It’s Never that Easy: The Four Teams Chasing Automatic Premier League Promotion
The Championship. One of the most exciting leagues in European club football thanks to the prize at stake: a place in the richest competition in the world, the Premier League. 2020-21 is no different, and there’s sure to be many twists and turns in the battle for promotion. Norwich City look like they’re up already, but will they slip up? Watford, Swansea City and Brentford are all hoping they do.
With five weeks remaining in the 2020-21 Championship season, there are four realistic hopefuls for automatic promotion. Norwich City and Watford were relegated from the Premier League last season but are best placed to bounce straight back as they occupy the top two positions in the table. However, Brentford and Swansea City will rightly believe that automatic promotion is achievable with a solid run of form in the tail end of the campaign.
Stats Perform’s predictor considers Norwich City as good as promoted now, giving them just a 0.4% chance of finishing outside the top two and an overwhelming 93.1% chance of winning their second Championship title in three years.
Watford have been in a brilliant run of form, winning nine of their last 10 league matches – the first time they have done this since October 2000 under Graham Taylor. That has coincided with some sloppy results from Brentford and Swansea in recent weeks, meaning that the Hornets ousted them from second position as the league paused for the international break.
The race for promotion is far from over, though, so here’s a look at the many strengths and few weaknesses the top four automatic promotion contenders have displayed during the 2020-21 season.
Norwich City have been top of the Championship table since an emphatic 4-1 home victory over Stoke City on Feb. 13 – a game that started a run of dropping just two points from 10 games, including nine wins in a row.
Norwich’s lead at the top is now eight points over second-placed Watford and with only eight games to play, it looks like Daniel Farke will become the first-ever Norwich City manager to win two divisional titles in their 119-year history.
The Canaries have certainly been the most pleasing on the eye in the Championship this season.
Farke’s side play with a slow and intricate style, which has seen them average the highest possession (61.1%), complete 80 more passes per game than any other side (454) and string together a league-high 481 passing sequences of 10+ passes in open play – 9.5% of the entire number seen in the Championship this season by all clubs.
Central to their easy-on-the-eye football is Emiliano Buendía.
Buendía was the brightest spark in Norwich’s relegation from the Premier League last season, creating the fourth most goalscoring chances (83) and assisting seven goals. He was heavily linked to a transfer back to the Premier League – mainly with Arsenal – but that move never came about, so he’s been playing in the second tier for 2020-21.
His obvious creative talents have been the bastion of Norwich’s intricate passing style, and he leads the league for assists, chances created, open-play chances created, expected assists and successful passes in the final third.
For a team leading the league by eight points, it may come as a surprise that Norwich have only spent 34% of ball-in-play time in a leading position this season – the same proportion as eighth-placed Cardiff City, who are 25 points behind them. However, a key element of the Canaries’ success this season has been their ability to score crucial late goals.
Norwich have scored 16 goals and conceded just five in the final 15 minutes of Championship matches this season, with those goals sealing them a league-high positive differential of 16 points in that period alone.
In order to be in a position to change matches with their goals late in games, the Canaries have been fortunate to have one of the best shot-stoppers in the division at the other end of the pitch.
32-year-old Tim Krul might be one of the unsung heroes of Norwich’s inevitable promotion season. The goalkeeper – who has won back the No. 1 jersey for the Netherlands this season – has been in fine form throughout 2020-21, and it’s thanks in part to crucial saves that he’s made that Norwich have been able to turn games around with late goals.
A league-low 6% of opposition shots have been converted against the Canaries this season. This is despite Norwich marginally allowing opponents better goalscoring chances than each of the other three promotion chasers, at exactly 1.0 xG per game from non-penalty shots – higher than Brentford (0.84), Watford (0.90) and Swansea (0.99).
Krul has conceded 7.5 goals fewer than expected from non-penalty shots and own goals this season – the best rate of any goalkeeper in the competition.
The goals prevented rate metric can account for different goalkeepers facing a different number of shots over a period of time and is a more accurate way to judge a goalkeeper’s shot-stopping ability. Normalising for the volume of shots allows us to see if goalkeepers were expected to concede more or fewer goals for every goal that they conceded, based on the quality of shots that they face on target.
Krul’s goals prevented rate this season in the Championship is 1.57, meaning that he would have been expected to concede 1.57 goals for every goal that he’s actually conceded in 2020-21 – the best in the division this campaign.
Watford started 2020-21 as a Championship club for the first time since their successful promotion campaign of 2014-15. Serbian manager Vladimir Ivic was handed the reigns in the summer after back-to-back Israeli top-flight titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He promised a style of play based on pressing, but what Hornets fans got was a style of play that was more depressing.
At the time of Ivic’s departure on Dec. 19, Watford were fifth in the table and nine points behind leaders Norwich City. Outsiders might have deemed the sacking as harsh, but with a squad filled with quality and plenty of attacking talent, the Hornets surely should have been further up the table.
Xisco Muñoz was the next man to step off the managerial merry-go-round and walk into Vicarage Road, with Watford keen to stress that the appointment was made due to Muñoz’s attacking philosophies. He has certainly brought that.
After an initial attacking downturn following the start of his tenure, Watford began to display the attacking intent that many had expected all season from Feb. 13, when they hammered Bristol City 6-0 at Vicarage Road – a run of form that coincided with an injury to Troy Deeney.
The numbers speak for themselves. Under Muñoz, Watford have won the most points in the Championship and have had the second most dangerous attack (1.51 non-penalty xG per 90) as well the tightest defence (0.85 non-penalty xG per 90).
