Diving to the depths of the Championship relegation battle
You can drop your snorkel; we’re gonna need a submarine to get to where we’re going. It's time to search for signs of life in the deepest parts of the Championship table.
There’s only one place to start and that’s with the team currently shipwrecked on the seabed of the Championship floor: Barnsley. The side promoted from League One last season made a dream start to Championship life, claiming an opening day scalp by beating relegated Fulham, but they’ve been unable to follow that up with a single Championship win since.
The team of Duracell bunnies have done their fair share of high-intensity running but have too regularly been soft right where it hurts the most: straight down the middle.
Their defensive problems have seen them leak a league-high 36 goals in their 17 matches, and popular manager Daniel Stendel walked the plank in October to pay for those shortcomings. As is common with high-pressing systems, when the press gets beaten, the opposition often have space to play into and can cause damage in transition, creating clear-cut chances with more ease. The chances Barnsley have conceded have an average expected conversion rate of 12% — no team in the Championship has a worse rate defensively. The fact that they’ve conceded the most counter attacking shots as well as the most clear shots (shots with just the keeper between shot-taker and goal) in the division probably goes a long way to explaining that high figure.
All that and yet this side, winless in sixteen league games at the time of writing, are somehow not completely cut adrift. It’s still possible that a positive impact from new manager Gerhard Struber could see them safe.
Stoke City finally put Nathan Jones out of his misery a couple of weeks back, appointing Michael O’Neill, he of taking-Northern-Ireland-to-their-first-ever-Euros fame, in his place. As has been discussed here and elsewhere earlier in the season, Stoke shouldn’t really be in the relegation battle, having very rarely looked like one of the worst three sides in the division.
Stoke already seem to have a mid-table process in place, so don’t be shocked if O’Neill starts to pick up points at a rate you’d expect from a mid-table side even before he makes changes.
Until recently, Luton Town were treading water in a deep-but-ultimately-safe tide, but five defeats on the spin has dragged them into choppier waters. Captain of the ship is former long-term Roberto Martinez sidekick Graeme Jones, so with that in mind it may not be too much of a surprise that whilst things are looking relatively healthy at the attacking end of the pitch, they appear a little sick at the back.
Off the ball, Luton simply aren’t doing enough to disrupt the opposition. It's just a little too easy for teams to move the ball into dangerous areas in Luton’s third. Their opponents' pass completion rate is 79%, the fourth-highest in the Championship. In itself, this is not a bad thing, as long as the team are forcing their opponents to complete those passes in areas where they can’t hurt. But Luton have also conceded the fourth most deep completions (completed passes within 20 metres of goal) and are then allowing the opponent to move the ball into the penalty area, conceding passes inside the penalty box at a rate worse than only one other side in the league.
Needless to say, when the ball’s spending this much time in those threatening areas, it’s inevitably going to translate into dangerous chances when the opponent decides to pull the trigger. Luton are conceding the most dangerous chances in the league per game.
Transforming a Tony Pulis oil tanker into a luxury yacht was never going to be a straightforward task, but so far Jonathan Woodgate has really struggled to mould Middlesbrough into a new machine.
This job was always going to be a tough way for him to cut his managerial teeth, especially with the knowledge that parachute payments will be cut once again in the summer, but the “attacking, exciting football with high pressure, pressing in different areas” football that Woodgate pledged hasn’t materialised yet.
This team's current form doesn't pass the eye test; they look disjointed both in and out of possession. However, there’s definitely a case to be made that as bad as Boro look on the pitch, there’s something in the numbers that suggests they could be better off.
After all, you can hardly lay blame at Woodgate’s door for the bizarre amount of clear-cut chances, several of which have quite literally been open goals, that have been missed by his team so far. All of these attempts had a 35% or higher expected conversion rate.
Regardless of where things might go, for now the situation looks dismal. .Fifteen shots. Eight expected goals. Three actual goals. Lots of missed sitters. Woodgate tearing his hair out. Middlesbrough in the relegation zone.
Huddersfield parachuted Danny and Nicky Cowley in to save the ship quickly sinking under Jan Siewert, and the East London pair have set the Terriers on an instant path of recovery, going 4-5-3 in their twelve games in charge.
Given Huddersfield’s tragic record before their arrival — they’d won just 1 of their previous 31 league games going back to November 2018 — this is a dramatic turnaround. The gameplan in achieving this in the short-term was clear and epitomised in their first win, which came in their fourth attempt away at Stoke. Huddersfield played the long game and sat 11 men behind the ball for 75 minutes, then scored on a counter attack that you’d imagine was rehearsed 100 times over in training prior to the game.
This bend-but-don’t-break approach has served the Terriers well; just one defeat in their last ten games has lifted them out of the relegation zone. But it’s fair to say such a dramatic improvement has been aided by a small dose of fortune, with the team finishing clinically since the Cowley brothers came in, maximising their results compared to their performances.
In general, things are looking up for Huddersfield. The opposite, however, is true for Wigan. After promotion, they managed a solid first season in 2018–19, comfortably avoiding the drop. But rather than pushing on from there, the team has instead gone backward.
They were roughly equally as good in both attack and defence last season, but now they're equally as bad, having gotten worse at both ends of the pitch, creating less and conceding more.
In defence, the main concern and an area they could quickly improve is in their defending of set pieces, conceding a league-high nine goals from set play situations. It’s not just that their opponents are finishing well in these situations either, as Wigan also have the worst expected goals conceded rate in this phase of play.
At the other end, it’s in open play that they’re struggling. Wigan are rock-bottom in the Championship for expected goals from open play and, whilst they’re only 18th in the league based on the volume of shots they're generating, their quality is almost always lacking. They're rock-bottom in the Championship for expected goals per shot, with their average shot having just an 8% chance of resulting in a goal.
Lastly, they may be 14th, but we have to talk about Charlton. After an electric start to the season, going 4-2-0 in their first six games, they've settled; their 2-3-7 record in the twelve games since is much more in line with both the underlying performances and expectations overall.
They do have some good habits, like an uncanny knack for creating good chances. Their xG per shot rate is second only to Leeds in the league at 10%.
Charlton have made their higher-probability chances count, converting seven of their nine shots with a goal probability of 30% or greater, whilist converting 3/3 penalties.
Charlton’s issues really involve shot volume. For all their good work in creating and clinically converting the occasional good chance, their threat is fairly blunt otherwise, taking only 9.5 shots per game overall — the lowest in the Championship.
This isn’t counterbalanced by a tight defence at the other end, which has conceded 15.7 shots per game, the leakiest in the Championship.
Given they’re still nine points above the relegation zone at the time of writing, those early season points could play a crucial role in their survival bid. Yet the stats suggest their long-term form will more closely resemble their recent 2-3-7 record than their opening 4-2-0 . Charlton’s best chance of survival may be to just hope they sink slowly enough to avoid being caught by the sharks circling below them.