Mitrović the Cheat Code, Bournemouth’s Pressing, Val-Ball & More: Key Talking Points Ahead of the Championship’s Return
Mitrović the Championship Cheat Code
It’s been a thrilling start to life as Fulham manager for Marco Silva, who is chasing a second career top-flight promotion after previously securing the Portuguese second-tier title in 2011-12 with Estoril. Free-scoring Fulham have bagged more league goals than any other side in the top four tiers of English football this season (44) and are currently enjoying a six-game winning run – their longest since a 12-game streak between May and October 2000. Fulham, of course, ended that 2000-01 season as champions, returning to the top-flight for the first time since 1968.
Fulham’s attacking prowess has made them arguably the most feared side in the Championship this season and their total of 44 goals from 17 games is their highest return at this stage of a league campaign since 1958-59 in the second-tier, when they won promotion to the top-flight (46 goals).
When looking at various attacking metrics in the Championship, it is no surprise to see the Whites tracking first in many of them. Silva’s side are playing possibly the most attractive brand of attacking football in the division and rank first in the Championship for goals (44), shots (278), shots on target (101), expected goals (36.9), touches in the opposition box (473), while they are second for successful passes (7,524), and 10+ pass open-play sequences (243).
Spearheading the most potent attack in the country is Serbian talisman Aleksandar Mitrović, who is the leading scorer in English league football this season, scoring 20 goals, seven more than any other player. Mitrović is having a career-season and could be on course for a ridiculous goal tally come the end of the campaign. The Serb is the only player across the top two tiers of English, French, Italian, Spanish and German football to score 20 league goals in 2021-22.
It’s no secret that the forward is extremely dangerous in the Championship. In his career at this level, he has been directly involved in 77 goals in just 103 appearances (inc. playoffs). Compare that to his last season in the Premier League where he registered 34 goal involvements in 104 games and netted just three goals in 27 matches (13 starts) in 2020-21. Is Mitrović simply a victim of playing for weak Premier League teams that are conversely strong Championship outfits? That would explain his drop off in output. Or is he just the perfect Championship forward?
Last season, Fulham were the second-lowest scorers (27) in the Premier League and were the fourth-worst side for Big Chances created (51), while Mitrović was in and out of the side, struggling for form throughout. There have been numerous players over the years caught between the chasm between the Premier League and Championship but Mitrović, who consistently does well at international level, surely has enough ability and experience to produce consistently in the English top-flight.
In 2021-22, Mitrović is certainly showing he can be the main man at Fulham again, bagging 20 league goals from an expected goals total of just 16. He is a huge threat in the air and is thriving on the service coming his way, so far scoring five headed goals. Mitrović has an aura when playing in the Championship and an unnerving confidence that gives off the impression it’s all too easy for him.
He is also the perfect foil for Fulham’s dynamic attacking midfielders, and his total of five assists is the second-most by a Championship forward this season. In fact, Mitrović and Harry Wilson have combined for six goals this season (three assists each), the most by a single duo so far.
Last time out against Peterborough, Mitrović became the first Fulham player to score in six successive league fixtures since Graham Leggat in August-September 1958 and his recent form means he has 58 goals and nine assists in 78 Championship appearances (inc. playoffs) for the Whites. With promotion firmly the target for Silva’s Fulham, it must be a dream to have an in-form Mitrović at his disposal.
If he carries on producing the goods this season, Mitrović will certainly become the first Fulham player to reach 30+ league goals in a single season since Bedford Jezzard in 1953-54 (39).
Parker’s Bournemouth Look Automatic in Promotion Pursuit
Championship leaders Bournemouth are looking like the real deal this season and have shown massive improvements under Scott Parker. Unbeaten in their first 15 games, they suffered a surprise home loss to Preston. But Parker’s side recovered in their next game and picked up a convincing 4-0 win over Swansea to head into the international break two points ahead of Fulham.
