EFL

EFL Championship 2021/22- Everything You Need to Know

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As the sacred day of August 7 swiftly dawns upon us, we take a look at everything you need to know about the EFL Championship this season! From promotion hopefuls to relegation candidates to players to keep an eye on, everything is covered in the buildup to what promises to be yet another enthralling year of second tier football.

Promotion Hopefuls

There will be a number of outfits fancying their chances of gaining promotion this term. The Championship appears very strong, with many well-coached teams and high-quality players currently plying their trade in the division.

Fulham

It’s fitting to begin with Fulham, who arguably possess the finest squad in the league. Having suffered relegation from the Premier League last campaign, the Cottagers will be desperate to bounce back at the first time of asking and it’s definitely a realistic ambition to have.

They recently appointed Marco Silva following Scott Parker’s departure to promotion rivals Bournemouth (more on them later) and so far, have kept many of their star players at Craven Cottage.

Crucially, a sum of Fulham’s players also have experience winning promotion, after reigning supreme in the playoff battlegrounds in 2017/18 and 2019/20 respectively. Gifted attackers Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ivan Cavaliero both played important roles in their promotion in 2019 and will be expected to shine once more, whereas skipper Tom Cairney is an invaluable player to boast at this level.

And, the recent signing of Welsh International Harry Wilson will only provide an additional reason for Fulham supporters to be optimistic towards their side’s chances this season.

A fee of £12M will see Wilson return to the Championship, after previously shining in loan spells with Hull City, Derby County and most recently Cardiff City, where he chalked up an impressive outlay of seven strikes of 11 assists for the Bluebirds.

Along with injecting quality and clear pedigree, the fleet-footed playmaker is yet to approach his prime at 24 and presents a sustainable long term option for the club’s on-field future.

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They have also signed former Tottenham Hotspur shot stopper Paulo Gazzaniga following the expiration of his contract in North London, with the Argentine agreeing on a two-year deal.

Player to Watch: Aleksandar Mitrocic

Despite enduring a bleak spell in last season’s Premier League with only three goals in 27 matches, there is no denying what asset the Serbian forward is in the Championship.

His record speaks for itself and Mitrovic, who also has 41 goals in 64 appearances for his country, found the back of the net on 26 occasions to help Fulham back to the Premier League.

Blessed with a natural goalscoring instinct to complement his imposing physical presence that serves to dominate duels and create space in behind, the former Newcastle United man can be fully expected to rediscover his touch this year.

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Fulham Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Middlesbrough (H)
  • Huddersfield Town (A)
  • Millwall (A)
  • Hull City (H)
  • Stoke City (H)

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies also find themselves back in the Championship, although like Fulham, they will no doubt be harbouring hopes of conjuring an instant return to the Premier League.

They too have recently embraced a period of change, with impressive Barnsley coach Valerien Ismael taking the helm following Sam Allardyce’s departure.

Ismael appears every bit the good appointment from the club; initially tasked with helping the Tykes remain in the division, the Frenchman defied odds and stunned the country by guiding them to the playoffs on a shoestring budget.

He has already acted quickly to reunite with former faces, too, bringing in his ex-captain Alex Mowatt after he left the South Yorkshire side on a free. Fresh off the back of a successful campaign where he scored eight times from midfield and earned a place in the Championship Team of the Season, the 26-year old will implement pedigree and creativity at the Hawthorns.

Additionally, they have sought to bolster their backline by bringing in Brighton’s Matthew Clarke on a season-long loan. Despite still being 24, the central defender has made over 200 professional appearances, turning out for the likes of Ipswich, Portsmouth and more recently, Derby County on a two-year loan spell.

The two signings will be welcome additions to what is already an extremely talented squad. Formidable defenders Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi have graduated the trials and tribulations of Championship football, whereas Mowatt, Robert Snodgrass, Karlan Grant and Callum Robinson will supplement invention and goals into the side.

Star man Matheus Pereira is heavily linked with the exit door after flourishing in the top flight, so his situation will definitely be monitoring. Thankfully, though, you would feel that Ismael’s men have enough to ensure his void is filled.

Player to Watch: Grady Diangana

Unlike Pereira, the Albion wide man found life in the Premier League more difficult. However, he has proved his worth in the Championship and was instrumental in his side’s promotion in 2019, laying on eight goals and six assists.

