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xV: What do the stats say about the Championship’s top teams?

We’re nearly a quarter of the way through the Championship season, so it’s a good time to analyze which teams at the top are for real, and which won’t have much staying power.

Cardiff City v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship
CARDIFF, WALES - SEPTEMBER 26: Nathaniel Mendez-Laing of Cardiff in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Cardiff City and Leeds United at Cardiff City Stadium on September 26, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), normally a post-match column on the stats behind Villa’s results, but today a dive into the stats behind the clubs at the top of the Championship. Who do the numbers think will continue to be successful? Who’s off to a fluky start? Let’s find out.

Two segments into the season, Aston Villa sit seventh in the Championship table — it’s not a bad place to be in, but with a tough slate ahead, I think most Villa fans would’ve liked to at least be in the top six, if not higher, at this point in the campaign.

If Villa are able to keep up their form, though, they’re likely to slot into the top six pretty easily, because it seems particularly unlikely all six sides ahead of them will keep up their respective early-season runs for the rest of the campaign. Who ahead of Villa is “for real?” Who’s simply rode some good form to a quick start?*

*Note: Huddersfield rode some good form to a quick start, and then managed to ride a bit more good form to the play-offs, despite not being one of the best teams in the division. Don’t count that out this year.

Let’s jump in.

Very for real: Cardiff City (1st, 24 points)

Cardiff surprised me when they got out to the gates quickly, and while the points tally slowed a little bit during September, the Bluebirds continued to exert their dominance on the expected goals charts; only three sides had a better xGD last month than Cardiff, according to Experimental 361’s model. Cardiff looks good in more traditional statistics, too — their goal differential of +8 is joint-second in the division, and their nine goals conceded is also joint-second in the Championship. And on the shot chart, the Bluebirds have impressed, too: their 15.6 shots taken per match are second-best in the league, while their defence has been one of the league’s stingiest, giving up just 9.9 shot attempts in the average match.

Very few people had Cardiff as a promotion favourite when they year started, but expect Sol Bamba, Kenneth Zohore and, yes, Joe Bennett to stay up at the right end of the table the rest of the year.

Likely also for real: Wolves (2nd, 23 points)

One of those three teams that have a better xGD than Cardiff over the last six matches at Experimental 361? Wolves, who led the division in xG during the month of September.

In fact, they’ve had the best one. But unlike fellow quick starter Cardiff, Wolves were expected to be here — they brought in some great talent over the summer, and it’s paid off with a good start. I’d expect that to continue as the campaign goes on, and Villa’s match this week with them could prove one of the most pivotal fixtures this season.

Probably not for real: Sheffield United (3rd, 21 points)

I’m not surprised to see the Blades this far up the table after 11 matches, no — I seriously considered putting them in a play-off spot in my preseason predictions, and noted in the 7500 to Holte group thread that I expected them to finish in the top half. And even though they’ve gotten off to this quick start, I do still see them as that: just a top-half team.

Part of that is because it’s been “boom or bust” to some extent this year for them: they have seven wins and four losses, and only one of those wins has come against a side currently in the top 11.

Maybe for real: Bristol City (4th, 20 points)

Bristol City are an interesting side this season: they’ve taken 15 shots per match, third-most in the league, but still concede an average of 14. Yet they’ve outscored their opponents 20-11 this season — good for an edge of nearly a goal each match.

I think there’s some truth in the idea that they’ve done a good job of (a) taking high-quality chances and (b) limiting their opponents to lower-quality chances, which is why they show up as one of Experimental 361’s best teams in the xG ratings. I also think there’s a good chance those figures start to regress toward the mean as the season progresses. I don’t think Bristol City are a threat to win the Championship, or even go up in second, but they could hang around and snag fifth or sixth.

????? for real: Leeds United (5th, 20 points)

I think Leeds are good, I genuinely do. They’ve also had a bit of a confusing season, earning 17 points in their first seven matches before dropping off a cliff recently, losing three of their last four, conceding three goals to each Cardiff City and Sheffield Wednesday in their last two defeats.

They have done a lot of beating up on bad teams, though, and that should be noted — their wins are over Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, Burton Albion, Birmingham City and Ipswich Town. Or, in other words, five bottom-half sides and the flukiest side in the Championship. We’ll see if they can start winning six-pointers.

It hard to say level of for real: Preston North End (6th, 20 points)

So, Preston. The xG numbers love them, because they’re (a) not conceding very many shots and (b) have a generally average attack. Being really good at one side of the coin, while being mediocre at the other, is a pretty decent way to go about things in this division.

The thing is, for as impressive as their defence is — conceding just 9.5 shots per game, best in the division — it’s still outperforming any realistic long-term expectations. Preston have only given up six goals this season (only two other teams are even in the single digits), which means they’re only being scored on about 1 in every 17 or 18 opposition shots. I don’t care how good of a job you are at limiting good shots, that just isn’t going to keep up over the course of the season.

Yet the general idea is there, and even if that luck starts to run out a bit, Preston could have some margin for error if their attack is able to stay average.

Very talented, so for real: Aston Villa (7th, 19 points)

Villa have been an above-average side this year and, thanks to a great run of form, the current table position accurately reflects the performance to this date. We know this team can continue to get better, so we’re good.

Absolutely, unless they pull a Reading, not for real: Ipswich Town (8th, 18 points)

In truth, I was only going to look at the top six. But Ipswich bother me so much that I’ve written more words.

No side has given up more shots than the Tractor Boys this year, who are averaging 17.7 shots against, while Ipswich have taken the third-fewest shots per match this season, just 10.8. They are only here because they won their first four matches of the season, scoring nine goals from 11 shots on target. They are not good.

Other teams to keep an eye on, as they could be for real:

Norwich City sit ninth, and they’re an interesting side because they still have a lot of talent. Super volatile though, and I fear that could hurt them again.

Fulham sit 10th, and anyone who watched this division last year knows why they’re dangerous. The same can be said for Sheffield Wednesday, who are 12th. Both have been mediocre so far, but both have the talent to turn that around quickly.

Middlesbrough were the promotion favourites at the start of the year, and they should improve from their current 11th-place spot.

Millwall are the outlier here. They sit 14th, but they’re mostly there because they had an opposite start to Ipswich, conceding on six of their opening eight save chances. They played well early and didn’t get results, and the xG models generally like them. I think the play-offs are out of reach, but they should avoid relegation comfortably.