last minute defeat against Barnsley on matchday 46 and the lost playoff final vs Fulham. But now it seems as they have largely coped with the missed opportunity. “The team is still hot and we have this fire to create something special this year,” revealed top striker Ollie Watkins, for example. And yet the attacking jewel left London a few days ago to join Aston Villa and ex-coach Dean Smith – the departure of wide-playmaker and power-dribbler Said Benrahma to the Premiership is also considered almost certain. At least for Watkins Brentford signed Ivan Toney (last year’s top scorer of League 1 with 24 goals), he might be the direct replacement at first sight. A look at the statistics of the two strikers Watkins and Toney reveals both, similarities and differences in their game philosophy. Both are considered to have a strong finish (Toney 5.5 shots/goal, Watkins 5.1) and are also convincing with a pronounced vision (Toney with 1.7 key passes/game, Watkins with 1.5). While Watkins, however, also due to his past as a winger, moves into offensive spaces much more frequently, Toney is much more often to be found directly in the center of the box (almost 3 times more headers/game, almost twice as many shots on goal as Watkins). In addition, thanks to his high work rate, Toney is also frequently found in defensive play and fights in more duels – with 1.9 clearances per game and 1.0 successful tackles (Watkins 0.6), he is even ahead of his predecessor here. On the other hand, he has a lower pass success rate (Toney 66%, Watkins 79%), which could become a problem especially in the Bees’ intensive short pass play – but recently the problem of the unoccupied center-forward position became more and more apparent, since Watkins, as described, often swerved outward to pick up balls. With Toney the problem of the target man should be solved.
But if the ex-Peterborough player can be seen as a real replacement (also in terms of goals) you have to wait and see, otherwise we will present you two more possible candidates for the forward position in teammate Marcus Forss and Stoke’s Tyrese Campbell: Marcus Forss came in from West Bromwich Albions youth academy in 2017, since then he has mainly played for Brentford B (Brentford’s 2nd team does not participate in any league, but plays friendly matches against various opponents to develop the players faster and more effective). In the first half year of the 19/20 season he was loaned to Wimbledon, scored 11 times in 18 games for the then League Two side. 7 expected goals in 11 matches show the strong finish of the Finn, 58% of his scoring chances can be converted (Watkins 31%)! Similarly effective is Tyrese Campell (6 expected goals in 9 scored goals) – the english U20 nationalteam player not only looks very similar to Watkins, he is also as fast as the new „Villain“, very agile and team-oriented (6 expected assists).
Since Thomas Frank has recently declared only Benrahma and Watkins are up for sale, Brentford could benefit from an unprecedented consistency in squad composition. Especially the contract extension of Christian Nörgaard until 2024, who in his Denmark’s international debut for Denmark last Tuesday was voted Man of the Match, is elementary for long-term squad planning. Together with goalkeeper David Raya and captain Pontus Jansson, they form an elementary axis in Brentford’s build-up game. Not losing many valuable players this year could be the decisive trump in the promotion battle. The key to success will also be to keep up the offenisve style of play even without two-thirds of the famous „BMW“ trio – 53 goals were scored from open play (top of the league), in addition the Bees worked with a high level of passing accuracy of almost 80%. If this is successful, Brentford will also this season play for its first-time promotion to the Premier League.
5. Bristol City
Also Bristol City seeks for promotion. But despite a solid 19/20 season, Robins’ fans are not optimistic about the future. After weeks of searching for a new headcoach, the club presented Dean Holden (former assistant coach), who is largely inexperienced as headcoach, as their new man. Unlike his predecessor Lee Johnson (4-2-3-1 system), Holden has opted for a 3-5-2 system, which explains the signings Steven Sessegnon (Fulham) and Chris Martin (Derby).
The Bristol board aims for a ‘play-off spot‘, but this is most likely to be missed, regardless of the coach’s decision. The main reason is the squad composition. The most expensive transfers in club history, central defender Tomas Kalas and the young Han-Noah Massengo from Monaco (only only 50% won duels and 0.3 key passes/match in his first season in Britain), were not able to deliver the desired performances last year. With Chris Martin, one of the most efficient strikers in 19/20 (only 3.5 shots/goal) has been signed, but the midfield is not sufficiently well equiped for the club’s requirements – this was not changed by the signing of Chris Brunt of West Bromwich, for example, who only played 74 minutes last season. There is a lack of a strong holding/ball-winning midfielder, Adam Nagy cannot really fill this role, which is one reason why box-to-box player Massengo does not get the space he needs for his progressive runs. Hopes are particularly pinned on Niclas Eliasson (12 assists in 19/20 (3rd most in the league), and also the fourth most big chances (16) created) and the trio of strikers Wells, Diedhiou and Martin (all together 51 scorers last year) – although in the case of Eliasson the question arises where the winger should be started in a 3-5-2 system. Especially goal scorer Diedhiou could be benched by the ripped off Chris Martin. In our graph below you can clearly see that Martin performs far more efficiently and successfully (also in the air despite a 10cm size difference).
Playmaker Jamie Patterson should still be a starter and increases the options in attack. In the end, however, despite individually strong players, the squad lacks the experience and callousness that is needed for promotion. A new badge and an ambitious agenda alone do not make a Premier League team. The club will certainly have nothing to do with relegation, but there can be no serious hopes of promotion either.
