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CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW PART ONE

8 September 2020

Part one of our in-depth look at the opposition we face this coming season in the Sky Bet Championship.

 

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

Nickname: The Cherries

Stadium: The Vitality

Capacity: 11,364

Manager: Jason Tindall

Last season: 18th in the Premier League 

 

The Reds will face a recently relegated Bournemouth side for the first time since 2014 after the Cherries' notable five year stay in the Premier League came to an end following the conclusion of the delayed 2019/2020 season.

Despite putting up a reputable fight on the final day with a 3-1 win against Everton, it was too little too late for Eddie Howe’s side as Aston Villa’s last-gasp 1-1 draw with West Ham saw them escape the drop, leaving a thwarted Bournemouth in 18th and relegated by just one point. 

After starting the campaign brightly, the injury hit Cherries began to slump down the table from a promising seventh in November to the relegation zone by January and were involved in a dogfight to stay up for the first time in their Premier League history, having only won one of six matches during the busy festive period. 

Bournemouth’s poor performances continued after Christmas and when the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to proceedings in March, the Cherries were still occupying the bottom three. 

Project restart got the go ahead in June, but Bournemouth’s struggles went on and they won just one of their nine remaining matches which ultimately led to their relegation back to the Sky Bet Championship.  

Since then, the Cherries have parted ways with long-serving manager Eddie Howe and replaced him with former fan-favourite Jason Tindall, as they look to rebuild the foundations at The Vitality in an attempt to regain instant promotion back to the top-flight.  

With Josh King leading the attack, Bournemouth will be a force to be reckoned with going forward, but the losses of Nathan Ake in central defence, England striker Callum Wilson and Aaron Ramsdale in goal could be pivotal and may leave them vulnerable at the back this season. 

Norwegian forward King will arguably be one of the Sky Bet Championship’s most exciting players in 2020/21 having impressed massively during Bournemouth’s stay in the Premier League. 

The striker netted a total of 48 times in England’s first division and will be eager to fire the Cherries to promotion this campaign. 

The 28-year-old began his career at boyhood club Manchester United, but found his chances limited after a number of different loan spells saw him fall out of favour with the first team. He then made the permanent switch to fellow Lancashire club Blackburn Rovers in 2013, where he went on appear 56 times before being snapped up by Bournemouth in 2015. 

King has been a regular in the Cherries side since then and is known for his speed and his prolific record with penalties. 

There have been very few meetings between the Reds and Bournemouth over recent years. The last was in March 2014, where big defender Steve Cook’s last-minute winner saw the Cherries come away with all three points at Oakwell. 

However, it can be said that this has been a good fixture for Bournemouth, who are currently on a five-match unbeaten run against Barnsley, a record the Reds will be looking to put a stop to when they face each other for the first time in six years in December. 

 

 

BIRMINGHAM CITY

Nickname: The Blues

Stadium: St Andrew’s

Capacity: 29,409

Manager: Aitor Karanka

Last season: 20th

 

Having only just scraped survival on the final day of the season thanks to other results going their way, Birmingham City will be keen to improve on last year’s dismal league standing of 20th.  

It was a difficult campaign for Blues, who saw themselves fighting to avoid relegation after they plummeted down the table during the second half of the season having struggled to muster any sort of winning run since February. Head Coach Pep Clotet began the season in charge after landing the Blues job permanently in the summer following the step up from assistant manager. 

He began his rein brilliantly, winning four and drawing one of his first eight matches, picking up a total of 13 points in the process. By October, Birmingham were sitting pretty near the top half, thinking about possibly pushing on for a playoff spot, however a run of six games without a win during December saw them quickly fade away. 

Three consecutive victories in February saw Birmingham start to pick up the pace once again, but as the coronavirus struck and we endured four months of lockdown from March until June, the Blues couldn’t carry on from where they left off when the season got back underway. 

With five games played post lockdown, Birmingham acquired just two points from a possible 15 which brought them rapidly into relegation contention and Clotet left the club by mutual consent in July. Steve Spooner and Craig Gardner were put in caretaker charge for the reminder of the season, but results didn’t change and despite losing their final game 3-1 against Derby County, the Blues narrowly escaped relegation.

Since then, established Sky Bet Championship manager Aitor Karanka has been drafted in with the hope of changing the club’s fortunes around as they attempt to get back to winning ways in 2020/21. 

Having been in and around the league for seven years with the likes of Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, Karanka has a good track record in the Sky Bet Championship and has promotion to his name with the Boro in 2016. 

His success has been built on a highly defensive, analytical approach to games with the aim of keeping the opposition out; something Blues found challenging for the majority of 2019/20 with just seven clean sheets to their name. 

