With the 2020-21 season coming to a close, the international transfer window will once again open, and many clubs will be looking to invest in young talent from other leagues. In our transfer target series, we identify players who could well be on the radar of top European clubs this summer. Jack Supple picks five players who’ve impressed in The Championship.
Owing to political and economical factors outside of the game, there is a distinct possibility that Premier League clubs will be shopping a bit closer to home this summer. And what better market to dip their toes into than the Championship. Success stories in the Premier League in 2020-21 such as Ollie Watkins, Jarrod Bowen, Ebere Eze and Kalvin Phillips, who have each transitioned seamlessly to top-flight football, might further inspire clubs to take another look at England’s second tier in the coming weeks.
Kicking off this shortlist is Adam Armstrong, a player who will already be familiar to many, especially those from the northeast of England.
Armstrong, a Newcastle academy graduate who made 15 Premier League appearances, rose to fame by becoming the Magpies’ youngest ever player in the competition (17 years, 33 days old vs. Fulham in March 2014). Armstrong has represented England from U16 to U21 and was even part of the Lions squad that won the U20 World Cup in 2017.
The former Newcastle man’s development over the years has been aided kindly by the volume of games he’s been able to play, racking up 279 appearances and scoring 93 goals across loan spells with Coventry City, Barnsley, Bolton and Blackburn, before making the move to Ewood Park permanent in 2018.
Armstrong is a versatile and direct forward, who despite his small stature, is equally adept at playing down the middle as he is situated out wide, where he is effective at taking on his man and hitting the space in behind or coming in off the wing. His electric pace and intelligent movement have proven too much for Championship defences in recent campaigns.
In 2020-21, Armstrong scored 28 league goals, which was the most by a Blackburn player in a single season since Alan Shearer in 1995-96 (31). In fact, since the start of last season, Armstrong has netted 13 more Championship goals (exc. playoffs) than any other player (44).
Most Championship Goals (since August 2019):
To cap off a fine individual campaign, Armstrong bagged his third hat trick of the season in the final game vs. Birmingham, which was the most by a player in a second-tier season since Rickie Lambert scored four in 2011-12, while the last Blackburn player to score as many league hat tricks in a season was Shearer in 1995-96 (five).
Despite the gluttony of goals, there have been the occasional question marks whether Armstrong is clinical enough for the next level. Armstrong missed a Championship-high 23 big chances in 2020-21. However, he had also scored 21 big chances, meaning his overall conversion rate was 48%, which by no means ranked poorly. The fact he is consistently in dangerous positions to make these attempts is encouraging. Pundits had similar concerns over Patrick Bamford ahead of the 2020-21 campaign and despite this, he recently became only the fourth Englishman to score 15+ goals for Leeds in a single Premier League campaign.
Something that might put his potential suitors at ease would be the dynamism he would bring to a side looking to upgrade their forward line. Armstrong is technically proficient allowing him to travel with the ball smoothly. The striker attempted 60 carries ending with a shot in 2020-21, which was 18 more than any other Championship player.
In fact, only Emiliano Buendía (13) had more goal involvements following a carry than Armstrong (11 – eight goals, three assists). Armstrong’s directness makes him an option worth considering – he registered 14 drives into the penalty box, which was most in the Championship.
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His willingness to make something happen out of nothing was a bright spot for Blackburn fans in what was an unremarkable season for the club. However, with just one year left on his current Blackburn contract, now might be the time for a top-flight side to take a punt on one of the Championship’s brightest stars.
Next off the Championship production line could well be the supremely talented Michael Olise. Eligible to represent France, Nigeria, Algeria and England at the international level, Reading’s 19-year-old midfield maestro was named as EA Sports Young Player of the Season in this season’s EFL awards, and he was also selected in the Championship team of the year. A fast-growing reputation indeed.
Olise’s positional versatility and maturity at such a young age are sought after traits and indicates a player with many more levels to go. Olise is a rare gem of a player, one who not only possesses great technical ability on the ball but also displays a level of decision making way beyond his years.