6. FC Barnsley
FC Barnsley is looking forward to the new season with confidence due to the unexpected avoidance of relegation. Since taking over the job in November 2019, head coach Gerhard Struber has given the team back the faith in itself that had long been lost at the time and is a hero for the supporters. (some other clubs like Watford were interested in his services). In comparison to the former coaches Stendel and Murray (9 points in 17 games), the Austrian made a great comeback with 12 wins and an average of 1.34 points per game, helping his side to stay in the Championship on matchday 46. The fact that Barnsley is able to keep the majority of its squad alongside Struber should give the ‘Tykes’ justified hopes for a more stable 20/21 season.
However, a lot of work need to be done with the attackers. With 49 goals, Barnsley provided the second weakest attack in the league in 19/20 – even though they fired the fourth most shots per game. This is primarily due to the fact that almost half of the shots were taken from outside the penalty area (6.2/game → highest average of all teams). Barnsley has found it difficult to find ways into the box, with Cauley Woodrow often interpretating his role as more of an additional striker. This is to be improved by, among other things, the signing of Dominik Frieser (formerly LASK). The now fourth Austrian in the squad shines with his flexibility, he can practically be used on the complete right wing and has already played in all possible offensive positions in his career. However, with the transfer of Jacob Brown to Stoke (12 scorer in 19/20, plus 1.3 key passes per game), Frieser could be used especially on the right offensive wing. Brown, whose data seems really exciting for his age, was also chased by the data scouts from Brentford – this fact speaks for itself.
Apart from that, the trio of Woodrow, Conor Chaplin and Alex Mowatt, who were directly involved in 42 of the 49 seasonal goals last year, will be super important. If Struber continues to have such a valuable influence on his predominantly young players (average age 22.0 – in comparison: the second youngest team in the league is Brentford with an average of 24.2 years) and the squad can exploit its full potential on the pitch, nothing more stands in the way of a solid season.
7. Wycombe Wanderers
As impressive and extraordinary as Wycombe Wanderers’ first promotion to the championship was (as unexpected as the Blues’ promotion to League One in 2018), it will probably
be difficult for the team around popular striker Adebayo Akinfenwa to maintain the 2nd division. Already in the past League One season, the style of football was very limited, only 44.2% ball possession and a meager 55.5% successful passes over the entire season (both the worst stats in the entire league!) speak for themselves. Wycombe also scored the fewest goals of all teams in the top half of the standings and stood out with many unsuccesful duels in almost all positions. The “chairboys” profited especially from partly unexplainable mistakes of the competitiors and, due to the corona-related quota system, rose to the top of the playoffs with a mediocre goal difference of 45:40 (with only 18 goals coming from open play).
Similar to Watford, the focus is especially on the kick and rush, which of course is a great option with a brawny striker like Akinfenwa (almost 7 aerial duels/game, 5 goals with his head). The Blues didn’t score a single counter-attack goal in 19/20, 9 goals came from penalties, 15 times they netted from set pieces, making them one of the most powerful teams in this category last year. A lot will also depend on Joe Jacobsen. The left-back, Wycombe’s top scorer in League One with 11 goals (7 penalties), is considered an outstanding cross taker (2.6 crosses/game) and will continue to try to feed Akinfenwa. Apart from crosses and long balls, the team of long-term manager Gareth Ainsworth is not very good at creating goal-scoring opportunities.
Of course the team deserves a lot of respect for the unexpected promotion. But for all the football romance that resonates in this case, many believe that the Championship adventure will be short-lived for Wycombe. In addition to the aforementioned problems in creating chances, hopes of retaining the class are a little presumptuous due to the little value of the squad. The current average market value of a Championship team is just under 53 million euros – the entire Wycombe squad is only worth a little over four million euros. The most valuable player is new signing Ryan Tafazolli with a market value of 600 thousand euros. In the center forward position, 38-year-old Akinfenwa is the only reliable goal scorer, but even he will find it difficult to repeat his 10 goals from last year. Despite the promotion, financial resources remain limited, and a major shopping tour on the transfer market, which is in principle necessary, will not happen. Even if one wishes this likeable and down-to-earth club to remain in the second division, it will be an incredibly difficult task for Wycombe to achieve this goal from a sporting point of view.
8. Relegation fight
Besides Wycombe, Sheffield Wednesday also comes to mind when talking about relegation due to their 12 point deduction (financial problems). Despite interesting transfers, the squad seems too weak to make up for this handicap. The promoted teams Rotherham and Coventry will certainly also have to fight, but thanks to the current weaker league level they could save themselves in the end by will and passion. With Rotherham however the missing creativity in the offensive play poses a danger: In the League One season 19/20 Rotherham scored 25 set-piece goals, more than from open play and was thereby highly dependent on the goals of Richard Wood and Michael Smith. Big problems are also expected at Huddersfield. Pritchard, Hogg and Diakhaby have been in a slump for ome time, with Mounie (transferred to Brest) and Karlan Grant (most likely to be sold to the Premier League), 27 of a total of 52 goals from last season leave the club. Last but not least, the Queens Park Rangers, who have been showing an incredibly holey defense for some time now and are now also losing offensive power after Eberechi Eze’s departure, are also considered potential candidates for relegation.