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The top 12 Championship teams assessed: How do Wolves and Aston Villa compare?

By David Banner | Football | Published: | Last Updated:

With the Championship season in full flow, the league table seems to be settling down.

How are our local clubs being assessed? (AMA/Sam Bagnall + Will Kilpatrick)

The Middlesbrough Gazette has compiled the thoughts of journalists covering the current top 12 sides in the league - and thanks to them, here is how each team is being thought of.

Wolves

Tim Spiers - Express & Star

Wolves currently top the table (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What are the big plus points for Wolves so far and the side's strengths?

The style of football has been as attractive as anyone at Molineux can remember and Nuno is adored by an exultant fanbase.

There are strengths all over the pitch - even players who looked likely to move on in the summer have been transformed.

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And any weaknesses?

There have been issues against physical teams who press high and stop Wolves' wing backs.

But the team is evolving and adapting with impressive efficiency.

Will they be in the mix in May?

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On current form the only things that could stop Wolves would be an injury crisis, complacency, or Nuno being poached.

The squad depth is frightening - even last season's £13m star play Helder Costa can't get in the team.

How will they approach the January window?

Wolves tried desperately to land a big-money striker in August but failed, leaving Leo Bonatini as the squad's only out-and-out striker.

He's risen to the challenge brilliantly with 10 goals already but will need help over a 46-game slog, so expect a striker and a right-wing-back to arrive in January.

Who are your two automatic promotion winners at this stage?

I've yet to see a team as good as Wolves this season and most journalists or opposition supporters are tending to agree.

If Middlesbrough get it right they should join them in the top two, but the unstoppable winning juggernaut that is Chris Wilder's Sheffield United can't be overlooked either.

Sheffield United

James Shield - Sheffield Star

Sheffield United have been in fine form all season (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What have been the big plus points of Sheffield United's season so far and what are the side's strengths?

It's not only the results, but the manner in which they have been achieved.

Rather than adopt a safety-first approach, the team has approached games with the same attacking intent which saw them cruise to promotion last season.

They've played some damn good football too. They're a team in the true sense of the word but, within that team, there's some really talented footballers which often gets overlooked.

And what are their weaknesses?

Chris Wilder doesn't have access to the same financial resources most other managers at the top end of the table enjoy.

So the fear is, if one of United's nearest rivals opts to spend big in January, it might tip the balance away from Bramall Lane.

But, in fairness, Wilder, his staff and his players have spent the last 18 months proving that, although money undoubtedly helps, it isn't everything.

On what you've seen so far, will Sheff Utd stick around in the promotion mix all season?

I think they will, yes. They've got an attitude which allows them to learn from defeats but then brush them off.

There's probably only been one game so far this season where the opposition looked a step-above and that was August's visit to Cardiff City.

But, in fairness, United are a better side now than they were back then. They might not admit it, but I think they believe in themselves much more now.

How will they approach the January window?

The biggest priority will be to keep hold of David Brooks, although senior figures at the club have insisted he won't be sold after signing a new long term contract.

There won't be wholesale changes with regards to in-comings. But they will probably look at bring in another centre-forward. Probably one with a bit of pace.

If you were to pick your two automatic promotion winners now, who would you go for?

Wolves and, sitting on the fence, one from Sheffield United, Cardiff City or Aston Villa.

But I think all of those three, barring a ridiculous transfer window, will finish in the top six.

Cardiff City

Ian Mitchelmore - Wales Online

Neil Warnock has guided Cardiff to success so far this season (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What are Cardiff's biggest strengths?

Resilience. It's no coincidence that Cardiff won more league games having gone behind than any other side last season, and they've come from behind to claim vital points against the likes of QPR, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday to name a few this season.

It's clearly something Neil Warnock works on, getting players to go for the full 90 minutes, and more if required.

And the weaknesses they'll need to work on?

That's a tough one as they've exceeded all expectations so far this term, but squad depth really hampered the Bluebirds last season.

It's nowhere near as big a problem this season, with Warnock recruiting no fewer than 10 players in the summer.

