It is fair to say that the Premier League title race was never really given the green light this season. Jose Mourinho has put together a typically Jose Mourinho team at Chelsea and despite some minor setbacks, they already look set to wrestle Manchester City’s title. For a real fight for supremacy, English football fans need to look to the second tier, the Championship, where after Game-week 35 when this article was written, seven teams are separated by just six points.
If the season were to cease tomorrow however, which contenders are currently best suited to coping with the Premier League’s infamously greater demands? And which of these teams’ fans should perhaps be quietly hoping for a near-miss in order to allow an extra season’s time to strengthen? Let’s take a look:
It may not seem like too long since Middlesbrough were a regular fixture in the Premier League, beating Sir Alex Ferguson’s United 4-1 at the Riverside and challenging for European places, but the club has now spent a whopping six years in the second-tier. Before now they had not come close to getting promoted back up either, languishing in mid-table without the fear of relegation or much hope for success. This season has been completely different, and after a quiet start they have skirted with the top of the table ever since.
Boro’s success has been built on a well organised backline, the quality of which has been surprising given the players involved. The likes of once-upon-a-time Liverpool prospect Daniel Ayala, and quietly efficient George Friend have been made to look imperious under Karanka’s discipline, while youngsters like Adam Reach and Ben Gibson have excelled at full-back positions. The team’s excellent organisation is likely also helped by the presence of Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, a veteran of the English Football League for over a decade.
As seen working to devastating effect against Manchester City in the FA Cup, Middlesbrough play with a narrow packed midfield and the ploy has worked for them all season. Albert Adomah breathes life into the system with his power and drive, while Grant Leadbitter has been a surprise revelation in front of goal, netting more league goals this season already than during his whole seven year stint at first club Sunderland. Adam Clayton, a summer signing from Huddersfield Town, has also made impressive impact by slotting right into a regular place protecting the defence.
While keeping out opposition has been Middlesbrough’s strength, their attackers have been able to get the job done too, albeit with less proficiency than the teams around them (when this article was written Middlesbrough had scored the least goals in the Championship’s top seven, while occupying top spot). Chelsea loan signing Patrick Bamford has been the only striker to break double figures, with fellow forwards Lee Tomlin, Jelle Vossen and Kike all struggling to consistently find the net.
Overall, Middlesbrough’s squad looks more than ready to deal with top-flight rigours next season, and it looks increasingly likely they will be there, given their consistency. In cup ties with Liverpool and Manchester City, they showed they can more than just hold their own too. With the Premier League step-up as notoriously difficult as it is however, manager Aitor Karanka will surely be in the market for player with top-level experience to lead his line however.
There might still be Rams fans who suffer from nightmares over Derby’s last venture into the top flight in 2007/08. Just one win in 38 games, 89 goals conceded and top-scorer Kenny Miller notching a whopping four goals, it was literally the worst campaign of any Premier League club to date.
This season they are back among the top contenders, having suffered the anguish of a playoff final defeat to QPR last May despite finishing 3rd in the league standings. Defence was again County’s Achilles’ heel across the 13/14 campaign, but that appears to be improved somewhat this time round – only Middlesbrough and 11th placed Sheffield Wednesday have a tighter record as of Round 35 of fixtures – but they still average over a goal-per-game conceded, and have a tendency to concede softly against lowly sides.
An attack-minded midfield does little to protect its back four, but they are certainly a young and exciting unit going forward. Jeff Hendrick, Craig Bryson and Will Hughes (playing his third season as a regular starter aged just 19) often take turns joining the front three, while Omar Mascarell, on loan from Real Madrid, has been preferred as the more conservative anchor in a central trio.
Forwards are in abundance at the iPro Stadium, with Chris Martin chief among them, averaging just over a goal every other game. In recent internationals with Scotland his lack of mobility has been an issue, but the 26-year old knows how to convert chances and has been a focal point for Derby’s attack this season. Darren Bent has been brought in on loan from Aston Villa and repaid the chance with fine form (Villa could certainly use a goalscorer), keeping the goals coming as Martin’s form deteriorated.
To their credit, Derby already look to have had a better season this time round, than the campaign they had in 06/07 that got them promoted via the playoffs. This is a young and exciting team, led by a manager who knows success and how to achieve consistency in Steve McClaren. He also has considerable influence and knows how to bring in quality players like Darren Bent and Tom Ince, and that will only be improved if Derby can achieve promotion to the world’s most lucrative league. If the Rams can hold on to an automatic promotion spot then they have the potential to hold their own in an attacking sense, but a top quality centre back will be top of McClaren’s shopping list.
