With the EFL hotting up nicely, where are the surprises going to come from?

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We’re 14 games into the EFL Championship season and it is already hotting up. There has been plenty of excitement, bags of goals and no small amount of controversy. It’s been Championship football at its chaotic best. There may be 32 games left, but it’s never too early to consider the prospects of the early forerunners. 

Leicester might not be shock leaders but the manner in which they’ve achieved this feat might even have Reading’s 106-point champions fearing for their record. Many worried for them with the departure of the creative force that is James Maddison. Yet, 11 games in they sit atop the table with 10 wins from 11 games. New manager Enzo Maresca – Pep Guardiola’s assistant last season – is in his first professional job and he has transformed Leicester’s playing style to bring out the best in his squad. Wilfried Ndidi looks like a new player in the number 8 and Hamza Choudhury has transformed himself into the role John Stones played for Manchester City last season during their formidable treble charge. They’ve recorded impressive wins in recent weeks against promotion rivals Preston (3-0) and Norwich (2-0). Their combination of youthful exuberance and experience makes you wonder whether anyone can stop them. 

Ipswich’s recent history is the antithesis of Leicester’s. When Leicester won the FA Cup in 2021, Ipswich had just finished 9th in League One after another disappointing season in England’s third tier. For many, one man deserves the majority of the credit for Ipswich’s sharp upturn in fortunes. Kieran McKenna took the Ipswich job in 2021, his first as a manager and, arguably, the rest is history. In his first full season in charge, they scored over 100 goals as they were promoted from League One and that form hasn’t waned in the Championship. They’ve already scored 25 goals and have torn teams apart when they’re at their attacking best. Some have questioned whether they can sustain this great form over the length of the season but, on current form, only a brave soul would bet against them getting in the top 6.

There has been plenty of excitement, bags of goals and no small amount of controversy

Our local side Sunderland’s season has been something of a mixed bag so far. They sit fourth in the league and delivered the shock result of the season so far when they demolished Southampton 5-0. However, the deadline day sale of Ross Stewart has left them without a striker experienced at championship level, having to rely mainly on Mason Burstow, a Chelsea loanee, or an out of position Jobe Bellingham. Despite these issues their season had got off to a fantastic start until they hosted local rivals Middlesbrough. The 4-0 loss probably doesn’t reflect their performance, especially given the controversial nature of Neil’s red card, receiving a second yellow card for dissent when the game was still 0-0. The signs are positive, though, and, as ever with a young side, you feel the best is yet to come. One thing is for certain though, Newcastle’s rapid rise will put fire in the belly of a side that is on the brink of real success and which is rightly dreaming of a return to England’s topflight. 

The Championship’s other North-Eastern side, Middlesbrough have not enjoyed such success so far this season, in stark contrast to last year. The appointment of Michael Carrick was a turning point as Middlesbrough arguably became the Championship’s best side for much of last season before defeat to Luton in the playoffs saw their season finish early. They won none of their first seven games this year but recent results suggest they may have turned a corner, winning six in a row after that, including the derby defeat of Sunderland and seem to have found a long-term goalkeeping solution in Seny Dieng. Consistency may be the issue and automatic promotion looks unlikely but, as ever with the Championship, anything can happen. 

Sunderland delivered the shock result of the season so far when they demolished Southampton 5-0

Leeds is a club in transition but they have several positives on their side, not least the pedigree of their new manager, Daniel Farke. During his time at Norwich, he won the league title twice in three seasons, playing breath-taking, free-flowing attacking football and ultimately lost his job for poor form in the Premier League rather than any issues at this level. The combination of his championship know-how and a top-level squad threatens to be devastating. Despite a slow start, three wins in four, including beating high-flyers Ipswich, people are starting to take notice. Farke couldn’t make it three promotions in his last three championship seasons, could he?

Southampton are another club with a new manager and a squad to revitalise. James Ward-Prowse’s departure, although expected, has left a big hole in their midfield, but Armstrong and Adams have to be considered one of the best strike forces in the league. There has been criticism of Martin’s tactics and certainly defensively Southampton have looked leaky and mistake-prone. They conceded four against Leicester and Norwich and five against Sunderland. The watchwords of Martin’s philosophy are seemingly possession, possession, and possession. If they can find a way to become more effective with it, they could be a real force to be reckoned with. 

So, there you have it. But remember, in a league where so little is predictable, one thing is for sure. Nothing will go as expected. 

Image: Chabe01 via Wikimedia Commons

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