Omar Bogle and Danny Ward both scored against Ipswich while Kenneth Zohore was sidelined through injury, but in other positions they have struggled to replace first team stars - most notably Aron Gunnarsson - when they have been out of action.

Lee Peltier has had to swap from the right to the left of defence in the absence of Joe Bennett, and one or two more injuries could prove to be crippling.

Will they stick around in the promotion mix?

I expect Cardiff to be within range of a top six spot throughout the course of the season.

An automatic spot will certainly be difficult, especially when you look at the likes of Wolves and Middlesbrough who have spent big while Aston Villa's upturn in form has seen them shoot up the table.

I'd be surprised if Cardiff were in the top two in March or April, but I'd be similarly surprised if they were adrift of the playoff places at the same period.

How will they approach the January window?

While squad depth could be an issue if key players are rocked by injuries, Neil Warnock simply doesn't have the cash that the likes of Middlesbrough or Wolves have at their disposal, meaning he's largely had to rely on astute signings such as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Neil Etheridge - who both signed on Bosman deals in the summer - to deliver the goods.

It's highly unlikely that Cardiff will splash the cash in the January window, and with Kadeem Harris, Lee Camp and Rhys Healey all closing in on returns from injury, the Bluebirds should have sufficient depth in their ranks already to continue their bid for promotion.

Who are your two automatic promotion picks at this stage?

I think Wolves are going to take some stopping and I backed them to do well before the season got underway so I'll stick to my guns and say they'll go up.

As for the second side, I feel Aston Villa will be right up there. Sheffield United have had a tremendous start along with Bristol City.

But the experience in the Aston Villa squad could see them secure an automatic promotion spot.

Bristol City

Gregor MacGregor - Bristol Post

Bristol City have picked up some memorable results already this season

What are Bristol City's strengths and the big plus points of the season so far?

The Robins’ form on the road and defence generally. A massive improvement on last season with 15 points won away from home, the second best total in the league.

Key to that has been the form of all of the defenders, but especially club talisman Aden Flint.

Biggest plus point has been the successful conversion of Bobby Reid into a striker. Tammy who?

And what about weaknesses?

Not too much to discuss here. Fourth in the table, fewest defeats, third most goals scored, sixth best defence (okay, could do better but this is an attack-minded team).

Could maybe score a tad more goals to convert a few more draws into wins – especially at home – but that’s nit-picking.

Do you expect City to be still be in the mix at the end of the season?

I didn’t at the start of the season and there are still fears that they may fall away just like after last season’s good beginning. But slowly confidence is growing.

How will they approach the January window?

City don’t need too much as they have a pretty good squad with several young players in need of more game time. If anything, then perhaps another central midfielder. But players returning from injury may suffice so they may not do too much.

If you had to pick your two automatic promotion winners now, who would you go for?

Wolves and Cardiff. These two have impressed me the most from what I’ve seen so far.

Middlesbrough

Dominic Shaw - The Gazette

Many journalists believe Middlesbrough have the tools to make a sustained push for promotion (Tony Marsh)

What are Boro's strengths and the big plus points of the season so far?

The one stand-out positive is how Britt Assombalonga has hit the ground running. His £15m record fee brought with it pressure but he took no time at all to settle and already has eight for the season. If he stays fit, he looks nailed on to get at least 20.

Other summer signings have also impressed, such as Darren Randolph and Cyrus Christie and the big plus point in the last couple of weeks has been the fact Boro have cut out the sloppy mistakes in defence and look to be back to their usual stubborn selves with Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson striking up their partnership once more.

Finally, one big plus point is the fact Boro are fifth without playing particularly well yet. There's still a widespread belief on Teesside that this Boro side are yet to "click".

What about weaknesses?

Before the win at Reading which sparked an upturn in form and three successes on the bounce, there was real concern at not only Boro's results but the performances as well.

In some games they looked like strangers and a million miles short of being promotion contenders. After they lost at home to Cardiff they dropped into the bottom half, which was inexcusable for a squad possessing such quality.