Former Reading boss José Gomes waxed lyrical about the fledgling midfielder, telling Sky Sports: “We are talking about a player who will bring people to the stadium. It is impossible not to feel happiness when watching his movements and his technical ability.” Those movements contributed 19 goal involvements in the Championship in 2020-21 (seven goals, 12 assists), which is the most of any teenager in the top four tiers of English football – a fantastic achievement that will surely have Premier League scouts sitting up and taking notice.
England’s Top Four Tiers in 2020-21: Most Goal Involvements by Teenagers:
Olise also led the way in the Championship for most assists from set plays this term (eight), an impressive figure given it’s quite unusual to see such a young player shoulder a side’s set piece responsibilities. Overall, only Norwich’s Buendía (16) provided more Championship assists than Olise (12).
To further emphasise Olise’s creative contribution to his Reading side, the tricky midfielder created the joint-third most chances in the Championship (84), and the second-most chances created at set plays (41).
However, it’s worth pointing out that Olise is far more than just a set-piece specialist. His mobility on the ball is Ebere Eze-esque, especially with their shared ability of being able to draw in opponents and turn away instantly in tight areas. Olise’s ball-carrying skill is clear when looking at 10+ metre progressive carries, which is where a player carries the ball more than 10 metres upfield. Olise ranked third amongst all Championship midfielders in 2020-21 with 162 instances.
With Olise you feel there’s much more to come, but the early signs are very encouraging for potential suitors. Reading will be keen to tie him down to a new deal, but this summer might bring bids that they will find hard to turn down.
A person who has overcome much adversity in his early life, Arnaut Danjuma’s footballing journey saw him sign for Bournemouth in August 2019 for £13.7 million from Club Brugge. He didn’t make much of an impression at the Premier League level last season owing to limited opportunities, but this year has been a different story and a positive chapter in his journey. Danjuma has arguably been Bournemouth’s most productive player in this Championship campaign, which still has the small matter of the playoffs to deal with.
Danjuma, a full Dutch international capped twice in 2018, has operated mostly on the left-hand side this season for the Cherries. He formed strong partnerships with Dominic Solanke and in particular Philip Billing, whom he combined with for five goals – the most by a Bournemouth duo. Danjuma is an excellent dribbler and likes to cut in from the left to fire off shots at will, and what a rocket of a shot it is too. Indeed, no player registered more carries ending with a goal in the Championship this season than Danjuma (eight).
Danjuma’s tendency to commit defenders when in possession of the ball was a common trend in 2020-21, with the Cherries attacker recording the most carries that included a take-on past an opponent in the Championship (77).
Impressively, Danjuma scored 15 Championship goals from an expected goals total of just 7.5, netting over seven goals more than the average player would’ve been expected to score. This was the best positive differential in the competition.
Championship 2020-21: Best xG/Goal differential:
Overall, Danjuma had a hand in 22 Championship goals this season (15 goals, seven assists), with eight of those coming in April alone, a month in which he unsurprisingly won player of the month. Only striker Solanke (23) was involved in more goals for the Cherries in the regular campaign than Danjuma.
His value to this Bournemouth side is unquestionable. No Cherries player posted a higher expected assists total (5.9), scored more goals (15), created more chances (50) or attempted more dribbles (143) than Danjuma this season. It suggests that not only was Danjuma a key creative spark for the club, but the standard of those chances created were impactful.
Like the aforementioned Olise, Danjuma was named in the Championship team of the season. He was the only Bournemouth outfielder to make the select XI, and should the club fail to win promotion via the playoffs, it will be hard for top-flight teams to ignore Danjuma’s numbers and performances from 2020-21.
Next up off the famed Brentford production line could be the ever-improving Bryan Mbeumo. In 2019-20,Mbeumo was part of the much-praised B.M.W. trio that helped fire Brentford to the playoffs, although they narrowly missed out on promotion. While Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa) and Saïd Benrahma (West Ham) secured lucrative moves to the Premier League, Mbeumo stayed with the Bees for the 2020-21 season. However, such has been his form across the last two seasons, the tricky attacker could well follow suit and attract top-flight interest.
