The Pathway to the Championship Playoffs

It’s kicking off at the top. It’s kicking off at the bottom. It’s kicking off in the upper-middle. Well, it would be if anything ever kicked off again. Eventually the games will return (we hope) and if the remainder of the season gets played it'll be a heck of a run in. Typical of a Championship season, with just nine games to go there’s still plenty to be sorted. The relegation battle is dragging a new team into it on a weekly basis, whilst the two-horse race for the title continues to flip between West Brom and Leeds. Fulham, Brentford and Nottingham Forest are near certainties to make the playoffs, but who joins them? *inhales deeply* All of Preston, Bristol City, Millwall, Cardiff, Blackburn, Swansea, Derby and Queens Park Rangers are separated by six points between the final play-off spot in 6th and 13th in the table. That most of them have endured poor recent form only makes the situation more curious. Let’s look into their respective chances.

6th: Preston North End

I wrote a bit on Preston’s season just a month ago describing how their form tailed off after a hot start that saw them in 2nd in early November. As noted, their drop in form since then, which leaves them clinging to a playoff spot, is largely due to a significant reduction in the number of penalties they manage to win and injuries to key players that disrupted their rhythm. The story hasn’t changed much since then. Their form over the last third of a season has swung pendulously, offering hope of a recovery then quickly snatching it away. Data-wise, there really isn’t much to it. Over the course of the season, Preston rank 6th in expected goal difference, which doesn't include the penalties that’ve helped them along the way (Preston’s 10 penalty goals are the most in the Championship by a fair distance). It's clear that across the season they’ve done a lot right and are far from in a false position. The major concern at this late stage is the output of their forwards. Attacking midfielder Daniel Johnson is the top scorer with 11, but 6 of those were penalties. Winger Tom Barkhuizen has done his bit with 9 goals, but Sean Maguire (4 goals), Jayden Stockley (2) and David Nugent (1) have all failed to pull their weight. As a collective, they’ve underperformed their xG to the tune of nearly eight goals. Like each of these sides, it’s hard to believe Preston will actually go on to win the playoffs. But in terms of getting there, as long as their core players stay fit and play together for once, and the forwards start finishing a bit closer to expectation, there’s a good chance Preston will consolidate their position in the top six.

7th: Bristol City

Assuming that you’re reading this because you have an interest in both the Championship and football analytics, then chances are you’ve probably already heard murmurs of the mystery surrounding the Robins’ playoff push. If not, let me inform you. For virtually the entire season, Bristol City’s goal difference trends at a higher rate than their xG difference; in other words, their results are better than their performances. This is evident even in the raw shot numbers. Of course, the quality of the shooting opportunities matters — hence the invention of expected goals — but Bristol City’s shot differential (shots taken — shots conceded) across the season is -183. Their opponents average five more shots per game. Of more concern to their playoff chances is that whilst results have finally seemingly caught up with performances, with just one win in their last seven, their actual performance levels are declining. A goal difference of -2 doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughts of a promotion charge, but given the memory of Huddersfield achieving promotion with a -2 goal difference just three years ago remains fresh, it can't be ruled out.

8th: Millwall

Since taking over in October, Gary Rowett has had the Lions roaring up the table (sorry), improving the on-pitch process at The Den to the extent that Millwall are now rightful contenders for the top six. Rowett’s turned them into something of a defensive beast, the 5-2-3 formation making them very hard to play through.  Since Rowett took charge, in just 6 out of 25 Millwall matches has a team generated more than 1.0 xG against them; looking at the league as a whole Millwall have the 3rd best defence in the league by xG conceded. When you consider that against Leeds and West Brom, the league's best two teams, Milwall conceded a collective 6.88 xG, they’ve really yet to put in an unexpectedly disappointing defensive performance this season Whilst Rowett remains philosophical about the team’s playoff chances, probably rightly given he only took over five months ago, there’s no denying the opportunity is there for the Lions to chase promotion. Add in that each of their nine remaining fixtures are against teams below them in the table and one might argue that it’s even in their own hands.

9th: Cardiff City

You might be forgiven for forgetting that Cardiff finished 18th in the Premier League last season, such has been their rapid acclimatisation to being a steady-but-not-much-more Championship side. As it quickly became clear that Neil Warnock wouldn't lead them to an instant return to the top tier, Neil Harris has been trying to get the Bluebirds singing again since November. Harris’s impact has been gradual rather than instant. Cardiff’s points-per-game has increased from 1.31 to 1.57 since his appointment but, like most of their playoff rivals, their form since the turn of the year hardly suggests an imminent run to glory. Where they do have the edge over their rivals and even over the rest of the league is in the set play department. Cardiff lead the Championship in both set piece xG and set piece goals, scoring 19 of their 52 goals this way. A number of players are able to pose a threat from dead balls; centre backs Sean Morrison and Aden Flint are notoriously deadly at this level whilst Curtis Nelson is an able deputy. The danger they pose in these situations could make them an uncomfortable opponent to come up against in the playoff format should they get over the line.  

10th: Blackburn Rovers

While a section of the fanbase would have you believe their season is over already, in fact they find themselves in the middle of a race to the playoffs that they have every chance of winning should they get their act together in the remaining nine games. That Blackburn are in touch with the top six is a commendable achievement for Tony Mowbray, given this is their second season post-promotion and they’ve had to do it without their jewel in the crown, Bradley Dack, who blew his ACL in December. That they haven’t missed Dack to a greater extent is largely down to England youth international Adam Armstrong, still just 23, having the most productive Championship season of his career so far. Crucially, Blackburn’s goal difference of +7 is the best of the playoff-chasing sides, something that could play into their favour at the season's end.

 11th: Swansea City

Making a case for Swansea to win the race is a little difficult when they’re in this position mostly because of a hot start six months ago. Take their opening six games, in which they picked up 16 points, out of the equation, and their form is that of a lower-mid table side. They’ve picked up 37 points from 31 games since then. That’s not to denigrate the work Steve Cooper’s doing. The Swans are clearly a side in transition and the need to trim the wage bill whilst bringing in cheaper replacements since their relegation from the Premier League is well-documented. One of the Championship’s brightest lights plays his football at the Liberty Stadium this season, ironically so given he was one whose wages the Swans tried to shift in the summer window. André Ayew hasn’t come cheap, but the experienced winger looks to have offered sufficient return on the wages invested. Perhaps surprisingly — given they don’t have a reputation for it — Swansea lead the Championship in high press shots (shots generated within 5 seconds of a possession turnover in the opposition half). The Swans rank between 7th and 8th for pressures and counterpressures in the opposing half, so it’s a positive sign that the team is clearly adept at converting these turnovers into goalscoring opportunities.

12th: Derby County

There’s something a bit strange about writing about Derby in a promotion context. This is a side that’ve spent most of the season muddling through, trying to close their ears to multiple sources of off-pitch distraction, and have only recently found their feet under Philip Cocu and started putting a spell of good form together. It may well be out of their hands anyway should the EFL decide their crimes off the pitch are worthy of a points deduction, but a playoff berth seems as premature as it does unlikely. Their position in the league table is powered almost entirely by their good record in home matches against bottom-half teams, picking up 27 points from 11 matches as opposed to 24 points in the other 26 matches, so Derby will have to start beating those above them in order to make the top six, something they’ve struggled to do all season. The odds are stacked against the Rams given five of their remaining nine fixtures are against current top six teams. But at least Wayne Rooney’s had a positive impact.

13th: Queens Park Rangers

Well done for making it this far. Thirteenth in the table but just six points of sixth, QPR round us off. A real bastion of inconsistency this season, it looks like the Hoops might be coming into one of their purple patches at the right time of season, arguably the form side of all of the contenders. In simplistic terms, QPR started the season good, then were bad, but are now good again. How long that’ll last is anyone’s guess, but they at least seem to have shaken off their mid-season malaise. We all wondered whether midfield magician Ebere Eze would manage to sustain his outstanding early season form and luckily for QPR he has, continuing to be as influential as ever in recent matches. He's now aided by the emergence of electric winger Bright Osayi-Samuel, who not only provides able support to Eze in attacking output but also opening up more space for him, ensuring opposition defenders now have two major problems to worry about in QPR’s attack. What goes against QPR is that it may just be too late to make up the gap. Six points and an eight-goal swing is a lot for just nine games. Should one of the league’s best players in Eze and able sidekick Osayi-Samuel continue their hot form it'd be foolish to rule them out of it.

