Continuing our in-depth look at the Reds' opposition this coming season in the Sky Bet Championship.
Nickname: The Lions
Stadium: The Den
Manager: Gary Rowett
Last season: 8th
After tailing off towards the backend of last season, Millwall will be hoping to secure themselves a playoff position in 2020/21 under manager Gary Rowett.
Since Rowett was appointed in October, he has turned Millwall from an average mid-table side into one that looked as though they could challenge for promotion in the Sky Bet Championship.
Under Neil Harris at the beginning of the campaign, Millwall started brightly and were unbeaten in their first three matches, but things quickly started to go downhill in September and Harris resigned after ten games following a run of eight matches without a win in all competitions.
Rowett, Millwall’s number one target, was drafted in to change the fortunes of the Lions and that he did, as Millwall went 13 games unbeaten all the way from November through to the end of January, which saw Millwall rise to within touching distance of the top-six.
However, they went on to win just two of their next nine matches before the coronavirus pandemic enforced a period of lockdown.
After the restart, it was difficult for Millwall to put any sort of winning run together despite picking up 14 points from their remaining nine matches, but that wasn’t enough for the Lions to sneak into a playoff place, as they ended the campaign in 8th, just two points off Swansea in 6th.
Looking ahead to 20/21, Rowett will be eager to mark his first full season in charge at The Den with a promotion challenge.
Using an unconventional 5-2-3 formation, Rowett likes his players to express themselves in attacking scenarios, whilst also keeping it tight at the back which was reflected by having the best defensive record outside of the top six last season.
Deploying a narrow midfield makes it difficult for opposition teams to play penetrative passes between the lines which forces them to play their football out in wide areas rather than in the danger zones, but one area of concern with this style of play is the lack of goals Millwall score when they break forward with possession of the ball due to this very defensive set-up, so look out for the Lions, who will look to improve on this weakness going into this season.
Attacking midfielder Jed Wallace is the player in this Millwall team who makes them tick going forward.
The 25-year-old has been a prominent figure for Millwall since his arrival in South London four seasons ago but has really flourished under Rowett with ten goals and an expectational 13 assists to his name last season.
He likes to find space in between the midfield and defence and enjoys running at the defence with power and purpose before looking to lay-off a pass for one of his strikers to score.
The Reds will be hoping to make it three matches unbeaten against Millwall this season after they picked up an impressive four points against them during the last campaign.
Super sub, Patrick Schmidt’s stoppage time winner saw Barnsley snatch all three points at the Den, whilst the teams also played out a 0-0 draw at Oakwell in June.
Nickname: The Canaries
Stadium: Carrow Road
Manager: Daniel Farke
Last season: 20th in the Premier League
The Reds will face a recently relegated Norwich side for the first time in two years after their brief stay in the Premier League came to an end as they finished the season 20th.
After automatic promotion to the top flight in 2018/19, it was always going to be a tough ask for Daniel Farke’s side to stay in the division with a young and inexperienced team.
However, Farke’s fast paced and attractive attacking football quickly lit up the Premier League in the opening weeks of the season, as his youthful Norwich side took teams by surprise, beating the likes of Manchester City and Newcastle United in their first five matches.
But, the opposition became aware of the Canaries attacking threat by September and it was another 18 league matches before they registered their next Premier League win against fellow strugglers Bournemouth in January.
They then scored just one goal in six matches before global pandemic halted the season and unfortunately for the Canaries, the restart went much of the same way, as they didn’t manage a single win from then until the end of campaign, which saw the misfiring Norwich relegated bottom of the table on 21 points, 14 adrift of safety.
However, despite instant relegation back to the Sky Bet Championship, manager Farke has remained with the club as he looks to guide the Canaries back to England’s top flight once again this season with his quick, counter attacking style of football.
Finnish international Teemu Pukki is a man that many teams in the Sky Bet Championship know well after he finished the 2018/19 campaign as the league’s top scorer on 29 goals on his way to guiding Norwich to the Championship title.
The 30-year-old continued his inspired form into the Premier League last season, as he hit a stunning six goals in Norwich’s opening five matches.
However, as the Canaries stumbled for the much of season, Pukki’s goal tally dried up and despite ending the campaign on 11 goals, it wasn’t enough to fire Norwich to safety.
