Humble pie being eaten here as Blackburn win again and establish themselves in the top six of the Championship…
Brilliant Blackburn Rovers
As this particular F365 writer braces himself for endless ‘bantz’ and ‘ratios’ with regards to a certain article written on Blackburn Rovers in the summer, Tony Mowbray’s side out-ratioed their Cardiff City opponents on Saturday afternoon with consummate ease, going into the half-time break 3-0 up and ending the day victors by a 5-1 scoreline.
Not only did the victory take Blackburn into the top six with just under 20% of the season played, but it opened up a gap to the rest of the division.
That Blackburn came into this season with a stale-looking squad, a manager under pressure, and without their top scorer from last season in Adam Armstrong painted a picture of tough times ahead in 2021/22 season, but the former Premier League winners are making a mockery of such predictions.
No longer is Ben Brereton Diaz’s Hollywood summer the only thing worth cheering in this part of Lancashire. The Chilean’s autumn – and that of his employers’ – is proving to be every bit as successful.
Ben Brereton Diaz
The first hat-trick of a professional career for the Chilean lad from Stoke. In unprecedented times for us all, the boy from Meir Park is continuing his Roy of the Rovers-like transformation from also-ran into one of the best players in the Championship.
Four straight wins ensured that Bournemouth top the Championship table, but it is less the victories and more the assuredness with which they are racking up those victories that should have the rest of the division worried. If Bournemouth were disappointed in being the only one of the three relegated clubs not to make an immediate return to the Premier League last season, then they need only look at Norwich and Watford’s relative woes back in the top flight to realise that a more patient approach could be beneficial in the long term.
As Norwich sit pointless and Watford largely flatter to deceive, the Cherries will be grateful for their second bite at promotion as they watch top-half Brentford demonstrate how building steadily can benefit a side in its overarching aspirations. Bournemouth are not parallel with Brentford in that regard, but they can take solace from knowing that it is far better to build in the second tier than change a tyre while on the move in the Premier League.
Not quite table-topping Coventry City
A late West Brom turnaround on Friday night ensured Coventry City would not begin the weekend on top of the Championship for the first time under its current iteration as such, but the night still belonged to everything that is good about the Sky Blues.
At a bouncing CBS Arena, Coventry always looked the more likely to take three points for the fifth time in as many home league outings since returning to their home city over the summer. A quickfire treble in the second half including a double from who else but Viktor Gyokeres after Gustavo Hamer’s opener ensured Coventry’s perfect home league record this season continued to game number five, and this was by far the most comfortable of the lot.
If Coventry had lost every away outing this campaign, they would still be sitting seventh in the division. As it is, continue in this fashion and it won’t be long until the Sky Blues are flying high and top of the Championship. At the very least, a third top-six finish in five seasons is on the cards.
It is extremely simple to list the goal scorers from Championship fixtures as the winners of the weekend, but given the collective effort with which West Brom sought to put in a losing performance before Grant’s late double granted a reprieve makes the former Charlton and Huddersfield forward well worthy of his place here.
With discontent being voiced by sections of the Hawthorns crowd on Friday night as they followed three successive September draws by falling behind in the first minute to a well-taken yet comically conceded Andre Gray finish. Grant defied his critics. He got lucky with his first goal squeezing through QPR ‘keeper Seny Dieng, but he used that momentum to strike again in the dying embers and ensure a first victory of the month for Valerien Ismael and Co.
For a man who has just scored his sixth goal of the season in his maiden campaign in English football, Shayne Lavery’s is still a name which receives little more than a shrug of the shoulders from much of the EFL community when discussing some of the better performers in the Championship this season.
Having got the Seasiders off the mark on the opening day with a last-minute leveller at Bristol City, his star faded as quickly as Blackpool’s as Neil Critchley’s side struggled to readjust to the rigours of the second tier. But Critchley has burnt us before, with Blackpool starting last season slowly before towering over much of the rest to achieve a well-earned promotion.
In defeating an abject and limp Barnsley side, Blackpool were temporarily moving into the top half of the table, and while results elsewhere ensured that was not to be the case this weekend, nobody can take away Lavery’s quietly impressive start to life in the Championship. If Ellis Simms and Jerry Yates were the main men last season, then Lavery is now doing the work of two men, and very well he is at doing it too.