Unpacking the League One promotion race

Death, taxes, some form of end-of-season carnage in League One. The three certainties of life on planet Earth. At this point last season, it was the relegation battle encompassing 50% of the division that was causing palpitations across the third tier on a weekly basis. This season the logjam occurs at the top: eight points separates Rotherham in 1st with Ipswich in 8th. It’s jostling, bunching, tight and bordering on claustrophobic. At least two of the sides that have eyes focused squarely on promotion won’t even make the end of season play-offs. It’s someone’s job to sift through it all to help form a clearer picture for you ahead on the run-in, and the pleasure is all mine. Looking to complete another rotation of their perpetual yo-yoing are current leaders of the pack, Rotherham. Paul Warne hasn’t quite refined the formula to keep the club in the Championship yet, but the managerial alchemist seems to have found a potent combination to securing promotion from League One, something he’ll have achieved twice in two attempts should the Millers get over the line. The elements at the forefront of this formula are straightforward: pressing & set pieces. No team in the league presses harder or higher than Rotherham… … which just makes them an unpleasant and uncomfortable side to play against: 90 minutes of constant duelling all over the pitch, on the ground and in the air. 28% of the opposition’s passes are pressed aggressively by Rotherham, the highest percentage in League One. As well as making the opposition run a red and white gauntlet, they match this with a, frankly absurd, set piece threat, scoring 21 set piece goals in 31 matches. Another note is the fitness levels of the side, owed in large part to Warne’s previous role as a fitness coach. Where the rest of the league may be just starting to flag with the majority of a gruelling season behind them, the Millers may only just be hitting their peak. An ominous sign to their promotion rivals. A strong run has propelled Coventry from play-off hopefuls into the automatic promotion places. Were the Sky Blues to go up this season it would be the culmination of three years of upward trajectory under Mark Robins, after securing a play-off promotion from League Two in 2017-18 and just missing out on a play-off berth in last season’s League One. It’s as commendable as it is surprising that Coventry have managed to hit these heights despite being forced to play their home games at a neutral venue, but equally impressive is that they’re doing so with the 2nd youngest squad on average across the whole division. Their collection of early and mid-peak players has swept aside far more experienced campaigners to get to this position, playing an easy-on-the-eye short passing possession game in the process. Despite the acclaim for their on-ball work, it’s as much their shape out of possession that has led them to this position, having only been defeated on three occasions this season and conceding the joint-fewest shots per game alongside Rotherham. Wycombe’s unlikely rise to the top of the division in the first half of the season was eye-catching and eyebrow-raising in equal measure. As more fancied outfits stalled around them, the Chairboys stole a march and they remain in contention despite being clawed back into the pack more recently. Part of their unlikely rise was owed in-part to a bit of a statistical freak when they embarked on a run of eight games between October and December in which they conceded just one goal, scored ten and managed to go W6 D2 L0. Seven clean sheets in eight games was some doing and they’d given very few genuine chances away in that time but of their opponents’ 101 shots, just 10 hit the target and just one made it into the net. A 1% conversion rate is rare at any level even in small eight game samples. I reiterate that Wycombe defended well in that time but cruelly, as if to ram home the point of how unlikely it was, from their next 101 shots Wycombe conceded 14 goals and their lead at the top was eaten up. Given their position, no one will tell Wycombe not to shoot for the stars and outrun their pre-season expectations by as great a margin as possible from here. As unlikely as it is, we’ve seen unlikely occurrences at Adams Park already this season, so why not another? Next… Sunderland AFC [suhn-der-luh nd] noun

  1. A football team located in a Tyne and Wear seaport, in North East England.
  2. A vortex. Defined as that downward swirling motion regularly observed in nature, often during volatile environmental conditions. A vortex is manifested in different forms, such as tornadoes, whirlpools, or a flushing toilet.

I’ll let you decide which of those forms best describes Sunderland’s recent years. Joking aside, it genuinely appears that Sunderland might have found the saviour to kick that downward swirling motion into reverse. The most confounding thing about Phil Parkinson’s impact in turning the team around was that his first milestone as the new manager was to lead them to the lowest league position in their history on Christmas Day 2019 after picking up just eight points in his first eight games, leaving them in the bottom half of the table. Surely the only thing that’d turn the season and get the fans onside would be a run of 30 points from the next 13 games? Thankfully for Parkinson, that’s what he managed to achieve and promotion rivals are now shifting nervously as the Black Cats pick up that all important momentum (and other such proverbials) heading into the final straight. Eight clean sheets in their last nine means Sunderland now have the best defensive record in the league but another piece of good work by Parkinson has been to get Lynden Gooch firing and showing his best form since their relegation. A quick and easy way to summarise Peterborough’s season so far would be to examine their expected goals trendlines. There’s been three strong periods of narrative amongst the fanbase which I’ll annotate below:

  • Early peak: “Wow, we cannot stop scoring goals! Marcus Maddison, Mo Eisa and Ivan Toney are the Holy Trinity of goalscoring and creativity!”
  • Middle trough: “Wow, whatever this is, it is not working. Marcus Maddison sold, Mo Eisa dropped. Please ditch the diamond formation.”
  • Late peak: “Wow, we cannot stop scoring goals! Sammy Szmodics, Siriki Dembele and Ivan Toney are the Holy Trinity of goalscoring and creativity!”

In all seriousness, Darren Ferguson gets credit for successfully changing the shape and personnel of the team when it stopped working to keep the promotion aim alive, a major quirk of Peterborough’s season being the difference in the first-choice team being five, if not six, players different to the first choice used during the early season good form. If Peterborough do seal promotion then a lot will be down to the form of Ivan Toney up front, who has made the leap from flashes of potential to simply far too good for this level. The January-acquired support act of Sammy Szmodics has also proven to be a shrewd signing and not just because of his four goals and three assists in his first seven appearances for Posh; his movement in the hole both when Peterborough have and do not have possession has been far more effective to the system than that of predecessor Marcus Maddison. Five wins in a row sees Fleetwood make a timely run into the top six. A recent run of seven draws in nine games threatened to blow their promotion ambitions off course but the evolution in the team since the turn of the year looks to be paying off. More mobility has been added to the backline in Everton loanees Callum Connolly and Lewis Gibson, counterbalanced with the installation of he-of-over-200-Premier-League-appearances Glenn Whelan to central midfield, and the tweaks appear to have taken the Cod Army to a new level. For a team that has spent more time out of the top six than in it this season, the signs, particularly defensively, have always been there in the underlying numbers that they could be capable of ending up there. They give away fewer than 10 shots per game, which are rarely of a clear-cut quality, and give very little away on set plays. A foundation as solid as that could enable Fleetwood to swim upstream, through the busy logjam and into Championship waters. Portsmouth are another resurgent force hitting form at the right time of the season. Falling in last season’s play-offs, Pompey were pre-season favourites to win the league this time around but found themselves as low as 16th in November. The early struggles were a result of the slight flaws in Kenny Jackett’s system being exposed repeatedly. There were numerous games in the early stages where Pompey would have an equal or better part of the game, and either go behind in unlikely circumstances or routinely concede an equaliser having looked to defend any lead they’d gained, when if anything they’d had the better opportunities to extend their lead. They simply couldn’t close a game out. The performances during this run were never as bad as the results they were getting and below highlights the disparity between Portsmouth’s expected goal difference and actual goal difference in the earlier part of the season, with green shade representing an underperformance. The early struggles prompted Kenny Jackett to rethink the process and the answer he came up with was to shift the team up the pitch, pressing higher and aiming to disrupt the opposition’s build up further away from Portsmouth’s goal. You’ll see below, the average distance away from their own goal that they’re committing defensive actions (in purple) has increased, with the amount of passes the opposition are allowed to complete before a Portsmouth defensive action (in green) has decreased. The introduction of the energetic Andy Cannon to the #10 position as well as the January acquisition of Cameron McGeehan has helped to alter the balance of the side in a positive way and hopes of going one further than last season are far from extinguished. When I put it to you that Ipswich have picked up 25 points from their last 22 games you would be perfectly entitled to wonder how they remain in this race. They exploded out of the blocks with 8 wins in their first 11 games but the downward trend in both results and performances has seen them fall flat on their face since. Only a reverse of those trends would see an automatic promotion place become theirs. Exactly why their early season results contrast so starkly from runaway title winning standard to bottom-half struggler standard seems to be a cocktail of factors. They were wildly overperforming in the early stages: on-pitch performances were never as good as such a dominant run of results and inevitably results were always going to come back down to earth a bit. Secondly, the long-term injury to flying wing-back Kane Vincent-Young, who gave the team real attacking impetus on the right flank which has so far proven to be irreplaceable. The juggling between teams and systems to try and redress that imbalance is the third factor; the level of rotation and tinkering between personnel and team shape without identifying a solution that works. Fourth is just good old player form. Only Flynn Downes has performed to a consistently good level for Ipswich this season, look across the rest of the side and it’s hard to spot a player that’s made a significant impact on the division, with individuals showing form in bursts but never across a prolonged stretch of games. That said, there’s still 25% of the season in which to fix those issues, but in order to go up Ipswich will have to start doing something we haven’t seen them do for half a season now.

