Every new season the three sides that swap Premier League for Championship prepare with the ambitions to make an immediate return to the top flight. In the 20/21 season, it was Norwich and Watford who bounced back at the first time of asking, while fellow relegated side Bournemouth bowed out in the play-offs to eventual winners Brentford. With so much uncertainty in the Championship, mainly circling around transfer embargos and big players moving on for cut prices, it would be as good a time as ever to make a promotion push, and some teams are indeed taking advantage. Queens Park Rangers and Middlesbrough in particular are having interesting windows and both look like a real force. West Brom, Sheffield United and Fulham must have productive windows to stay in the race, and so far the signs are positive for all three.
Starting with the side that finished bottom of the Premier League, Sheffield United look in good shape for the coming season. The Blades were relegated with a vacant dugout following the exit of fan favourite manager Chris Wilder, who opted for an unorthodox counter-attacking style heavily relying on wing-backs and central midfielders making runs into the box with centre backs providing support in a 3-5-2 system. The caretaker appointment of Jason Tindall among others fuelled speculation that foundations are being laid for Eddie Howe to take the wheel, but a two-month wait concluded with the announcement of Slavisa Jokanovic being at the helm on a three-year contract. For a top side looking to be promoted in style, there aren’t many better options than Jokanovic, who joined from Qatari side Al-Gharafa SC.
The Serbian is familiar with the 3-5-2 system, albeit a more conventional version, that has been used for so long at United due to his Watford days when strikers Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra chipped in with 37 goals between the two of them over the course of their promotion campaign. Rhian Brewster is one player who could benefit from this new-and-improved system under Jokanovic. The former Liverpool striker arrived last Summer for roughly £20 million and has flattered to deceive for the most part. Prior to his move, Brewster spent the latter half of the 19/20 season on loan at Swansea City, scoring 11 times in 22 Championship appearances as his side made the playoffs. The change in squad number from 24 to 7 suggests big things are in store for Rhian Brewster this campaign.
Fellow striker Lys Mousset looks to be a part of Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans as well. Ability has never been an issue for Mousset, who recorded a goal contribution every three games in the Blades’ returning Premier League season. It is well-documented that the Frenchman has lacked professionalism in the past that has barred him from showcasing his potential on the pitch. However, it has been said that Jokanovic’s influence has caused a rethink on Lys Mousset’s end, and the former Bournemouth man is allegedly prepared for a productive season. Also in the striker department are Oli McBurnie, a proven target man at Championship level with Swansea, and David McGoldrick, a hardworking albeit not very gifted striker who has gained the respect of both Chris Wilder and the people of Sheffield. Ollie Burke provides a different option with lightning pace and there will always be a place for captain and legend Billy Sharp.
The midfield is an area of immense quality for the Blades. Starting at the base of midfield, Oli Norwood has proved a dependable player under Chris Wilder. Every attacking side needs someone to keep everything ticking and Jokanovic’s United are no exception, and that is where Norwood fits into this side. His composure and intelligence allow him to control games from the centre of a midfield trio. Norwood is likely to take the armband this season as he is the recognised vice-captain and Billy Sharp’s opportunities will be limited. The highly-rated Norwegian Sander Berge has been on the radar of the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal since before his arrival at Bramall Lane, but it looks as though interest has died down for now and Sheffield United could retain his services for another season at least. Ahead of Norwood and Berge is likely to be John Fleck, who often chipped in with goals in the Premier League and is a safe option at Championship level. However, if Luke Freeman can take his chances there is no reason why he can’t be one of the main men; a Freeman, Norwood, Berge midfield trio has terrific balance to it. Youngster Iliman Ndiaye, who impressed during his single Premier League appearance against Leicester, also provides a depth option, though United may wish to add more numbers in this area.
The defence is an area of intrigue. What was once the pride of the team during a push for Europe now faces so much uncertainty. Jack O’Connell has been out of action for nearly a year with a knee injury, and manager Jokanovic has revealed he isn’t part of his plans. Kean Bryan’s future remains unclear as West Brom monitor his contract situation. That leaves just John Egan and Chris Basham at centre back, who were both successful under Wilder’s reign, but will not suffice on their own. Jack Robinson is likely to fill in due to United enjoying a surplus in left-backs. Enda Stevens, Max Lowe and Rhys Norrington-Davies all operate as left wing-backs and have a wealth of Championship experience between them, while George Baldock and the exciting Jayden Bogle are sufficient options for the right side. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has been subject to bids upwards of £20 million from Arsenal and it looks unlikely he will stay at Bramall Lane, so one of Michael Verrips, Wes Foderingham, Jake Eastwood or someone new entirely will battle it out for the number one role.