Thankfully, there's been an improvement but given the fact Monk can call upon Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite, Patrick Bamford and Ashley Fletcher and has Rudy Gestede coming back from injury, as well as attacking midfield options such as Adama Traore, Stewart Downing, Lewis Baker, Marvin Johnson and promising youngster Marcus Tavernier, it's still slightly alarming to see that no team has scored fewer goals in the top half of the division.

Will they stick around in the promotion mix?

They certainly should do. And the signs before the international break suggested Boro are finding their feet.

Garry Monk finally seems to have settled on a preferred system and, with what is most probably the strongest squad in the league on paper, there's no reason they shouldn't kick on.

How will they approach the January window?

I think one of Monk's problems so far is the fact his squad is perhaps that little bit too big. He just has so many options and it's for that reason that players such as Patrick Bamford, Adam Clayton and Lewis Baker haven't even been able to get a place on the bench of late.

Because of that they might well find that a few clubs come sniffing and have a crack at players who are a bit short on game-time. Boro will be reluctant to let anyone leave though.

The one position they perhaps look slightly short is on the wing.

Who are your two automatic promotion picks at this stage?

I think Wolves are a very short price at odds on to win the league with so much football still to play but I still wouldn't back against them to win automatic promotion.

I've been hugely impressed with Sheffield United and Bristol City and wouldn't punt on Cardiff falling away with Warnock's nous guiding them.

I still think this this Boro team, with so much quality, should get themselves right in the mix so I'll go for Monk's side as well - though they still need to improve on what we've seen so far.

Aston Villa

Gregg Evans - Birmingham Mail

Keinan Davis has been a bright point in a strong start for Aston Villa (Will Kilpatrick)

What are Villa's strengths & the big plus points of season so far?

The strengths were the defence. But now John Terry, a previously ever-present, is injured, the fringe players will have to step in and fill his big boots.

Villa don't concede many goals and with Mile Jedinak now also available to call upon in the heart of midfield, boss Steve Bruce feels he has a strong base to build on.

The spine of the team is strong now and the one real plus point of the season is the emergence of young Keinan Davis up front.

He's only 19 but has a bright future.

And what are their weaknesses?

Scoring goals is still an issue.

Villa were challenged by their CEO Keith Wyness to reach 80 strikes this season.

Well they're on 22 now and we're already a third of the way through the season.

Getting Jonathan Kodjia back to full fitness again is a priority. They need to start picking up the speed.

Will they be in the promotion mix come May?

Yes.

Top-two might still be too much of an ask, however they're within striking distance of second-place despite a stuttering start.

Villa have enough strength in depth to see them through until the end of the season so they should remain in the top six, at least.

How will they approach the January window?

Again it will be a case of sell before they buy.

There isn't huge amounts of money to be spent as we seen over this summer.

Villa spent just £2.5million on transfer fees while letting a number of players go for big money (or at least big money when they eventually receive the payment).

So Bruce will have to 'box clever' again and pick up bargain buys or loan players if he feels he needs to recruit.

Who are your two automatic promotion picks at this stage?

I Middlesbrough and Norwich at the start with Villa going up via the play-offs.

It's hard to see past Wolves at this stage but I'm not one for changing my mind.

So Middlesbrough and Norwich it is!

Derby County

Steve Nicholson - Derby Telegraph

Gary Rowett is aiming for promotion with Derby. (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What are the biggest plus points of the season so far and Derby's strengths?

The results have been better than the level of performances - and it's no bad thing if a team is picking up points without playing overly well.

A seven-match unbeaten run lifted them from 15th into the top six before the home defeat by Reading coupled with Middlesbrough's victory over Sunderland knocked the Rams down to seventh.

It was a shock seeing them concede four goals at home to Reading because they had been solid defensively, conceding only four in the previous seven games.

They have scored two goals in each of their last five games and have failed to score in only two of 15 league fixtures.

And what are their weaknesses?

They were inconsistent from game to game before the seven-match unbeaten run, and they remain inconsistent within games - a good half here, a poor half there.

The midfield has been short of balance for much of the season - they play a 4-2-3-1 - and I think manager Gary Rowett is still undecided on his best strike pairing.