StatsBomb Mailbag: Championship Edition

A Championship-specific mailbag! Right here! A second-tier league full of top-tier entertainment. Questions were asked, answers will follow. https://twitter.com/DavidAnderson_1/status/1224341362335764486 This year, Brentford are different. Rewind to any debate about the Bees in the last three or four seasons and without fail you’d hear something along the lines of 'fantastic to watch, great play in the final third, too soft at the back'. Over the previous three seasons — in which they’ve fallen just short of the play-offs — Brentford conceded 1.41, 1.13 and 1.28 goals per game respectively. This season it’s 0.76 per game. Their record of 23 goals conceded in 30 games makes them the meanest defence in the entire league. Even though the first two-thirds of a season have established that Brentford are a solid outfit now, it doesn’t make it any less weird. At any rate, to answer the question, let’s compare last season’s defensive radar with the same template from this season. Seems conclusive. When looking at these figures you can, by a rule of thumb, consider the data points on the left to be ‘process’ indicators and the data points on the right to be ‘outcome’ indicators. The only difference between last season and this season in the ‘process’ category is defensive distance, which shows Brentford are performing defensive actions just over two metres higher up the pitch on average compared to last season. But that doesn’t explain the vast reduction in the quality of chances that Brentford give up. If anything, one could make the opposite argument that defending even further up the pitch should lead to more space behind the defence, which should lead to more counter-attacking opportunities for the opponent. That their passes per defensive action (PPDA), aggression (the portion of opponent passes they aggressively press), and opponent pass completion percentage all remain around the same level is curious. All of this leads me to one, un-video verified, conclusion: Brentford are simply more organised and coordinated in their pressing and their out of possession shape this season. Fewer gaps and spaces are left for the opposition to expose and play into. A tick in the coaching box for Thomas Frank. The other way in which Brentford have improved is that they’ve chopped 0.12 expected goals per game off their set-piece xG conceded, which works out to 5–6 goals a season. This could well be a tick for Pontus given his aerial prowess but the summer appointment of Head of Set Pieces Andreas Georgson probably has more to do with it. Overall, the Bees' improvement at the back, their ability to retain their attacking power and yet another summer of successful player trading is to be applauded, for sure. It’s impossible to see anything less than a play-off finish for Brentford, and it could feasibly be even more. https://twitter.com/chrisbelmore/status/1224354837120184323?s=20 The first caveat is one that isn't new, nor is it popular, but it's important to put Derby's season in context. Last season, they were just a top-six side, and it was a season-long overperformance — particularly late on — of their expected goals numbers that helped them finish even that high.   As Chris points out, after removing the now-established Premier League talent of Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Harry Wilson from the side, the team were already working off a much weaker base going into this season. A team that was barely a top-six Championship side now most certainly wouldn't finish that high unless Derby could repeat the trick of recruiting well to replace the quality lost, which was always going to be difficult to do. Factor in the literal rap sheet of bad off-field behavior — which seems to pile in on a monthly basis — and the foundations simply aren’t there for the team to mount a promotion bid. For me, Cocu gets a free pass on that. Given that Derby were reliant on the aforementioned loan signings to reach the top six last season, it’s clear the squad's foundations did not rise to that level without those players, and therefore a squad rebuild was/is required. Before a squad really takes on the manager's image, the club needs three (at minimum) transfer windows to find the right players. One feather in Cocu’s cap is that in the absence of incoming replacements, he’s integrated more academy products to the team. In addition to last season’s standouts, Jayden Bogle. Jason Knight and Max Lowe, who are getting regular minutes, several more linger on the fringes, in position to break through over the next couple of seasons. The introduction of these players — assuming they are of sufficient quality, which early indicators suggest they may well be — will save Derby money in the transfer market or could help to fund their rebuild if these players progress faster than the club and move on to the Premier League (cough, Bogle, cough). On the pitch, it was a pretty underwhelming start, but the stats indicate their performances are moving in the right direction, although the recent run of good form has come on a ridiculously soft set of fixtures. All in all, Cocu’s had a frankly ridiculous set of off-field distractions to wrestle with this season, none of which he is responsible for. Is he maximising the team at the moment? Probably not. Is it reasonable to expect him to be doing so given the circumstances he’s had to manage under? Definitely not. https://twitter.com/fplredrobin/status/1224391817388613642 I’ll let you be the judge. https://twitter.com/dgouilard/status/1224336891769524232 There’s been a pretty hefty decline in Preston’s results as the season’s progressed, and a couple of factors go a long way to explaining it. To start with, Preston’s season can pretty much be chopped in two: pre- and post-November 9th.

  • Pre-November 9th, their record was P16 W9 D4 L3. Points per game: 2.06
  • Post-November 9th, it’s P14 W4 D4 L6. Points per game: 1.14

The first explanation is that Preston were +8 in penalties in the opening 16 fixtures (8 won, 0 conceded) — the next best in the league was 4. So, whilst Preston were setting a good standard on the pitch in that time, their results received a boost thanks to their run of winning penalties. In the 14 games since that time, Preston’s penalty difference is -4 (0 won, 4 conceded). That swing goes a long way to explaining such a dramatic drop off in points. The other, more nuanced, but equally disruptive factor is the injuries Preston picked up prior to and during their run of four defeats up to early December. Defensive jewel Ben Davies dropped out, before big midfield influencers Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson both served time on the sideline. Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but it does seem that early on Preston were benefitting from a hot run of penalties and a settled side that allowed them to maximise their results. Winning fewer penalties and losing two or three key players — particularly at Preston where they lack the squad depth of their more financially-flush rivals — over a stretch of games will inevitably lead to a downturn in both on-pitch performances and results. Their current position of 7th is probably a fair reflection of their true ability anyway. https://twitter.com/EmilioPepilio/status/1224364186580529158 I’m not quite sure how to answer this when I regularly find myself asking the same first question myself, but here goes. At the start of the season, Leeds looked exceptionally good — better than last season and quite considerably ahead of anyone else in the league. Results were good, but the scoreline was tighter in a few games than Leeds’ domination suggested it should have been. The main issue, as raised, is the attack. After 21 games, Leeds had conceded just 10 goals, a fair reflection or their performances as captured by stats. They were a defensive machine. That they weren’t further ahead in the league table was down to squandering chances that would’ve turned some losses into draws and some draws into wins. But then Leeds won seven games in a row between November and December, and everyone collectively stopped scratching their heads; we’d all seen this coming. The Leeds machine was finally taking teams apart like they always threatened they were going to. I raise all this because the slump they’re currently enduring is not because they’ve started squandering chances again. The finishing ain't the problem anymore. It should be obvious to anyone: The issues are at the back. In the 9 fixtures since their winning run ended, they’ve conceded 17 goals. Their shots conceded per game rose from 8.67 to 10.22, fairly negligible but a downturn nonetheless. More alarming is that their xG per shot conceded increased from 0.07 to 0.11. So we’re now faced with the double whammy of Leeds objectively performing worse defensively (albeit over a small sample of games) and Kiko Casilla having a slump in form between the sticks. Whether this continues largely depends on the reasons for the drop off. Have the players finally been exhausted by Marcelo Bielsa’s methods after 18 months at the helm, as some people suggest? Maybe? It could also be a simple wobble in performance. Whilst Leeds don’t look as daunting as they did earlier in the season, they still look promotion-contender levels of good. Whether their promotion bid is successful depends on whether the gradual decline in performances continues or whether the machine is just suffering a blip and resumes normal service in time. One wonders if Bielsa has tried turning his robots off and on again. https://twitter.com/analytic_footy/status/1224372797360820225 The trendline since the start of Bielsa’s reign certainly fuels the argument that Leeds are fudging xG somehow. Results have routinely struggled to keep up with performances. However, we’ve all seen the chances that Patrick Bamford and others have missed this season. The amount of ‘you simply have to score those’ chances that they've squandered is borderline comical. Which, for me, rules out any blind spots in the model. Bielsa’s system is lining these chances up for players, ‘tis the individual who is not finishing them. https://twitter.com/LukeSouthworth/status/1224330860905881601 To round things off I’ll answer with my underrated player because it’s easy. Ladies and gentlemen, Mathieu James Patrick Smith. In the 100th percentile for aerial wins. The best Plan B in the league. Pure battering ram. Show me a defender who can consistently beat him in the air and I’ll show you a liar. Case closed. https://twitter.com/mixedknuts/status/1224336330747973632 We end with some health advice from the CEO because after all, your health is your wealth. 'Till next time, folks.

StatsBomb Safari: Eying up England's Young Lions

As English academies continue to pump out rafts of new professional footballers year after year, one of the most effective quality control measures for testing the shiny new players coming off the production line is to send them out onto a pitch in League Two, League One, or the Championship to see if they can handle themselves in senior football. Indeed, 20 of the 23 players that made up England’s World Cup squad in 2018 had experienced first-team football at some level in the English Football League at some point in the early stages of their career, whilst 5 members of England’s most recent squad for the November internationals played in the Championship last season. This season is no different; plenty of talent is beginning to flourish across the Championship and League One, but there’s also plenty of international age-group teammates that’ll soon join them on loan for the second half of the campaign. Here’s where you should keep your eyes fixed to spot the England internationals of the future.