West Bromwich Albion
In another world, Albion could be returning to the championship under the management of Slaven Bilic, the man who oversaw their most recent promotion to the top flight. A controversial and sudden decision to sack him last year saw Sam Allardyce take the job. The appointment of the relegation scrap expert meant a complete U-turn in the style of play, going from forward-thinking football to the typical English ‘hoof’ counter-attacking system. Another U-turn has been taken following Allardyce’s leave upon relegation, as Valerian Ismael has been appointed from Barnsley. Ismael took a Barnsley side that were tipped to be relegated into the play-offs last season by implementing a high pressing technique and putting an influence on preventing errors. The result of these instructions wasn’t too dissimilar to a volleyball match. This was so effective at Barnsley because the hierarchy have been building towards it for so many years, training players to have the highest fitness levels in the league and appointing managers accordingly. West Brom lack this long-term planning: managerial appointments have no real pattern and thus the players find themselves training for the short-term, so it may prove difficult for the players to adapt to Ismael’s system, or he will have to go for an entirely different approach.
Striking options at Albion include Karlan Grant, Callum Robinson and Kenneth Zohore, who have all played in the Championship before. Grant is likely to explode this season. He was signed from an average Huddersfield side, where he scored 19 times in 43 games in the Championship playing mostly as a left inside forward. While this area of the field is likely to be covered by Grady Diangana, Karlan Grant can still impress playing through the middle with the aforementioned Diangana on his left and one of Robert Snodgrass and Matt Phillips to his right. Another winger may be on the agenda for West Brom as it is widely expected that Matheus Pereira will leave the club, with a host of Premier League sides queueing up for the Brazilian’s signature.
It isn’t just on the wings where Albion are short of numbers; there are just three central midfielders currently at the club. Those are captain Jake Livermore, former Brentford man Romaine Sawyers and new arrival Alex Mowatt. A midfield consisting of those three players is acceptable for a side looking for promotion, but any side playing 46 games in a season needs rotation options. It is a miracle that West Brom have pulled off the signing of Alex Mowatt on a free transfer with much deserved Premier League interest in the former Leeds United youngster following impressive performances in Barnsley’s fairy tale season. Mowatt offers a powerful engine, a hammer of a right foot and good technical ability that allows him to create chances with ease and effectively take set pieces. The Baggies have been keeping an eye on the situation of former loanee Okay Yokuslu but with Premier League clubs willing to pay good money for him it’s unlikely he will make a return.
The key to this somewhat depleted West Brom side is an abundance of quality centre backs. Semi Ajayi was integral to Albion’s last promotion, alongside Kyle Bartley, who could both feature heavily this season. Since then Cedric Kipre arrived from Wigan last Summer following a successful campaign. He has since been loaned to Charleroi and returns ready to fight for a place in the first team. Matt Clarke, who signed for Brighton in 2019 for £3.5 million, joins on loan following two consecutive loans at Derby. Dara O’Shea also provides an option, but can be utilised anywhere across a back four, and will be needed at full-back due to very thin numbers. Just one full-back for each side is currently contracted to the club. Kyle Townsend will operate from the left and Darnell Furlong from the right, making Dara O’Shea an important player. The club is actively looking to sell goalkeeper Sam Johnstone to raise funds for other positions, so David Button and Alex Palmer are the current options between the sticks. The club will likely be looking for a new goalkeeper.
The Whites came the closest to survival out of the trio but ultimately fell short. The situation at Fulham last season was an interesting one, as there are indications that manager (at the time) Scott Parker will become a top manager, while the Fulham squad has plenty of players with the ability to play for some top sides in Europe. Areola, who will now play in Europe with West Ham United, impressed in goal, while the backline consisting of Antonee Robinson, Tosin Adarabioyo, Joachim Andersen and Kenny Tete was very solid in front of him. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Harrison Reed both turned in excellent performances with Mario Lemina also performing. The attack was slightly disappointing despite Ademola Lookman being a constant threat down the left. It is evident that Scott Parker did cost Fulham at times: it was naïve to freeze out an ideal mid-table striker when the team lacked goals, and it may have taken slightly too long for Parker to figure out his best eleven. Nonetheless, it had all the makings of a solid Premier League side that, given time, would have stayed up comfortably.