The speedster carries an ingenuity to his game and has the captivating ability to create from nothing, meaning he is sure to strike fear in Championship fullbacks come August.

West Bromwich Albion Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Bournemouth (A)
  • Luton Town (H)
  • Sheffield United (H)
  • Blackburn Rovers (A)
  • Peterborough United (A)

Sheffield United

Another newly-relegated side that have participated in the managerial merry-go-round, Sheffield United’s promotion ambitions have been handed a significant boost following the appointment of Slaviska Jokanovic, who took Fulham to the Premier League in 2018.

So, it works nicely that he will be coaching a side that boasts promotion experience across the board, as the Blades look set to oversee few departures and head into the upcoming campaign with the vast majority of players having helped them to second place in the 2018/19 season.

With Chris Wilder no longer at the helm, a new era at the club is clearly underway, but they will still be relying on a lot of the heroes of the past this term.

Though their disastrous conclusion to their time in the Premier League was marred with an inability to score goals, they boast many forwards with a good track record at this level- Oli McBurnie scored 23 goals for Swansea City before being poached by Wilder, David McGoldrick struck gold 15 times for United in their promotion campaign and veteran Billy Sharp has over 100 Championship goals to his name.

If their star players show up and display their quality once again, Jokanovic and his troops can be expected to make a very strong return.

Player to Watch: Rhian Brewster

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – MAY 16: Rhian Brewster of Sheffield United looks on prior to the Premier League match between Everton and Sheffield United at Goodison Park on May 16, 2021 in Liverpool, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Since moving to South Yorkshire from Liverpool in a £23M move last year, the young striker has failed to find his feet. But, even though he was unable to find the back of the net at all in the Premier League, his eye-catching loan stint with Swansea is a real source of excitement for Blades supporters, having scored 10 times in 20 appearances to fire the Welsh side to the playoffs.

Naturally, Brewster has divided opinion, but it can be easy to forget that he is still only 21 and has plenty more to offer. The Championship could be the accommodating avenue he needs to reignite his flame.

Sheffield United Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Birmingham City (H)
  • Swansea City (A)
  • West Bromwich Albion (A)
  • Huddersfield Town (H)
  • Luton Town (A)

Bournemouth

Lastly, we come to a side who did not succumb to the heartbreak of relegation, instead the equally disheartening emotional whirlwind of falling short in the playoffs, losing to eventual winners Brentford in the semi-finals.

Playoff defeat can either turn out to make a team stronger and more success-driven or completely dismantle the hinges, and while it is hard to say which direction Bournemouth will head in, they seem to be making the right steps.

The managerial appointment of Scott Parker- who embraced promotion in charge of Fulham just over a year ago- serves as a real statement of intent to the rest of the division and it will be interesting to see how the Cherries adapt to his methods. They have a technically gifted squad suited to possession-based football, which is the approach that Parker implemented during his time with Fulham

Parker is not the only ambitious business that Bournemouth have pulled off so far, also bringing in playmaker Emiliano Marcondes following the expiration of his deal at Brentford. He was instrumental to the Bees’ promotion last term, notching an assist in a 3-1 semi-final win over Bournemouth before scoring in the final at Wembley.

However, it does appear imminent that Arnaut Danjuma will exit the club, having seemingly outgrown the division after starring for Bournemouth upon their return to the Championship, but there is still a school of thought that Bournemouth possess the quality as a unit to strive for another crack at promotion in the event of his departure.

Player to Watch: David Brooks

Among the league’s most technically gifted footballers, David Brooks will be hoping that he can stay injury-free and weave the same wand that he did to allure some of the country’s biggest clubs when his side were in the Premier League.

He scored five times and assisted six in the 20/21 campaign, yet many would believe there is still plenty more to come from Brooks. A supremely talented player on his day, the Welsh International can turn a game on its head in an instant and combines majestical dribbling with an exquisite sense of vision.

Bournemouth Opening Five Fixtures:

  • West Bromwich Albion (H)
  • Nottingham Forest (A)
  • Birmingham City (A)
  • Blackpool (H)
  • Hull City (A)

Dark Horses

The Championship is famed for its unpredictability and every year, we witness the birth of a dark horse in the league. Last season, we had Ismael’s valiant Barnsley. The year before, Sheffield United stunned the masses by achieving promotion. And few will be forgetting Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, who encompassed a formidable spirit and togetherness that guided them to second place.