The story of the first part of the season for Reading was John Swift doing his best to carry a largely poor Reading side as best he could. Since the first international break of the season, Swift has continued to be his excellent self, but with the difference being his teammates have raised themselves to the their talisman’s level.
Ovie Ejaria was the man to shine in last weekend’s victory, while the points deduction heading to Berkshire announced between that win and this lunchtime three-point haul over Middlesbrough has done nothing to dampen the mood for Veljko Paunovic’s side.
The Royals might be deducted six points, but they have picked up 10 from the last four outings. For a club operating under a transfer embargo this summer and experiencing a host of problems off the pitch, Reading have begun to perform admirably on it. Former wonderkid Halilovic struggled to make an impact at Birmingham last season, but the Croatian midfielder was the difference on the day against another lacklustre Middlesbrough side.
From ‘Pauno Out’ in August to top half in September, the points deduction headed their way won’t even take Reading into the bottom three. That makes for happy reading for everybody connected to the club, and Halilovic may have ridden his luck with the finish, but this is just the start of a successful campaign to come in Berkshire.
Of course he got the assist for Halilovic. Nobody has assisted more goals than Swift in the Championship this season. Nobody has scored more either. He is the ultimate cheat code.
His was a Reading side with no fit senior centre backs, a midfielder in the back four, the two top scorers from last season still injured, and without a clean sheet all season. Against the most experienced manager in the EFL, Paunovic defied the odds as he has done for much of his time in Berkshire. Pauno In.
There have been cries from both in and outside the Potteries that Stoke do not have the midfield destroyer required not only in the Championship, but for a proper Stokie midfield. But Michael O’Neill is evolving this Stoke side into his own beautiful vision. After a stop-start first full season in charge which stalled much of the good work achieved when the former Northern Ireland manager was initially brought in to keep the Potters in the Championship, Stoke have gone full speed ahead at the start of the current campaign.
Hull may not be the toughest test of any team’s credentials this season, but a midfield three of Sam Clucas, Mario Vrancic and Romaine Sawyers with Nick Powell playing between the front line and the midfield trio thrived. They may not have put in the complete performance for the full 90 minutes, but the four of them did what was required, helping keep a clean sheet with a tidy performance and most importantly, three of the four played a part in the two goals which separated the sides.
Fans can and will complain about what happens between, but it is those moments which have carried Stoke to the platform of being one of the best sides in the division, and will continue to do so for the rest of the campaign.
A last-minute winner from the spot feels like trademark Billy Sharp. A goal against Derby County, for whom losing is the least of their worries, is most definitely trademark Sharp. For the Blades, it was another welcome win as Slavisa Jokanovic’s side ventured into the top half of the table for the first time this season.
Having been on the receiving end of Kelle Roos’ challenge which earned the Rams shot-stopper an early bath, Sharp was showered with love and affection from the Bramall Lane faithful as he kept his cool to despatch the late penalty which proved the ultimate difference between the two sides on the day. Make that eight Championship goals against Derby in Sharp’s career, and three for this season. Not bad for a 35-year-old.
At 22 years old, playing his first season in English football, and with the expectation to replace the goals that Andre Ayew and Jamal Lowe scored over the last couple of seasons, Joel Piroe has had quite the welcome to Swansea City. If the task facing the Dutchman was tough, he has taken it to with consummate ease.
Piroe’s first-half strike proved the difference in a rare affair where the important gains went the way of Russell Martin’s side. For Piroe, a fifth league goal of the season was the third to be worth points to the Swans, and the second to come in a 1-0 victory. If Martin’s process is to work slowly, then Piroe’s performances are vital to ensuring that can happen. Only without the threat of relegation will Martin be able to do that. Piroe is the man making that happen right now.
That Barnsley have largely failed to grace either side of the Winners and Losers column on F365 this season is testament to how uninspiring the Tykes have been without looking entirely like boys amongst men. But it has also proved that Markus Schopp’s side have spent 2021/22 largely in limbo, able to go either way from a dull start. Unfortunately, losing 1-0 at Blackpool has firmly nailed their colours to the latter mast here, and given that this is largely the same squad that reached the play-offs last season under Ismael, Schopp is front and centre for a start to the current campaign which has Barnsley just three points and two places above the drop zone.
