By Paula Marcus
It’s hard to believe December is just around the corner. With almost half the season now complete, everyone knows what they have to do in 2018 to avoid relegation or gain promotion. But as we end the year there is one question on everyone’s lips; can anyone beat Wolverhampton Wanderers?
The stats really speak for themselves. So far Wolves have won 74% of their games, more than anyone else in the Championship. They have also scored eight more goals, with an average of 2.1 goals per game. The next best team, Sheffield United, have only managed 1.7 goals per game. The only place they could stand to improve is at the back, where their defence is a little behind Cardiff City, although they still have the best goal difference by nine.
We all know, bad runs in form are always a possibility, and nothing is decided in November. So who are the teams hoping for a Wolves slip up?
In terms of taking the title, their most likely challengers understandably come from the two positions below them. First up are second place Cardiff City, who sit just four points behind top spot. Obviously any team in the top two at this point in the season is there on merit and, as already mentioned, City have a formidable defence that has conceded just 13 goals (0.7 per game).
Another factor in Cardiff’s favor is their December fixture list. Over the next month they play a mixture of teams from the bottom half of the table and those really struggling for form. A good month and they have a high chance of ending the year without another loss. That means a few dropped points from Wolves, and they could finish the year in first place.
The only other team that really has a shot at top spot is probably third place Sheffield United, although they currently sit seven points behind the leaders. Every year a team comes up from League One and challenges, and this year United were everyone’s pick. They were so dominant last year it seemed they would slot in perfectly, although few people would probably have thought that they would have done this well.
A great start to the season saw them win four of their first six games and really set them up for the season. Even more impressive, they are one of only three teams to beat Wolves. What makes them a little different from other successful promoted teams is that they actually made quite a few changes over the close season. Rather than rely on the last seasons squad and momentum, they invested and made changes and so far it is working for them. It also doesn’t hurt than in Leon Clarke they have the current top scorer with 13 goals and an average 102 minutes per goal.
It is unlikely that any of the lower placed teams will top the table come May. They would need to not only make up the nine plus points needed to overtake Wolves, but they would also have to overtake every other team above them. It can be done, Reading managed to go from mid table at Christmas to League leaders in May, but it is a very rare occurrence. That aside, can any of the remaining playoff contenders overtake high flying Wolves.
After the past few seasons it feels strange to be talking about Aston Villa without the word ‘relegation’ after, but they have finally put their bad form behind them and turned into one of the top teams in the Championship. They have finally sealed what was a very leaky defence, and seem to have their confidence back.
The one thing they have struggled with is to put a strong winning run together. They can win a few and draw a few, but to really overtake Wanderers, and possibly even get one of the top two sports, they really need to string four or five wins a row, and I’m not sure at the moment they are capable of that. They also have a difficult December featuring mainly teams in the top half of the table.
One point below Aston Villa, in fifth place, are Bristol City. They are another team that have really transformed their style from the previous season where they finished a few points from relegation. It is no surprise they are near the top of the table, they currently have the third best goals for in the division combined with the fifth best defence. What they do need to do if they want to really challenge though is turn draws into wins. Whilst it is true a draw is better than a loss, they have more than anyone in the top ten. Of those seven draws, four were 0-0, and a just one goal scored in those games would see them in the top two.
The final playoff team is Derby County, who are two points behind City, but three above seventh placed Middlesbrough. County had a solid October, winning all four of their games. However, November only saw them win two out of five games, despite playing mainly poor teams and those located nearer the bottom of the table. There was also very little in the first two months of the season to suggest Derby as automatic promotion contenders, and it seems likely the best they will achieve is a playoff place.
Wolves so far have really been the stand out team, and it seems unlikely at this point they will have a poor enough run to allow anyone to overtake them. Although never say never.
Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.