The Championship is often seen as one of the most exciting and unpredictable leagues in the world. It seems to grow in strength every year and the number of teams able to spend significant amounts of money increases, as Premier League parachute payments and wealthy owners aiming to reach the top flight come in and have to spend to have any chance of staying ahead of their rivals. In total 29 players have been signed by Championship clubs in 2016/17 for a fee of over £3m – compare this to 2015/16 when 18 were signed for this value or above and 2014/15 when only 11 were signed.
This makes for a highly competitive division and it seems to be shaping up to be no different during the final couple of months this year.
Newcastle and Brighton were early favourites for promotion and have been the top two since 22/10/16 – rarely dropping out of these places since then. Huddersfield have been the surprise package and have done amazingly well to stay in the top six – especially given that they over performed hugely at the start of the season (see my earlier article here), Leeds have been consistent while Reading and Sheffield Wednesday both seem to be stuttering as the run in begins, with Fulham closing in on the final play off spot fast. While Preston have played themselves into contention they are real outsiders to make the top six, as are Norwich. It would take a major collapse from the teams above and great run of form for either team to still be in contention beyond the first weekend in May.
At the bottom end their have been a spate of managerial sackings recently as teams desperately try to avoid the drop to League 1. 11 of the 24 Championship clubs have a different manager to what they started the season with, something that is becoming a trend in recent years as patience is becoming of a rare luxury afforded by chairmen across the Football League.
Using StrataData we can start to pick up some trends, some key players and how vital they are to the team and which teams are over/underperforming as the race for key positions at both ends of the table intensifies.
I mentioned Newcastle and Brighton’s consistency and this has been the case for much of the season, with Newcastle having the best record and best goal difference on the road and Brighton having the best record and best goal difference when playing at home. Possibly the only reason why there is still a race for the automatic spots is Newcastle’s home form and Brighton’s away form. With weekend results seeing Leeds stay in with a very small chance, and Huddersfield’s heavy defeat at Bristol City meaning they must win their game in hand to close the gap, you wonder if automatic promotion would be sewn up if Newcastle didn’t have the worst home record in the top 6 and if Brighton had turned a couple of their away draws into wins.
A quick glance at the data and it will come as no surprise to see that Newcastle have created the 2nd most Total chances over the course of the season, while Brighton sit 5th. Fulham have been the most attractive team to watch in many people’s eyes and have created 496 chances in the 38 games played so far. The surprise package is Bristol City. Despite having made more chances than 2nd place Brighton they find themselves way down in 19th place in the table.
To dig into this, we need to look at the quality of chances being created.
While Fulham are creating more chances it’s clear that Newcastle are creating better quality chances, those we would expect them to convert at a higher average rate. There are a couple of outliers in the graphic that jump out straight away – Bristol City making the 4th most chances, despite needing a big win on Friday over Huddersfield to keep themselves out of the bottom 3, and how far down Leeds United (17th) and Reading (21st) are in this table. While Leeds have created a higher number of better quality chances compared to their overall total, nothing seems amiss about where Reading lie in comparison to the teams around them.
Something that stands out straight away is the number of Superb chances created by Bristol City – this is something I had noticed anecdotally but which the evidence backs up. Superb Chances are those which are usually those chances where any shot on target will result in a goal – for instance if the keeper has made a save but the rebound falls to an attacker in front of an open goal. The average conversion rate for these is around 75%, but they are extremely rare – Bristol City actually account for 14% of the entire division’s creation of Superb Chances. They also have a higher than average conversion rate for these, with 87%. But the number of chances they are making is still high – so they must be creating other levels of chances as well.
Here we start to get a little more understanding, with Reading and Leeds both converting their higher level chances at a much better than average rate. For Leeds especially this is key, as purely on created Chances in the range of Superb, Great or Very Good they ranked 9th, much higher than their overall Chance Creation position. So they create more high-level chances than average and convert them at a much higher rate – this is one factor explaining their high position in the table. Reading will go by a similar margin, though do create slightly less High-level chances overall.
So can we expect to see a drop-off in this? Yes, probably – though its very unlikely to be before the end of the season. A couple of articles recently have highlighted the need for a top quality striker who can score over 20 a season to make the Premier League – such as Leeds have in Chris Wood. The question remains if he gets injured, how would they cope in his absence?
At the other end, Bristol City find themselves bottom of the pile in terms of converting lower level chances. This probably goes a long way to explaining why they are so far down the table. While creating and converting Superb Chances is obviously no bad thing, the number of low-level chances compared to high-level chances over the whole league is roughly 4:1, so while it’s likely to be unsustainable to score a lot of Poor chances, it will boost you up the table. Norwich are a key example of this. Early in the season they scored a lot of Poor chances – think shots from outside the box that would not be expected to go in – but when this dropped off and the number of higher quality chances they could create didn’t sustain their league position, they went on a terrible run which has ultimately cost Alex Neill his job.
Aiming to focus a little more on what this means for the Play-Offs we consider the following.
Newcastle and Brighton look to be safe – they are consistently good and we wouldn’t expect them to drop enough points to end up outside the top two.
We’ll include Preston & Norwich, but it’s unlikely they will have the time or sustain the form needed to break into the top 6 with just 8 games left.
Taking the strength of schedule into account I ran a Monte Carlo simulation to look at how likely each team was to finish in the top 6
Newcastle and Brighton do look to be well clear and there appears to be little change on the surface. It is very tight for the final spot between Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, and with them meeting on the final day of the season everything could come down to this game. Reading’s victory at Hillsborough last week could be the critical result that sees them into the play offs. While this doesn’t tell the whole story, the % of finishing in each position gives a better idea over the 1,000 simulations done by the model.
This gives much more fluctuation on the final position and shows how much threat Fulham are causing to 6th spot. Reading have a 92% chance of making the top 6 and it really is almost 50/50 between Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, meaning any slip up from either could be costly, which both have done in the last couple of games.
The odds are reflective of this, with most giving Sheffield Wednesday the slight edge in a straight fight with Fulham for the final top six spot. The current odds have Sheffield Wednesday as 1.81 for a Top 6 Finish while Fulham are 1.90.
Norwich and Preston need close to a miracle to stay in contention but both play a series of games against their rivals so anything is possible, as these matches will have big implications if they can take positive results.
Personal opinion makes me edge with Fulham – this is purely due to the strength of squad they have, while Sheffield Wednesday are missing several key players and could be without them for the rest of the season (Kieran Lee, Sam Hutchinson, Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper to name 4).
At the end of the season I will use StrataBet’s cutting edge data to take a better look at which players have excelled over the course of the season and which have disappointed. In the mean time Ravi Mistry (@Scribblr_42) has produced some excellent work on the Championship using StrataData to produce a dashboard of chance locations for each team https://public.tableau.com/profile/scribblr.42#!/vizhome/StrataDashboardv1_2/PremierLeagueChances2016-17.