Predicting the Championship 2022/23 places: this season’s least dignified scramble?

·14-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

The Championship returns this weekend, and although it’s not as unpredictable as sometimes claimed, the division retains its chaotic air.

 

The EFL Championship season gets underway with a familiar smell of desperation in the air. The cavernous gulf in financial resources between the Premier League and the division below have led to the second tier being a peculiar mixture of the well-run, the badly-run, the wildly optimistic and the pleased to just be there, but while it is fair to say that this desperation can lead to some fairly bonkers football, it’s just as true to say that it often seems to be, broadly speaking, as stratified as anywhere else.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Premier League parachute payments put clubs that have been promoted that far at a significant financial advantage over others when relegated back. This season, for example, Burnley will benefit from a parachute payment of around £40m following relegation. Should they fail to go up this season, their parachute payment will be around £35m, and should they fail to go up again, it would be around £15m for their third season at this level.

The comparison with clubs who haven’t been part of the Premier League over the last few years is stark. Championship teams only receive around £9m from the EFL’s contract with Sky Sports. In other words, the £90m collected in television money over three years by a club that falls into the Championship is more than three times what a club without those parachute payments will receive over the same time period. Small wonder that clubs that haven’t benefitted from them recently have come close to bankrupting themselves trying to keep up on this distinctly unlevel playing field.

But relegation into the Championship doesn’t necessarily mean promotion straight back. The peculiar anomaly of Fulham and Norwich City, who have been alternating places for the last four years, has led to a growth in the belief that they are stuck in a strange sort of limbo between the Premier League and the Championship: not quite good enough for the top 20 but still too strong for the clubs just below them. It’s a strange form of purgatory, a cycle of celebration followed by hope and disappointment, but at least these clubs are financially stable while they bounce between the two divisions.

 

Automatic promotion hopefuls: The teams chasing one of the Championship’s automatic promotion places are a mixture of those who’ve just been relegated and clubs who’ve been loitering around the play-off for a little while. The two clubs that head the pre-season betting to go straight back up are those with the most experience of this yo-yo world. Norwich City and Watford are clear of the rest, though there are reasons to believe that either or both of these clubs could find the going sticky this time around.

Norwich City have won the title in each of their last two seasons at this level in 2019 and 2021, but can they make it a hat-trick? They have an experienced manager in Dean Smith and have held onto their most experienced players, including striker Teemu Pukki, Josh Sargent and Jordan Hugill. Of course, this could all change before the end of the summer transfer window, but on the basis of what we know right now, if continuity is important, then Norwich should be well-placed.

The other two relegated clubs are both taking a little bit of a leap into the unknown. Watford have gone for a change of policy, with their revolving door having been usurped by bringing in a promising manager from the lower divisions. Rob Edwards has arrived from League Two champions Forest Green Rovers and he has plenty of experience at his disposal, such as Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, Dan Gosling and Danny Rose, but the arrival of Edwards is a change of culture for Watford and may take a little while to properly bed in.

The hiring of Vincent Kompany by Burnley was certainly imaginative, and he has set about immediately redrawing their somewhat ageing team. The list of players to depart from Turf Moor reads like a cast list for the movie version of Burnley: The Premier League Years. Nathan Collins, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski, Nick Pope, Aaron Lennon and Dale Stephens are just a taste of the 21 (!) players that the club has either lost, released or loaned out this summer.

But while the list of clubs that Kompany has recruited from is impressive, the four new arrivals from Chelsea and Manchester City – Arijanet Muric, Ian Maatsen, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and CJ Egan-Riley – made fewer than 20 combined appearances for their former Big Clubs, and the vast majority of these came in the Carabao Cup. None of this means that they’re not perfectly capable, but it seems unlikely that Burnley are going to alight at the next Kevin de Bruyne from these four.

Of the other clubs who will be looking at those top two automatic places, there is some solace that none of the three relegated teams look particularly strong this summer. Middlesbrough just missed out on the play-offs last season, but they have a canny manager who has won promotion from this division before in the form of Chris Wilder, and their recruitment this summer has been decent, with Zack Steffen arriving from Manchester City’s Great Summer Sale on a season’s loan, wing-back Ryan Giles coming on loan from Wolves, and Darragh Lenihan arriving after a decade – and more than 250 games – for Blackburn Rovers.