The Cherries have won 40 points from 17 league games this season, their highest ever tally at this stage of a league campaign. Indeed, each of the last 11 sides to win 40+ points at this stage of a second-tier season won promotion to the top-flight (assuming 3pts/win) and eight of those teams won the title.
Football League – Bournemouth’s best starts after 17 games:
|Season||Team||Division||Games||Wins||Draws||Losses||Pts (3/Win)||Final Position||Promoted|
Parker has enforced his imprint on this Bournemouth side, making them an energetic pressing outfit that look to get on the front foot as high up the pitch as possible. Bournemouth rank top for PPDA (10.1) in the Championship this season, meaning they allow the fewest opposition passes before intervening with a defensive action.
Adding to the notion that Bournemouth are the league’s ‘best pressers’ is that they’ve registered the most high turnovers leading in a shot (26) and the joint-most goals from these situations (five). Bournemouth start their possessions from 43.3 metres away from their goal (the joint-highest in the Championship this season), showing how high up the pitch they start playing. Bournemouth’s ability to squeeze the pitch for their opponents and turn the ball over in dangerous positions is serving them well at both ends of the pitch.
On the defensive side, Bournemouth have kept the most clean sheets in the Championship this season (10) and have conceded the fewest goals (10). No side has also faced fewer shots on target in the 2021-22 campaign (43 – level with WBA).
In fact, since the turn of the century, Bournemouth are the ninth second-tier side to register 10 shutouts from their opening 17 league games and ominously six of the previous eight won promotion at the end of the season. If Bournemouth can maintain the high standards of their excellent start during the upcoming winter period, then they will be amongst the favourites to get over the line and back into the Premier League come May.
Sky’s the Limit for Coventry City
Coventry City’s impressive finish to the 2020-21 campaign has continued into the current season, with the Sky Blues currently nestled nicely in the play-off spots in fourth place on 30 points. Assuming three points for a win, this is only the sixth time in Coventry’s league history that they’ve won 30+ points after the first 17 games in a second-tier season and the first time in 20 years (since 2001-02). Coventry will want this season to finish differently, however, as in the 2001-02 season they lost six of their last seven games, ending in 11th.
Second Tier – Coventry’s best points total after 17 games:
Interestingly, the average points total required to finish in sixth since 2004-05 is 74 points. The Sky Blues haven’t finished inside the top six in a second-tier campaign since 1966-67 when they won the league, but could it be possible for Mark Robins to lead a genuine promotion charge this time around?
On the surface, Coventry will be worried about sustaining their current level of form. Only the excellent Bournemouth (12) and Fulham (12) have enjoyed more wins than Coventry’s nine and their total of 225 shots at goal so far is the third-highest tally in the Championship. However, the underlying numbers suggest they are about par for the course, scoring 25 goals from an xG of 25.
Stylistically speaking, Coventry’s ability to blend a neat passing game with moving the ball forward at pace makes them a tricky opponent to gameplan for. Of all the Championship teams above the median for passes per sequence, Coventry move the ball up field in the quickest fashion on average.
Therefore, it’s no surprise to see Coventry have had the most direct attacks (40) in the Championship this season and they are very adept at finding their strikers in pockets of space in the channels. Willing runners such as Viktor Gyökeres and fox in the box Matt Godden are intelligent in their movement and like to draw out defenders. Impressively, Gyökeres has nine goals and two assists in 17 league appearances this season, which is three times the number of goals he bagged last term. That said, he has failed to score in his last six matches and will be hoping the international break has come at a good time for him to reset and regain his early season form.
Despite Gyökeres’ recent drought, strike partner Matt Godden has been able to fill the goalscoring void for the Sky Blues by registering six goal involvements in his last five games (five goals, one assist). Godden has already equalled last season’s Championship tally (six goals) and in 13 fewer games. He has been ruthless in front of goal this term, with six goals from nine shots on target and netting five of his seven Big Chances in the Championship.
|Player||Team||Chances Created (Open Play)||Goal Assist (Open Play)||xA (Open Play)|
|Callum O’Hare||Coventry City||33||3||2.5|
|Jamie Paterson||Swansea City||26||4||3.4|
|Viktor Gyökeres||Coventry City||25||2||1.3|
Supplying the boys up top has been the exciting Callum O’Hare, who has provided three assists this season, adding to his total of eight from last term. Having a player that can consistently unlock defences at Championship level is crucial for any team to be successful and O’Hare is growing into that role rapidly. In fact, his tally of 33 chances created from open play is the most by any player in the division.
