Championship review: Burnley go top; Southampton whiz Smallbone shines for Stoke; Beale bets on Gardner-Hickman

Vincent Kompany’s Burnley went top, Taylor Gardner-Hickman proved West Brom fans right and it was a weekend of crazy penalties. All this and more from the latest round of the Championship…



We have new leaders in the Championship as Burnley take top spot after beating Swansea 4-0. Now don’t get me wrong, the praise is on its way for the Clarets, but the circumstances up at the top of the table appear to be fairly unique.

Normally at this time of the season somebody, somewhere has made a sprint start and got themselves out in front ahead of the pack. This is not the case this season and whilst Burnley are of course statistically the best team in the division, their current points per game of 1.78 projects a total just over 82 points, a number that wouldn’t on average normally get you into the top three.

A quick look in English football’s other divisions shows the other leaders moving far quicker, Stevenage at 2.29ppg, Plymouth 2.43ppg, and Arsenal at 2.7ppg.

Only a few weeks back things were looking far more normal in terms of points progression, but simultaneous slips from Sheffield United and Norwich paired with back to back Burnley wins has allowed them to slip past. Vincent Kompany’s team has looked pleasing on the eye this season, but all too often has allowed winning positions to turn into draws.

Only West Brom have drawn more games this season than the Clarets and amazingly 11th placed Millwall have won the same amount as our league leaders. What bodes best for Burnley is they appear to be growing into the season and nobody has got away from them at the top, they seldom relinquish possession of the ball, let’s see how they go with possession of the top spot in the EFL.


Taylor Gardner-Hickman (West Bromwich Albion)

The first selection of an interim manager after a firing at a club can prove to be very revealing. In some ways these caretakers have very little to lose and are probably more likely to take a risk than the previous incumbent was when unsuccessfully attempting to cling onto their job. Struggling managers can get stubborn in their selections and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that interim managers can pander to what the fans want in order to change the mood.

All of these dynamics played out for West Brom this weekend in the case of Steve Bruce, Richard Beale and Taylor Gardner-Hickman.

It’s been a horrible start for West Brom and whilst it’s definitely true that fans of losing teams can be misguided in pinning their hopes on players who are not selected, the Baggies fans do appear to have been vindicated in the case of Gardner-Hickman. The ill fated start under Bruce saw the youngster start three times at right back, with onlookers suggesting that was too few starts and in the wrong position.

Interim boss Beale put Gardner-Hickman straight into the centre of midfield and a brilliant performance ensued as he picked up the assist for Matt Phillips’ opener on his way to a combined 11 tackles and interceptions. The icing was added to the cake as he won the ball, drove up the pitch and made the game safe with a brilliantly drilled finish from outside the box. All in all the Gardner-Hickman experiment looks like a tick in the box for the interim boss Beale and one in the eye for the recently departed Bruce.


Penalty Shoot Out

With the World Cup in Qatar just around the corner we’d all better get ready for some regular penalty shootout action. Excluding most of England’s attempts in my lifetime, I love the drama and unique test of nerve served up by the match deciding twelve yard ritual. The Championship this weekend gave us some kind of prologue with plenty of penalties given, scored and missed this weekend.

In the barmy game at Bramall Lane maybe a bad omen as Rhian Brewster, a young English player hit the inside of the post with his spot kick. At Bristol City we saw the old classic ‘former player steps up from the spot’ narrative. Unfortunately for Benik Afobe his weak spot kick was saved, fortunately for Millwall it didn’t affect their result and three points still went their way. In the evening kick off another spot kick was not converted, although this one does go down to the keeper rather than the taker. Watford’s Imran Louza was thwarted by an excellent save by Norwich keeper Angus Gunn.

If Saturday gave us lots of penalties and not very many goals, we had just the man to save us on Sunday. Troy Deeney is a bit of a penalty whizz and while his technique is not the most subtle, it’s extremely effective. It looked as though Deeney had cured the weekend’s penalty ills by blasting home his first half spot kick, but then of course another was awarded in the second half and the Blues striker blasted it over the bar and into the stand. If this weekend of penalties in the Championship is any kind of World Cup barometer then England had most definitely better get Ivan Toney on the plane.


Will Smallbone (Stoke City on loan from Southampton)

This is not the first time we’ve covered a Southampton loanee in this column, Nathan Tella has caught the eye doing good things for Burnley since his temporary move from the south coast. It’s worth noting that Saints striker Dan N’Lundulu is down in League One at Cheltenham and may well end up in the Championship at some point too. Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about the other Southampton player on loan in the Championship, Will Smallbone.

Smallbone, an Irish central midfielder has been on loan at Stoke City this season and is becoming an important player for recently hired manager Alex Neil. He made his 11th start of the season at the weekend as boss Neil returned to former club Preston looking to follow up an impressive win over Sheffield United and secure back to back wins.

Neil has suggested the Stoke squad he inherited might be better suited to a counter attacking style as opposed to the more front foot pressing style he’d prefer to play. Smallbone was moved into the number ten position and the transition resulted in his first goal of the season, arriving into the box to finish off a Dwight Gayle cross.

It’ll be interesting to see what style, shape and strategy Alex Neil ends up deploying long term at Stoke, but whatever that turns out to be I’m sure there will be a place for Smallbone in his starting eleven.

Follow Benjamin Bloom on Twitter @BenjaminBloom

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