Preston North End top our Championship winners and losers

Date published: Sunday 29th August 2021 9:59 - Nathan Spafford

Emil Riis Preston

Things are looking up at Preston North End, while Reading have a Saturday to forget in our Championship winners and losers…

 

Winners

Preston North End, Looking Up
Having began the season losing at home to newly promoted Hull City with a rotting bird corpse overlooking the fans who were equally as dishevelled after a shocking start to the season, Preston were putting the pathetic in pathetic fallacy. This weekend, Frankie McAvoy’s men may not have quite matched that four goal haul, but in winning 3-1, made it successive home league victories and three wins in a row in all competitions.

In truth, their opposition may not have been the strongest in any of those fixtures – a league victory against Peterborough before dismantling local rivals Morcambe in the EFL Cup, but then, neither were opening day challengers Hull, and the tigers mauled McAvoy’s team that day. The same can be said of Reading and – well maybe not quite Huddersfield – who both took three points off North End.

After a shocking opening couple of weeks to the season, this win saw Preston climb to a position with which they are much more familiar, midtable in the second tier. But there is more to be said than for just winning today. Danish striker Emil Riis carried over his good scoring form in cup competitions into the league where it matters most, while one of the perennially least star studded sides at this level played far greater than the sum of their parts once more. That is the marginal gain which had been absent at the very start of McAvoy’s reign. Now they have it back in consistent fashion, the only negative for Preston is having to wait two weeks to do it again.

 

4th (Fourth) Placed Huddersfield
Having started the league season drawing at relegation favourites Derby before being thrashed 5-1 on their own patch, it looked like being another season of strife and struggle, but the threatening bark is looking worse than the Championship bite for the Terriers, who sit in fourth after a third straight league victory, Saturday’s 4-0 triumph over Reading the best of the bunch.

Conceding just once in three league games since shipping six in their first two is testament to the back three that head coach Carlos Corberan has instilled, blending excellent youth in Rubin Colwill with the more experienced heads of Matty Pearson and Tom Lees. Beyond that, a somewhat conservative but well controlled midfield pairing is surrounded by four dynamic players down the sides and a man who has been there, done it, and got the t-shirt in Danny Ward.

We claimed Huddersfield needed an out and out striker who did not have previous history with the club to make this season work, but with Harry Toffolo, Josh Koroma, Danel Sinani and Sorba Thomas working the wings and the channels better than Paul McCartney on TV, almost any striker could make it work.

Against Reading, it worked in abundance. From nowhere, Huddersfield have a balanced squad and a rather settled side, save for O’Brien’s potential late move to fierce rivals Leeds in the remaining weeks of the window. Four different goalscorers – a defender, a midfielder, a wide player, and the striker Ward made this one of the most eye catching results of the weekend. Like Preston, the international break has come at a bad time, but if they return in a fortnight with this side, results like this will become more frequent and far less surprising when they do.

 

Sorba Thomas
And a quick word on one Huddersfield man in particular. Having waxed lyrical about so many individual performances in the opening month of this Championship campaign, Sorba Thomas’ name is one which has gone unnoticed in W&L so far, but a name which has rung around the John Smith’s Stadium on more than one occasion.

Having made the step up from National League football to now being one of the Championship’s potentially outstanding playmakers and most explosive attackers, his is a transition of equal parts seamlessness and superlative. Two assists and a first goal for the Terriers made it five goal involvements in as many games for the 22-year-old. It should not be this easy to be this good.

 

Fulham’s Defence
The opening month of the season is over, so it is premature to make sweeping statements and conclusions about any club’s fate at this stage of the season. But, I also believe we should welcome our new promotion overlords Fulham in their latest venture back to the Premier League.

And while it is clear that the Cottagers look at home scoring multiple goals for fun – particularly their talismanic frontman Aleksandar Mitrovic fresh from signing a five year contract extension – a word too must be reserved for this stable Fulham backline. Despite taking seven points from their opening three games, it did look as though both the Londoners and their new manager Marco Silva were letting old habits die hard. Neither club nor manager have had glowing reputations for stellar defences in recent years, but in defeating Stoke 3-0, they made it three ‘nil goals against’ in succession. While one of those was in the EFL Cup, it coming against divisional rivals Birmingham, fresh from scoring five themselves at the time, it all points to this Fulham side getting better and better.

Considering too that the backline this weekend contained two players – Tim Ream and Denis Odoi – who have been persistent in a defensive setup which has too long flattered to deceive, a clean sheet and dominant defensive performance against this electric Stoke City side is not to be sniffed at. It is alarming for the rest of the league just how good this Fulham side already look, and even more so now the defensive issues are being sorted too.

 

QPR Doing It The Simple Way
This season, QPR have come from one and two goals down at home to Millwall and Barnsley respectively to take draws, defeated London rivals Leyton Orient on penalties in the Carabao Cup and defeated Middlesbrough at the Riverside despite being behind early on and seeing Moses Odubajo sent off at 1-1. So having shown against Oxford United in the second round of the cup that they are capable of winning simply, it must have been a relief to Mark Warburton to see that simplicity carried over to the league.

