Norwich, Sheffield Utd, Leeds and West Brom - the strengths and weaknesses
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As the Championship season nears its critical phase, Matt Guy looks at the strengths of the top four
Goalkeepers: A point of contention this season. In Tim Krul, City have a goalkeeper with clear pedigree and a wealth of experience. However, his inconsistencies have sometimes tinted otherwise-stellar performances in key games. Regardless, Krul has cemented his place in the team and has overseen a string of impressive displays in recent weeks. Most fans of other Championship teams would agree he is still one of the best shot-stoppers in the league. Norwich’s back-up options, Michael McGovern and Aston Oxborough, have seen their opportunities limited, but together provide a strong combination of experience and youth to call upon if needed.
Defence: Norwich don’t boast the most impressive of defensive statistics, but they possess two of the most exciting young full-backs in the league in Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons, whose form has caught the eye of Premier League suitors. In the heart of defence, injury spells for experienced duo Timm Klose and Grant Hanley have seen a number of experimental pairings – the latest of which has proved highly successful. The rise of 21-year-old Ben Godfrey, after dropping deeper from a central midfield role, is exciting City fans. Christoph Zimmermann has proven himself as a consistent and commanding presence at the back. Despite leaking goals on occasion, few teams can rival the attacking prowess offered by City’s energetic defenders.
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Midfield: Strength in depth has allowed Farke to utilise a variety of midfield options. Mario Vrancic has provided composure – as well as goals – in the centre of the park, while Tom Trybull, Alex Tettey, Moritz Leitner and most recently Kenny McLean, are all capable of dictating play from the middle. Perhaps the biggest revelation has been Marco Stiepermann’s emergence as a central attacking threat, slotting perfectly with the wide-men, Buendia and Onel Hernandez.
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Attack: Not much needs to be said about the talismanic Teemu Pukki; his movement and guile have caused havoc for many Championship teams, and he has netted 23 league goals. Jordan Rhodes and Dennis Srbeny have looked lively in late substitute appearances and contributed several goals of their own, but Pukki steals the limelight.
Goalkeepers: Sheffield United is the second highly successful loan destination enjoyed by Dean Henderson in the past two years. The England Under-21 and Manchester United keeper had a huge impact at Shrewsbury last season. Now, in the red and white of the Blades, Henderson continues to increase his value, conceding the third fewest goals in the league.
Defence: Chris Wilder has favoured a back three in many games, with wing-backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock offering versatility going forward. John Egan has stood out as the most commanding central defender, most often flanked by 24-year-old Jack O’Connell and the more experienced Chris Basham. Wilder does not like to concede, and his rigid defensive structure has reflected this successfully.
Midfield: An area most commonly been dictated by John Fleck and Oliver Norwood. Norwood’s quality has always been clear throughout a varied career, yet he struggled to cement a starting place after reaching the Premier League with Brighton and moved to United permanently in January. Fleck has made over 100 appearances. Mark Duffy – and more recently Everton loanee Kieran Dowell – provide the creative threat.
Attack: There is no doubting United have serious fire-power. Billy Sharp, former Ipswich man David McGoldrick and Aston Villa loanee Scott Hogan have helped them net 58 league goals this season, behind only West Brom and Norwich. Perhaps the biggest threat is captain Sharp, whose two strikes against Norwich in January almost single-handedly forced a draw. The addition of another goal-scoring loanee, Cardiff’s Gary Madine, will only add more distress to opponents.
Goalkeepers: Northern-Irishman Bailey Peacock-Farrell will feel hard done by after losing his place. Having impressed with a number of solid performances in the first half of the season, he has seen his chances limited since January after the arrival of veteran Spanish stopper Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid on a free transfer. Regardless, Leeds have two reliable goalkeepers.
Defence: Leeds have enjoyed solidarity at the back this term, with centre-backs Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper favoured most commonly, as well as a deeper-sitting Kalvin Phillips on occasion. Luke Ayling has been a constant presence at right back, showing the combative tackling required for the Championship. Leeds are yet to settle on a choice for the other full-back position, with left-sided players Barry Douglas, Ezgjan Alioski and youngster Leif Davis sharing the playing time.
Midfield: This is where Leeds have looked their most dangerous. Sweeping moves and sharp passing have been the norm for Pablo Hernandez, Mateusz Klich and Adam Forshaw. A mixture of youthful energy and the Premier League quality offered by Hernandez has proved to be the downfall of many opponents. Out wide, Manchester City loanee Jack Harrison has shown moments of brilliance.
Attack: Few can deny Marcelo Bielsa has added bite to Leeds’ forward play. However, this has come more from the midfield than from the strikers. Kemar Roofe – recently sidelined for ‘weeks rather than months’ by injury – leads their charts with 14 goals, but this pales in comparison to the free-scoring statistics of Pukki and Sharp. On paper, Tyler Roberts and Patrick Bamford offer significant threats, but neither has hit full stride this campaign. Leeds fans will hope their front-men can find the net more frequently to prevent this trend coming back to haunt them.
West Bromwich Albion
Goalkeepers: Signed from Manchester United for over £6 million last summer, 25-year-old Sam Johnstone has been a consistent presence. His opportunities may have been limited at Old Trafford, but the Englishman has enjoyed a strong campaign as number one this season. Experienced former Welsh international Boaz Myhill provides competent back-up.
Defence: The defensive options of Craig Dawson, Ahmed Hegazy and Manchester City loanee Tosin Adarbioyo have been the stand-out trio. All provide strength and pedigree for Darren Moore’s side. Full-backs Mason Holgate and Kieran Gibbs are similarly experienced, both having Premier League minutes under their belt, but Albion have conceded 42 league goals this season – the same as Norwich.
Midfield: Built on a core of Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore and Stefan Johansen, West Brom have enjoyed dominating possession. Wide men Matt Phillips and Hal Robson-Kanu have also been utilised dangerously, coming off the bench to good effect. A special mention must also go to a certain quick-footed Irishman by the name of Wes Hoolahan, who, when fit, has added flair to their forward play. Up-and-coming youngsters Sam Field and Rekeem Harper are two to keep an eye on.
Attack: Wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League. Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle have scored 33 goals between them, while a number of January loan signings, including former Canary Jacob Murphy and Swansea’s Jefferson Montero, have also added to the threat.
With over two months of the season left, anything can happen. Winning-streaks, injuries and shock results can all cause chaos and give fans good reason to bite their fingernails.
On current analysis though, all four will undeniably still be challenging at the top come the final day.