Who are the potential breakout stars playing in the Championship this season?
In the summer of 2019 Neal Maupay, Adam Webster and Daniel James transfered from Championship clubs to the Premier League. In the summer of 2018, it was David Brooks and James Maddison who trod that path. There are many reasons why the Championship is regularly termed as a “Premier League 2”, but perhaps the biggest is that it serves as a finishing school for young players before they make the step up to the big time.
And that’s just the permanent transfers. There are also the rough diamonds not yet considered ready for first team action at their parent clubs who get loaned out to this level, hoping that the competitive balance and regular football will sharpen up their talents for the top tier. It’s a strategy that paid off particularly handsomely for Chelsea with Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Reece James all returning from starring loan spells in England’s second tier last season to make positive impacts on the Chelsea first team.
There are plenty of candidates making strong individual cases this time out to follow that well worn path. Let’s assess some of them, finishing with those staking a claim for a permanent move, but starting with the loan stars.
It’s a temporary move for a reason
Chelsea could quite easily see another couple of young, English loanees featuring in their first team squad next season if Conor Gallagher and Izzy Brown keep their form up.
Gallagher’s shown a promising all round game in central midfield, reliably putting in a shift out of possession and also possessing the quality to help newly promoted Charlton transition from defence to attack. It’s his knack of arriving late in the box and finding space in dangerous areas – not unlike a certain Frank Lampard used to - that has really caught the eye so far though, already notching 5 goals from central midfield. Gallagher has the highest expected goals total of all centre midfielders in the Championship this season and it’s not difficult to see why from his shot map and the positions he’s getting into.
Brown has also made a positive impression in his appearances at also-newly-promoted Luton, but as opposed to Gallagher it’s in the chance creation phase where Brown has stood out. With five assists in 774 minutes, Brown’s currently assisting a goal every other game, and the underlying numbers are robust enough that that rate could feasibly continue. He’s making more key passes (passes that create shots) per 90 minutes than any other player in the league - with and without set pieces included - and the quality of those chances are sufficiently high as well: Brown also tops the list for expected goals assisted per 90 minutes.
Brighton will be equally pleased with centre half prodigy Ben White.
This is White’s third loan, with the young defender progressing up the pyramid each time. Starting with an impressive full season in League Two at Newport County in 2017-18, he then had a half-season at Peterborough the following year, before now embarking on a full season in a Leeds side challenging at the top of the Championship under the tutelage of one of the most highly respected coaches in the game. It’s fair to say his current career trajectory so far has been a steady upward curve.
Part of the tightest defence in the second tier, White has been earning rave reviews for his performances at the heart of the Leeds back line, adapting quickly to the demands that have been placed on him by Marcelo Bielsa’s system. Tasked with playing in a high defensive line, White has excelled in the front foot defending style, making more interceptions than any other Championship centre back by some distance. As well as being cool and composed in one on one duels, the Brighton loanee also has a trait for driving forward with the ball to set Leeds attacks on their way. For a first spell at this level, it’s been an impressive start.
Also making a strong impression in his first season at this level is Grady Diangana. Though he already enjoyed a breakthrough season at West Ham in the previous campaign, making six starts and seventeen Premier League appearances overall for the Hammers in 2018-19, this is Diangana’s first loan spell away from East London and at this rate it’s not looking likely he’ll need another one.
The 21 year old has dazzled on the left wing for West Brom, displaying flair and trickery but also real intelligence and sharp decision making in the final third, laying on countless chances for his West Brom team mates. Diangana is some way in front of the rest of the league for xG assisted from open play but, curiously, he’s a bit further down the list when looking at the volume of key passes. Look at the map of chances he has laid on this season though and you can figure out why.
Glancing at this and all of a sudden you might think that it’s easy to create chances in the danger zone on a regular basis. It isn’t, Diangana is just making it look that way.
Ready for the step up, but it’ll cost you
If I don’t mention it now, you’ll scroll through this list and wonder why on earth Ebere Eze isn’t on the list – that’s because he’s already been given the StatsBomb treatment last month which you can read here.
For the third season in succession, a glance at the top of the Championship goalscorer charts will show you Jarrod Bowen’s name. What separates him from his contemporaries in the list is the fact that Bowen isn’t an out and out goalscoring centre forward. He’s an out and out goalscoring winger.
Taking a somewhat unconventional route to the second tier coming through the youth ranks at Hereford United in the non-league, Bowen made eight appearances at the end of the 2013-14 season at the age of 17 but was released that summer when Hereford were expelled from the division for financial mismanagement. Having caught the eye of several scouts, Bowen was picked up by Hull.
Fast forward a couple of years and the winger was arguably the main beneficiary of Hull’s relegation to the Championship in 2016-17. He broke into the side and top scored in his first full season in Hull’s first team in 2017-18, netting 14 goals in the Championship, and went even better last season to net 22 times. With nine goals and two assists already this season, it’s getting to the point where Bowen’s form is impossible for Premier League clubs to ignore.
A real connoisseur of the out-to-in run from the right-hand side and with a skillset maximised in Hull’s counter attacking system, his contract situation makes possible January interest almost inevitable. There’s a new bumper contract on the table from the Tigers but, as things stand, Bowen’s deal technically ends in Summer 2020, though Hull have an option to extend it a year which they’ll almost certainly exercise. Undoubtedly several clubs will be keeping close eye on the progress of those negotiations.
Another player who’s starred on the wing in recent seasons is Ollie Watkins, but the real curiosity over Watkins is down to his positional development. Premier League sides were already reportedly keeping tabs on him due to his performances on the flank for Brentford, but Watkins has, this season, started as a central striker and, by the returns we’ve seen so far, anyone would think he’d spent his entire career there.
Second only to Aleksandr Mitrovic in the scoring charts, Watkins has adapted quickly to the different demands placed on him by playing centrally and leading the line and the move can only have added several million pounds to his price tag, given that interested clubs will now be bidding for a player not just with a proven track record out wide but now also as a #9.
Watkins already possessed a well-developed all-round game due to his history playing in deeper positions on the wing and, though it took a few games for him to get up to speed, the move up front has meant he can still utilise his link-play and creative spark, but he can now also maximise his not-insignificant goal threat by getting between the posts a lot more and playing a larger role in finishing chances rather than in the build-up to them.
Unless the real big bucks get put on the table, a January move seems unlikely with Brentford poised for a promotion push, but at this rate it’s hard to imagine Watkins will be playing in the Championship next season regardless of whether the Bees succeed in going up or not.
We won’t dwell on this last player for too long, but it’s impossible to ignore when a 16 year old breaks into the first team, stays in the first team, and does this.
For a couple of years now, Jude Bellingham has been quietly spoken of by those in the know as a potential superstar when he makes it into the senior team. Well now we’re seeing the fruit of that already and it’s obvious the hype was not misplaced. To be clear, Bellingham doesn’t turn 17 until next summer.
It doesn’t need saying that it’s a case of when and not if the youngster makes the move to the top of the game but for now, Birmingham fans will try to enjoy him while they can.