Goalkeepers

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Dean Henderson (Sheffield United, on loan from Manchester United) & Aaron Ramsdale (AFC Bournemouth) Player In Focus: Nathan Trott (’98), (AFC Wimbledon, on loan from West Ham) Pickings on the goalkeeper front are slimmer this year, and Henderson and Ramsdale are tough acts to follow, but of the contenders, Nathan Trott is having a true breakout season. Flourishing in the same AFC Wimbledon landing spot where Ramsdale made his name last season, the West Ham loanee has held the number #1 jersey since opening day and, not that it’s an indicator of talent, has made more saves than any other keeper in League One, his shot-stopping skills getting a regular workout behind the Wimbledon defence. These workouts appear to be paying off. Based on the post-shot information StatsBomb collect to better evaluate goalkeepers, such as shot placement, Trott should’ve saved 72% of the shots he’s faced. His 77% save percentage is not only the highest in League One, it’s also above expected based on the quality of shots he’s faced. Like Ramsdale last season, Trott’s reaping the benefits of being a big fish at a club fighting to avoid relegation, whilst Wimbledon benefit from the extra quality he’s brought between the sticks. Having featured in the England U21 squad in the September internationals, he could see a March call up again, likely linking him up with Wimbledon predecessor Ramsdale. Other notables:

  • Joe Bursik (’00), (Accrington Stanley, on loan from Stoke City)
  • Billy Crellin (’00), (Fleetwood Town)

Right Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Reece James (Chelsea), Max Aarons, (Norwich City) Player In Focus: Nathan Ferguson (’00), (West Bromwich Albion) Not that we really need to perform a depth check on English right backs right now given the sheer abundance of them, but plenty are pushing through, hoping to provide competition for that spot in the future. Nathan Ferguson being selected for his full West Brom debut on the opening day of the season raised eyebrows, but the academy product hasn’t looked back, accumulating 1773 minutes in the league since. There’s some uncertainty over which position he’ll fulfil long-term which makes Ferguson’s future curious, having come through the West Brom academy system as a centre back, before debuting and impressing at right back before also filling in (and equally impressing) at left back for several games. Surprisingly for a player nurtured as a centre back, Ferguson possesses real ability on the dribble, beating his marker with a quick drop of the shoulder and burst of acceleration on numerous occasions this campaign. Accruing 8 caps between the England U18 and U20 level, expect to see him competing with Max Aarons and Reece James in the England U21 squad next season, as well as a possible move to the Premier League. West Brom themselves may keep their man, but major clubs are on high alert as Ferguson’s contract due to expire this summer. Other notables:

  • Jayden Bogle (’00), Derby County)
  • Steven Sessegnon (’00), (Fulham)
  • Djed Spence (’00), (Middlesbrough)
  • Tom Edwards (’99), (Stoke City)
  • Luke Matheson (’02), (Rochdale)

Centre Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Fikayo Tomori (Chelsea), Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United), Lloyd Kelly (AFC Bournemouth), Ben Godfrey (Norwich City), Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa) Player In Focus: Ben Wilmot (’99), (Swansea City, on loan from Watford) After his breakthrough at League Two Stevenage in 2017–18, Wilmot has yet to get a real opportunity in the Watford first team. His chances of competing there next season are increasing due to a series of steady performances for Swansea. It took until October for him to break into the Swans backline, but Wilmot has been a mainstay ever since, playing in a fertile environment for young players under EnglandU17 World Cup-winning coach Steve Cooper. Capable of playing in the holding midfield role as well, his contribution isn't limited to defending his own penalty box. He's displayed a threat at set plays, contributing two goals to Swansea’s play-off chasing cause. To further capture the interest of those with an eye on England’s future, Wilmot now faces competition for his place in the heart of the Swansea defence from fellow U21 capped Marc Guehi, who’s joined on loan from Chelsea. Other notables:

  • Marc Guehi (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Nathan Wood (’02), (Middlesbrough)
  • Ro-Shaun Williams (’98), (Shrewsbury Town)
  • Luke Woolfenden (’98), Ipswich Town)
  • Cameron John (’99), (Doncaster Rovers, on loan from Wolverhampton)
  • Aji Alese (’01), (Accrington Stanley, on loan from West Ham)

Left Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: James Justin (Leicester City) Player In Focus: Sam McCallum (’00), (Coventry City) In stark comparison to their right-sided counterparts, good English left backs continue to be in short supply, a scarcity highlighted by the last five starters at left back or left wing back for the U21’s: James Justin, Jonathan Panzo, Dwight McNeil, Steve Sessegnon and Lloyd Kelly — none of whom are likely to play left back in the long term. Which makes the emergence of Sam McCallum a timely one for the England scouts, and he should expect an international call up for the U21s should he maintain the form he’s showed in the opening half of the campaign. Currently impressing in a Coventry side pushing for automatic promotion from League One, McCallum began the season second in the pecking order but has since forced his way in and held down his place in the starting XI. Signed in the summer of 2018 from non-league Herne Bay to play a part in the Coventry U23 squad, his development has accelerated rapidly. It looks likely McCallum will be the first graduate of serious note to emerge from Jamie Vardy’s V9 academy. There’s plenty yet to develop in his game, but he’s shown enough potential to catch the attention of recruitment departments higher up the football food chain. Other notables

  • Jay Dasilva (’98), (Bristol City)
  • Omar Richards (’98), (Reading)
  • Lee Buchanan (’01), (Derby County)

Central Midfielders

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Mason Mount (Chelsea) Player In Focus: Flynn Downes (’99), (Ipswich Town) Downes is a player whose star has incessantly rose since his first team debut in 2017–18, making fleeting appearances for Ipswich before a loan spell in League Two during the second half of that season. He featured more regularly when Ipswich were relegated from the Championship in 2018–19 and the drop in quality seems hugely beneficial to the development of Downes, who has established himself not only as a key pillar in the Ipswich midfield, but as one of the brightest prospects overall in the third tier this season. With 11 caps between the U19 and U20 level, Downes should be in line for an U21 call up, especially with a summer move away from Ipswich looking increasingly inevitable. Always roving around the midfield, always hot on the heels of the opposition possession, never leaving it long to outstretch a leg, nicking the ball away and restarting the Ipswich attack. Other notables:

  • Trevoh Chalobah (’99) (Huddersfield Town, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Jude Bellingham (’03), (Birmingham City)
  • Conor Gallagher (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Jamie Shackleton (’99), (Leeds United)
  • Andre Dozzell (’99), (Ipswich Town)

Attacking Midfielders and Wide Players

2018–19 EFL Alumni: Harvey Barnes (Leicester City), Todd Cantwell (Norwich City) Player In Focus: Grady Diangana (’98), West Brom on loan from West Ham) Avid StatsBomb readers might remember Diangana getting the once-over on this site already this season (you can read the early assessment here). We’re re-upping the West Ham loanee for two reasons: 1) the player has struggled with injury in the last month or so, not-so-coincidentally coinciding with a drop in West Brom’s form and 2) Diangana is one of only six players (four of them English) in the 2019–20 Championship and League One to exceed the magical 0.20 expected goals per 90 minutes and 0.20 expected goals assisted from open play per 90 threshold. Depending on how long he’s out for, Diangana may miss out on a March call up to add to his solitary U21 cap. West Brom fans won’t care about that. The sooner he sets boot to pitch again to help with their promotion push the better, with it very likely he’ll be pushing for starts in West Ham’s attack next season. Other notables:

  • Ebere Eze (’98), (Queens Park Rangers)
  • Marcus Tavernier (’99), (Middlesbrough)
  • Luke Thomas (’99), (Barnsley)
  • Emile Smith-Rowe (’00), (Huddersfield Town, on loan from Arsenal)
  • Jack Clarke (’00), (Queens Park Rangers, on loan from Tottenham)
  • Elliot Embleton (’99), (Sunderland)

Forwards EFL 2018-19 Alumni: Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) Player In Focus: Eddie Nketiah (’99), (Arsenal) Allow me to explain Nketiah’s inclusion as the final entry on this list. The shortlist of forwards contained either expired loans (in Nketiah’s case), newly agreed loans (thus no or few minutes played), or few minutes played full stop. Indeed, none of the contenders played over 1200 minutes in the first half of the campaign. It's the question of he might still go back on loan to the Championship, or more likely make fleeting appearances for Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal for the remainder of the campaign, that made Nketiah the most interesting case to focus on. The first thing to note with Nketiah and how highly his talent is regarded is that this was his first loan and he went straight in at one of the pre-season favourites in the Championship. That he didn’t get more playing time is more down to Marcelo Bielsa’s strict aversion to squad rotation than it is Nketiah not living up to expectations, though it’s fair to say his skillset suited Leeds less than that of the more-rounded Patrick Bamford, who dominated the striker minutes whilst Nketiah was there. That didn’t stop the Arsenal youngster from affecting the gamein the appearances he did make: His 3 goals off the bench all came post-80 minutes and all gained points for Leeds, notching two winners and an equaliser. He should get the chance to add to his 8 goals in 8 U21 international appearances soon and mark my words, it won’t be long before you see Nketiah’s name on the vidiprinter soon. Other notables:

  • Rhian Brewster (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Liverpool)
  • Tyrese Campbell (’99), (Stoke City)
  • Danny Loader (’00), (Reading)
  • Joe Gelhardt (’02), (Wigan Athletic)
  • Tyreece John-Jules (’01), (Lincoln City, on loan from Arsenal)

Bolton Wanderers’ survival bid: Possible, improbable, or impossible?

