Championship Round-Up: Endgame
Promotion parties, playoff suspense and relegation relief. Or if you’re a Preston fan, just more mid-table mediocrity.
I’m not angry, just bitterly disappointed and a tad jealous. Ah well, there’s always next season – right?
Sunday afternoon marked the final day of yet another enthralling Championship season. It has been a real white-knuckle ride defined by the unexpected as two unfancied operators deservedly earned places in England’s top tier.
Norwich City are a team that absolutely everyone overlooked at the start of the campaign. A team predicted to stagnate in the Championship. But they won for the 27th time on Sunday to cement their status as the Champions of England’s second tier.
Villa Park was the setting for their promotion parade, as they capped off a miraculous season with a trademark late winner courtesy of Mario Vrancic: a man who spent his time before Norwich in the second tier of German football.
That is what makes this Norwich side special. They defy the conventional and they defy the traditional Championship requirements.
The “Finnisher” Teemu Pukki joined the Norwich ranks on a free transfer, yet he has been involved in 41% of his team’s goals this season, becoming the top Norwich league goalscorer in 63 years with 29 goals.
But it’s not all about Perfect Pukki.
Unknown German Christoph Zimmermann came from the Dortmund Reserves, Ben Godfrey started his career at York City, Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons are two academy products, while Marco Stiepermann was cherry picked from the lower echelons of German football.
Prior to this season, these names meant absolutely nothing. Now they are household names renowned for their ability to produce scintillating football against all the odds.
People say you need proven Championship experience to win the second division, well, Norwich City have proved these people wrong.
Norwich boss Daniel Farke has pulled together a group of nobodies and got them playing a brand of Manchester City-esque football. Whoever you support, you have got to take your hat off to a manager and a team who have revitalised a city, making their own promotion blueprint.
But Norwich were not the only team walking in a promotion wonderland on Sunday.
Last season Sheffield United marked their first campaign back in the Championship with a highly respectable 10th place finish. If anything, this was something of an overachievement.
No specialist predicted what would happen next.
On Sunday, the Blades graced the Championship for the final time this season and although they could only earn a point against draw experts Stoke, it was an irrelevant result as Chris Wilder’s men had already guaranteed their place in next season’s Premier League.
Like Norwich, Sheffield United’s story is a remarkable one, but the two cannot be compared simply due to their resounding differences.
The Blades were accused of being “past their best”, just “journeymen” who could hope for nothing more than a meaningless mid-table slump.
While everyone was talking about their Yorkshire neighbours, Leeds United, the Blades continued to sharpen their experienced arsenal under the radar. But being the underdogs was something Chris Wilder used to his advantage.
The humble journeymen have built upon solid foundations with a defence that has the joint best record in the division. On average Sheffield United have conceded just 0.9 goals per game, keeping a record high 20 clean sheets in the process.
While they may not be as vibrant, potent and pacey going forward as Norwich, the Blades have been absolutely clinical. Billy Sharp has lived up to his name with 23 goals, while the ageing David McGoldrick has found a new lease of life. Playing double the amount of games as last season and scoring 15 goals – the same amount he has scored in the previous three seasons combined.
Chris Wilder’s use of the 3-4-1-2 formation has worked a treat. The three central defenders have strengthened United’s resolve, while the use of two wingbacks has bolstered their attacking impetus on the flanks.
In the middle, terrific trio John Fleck, Oliver Norwood and Mark Duffy may have an average age of 29.3, but they have amassed 22 assists between them along with a combined 5,253 accurate passes. Pretty decent stats for just a few journeymen, ey?
According to the earnest Chris Wilder, his team had been “drinking every pub in Sheffield dry over the last four days”, yet they still managed to come from behind twice to end the season on a high against Stoke.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of United’s game is their organisation, something Chris Wilder can take much of the credit for. The only time they have truly come undone was at Villa Park in February, as they completely capitulated, surrendering a three goal lead in a mere 8 minutes.
That looked to be a flashpoint in their season, the moment they would relinquish their hold on second spot. But the complete opposite happened, the Blades winning 6 of their next 7 fixtures without conceding a single goal.
The Blades have not lost consecutive games all season and this ability to bounce back has proved the difference. On the other hand Leeds have lost consecutive games on two separate occasions, showing more bottle than Coca-Cola.
Sheffield United will naturally need a few more changes in personnel compared to Norwich, but the core of their squad should remain the same and with a fearsome fanbase, Sheffield United will provide the Premier League with a different kind of test.
Leeds were the team many Premier League fans called for, but Sheffield United are what they’ve got. Leeds will be fancied to join their rivals, but their chances of promotion have diminished significantly since the New Year.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United will face Frank Lampard’s Derby County in the playoff semi-finals in what will be their toughest test of recent years. The rampant Rams have chalked 19 points in their last 10 games, scoring an impressive 23 goals across these games. Leeds have registered a paltry 13 points in comparison and will face Derby at Pride Park on the back of a humiliating defeat against basement boys Ipswich Town.
History also favours the Rams. The two teams are no strangers and in their previous 18 meetings Derby have won 10 while Leeds have won 5. But the more recent history tells a different story, Leeds doing the domestic double over Derby County, winning 4-1 in August before pulling Frank’s trousers down again in January with a 2-0 triumph.
If Leeds can successfully call upon these earlier performances and channel their frustrations into purposeful, high-pressing attacking play, Derby will come completely undone. Equally, if the Leeds United of recent weeks turns up, they will simply implode. Their defensive resolve has become brittle, with 12 goals conceded in 10 games and 6 of those goals coming in the last 3 matches. Leeds’ defensive aberration is a real concern, and while they can be unplayable at times, they can also be unreliable in spurts, conceding soft goals and overplaying in defence.
Still, I expect them to overcome Derby over two legs and believe a Leeds/Villa final is on the horizon. A final that will be won by Villa, leaving uncertainty at Leeds in terms of finances and staff, after all, Bielsa is renowned for his short fuse and erratic tendencies.
I will probably be completely wrong and end up with egg on my face. But that is a topic for another time. See you in the next one.