Championship Table in 2021:
|2||Queens Park Rangers||41||22||7||12||65||49||16||73|
Can Coventry be viewed as a side that can genuinely maintain a playoff run this season? Well, if you consider their form in 2021 as a whole, then the answer has to be yes. Coventry have won 62 points in 2021, a total bettered by only Bournemouth (79), QPR (73) and Swansea (63). It’s still early days, but it is looking exciting for Mark Robins and his Sky Blues.
Val-Ball Frustrating The Hawthorns?
After his heroics with Barnsley in the previous season, which saw the Tykes rise meteorically up the table and earn a playoff spot, the appointment of Valérien Ismaël at West Bromwich Albion looked a sensible one. On the face of it, he could certainly be perceived as the right man to shake up a side trying to recover from the disappointment of relegation from the Premier League. However, Ismaël’s style of play was always going to be a hot topic of discussion and so far, he’s yet to fully win over the fans at the Hawthorns.
To Ismaël’s credit, he’s been able to lay the foundations of his philosophy quickly and has garnered results at a pace that would suggest West Brom could be there or thereabouts for automatic promotion this season. On the last three occasions, West Brom have won 32+ points after the first 17 games of a second-tier season, they’ve ended up winning promotion (2019-20, 2009-10, 2003-04).
But despite results being okay for the most part, performances have concerned fans and the style of play has failed to capture the imagination of the supporters. But what exactly is ‘Val-Ball’ and why is it an issue?
Essentially, Ismaël’s playing identity is to get the ball forward extremely quickly and play in the opponent’s defensive third as much as possible. Coupled with long balls (and long throws), they bring the defensive line high-up to make the pitch as small as possible. This then allows the forwards to press defenders with great intensity with the aim of winning possession in critical areas. When it works it can be extremely effective but when everything isn’t joined up it looks messy and the constant turnover in possession is very wasteful.
In the current Championship season, only Barnsley (520) have launched the ball more times than West Brom (492), while only Birmingham City (63.5%) have a lower passing accuracy than the Baggies (65.1%). In fact, only Birmingham (28) have had fewer 10+ pass open-play sequences than West Brom (39) in the Championship this season.
Their style of play is further illuminated by the sequence data. West Brom have registered a league-low three build-up attacks, defined as the number of open-play sequences that contain 10+ passes and either end in a shot or at least one touch in the box. In possession, West Brom’s open play sequences have lasted on average for just 4.9 seconds, the quickest average in the Championship.
West Brom are all beast and no beauty when it comes to their use of the football and without doubt the most direct side in the division. The Baggies are registering a direct speed of 2.1 metres per second, the highest rate in the Championship, indicating their preference to move the ball up field quicker than any other side. Interestingly, they also allow their opponents the shortest open play sequences on average (five seconds), highlighting their capacity to get to the opposition in possession.
Encouragingly for Ismaël, they are one of the best pressing sides in the division, with no Championship side mustering more high turnovers (146), more goals via high turnovers (five), or more pressed sequences than West Brom this season (294). Coupled with their penchant for pressing, no side has a higher start distance (43.3m) in the Championship this season than West Brom, and only Bournemouth (10.1) have a better PPDA average than the Baggies (10.2).
None of the above rankings are surprising when analysing Ismaël’s style of play and there is no right or wrong way to play football. But with a squad as talented as West Brom’s, it remains to be seen if this style will get the best out of the players long term. For now, West Brom look like they will be in the mix for promotion this season, but results will need to be maintained otherwise fan discontent over Ismaël’s tactics might become louder and louder.
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