It seems weird to discuss this midway through December, but it’s time to check in on a team where the dust kicked up in the summer has only just settled.

Where have they come from?

Alright, a bit of dust being kicked up is an understatement. Bolton Wanderers very nearly ceased to exist. Years of declining performance on and off the field and failure by those in charge to get the house in order caught up with them. It took a takeover completed at the eleventh hour to keep them operating as a business. It truly was the eleventh hour. The season had already kicked off with Bolton having not signed a single player, forced into fielding a team largely made up of players from the development and U18 squads just to field a squad whilst the takeover went through. They played five fixtures under these conditions, losing four by an aggregate score of 0–17, but somehow clinging onto a 0–0 draw against Coventry to claim a point in their second match of the season, under highly unlikely circumstances. All this and . . .  Bolton started the season with a 12-point deduction for going into administration whilst the takeover was in process. That unexpected draw with Coventry took them to -11 points, and begun the long road toward a positive tally. It helped that on August 28th the takeover finally went through and they could sign a few senior professionals for the season. Five games in, but better late than never. Meanwhile, manager Phil Parkinson resigned, understandably exhausted by months of constant pressure and uncertainty around the club's future, whist seldom receiving his salary on time (if at all) for his troubles.

Where are they now?

With Bolton's season effectively starting from scratch five fixtures in, fighting a points deduction and a terrible goal difference, new manager Keith Hill set about leading a squad newly assembled and without a proper pre-season behind them on their quest to achieve the improbable. Scriptwriters everywhere were incredulous as they took the lead four minutes into the squad's first ‘proper’ fixture away at Rotherham. Bolton scored their first goal of the campaign, but on this occasion that was as good as it got. A bit of a downpour on the parade, but Hill was magnanimous, “It will take time but this is just a step on a journey. One thing I do know is that Bolton Wanderers will be great again.” It took just three days to climb another step. A 0–0 draw at home to Oxford the following Tuesday set the tone. Another point chalked off towards a positive points tally. That Saturday saw them move yet closer. Another 0–0 draw, this one at home to Sunderland. Progress slowed slightly as fixtures against Portsmouth, Blackpool and Rochdale yielded just a solitary point. But then… The scenes in the away end as the final whistle went were described as ‘thunderous’. Seven months since their last league win. Three months since they’d nearly ceased to exist. 22nd October. Bristol Rovers 0–2 Bolton Wanderers. The wheels on the great escape were well and truly in motion. Points tally: -5. That first win lit the touch paper. The remaining deficit was wiped out within the next two matches as victories over Fleetwood and Milton Keynes saw them hit the milestone that had been objective number one since Hill had taken charge. Clearly the footballing gods decided this was all becoming a bit too much of a fairytale. We all know and love (what do you mean you don’t?) the sacred cliché, 'goals change games'. We all know that red cards change games too. As Bolton went 1–0 up away at Accrington on the back of their three-game winning streak, the omnipotent soccer powers above us decided that a penalty to Accrington and a red card to defender Josh Earl for the offending incident were just recourse to keep fans' feet planted firmly on the ground. They might’ve gone a bit far with the resultant 7–1 hammering, mind. The 95th-minute equaliser at home to AFC Wimbledon restored spirit and belief to keep Bolton’s unlikely mission on track before they became the latest victim to succumb to Peterborough and Ivan Toney last weekend.

Where do they need to go?

Bolton find themselves still bottom of the table, 15 points from safety and just 27 league games remaining. Keith Hill has undeniably done a sterling job just laying the foundation on which Bolton could possibly survive, and has shown that Bolton are far from the worst side in the division. Were this a normal season with a level playing field from the start, it’s highly unlikely they’d even be involved in the relegation picture. Looking at what this all might mean for the future, a benchmark of their current standard can be seen upon reviewing their performance trendlines since the start of the season. The blue marker shows both when Keith Hill was appointed and when Bolton started fielding senior players. Their league record since that moment is W3 D4 L5 from 12 games, a rate of 1.08 points per game. There are always caveats, but a simplistic projection of that rate over the remainder of the season would leave Bolton on 31 points, well short of the required total to survive. Now to colour it with the necessary context. Bolton have essentially and necessarily been running a pre-season regime during this period, playing against opposition with the privilege of correctly implemented strength and conditioning programmes, able to not only fully recover game-to-game but also play at the peak of their powers. There’s scope to suggest that Bolton should get better as the season wears on and their fitness levels match those of their opponents. It's likely there'll be another minor reshuffling of the pack and the arrival of new faces in January to further mould the side in Hill’s image. This should leave Bolton more competitive and able to pick up points at a higher rate. The major issue remains the mountain that they have to scale. For all the good work that’s been done to get them to a competitive level, that height might be too much. Essentially starting the season from scratch with just two points, they have to pick up more points in a half-season than their relegation rivals will in the full season. The clever clogs at the spread firms suggest the points total needed to survive could end up being as high as 50. That leaves Bolton needing to pick up points at the rate of a play-off standard team for the remainder of the season, which would require yet another large leap forward in their levels of performance. To put it one way, Bolton could win their next eight matches on the spin and would still need to pick up points from then onwards at around the same 1.08ppg rate they’ve managed so far under Hill. To focus in too closely on that would be to lose sight of the bigger picture. No matter what division the club competes in next season, the slate will be wiped clean, the team will start the season with a neutral points tally, hell, they’ll even get a proper pre-season under their belts. There’ll be no fretting over whether or not the season tickets fans purchased will actually manifest into a team to watch on the pitch. This season should’ve been a complete write-off, yet while Bolton’s great escape still isn’t probable, it’s certainly not impossible. And that's an unlikely victory on its own.

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.

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.

An Ode To Adebayo Akinfenwa

If you’re a fan of a lower league club in England, you know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you’re a fan of any club in England, you probably know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you don’t know who Adebayo Akinfenwa is but are the parent of a video-gaming soccer fan, ask them. They’ll definitely know of Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Larger than life in personality and almost-literally in body frame, it’s time to pay homage to a genuine legend of the English lower leagues. A celebrity in his own right, in part due to infamously being the strongest player in the FIFA video game series, Akinfenwa boasts over a million Instagram followers and owns a burgeoning YouTube channel. But, while much of Akinfewa's notoriety is about popularity and social media age fame, he also happens to still be playing the game at the ripe old age of 37. And that's because, on the pitch, he’s still damned effective.

Currently with Wycombe Wanderers in League One, the big strike continues to lead the line , with the unfancied Chairboys so far defying the odds to sit in second place. But how ‘Bayo’ came to be a Wycombe player in the first place is itself a story worth telling.

Question marks had been lingering over his future at AFC Wimbledon for weeks at the end of the 2015-16 season and it was still unclear as the club headed into the League Two play-off final. The game ended with Akinfenwa wrestling the ball from (brave) teammate Callum Kennedy to take an injury-time penalty that would make the scoreline 2-0 to AFC Wimbledon and it soon transpired that ‘Bayo’ already knew this would be his last act in an AFC Wimbledon shirt. In the post-match TV interview, the icon revealed live to the nation that he was now technically unemployed and invited any interested managers to “hit him up on WhatsApp!”

Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth apparently did just that and, just over three years on, the team now sit in the promotion places of League One, after achieving promotion from League Two just a couple of seasons prior.

With such an unconventional shape in a footballing sense, Akinfenwa’s regularly found himself as the target of opposition fans’ attentions. There’s no getting around the fact; Akinfenwa just doesn’t look like a football player, even less so in the ultra-lean modern age. Now, that’s not to say he isn’t an athlete, it’s just he’s the type of athlete you’d more likely expect to find curling dumbbells in the gym than polishing his finishing skills on the grass.

Throughout his career he’s been able to shut the dissenters up more often than not though. The big man’s accrued 195 league goals in over 600 league appearances at the time of writing and still shows no sign of slowing down, with 200 league goals a likely milestone if he continues the form he’s shown this season.

His form this campaign has seen him play the sixth-most minutes in the Wycombe squad so far, so what is he contributing that makes him a continually reliable presence at this late stage of his career?