At times, his style of play can be regarded as rather conservative and uninspiring and with the loss of teenage sensation Jude Bellingham to Borussia Dortmund, Birmingham may struggle to find goals going forward, but do expect to see Karanka’s triumphs assemble from a newly reassured back line as the Blues look to turn defence into attack this campaign. 

Lukas Jutkiewicz has been at the forefront of Blues' attacking presence since joining the club in 2016. 

The forward won the club’s golden boot award last season, finishing with 15 goals, eight ahead of his nearest challenger Scott Hogan. 

Jutkiewicz started his senior career with Swindon in 2006, before a move to Everton in the Premier League a year later. However, things didn’t quite work out for him at Goodison Park as he was shipped out on loan to Plymouth Argyle, Huddersfield Town and Motherwell. 

In 2010, the attacker joined Coventry on a permanent deal before another loan move saw him go to Middlesbrough, where he eventually made the switch. 

Four years later, Jutkiewicz was handed another chance in the Premier League when Burnley came knocking, but he failed to register a single goal for the club, so in 2016, he moved to Birmingham, where he has found comfort ever since. 

Jutkiewicz will be looking forward to linking up with manager Aitor Karanka again as he hopes to bolster his goalscoring record, following their time together at Middlesbrough in 2014.

Blues did the double over Barnsley last season without conceding a single goal. The first meeting took place at St Andrew’s where Birmingham ran out as 2-0 winners in August and the reverse fixture saw Scott Hogan notch the only goal of the game in a 1-0 victory at Oakwell. 

Despite that blip, the Reds have a decent record against the Blues and were unbeaten in their previous five prior to last season. Barnsley’s last success came in a 2-0 away win at Birmingham in February 2018, when Ollie McBurnie’s first-half brace secured all three points. Barnsley will be looking to return to put last season’s defeats behind them when they face Birmingham in December and March. 

 

 

BLACKBURN ROVERS

Nickname: Rovers

Stadium: Ewood Park

Capacity: 31, 367

Manager: Tony Mowbray

Last season: 11th

 

Blackburn’s second consecutive season in the Sky Bet Championship was a solid one and after their mid-table finish, they will be looking to continue their momentum into 20/21.

Tony Mowbray has been the man in the dugout at Ewood Park for over three seasons now and since leading them to promotion back to the Sky Bet Championship in 2018, has established Rovers as one of the league’s most difficult sides to break down. 

With 12 clean sheets in 46 matches, Mowbray’s tactics involve stopping the opposition by keeping possession using a clever and fluid 4-2-3-1 formation to great use which gives freedom around the midfield five to allow them float in between the lines and interchange with one another to create chances for the lone striker to pounce whether that be Adam Armstrong or Sam Gallagher. 

However, it didn’t all go to plan for Mowbray’s side. They opened the campaign with two back-to-back defeats against Charlton and Fulham respectively, before they eventually began to put their foot down with a win in the first round of the Carabao Cup against League One opposition Oldham Athletic which kickstarted their season into action.

They went on to lose just two of their next eight matches, firmly putting themselves in a good league position by October. Rovers fine form continued throughout November, December and into the new year, but they began to tail off just before the league was put on pause in March. 

Following the restart, Mowbray’s side only picked up three wins from their nine remaining matches, which saw them cement themselves in mid-table and no better come the end of the 2019/20 campaign. 

Looking ahead to 2020/21, Blackburn have good foundations in place to build on last season. With the likes of Bradley Johnson, Joe Rothwell, Bradley Dack, Lewis Holtby and Elliott Bennett, Rovers have plenty of attacking purpose in midfield, so look out for the number of goals Mowbray’s midfielders will score this season. 

Captain, Dack is without a doubt one of Blackburn’s most outstanding players. Operating as an attacking midfielder, the 26-year-old likes to adopt a free role behind the two strikers and in the final third, likes to go and pick up the ball, get into good positions to create and score plenty of goals.

The midfielder got into double figures with his goal tally last season, notching ten, seven behind Blackburn’s leading goalscorer and former Reds-loanee Armstrong, before injury cut short his campaign.

Dack started his career at Gillingham, where he spent a total of five years, racking up 160 appearances, before Blackburn came in for him. He has been with the club since 2017 and is enjoying a fruitful spell at Ewood Park picking up a number of awards on the way which has made him one of the first on the teamsheet. 

Barnsley have a decent record against Blackburn of late, winning three of the last four meetings in all competitions. 

The Reds most recently beat Rovers 2-0 at Oakwell in June following the restart. Conor Chaplin and Jacob Brown’s second half goals sealed the win before Ben Brereton received a straight red card, reducing the away side to ten men. 