Will they be in the promotion mix come the end of the season?

I tipped them to finish top six before a ball was kicked this season, and I'll stick with that.

How will they approach the January window?

The summer window was a time of trying to balance ins and outs, and I expect January to be similar.

Gary Rowett did not do as much business as he would have liked before the window closed at the end of August because the squad needed trimming further. He still believes the squad is too big, but he is also planning to bring in new faces as well.

If you were to pick the two teams who'll win automatic promotion at this stage, who would you go for?

I tipped Aston Villa and Middlesbrough at the start of the season. I cannot change my mind completely and so I'll go for Wolves and Villa.

Ipswich Town

Stuart Watson - East Anglian Daily Times

Mick McCarthy has helped make Ipswich a team to be wary of.

What have been the big plus points so far and what are the side's strengths?

Seven wins on the board and the equal-best points haul from their opening 15 games in a decade.

That’s set against an often crippling injury list too. Homegrown teenagers Tristan Nydam and Flynn Downes have made significant breakthroughs and the football has, in general, been more entertaining.

The front four of Joe Garner (4), Martyn Waghorn (8), David McGoldrick (7) and Bersant Celina (6) scoring 25 goals between them. Only Wolves have scored more league goals.

And how about their weaknesses?

Coming up just short against the division’s leading lights has been a recurring theme. The East Anglian derby defeat on home turf (1-0) was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Only the bottom five have conceded more goals.

Do you expect them to be in the promotion mix come the end of the season?

All of the evidence suggests that mid-table will be Ipswich’s natural home, but a low-budget side punched above their weight to finish in the play-off places back in 2014/15 and Mick McCarthy’s men have a similar spirit about them again.

With some key men to return from injury, don’t completely rule it out.

How will they approach the January window?

McCarthy has been restricted almost exclusively to frees and loans during his five years in charge and with his future in doubt (he’s out of contract next May) it’s highly unlikely that owner Marcus Evans is going to splash the cash mid-season.

If you were to pick your two automatic promotion winners now, who would you go for?

Wolves and Middlesbrough

Nottingham Forest

Paul Taylor - Nottingham Post

Nottingham Forest are coming to shape under Mark Warburton (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What are the big plus points of Forest's start and the side's strengths?

The biggest source of optimism and encouragement for Nottingham Forest right now is the simple fact that they seem to be finding their feet, within the way that Mark Warburton wants them to play.

They had a very tough time through September, when results did not always reflect their performances. But four wins in their last six games have propelled them back to within touching distance of the play-off places – and you get the feeling that things are starting to fall into place for them.

Their strength is the attacking, incisive football they play when everything clicks. They are almost unstoppable when they get things right; when they play with urgency, tempo and confidence – as QPR found out last weekend.

Forest have a side packed full of attacking threat. Daryl Murphy, Barrie McKay, Tyler Walker, Kieran Dowell, Ben Osborn, Ben Brereton, Jason Cummings, Zach Clough and Jamie Ward are all capable of getting goals – and the Reds tend to play at least four of them in every game.

And what about their weaknesses?

Forest look to play their way out from the back – they split the centre halves and commit men forward.

And this can leave them vulnerable to the counter attack. It is a long way from being Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle – they do not quite hope to win every game 4-3.

But they do take risks; they do play with a very attack minded attitude and, when they do not get things right; when they occasionally give the ball away in dangerous areas, they can get hurt.

Forest look as though they will score goals in every single game. But they do also concede chances to the opposition. It is exciting to watch… but it can also leave fans with their hearts in their mouths sometimes.

Will Forest be in the promotion mix come the end of the season?

That’s a tough question… in terms of automatic promotion, it is probably too soon to expect that. It is easy to forget that Forest escaped relegation by goal difference alone on the final day of last season.

But they have taken huge strides forward already this season. Good signings have been added, they are starting to find their feet when it comes to the way Warburton wants them to play.

If they can find some consistency; if they can continue to produce the performance level they showed against QPR in particular, they have a decent chance of challenging for a play-off place.

