Championship Preview: can Warnock get one over his old club?


Neil Warnock –

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for two of the weekend’s games in the Championship. Unbeaten Brighton look to end their recent struggles in front of goal when they host Birmingham, who will be hoping to bounce back from a disappointing home defeat to Charlton. Neil Warnock has his first game back in charge of QPR against his old club Leeds United, who have scored just 16 goals this season.

Brighton v Birmingham

It has been an eventful week for Birmingham City. Shortly after a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Charlton, speculation has surrounded manager Gary Rowett, with regards to reported interest from Fulham. On Thursday’s press conference, Rowett said that there had been no approach that he was aware of and that he was focused on Saturday’s match against Brighton. Some supporters might see that as a statement of commitment, yet saying ‘there has been no approach’ and ‘I want to stay at Birmingham’ are two different things.

In that press conference, the former Burton boss also said that he intended to get loan signings in and he has certainly delivered on that front, with defender Greg Halford and striker James Vaughan arriving later that day. A lot of Blues fans are unhappy with the signing of Halford but this blog would argue that he will give the team some much-needed height in defence. A lot of the goals that Birmingham have conceded this season have come from high crosses into the box and while Michael Morrison is strong in the air, his partner, be it Jonathan Spector or Paul Robinson, often lacks in that department.

Vaughan has a good goalscoring record at Championship level and should give Blues pace plus power and potency in attack. Given the Brummie-born forward’s injury record, and the fact that first choice striker Clayton Donaldson is only out for six weeks, signing Vaughan on a month’s loan deal represents a shrewd and low-risk piece of business. Should the Huddersfield man get injured again, Birmingham do not have to continue paying his wages for very long.

The Blues now come up against Chris Hughton, who managed the club during a memorable 2011/12 season. Although Hughton’s men remain unbeaten this season, all four of their rivals are above them in the form table, as a run of one win and four goals in five games has caused minor concern.

Brighton looked sturdy in their 1-1 draw at Burnley on Sunday and were willing to get the ball into their big front men, Bobby Zamora and Tomer Hemed, at the earliest opportunity. However, Brighton struggled to get in behind the Clarets defence and perhaps needed a speedy striker, which may explain the subsequent arrival of James Wilson on loan from Manchester United. Wilson could become a key signing for the Seagulls, because he will offer them a bit more mobility than Zamora and Hemed. The other loan signing, Rajiv Van La Parra from Wolverhampton Wanderers, is perhaps a more surprising addition. The Dutch winger has plenty of pace, yet the quality of his end product remains in question.

Birmingham City’s mission statement on Saturday will be to end Brighton’s unbeaten record on their own turf, a seemingly sizeable challenge. And yet, bizarrely, Rowett’s troops are more likely to do that, than they are at deliver three points as odds-on favourites at home to relegation strugglers. The Blues have based their play-off push on industry rather than imagination – they can destroy a team that tries to attack them but are often found wanting when a more subtle form of creativity is required.

The key question, therefore, is how many risks Brighton are willing to take in search of a victory, should the match be tied in the second half. The south coast men have drawn eight matches this season – the joint-highest number in the Championship – and scored just five goals in the final half hour of matches – only Bolton and Preston have netted fewer in that time. Both of those statistics suggest Brighton are not a team willing to sacrifice their defensive structure when trying to unlock a deep defensive block. For that reason, there may be limited space for Birmingham’s speed-merchants, Demarai Gray and Jacques Maghoma, to strut their stuff on the counter. A stalemate could be in store on the south coast.

QPR v Leeds

Neil Warnock and Steve Evans – no doubt two of the best looking managers in the Championship – go head-to-head in what is likely to be a fiery clash at Loftus Road. But that’s enough about the managers. Both football clubs are in a state of limbo at present, largely due to poor management at boardroom level. QPR have overspent in recent years and now face cutbacks with plans for a new stadium in place, while Leeds United have suffered from a lack of both investment and stability.

The West Yorkshire club have signed Liam Bridcutt on loan from Sunderland, yet one must question whether he is a necessary signing. Bridcutt has played just 91 minutes of competitive football at the Stadium of Light since Gus Poyet, his former Brighton boss, was sacked in March. While the 26-year-old was a promising talent in the Championship a few seasons ago, there are major question marks over his fitness levels. With central midfielders Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook, Luke Murphy, Tom Adeyemi, Casper Sloth and Kalvin Phillips already in the squad, it will be hard for Evans to give Bridcutt the consistent run of games he needs.

Leeds have only conceded 20 goals in 16 games, a similar number to some teams challenging for the top six, which indicates that defensive improvement is a lowly-ranked priority. They have benefited from strong performances from centre-back Sol Bamba, right-back Gerardo Berardi and left-back Charlie Taylor, although the latter is a fitness doubt for Saturday.

Aside from some hardworking displays from winger Stuart Dallas, who was part of the Brentford side that reached the play-offs last season, Leeds do not offer enough going forward. Forwards Chris Wood and Mirco Antenucci are both out of form and with Steve Evans unable to bring a striker in on loan, he may be tempted to gamble on the untested Lee Erwin at some stage. Midfielders Mowatt, Cook and Murphy created very little against Rotherham on Saturday and with Bridcutt coming in, rotation could be in store ahead of the visit to Loftus Road.

The hosts were as high as fourth at the beginning of September but have since won just twice and are now without a goal in four, after a 1-0 loss at Middlesbrough. Once Grant Leadbitter’s injury-time penalty found the net, the hearts of many neutrals were with the 314 hardcore QPR fans who made the Friday night 500 mile round trip to the Riverside.

What made the defeat more painful for players and fans was that the Rs were deserving of a point. Operating with a narrow 4-4-1-1 system in order to produce two tight banks of four, QPR defended superbly for 92 minutes. Centre-back Grant Hall was colossal at the back, blocking any ball that came his way while Sandro did a superb job of snuffing out Boro attacks. QPR were arguably the more threatening side and had a couple of breakaways which, with a bit more composure from Leroy Fer and Matt Phillips, could have been more rewarding.

QPR did not take any points on their trip to the north-east, but they can be encouraged by the discipline they showed and three goals conceded in their last five suggests progress at the back. The task for Warnock’s men now is to produce a bit more quality in attack. Charlie Austin coming back into the team would seem an obvious short-terms solution to that, yet the former Burnley man’s contract runs out in the summer. QPR may be better advised to try and coax a large fee for him in January – Premier League clubs such as Bournemouth and Aston Villa will be desperate for a goalscorer – and re-invest the money.

A player that has perhaps gone under the management team’s radar at Loftus Road is Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. The versatile forward has scored in five of the six games in which he is started this season and may consider himself unfortunate not to have started at Middlesbrough in Austin’s absence. The former Bristol City man possesses plenty of pace and given the tight nature in which QPR could be set up under Neil Warnock, Emmanuel-Thomas may be the man to give the team an outlet on the counter-attack.

A tight game could be in store here, due to the setup of both teams. However, is hard to fancy Leeds after their 1-0 defeat to Rotherham last time out and given the commitment and discipline QPR showed at Middlesbrough, the West London hosts may battle their way to a narrow win here.