Norwich City go into Christmas with a five-point lead at the top of the Championship and with Daniel Farke having already led them to a title in this division back in 2018-19, they must be labelled as favourites for promotion again.
Worryingly for other Championship teams, Norwich have underperformed in attack and yet still hold a comfortable cushion at the top of the league. The Canaries have scored with just 7.5% of their non-penalty shots, which is below the league average of 8.9% and well below second placed Bournemouth (12.1%). They have also underperformed their non-penalty xG by 2.5, having scored 24 goals from an open play xG of 26.5.
The timing of Norwich City’s goals this season have been a big reason for their great start. The Canaries have scored nine goals and conceded just twice in the 80th minute or later in 2020-21, with these goals giving them a positive differential of 12 points – five more than any other side.
Farke’s team have also held the most possession (60.6%) and have averaged 453 successful passes per game, an average that is 58 more than any other team in the division.
11 of the last 12 teams to be top at Christmas have gone on to be promoted automatically and the only side in this list to fail were Leeds United in 2018-19, where they lost in the playoffs to Derby County. But we all know what happened to them in the following season…
Bournemouth have started life under Jason Tindall well, with this the first season since the start of 2012-13 without Eddie Howe in charge.
The Cherries play a high pressing game and have the lowest PPDA in the Championship this season alongside Rotherham (10). PPDA is Opposition Passes Allowed per Defensive Action, which takes into consideration passes in the defensive and middle third of the pitch based on the team in possession and defensive actions in the final third & middle third of the pitch for the team out of possession.
They have also attempted the most shots from high turnovers (32) and scored a joint-high four goals from these scenarios that occur within 40m of the opposition goal line.
At the other end, Bournemouth have had the most dependable goalkeeper in veteran Asmir Begovic. Looking at shots on target faced and the quality of those shots (xG on Target), Begovic would have been expected to concede 5.5 goals more than he actually has this season, which is the biggest over-performance by a Championship goalkeeper in 2020-21.
Swansea City have recovered well from playoff disappointment in 2019-20, despite losing two of their three top scorers last season in Borja Bastón and loanee Rhian Brewster.
This time around, their success so far has been built on an exceptional defence that have conceded a league-low 12 goals in 20 games and kept a joint league-high 11 clean sheets.
The omens are good for Swansea City, as many previous teams to start a Championship season with a defence as mean as this have gone on to win promotion.
Since 1994-95, there have been eight occasions of a team conceding 12 goals or fewer in their opening 20 games of a second-tier campaign – the last seven of those have all been promoted that season, with four of these finishing as league winners.
With the exit of Championship joint-top goalscorer Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa in the summer combined with the departure of creative star Saïd Benrahma in October, many Brentford fans would have feared how 2020-21 might pan out. They need not have worried as they certainly found an adequate replacement goalscorer.
In Ivan Toney, the Bees have the most prolific striker in the Championship. After finishing as top scorer in League One last season at Peterborough with 24 goals, the striker is two thirds of the way to that total before Christmas in the second tier this campaign. With 16 goals from 55 shots, he’s converted a highly impressive 29% of his total shots and over half of his shots on target (64%).
Overall, Toney has attempted a third of Brentford’s shots on target and scored 11 goals more than any other Bees’ player in the Championship this season (Marcus Forss with five goals, the next most). If Toney can stay fit and firing, Brentford will be certainly challenging for promotion at the end of the season.
The departure of Vladimir Ivic came as a surprise to many in the football world, but less so by Watford supporters. Despite being placed fifth, the Hornets are nine points behind Norwich City and play the Canaries in their next game on Boxing Day.
Ivic’s style made Watford tough to beat, but it also made them tough to love. Unpleasant to watch for long periods and with creative players tactically hamstrung, it saw undoubtedly one of the most talented Championship squads underperform. In what is ultimately a results business, Ivic’s game plan worked when the Hornets scored first in games (12 games; W8 D4 L0) but when they conceded the first goal, they lacked any creativity to bring them back in the match (five games: W1 D0 L4).
Their home form has been solid; with a joint-league high 23 points won from 10 games, but their results on the road have been unacceptable with a squad of this quality – winning just 11 points from 10 games, half the tally of leaders Norwich City (22). In 2020-21, Watford have scored just four times in 10 away matches, with one of these from a penalty, which is something they’ll have to correct if they want to be promoted.
Goalscoring has been a bit of an issue for Watford all-round. No side in the top eight has scored fewer than the Hornets (23) with a joint-league high five of these coming from the penalty spot. They have created open play shots with the fifth best quality in the Championship, but in scoring 18 open play goals from an open play xG of 25.2, they have the third-highest underperforming attack – an issue Watford have suffered for a few seasons now.
The Best of the Rest
Three teams follow fifth-placed Watford by a single point, with 33 points on the board and all still with a definite shout at promotion.
Middlesbrough have Mr.Championship in charge, so can never be ruled out until it becomes mathematically impossible.
With four promotions from the second tier to the top-flight, no manager has won promotion more often at this level than Neil Warnock in Football League history (level with Steve Bruce).
Both Stoke City and Reading also find themselves on 33 points, just five points off the automatic promotion places. These two sides have managed the best non-penalty shot conversion rates in the Championship so far this season, with Stoke scoring 13.7% of these shots and Reading netting 12.7%. As a result, they have both over-performed their non-penalty xG total by the most (+6).
Excluding penalties, Reading have allowed their opponents to score 25 times but have given them chances totalling to 18 xG. The Royals have conceded seven more goals than you’d expect the average team to score from these chances – this is by far the biggest ‘underperformance’ defensively in the division as it stands.
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