The EFL Championship is the only gateway to Premier League competition; teams must battle through a grueling 46-game season for their shot at the big time. Usually a tight and scrappy league – where any team has the ability to beat another – the second tier of English football has seen two teams create a gaping chasm between themselves and the rest. Teams finishing in 1st and 2nd place breathe a collective sigh of relief as they reach the completion of each season; assuring themselves of a spot in next season’s edition of the Premier League – whilst avoiding the treacherous play-offs.
Burnley and Sheffield United have seemingly ran away with those lucrative automatic promotion spots – despite not even being two-thirds of the way through the Championship season! How have these teams managed to steal the spots so early in the ‘most competitive league in the world’? I took a look into a Championship history book in search of the answer.
We will start at the top of the table with Burnley. The Clarets are comfortably clear of the play-offs, sitting on a huge 62 points. Burnley suffered relegation from the Premier League in the 2021-22 season after spending 6 consecutive seasons in the top flight, and were forced to rebuild after losing a number of key players such as Nick Pope, Dwight McNeil, James Tarkowski and Ben Mee – alongside many others.
Former Manchester City captain and title winner Vincent Kompany took the helm this term – in only his second managerial position. Expectations were not high for this comparatively weak squad at the start of the season – however Kompany has smashed those expectations, and in emphatic style! Premier League fans will remember Burnley for their low possession and long ball tactics; often coming across as boring to watch – Sean Dyche’s style was given the unfortunate label of ‘anti-football’.
Kompany’s iteration of the Clarets looks to be the antithesis of his predecessor, with high possession and methodical, intricate passing – yielding them a massive 55 goals from 35.9 expected goals. Kompany’s exciting summer acquisitions have made Burnley the second youngest team on average in the league this season, signing players such as Zaroury (22), Maatsen (20) and Harwood-Bellis (20).
However, it’s been an older player – contracted to Burnley from before Kompany’s reign – who has impressed the most. Josh Brownhill has thrived in a more advanced position, scoring 5 goals and assisting 6. He boasts a 7.37 Whoscored.com match rating from 2428 Championship minutes (highest in the Burnley squad for both statistics). Without a large volume goal-scorer, Burnley seek goals from everyone in their squad – 16 different players have contributed at least 1 goal this term.
This article is not just about the team in top position though. We must also talk about Sheffield United, who hang five points below the league leaders – and an impressive 13 points clear of 3rd place Watford.
United’s unlikely 9th place finish in the 2019/20 Premier League season was the peak of an incredible rise under manager Chris Wilder. His side experienced a vicious bout of ‘second-season syndrome’ which proved to be fatal, and the club were relegated in last place – a massive 17 points from safety!
The Blades are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance under Paul Heckingbottom; playing a similar 3-5-2 formation to the one that Wilder used to great success – this time with less overlapping from outside centre backs! Heckingbottom – who was previously caretaker manager after Wilder’s sacking – was officially appointed as manager on the 25th November 2021, with his team languishing in 16th place after 19 matches. A remarkable run in the remaining 27 games shot United all the way up 11 places – concluding in a play-off spot. The end-of-season competition wasn’t kind to Sheffield United; cruelly losing on penalties in the semi-finals to eventual champions Nottingham Forrest. Reinvigorated after a positive 2nd half of the previous season, the Blades were expected to challenge for promotion once again. What wasn’t expected however, was how dominantly they’ve gone about achieving that task.
Quite possibly the best Championship signing of the season – Bosnian international centre back Anel Ahmedhodžić – has been nothing short of a sensation. The estimated £4 million spent on the 23-year-old looks to have been an absolute steal. Playing as a right sided centre back, the former
Malmö player has been a large contributor to the best defence in the league – conceding only 0.86 goals per game. Not only good in his own box; Ahmedhodžić is a threat in the opposition box also – he has 4 goals and 2 assists so far. Another key player this season has been attacking midfielder/striker Iliman Ndiaye; he has 10 goals and 7 assists this season – already bettering his tally from 2021/22.
Now, time for the numbers. I have compiled data from previous Championship seasons at the 28 matches-played stage, and using this, we will be able to see how our two runaway leaders stack up against their previous adversaries, make an informed judgment on their promotion chances, and plot a likely course of both sides for the remainder of the season.
Burnley have the highest points total at this point since Wolves in the 2017/18 season – which saw the Midlands club go on to win the league with 99 points. Only Leicester City (2013/14) and Reading (2005/06) had more points at this stage in Championship history than the Clarets (taking the official formation of the league as 2004), with 63 and 69 respectively. Reading went onto achieve the highest points tally of all time at the end of the 2005/06 season with a whopping 106. Leicester were the third side to make it past the 100-point mark ,with a total equaling that of Newcastle in 2009/10 – and it must be noted that Newcastle were 3 points worse off at this time than Burnley are now! In the last 5 seasons all 3 sides with a points total equaling, or greater than, that of Sheffield United after 28 games were promoted at the end of that season.
A high points total is a great indicator of success, however it’s the distance between the automatic spots and third place which matter the most. As mentioned previously, there is a lot of headroom at the top – Sheffield and Burnley have the most clearance of any team from third place in the last five Championship seasons. With an 18-point gap between automatic promotion and the play-offs, Burnley equal the clearance of Reading’s famous Championship season at this mark.
Although the top two’s statistics stack up remarkably well with the best Championship seasons in history, that isn’t to say that their form will continue for certain. However, I think that with a gap as wide as the Sahara Desert, Burnley are certain to go up. Sheffield’s fate is less certain – it would definitely be a statistical anomaly were they not to go up, and the odds seem too much in their favour for anything other than promotion.
I think it’s safe to say that the automatic promotion spots are sorted out already. The Clarets and the Blades sit pretty at the top, watching the play-off scrap below them- unassailable in the knowledge that they will be home and dry come May. Their only goal now, is to join Newcastle, Leicester and Reading in the 100-point club. Perhaps we are seeing the most dominant season in Championship history unfolding right in front of our eyes?