Wilder’s former charges, Sheffield United, ended last season in fifth place and were only denied a place in the play-off final after a penalty shootout against Nottingham Forest. After Slavisa Jokanovic paid for a poor start with his job at the end of November, Paul Heckingbottom revived their fortunes and might have been the subject of the glowing praise that Steve Cooper was, had United edged past Forest in the play-off semi-finals. With Billy Sharp, Oli McBurnie and Rhian Brewster up front, they’ll likely consider a failure to at least repeat last season’s fifth-placed finish something of a disappointment.

Predictions for the automatic promotion places: Norwich City and Middlesbrough

 

Play-off contenders: Of course, any of the above clubs will automatically consider themselves play-off contenders should they fail to secure a place in the division’s top two or three by next spring. But there will also be other clubs around looking to disrupt them. It seems unlikely – though not impossible – that either of last season’s other two play-off losers will be there again.

Huddersfield Town finished third and lost the play-off final to Nottingham Forest, and there is a hint of the Barnsleys about their loss of Carlos Corberan and several key players over the course of the summer. They’ll have a tough job replicating their achievements last season under Corberan’s former assistant Danny Schofield, who’s in his first senior managerial position.

The other losing play-off team from last season, Luton Town, seemed to defy the laws of physics by being there in the first place, having been a National League club just eight years earlier. But the return of Nathan Jones after an abortive period at Stoke City has proved the old adage that ‘you can’t go home again’ isn’t always true.

And then there’s West Bromwich Albion. The appointment of Steve Bruce couldn’t arrest a slump that saw the Baggies end last season in tenth, their lowest final league position since the 1999/2000 season. Bruce retains his position going into the new campaign, but it would be less than surprising to see him getting the boot should Albion’s issues from the second half of last season bleed through.

Elsewhere, Stoke are due an improvement in fortunes after several underwhelming seasons since their relegation from the Premier League in 2018; they haven’t finished above 14th since and their parachute payment money has now run out. Something similar could be said for Swansea City, who were relegated at the same time but who have at least had a couple of trips to the play-offs since. Matt Grimes and Joel Piroe are decent signings, while Jamie Paterson has bags of Championship experience and Joe Allen’s return from Stoke is a homecoming for both players and supporters.

Play-off outsiders: With the problems that threatened the very existence of the club for years now behind them, Coventry City’s return to the Championship has seen two seasons of consolidation. With the popular Mark Robins still in charge, they could challenge for a play-off place if they can address the inconsistency that saw them slip after a strong start to last season. Another team to tail off in the second half was Blackburn Rovers, but with Jon Dahl Tomasson having replaced Tony Mowbray they may find the play-offs a stretch too far again.

QPR’s decision to replace Mark Warburton was somewhat surprising considering they finished 11th, but his replacement Michael Beale, formerly an assistant to Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, is an imaginative choice to succeed him. QPR were another club with play-off ambitions who fell away, but Beale’s appointment looks more like a longer-term project than a short-term fix and QPR may find mid-table to be the height of their ambitions.

Predictions for the play-off places: Burnley, Watford, Sheffield United and Coventry City

 

 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Mid-table: The number of clubs in the Championship that haven’t played Premier League football is rapidly diminishing, and arguably the two biggest not to have made it to the top flight over the last three decades, Bristol City and Preston North End, seem set for another season in mid-table.

City spent much of last season hovering a couple of places above the relegation zone. They scored more goals than anybody below the top six, so the possibility of them finishing higher this time around shouldn’t be completely discounted. But only Peterborough and Reading conceded more and they will have to improve defensively if they’re to advance on their 17th-placed finish.

For Preston, Freddie Woodman is a decent goalkeeper who might find Deepdale to his liking after a pretty disastrous 2021/22. He started in the Newcastle team ahead of Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow but ended up back on the bench after four appearances, the most notable of which came at Old Trafford on Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United. He spent the second half of last season on loan at Bournemouth, where he again resided on the bench. Preston have also taken Spurs’ highly-rated youngster Troy Parrott on loan. Spurs agreed a new three-year contract with the striker in the summer, so they evidently still consider him to be of value after an impressive season on loan at Milton Keynes.