However, back in November, it was Blackburn who came out victorious, as Dack’s 86th minute strike proved to be the difference in a 3-2 win for Rovers, despite the Reds twice fighting back in an attempt to salvage something from the game. 

 

 

BRENTFORD

Nickname: The Bees

Stadium: Brentford Community Stadium

Capacity: 17,250

Manager: Thomas Frank

Last season: 3rd

 

Following heartbreak in the playoff final, Brentford will be out for revenge as they continue their quest for promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. 

The Bees were left stunned by two extra time goals from Fulham’s Joe Bryan just a few weeks ago as they fell to a narrow 2-1 defeat at Wembley. Henrik Dalsgaard’s added time consolation wasn’t good enough for Thomas Frank’s side, who fell at the final hurdle after blowing their chances of automatic promotion following a 2-1 loss at home to Barnsley on the final day, who put in an exquisite performance in the last ever game at Griffin Park. 

However, with a new ground comes a new beginning and the Bees will be hoping to feel the buzz from their brand-new state of the art Brentford Community Stadium, which is set to hold 17,250 fans who would love to see their side inaugurate a new era with promotion. 

To do that, the Bees must go at least one better than they did last season; it was a case of being so close yet so far.

A slow start to the campaign halted their progress early on and may have proven decisive come the end of the 2019/20. The Bees could only muster one win from their opening six matches in all competitions which included an early exit in round one of the Carabao Cup at the hands of League Two opposition Cambridge United. 

By the end of September, Frank had finally got his team in motion and the misfiring Bees eventually started to get themselves on the scoreboard after only notching three goals in their opening six games. 

However, it wasn’t until the new year when Brentford really started to pile on the pressure. A run of only two defeats in 12 games catapulted them into the playoffs and brought them within touching distance of the leading pack. 

After lockdown, Brentford’s incredible form resumed as they went on to win the next seven consecutive matches before two back-to-back defeats against Stoke and Barnsley ended the season and shunted their chances of automatic promotion. 

They would go on to defeat Swansea 1-0 in the playoff semi-finals before losing out to fellow West Londoners Fulham in the final. 

As we gear up for the start of the 20/21 season, under the leadership of Frank, Brentford will be an exciting team to watch with their high-press, play-out from the back mentality.  

Frank enjoys deploying his team in a 4-3-3 formation, giving the full-backs encouragement to bomb down the flanks allowing for wingers to cut inside and make a total of five players in attack at any given time. 

With the likes of Said Benrahma, Ivan Toney, Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canos operating across the front line, Barnsley will have be wary of their quick press and counter attack ability this season, but on the other hand, the Reds will be able to get joy and results against the Bees by frustrating them and  successful keeping possession to drag players out of position which leaves them short at the back. 

Last season’s star man at Griffin Park was probably Benrahma. 

The Algerian maestro is a delightful player to watch when he's on his game. And boy was he on his game during Brentford's run to the playoffs last term.

Barnsley have a fantastic record against Brentford and have only lost one game against them since 2016. 

Young duo Callum Styles and Clarke Oduor’s first goals for the club saw the Reds clinch safety with that spectacular 2-1 win against the Bees on the final day of the season. Styles’ opening strike was cancelled out by Josh Dasilva in the second half, but Oduor’s fantastic first-time finish right at the death snatched victory as the Reds secured their stay in the Sky Bet Championship. 

Barnsley will be hoping to continue their fine form against the Bees when they face each other in November and February. 

 

 

BRISTOL CITY

Nickname: The Robins

Stadium: Ashton Gate

Capacity: 27,000

Manager: Dean Holden

Last season: 12th

 

The Robins will start 20/21 with a new head coach in Dean Holden following the sacking of former Reds boss Lee Johnson in early July after a run of just one win in ten league games saw the playoffs slip through their fingers. 

That poor run cost Bristol City, who finished the campaign in a disappointing 12th, seven points adrift of the final playoff spot.

The season started promisingly for the Robins, as they looked poised to be contenders for promotion after 15 games, losing just two matches in the process. 

However, they began to hit a stumbling block near Christmas when four defeats on the spin was backed with an FA Cup fourth round exit to League One Shrewsbury Town and around the same time Bristol City started to slide down the Sky Bet Championship table. 

It didn’t get much better for the Robins in the new year, as they won five matches from January to March before the coronavirus pandemic stopped all play until mid-June. 

After the restart, Johnson was relieved of his duties following Bristol City’s 1-0 defeat to Cardiff, with Holden taking the reins from immediate effect as caretaker manager for the remaining five matches. The interim manager had a good return with results, picking up a total of eight points from 15 available to consolidate the Robins in mid-table.

