How are our Championship predictions shaping up now that we’re five games into the season? We look at the Opta supercomputer’s latest numbers.
On the eve of the 2023-24 EFL Championship season, we analysed 10,000 season simulations via the Opta supercomputer to assess the most likely teams to win promotion, finish within the top six and be relegated to League One. We’re now five matchdays into the campaign, so after a total 60 matches of ‘real data’ fed into the supercomputer, how do the projections look now?
Back on 31 July, the Opta supercomputer tried to predict the seemingly unpredictable, with the 10,000 pre-season simulations showing that 23 of the 24 sides won automatic promotion at least once, while every single team was relegated at least once across the sims. Very few would have predicted Preston North End would top the league at the first international break, while it’s unlikely anyone would have had Middlesbrough bottom of the Championship after five games.
Yes, of course we’re only just over a tenth of the way through the season and much will change over the following nine months of the campaign. However, it’s a nice opportunity to see how every team’s start to the Championship season has effected our predictions. Here, we run you through the key results of the Opta supercomputer Championship 2023-24 simulations as they stand on 8 September, during the first international break of the season.
The Contenders for Automatic Promotion
Preston North End sit atop the Championship table after five matches, with 13 points secured out of a possible 15. Pre-season, the Opta supercomputer simulations saw them average 62.3 points over the season, and with Ryan Lowe’s side already 21% of the way there, it’s had to reset expectations… quite a bit.
After finishing 12th last season, the pre-season simulations expected about another mid-table finish for the Lancashire side, predicting them to end 16th. As it stands now, they won automatic promotion at the end of the season 27.0% of the time, which is below only favourites Leicester City (52.7%), who follow them in the table by just a point. Preston’s percentage increase of automatic promotion from pre-season to now is 24.5%; the biggest jump of all 24 teams. This has been Preston’s best start to a second-tier season since 1928-29, when they also won four and drew one of their opening five games.
The Championship is a hard league to play in. No team have won their opening five games in a season within it since Cardiff City in 2016-17, while only three other teams have done this since 1991-92 (Newcastle in 1992-93, Barnsley in 1996-97 and Fulham in 2000-01) – all four of those won automatic promotion that season. Two of the last six teams to win exactly 13 points from their opening five league games have won automatic promotion (and won the league) – Fulham in 2021-22 and Leeds in 2019-20, but recent reasons have also seen false dawns. Bristol City ended 19th in 2020-21 after starting as well as Preston have this season, while West Brom ended 2021-22 in 10th place after securing 13 points from their opening five matches.
Leicester City won their opening four games of the Championship season following their relegation from the Premier League last term. They were just the eighth team to manage that in the Championship this century, but less than half (three) of the previous seven to do so went on to seal a top six finish in that campaign. They suffered a smash-and-grab defeat to Hull City at home on Matchday 5, but their performances so far suggest a strong season for the Foxes in their quest to return to the top flight.
The league’s highest goalscorers, Norwich City (14 goals), are the only other side now given higher than 20% chance of winning automatic promotion (20.7%), with the Canaries averaging two points per game so far. Keep that rate up and they have a good chance – none of the 23 teams to win 92+ points in a second-tier season in the three-points-for-a-win era have failed to finish inside the top two at the end of the campaign.
Their rivals Ipswich Town have started the season in fine fashion, winning four of their five games and only losing once – to a strong Leeds United side at Portman Road. They also won 12 points from their opening five Championship games in 2017-18 and ended that season slap bang in the middle of the table (12th). Other than Preston’s jump of 12.4, Ipswich’s seasonal points projection has increased the most – moving from 56.6 pre-season to 67.5 now.
One team not expected to win automatic promotion now are pre-season favourites Middlesbrough, however…
Well, We Didn’t Expect That…
Across our 10,000 pre-season simulations, Middlesbrough won automatic promotion more often than any other team (33.4%), as well as having the highest average points tally across the 46-game season across our simulations (75.8). The Opta supercomputer has had to react to Michael Carrick’s side winning a measly one point from the opening five games of the 2023-24 season – something that few people would have expected.
Of all 24 Championship teams, Middlesbrough’s predicted points tally has dropped the most – falling to 59.7, which is a drop of 16.1 points per simulation on average. Their chance of automatic promotion has fallen from 33.4% to an astonishing 0.9%, while they finished in the top six in just 832 of the 10,000 simulations – much lower than the 6,864 before a ball was kicked in 2023-24.
No side in the history of the English Football League has won automatic promotion from the second tier having picked up just one point from their opening five games of the season. But don’t despair, Boro fans – there is some hope. Both Nottingham Forest in 2021-22 and Coventry City in 2022-23 won a single point from their opening five games of the season and ended the season at Wembley in the Championship play-off final – Forest even winning promotion to the Premier League. It can be done.
As well as Preston (+12.4) and Ipswich Town (+10.8), other teams to see a big rise in their average points won over the 10,000 Opta supercomputer simulations are Birmingham City (+10.1) and Hull City (+8.0), with both clubs sitting within the top six after five games. Can they end the season there, though? The supercomputer is giving Hull a decent chance of doing just that, with a 38.2% chance of finishing in the top six – the seventh-highest chance. Birmingham City are deemed less likely at 17.1%, but this is a 14.9% improvement on pre-season (2.2%).
Ahead of a ball being kicked in 2023-24, John Eustace’s side were actually the third-most frequently relegated side in our pre-season Opta supercomputer simulations, ending inside the bottom three in 3,190 of the 10,000 sims. With five games of real data from 2023-24 helping power its decisions, the Opta supercomputer’s 10,000 simulations saw Birmingham relegated just 438 times.
The Relegation Fight
With Birmingham seemingly under less threat of relegation than previously thought, which clubs are now predicted to fall to League One at the end of the season?
Bad news Sheffield Wednesday fans – it’s you. The Owls ended the season with relegation in 74.7% of the Opta supercomputer’s predictions during this international break, which is a bottom three finish in nearly three quarters of the simulations. Pre-season, Sheffield Wednesday’s chances of the drop were at 31.2%, which was below Birmingham (31.9%), Plymouth (33.8%) and Queens Park Rangers (62.0%).
With one point from five games, this is Wednesday’s worst start to a league campaign since 2007-08 in the Championship, when they hadn’t won a single point at this stage. However, on that occasion, they recovered to finish 16th.
Queens Park Rangers weren’t given much hope of avoiding relegation by the Opta supercomputer before the season had begun, with a league-high 62.0% chance of being relegated. Those relegation fears wouldn’t have been helped by a dreadful 4-0 defeat at Watford on the opening day, either.
However, since then, Gareth Ainsworth has produced some decent results and his QPR side have collected six points – one more than at this stage last season, when they ended the campaign in 20th position.
Their chance of dropping to League One is now at 45.3%, which is lower than Rotherham (47.3%) and Sheffield Wednesday (74.7%). They even won the league four times across the 10,000 Opta supercomputer simulations – something they didn’t manage to do at all in the pre-season sims. Dream on, Hoops’ fans.