Now, it is the time for more teams to defeat normalities and wave the flag as the second tier’s dark horses..

QPR

Only blighted by a disappointing start to the season, the R’s finished the campaign with momentum and confidence in their stride after results picked up emphatically from the turn of the year.

The league’s form table from matchday 24 to the end of the season places Mark Warburton’s side third, winning fourteen matches in that time and showing the vast improvements that have been made.

Getting your business done early to ensure that players have plenty of time to embed and buy into an identity always comes as a positive, too, and this is something that QPR have acted on. Charlie Austin and Sam Field- both of whom spent time on loan at the club last season- have been snapped up on permanent transfers, whereas the acquisitions of Jimmy Dunne from Burnley, Andre Dozzell from Ipswich Town and Sam McCallum on loan from Norwich City are also exciting.

Now, QPR have struck the perfect chord of adding younger players who can improve alongside experience, which prompts the belief that they could find consistency and strongly contend for a place in the playoffs.

Player to Watch: Ilias Chair

Diminutive in statute but magical in style, the fleet-footed midfielder lit up White City last term with an outlay of eight goals and four assists, while creating 74 chances and maintaining a dribble completion rate of 71%.

The Moroccan maestro is best utilised in the number 10 role, but has also shown his positional flexibility by playing deeper and either out wide. At the age of 23, his progression is certainly worth monitoring.

QPR Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Millwall (H)
  • Hull City (A)
  • Middlesbrough (A)
  • Barnsley (H)
  • Coventry City (H)

Luton Town

Quietly but surely, the Hatters are performing shrewd business in the transfer market and are embodying how a club can successfully function with limited funds.

So far, they have made a staggering eight signings as Nathan Jones has utilised free agents to optimum in a bid to enhance his squad. They include experienced Championship operators in Amari’i Bell, Cameron Jerome, Henri Lansbury and Reece Burke, whereas the likes of Fred Onyedinma, Carlos Mendes Gomes, Admiral Muskwe and highly-regarded Motherwell midfielder Allan Campbell have all too joined the project in Hertfordshire.

An impressive 12th placed finish last time out substantiated progress at the club and Luton fans will be eager to see what more could come this season.

Player to Watch: Carlos Mendes Gomes

Arriving from Morecambe after helping the Shrimps to a shock promotion from League Two, Carlos Mendes Gomes is a very intriguing pickup for Town. The former Atletico Madrid academy product shone in the fourth tier as he scored fifteen times, assisted five and scored the winner in his side’s playoff final victory over Newport County, meriting interest from higher up.

Quick, direct and confident in beating a man, the Spanish winger encapsulates how Luton like to hit opponents on the counter and although integrating from League Two to the Championship is never a simple step, the signs suggest that he could prove to be a big hit at Kenilworth Road.

Luton Town Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Peterborough United (H)
  • West Bromwich Albion (A)
  • Barnsley (A)
  • Birmingham City (H)
  • Sheffield United (H)

Relegation Candidates

There are also a number of teams who look to be handed a survival mission this term. Here are three teams that could be battling relegation to League One.

Peterborough United

Out of the three outfits selected here, it would be a fair sentiment to state that Peterborough United’s survival aspirations appear the most attainable at the time of writing.

After storming to a second place finish in League One last season, London Road is set to host Championship football for the first time since 2013, where they had the likes of Dwight Gayle, Lee Tomlin, Alex Pritchard and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing within their weaponry.

Times have moved on, but they still boast talented attacking players to call upon- and for Peterborough, it is integral that they supply the goods.

Tricky winger Siriki Dembele- formerly a target of Scottish behemoths Celtic and Rangers- will have many eyes cast upon his magnetising flair, playmaker Sammie Szmodics will be chomping at the bit to prove his worth in the second tier after failing to make the grade at Bristol City two years prior and the homecoming of Jack Marriott could well turn out to be a roaring success.

Marriott joins new signings Josh Knight, Jorge Grant, David Cornell and Josef Bursik under the tuition of Darren Ferguson, although there remains a dearth of crucial Championship experience in a young squad that the Scotsman will no doubt be looking to address in the coming weeks.

For all the talent and endeavour, Peterborough’s squad really is crying out for a sprinkle of experience and know-how at this level and whether that is pursued could dictate their survival chances this year.