That proved to be enough for Holden to land the job full-time, as he gears up to start his first top managerial job since he left Oldham Athletic in 2015. 

It’ll be interesting to see the tactics that Holden will deploy in 20/21, but going by the final five games of last season, he may look to use a 3-3-2-2 system, operating with wing-backs, three in central midfield and two forwards who like to attack the defence in Andreas Weimann and Jamie Paterson. 

Bristol City will look to keep possession, pass the ball and hit teams on the break. If Barnsley can use their attack from the front mentality and high press, they could have some joy winning the ball back in dangerous areas.  

The Robind have added some interesting new signings, but Swedish international Niclas Eliasson will be one of Bristol City’s main men this season with his creative ability on the ball. 

Eliasson is known for his crossing ability. He uses this to great effect against defenders as he can successfully cross the ball in tight areas. His preferred foot is his left; however, he can comfortably use his weaker foot as well.

This was reflected in the number of assists he had to his name in 2019/20. Chipping in with a total of 12, Eliasson was third on the goal creation list behind only Jed Wallace and Matheus Pereira. 

The midfielder will be hoping to top the charts at the end of this season. 

The Reds have a poor record against Bristol City and haven’t beaten them in any competition since 2012; that’s a total of nine games without a win. 

The Robins picked up four points against Barnsley last season, with a 1-0 win at Ashton Gate in January and a 2-2 at Oakwell in November. 

The last time Barnsley beat Bristol City, Jacob Mellis scored the only goal of the game in a narrow 1-0 victory in September 2012. 

The Reds will be hoping to put a stop to this record when they face the Robins in October and February.

 

 

CARDIFF CITY

Nickname: The Bluebirds

Stadium: Cardiff City Stadium

Capacity: 33,316

Manager: Neil Harris

Last Season: 5th

 

Manager Neil Harris will be looking to take Cardiff City one better this season after narrowly missing out on a quick return to the Premier League following a playoff semi-final defeat to Fulham in July. 

After relegation from the Premier League at the end of 2018/19, last season was one of anticipation for Cardiff fans with the hope of a prompt return to the top flight.

However, the campaign didn’t start the way it was expected. A tough first couple of months saw only a handful of wins which in turn saw the long-serving Neil Warnock resign and be replaced by Harris in November with the club only 13th in the table. 

Under Harris, things started to look up, the Bluebirds looked refreshed and rejuvenated, losing only once until the end of December and before the coronavirus crisis stopped the season, Cardiff were looking healthy close to the playoffs. 

After the restart, Harris’ side picked up an impressive 22 points as they mounted a late surge into the top-six, enough to push them into fifth come the end of the season. 

That set up a tie with Fulham, but after a 2-0 defeat in the first leg, it was always going to be difficult to overturn that deficit, but a valiant effort saw the Bluebirds win the reverse fixture 2-1 as they were knocked out by an aggregate score of 3-2. 

However, with a full season under Harris to look forward to, Cardiff will be expected to challenge once again. 

The Bluebirds like to line-up with a 4-4-1-1 formation, operating with far more width and attacking power than they did under Warnock. 

Warnock’s style was always bloody and thunder and while Harris harnessed some of that wholeheartedness, the style of play has evolved to being far more passing-orientated with the wing backs given a licence to bomb forward.

It will likely be a continuation of that game plan looking ahead to 20/21, they try to play the ball on the floor a lot more but are also keen to get it to the dangerous wingers and Lee Tomlin as quickly as possible to do the damage.

However, playing an open style comes with its dangers. To get a result against the Bluebirds, Barnsley can use their pace and counter attack ability to great effect when the Cardiff wing backs go forward. 

Lee Tomlin has been given the free role to operate as the central attacking midfielder just behind the lone striker under Harris and looks set to continue his form this season. 

Having struggled to get in the side when he first joined the Bluebirds in 2017, Tomlin has now been reaping the rewards for his patience. 

With magic in his boots and a terrific football brain, Tomlin netted nine times and assisted ten over the course of 2019/20 and will be hoping to add more to that tally this campaign.

Barnsley’s record against Cardiff isn’t a good one. The Reds have only mustered three wins in over ten years, the last of which was in December 2016. 

Sam Winnall’s brace, a goal from Josh Scowen and last-minute winner from Ryan Williams were enough to see off the Bluebirds that day in 4-3 victory, despite Sean Morrison, Peter Whittingham and Anthony Pilkington all scoring for Cardiff.  

Since then, the Reds have only picked up one point, as it’s been Cardiff who have had the better of this fixture of late. 

The Bluebirds won both meetings last year, winning 3-2 on home soil, before defeating the Reds 2-0 at Oakwell in March.

 

PART TWO COMING UP TOMORROW!

 


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