Rivals Assessed: The Race For Second

Cameron Ramsey 24th February 2018

The race for second and the play-off positions is really hotting up as we head towards the final quarter of the season. Cam Ramsey is joined by stats guru Nick McNee to assess how our four main promotion rivals are shaping up.

13 games remain in the 2017-18 Championship campaign. 13 paramount, climactic encounters which will shape, form and justify Fulham’s push for promotion to the Premier League, and Slavisa Jokanovic will have to keep his men firing on all cylinders, right until the very last blow of the referee’s whistle on May 6th, when Fulham travel north to St Andrews for one last dance.

The Whites, come the final tie of the term, could well have secured a return to the big time alongside run-away leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers, but what about the rest of the chasing pack in the play-off places? Which fixtures in their schedule could pose a problem for their respective search for supremacy?

Naturally, our attention is solely fixated on Fulham’s progression, and though we’re currently 5th with 56 points and on a superb unbeaten streak which has stood for 12 matches domestically, here’s how and where the other vying promotion contenders could prosper or indeed flounder as the schedule whittles down to the very last kick.

Cardiff City – 2nd, 64 pts

Cardiff City are sitting pretty in 2nd, meaning that as it stands they hold advantage over the second and last automatic promotion place, but there’s still a very, very long way to go in this race yet. Neil Warnock’s done wonders with the Bluebirds and though they’ve been highly underwhelming is spates and spells, the Welsh club have proven their metal throughout the course of the season to date.

Although Fulham did expertly exhibit the flaws in Cardiff’s strategy on Boxing Day, a 4-2 drubbing at the Cardiff City Stadium which highlighted the damning fact that they can be severely punished, especially on the counter attack. Warnock’s defensive ranks are usually a tough unit to break, however Derby County, Wolves and Aston Villa will all ask unwavering questions of their own across the turf.

Cardiff, ultimately, are there to be scoped and shot at, and if they’re to maintain their privileged position they’ll have to grow observant, vigilant eyes in the back of their heads in all departments, as it’s much easier to hound than it is to evade. Seen as a fairly one dimensional set-up, Cardiff will also have to innovate in their approach, because as ‘Slav’s’ boys demonstrated, they’re a predictable, ordinary club which crumbles in the face of provocation.

Nick’s view: While much has been made of Cardiff’s defence, no doubt thanks to Warnock’s reputation, their attack is no slouch. The Bluebirds have taken the most shots in their opponent’s six yard box this season, five more than league leaders Wolves. Say what you want about Warnock but he always puts his teams in the best possible position to thrive in the league.

Aston Villa – 3rd, 60 pts

(Photo: Rex Features)

Having been swept aside by the mighty Whites on February 17th, Aston Villa’s confidence took a hefty knock and after their whimpering defeat at the Cottage, Steve Bruce’s men continued to drop precious points in their pursuit of 2nd spot with a 1-1 draw against Preston North End, who tail the play-off places in 9th.

Every squad suffers a lacklustre spate during the season and before Villa’s trip to south-west London they were unbeaten in 7 matches, although their rich, effective quality should never be taken lightly. Villa’s next meeting is at Hillsborough against a struggling Sheffield Wednesday and a victory could be a catalyst for a fresh string of dominant performances as Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland await them after their clash with the Owls.

Bruce’s battalion are tenacious, and they’ll have to remain obsessed with success on the pitch as they still have to face table-topping Wolves, Cardiff and Derby. Imposing outfits, however given the size and stature of Villa, they should be readily equipped for battle under immense pressure – Villa’s following at CC was a credit to the Birmingham-based fallen giant, and those competing on the pitch will need their supporters to spur them onward.

Nick’s view: Steve Bruce has made much of Villa’s absence of Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah and he’s right to bemoan their accent. Combined, Grealish and Adomah account for just under four shots and four key passes per 90 for Aston Villa, a huge chunk of their attacking output.  Bruce will badly need these players in their run-in as it is rated as the trickiest out of the playoff teams currently: the combined average expected goal differential of the final 10 teams they play stands at 2.39, compared to Fulham’s -1.86.

Derby County – 4th, 59 pts

One solitary point separates Derby County and Villa, a margin which signifies just how close it truly is at the summit of the table. Though Derby are an imposing name in the top 6, they haven’t been at the top of their game recently as drawing appears to be typical of their form, although they hold the Championship’s deadliest offensive weapon.

Matej Vydra is the league’s top-scorer with 17 goals under his belt, and if defences wish to stunt the Czech’s prolific tally they’ll be wise to tackle the objective with utmost care and respect for his profound services in-front of the target. Next up for the Rams is one of Vydra’s former employers, Reading, who languish 18th in the table under Jaap Stam’s flaccid command.

Gary Rowett is renowned for his galvanisation and has transformed Derby into a staunch, rigorous regiment, although a collection of pivotal skirmishes are still to be confronted. Fulham, Wolves, Preston, Middlesbrough and Villa are all capable of nabbing victories from Derby’s clutches, opponents which will undoubtedly fight to the death to ensure that they emerge with an invaluable scalp.

Nick’s view: Derby have followed the path that Birmingham went down when they were under the management of Gary Rowett and defied the data to a small extent: their expected goal different is approximately 16 goals worse than what their actual goal difference stands at currently! While they haven’t reached Reading-esque levels of goal difference overperformance (roughly 25 goals), their recent results (seven points from their last six games) suggest that their regression to the mean has been coming. There is certainly a chance for Fulham to overtake them over the next thirteen games or so.

Bristol City – 6th, 54 pts

(Photo: Rex Features)

Long throws, lofted balls and rugged tackles are synonymous to Bristol City’s factory blueprint, and as Fulham indeed discovered on Wednesday evening at Ashton Gate, they’re a frustratingly bothersome, rallied collective to conquer on their day, despite their somewhat primitive, tedious style of play.

Cardiff are next in line for Lee Johnson and his squad and a win is potentially imperative to their survival in the top 6, although as they’ve already stomached fixtures against the current play-off seeds, a mix of mid-table and basement outfits account for their remaining appointments this term, though nothing is ever as straight forward as it should be in the Championship, that’s for definite.

Those directly below Bristol in Preston, Ipswich Town, Brentford, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United are all eyeballing the Robins’ position and they’re all yet to be greeted by Johnson and co. and as the weeks go by the burden of withstanding the amounting tension from the tracking teams could snap Bristol’s composure, if they’re to befall an opponent which is determined to outwit them tactically in possession amongst other prominent, essential factors of the modern game.

Nick’s view: Bristol City surprised us on Wednesday with their switch of style of play to favour long ball and the passing stats certainly reflect this. Surprisingly, Reading are the team only team that play more accurate long balls (39.8) than Bristol City (36.8) do. Has this led to an overall improvement? Well, since the start of the new year, Bristol City’s attack is averaging 1.33xG for per game… but their defence is leaking tremendously more: conceding 1.62xG per game. Lee Johnson will certainly have much on his mind after the Fulham and will be desperate to halt this run.