Championship Preview: Gameweek 5

Uwe Rosler

Uwe Rosler

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for 2 of the weekend’s games in the Championship. Derby County host rivals Leeds United as both teams look for their first win of the season (and to avoid a first defeat), while MK Dons aim for a third league victory against Birmingham City, who have not lost a competitive match since 18th April.

Derby v Leeds

Derby County and Leeds United are the only 2 teams in the Championship to have drawn all 4 of their opening games.

Derby have certainly had an underwhelming start, and some say that is simply due to ill fortune, with the goals conceded against Charlton and Birmingham being down to heavy deflections. However, football’s fine margins in fact favoured them when they played Bolton Wanderers, who hit the woodwork 3 times on the opening day. The key for Derby is to show more of their quality when they are on top in games, because they have not scored the opening goal in a competitive match since 18th April.

Johnny Russell has scored in his last 2 games, while Chris Martin took his first goal of the season well in the 1-1 draw against Charlton. Derby created a number of chances in that match, and might feel they should have won, yet that is the only game they have played so far that they deserved more from. When Derby played Middlesbrough, their performance did not merit any more than the point they picked up, due to the shortage of clear cut chances they created with 68% possession. Against Birmingham, they deserved a point for their 2nd half display, but they could have found themselves more than 1 goal down at half time.

Derby’s current struggles highlight the importance of Will Hughes, who has become a key player for the Rams in recent seasons. The team are having a lot of the ball in their games, but they lack a degree of creativity. Hughes has the capacity to dictate the tempo of a football match, and he will switch play quickly with 1 or 2 touches, which no other player can do consistently. Derby’s midfielders and wingers all have plenty of speed and energy, but lack composure and intelligence. Tom Ince, Andreas Weimann and Johnny Russell all possess pace, but they need somebody behind them who can orchestrate attacks. Jeff Hendrick, who will return to the squad for this match, proved last season that he can provide a goal threat by making runs from deep, but he is not a great passer of a ball. George Thorne is a good holding midfielder, but creativity is not among his undoubted assets.

It seems mad to think that Derby lack creativity, when over the previous 2 years or so, they had been one of the most creative teams in the Championship. By contrast, their defence was once the weakest area of their team, but new centre-back Jason Shackell appears to have settled in well alongside Richard Keogh, who used to look very vulnerable. That is the one main positive that Paul Clement can take from his first 4 league games in charge.

Derby’s matches against Leeds United always carry an extra hint of spice. The rivalry, which started in the early 1970s due to the friction between Brian Clough and Don Revie, has continued over the years. Leeds may not be quite as ‘physically competitive’ as they once infamously were under Revie, but they have picked up 11 yellow cards already this season, with only Brighton accumulating more.

In many ways, this shows the intensity with which Leeds are playing under Uwe Rosler. They like to press high up the pitch and get shirt tight to their opponents, and that is why Rosler always looks to outnumber teams in the middle of the park. Striker Chris Wood is flanked by Sam Byram, a right-back by trade, and Stuart Dallas, a very industrious left-sided midfielder. These players are very energetic and will show the levels of work rate required to harry opposition teams.

The only problem with this approach is it can lead to a lack of width, and Byram has been criticized for his early season performances. However, Uwe Rosler cannot drop Byram easily. For a start, there is currently nobody else in the squad who could play as a right winger, and even if he were to bring in a natural winger, increased width would make Leeds’ midfield more open, and it would be harder for them to play the high pressing game that Rosler advocates.

The only concern for Leeds is that the energy they exert for long periods of their games can often cost them in the latter stages. They conceded a late equalizer against Burnley on the opening day, they failed to hold onto their lead against League One Doncaster when they exited the League Cup, and threw away a 2-0 lead with 2 minutes to go against Bristol City to draw. On the flip side, each of Derby’s 4 goals this season, in all competitions, have come in the last half hour of matches.