Clearly Akinfenwa has a unique frame in a footballing context, with that also comes a unique footballing skillset. He’s what you might call a ‘spike’ player: weak in some areas of the game, extremely strong in others. What he lacks in mobility, he makes up for with an ability to pin defenders and hold them at arm’s length, winning his aerial duels almost always by out-muscling and out-manoeuvring his opponent, rather than by outjumping them.

He's won the most aerial duels of all strikers in League One so far this season, and that remains the case even when you average it out per 90 minutes. That's half down to Akinfenwa’s aerial ability, and half Wycombe’s regular attempts to go long from the back – the average pass length from their goalkeeper is longer than the rest of the league. When you know you have the strongest player in the FIFA video game series to hit in the final third, why wouldn’t you?

As well as the colossal number of Aerial Wins he’s able to generate, there’s two other data points that standout far above the rest: the amount of Touches in the Box he gets and his Shot Touch % (the amount of shots taken as a proportion of his total touches).

The two are arguably closely linked as well. Though he isn’t just a target man, Akinfenwa still does a really effective job in the role as the focal point for attacks. If a counter attack down the wings isn’t on for Wycombe, he’ll regularly get touches on the ball in the final third and in and around the penalty area, playing smart lay offs and retaining possession for the Chairboys, and he’s also a useful outlet for the team to hang balls up to in the far post area if an obvious ground pass isn’t on.

Which brings us onto his creative prowess. Diminutive Spanish playmaker he is not, but Bayo’s ability to lay on passes to teammates either to keep the attack moving or to create chances shows up in the data. From deep, he’s regularly able to move the play forward either by a flick-on header or from receiving to feet and advancing the play into more dangerous areas: Akinfenwa has played 15 passes into the opposition penalty area this season, a league-high compared to his fellow League One forwards.

His link-play is part of the reason why he’s a regular but not a ruthless goalscorer these days – he’s not selfish enough to dominate the shot count for his side. Rather than getting his head down and going for goal when on the ball, he looks to play knock downs or tee others up, setting up 18 shots for his teammates so far this season (third highest amongst League One forwards) and assisting chances worth 1.6 expected goals so far this season (fifth highest amongst League One forwards).

Being a striker though, he’s still required to get goals and you don’t get close to 200 career league goals if you don’t know what positions to be taking up. His shot map reflects well on what an eighteen-year career as a forward can teach you: get between the posts and don’t waste a shot. This is how it’s done, kids.

What experience has also seemingly taught Akinfenwa is that energy must be conserved for the aerial battles and physical tussles he gets himself into. It’s fair to say that manager Gareth Ainsworth isn’t picking him for his work rate in harrying the opposition defenders. If the man hasn't trademarked the phrase "Press Barbells, Not Defenders" yet, he should get on it right away.

While he's still up for doing rounds with League One centre halves every week and almost always coming out on top, his future beyond this season remains to be seen: his contract expires at the end of the season. Whether he stays with Wycombe, opens his WhatsApp up to offers once again, or hangs his boots and XXL shirt up, there’s no doubt that Adebayo Akinfenwa has earned his place amongst the EFL’s most iconic forwards of all time. It’s time to pay respect to the big man.

Ipswich are good, Portsmouth may not be bad, and other early League One storylines

League One Early Storylines This is an unusual iteration of a League One season, a bit of a one-off. We have only 23 teams rather than 24 with Bury unable to avoid expulsion, whilst Bolton survived expulsion but couldn’t avoid a points deduction - they still remain on negative points ten games in. There’s more than one pre-season title favourite that are “dumpster fire” rather than “on fire” and a few fervent underdogs have been happy to replace them in the promotion pack. We’ll touch on pretty much all of those. Welcome to League One Storylines. A caveat – any data used in this article has had fixtures against Bolton stripped out of it due to their fielding of youth team players in the opening weeks of the season. Sorry Wycombe, Coventry, Tranmere, Ipswich, Gillingham, and Rotherham fans but we do not condone the bullying of children here at StatsBomb and will not allow you to reap the padded shot numbers due to that.

Ipswich rev their engines

You probably won’t be used to hearing of Tractor Boys being the quickest out of the blocks unless you’re a fan of Hungarian Tractor Drag Racing but nevertheless that’s where we find ourselves with Ipswich, outright leaders through 11 games and with an 8-3-0 return giving them a four point and game-in-hand lead on second place already. Paul Lambert has them operating a tight tractor ship and for a team that’s conceded just five goals and kept seven clean sheets in 11 games, the old clichéd ‘miserly defence’ is a deserved anointment. We’d be doing them a disservice if we were to just use expected goals when looking under the hood of this well-oiled piece of farming machinery. Their current goal difference (again, excluding their 5-0 thumping of Bolton’s kids) comes in at +11, whilst their expected goal difference, based on the quality of chances they’ve been creating and conceding, comes in at +2.50, with the overperformance shared out both between their forwards finishing well and their defence conceding below the rate expected. Their underlying numbers may not be as strong as their results but it’s important to note that they’ve been in the lead in games for a longer time than anyone else in League One so far, spending ~55% of their matches in front. With the team ahead for such a long time, it’s definitely fair to assume they’ve been more focused on defending their lead and their opponents more focused on seeking an equaliser, which could easily be applying a skew to Ipswich’s numbers. With that in mind, you might expect their opponents to have been raining shots on the Tractor Boys’ goal. That's not the case though. Ipswich have conceded just 9.50 shots per game, a figure that ranks third best in the league, and the best examples of their stinginess have come in games against potential promotion rivals in Sunderland and Fleetwood. In what are undoubtedly two of the tougher fixtures Ipswich will face this season, they conceded a total of nine shots combined and just one of those hit the target, with the single shot on target across the two games being Sunderland’s equaliser, unfortunately for Ipswich. To conclude, Ipswich are good, particularly defensively. Good luck to the rest of League One breaking down that down.

Same old at Sunderland

Speaking of Sunderland, what they’d do to be in Ipswich’s position having failed to make an instant return to the Championship last season. With promotion very much still the aim this time around, the Black Cats have again found themselves struggling to impose themselves on the division. A return of 5-4-2 for 19 points from their 11 fixtures this season may not sound too bad, but the same old issues within the side haven’t been addressed and patience with manager Jack Ross finally ran out. He was sacked last week. Those same old issues? The absence of any creative or incisive patterns of play in the attacking third. Their build-up was slow and predictable to defend against, consistently playing with the handbrake on. The side generated just 10.50 shots per game, ranking them in the bottom four against their league rivals, and that just isn’t good enough for a promotion contender. Last season’s protestations that teams would come and sit deep against Sunderland were less true this time around and the Black Cats were arguably their own worst enemies in this aspect anyway, refusing to transition quickly when the opposition defence was unsettled and left gaps to play through. To date Sunderland have created a league-lowest four(!) shots on the counter attack, a metric which they were also bottom of last season too. If you’re not going to counter attack as a team, perhaps you might try other ways to unsettle the opposition and create decent opportunities for your side – winning the ball high up the pitch and looking to get shots off before the opponent could set themselves again maybe? Not Sunderland, they’re bottom for High Press shots too (shots generated within 5 seconds of a defensive action in the opposition half). Whilst the attack was failing, a rock solid defence wasn’t bailing them out either with the team yet to keep a clean sheet this campaign. There’s plenty to improve on for the next incumbent of the Sunderland hot seat.

Drilling into Wycombe’s fine start

Here we have ourselves the proverbial surprise package. Operating on one of the tightest budgets in League One, to see the Chairboys dethroning much bigger playing budgets to sit in second place in mid-October has brought a few observers and plenty of fans to the edge of their seat. Having steered Wycombe on an upward trajectory for consecutive seasons now, it should be of no surprise that interest is beginning to be tabled in manager Gareth Ainsworth (including from Sunderland). The main question to ask about this Wycombe side is a straightforward one: can they keep it going? *pulls out giant drawing pin and takes aim at Wycombe-shaped bubble* In a word, no. At least not in their current state. Strip out the game vs Bolton’s youth team and the fact their goalscoring numbers are bumped further by having the most penalties in the league and the most opposition own goals scored for them and Wycombe start to look somewhat more ordinary - which, lest we forget, would still represent an overachievement on their resources. When lacking the resources to acquire individual quality it helps to be a well-coached unit and in that regard they most certainly are, possessing a varied attacking threat. They’re capable of going long and direct to man-mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa or countering at pace down the wings, whilst also creating regularly and frequently at set plays. Finishing in the play-offs would be a highly commendable achievement for Ainsworth’s men. It’s just we shouldn’t expect that of them just yet.

How do you explain a start like Portsmouth’s?