But even if they finish in mid-table this season, that should be viewed as positive progress, following five years of steady decline under the previous owner.

How will they approach the January window?

Forest will look to complete two or three significant pieces of business, to add to the good work they did back in the summer.

They want to add a goalkeeper – and they could go back in for Brondby stopper Frederik Ronnow, having pushed hard to sign him before the deadline in the summer – and another midfielder, with Forest having been linked with several midfielders north of the border.

Hibs midfielder John McGinn may well have Premier League suitors in January, given the progress he has made since Forest unsuccessfully tried to sign him in the summer. But they are also keen on St Mirren’s Lewis Morgan.

Forest also have a number of potential targets in the centre of defence – and are working on a loan signing of an attacking Premier League player that would be very exciting if it comes off.

If you were to pick your two automatic promotion winners now, who would you go for?

Wolves and Middlesbrough.

It is great that so many unexpected sides are up there challenging right now. How many people would have predicted that Sheffield United, Cardiff and Bristol City would be up there, in the promotion mix?

And Sheffield United are one of the best sides to have visited the City Ground this season, even if Forest managed to battle their way to a narrow win. Some of the football the Blades played was superb.

They will be up there by the end of the campaign, still. But when you look at the quality of the players that Middlesbrough and Wolves have, it is hard not to think that such quality will not eventually shine through over the course of a season.

Wolves have taken the boom or bust approach – if they don’t get promoted, they will face FFP issues at some point, surely?

Aston Villa will be in the mix as well, along with the likes of Derby and Leeds. But you just get the sense that Wolves and Middlesbrough will be the ones who edge over the finishing line over the course of 46 games.

Leeds United

Tom Marshall-Bailey - Leeds Live

Despite the loss of Chris Wood, Leeds are still a force to be reckoned with.

What have been the biggest plus points for Leeds so far this season & side's main strengths?

Samuel Saiz has been a revelation since arriving from SD Huesca for £3m this summer and, in today's market, that was an absolute snip to secure him at that price.

The Spaniard has been at the heart of everything good about Leeds this season, and was particularly brilliant in away wins at Sunderland and Bristol City.

Leeds look so much stronger as a unit when he is on song and he is visibly lifting the performance levels of those around him.

They look like a team that will score goals - only six teams in the division have managed more - and importantly they have various individuals around the team capable of chipping in rather than being reliant on one player.

And the most worrying weaknesses?

Saiz cannot do everything on his own - when he doesn't click, Leeds as a collective don't tend to either

I don't think it's unfair to suggest Thomas Christiansen still doesn't know his strongest XI and there's been bemusement amongst the fans that he has left Stuart Dallas so often this season, as well as Ronaldo Vieira.

I think defensively improvements can be made too.

There are still question marks over both goalkeepers and while they have looked solid at times, they've been unable to replicate that regularly enough.

Will they be in the promotion mix come May?

I think sixth place is likely to be seen as the target for this squad - I personally think there are better teams in the division this season but with the right additions in January, they will have half a chance of squeezing into the play-offs.

It's definitely a top-half side, but they have some difficult fixtures in the lead up to winter.

How will they approach January?

Conversations are ongoing over how Leeds will approach the January transfer window, with Christiansen keen to bolster his options in mid-season.

I think there's a realisation that another defender, midfielder and striker are required and a full-back shouldn't be ruled out either.

I expect them to be fairly busy.

Who are your two automatic promotion picks at this stage?

Wolves and Cardiff - they look the two most complete teams so far.

Cardiff won't lose many, they're strong defensively under Neil Warnock's tutelage and have a matchwinner in Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

Wolves have the most gifted player in the league for me in Diogo Jota and look like they will score goals freely.

Middlesbrough and Aston Villa will also be up there, but I expect Sheffield United to eventually fizzle away.

I like the look of Bristol City too but like Boro and Villa I expect them to narrowly miss out.

Sheffield Wednesday

Chris Holt - Sheffield Star

Sheffield Wednesday are inconsistent, but capable (Tony Marsh)

What are the biggest plus points of the season so far and the side's strengths?