After Watford’s management fiasco at the start of the season (current manager Jokanovic was the club’s fourth of the season already when he was hired last October), it is a wonder they were even able to build on last season’s 13th finish, never mind challenging for an automatic promotion place. As it is, the Hornets have been the Championship’s top scorers and a delight for neutrals, with their matches averaging over three goals per game.
Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney lead the line, having surpassed 30 goals between them after Round 35, while Mat?j Vydra has also reached double figures, so the competition for places up front is encouragingly strong. In the centre of the park, Abdi and Ben Watson are the first choice pair – the latter holding while Abdi supports the forwards – while Daniel T?zsér, Gianni Munari and Miguel Layún have been called upon to complete a central trio on plenty of occasions. Watford’s line-up normally orchestrates with a back three featuring the likes of Joel Ekstrand, Gabriele Angella and Craig Cathcart, and this has been exposed on several occasions, evident by the fact they have conceded almost twice as many goals as league leaders Middlesbrough. Featuring the comedic Heurelho Gomes between the posts certainly doesn’t inspire confidence for a water-tight defence in any case. Jokanovic’s side certainly boast two strong options on each flank – Ikechi Anya and Juan Paredes. The Scot and Ecuadorian respectively have shown adeptness at full-back as part of a back four, and as wing-backs in a midfield quintet.
Much of Watford’s success has revolved around simply scoring more than their opponents (February’s 4-3 win over Bolton being a prime example) and that mentality will surely be punished in the Premier League. I can’t help but feel too, that the club’s best interests are not always with Gino Pozzo, who also owns Serie A’s Udinese and La Liga’s Granada. If Watford were to be promoted and failed to immediately establish themselves then Pozzo has other options to focus his energies; his preferences are already evident by the amount of players – Idhalo and Vydra among them – whose parent club is Udinese. Fans may be careful of what they wish for before making the unknown venture up a division.
Bournemouth: Having coasted along at the league’s summit due to stellar first half of the season form, Bournemouth’s 2015 has been disappointing, allowing a host of teams to catch up and surpass them. Goals and clean sheets have been harder to come by since the turn of the year, after free-scoring form brought them initial success (including the 8-0 demolition of Birmingham City). Eddie Howe has done a good job but his squad has outdone itself this campaign – a lot of work and investment would be required to give them any hope of surviving the Premier League.
Norwich City: Alex Neil has, since taking over Norwich in January, shown how capable this squad is, and that it should have been challenging for an automatic promotion place much earlier in the season than it is now. Six consecutive victories from Game-weeks 28-34 before a blip against Wigan have shot the Canaries back up into promotion contention, though the overall form being displayed by the division’s top three might mean they have to settle for a play-off place. With Premier League experience throughout much of their squad still intact after last season’s relegation would stand Norwich in good stead for a return to the big time. Whether their manager has the necessary know-how to compete with the best however, is another matter, but Neil’s recent accent proves he has a promising future ahead.
Brentford: Marc Warburton’s side have quietly gone about their business this season, and find themselves six points off the leaders with just over ten rounds of fixtures remaining. A steady average of two wins in three since the new year has kept them in the play-off places, though it will be tough to keep hold of that position if Ipswich manage to turn round their recent poor form. The squad has a promising crop of young players including midfielder Alex Pritchard and top scorer Andre Gray, along with some experienced heads to look up to, but the Bees still look a few players shy of being seriously capable promotion challengers. If the unlikely were to occur however, some serious investment into attaining players with top level experience would be required – the current squad is almost completely devoid of it.
Ipswich Town: Like Bournemouth, Ipswich’s 2015 has been in stark contrast to their first half of the season, and has seen them drop out of the play-offs altogether after a Game-week 35 defeat to Leeds United left them with just 12 points from the last 33. Mick McCarthy is a proven manager, who has won the Championship twice, with Sunderland and Wolves, and he knows how to build a squad capable of meeting the Premier League’s demands. Despite boasting the league’s top scorer Daryl Murphy, goals throughout the squad have been hard to come by, with David McGoldrick and centre back Christophe Berra their next highest scorers and in single figures. If they can climb out of their current rut, Ipswich are certainly capable of ousting Brentford for a play-off spot, but Norwich City and Watford both look like stronger Premier League candidates for next season.