Handicapping the EFL Championship Promotion Battle

Handicapping the EFL Championship Promotion Battle article feature image

As the soccer season draws toward a close, the race for promotion in England’s second division — the EFL Championship — is heating up. With eight games to go, the very top of the Championship is all but decided. Wolverhampton are going to win the league and get promoted. Behind them, Cardiff City are almost certainly going to finish second, earning them automatic promotion, as well. Then, things get interesting. The third promotion spot is decided by a playoff between teams three through sixth, and the race to the playoff is wide open. Here’s a brief rundown of the top of the Championship and how they all stack up.

The Locks

Wolverhampton 1st Place (82 Points), -10000 to be promoted

Wolves have the league on lockdown. With eight games left, they have a six-point lead on Cardiff (although Cardiff have a game in hand) and a 13-point lead on third-place Fulham. It would take a collapse of unthinkable proportions for them to drop out of the top two and lose their automatic promotion to the Premier League. Last summer, Wolves basically put their fate in the hands of super agent Jorge Mendes. The Portuguese agent delivered them Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves to act as the focal points of the attack and defense, respectively. Mendes also brought in Nuno to manage the club. The risk worked, Jota leads the team with 14 goals and Neves in defensive midfield anchors a unit that has conceded only 33 goals, the second-fewest in the league and 9.6 shots per game, the fewest in the league. It’s not too early to say that the great Wolves experiment has paid off.


Cardiff City 2nd Place (76 Points), -700 to get promoted

Cardiff City don’t play a fun brand of soccer, but they sure are effective. Neil Warnock’s side really, really, really doesn’t want to have possession of the ball. Their 45.7% possession is the fourth-worst in the league and their 60.2% completion percentage is dead last. They simply don’t bother to try to retain possession when they have the ball. Nobody completes fewer short passes than they do at 146.2 per game. The team is ruthlessly committed to getting the ball forward as quickly as possible, even if that means turning it over in the process.

And yet, even though they treat the ball like a scalding hot potato, the team manages to generate a lot of attacking opportunities. They take 14.1 shots per game; that’s second in the league. And they aren’t bad shots either. They take 7.7 shots per game in the penalty area, tied for third-most in the league. And they get five shots per game on target, the second-best total in the league. They may lose the ball a lot, but when they do manage to get it forward, they are incredibly efficient at turning their small amount of possession into dangerous shooting opportunities. With a seven-point cushion and a game in hand on third-place Fulham, Cardiff are overwhelmingly likely to ride their unique brand of soccer into an automatic promotion into the Premier League.


The Best of the Rest

Fulham 3rd Place (69 Points), +120 to get promoted

Fulham are the polar opposite of Cardiff. They lead the Championship in possession at 57.3% and passing completion percentage at 82.7%. They complete 418.4 short passes per game, the most in the league by an astounding amount. Wolves are second at 366.5. Aside from Fullham, only five teams in the Championship complete even 300 short passes a game.  Fulham’s game is built on having the ball — and keeping it — and then eventually working the ball into good shooting positions.

According to FiveThirtyEight.com Fulham has the best attacking rating in the Championship. That’s notable because despite all its possession, the team simply doesn’t take a huge volume of shots. Their 13.8 shots per game is certainly good — it’s the fourth-best in the league — but it’s not what you’d expect from the best attacking team. And it’s not like a ton of those shots come in the penalty box either, only 6.5 do, that’s eight-best in the league. That all paints a picture of a good but not great attacking side.

Fulham’s attack is juiced by two particular facts. First, they almost never head the ball. They take only 1.4 headers per game, which is the third-fewest in the league, and, secondly, they get most of their shots from open play. Only Brentford, who play a wide-open, kamikaze style of soccer, take more open play shots than Fulham’s 10.3. They don’t turn their possession into the most shots, but by and large, Fulham reliably turn attacks into very good shots.