But, now back in the Sky Bet Championship, he will be hoping to reinstate that famous goalscoring touch of 2018/19.
Stadium: City Ground
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi
Last season: 7th
Nottingham Forest looked on course to secure a playoff place for much of last season, but after two shock defeats to Barnsley and Stoke City in their remaining two matches, they were pipped to the post by Swansea City on the final day of the season on goal difference.
Sabri Lamouchi’s first season in charge was one of promise for Nottingham Forest fans, as the Frenchman got his team playing expansive, counterattacking football which saw Forest create and score a lot of goals by using a formation often considered to be quite defensive in 4-3-2-1. However, that transitioned to a 4-1-4-1 formation in possession that allowed the narrow midfielders to pull wide and full backs to push on, leaving space for the lone striker to exploit the gaps in the centre of the pitch.
Forest used that tactic to great effect throughout 19/20, which saw them pick up an impressive 25 points in their opening 13 matches in a run of games which saw them lose only twice, but they started to hit a rough patch at the end of November into December where they failed to win in five.
However, over Christmas, their form started to improve again as they went unbeaten in six, leaving Lamouchi’s side sitting pretty in the playoffs by the time the coronavirus stopped play in March.
Although, when the season got back underway in June, Forest’s luck appeared to have run out once again, as they were to miss out on a top-six spot for the tenth year running after only winning two of their last nine matches, which ended with a disappointing 4-1 defeat at Stoke on the final day that sealed their fate following Swansea’s 4-1 victory over Reading which was to leave Forest out of the playoffs by only a single goal.
Following heartbreak on the final day, Lamouchi will be hoping to end Forest’s retched run without a playoff appearance, as they look to return to the Premier League for the first time in 20 years.
Striker Lewis Grabban was one of the Sky Bet Championship’s most fruitful attackers last season as he ended the campaign on 20 goals on his way to a third-place finish in the race for the golden boot.
Grabban has a good return for Forest since joining from Bournemouth in 2018, notching 36 times in 84 appearances and under Lamouchi, he has been a real diamond in the Nottingham Forest side, something he will look to continue throughout this season.
The Reds have a reasonably good record against Nottingham Forest and have won four of the last six meetings between the two sides, including the season-opening Carabao Cup tie last weekend.
Despite losing the first league meeting last season at the City Ground in September 2019, Barnsley were able to secure victory at Oakwell in July through another of Patrick Schmidt’s injury time winners, as the Reds held onto a 1-0 win.
PRESTON NORTH END
Nickname: The Lilywhites
Manager: Alex Neil
Last season: 9th
Manager Alex Neil has done a good job at Preston North End since taking over in 2017 and took them from mid table to play-off contenders last season as they look to push on further in 2020/21.
Using a high energy system, Neil deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation encouraging his side to play a high press when they face an opposition who like to play from the back. Sometimes he will tweak it to 4-1-4-1 and is a manager who very much likes to study the opposition and pick his team accordingly. He likes to play out from the back but is also not afraid go more direct if need be to try and win the game, something that worked well on Preston’s way to a 9th place finish last season.
After an excellent start which saw them race out of the blocks to win eight of their first ten matches in all competitions, Preston went top of the table briefly.
However, after hitting a rough patch towards the end of November, the Lilywhites slowly started to drop down the table by January after just three wins in their next 12 matches.
They started to pick up the pace again before lockdown, but following the resumption of play, Alex Neil’s side were only able to manage two wins in their remaining nine matches as they finished four points adrift of the playoffs.
After a poor end to the season, Neil will be hopeful to begin this campaign in similar fashion to the way they started the last.
Influential midfielder Daniel Johnson has been one of the outstanding players for Preston under Neil. Finishing 2019/20 with 12 goals and seven assists to top both of those departments despite missing part of the season due to injury, Johnson has been revelling in his newfound attacking midfield role and will be hoping to stay injury free to continue his fine form this campaign.
Prior to last season, the Reds hadn’t played the Lilywhites in three years with the last meeting taking place in December 2017 when the teams played out a 0-0 draw at Oakwell.
However, last season, Preston ran riot against Barnsley in both meetings, scoring eight goals on their way to a convincing 5-1 victory at Deepdale before a 3-0 win at Oakwell in January.