Few realistically expected Barnsley to match their miracles from last season, and while there are caveats in the departure of Alex Mowatt to West Brom and the inability to sign inspirational striker Daryl Dike on a more permanent basis, this has been a huge drop-off for the Tykes from last season.
Barnsley were in similar trouble at the start of last season – a poor start led to Gerhard Struber’s departure and in turn, the arrival of Ismael. If the rest is history, then so too might be Schopp with more poor results and performances.
Performing well, either on the pitch or in the league standings, will almost always buy a manager more time. Right now, Schopp has neither. He has attempted to make the transition from Ismael to himself a smooth one, but in doing so, has only highlighted the clear differences between himself and his predecessor.
Supporters are voicing their displeasure and more results of this ilk will likely see the board feeling the same way. For a club who has got so much so right in recent years, it could be a case of admitting things are going wrong before it gets worse.
First-half Cardiff City
After nine Championship games, tempers are fraying in the blue corner of south Wales, with Cardiff City yet to score a single goal in the first half of a second-tier match this season. That was all well and good while the typically industrious defence could keep Mick McCarthy’s side in games but conceding three before the break at Blackburn Rovers highlighted just how poor this Bluebirds side can be.
All of Cardiff City
And very poor they were too. Last season, criticism was incoming for daring to suggest that there was very little chance of promotion after an initial upturn in form under McCarthy. We are now seeing why that take was justified. This Bluebirds side was so far from being anything resembling a Premier League outfit that it would have set them back far too much in the long term. As it is, they are looking very much a struggling Championship side in their current iteration.
If the start to the season has been kind to managers with only Chris Hughton leaving his Championship post so far (and even that came later than expected) then we could be set to see heads, both old and new, tumble in the coming weeks. McCarthy will do well to hold onto his with any more catastrophes like this. A strong start has given way to the cracks in this Cardiff side. McCarthy is not looking like the man to fill them in.
Like Cardiff, Huddersfield had a great start to the season, but it has begun to fall by the wayside. A long trip to south Wales saw the Terriers return empty-handed. If once is an accident, and twice is to be shame on us, then three defeats in four makes for considerable worry indeed.
Each of those defeats in recent weeks has been as avoidable as it has been frustrating, and this one especially so. Having granted Nottingham Forest their first victory of the season under the caretaker stewardship of Steven Reid, a visit to strugglers Swansea offered a chance for redemption, but Huddersfield got this wrong from start to finish. They have first-hand experience of just how poor Swansea ‘keeper and former Town number one Ben Hamer can be with his hands, yet failed to test him.
They should have known how susceptible Swansea are to a pressing opposition given the commitment to playing out from the back mixed with an inability to do so confidently at all times, yet rarely pressured and hassled the Swans backline. The season started much better than anybody could have imagined for Huddersfield, but old worries are quickly coming back to the fore. Once more, Corberan is looking less and less likely to be the man to take Town back to the big time.
And as if to complete a trio of sides who have fallen off the success wagon, QPR bring three up nicely with a third successive league defeat, and just one point to show for their September efforts thus far. Ever since giving up that late 3-1 lead at Reading, QPR have been in freefall. Mark Warburton has laid enough foundations to make this little more than a blip, but blips must come to an end. They were their own worst enemies against West Brom, ‘keeper Dieng making a huge error to let the ball slip through his grasp for the leveller before Ilias Chair ran out of space and ceded possession for the move which led to Albion’s winner. A home game against Birmingham on Tuesday night offers the best opportunity to stop the blip upgrading to the starting stages of a crisis.
Still Neil Warnock
We have said it before, and we will say it again; this is not how Neil Warnock envisaged yet another venture into management. In choosing Middlesbrough, he nailed his colours to a club the record-breaker would have envisaged earning him the ninth promotion of his career. Now, Middlesbrough have rarely looked further from earning Premier League football.
Only five teams have earned fewer points from the opening nine games, while Peterborough United have scored more and Barnsley have conceded fewer. It all adds up to a team who will be more likely to be fighting relegation than earning promotion this season. Warnock is far too long in the tooth to waste time waiting around for a long-term project. He built this team in his own vision, but his vision is less than 20/20 nowadays and 2021 might just mark the death knell for his chances of adding a ninth promotion to his CV.