Having contested an even stalemate of a first half, Lyndon Dykes and the evergreen Yoann Barbet put the Sky Blues to the sword midway through the second period and ensured another great result for the capital side, who went without punishing themselves to make it harder to get a positive result.

 

Brennan Johnson
What a whirlwind 12 months Brennan Johnson has had. This time last year, he had just four senior appearances to his name, largely in cameos for Nottingham Forest. A superb loan spell with League One promotion chasers Lincoln City saw his stock rise beyond his hometown and boyhood club, with serious links to Premier League new boys Brentford throughout the summer.

As it is, Johnson looks likely to be a key player for Forest, who at least got off the mark for the season thanks to the 20-year-old’s late equaliser at Pride Park. Whether or not Johnson’s shot should have squirmed under Derby ‘keeper Kelle Roos’ hands and into the roof of the net is immaterial. After a first half spent under the cosh and once more played far too cautiously across the board, a more daring second half performance got the reward it deserved, and there was no more deserving scorer than Johnson, who looks far more comfortable at this level than the majority of his teammates with far more experience do.

 

Tom Lawrence
Now that’s what you call personal redemption. We won’t dwell on the negative stuff; for anyone who doesn’t know the toil Derby’s talisman Lawrence has endured in the past couple of years, it is very easily found. Today, as with much connected to the Rams, is a day to focus on the positives.

The only thing sweeter than the assist from Craig Forsyth was the euphoria around Pride Park when his strike from the edge of the area hit the back of the Nottingham Forest net. It may not have been the winner in the end, though had his teammates been as clinical as the former Leicester and Manchester United starlet it would have been the start of three points, but it provided another positive moment in a season expected to have so few.

Playing the first hour largely as the most advanced of a fluid front four suited the Welshman. From where he was two years ago next month to now, is a reason to celebrate.

 

Joel Piroe
Losing two time play-off reaching manager Steve Cooper and top scorer and best player Andre Ayew in the same summer was never going to be easy for Swansea City. They look a long way off where they were under much of Cooper’s reign right now with obvious caveats. But while they continue to get the basics of football wrong, one of the more difficult tasks facing Russell Martin is being answered superbly; just how do you replace Andre Ayew?

The answer, throw £1millon at PSV Eindhoven for a man with three senior goals to his name, of course. In five league appearances for Swansea, the 22-year-old forward beat that cross-career tally with his fourth goal of the season being the opener against Preston. It’s just a shame not everybody else is on the Dutchman’s level in the black and white corner of South Wales.

 

Semi Ajayi
If a game in which the defenders are on top figurately is code for a pretty dire match, then Peterborough v West Brom was most certainly a game where defences were on top. But Semi Ajayi made a full blooded attacking move in the dying embers of the game to ensure that this particular defender was on top of the world at the final whistle.

Having seen his role this season reduced so far under Valerian Ismael, a reprieve and return to the starting XI was being well matched by his part in keeping a clean sheet during perhaps the worst team performance under Valerian Ismael to date. In scoring a goal, something he has excelled in at this level for both the Baggies and previous employers Rotherham United, Ajayi had his name in lights and shone brighter than any other player on the pitch.

A word to the warning for the rest of the division; when West Brom can be that bad and still come good, it is going to take nothing short of a miracle to see an instant return to the Premier League.

 

Losers

Reading
Naturally, with Huddersfield being the weekend’s biggest winners on the scoreboard, Reading take their rightful place at the top of the losers. Since these two sides contested the 2016/17 Championship Play-Off Final, which also went the way of the Terriers, both have experienced some ups and plenty of downs.

But today, there were very much two distinctly opposite feelings as blue and white stripes put in a masterclass against the blue and white hoops which travelled north from Berkshire. Pre-match positivity from the arrival of impressive signings Alen Halilovic and Abdul Baba Rahman gave way to the limitations in the team that was available for this thrashing.

More signings are imminent, expected, and much needed. The 4-2-3-1 formation is largely outdated in 2021, but the double midfield pivot or Josh Laurent and Andy Rimonhota which made it work so well last term is struggling to assert the same control over matches, with the Royals’ defeat at Huddersfield their fourth in five games, largely owing to a toothless forward line. Huddersfield had more shots on target than Reading had attempts on Saturday afternoon. George Puscas’ dad may be best known for a sublime goal, but any will do for the shot shy Romanian son.

As with the winners, it is ill advised to be reading too much into Reading at this stage, and with new signings coming into the team, the international break is coming at the best time for Veljko Paunovic’s side, as he will look to integrate hopefully half a dozen new signings into the first team squad before Championship action resumes. On this evidence, it is badly needed.

Dominic Solanke

Bournemouth’s Senior Stars
Jaiden Anthony and Jordan Zemura may not be household names outside of Dorset just yet, but the senior, better known figures at Bournemouth could do with taking a leaf out of the dynamic duo on the Cherries’ left flank as the Cherries succumbed to taking just a point from an uninspiring Hull City side. In many way, this point flattered both sides here, but it is Bournemouth who had the capability to take all three.

