EFL Championship Spring Grades – Part 1

We’re now two-thirds of the way through the Championship season and the promotion and relegation races couldn’t be tighter. How is each side faring with just over 30 games played? Here are our verdicts on each Championship team so far as the season reaches crunch time…

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Aston Villa's James Chester (second left) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Championship match at Carrow Road, Norwich.

We’re now two-thirds of the way through the Championship season and the promotion and relegation races couldn’t be tighter. How is each side faring with just over 30 games played?

Here are our verdicts on each Championship team so far as the season reaches crunch time…

Part 1 looks at Aston Villa through to Middlesbrough

Part 2 – Norwich City to Wigan Athletic

 

ASTON VILLA

Reasons to be cheerful: Dean Smith has experienced a mixed start to life in charge of his hometown club, but the character shown by Villa in battling back to draw 3-3 against Sheffield Utd suggests his players are at least buying into his methods. It’s draws, not defeats, that remain Villa’s Achilles heel – if they can start converting a few of those into wins, they could still just make the play-off cut.
Reasons to be fearful: A leaky defence remains the biggest barrier to Villa making significant progress this season, with their tally of 49 goals conceded higher than relegation strugglers Reading and Bolton. Villa will need to re-build from the back this summer if the play-offs prove a bridge too far.

Grade: C-

 

BIRMINGHAM CITY

Reasons to be cheerful: Garry Monk has helped bring Birmingham’s mojo back this season after an unsuccessful couple of appointments in the St Andrews dugout. Forget fluctuations in form, it’s consistency that can often be the deciding factor in securing a play-off berth, and under Monk, the Blues look like a side organised enough to stay the distance, helped by the reliable presence of Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz up top.

Jack Robinson of Nottingham Forest with Birmingham City Forward Lukas Jutkiewicz (10) during the Championship match between Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest at St Andrews in Birmingham, UK on Saturday February 2, 2019. (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

 

Reasons to be fearful: A thin squad could come back to bite if either of their key front men picks up an injury as the season reaches its climax. Could fatigue also become a factor? The Blues looked a little leggy in their shock home defeat to Bolton and will be hoping that’s a temporary blip, not a trend.

Grade: B+

 

BOLTON WANDERERS

Reasons to be cheerful: A plucky 1-0 away win at Birmingham finally offers some light at the end of the tunnel for Phil Parkinson’s team, who have plummeted since their promising start to the season. That win at St Andrews was their first on the road since August and suggests they can still scrap their way out of trouble even if quality is definitely in short supply.
Reasons to be fearful: Pound-for-pound this looks like a squad destined for League One, with current off-field issues hardly helping matters. Even rock-bottom Ipswich have managed to score more goals, which suggests Wanderers will be relying hard on a lot more 1-0 scorelines to help them avoid the drop into the third tier.

Grade: D

 

BLACKBURN ROVERS

Reasons to be cheerful: It’s almost mission accomplished for Tony Mowbray with his well-drilled Blackburn outfit more than comfortable in mid-table and now just a few wins away from the 50-point tally that usually proves enough for survival – albeit not last time Rovers were in this division. Consolidation was the objective pre-season, and they’ve achieved that with the minimum fuss.

Blackburn Rovers’ Charlie Mulgrew (right) celebrates with his team-mates after he scores his sides first goal during the Championship match at Ewood Park, Blackburn.

 

Reasons to be fearful: Mowbray will be wary of some warning signs in recent games that his Rovers squad already has designs on the beach with too much traffic standing in their way to realistically reach the play-offs. He will want to nip that form in the bud quickly to avoid his side drifting into a poor run going into a new season.

Grade: B-

 

BRENTFORD FC

Reasons to be cheerful: Predicted by many to mount a genuine promotion challenge in this campaign, Brentford have to be considered this season’s biggest underachievers. However, a relegation battle looked a real possibility for the Bees just a few weeks ago and under-fire boss Thomas Frank deserves credit for slowly turning things around. The Dane needs a strong finish to the season to prove he’s the right man for the long term.
Reasons to be fearful: Is this a side that has missed its moment? Brentford have looked like a side capable of following the likes of Brighton and Bournemouth towards a tilt at top-flight football for a few seasons now. As Sheffield Wednesday have shown, however, once you start to go backwards after a few near-misses, it can be hard to reverse the slide.

Grade: C+

 

BRISTOL CITY

Reasons to be cheerful: Self-belief is football’s most potent weapon, and City look like the side that has it in abundance heading into the home straight. If history tells us anything in the Championship, it’s that you want to be that side scoring late winners for fun heading into the spring. Momentum is currently on their side.

Bolton Wanderers’ Mark Beevers (left) and Bristol City’s Marlon Pack battle for the ball

 

Reasons to be fearful: The journey is sometimes more exciting than the destination, and now City find themselves nestled in the play-off spots after an incredible run of form, they have suddenly become the hunted rather than the hunter. Could City start to become a little bit cagey now they have something to protect?