The plus points are that when they're good, they're very good.

In the games where things have clicked, some of the football has been a joy but unfortunately it's not come around that often.

The midfield has been pretty good throughout with Barry Bannan consistently excellent and up front Gary Hooper has been scoring goals and performing well in a deeper role off the front man.

Two goals in the last two goals from Jordan Rhodes is also cause for optimism.

What about the side's weaknesses?

Consistency has been the biggest concern.

As good as they have played in some games, there have been others where they've been absolutely terrible.

Again, the slow tempo at times has been an issue which often makes the team look laboured and they are also conceding too many goals which had been the basis of their relative success over the previous two seasons under Carlos Carvalhal.

Will they be in the promotion mix come the end of the season?

There is enough quality in the team to go on a run and push up the table again and I'm reasonably confident they can do that.

The performance and result against Aston Villa showed what they are capable of but they need many more like that.

I had expected a top two challenge this season but it's hard to see that happening now. I do still believe they'll finish in the top six, though.

How will they approach January window?

I don't think there will be much going on in January, with it more likely they'll let a few go on loan if possible.

The squad is already quite big, not least when everyone is fit. They could perhaps do with another central defender but as they found out in the summer, quality in that position doesn't come cheap.

Who are your two automatic promotion picks as things stand?

Unless there's a catastrophic slip in form, it's difficult to see Wolves dropping out of the top two and with the strength in depth that Aston Villa have I think they'll take the other place.

If I was to be pushed on the rest of the top six - both Sheffield clubs, Middlesbrough and, despite their recent form, Norwich City.

Brentford

Tom Moore - GetWestLondon

Brentford have had injury problems, but are a strong side who play good football (AMA/Sam Bagnall)

What are the plus points of the season so far and Brentford's main strengths?

I'd say the biggest plus point has been the character of this Brentford side and it is also their main strength this season.

At the start of the campaign, they were missing chances which led to them drawing and losing games they should have won.

They also saw the departure of three key players in Harlee Dean, Jota and Maxime Colin in the final hours of the transfer window.

Injuries have hit the Bees hard as well this season, with Rico Henry suffering a season ending injury and four players suffering from concussion in Henrik Dalsgaard, Nico Yennaris, Andreas Bjelland (twice) and John Egan.

There was also tragedy as midfielder Ryan Woods lost his child in August which, naturally, upset the squad as well.

Despite these blows, literally in some cases, Brentford have come through and are now picking up points and are now the side with the momentum going into the long slog of the season.

And their weaknesses?

Ruthlessness in both boxes has been Brentford's biggest problem. The Bees have created chances but squandered them and this has cost them points.

Coupled with that, they have also been prone to gifting the opposition goals through defensive slip ups. If they can continue their improved efficiency in both boxes then they will be a force this season.

Their small squad could also come into play. Rico Henry's season ending injury has forced Dean Smith to play Josh Clarke, a naturally right sided player, and Yoann Barbet, a centre back, at left back and, while both have performed admirably, it is not their best position.

Will they be in the promotion mix come the end of the season?

There's no reason why they can't be.

There appear to be no standout teams in the division this season and anyone can beat anyone.

Brentford have not been outclassed in any game so far this league campaign and they will feel that they can pick up points against any opposition.

How will they approach January window?

Emiliano Marcondes has already signed for the club, with a deal being agreed in the summer window.

Brentford have been traditionally sellers in the January window over the last two seasons but, if owner Matthew Benham feels there is a genuine chance of winning promotion to the Premier League, then they may change tack and make a push to improve their side.

There is likely to be interest in midfielder Ryan Woods but, if the Bees are in the mix, Benham would be more likely to tell the players to give him the rest of the season.

If you were to pick two automatic promotion winners now, who would they be?

Wolves look to be the side most likely to win promotion at the moment and I'd expect them to strengthen further in January and win the league. Second place is anyone's guess really.

I like the look of Cardiff. Neil Warnock is, arguably, the best manager at this level so I'd expect the Bluebirds to be there or thereabouts.

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