A major reason for maintaining the tight defence under the new manager – whilst adding the element of actually bothering to attack opposition defences unlike under Ivic – has been the central defensive partnership between Francisco Sierralta and William Troost-Ekong.
Much was expected of Nigerian international Troost-Ekong when he arrived at the end of September 2020, but less so of Sierralta following his preseason signing.
Sierralta didn’t start a single game under Ivic but has played more minutes under Muñoz than any other Watford player (1,514). Much of this has been down to necessity following injuries to the experienced Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele, but he’s now become one of the first names down on the team sheet alongside central defensive partner Troost-Ekong.
In the 13 games the two have started alongside each other this season, Watford have conceded just 0.54 goals per game and won 2.46 points per game.
There are, of course, other factors towards Watford improvement under their new manager – the freedom given to future star Ismaïla Sarr, the second coming of Nathaniel Chalobah and the return to fitness of the instrumental Will Hughes.
The Hornets have been in a losing position for just 9% of the ball-in-play time this season. With three of their final four league games of 2020-21 coming against Norwich, Brentford and Swansea, they will hope to keep that record going until mid-May.
This season is Swansea’s third successive campaign in the Championship following relegation from the Premier League in 2017-18. They were unfortunate to lose out in the playoffs last season to Brentford – a meeting that could be repeated in the 2020-21 playoffs should results not go either side’s way. Of the four automatic promotion hopefuls from the Championship, Swansea are the anomaly in that they haven’t been able to create anything better than their opponents have against them in 2020-21.
Steve Cooper’s side have allowed the opposition nearly the same quality of chances as they’ve had themselves in the Championship this season from non-penalty shots. Their 0.8 xG differential is way below the top three teams in the table currently, who have displayed a much more dangerous attack than opposition teams in 2020-21.
Since losing 4-1 to Huddersfield on Feb. 20, Swansea have conceded 14 goals in nine Championship matches. Only Sheffield Wednesday (16) have conceded more than this tally over this period. They have picked up 13 points in these matches courtesy of four wins and a draw – with two of those victories being sealed by penalty goals deep into injury time against Stoke City and Middlesbrough.
Before this relatively poor run of form, Swansea had by far the meanest defence in the Championship, conceding a league-low 15 goals in 28 matches. This was the joint-lowest tally ever by a team in the second tier of English league football after 28 games of a season.
There’s no doubt that Swansea are one of the best teams in the league, and of the four automatic promotion hopefuls, they are the most direct and fastest to progress upfield with their attacks. However, as good as they have been defensively for the majority of 2020-21, they lack the attacking prowess of the other three teams in the hunt for Premier League football next season.
Only two teams in the Championship have seen a lower spread of players score a goal this season than Swansea (11), with only five of these players scoring more than twice. Steve Cooper hasn’t been helped by the injury gods, either. The shrewd loan signing of US international forward Jordan Morris – who scored 20 goals in the last two MLS seasons – was cruelly cut short after only 66 minutes of league action resulted in an ACL injury that has ruled him out of the rest of 2020-21.
Four of Swansea’s next five league fixtures are against teams currently placed 16th or lower, so there’s a good chance they could turn around their recent poor form. But this is the Championship, and by now we know it’s never that easy.
Brentford are the only of the quartet chasing automatic promotion from the Championship this season to have never played in the Premier League. In fact, they haven’t played top-flight league football since 1946-47.
Most football fans are aware of the Bees’ background and how they are one of the most statistically savvy clubs when it comes to transfer dealings, but it still remains impressive how they can regularly lose such high-quality players and still challenge for at least a playoff spot season after season.
Brentford had to deal with the departure of Saïd Benrahma and Ollie Watkins this time around – two players that contributed 53% of their league goals in 2019-20.
What’s impressive about the Bees’ campaign so far is that they have performed so well despite having the second-youngest average starting XI this season. At 25 years and 77 days, only Barnsley (24 years, 122 days) have named a younger team on average in 2020-21.
This might explain some of Brentford’s inconsistent performances this season. No side has won more points from losing positions than the Bees this season (21), but they have also lost the joint-third highest number of points from winning positions (18).
Of players to have appeared for Brentford in the Championship this season, only four of them are beyond the accepted peak age of 28, and only one of those – right-back Henrik Dalsgaard, has played over 50% of the team’s possible minutes.
There is little doubt that Brentford have the best striker in the Football League at their disposal, in the form of Ivan Toney.
Toney joined the Bees in the summer after finishing as top scorer at Peterborough in League One in 2019-20 with 24 goals in 32 appearances, and he’s made the step up look incredibly easy with four goals more already this season (28) in 36 matches. He only needs two more goals to be the first player to score 30 in a single Championship season since Glenn Murray for Brighton & Hove Albion in 2012-13.
The Brentford striker has an average of 0.16 xG per shot from open play this season in league competition, while he’s averaged 0.45 xG per 90 from non-penalty shots. Among the 15 players to have scored eight or more non-penalty goals, Toney is one of a select group to both accumulate good goalscoring opportunities over the average 90 minutes, while also keeping a consistently strong shot selection.
A slight worry for Brentford is their overreliance on Toney’s goals. With 43.1% of their goals scored in 2020-21, no side has seen a player score a higher proportion. The next highest league goalscorer for Thomas Frank’s side is winger Sergi Canós with seven goals in 37 matches.
Having only just turned 25 years old, there’s no doubt that if Brentford fail to achieve promotion this season Toney will be chased by a host of top-flight clubs this summer. Brentford suffered heartache on the final day of last season, losing 2-1 at home to relegation-threatened Barnsley with automatic promotion so close. They went on to lose in the playoff final to Fulham in August, just under six weeks before the 2020-21 campaign began. Will this season end differently? We’re about to find out.