The Championship is the ideal breeding ground for the next generation of elite player. So who are the unpolished gems that could break through in 2021/22?
The Championship has advanced leaps and bounds in recent years. Once viewed as a slog of games to get through to enter the coveted Premier League, it is now rightfully held as a seriously competitive division offering a concrete path for young players into the upper echelons of elite football and international representation.
The league now brings in the fifth highest average attendance for leagues across Europe, ahead of Ligue 1. The constant reshuffling of teams in the league with six new clubs every season provides a blend of unpredictability and excitement.
Furthermore, the play-off final, which grants the winner between £50-90 million in prize money, is regarded as one of the most lucrative games in football. The route to the Premier League is very much the ‘holy grail’ for many clubs. In itself, the playoff format also allows late surges from mid table teams hoping to sneak into the final, sixth placed slot.
The recent developments in the Championship can be viewed in two aspects. Firstly, international teams are now widely represented by players with experience in the division. This is evident when taking a look at England’s Euros 2020 squad. Jordan Pickford (Sunderland). Jack Grealish (Aston Villa). Mason Mount (Derby County). Kieran Trippier (Burnley). Harry Maguire (Hull City). Jude Bellingham (Birmingham City). All plied their trade in the league, accumulating well over 100 combined games, before becoming integral members of the finalist’s squad.
When compared to England’s 2010 World Cup squad, representation in the Championship was limited to a few loans involving the likes of Stephen Warnock and Glen Johnson 7-8 years before the tournament.
Secondly, the transfer fees for exports from the Championship has grown hugely in the last 5-10 years. The previous record of Darren Bent to Tottenham in 2007 for £22.8million has been broken seven times since 2017. Deals for Nathan Ake, Ollie Watkins, Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale and Ryan Sessegnon (all under 25) have amounted to over £145million.
The Championship’s intensity and competitiveness is now viewed as a viable and desirable path for young players to become accustomed to the ‘modern game’ . To pick up experience week in week out in a league that is as unpredictable as it is relentless, is an invaluable education.
With this in mind, who are three youngsters playing in the Championship this season that could become household names sooner rather than later?
Fulham will hope to return to the Premier League on the first attempt under Marco Silva this season. The fortunes of Fabio Carvalho, who has only just turned nineteen, will go a long way in determining this success.
A diminutive and tricky attacker (just 5’ 5″), and a member of the Fulham academy since the age of 12, Carvalho made his debut towards the end of last season, as Fulham were relegated with 28 points. Carvalho picked up 255 minutes in the final five games, featuring in the ‘ten’ role in a 4-2-3-1, scoring against Southampton in a 3-1 loss.
Ahead of the upcoming Championship campaign, Carvalho has been promoted into the first-team to replace departing loanees Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ademola Lookman, and has hit the ground running. Fulham’s academy has famously produced Ryan Sessegnon and Harvey Elliott in recent years. Carvalho appears next up to make a name for himself on the European scene as an elite teenage talent.
Carvalho has started five of Fulham’s opening six league games, ruled out of the Blackpool clash with a toe injury, Incidentally, the Cottager’s felt his absence in a 1-0 loss.
Carvalho’s contributions (three goals and an assist) have propelled Fulham to second in the league with 13 points, just one behind leaders West Brom. In doing so, Carvalho was named August’s EFL Young Player of the Month.
Carvalho’s performances against Huddersfield and Hull City, scoring one goal in each, were superb. However it was his display in the 2-1 win over Millwall that truly caught the eye. Carvalho set up Aleksander Mitrovic for the opener just three minutes in with a narrow cutback, before scoring himself five minutes later with a powerful near post finish – the diagonal run across the centre halves a common feature of his game. To top off the goal and assist, Carvalho also completed four key passes, 28 accurate passes, and created one ‘big chance’.
Typically a ‘ten’ in Silva’s 4-2-3-1, Carvalho is also comfortable on either wing, particularly on the right where he featured at youth level in recent years. A player with immense natural technique and ability, he combines productiveness on the ball with clever movement off it. Carvalho’s relationship with target man Mitrovic is already blossoming, with the likes of Josh Onomah and Jean-Michael Seri providing defensive support and balance in midfield.
It is no surprise to hear that Portugal have been trying to convince Carvalho to switch allegiances to his nation of birth, after picking up over 20 caps for various England youth sides. Carvalho is a player that immediately impresses with his direct dribbling, positioning between the lines and raw natural ability.
With his contract expiring next summer, the likes of Real Madrid have reportedly been monitoring his situation. This will be a massive season for Carvalho, who should realistically aim for between 10-15 goals and a similar tally of assists.
Chelsea’s ‘loan army’ system has been much criticized and maligned as a way of ‘hoarding’ talent. However the strategy has it’s obvious benefits.
