5 Games In, 4 Things Learnt – What the opening 5 Championship games might teach us about the rest of the season
Of course, it is foolish to suggest that you can draw conclusive evidence of how the Championship season will finish from the opening 5 games. However, these first few matches may well have offered brief glimpses as to how the table might look when the season does end in May. Whilst the teams that have started brightly might fade away and the teams who start poorly might hit a rich vein of form later in the season, there are 4 teams in particular who have started the season in a manner that might suggest where they will finish the 2018-19 season.
Brentford were advocated by many as playoff contenders before the season started, and after 5 games they have certainly raised the levels of expectation surrounding them. They have consistently finished in the top 10 of the division for the past few seasons, even managing a 5th place finish in 2014/15 before losing out to Middlesbrough in the playoffs. This consistency becomes even more remarkable when you consider the financial disparity between Brentford and some of the larger sides in the division, and the fact that these teams often use their superior spending power to poach Brentford’s best players. Brentford have started this season playing attractive, attacking football, putting Rotherham to the sword with a ruthless 5-1 win that served to prove that those pre-season predictions of a playoff finish were not misguided. The Bees will have been disappointed to concede a last-minute equaliser away to Aston Villa, but this 2-2 draw highlighted once again that Brentford are a dangerous side who are more than a match for clubs of a similar size to Villa. If they can tighten up at the back whilst maintaining their potency going forward, Brentford may well be capable of continuing their solid start to the season and pursuing a coveted top 6 finish.
Stoke City undoubtedly have one of the strongest squads in the Championship, possessing a talented core of players such as Jack Butland, Peter Crouch, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen, James McClean, Ryan Shawcross, Tom Ince and Benik Afobe, who between themselves have garnered a great amount of experience at Championship, Premier League and international levels. Their appointment of Gary Rowett was well-received, with Rowett having proved himself as a capable manager in the Championship, taking Birmingham to 7th place before his inexplicable sacking and then achieving a playoff spot with Derby, unfortunately coming up short against the attacking prowess of Fulham. In spite of the wealth of individual talent at his disposal, Rowett has so far endured a rather underwhelming start to the season, being swatted aside by Leeds, drawing with Preston and Brentford before losing 3-0 at home to Wigan, a rather embarrassing result against the newly promoted side. Rowett may well be struggling to mould these individual players into the team that he aspires to create at Stoke, and until this process is complete, sides such as Preston and Wigan will be able to frustrate The Potters. Given just how talented this squad is, it is very much possible that Rowett will be able to reverse this brief run of bad form and get his side firing towards the promotion that many pundits saw them as favourites to achieve. If Stoke continue to turn in performances as abject as their showing against Wigan, they may be in for a long and frustrating season ending in a mid-table finish, far from the triumphant return to the Premier League that was initially expected.
Steve McClaren may well be an effective assistant manager and a good coach, but his career as a manager has been one of all too infrequent success and frequent failure. He deserves credit for his spell with Middlesbrough, during which they won the League Cup and finished as UEFA Cup runners-up, and his Eredivise win with FC Twente, but these past achievements are outweighed by his more recent spells with Derby and Newcastle, both of which were disastrously underwhelming. Those at the helm of QPR thought that McClaren might be the man to help the club improve on previous seasons of mid-table mediocrity, but so far, he has repaid their faith with 4 losses, 2 goals scored and a colossal 13 conceded. They were unlucky to lose 2-1 to Sheffield United, with an absurd penalty decision costing them a game in which Luke Freeman and Eberechi Eze were lively and dangerous, but their humiliating 7-1 defeat against West Brom is an early contender for the worst performance of the season. Their marking was abysmal and they continually left acres of space for the West Brom forwards to attack, and when they had a chance to repay the fans with a home game against Bristol City, they only added salt to their wounds with a 3-0 loss. McClaren may be receiving the benefit of the doubt for now, but if he is unable to deliver an upturn in form soon, the atmosphere at Loftus Road will become increasingly toxic. The QPR board will be all too aware of the financial damage that relegation to League 1 would do, and if McClaren is unable to pacify the fans or instil some confidence in a side that looks bereft of any self-belief, he may well find himself becoming the first managerial casualty of the season and QPR may well find themselves struggling at the foot of the table.
Leeds are undoubtedly one of the biggest and best supported clubs in the country, yet the past 14 years have been an ongoing struggle to reclaim a place in the Premier League. In Marcelo Bielsa, however, Leeds may well have found the man to succeed where so many others have failed by taking them back to the top flight. Bielsa has a wealth of experience managing the likes of Argentina, Chile and Athletic Bilbao, and he has applied this experience quite readily in his short tenure as Leeds manager so far. His side have swept aside Stoke, Derby and Rotherham, and showed resilience to come from behind twice to draw 2-2 away at Swansea. Bielsa has refrained from making sweeping changes to the team, but he has added some quality in key areas. Patrick Bamford might have struggled for game time and goals in the Premier League but he has a good scoring record in the second tier, Barry Douglas proved his quality at left back in a title winning season with Wolves, and the loan signings of Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman from Chelsea add further strength and depth to the squad. Bielsa is known for his obsessive eye to detail and volatile personality, and whether or not he can extract the best out of a maverick talent such as Samu Saiz remains to be seen. However, if the players buy into his methods and implement his philosophy on the pitch, Leeds definitely have the potential to replicate the promising results they have achieved thus far throughout the rest of the season, and may well find themselves in a good position to finally earn that promotion they crave.
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