This season, the Reds will be hoping for revenge when they face each other in December and April.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Nickname: The R’s
Stadium: Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium
Manager: Mark Warburton
Last season: 13th
Manager Mark Warburton will be hoping that his second full season in charge of QPR is more successful than his first after a mediocre campaign saw his side finish 13th in 2019/20.
After a strong start which saw QPR lose just two of their eight opening league matches, they then went on horrible run of just three wins in 12 matches as they started to slip down the table by the end of November.
Their form improved slightly over the busy festive period into the new year, but nothing outstanding saw them remain in mid table before lockdown.
Once the season got back underway, it was much of muchness for QPR, who struggled to string any sort of winning run together as they came away with just eight points out of a possible 27 from their final nine games.
Favouring a possession-based game, building from the back. Warburton is a fan of the 4-2-3-1 formation which seems to suit QPR's attacking strengths as they like to play exciting, expansive football with the aim of outscoring their opponent.
However, they often come unstuck using this system on a number of occasions last season as the defenders and goalkeeper were not always comfortable playing the way Warburton wanted as he looked to instil his tactics over the course of the campaign, which meant at times they were vulnerable to the high press, something Barnsley are generally good at and will look to exploit once again this season.
With the loss of starlet Eberechi Eze to Crystal Palace, attacker Jordan Hugill to Norwich and Nakhi Wells to Bristol City, it could be difficult for QPR to create chances like they did last season, so keep an eye on them as they look too sure up the defence in an attempt to counteract this loss in attack
Young midfielder Elias Chair had a breakthrough year at QPR last season and is an exciting, fresh talent who scored five goals and chipped in with seven assists in 2019/20.
With a number of key players around him gone, he will look to step up and be a leader this campaign.
The Reds are looking for their third successive victory over QPR after they did the double over them last season.
Barnsley played some stunning football in the entertaining 5-3 victory back in December, as a hatrick from Conor Chaplin, a Cauley Woodrow penalty and a first Reds goal for Bambo Diaby saw them defeat QPR at Oakwell.
That was then backed up by a 1-0 win at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium post lockdown as Elliot Simoes scored the only goal of the game.
Nickname: The Royals
Stadium: Madejski Stadium
Manager: Veljko Paunović
Last season: 14th
The Royals will start the season with a new man in charge following the recent appointment of Serbian Veljko Paunović as head coach who replaces the outgoing Mark Bowen.
The 43-year-old joins Reading from Chicago Fire in the MLS as he looks to transform the Royals back into one of the Sky Bet Championship’s leading clubs after a couple of under par seasons at the Madejski Stadium.
This is Reading’s third managerial change in less than a year after Jose Gomes left the club at the beginning of October following a poor start to the season that saw the Royals win only two of their opening 11 league matches.
Mark Bowen was then promoted from sporting director to manager as he swapped behind the scenes for the dugout for the first time in his career. Reading’s performances improved slightly during his first few months, but then started to tail off again into the new year through until lockdown in March as Reading remained stagnated in mid table.
As the season restarted, the Royals struggled to get back up to speed and went on to win just two of their remaining nine matches on their way to another disappointing 14th.
Looking ahead to 2020/21, it’ll be interesting to see if Reading’s route one tactic under Bowen is replaced by a more free flowing, attacking style that Royals’ fans have been used to over the years as they look to establish themselves as a promotion contender once again.
Ivorian international Yakou Mëité will look to continue his fine goalscoring form this season by leading from the front after netting 17 times in all competitions during 2019/20.
The forward has been at the Madejski Stadium since 2016 after rising through the ranks at PSG and has been a quite a handful for Sky Bet Championship defenders over the years with his physical strength, ability in the air and speed on the ground.
Reading have had the better of this fixture in recent years and are unbeaten in their last six matches against the Reds.
The last time Barnsley beat the Royals was back in 2014 when Stephen Dawson, Reuben Noble-Lazarus and Dale Jennings were on the scoresheet in a 3-1 victory.
The teams played out a 1-1 draw at Oakwell, but Reading won the reverse fixture 2-0 at the Madejski Stadium in February.
PART FOUR TOMORROW!