For that reason, this blog will predict a draw, with Leeds playing on the front foot in the first half and taking the lead, and Derby pegging them back after the interval.

MK Dons v Birmingham

On paper, a return of 7 points from 4 games would suggest MK Dons have had a good start to the Championship season, yet results at this early stage can be deceptive.

MK Dons won 4-1 at Rotherham on the opening day, but their first 3 goals were down to comical opposition defending, rather than good attacking play. They then lost 1-0 at home to Preston in the second week, a match in which they only created one clear cut chance, which Sam Gallagher missed in the first half. The Dons won 1-0 against Bolton, a team who had failed to score in their previous 5 games, and scored as a result of the Wanderers right-back slipping over, although Daniel Powell finished well. Following that, the team drew 0-0 at Reading, and it was their Berkshire opponents who looked the more likely to score.

There is a sense that MK Dons are not playing with the same confidence they showed last season. When they won promotion, one would have expected them to play quick, early balls into one of their strikers, Benik Afobe (who left in January) or Will Grigg. This season, however, they seem to be passing the ball around in their own half more often, and seem reluctant to open games up for fear of their defence being exposed.

All 7 of their goals so far this season, in league and cup, have come from midfielders. While Carl Baker deserves credit for starting the season in good form, with 3 goals to his name so far, it is concerning that the 2 strikers who joined the club this summer, Sam Gallagher and Simon Church, have not yet found the net.

For all the hype that surrounded Gallagher at Southampton, he is yet to prove himself at professional level, and has so far struggled to impress at Stadium:MK. In the defeat to Preston, the aforementioned chance he missed was his only involvement, and he showed a lack of desire to influence the game. In the subsequent match against Bolton 3 days later, Gallagher was dropped for Simon Church. In that match, Church only had 7 touches of the ball, and was taken off for Gallagher with 22 minutes to go.

The likes of Robert Hall, Dean Bowditch and Dale Jennings all have the versatility to play as an auxiliary striker, but none of them have played there consistently at Championship level (Bowditch not since the 05/06 season with Ipswich). There is no striker in the MK Dons squad that will truly scare defenders.

Many would interpret the fact that Karl Robinson’s side have had on average 56% possession so far this season, combined with the results they have had, as a sign that they are playing with confidence. In fact, this could not be further from the truth, and the weaknesses in the team will be exposed later on in the season.

MK Dons host Birmingham City, who have had a mixed start to the season. On the one hand, they beat Reading on the opening day, and drew with Burnley and Derby, teams who have had the power to spend a lot more than the Blues. And yet, manager Gary Rowett may also feel a mild sense of frustration that his side have not picked up more points.

Birmingham played fairly well in the first 60 minutes of their win against Reading, assembling a 2-0 lead, but had to endure a nervy finale as the visitors missed a chance to equalize from the spot in added time. They had the lead against Burnley with just over 25 minutes to go, thanks to a questionable penalty decision, but invited too much pressure onto themselves in the latter stages and ultimately squandered 2 points. They then took a deserved half-time lead against Derby, but finished the match somewhat relieved to have taken a point.

Birmingham are getting into strong positions, and Rowett can be pleased with the quality of football his side are playing in the first 45-60 minutes of their matches. However, the team must make more of an effort to sustain the intensity of their play.

For that reason, new signing Nicolai Brock-Madsen could play a key role. Having joined on a 4 year contract, and for a fee of £500k that is not insignificant given Birmingham’s financial troubles, Rowett clearly plans to use the striker. He came on as a substitute in the 2-0 League Cup win over Gillingham, and showed an excellent work rate. He may be somebody who can come on for an attacking midfielder, and lead the pressing from the front alongside Clayton Donaldson. At the moment, Birmingham are dropping too far deep in the second half of games, and the introduction of an industrious striker may help them pin opposition teams back.

If Birmingham can learn to be bolder in the latter stages of matches, they will have the edge on Saturday. MK Dons might have had some good early results, but performances indicate their bright start has a shelf life.