Mbeumo signed for Brentford in August 2019 from Troyes for £5.8 million and his output in England’s second tier has been remarkable for one relatively young and adapting to life in a new country and style of football. Since the start of last season, he has had a hand in 41 goals and assists in the Championship (inc. playoffs), which is the most by any U21 player in this period. And it’s not even close:
Championship since August 2019: Most Goal Involvements by players aged 21 or under:
At the Championship level and above, it’s not uncommon to see a plethora of advanced forwards or wingers with pace and trickery, but a trait that separates Mbeumo is his ability to play with his head up. His consistency in finding the right pass to hurt defences suggests he can play at a higher level. Mbeumo, who is capped at U21 level for France, provides both a goalscoring threat and creative spark for the Bees and has created the second-most chances for them in the Championship this season (56).
Mbeumo’s numbers are exciting, especially when you put them into context and realise that those figures arise from mostly playing out wide. A player with both pace and power, the young Frenchman’s keen eye for a defence-splitting pass and a howitzer of a shot have contributed to him becoming one of the most feared attackers in the division. No Brentford player has provided more Championship assists this season (10). Take it back further and no Bees player has produced more since start of last season (17). He has created the joint-second most big chances for the Bees (nine) this season and has the highest expected assists total (6.7), furthering the notion that his chance creation is of a high standard.
Mbeumo, who won the October Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month award, has had a fine career at Brentford thus far and could well cap it off nicely with promotion this month. Overall, only Ivan Toney (41) has more goals and assists for the Bees in the Championship this season than Mbeumo (18 – eight goals, 10 assists), so it came as no surprise to see him nominated for EFL Player of the Year. With his stock continuing to rise, Mbeumo will no doubt be playing at a higher level sooner rather than later.
Since joining Barnsley in June 2019 from Horsens, Mads Andersen has featured in 84 of Barnsley’s 92 Championship fixtures and was the only Barnsley player to appear in all 46 games in 2020-21, a campaign in which they secured a playoff spot for the first time at this level since 1999-00.
A towering 6-foot-5 presence at centre back, the 23-year-old Dane has made great strides in his development from Year 1 to Year 2 with the Tykes, becoming a much more assured defensive figure at the back, while forming an excellent partnership with Barnsley’s player of the year Michał Helik. For the most part, Barnsley have operated with three centre backs with Andersen situated on the left of the three and his defensive numbers have been outstanding.
In the air, Andersen’s dominance is undeniable, with the Danish defender making more headed clearances (139) than any other Championship player this season, while he has also won 417 aerial duels, which is the most for a defender in the second tier this term.
Andersen has made more interceptions (113) than any other player across the whole of the Championship in 2020-21, indicating his ability to read the play and make important interventions for his side.
He has also cleaned up the defensive errors in his game. In 2019-20, Andersen committed four errors leading directly to a goal, which was twice as many as any other Barnsley player. However, in 2020-21, Andersen has registered only one error leading to a goal in 46 games, which shows an encouraging progression.
Looking at the data, there might be question marks over his passing ability and whether he’s suited for a Premier League side. Andersen completed just 55% of his passes in the Championship this campaign, although that could be a result of Barnsley’s unique playing style under Valérien Ismaël, which does not encourage centre backs playing out from the back, rather than Andersen’s inability to pass proficiently (he completed 68% of his passes in 2019-20).
An attractive part of Andersen’s game for onlooking managers is his prowess in the opposition’s penalty box. Andersen is a real threat from attacking set pieces and often makes first contact to either direct the ball into a teammate’s path or attempt a shot himself. He has been a reliable weapon in Barnsley’s armoury this season. Andersen has had six goal involvements, scoring once and assisting five times.
In fact, his total of five assists is the most by a Championship centre back in 2020-21. Four of his five assists have come directly from set-piece situations, while his assist for Daryl Dike against Wycombe in March, although considered open play, saw Andersen hold his position in the box and he was able to steer the ball into the scorer’s path.
Andersen’s raw physical traits and vast improvements in his short time at Barnsley makes him an enticing prospect and, at just 23, there’s still time for more development. His defensive numbers suggest a player already comfortable with the defensive side of the game, and with the right manager and coaching, it’s not unreasonable to think he could become a more polished player on the ball, which will be a key factor in whether he can flourish at the next level.