Speak to fans of the South Coast club and you’d do well to find one pleased with how things are going so far. With the pre-season title favourites in 16th place, manager Kenny Jackett is bearing the brunt of the blame after getting off to a slow start. Losing Matt Clarke and Jamal Lowe in the summer was undoubtedly a blow but the feeling was they’d been replaced adequately enough to make an improvement on last season’s play-off finish. Right now, they’re not even in the top half. There’s a few oddities to unpack when going deeper into where they’ve struggled because looking solely at their underlying numbers would suggest that there’s very little wrong with the process in place. Their expected goal difference, based on the quality of chances they’ve created and conceded, is +0.73 per game, a league-high, but their actual goal difference diverges greatly: -0.33 goals per game once penalties have been stripped out. We’ll start at the back and the first conclusion we can draw is that defensively they’re solid enough and there’s little wrong with the process in that regard. Portsmouth give away the fewest shots in the league (9.00 per game) and the quality of those shots is also the lowest in the league (0.06 xG/shot). If Portsmouth aren’t giving much away in terms of goalscoring chances, then their issue comes down to the fact that their opposition aren’t having to do much to score, an issue that is no more apparent than when looking at the shots they’ve conceded when in winning positions. Looking squarely at the shot map, it’s fair to say they’ve suffered a bit as their opponents have just finished their chances to equalise at an above-average rate. It’s not only when Pompey are ahead that their opponents have been finishing their chances well though. Burton Albion turned up at Fratton Park in mid-September and promptly scored their first two shots of the game, one of which was heavily deflected, to put Portsmouth 2-0 down and on the back foot six minutes in. Likewise Shrewsbury on the opening day turned what was a very robust defensive performance from Portsmouth (they conceded 3 shots all game) into an uninspiring defeat thanks to a 30 yard Ryan Giles rocket. That’s not to say the story is solely one of hard luck. Arguments that Jackett is too wedded to his sit-deep-and-counter system that can leave them inflexible at times and unable to adapt to the game situation they find themselves in are definitely fair. If the opposition aren’t going to be drawn out, as will often be the case particularly in Pompey’s home games, then they tend to struggle to create enough and the amount of rotation that’s been made in the shape and personnel of Pompey’s frontline this season suggests that Jackett isn’t exactly pleased with what he’s seeing either. It’s true to say that there isn’t too much wrong with what Portsmouth are doing so far, but it’s also true that certain things do need tuning up if they’re to push on towards the top end. Being a full 14 points behind Ipswich likely means the title is already beyond their reach but Pompey could achieve their promotion aims yet with the aid of a few tweaks to the system. Jackett remaining in charge long enough to implement them though will depend on a pretty immediate uptick in short term results.

Eberechi is making the Championship look Eze

Eberechi Eze of Queen’s Park Rangers first came to our attention during his breakout loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers in 2017-18. He continued to show promise after breaking through into the QPR first team in 2018-19, and has now made a start to this season that’s impossible to ignore. A player that was previously simmering may now be reaching boiling point.

The summer appointment of Mark Warburton as manager has turned QPR from unremarkable Championship no-hopers to a side full of attacking intention and in Eze they have a player ready-made to thrive on such freedom of expression. Equally comfortable playing as a #10 or out wide, the 21 year old has also impressed in a deeper role, featuring on several occasions as an #8 in a 3-1-4-2.

 

 

Clearly enjoying the deeper starting role, Eze’s gotten on the ball in the earlier stages of QPR’s possession and by utilising his close control, quick feet and athletic ability to drive through the midfield, completing no fewer than 85% of his ball carries that end within the opposition half, he’s been a real force at turning defence into attack.

 

 

The advanced positions he regularly ends up in means it’s appropriate to look at his contribution against the boundaries for more advanced midfielders and wide players as well. Eze’s ability to make an impact in the final third has been key to QPR’s strong start and his Scoring Contribution rate of 0.55 (goals + assists per 90 minutes) ranks him second for all players in the Championship under the age of 22, with his expected rates (xG + xG assisted) not far behind either at 0.33.

 

 

Far from just a capable carrier, he also has the passing mastery to match. A really smart user of the ball in and around the final third, Eze has the capability to see an opportunity to play a killer pass but also the technical accomplishment to execute them as well, completing 87% of his passes into and within the attacking third.

 

 

As expected, the rumour mill has begun to turn with Southampton and Spurs the Premier League sides most recently linked, a step up that will become an expectation rather than a possibility should Eze maintain his fine start.

After years of instability, Nottingham Forest may finally be on the right track

Will this be Forest’s season? Since 2011, not a season has gone by at Nottingham Forest in which the manager in charge at the start of the season has been the same manager who has finished it. The routine consequences of employing 13 permanent managers in an eight-year period could be predicted by most: a muddled squad acquired for multiple different blueprints, and little sense of a tactical identity. Even the summer sacking of Martin O’Neill and same-day appointment of his successor came with a side dish of chaos given that the decision was made as late as June 28th, precisely one day before Forest’s first pre-season friendly. The current incumbent of one of the hottest seats in football management, Sabri Lamouchi, has been handed a one-year contract and the same remit as his predecessors: finish in the top six or else. Not only did Lamouchi have less than 24 hours before selecting his first XI as the new head coach, he also had to contend with choosing from a squad that had become severely bloated and contained as many as 39 professionals. Probably with the length of contract in mind and with the blessing of those above him, he swiftly chose a group of players to work with and cast aside the remainder, instructing the players not in his plans to train at a separate time from his desired group and to seek transfers away from the club. All of this is relevant because it’s under those circumstances that Forest have returned a W4-D3-L1 record from their opening eight league games to leave them sitting in 6th; their sole defeat coming on the opening day against West Brom, while trips to Leeds, Swansea and Fulham, as difficult as they come in the Championship, returning seven points. What is a tricky start to the season by any measure has led to a platform for the East Midlands club to build upon and a sense of optimism is now quietly brewing in those parts.

A Clear Impact

Lamouchi must be as clear-cut and concise in his coaching as he has been in making those off-pitch decisions. There are already transparent patterns in Forest’s play both on and off the ball. They’ve settled into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-1-1 with the playing principles remaining largely identical in either shape, the only real difference being the use of a single or double pivot to anchor the midfield. It’s their work out of possession where Forest have really caught the eye so far. There’s already a clear impression of Forest’s organisation in their press, often sitting in and allowing the opposition to come onto them up to the halfway line but, almost like a switch gets flicked, launch into a much more aggressive and intense effort to win the ball back once the opposition build into Forest territory. The formation naturally lends itself to this approach given the lack of forwards available to press the centre backs but also the coverage it has in both central and wide areas. The three central midfielders work with cohesion to execute the press when the ball gets moved through the central channels, whilst the wide men are equally important in their contribution to locking down the flanks. Forest’s wingers are regularly seen doubling up with their full back in an effort to successfully turn possession over or at least force the opponent to play the ball backwards. Their defensive organisation is not only compelling to watch though, it also turns up some intriguing trends in the data. First of all, Forest are rock bottom in the Championship for Defensive Distance – the average distance from a team’s own goal that it performs defensive actions – with the scarcity with which they’ll defend from the front showing clearly in this metric. They perform defensive actions closer to their own goal than any other team in the league. As you might expect of a side so keen to engage and disrupt the opposition when in their defensive third, Forest are also successfully limiting the quality of chances their opponents are able to create. They’re actually around mid-table for the amount of shots they’ve conceded so far – a shade over 12 per game – but the quality of those has been quelled and the average expected conversion rate of the chances they’re allowing is just seven percent, which is third best in their league. If we look at the distribution of those shots, we can see more clearly how they’ve kept this figure down. The Reds simply don’t concede clear cut chances. In eight games they’ve conceded a mere six opportunities that have an expected conversion rate of 20% or higher. If I remind you again that they’ve already played away at Leeds, whose dominance has already been covered on this site, and recently relegated Fulham, who boast a front three that are arguably the cream of the division in Ivan Cavaleiro, Aleksandar Mitrović and Anthony Knockaert, then it becomes even more impressive. It sounds like management-speak to say that the star performer of Forest’s season so far has been the team, but it is largely true. Two of the more impressive individuals though have been in central midfield with Ben Watson, enjoying a late-career resurgence, receiving plaudits for his all-round game and intelligence in locking down the central area in front of his defence, and summer signing Samba Sow who’s really embodied what Lamouchi’s Reds are about. Sow, once he’s identified his target, has the defensive approach akin to that of a homing missile. It’s clear that Forest’s best work comes when not in possession of the ball and their work in this area offers them a strong base to build from. What will be interesting is how well they can maintain their success if they continue to do well and start coming up against teams that are as happy to sit in as they are. They should be reassured that Lamouchi’s work on the training ground isn’t just limited to making them a cohesive unit without the ball as they’ve seemingly been putting the hours in to make them proficient at set plays too, a factor that could prove decisive in matches that are closely fought. Currently the Reds have created 0.36 xG per game from set play situations whilst conceding just 0.11 xG per game at the other end, figures that are both top four compared against their league rivals. Slightly less impressive is their output at the attacking end of the pitch, but it’s fair to argue that matters less when a) they’re keeping it locked down on the defensive end and b) they’ve had a tough schedule and Lamouchi isn’t a miracle worker.  The amount of shots Forest take per game (a shade under 12) is much closer to league average and it’s a similar story with the amount of Expected Goals they’ve created, which is currently ninth highest in the league. They’re quite happy getting forward by playing through the thirds or by transitioning quickly on the counter attack but one clear trend to their attacking play is their proclivity to move the ball out wide as their primary means of creating chances: their Box Cross % - the percentage of penalty box entries that originate from a cross - is 34%, a figure that is joint sixth highest in England’s second tier. Not only tenacious in his protection of the backline, Watson’s importance again comes to the fore when watching how Forest build their attacks. He often drops in to receive the ball from centre halves Michael Dawson or Joe Worrall, both products of the Reds’ youth academy albeit in different eras. The experienced midfielder then looks to circulate the play and waits for the right time to progress the ball to a more creative outlet within the Forest side, something clearly visible when looking at Watson’s passes that originate from his own half, often moving the ball out wide or into one of his midfield partners who’ve moved beyond the opposition’s midfield line. Watson works mostly in deeper areas but further forward it’s Joe Lolley, responsible for 22 combined goals and assists last season, who’s probably most important to Forest’s ability to get into the final third and in creating chances once they’re there, though the burden on him to produce decisive moments in the final third appears to have lessened this season. A member of England’s university and semi-professional teams before he made his breakthrough into the professional game, Lolley is constant in his desire to pick up the ball and drive up the right flank and has so far completed 87% of his dribbles and carries that end in the opposition half in his eight league appearances. Experienced Championship campaigner Lewis Grabban has played every minute up front in the league and will be relied upon to provide clinical finishing to the end of Forest’s attacking moves if they’re to succeed this season, with their defensive base providing what should be a solid platform to pick results up from, if they maintain this level of performance. All in, it’s a promising start for the Tricky Trees with Sabri Lamouchi making a compelling early case to be the first manager for eight seasons to stay in the Forest managerial hotseat from season’s start to season’s end. But it’s top six or else.