One of the standout talents in this season’s ‘loan army’ crop is Levi Colwill. The eighteen year old has joined Huddersfield for the current campaign, and the Terriers will hope to improve upon their 20th-placed finish last season. A return to the Premier League for the first time since 2019 remains a distant hope
Chelsea’s decision to sell Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori on permanent deals this summer speaks volumes of how highly the club rates Colwill. Colwill joined the Blue’s academy at the age of eight, and featured in England’s u17 team alongside Jamal Musiala and Jude Bellingham. He has now been thrown into the deep end at eighteen with his first loan.
Huddersfield appears to be a great fit for Colwill – the side deploy a 3-5-2 set up under Carlos Corberan, with Colwill slotting into the left of a back three. As a left-footed defender, this approach allows Colwill to focus on his passing and ball progression, a trait drilled into youngsters from ‘La Cobham’.
Colwill started Huddersfield’s opening five league games, as the side sit 9th with three wins, a draw, and two losses. After struggling with the intensity of the 5-1 loss to Fulham, Colwill stepped up and performed in the 2-1 away win at Sheffield United, playing the full 90 minutes. Colwill won four ground duels, made five clearances, four tackles and interceptions, and, after Billy Sharp equalised in the 92nd minute, found himself unmarked to tuck away the winner in the 94th minute.
After this game, Colwill recorded the highest average defensive duel success rate of an under 21-year-old in the league with 73.68%, representing the combination of composed passing (he completed 30 of 32 passes in the 1-1 draw with Derby) with a rugged physical element. This form saw Colwill called up to the England u21 squad, featuring alongside fellow Cobham graduates Marc Guehi, Conor Gallagher and Tino Livramento.
Corberan is clearly happy with what he sees; “For me he’s showing he’s a player who is playing regularly and well in the Championship, and when a player is playing in the Championship it shows he has a high level to compete in different competitions … he has shown enough maturity to be in the first eleven of the team, and is helping the team in the first eleven”.
Although Colwill is unlikely to make the leap into the Chelsea first team next season, his Huddersfield experience could prove highly beneficial in his development as a rounded defender. Should this not come to pass, his development will only increase his value to his parent club, and continue the precedent set by both Tomori and Guehi.
Twenty year-old Brennan Johnson, capped internationally for Wales after appearances for England’s youth setup, returns to Nottingham Forest after a productive loan spell at Lincoln City in League One. The Tricky Trees finished 17th in the Championship last season, after two successive years of top-half finishes. However, with Chris Hughton already dismissed, 21/22 is looking ugly already.
Johnson accumulated crucial experience last season with Lincoln, missing just four of an available 46 league games. This included playing the full 90 minutes in 26. Perhaps more importantly, Johnson picked up minutes in a huge variety of positions, evidencing his versatility and adaptability, which could be hugely important in the Championship. Johnson played fourteen games off the right, twelve off the left, six at centre-forward, and fourteen in a range of midfield roles, as Lincoln primarily used a 4-3-3 approach.
Johnson scored thirteen and assisted fourteen in just over 4,000 minutes – averaging a goal contribution every 149 minutes, and was ranked the 6th best performer in the squad by WhoScored. His form picked up towards the end of the season, bagging a hat-trick against MK Dons in April, and scoring in the play-off semi-final first leg against Sunderland.
Ahead of the coming season, with Forest losing seven players for free, and five loanees returning to their parent clubs, Johnson has been propelled into the first side, starting in five games and coming off the bench versus Stoke City. Despite Forest sitting bottom of the table with just one point, Johnson has been a constant bright spark, scoring against Derby in a 1-1 draw, and ranking fourth highest in the league for dribbles per 90 for u21-year-olds, with 5.16 per 90.
With Forest mainly using a 4-2-3-1, Johnson has mainly featured in the ‘Number 10’ role, whilst also playing off the left and right. This versatility, eye for goal and creative ability, mixed with constant energy and high pressing, led to links to Premier League sides Brentford and Leicester over the summer, with a move to the former viewed as an Ollie Watkins replacement. There are certainly similarities between the players, and Johnson will hope to follow Watkins with a move to the top tier of English football sooner rather than later.
Johnson has had a somewhat slow start to the season, although the problems at Forest are more widespread than individual performances. Johnson also has international experience combined with nearly 50 league games at just twenty years old, and made his debut for Wales last September. His debut, against the USA, was described as “spectacular” by Wales Online .
In such an environment, he is able to learn from Gareth Bale, whilst mingling with other talented youngsters such as Neco Williams, Ethan Ampadu and Harry Wilson.
Valued at £10 million by his club, this coming season, his performances in a potentially gruelling Forest season will go a long way in determining whether or not Johnson is the real deal, and can compete at a higher level in the next 2-3 years.