Championship Round-Up: The Brentford banana peel and the history makers in the Midlands
By Bobby Melling
We are now down to our final two games in the 2018-19 Championship season and while many questions have already been answered, those final two fixtures still have plenty of defining powers.
Without further ado, then, I will take you through the three most significant results from an Easter Monday that saw 26 goals scored across 12 games.
Leeds, oh Leeds. Why do you keep doing this to yourselves? After a not so Good Friday, Leeds were looking for a much needed pick-me-up in the capital. Brentford would be their hosts, but the Bees had a nasty sting in their tail that would leave Leeds United stunned.
Brentford had won just one in eight prior to this table-changing clash, but you certainly wouldn’t have thought so judging by their free-flowing attacking interplay.
On the other hand, Leeds picked the complete wrong time to remember that they are Leeds United. The Yorkshire giants are well known for their lack of bottle and today’s damaging defeat now means that they have registered just four wins in three years in the month of April.
When you consider that the last ten teams to be top of the Championship at Christmas have all gone on to be automatically promoted, it is looking rather likely that Leeds will be the team to break that stat.
But take nothing away from Brentford. Sitting 15th in the table they could be forgiven for rolling over (no Easter pun intended), but instead, they waited for their moment and took it.
Leeds, as usual, had the majority of possession at 62.8%. But that has been the story of their season. Their average possession rate for the entire season stands at 64.4%. I mean at least they are topping one table… But, as was the case on Friday, they were punished for their profligacy and caught cold on that filthy counter.
2-0 it finished. Neal Maupay brilliantly stabbing home the opener, before Sergi Canos dinked in a second following a wonderful piece of build-up play.
Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa was left furious, as he paced up and down his technical area like a criminal in his prison yard.
While an infuriated Bielsa stalked the touchline at Griffin Park, the fans of Sheffield United would have been jumping up and down in delirium.
Earlier on in the afternoon, the Blades had managed to complete a league double over Hull for the first time since they last won promotion to the Premier League back in the ‘05-06 season under Neil Warnock. Coincidence?
Hull were unbeaten on home soil in 12 matches, but they faced a rampant Sheffield United side who had lost just once on the road in 2019.
Manager Chris Wilder had adopted a pioneering approach in the first half and it paid dividends. The Blades were superior in all departments and made it count three times in the first 45.
David McGoldrick grabbed a brace before Enda Stevens headed home a third to but the game well beyond Hull’s reach. Wilder then pulled up the drawbridge, opting for pragmatism in the second half, choking Hull out of the game.
Yet another clean sheet (20) for the razor sharp Blades who boast the best defensive record in the division. On average they concede just 0.9 goals per game, and while they rank relatively low in terms of getting shots on target (12th), they have a real knack of putting the ones they do get on target in the back of the net.
All things considered it has been an admirable campaign for Hull City who started the season as a relegation-tipped side. But, they have just lacked that defensive guile needed to make a significant playoff challenge.
Elsewhere in the promotion picture, while Aston Villa were not vintage Villa, they did just enough to secure their playoff place and set an incredible new club record of ten consecutive league wins – Millwall the latest casualty.
It has been a run, or should I say sprint, that has seen them bag 23 goals while letting in just 5 at the other end. For me, the most impressive stat, though, is that they can boast 9 different goalscorers across those 10 games. While Abraham provides the bulk of the goals, he certainly isn’t their only goal-scoring outlet. With other frequent contributors to the tally.
And to write just a bit more history, on Good Friday, Tammy Abraham became the first Aston Villa player to score 25 league goals in a season since Andy Gray scored 25 in 1976-77, 42 years ago.
From mid-table meandering to axe-wielding animals, the Villans have a thirst for blood and have sent out a real statement of intent to the rest of the playoff candidates.
I had them written off from the beginning of the season, but I will happily admit my wrongful judgment. They are the league’s third highest scorers with 80 goals over 44 games – that works out at 1.8 goals per game. To put it quite simply, they are ruthless on the offensive.
But, with the addition of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause, Dean Smith’s Villa tightened up the screws and have looked much more composed at the back. Even though they haven’t exactly had a settled back four.
In the first of their 10 consecutive wins against Derby, Dean Smith fielded a back four of El Mohamady, Elphick, Mings and Hause. In the latest win at home to Millwall, he started with El Mohamady, Jedinak, Mings and Taylor.
Mings has spent time out through suspension, while Hause and Tuanzebe have found themselves rotated regularly. Neil Taylor, who I previously perceived as their weak link, has largely been an ever-present figure, as has Ahmed El Mohamady.
But, one common denominator to Villa’s defensive success has been midfield enforcer Glenn Whelan – the one who has gone relatively under the radar. The plaudits for Villa’s upturn in form have largely gone to Grealish, but the work of Whelan should not go unnoticed.
Nor should that of those who maintain a high-press. McGinn has been a relentless runner with an incredible eye for goal. While Hourihane, for all his sticking points, has also been instrumental with three goals and an assist in the last ten games.
But, with all that being said, the Return of the Jack has certainly given Villa their pick-me-up and helped give their attacking play a focal point. Undoubtedly, he is their best player and whenever he picks up the ball, you just can’t help but feel he could very easily produce a moment of magic.
Even when Villa have not been at their best, they have still found a way. This was the case against Millwall on Monday.
Millwall boss Neil Harris felt his side threatened Villa, but in truth, he admitted, “They’ve got players that should be playing at the next level, and they will be…”
He also admitted that his plan on Monday was to “stay in the game”, which is understandable considering his side’s perilous position.
The Lions have won just 2 in their last 10 league fixtures, and sit three points above Rotherham who occupy the final relegation spot.
Crucially, however, Millwall have a game in hand. And while they have to face bottom-half Stoke, 8th place Bristol and lowly Wigan, Rotherham come up against a team with just under double their points total in West Brom and a Middlesbrough side who have won 3 in 5 and will be challenging for a playoff place.
If I was a betting man, I know where I’d be putting my money…