Tales of the early season in the Championship

The Championship, where time and narrative waits for no man. Those waiting for a larger sample of games to be played are just missing out on the good stuff, to be frank, as already we have a just-promoted side in the top two, a just-relegated side in the relegation zone, and a potential runaway train steered by El Loco. I’ll say it now so I don’t have to say it again: it’s six games, therefore these takes will be coming hot and without robust statistical significance. Though I probably will say it again later anyway.

Leeds

Y’know that Pep Guardiola guy? Back to back Premier League titles guy? The one who accrued the highest and second highest points tallies in Premier League history? Spent nine figures on full backs in a single summer that one time? Yeah, that guy. Well, on both occasions his Manchester City side won the title they did so with dominant expected goal differences that were standout above the rest of their rivals, translating to dominant title wins on the pitch. Leeds might just be about to do that to the Championship. By the vast majority of the performance metrics that we know translate best to projecting future performance, Leeds were the best side in the Championship last season – they had the joint best attack by expected goals and stood alone as having the best defence as well, based on the chances they created and conceded. This season, they’re looking even better. By a significant margin. The reason Man City have been mentioned is because Leeds’s numbers are well and truly in that realm, so let’s ignore the tiny sample and have fun projecting what the outcomes of this level of domination might look like if they keep it up for the remaining 40 league games. To really drive the level of dominance home, all things remaining equal and shots being converted as expected, Leeds would finish in and around the Championship points record – 106 by Reading in  2005-06 – and that’s _without_ any positive variance in their conversion rates. If their finishers and goalkeeper were to have a good season, then they’d likely smash it. Now with that ridiculous speculation out of the way (though yes, of course I will be sharing the link to this piece in May should they break the record), let’s zoom in a bit more. Bielsa’s boys have “beaten” their opponents on expected goals and in the shot count in each of their games so far and none of the opposition have really got close to them by those measures. They’ve outshot their opponents 106-43 but look closer and it gets kind of hilarious. In five of their six games, they’ve limited their opponents to seven (seven!) shots or less, with the apparent exception being Bristol City who managed 13. That is, except Bristol City are not actually an exception. Look a little closer into that game and Bristol City had managed four shots, two of which were direct free kicks, in the time that it took Leeds to race into a 3-0 lead, with the remaining nine being notched in the final 20 minutes from that point onwards. Of course, the West Yorkshire side have actually lost a game this season but put it this way, should they continue to play like this, I wouldn’t expect them to lose too many more this season.

Stoke

From the top, to the bottom. Languishing in 24th place is last season’s pre-season title favourites Stoke City who this time around were expected to make a much better fist of challenging for promotion than they managed in last season’s demoralising 16th place finish. This campaign, of course, under Nathan Jones who replaced Gary Rowett in the first week of January and whose ‘new manager bounce’ was more of a shrug as Stoke played their way into the summer by not conceding many goals but not scoring many either, recording a W2 D11 L2 return from their final 15 games to close the season out. With the second lump of parachute payments lobbed into their coffers and a well-regarded, young manager at the helm, this season’s haul of a single point after six games has threatened to derail their promotion charge whilst August is still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror. There are two ways to look at the current predicament Stoke find themselves in, a classic “two things can be true” StatsBomb special. The first is a perfectly valid point that Stoke are the victims of  repeated poor goalkeeping errors from Jack Butland and also of just bad variance in that their opponents have finished chances pretty well otherwise, by expected goals, Stoke would be expected to most often concede around six or seven goals based on the chances they’ve conceded so far, but the post-shot model, taking into account shot placement, bumps this up to around 11. If we imagine for a second that the Potters’ opponents hadn’t finished their chances as well as they have done and that Adam Federici had started the season in goal rather than Butland, then it doesn’t take a massive leap in the mind’s eye to consider that Stoke very likely wouldn’t have conceded as many and would therefore have a few more points on the board. Which brings us onto the other true thing of the two true things. Even if Stoke had a few more points, are they really performing to a standard that would suggest they’re actually fine? The answer really depends on your expectations of what they should be achieving this season. Some believe, given their resources and recent Premier League status, that the minimum expectation should be a promotion challenge of some kind, at the very least in the play-off picture. More generous observers take a longer term view, able to justify a failed play off push if there is enough tangible improvement in a team that has seen large player turnover and whose playing philosophy is being dragged in yet another new direction by the guidance of a new coach, with a strong promotion push coming the season after. By the first point of view, Stoke are falling short so far and by the second, well, there hasn’t been much encouragement so far (blue line indicates the start of Jones’s tenure). What Jones will be cursing is that this vexatious run will have cost him time and patience, two things he may need to complete the turnaround.

Charlton

League One play-off winners Charlton are worth touching on, having done their survival chances the world of good by taking 14 points from the opening 18 available. What’s powered that is some freaky stuff, but that’s what them small samples can do to ya. To benchmark the following, consider that Charlton have W4-D2-L0, scoring nine non-penalty goals and conceding five. Now consider that they’ve taken 47 shots and conceded 99. Bit of a discrepancy there, but naturally the quality of those shots matters though and Charlton do actually lead the league in creating the highest quality of chance on average (xG per shot), with very little wastage on their shot map. It’s another reminder of the impact a good or bad start can have on framing the rest of the season. Before a ball had been kicked, Charlton were one of the relegation favourites and survival would’ve been a celebrated achievement. Now, pick up points at the rate that was initially expected of them and they probably finish in the top half.

An update on the relegated

A real mix of results so far for the three outfits freshly ejected from the top tier. Fulham have settled well, with Scott Parker taking a leaf out of the 2017-18 promoted Fulham side by employing a similar shape and set of principles; looking to dominate possession and maximise the skillset of midfield conductor Tom Cairney. Currently sat in sixth and with a healthy looking +0.45 expected goal difference per game (4th best at this early stage), there’s little reason to throw any doubt on a potential immediate top flight return at this point. Really though you’re all just here to see the pass map from their 4-0 win over Millwall in which they broke records for the amount of possession they had, aren’t you. Cardiff have been a little more lukewarm but through six games appear on the positive side of their expected goal difference at least, so whilst better results would’ve offered more encouragement, there appears to be a foundation for Warnock to build on. That said, deserved away defeats at Reading and Wigan, both of which were poor defensive performances, have understandably dampened supporters’ enthusiasm. And then we come to Huddersfield, who’d had enough of Jan Siewert three games into the campaign, no less, and who accompany Stoke at the bottom of the table, also on one point through six games. In come Danny & Nicky Cowley from Lincoln City to replace the departed Siewert. The Cowley brothers are on the back of achieving two promotions in three seasons at Lincoln and in turn have been developing a strong reputation further down the league pyramid. In the short term, their remit is eight letters and three words: Win. A. Game. Terriers fans have celebrated precisely one league win since November last year and Sunderland fans will tell you what can happen if you don’t arrest a run like that quickly in this division. And that’s you up to speed with the early headlines from England’s second tier. It promises to be another frantic one.