A hat-trick of Dominic Solanke chances were well saved by man of the match Matt Ingram in the Tigers’ goal, further emphasizing how Scott Parker’s side need another out and out striker to take the scoring burden off of Solanke, who despite netting twice last time out in the league, is still too inconsistent to be a reliable source of match winning moments.

Orjan Nyland has been brought into add some experience to the goalkeeping ranks but was untested today. Some of that could be put down to his organisation of the back four, but Hull’s inability to do a Bilbo Baggins and go on adventure made the game feel as long as reading JRR Tolkien’s full works in one go.

But for all their domination of the stats, there was little bite to the Cherries. There is plenty enough Championship experience in this side, but similar to Parker with Fulham last season in the division above, the senior players are failing to make their experience count. Bournemouth are close to getting it right, but the players who are most capable, Jefferson Lerma, Ben Pearson, David Brooks, Lloyd Kelly et al, are the ones who can best bridge that gap.

 

Everyone At Swansea Except Joel Piroe
To paraphrase ourselves just a little further up, it is a shame for Swansea that not everybody is up to the standards of Dutch forward Joel Piroe. Seeing as that was the winners section, we tried not to go in too hard. Now we’re in the depths of the losers’ side of things, and there is no hiding place.

Swansea’s afternoon peaked and immediately fell down the line to the trough with Piroe’s opener cancelled out a couple of minutes later by Sepp van den Berg’s leveller for Preston. It was downhill almost exclusively from there and it will take some major work in the last couple of days of the transfer window and over the coming weeks and months to get this Swansea side to standard.

Nobody expects a quick fix. Given how steady the progress Russell Martin enjoyed at MK Dons was, nobody was expecting miracles for a Swansea side who lost key personnel across the board over the summer, but time may be a commodity the Swans can ill afford.

German goalkeeper Steven Benda again looked unassured and if not directly at fault for any of the goals, can hardly lay claim to being flawless in conceding them either, while a back three of Ryan Bennett flanked by Joel Latibeaudiere and Ryan Manning looks to offer good balance of no-nonsense defending with ball playing capabilities on paper.

But on the pitch, this team looks lost, devoid of any sense of where to go and how to get there. It was common knowledge that Martin would look to execute a certain style of football, and playing attractively has been part of the brand for many a 21st century Swansea manager, but they have rarely been at the expense of results. Sitting in 21st with four points from five games is a precarious position in which to be. After the break, wins are what will matter most.

 

Nottingham Forest, Spending Two Weeks In Limbo
Bless those scenes of relief and euphoria in the Pride Park away end when Brennan Johnson struck home the late equaliser. Curses though to those of us looking to make some form of conclusion from a game which was always going to finish 1-1.

However frustrating it may be for us writers, columnists and journalists to be able to draw conclusions from the draw, it may well prove to be even more so for Forest, who would have found it so much easier to conclude and terminate Chris Hughton’s time with the club after a fifth straight defeat to start the season. A point does little to quell fears of a bad season to come, but the way in which it was earned shows promise that it could get better.

Given the two games a week start to the season prior to this international break, it would only have taken three days to find out if that was the case. Now, a fortnight must pass before we can tell if there is tangible progress to be had at the City Ground.

It may well be that Forest choose to get rid of Hughton in the intervening two weeks, but this draw after five games leaves the club in a better position than they were in after the fourth matchday defeat to Stoke City. There is no easy, and indeed, no right decision to be made. Hughton was supposed to be the safe choice which broke the wash, rinse, repeat cycle of chopping and changing managers at least every calendar year, give or take the odd exception. But this two weeks between games involves the end of the transfer window and important time to integrate the squad. Whether or not Hughton is the best man to lead that is almost impossible to tell; only time will do that. Welcome to the unenviable position of being in limbo.

 

Sheffield United’s Blunt Board
Blunt. Not doing their job. Weak. Failing to live up to their reputation. Failing to live up to their promise. Yes, it sounds like a description of yet another limp, lifeless and pathetic display from Sheffield United’s array of strikers, but it goes too for the Sheffield United board who are feeding manager Slavisa Jokanovic on scraps from a promotion which happened too long ago.

This squad did not need to gel; new signings are a pre-requisite for that. This squad needed new blood not tainted by the near-persistent losing culture that emanates from the last 12 miserable months at Bramall Lane.

In the wake of another scoreless and non-winning performance from the Blades, Jokanovic called on the board to make good on their promises to invest in the squad and refresh the playing staff. If they don’t, Jokanovic will have no qualms in walking out. He has, after all, walked out of much better and well run teams in the past.

 

Callum Connolly
78 minutes is a long time in football. It is an extremely excruciatingly long time to play with 10 men, and especially so when granted with an excellent fixture with which to get your first win of the season.

Connolly’s pullback on Benik Afobe was innocuous but denial of a goal scoring opportunity is always going to result in being dismissed. Against this Millwall side, Blackpool would have had a far better chance of the three points going a goal down on 12 minutes than a man down. It appears to be a blind spot in the majority of footballers to not realise this when faced with those options. Connolly’s belonging to that majority cost Blackpool the three points, and potentially even the one today.

Winless at the first international break of the season, Neil Critchley’s side will be desperate to make a recovery from a slow start similar to how they did last season.

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