Aston Villa 4th Place (69 Points), +230 to get promoted

Aston Villa’s numbers don’t jump off the page. They only take 12.1 shots per game, the 17th-most in the Championship and they concede 11.9, the eighth-fewest. When talking about a team vying for promotion, taking barely more shots than your opponents isn’t exactly an encouraging sign. They get away with it because on the attacking side of the ball they don’t take any bad shots. They take only 4.2 shots per game from outside the penalty area, the third-fewest in the league, and concentrate on creating good, high-quality chances in the box. The team depends heavily on Robert Snodgrass to be its creative hub; he leads Aston Villa with 13 assists and 2.2 key passes per game to turn a mediocre attack into a good one.

More concerning is the team’s defense. Keeper Sam Johnstone is called upon to make 3.2 saves per game. Only one team, Ipswich Town, depends on their keeper to make more.  And it’s not like Johnstone is catching hopeful bombs from distance either. Only four teams have keepers who save more shots per game from inside the penalty area than Johnstone’s 1.7. Aston Villa have a seven-point lead on the teams chasing them for qualification in the promotion tournament, so they’re unlikely not to qualify. But once there, they’re going to have to depend on their goalkeeping to get promoted, which is always a risky proposition.


The Rest

Derby County 5th Place (62 Points), +400 to get promoted

Derby will go as far as striker Matej Vydra takes them. He’s tied for the league lead in the Championship with 17 goals despite only playing 2,142 minutes — almost 1,200 minutes fewer than co-leader Bobby Reid of Bristol City. Vydra was once an intriguing prospect, but after scoring 16 goals for Watford in the Championship in 2014/15, he never took the next step, and this is his first season with more than five goals since then. Leading Derby to an unlikely promotion might be his last best shot at breaking through at the Premier League level.


Middlesbrough 6th Place (62 Points), +500

A season ago, Middlesbrough were a solid defensive team in the Premier League with an anemic attack that got them relegated. This year they’re a defensively solid Championship team with just enough scoring to keep them in the hunt for a place in the promotion playoffs. They also have Adama Traore, who dribbles by people at absurd rates, even if he doesn’t know what to do afterward. His 6.7 dribbles per game leads the Championship (among players with an above-average number of appearances) and is almost double the second-best dribbler, Jeremie Boga of Birmingham at 3.6. Traore brings the fun, Middlesbrough brings the defense, the attack is intermittent at best, but all together it’s just enough to keep them in the hunt.


Bristol City 7th Place (61 Points), +1100 to get promoted

Reid runs the show for Bristol City. Along with his co-league leading 17 goals he’s also notched five assists. Unlike Derby’s Vydra, Reid is also an important creative cog for Bristol. He’s second among regulars with 1.9 shots per 90 minutes, only striker and 10-goal scorer Famara Diedhiou averages more at 2.5. His 1.2 key passes per 90 minutes is second on the team behind Jamie Patterson’s two. Reid is also the only Bristol City player to appear in every game this season. He’s had a superstar year and has catapulted an otherwise largely ordinary side into the promotion conversation.


Preston 8th Place (60 Points), +1700 to get promoted

Preston are impressive at suppressing opponent’s shots. They concede only 10.2 per game, second in the league to Wolverhampton. They’re also respectable on the attacking side of the ball where they take 13.2 shots per game, ninth in the league but 6.9 per game from the penalty area, which is sixth. They’re a team whose numbers suggest they might be a slightly better attacking team than the 48 goals they’ve scored to date indicate. A little hotter finishing over the homestretch and they might be able to leapfrog the teams ahead of them and slip into the playoffs. They’d be longshots if they got there though.


Sheffield United 9th Place (60 Points), +1600 to get promoted

Sheffield United are just a plain old bad attacking team. They take 11.4 shots per game, only five teams take fewer. The same is true of their 5.7 shots in the box per game. They’re quite stout defensively, conceding only 10.5 shots per game, the third-best total in the league, but that’s the wrong makeup for a team that needs to make up ground late in the season. If they were in sixth, it would be possible to see them nursing a narrow lead into the playoff spots. But sitting in ninth, and needing to leapfrog three teams, it’s hard to imagine.

All odds from BetFair and current as of Thursday evening.

Stats provided by WhoScored.