Scott Parker left the club upon mutual termination of his contract weeks ago and set off to join promotion rival Bournemouth. Like the other relegated sides the new appointment was a very important one. Enter Marco Silva, former Hull City, Watford and Everton manager. The Portuguese has been known to opt for a possession-based approach and often sends many bodies up the pitch. Fulham certainly have a squad made for playing football and it is understandable why Silva was convinced by the hierarchy to sign for the club. One notable drawback to Marco Silva is he has been known to turn his head elsewhere. At all three clubs he has managed in England, results started brilliantly and tailed off as an interest in his services from elsewhere increased. This was particularly evident at Watford, where results had curtailed following links with the Everton job to a point where Silva was sacked.
Fulham’s strike force has some question marks over it. While Aleksandr Mitrovic will undoubtedly be the main man up front, Aboubakar Kamara has failed to deliver for years now, and Fulham will most likely look to Bobby Decordova-Reid to provide backup to the Serbian. There is talent aplenty on both wings, including players like Josh Onomah, Ivan Cavaleiro, Neeskens Kebano and Anthony Knockaert, but the two to look out for are Fabio Carvalho and Harry Wilson. 18-year-old Carvalho impressed in some of his first-team appearances at the back end of last season and scored a satisfying goal against Southampton. Fulham will want to see Carvalho’s development continue and what better way to do that than under fellow countryman Marco Silva. Harry Wilson comes in for a massive £12 million and, while the fee is on the high side, he could prove pivotal for supplying the likes of Mitrovic with opportunities.
Silva often opts for a midfield three consisting of a number 6 and two advanced 8s. Harrison Reed certainly fits the bill for the number 6 role – he impressed over the last two seasons for Fulham and could singlehandedly anchor a midfield. Ahead of him, any two of Tom Cairney, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Jean-Michael Seri and Bobby Decordova-Reid can thrive in Silva’s system. Cairney, Reed, Anguissa in the same eleven would be enough to promote Fulham before the season begins, but we all know it’s never that simple in the Championship.
The Whites are no stranger to depth. Twelve defenders are currently contracted to the club and all of them could make a case for a starting position. At left-back, Antonee Robinsons is likely to play after a decent Premier League season with Joe Bryan, the man who fired Fulham to promotion at Wembley over a year ago, keeping him company. The right backs include Kenny Tete, who also impressed last season, Steven Sessegnon, Dennis Odoi and Cyrus Christie. Silva is spoilt for choice at centre-back with Tosin Adarabioyo, Michael Hector, Maxim Le Marchand, Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo to choose from so mass rotation is expected in the first few months of the season. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola will not be returning to Craven Cottage but Fulham have already acted on this: Paolo Gazzaniga has arrived on a free transfer. The Argentine stepped in for Tottenham in the 19/20 season due to an injury to Hugo Lloris and proved that he doesn’t look out of place playing for a top Premier League side. Marek Rodak, one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship when Fulham were last there, provides competition along with veteran Fabricio.
Two of the three remaining play-off sides from last season have endured a very tough window with the managers of Barnsley and Swansea departing along with the loss of key players Alex Mowatt and Andre Ayew respectively. It would take miracles for either club to challenge again, while Reading also finds themselves under a transfer embargo and have lost key players.
Meanwhile, Middlesbrough and Queens Park Rangers have used this transfer window to build on successful seasons and are looking like a real force. Cardiff and Luton have also completed some encouraging business. However, the only side that comes close to the three relegated teams in terms of quality is Bournemouth, who have undergone so few changes in their squad and are likely to challenge the automatic promotion places with new manager Scott Parker replacing Jonathan Woodgate. Therefore, it is looking very likely that two of the three sides could bounce back at the first time of asking for back-to-back seasons, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if all three managed to do so. Fulham certainly looks best equipped for the challenge, followed closely by Sheffield United, who have both made great managerial appointments that will inherit very talented teams. West Brom lack depth for now but that will almost definitely be addressed in the coming weeks but other than that have enough teeth to be in the question.
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