Millwall may well feel the loss of Jed Wallace, who departed for West Brom on a free transfer during the summer, but they have an experienced manager in Gary Rowett and their summer incomings, including George Honeyman and Benik Afobe, have been encouraging. Of particular interest is attacking midfielder Zian Flemming, who’s arrived from Fortuna Sittard having scored 24 goals over the last two seasons in the Eredivisie.

And finally, back-to-back promotions to the Premier League are exceptionally rare – only Southampton and Norwich City have achieved it in the last 20 years – but it would be foolish to completely rule Sunderland out of continuing their momentum into their return to the Championship. They have an able manager in Alex Neil, have come some way closer to resolving issues concerning their ownership, and have sold more than 30,000 season tickets. A second successive promotion seems extremely unlikely, but with some clouds lifted over the Stadium of Light they should be capable of securing a mid-table finish.

There was further good takeover news coming from Hull City at the end of last season. Acun Ilicali, who has been described as ‘the Turkish Simon Cowell’ over his involvement in that country’s version of Pop Idol, finally secured ownership of the club from the widely-reviled Allam family. There’s a lot of work to do to get Hull back on their feet, and considering the identity of their new owner it’s hardly surprising that four of their summer signings have come from Turkish clubs, including two from Fenerbahce.

 

Looking anxiously over their own shoulders: And so we reach the Championship’s nether regions, and the clubs whose first priority has to be to avoid the drop back to League One. Blackpool returned to the Championship after six years away last season and were comfortable in finishing 16th, but they have lost manager Neil Critchley to Aston Villa.

His replacement Michael Appleton has been here before, but he’s a very different manager to his predecessor. In his previous spell managing the club he lasted just 11 matches – the shortest permanent manager the club has ever had, although Jose Riga came within three games of matching him a couple of years later – before jumping ship to go to Blackburn after just 65 days. Blackpool should be too good to go down, but it seems doubtful that they’ll improve substantially.

This season’s two other promoted clubs besides Sunderland, Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United, both have a fair chance of surviving this time around. Wigan were League One champions and manager Leam Richardson seems to be sticking with the team that won the title. It seems likely that they will be in for something of an attritional season, but they won’t give up on their Championship place without a fight.

Rotherham, meanwhile, remain one of English football’s yo-yo clubs. They’ve lost key players – striker Michael Smith and centre-half Michael Ihiekwe – to Sheffield Wednesday during the summer, and this season promises to be another difficult one.

For a brief period, it looked as though Cardiff City might have something to celebrate this summer when there was substantial media speculation that Gareth Bale might consider the Bluebirds an option ahead of the 2022 World Cup. But in the end, Bale opted for the sunshine of Los Angeles and Cardiff were left to reflect upon what might have been.

They have been busy in the transfer market this summer, with 12 new signings (the most interesting of which may be Ollie Tanner, a 20 year-old former product of the Arsenal youth system who has joined them from non-league Lewes for £50,000), but only time will tell whether this blizzard of transfer activity turns out to be all heat and no light.

All of which leaves us with Birmingham City and Reading, both of whom seem to spend most of their time lumbering from crisis to crisis. Birmingham, who have been a soap opera for several years now, still have part of St Andrew’s closed, but they do have a new manager in the form of John Eustace, who has replaced Lee Bowyer.

There is a tiny amount of encouragement to be had in the progress of 16-year old Jobe Bellingham – brother of Jude, who also started his career with the Blues – but with a proposed takeover of the club still being described as in the ‘very early stages’, they remain in a precarious position. After having failed to finish above 17th place for six consecutive seasons, there is a very real feeling that this campaign may be set to end in relegation to League One.

Reading manager Paul Ince has gone for some experience this summer, bringing in his son Tom from Stoke City on a free transfer, alongside former Premier League notables Shane Long and Jeff Hendrick. Will this be enough? It’s difficult to tell, but with the club already under a business plan and a suspended six-point deduction from the EFL, it’s entirely plausible that Reading’s prospects in the Championship may not even be ultimately decided by what happens on the pitch.

Predictions for the relegation places: Rotherham United, Birmingham City and Reading

 

The article Predicting the Championship 2022/23 places: this season’s least dignified scramble? appeared first on Football365.com.

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