Grade: A+

 

DERBY COUNTY

Reasons to be cheerful: Just for once, the pressure seems to be off at Pride Park, with most Derby fans quietly content with the work Frank Lampard has been carrying out in his maiden season in the dugout. Psychologically, fighting for a play-off spot at this stage – rather than trying to defend one – might actually play into their hands.
Reasons to be fearful: This is the part of the season where Lampard’s managerial acumen will be severely tested, with the Rams recently losing their stranglehold on a play-off spot. His first campaign has shown plenty of promise with little sign of the New Year collapse that has haunted several other Derby sides, but the jury is out as to whether they have the consistency and guile to lock up one of the final play-off spots.

Grade: B

 

HULL CITY

Reasons to be cheerful: Both might not be at the peak of the powers, but it increasingly looks as if Nigel Adkins and Hull City are the footballing equivalent of the perfect fit, with the 53-year-old comfortably stabilising the Tigers at this level after a rocky couple of seasons. Adkins deserves credit for assembling a potent mix of old Championship stagers, foreign journeymen and stellar young talent that can lead them towards mid-table mediocrity.

Hull City manager Nigel Adkins

 

Reasons to be fearful: Hull fans can relax safe in the knowledge they will be enjoying an uneventful end to the season for once, but an assured campaign will only make their key players even more appealing to wealthier rivals, with main asset Jarred Bowen particularly vulnerable to a summer bidding war.

Grade: A-

 

IPSWICH TOWN

Reasons to be cheerful: The season’s nearly over, but the Tractor Boys probably have the right man in place to help them rebuild afresh in League One after a campaign to forget. In truth, Ipswich have looked consigned to their fate all season – leaving Lambert with plenty of time to start planning ahead and reshaping his team for a potential tilt at promotion next season.
Reasons to be fearful: Lambert has tried everything in his power to stop the rot, but this side still looks desperately short of quality at both ends of the pitch. Going forward, the major worry for Lambert will be that this club has been treading water for so long in the Championship that a more radical summer overhaul than originally intended might be needed to help Ipswich start turning the corner.

Grade: E

 

LEEDS UTD

Reasons to be cheerful: Even despite a recent wobble, Leeds still look one of the class acts in this division, with a wealth of talent all over the pitch. Their remaining fixture list also looks kind, with only high-flying Bristol City of the current top six to play away from home for Bielsa’s men. They’ve never had a better chance to end their exodus from where they believe they belong.

Leeds United’s Pablo Hernandez celebrates scoring his side’s first goal of the game

 

Reasons to be fearful: Regardless of your viewpoint on the entire affair, the ‘Spygate’ affair has coincided with a tailing-off in form for Bielsa’s men. The Argentinean coach has admirers around the world for his tactical nous and planning, but a blot in his copybook is a lack of genuine silverware to show for his efforts. Bielsa’s intense methods have often seen his previous sides fall victim to fatigue and stagger towards the finish. Could the same be happening here after a few underwhelming results?

Grade: A

 

MILLWALL

Reasons to be cheerful: Neil Harris’ side are in the thick of the relegation battle, but they look by far the most organised of the relegation strugglers. Since Boxing Day, the Lions have only conceded six goals – and four of those across two games. That discipline could be enough to ensure they just about drag themselves over the line.
Reasons to be fearful: On the flipside, goals look to be drying up for the South London club at just the wrong moment, with four blanks in their last five games. Fortunately for them, the teams directly below them are even more goal-shy, but Harris needs to fix the Lions’ recent issues with goalscoring first if they want to avoid any last-day nerves.

Grade: C

 

MIDDLESBROUGH

Reasons to be cheerful: Boro haven’t always fired on all cylinders this season, but they remain the perennial itch you can’t scratch towards the top end of the table, tucked in just below the pacesetters despite never fully convincing during long spells this season. He splits opinion, but Tony Pulis remains one of the Championship’s shrewdest operators, and this is the stage of the season where his sides traditionally move up a gear.

Daniel Ayala of Middlesbrough heads at goal during the Championship match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns in West Bromwich, UK on Saturday, February 2, 2019. (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

 

Reasons to be fearful: Pulis’ side still looks on track to secure one of the play-off spots come May, but inconsistent home form has dogged them all season and could ultimately be the deciding factor in whether their season ends or continues after 46 games, with the automatic spots realistically looking a stretch at this stage. Six wins from 15 home games puts far too much pressure on Boro to deliver away from home. Can good form away from the Riverside carry them through?

Grade: B+

 

How do you rate your side’s season so far?

Part 2 – Norwich City to Wigan Athletic

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All image sources from PA Images

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