Player to Watch: Jonson Clarke-Harris

While you should definitely keep your eyes on the supporting cast in Dembele, Szmodics and Marriott, the crown jewel of Ferguson’s battalion comes in goal machine Jonson Clarke-Harris.

A lower league journeyman who was, ironically enough, let go by Posh in 2013, Clarke-Harris has undergone a rapid trajectory over the last few years, impressing with Bristol Rovers before making his way to the East of England last summer.

He made sure that the gaping Ivan Toney-shaped hole in the team was quickly filled with 31 goals, which unsurprisingly attracted suitors higher up.

For now, though, they look to have kept hold of their star man and his prolific eye for goal will need to shine through this year to give them a good chance of survival.

Peterborough United Opening Fixtures:

  • Luton Town (A)
  • Derby County (H)
  • Cardiff City (H)
  • Preston North End (A)
  • West Bromwich Albion (H)

Derby County

To anyone who follows the Championship, the inclusion of Derby County in this category will not come as much of a surprise; Wayne Rooney’s Rams narrowly avoided relegation in a dramatic final day and, marred by financial issues away from the pitch, the former Manchester United man has a monumental task on his hands in keeping his side above the water once again.

With a mere nine first team players currently contracted and a transfer embargo leaving them only able to acquire free agents and loan players, the transfer window will no doubt prove decisive and will give an indication of where they may end up come May 7.

Former Red Devils wonderkid Ravel Morrison- once dubbed by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘the best he had ever seen at his age’- is on trial with Derby as he looks to reconstruct his career, where he is joined by Phil Jagielka following his release from Sheffield United.

At the moment, though, it really does not look like Derby are equipped to brave the fierce tides of the Championship, and the longer their squad is so bare, relegation fears will continue to increase.

It is not to say that there are not gifted players at Pride Park; newly-announced skipper Tom Lawrence is a dangerous weapon at this level, Kamil Jozwiak’s encouraging displays with Poland at EURO 2020 will incite confidence and youngsters such as Max Bird, Jason Knight and Louie Sibley all bode encouragement for the future- they just need more than what they already have. And fast.

Player to Watch: Krystian Bielik

DERBY, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 12: Krystian Bielik of Derby County during the Sky Bet Championship match between Derby County and Stoke City at Pride Park Stadium on December 12, 2020 in Derby, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

Injuries have failed to serve Polish midfielder Krystian Bielik well, but on his day, few would contest the quality he has in the second tier.

With a well-balanced skillset, Bielik can dictate the tempo of play from deep areas as well as being successful in retaining possession and winning defensive duels. He often screens the defence well, which, in turn, licenses Derby’s forwards to attack more and ensure they are not burdened with as much defensive responsibility, while also being able to create chances himself.

Bielik not only stabilises the midfield, but also creates a unique presence and dynamic that is sorely felt in his absence. Their hopes of survival will undoubtedly rest on his shoulders this season.

Derby County Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Huddersfield Town (H)
  • Peterborough United (A)
  • Hull City (A)
  • Middlesbrough (H)
  • Nottingham Forest (H)

Blackpool

A bleak five years of misery outside of the Championship where they even plunged to League Two for a season, met its conclusion when Kenneth Dougall scored his second goal of the afternoon at Wembley.

Euphoria erupted in the Capital as Blackpool supporters basked in ecstasy, whereas Lincoln City headed home defeated. It was the perfect way to come back to where they belonged. However, the hard work is only just beginning, and while the Tangerines have been active in the market so far, there are still many areas of the side that require addressing if they are to stave the threat of relegation.

Young, exciting coach Neil Critchley- who spent years constructing a managerial blueprint with Liverpool’s academy- has recognised the missing pieces in the Bloomfield Road jigsaw by bringing in the likes of Richard Keogh Oliver Casey, Shayne Lavery, former Doncaster Rovers man Reece James along with Everton duo Josh Bowler and Callum Connolly.

However, the hard work is only is just beginning, and while the Tangerines have been active in the market so far, there are still many areas of the side that require addressing if they are to stave off the threat of relegation.

Critchley and co will be thrown straight into the deep end of Championship football and, quite simply, will have to get up to speed quickly.

Blackpool Opening Five Fixtures:

  • Bristol City (A)
  • Cardiff City (H)
  • Coventry City (H)
  • Bournemouth (A)
  • Millwall (A)

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