Just before football came to a grinding halt, the Championship was tightly poised at both ends of the table.
Leeds were on course to end a 16-year exile from the Premier League, while the likes of Middlesborough and Charlton were fighting hammer and tongs to beat the drop. But for now, those potential outcomes have been put on hold.
Indeed, the Championship can often be overlooked while Europe’s super leagues dominate the headlines, but the second tier has consistently proven a gripping and tantalising marathon, with some of England’s biggest clubs occupying the division.
As such, the Championship is and has been awash with some impeccable players and has often proven a treasure trove of burgeoning talent over the years — and not just in England — with West Ham recently plundering Hull’s ranks for Jarrod Bowen; Burnley following suit with Josh Brownhill from Bristol City; and even Liverpool getting in on the January spending spree with Joe Hardy from Brentford.
Need more evidence of the Championship’s esteemed assembly line? Well, how about Gareth Bale? Joe Gomez? Daniel James? The list goes on. So, in homage to the second tier, we constructed a 24-man squad, complete with one key player from each Championship club, and put them to the test in the Premier League.
The rules are simple: we could only select one player from each of the Championship’s current 24 clubs. After that, we simulated a season on Football Manager 2020. Here’s how Squawka’s Championship All-Stars got on…
Of course, this was never going to be an easy task. There were always going to be headaches and hiccups along the way when deciding who to choose. With only one player on offer from each club, we had to exclude some big names, particularly as the squad had to be well-balanced, and not just packed with attacking talent, or the highest valued players.
So, the squad isn’t necessarily comprised of the best player from each individual club, but rather a 24-man team we feel offers the most stability across the board, and is able to compete in the Premier League across a 38-game campaign.
Of course, this Frankenstein-style creation wouldn’t be complete without ‘El Loco’ at the helm so naturally, we put the Championship’s most unpredictable and mercurial tactician at the forefront of this operation, Marcelo Bielsa.
So without further ado, here is the Argentine’s 24-man squad for the Premier League season:
Goalkeepers: Neil Etheridge (Cardiff), Simon Sluga (Luton)
Defenders: Matty Cash (Nottingham Forest), Dominic Iorfa (Sheffield Wednesday), Maxime Colin (Birmingham), Liam Moore (Reading), Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke), Christopher Schindler (Huddersfield), Dael Fry (Middlesbrough), Antonee Robinson (Wigan), Eric Lichaj (Hull)
Midfielders: Kalvin Phillips (Leeds), Romaine Sawyers (West Brom), Ben Pearson (Preston), Kasey Palmer (Bristol City), Bradley Dack (Blackburn Rovers), Wayne Rooney (Derby County), Jonny Williams (Charlton), Jed Wallace (Millwall),
Forwards: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham), Ollie Watkins (Brentford), Andre Ayew (Swansea), Ebere Eze (QPR), Cauley Woodrow (Barnsley)
The formation and best tactics
Straight away some questions had to be raised. Would it be worth taking two top-class goalkeepers, for example, say Jack Butland and Neil Etheridge? Would Watkins be a better choice over Said Benrahma from Brentford simply because of his versatility? Do we neglect emerging talent like Jayden Bogle and opt for the more experienced and reputable Rooney?
Once those hurdles were overcome, we were able to provide Bielsa the tools in which we felt he could thrive. He then had to assemble the new recruits in his image and put together a starting XI best equipped to handle the hustle and bustle of Premier League football.
Naturally, Bielsa went with his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation with Phillips at the base of a midfield trident. The Englishman would be there to set the tempo and shield the backline, while Sawyers would offer the industry of a traditional No. 8, and Dack would provide the creative spark, pushing his side up the pitch.
Cash and Robinson would provide the width in both full-back positions, with each player capable of surging up the byline, creating overloads and aiding in the final third, while Martins Indi and Schindler would offer ball-playing skill mixed with defensive resilience at centre-back, with Etheridge operating as a ‘sweeper-keeper’.
Out wide, Eze and Ayew would function as inside forwards, with the former a right-footed winger on the left and the latter a left-footed winger on the right. The idea being for the duo to cut in and exploit the half-space, while Cash and Robinson overlap and interrogate the gaps created.
Finally, Mitrovic would offer the no-nonsense presence up-top, providing first-class link-up and hold-up play, keeping defenders distracted with his bullish approach and, of course, offering a goalscoring threat both aerially and with the ball at his feet.
It proved quite the maiden campaign for Bielsa and his squad. The Championship All-Stars floated just above the relegation zone for much of the season, without ever dropping into the bottom three for a prolonged or worrying period of time.
In fact, Bielsa’s boys were able to keep themselves just on the fringes of a relegation dogfight and enjoyed a comfortable surge towards the latter stages of the campaign, which meant they were never in danger of facing a scrap during the final few matchweeks.
The Championship All-Stars finished the campaign in a respectable 12th position, eight points clear of the drop zone and just four points adrift the top half of the table, with a disappointing League Cup fourth-round exit to Leeds no less, and an FA Cup fifth-round elimination to Watford.
There were impressive wins over Arsenal (2-0) and Tottenham (3-2), as well as a 2-2 draw at Anfield against Liverpool and a 2-1 triumph over Leicester City.
Mitrovic naturally finished the season as the club’s top goalscorer with 14 to his name, with no player coming close to that tally (Watkins the next on six), while attacking full-back Cash provided the most assists, reaching six in total.
Of course, Bielsa favourite Phillips was one of only two players to receive an average rating of seven or higher, with the other, Williams, only making three substitute appearances. Phillips also registered the most starts and appearances (44).
As for Rooney, on his Premier League swansong, he was utilised quite a bit, featuring 31 times in the top-flight, all as a defensive midfielder. The former England international was reinvented as a deep-lying metronome, in the latest masterstroke from Bielsa, and it worked a treat.
He starred as the club beat Spurs 3-2 and even started and featured in that same role on his Old Trafford return against Manchester United. As far as last hurrahs go for ‘Wazza’, this one certainly wasn’t bad.