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xV: Checking in on the Championship at the halfway mark

Wolves look set for promotion, while Villa’s Boxing Day opponents Brentford could be a dark horse in the second half.

Brentford v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship
BRENTFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Sergi Canos of Brentford celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Brentford and Fulham at Griffin Park on December 2, 2017 in Brentford, England.
Photo by Harry Murphy/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a post-match column (typically) on the stats behind Villa’s results.

One of the reasons I really love looking at football through a mathematical lens is that it allows us to sidestep our conventional, results-based bias to take a look at how the match actually played out. Did it play out exactly how we saw? Which moments are emphasized?

It’s the halfway point of the season, which means I’m taking a look at the other teams in the league. Who’s destined for promotion, whose underlying stats aren’t too good, and which team could make a charge up the table to finish top six?

The team going up: Wolves

Wolves have a seven-point lead at the top of the Championship, and their gap back to third sits at 10 points. Barring a slew of injuries that leads to a complete and outright collapse, they’re going to win automatic promotion to the Premier League, and they’re very likely to do it as champions. Without getting into the underlying stats — that show that Wolves are a really solid defensive team that can score goals in a number of ways — just consider this: Wolves won 54 points in the first half of the season, which leaves them around 36 to win in the second half.

Wolves don’t even have to be a play-off calibre team the rest of the way to secure automatic promotion. They’re going up.

Holding up well: Cardiff City

I’ll admit, I had some doubts early about the Bluebirds, but when they got off to their fast start, I did think there was a lot to like. Those things have continued to show up as the season has progressed.

If there’s one thing Cardiff are really good at, it’s taking dangerous shots — they rank in the top three in the Championship in both shots taken inside the six-yard area and shots taken inside the penalty box. They’re defensively sound, too, so the expected goals models are generally big fans. We’ll see how deep they are, but I think they’re definitely in the driver’s seat for the second automatic promotion spot.

The real contenders: Bristol City and Derby County

As much as we want Villa to track down second place and win automatic promotion, it probably won’t happen, and at this point, it’s just a numbers game. For any club from Leeds down in the table to get to 90 points (a fair target for automatic promotion), it’ll require at least a 51-point return over the last 23 games. Those just aren’t very likely to pop up — you’re asking a team to go 15-6-2 to close the season, and if you’re good enough to do that, you were probably good enough to win more than 38 or 39 points in the first half.

Both Bristol City and Derby County have manageable situations to finish second: they’re just three points off Cardiff right now, and both finished the first half of the season near pace (with 44 points from 23 matches). If Cardiff aren’t going up in second, it’ll be one of these teams.

The dark horse: Brentford

Villa’s opponents on Boxing Day sit squarely in the middle of the table, but if you’re to believe the stats (and, in this column, we do), the Bees are certainly a team that could chase down a sixth and final play-off spot.

As you may remember, Brentford started the year languishing at the bottom of the table with a poor start — after seven matches, they sat second-bottom on just three points. They launched into a nine-match unbeaten run from there, though, and in the 16 fixtures since a 2-1 loss to Sheffield Wednesday on 12 September, Brentford have won 28 points (7-7-2). That’s an 80-point pace, which means that over the last three months, Brentford have played at the level of a play-off team, not a mid-table side.

The stats seem to support the view that Brentford could be a dark horse, too. The Bees are by far and away the league leaders in attacking activity, taking 17.7 shots per game (Bristol City and Norwich tie for second with 14.1 shot attempts per game) — and they aren’t taking an abnormally large amount of those shots from outside the box, either. The defensive numbers hold up pretty well, too, as their 11.5 shots against per game is one of the league’s better marks.

It’s a tough hill to climb, but if you’re looking for someone to do it, they could be the ones.

The new manager bounce: Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday

Both these teams have a lot of talent, and both will start the second half of the campaign with new men in charge. Wednesday, who are 11 points behind Villa, could find it too hard to chase down sixth, but Boro, just three points back in ninth, are likely to be a player.

I’m really intrigued what happens if Tony Pulis does go to Boro, too. His whole career has been built around getting the most out of talentless clubs by deploying awful, “pragmatic” tactics (that, frustratingly, work). What will he do when he goes somewhere he has a top-end squad?

Team I hate: Ipswich Town

I’ve complained about Ipswich before, and best I can tell, they’re out here trying to make the play-off in a 2016/17 Reading-esque way. One team (Burton) has taken fewer shots than Ipswich, and no team allows more than the Tractor Boys do. There is literally no reason they should have a +4 goal differential and be three points off sixth. None at all.

Other contenders

Sheffield United are weathering a run of poor form and hanging around. They won’t go up automatically, and they still probably won’t finish top-six, but what they did to boss League One last year is working alright at this level.

Leeds United are a really good side. I have nothing more to say there.

I keep waiting for Preston to fall further down the table, but credit to them, as they keep sticking around. Their underlying stats are solid, too, so it’ll be interesting to see if they end up real contenders.

I still expect Fulham to make a charge up the table. There’s too much attacking talent at that club for them to have only scored 29 goals.

Nottingham Forest have lost a majority of their matches this season. Promotion-winning teams don’t go through the season with an inability to draw matches.