Not so fast. The stuttering form of leaders Fulham and second-placed Bournemouth – neither have won any of their past five matches – has knitted things together towards the summit to tee up an intriguing second half of the season. A four-point blanket covers the top four, with Blackburn nestled in third above West Brom after bouncing back from a freak 7-0 trouncing by Fulham last month (it was only the second time they had lost a league game by more than a single goal since October 2020) by recording six wins in seven games, conceding twice. Among those on the Fulham scoresheet was Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has 25 goals in 27 games for club and country this season and whose league tally of 22 means he has outscored four strugglers in the division: Hull, Peterborough, Barnsley and Derby.
Blackburn, who finished 15th last season, are the surprise package. In the summer they reinvested £400,000 of the £15m they received for talisman Adam Armstrong on a left-back from League One (Tayo Edun), Harvey Elliott and Taylor Harwood-Bellis exited after productive loan spells, a dozen senior players departed and yet they are mounting an unlikely promotion charge. Ben Brereton Díaz, the Stoke-born former England Under-19s striker turned Chile sensation, has provided a stream of goals, and the home-grown midfielders Lewis Travis and John Buckley have also impressed. Brereton Díaz has scored 19 in 23 games since adding his mother’s maiden name to his shirt in August, compared with nine in his previous 80 matches.
West Brom are strong defensively but urgently require a bona fide No 9 to kill teams off, with Valérien Ismaël keen on reuniting with Daryl Dike. Bournemouth seemed untouchable for so long, Lloyd Kelly and Gary Cahill forming a peerless partnership, but defensive sloppiness has crept in. Fulham’s lead may have been shredded but budging them off pole position is another thing. They are blessed with midfield options, including the rejuvenated Jean Michaël Seri, the often-overlooked Neeskens Kebano, and Harry Wilson, who tends to enjoy himself at this level. Then there is Mitrovic.
Five points separate fifth-placed Queens Park Rangers and Blackpool, who continue to make impressive strides under Neil Critchley, in 13th but the former can point to two games in hand on most rivals as an opportunity to move level with West Brom. Nottingham Forest were bottom with a solitary point when Chris Hughton was sacked in mid-September but a few months on the outlook is distinctly different. Steve Cooper’s side are motoring in the rear-view mirror of sixth-placed Stoke City, who seem to have struck a healthy balance between experience and youthful exuberance – they have not paid a fee for any player over the age of 23 since Michael O’Neill took charge two years ago – with Mario Vrancic and Josh Tymon impressing at either end of the scale.
Sheffield United are brimming with confidence after replacing Slavisa Jokanovic with Paul Heckingbottom and look well stocked to push on from mid-table. The majority of the squad that won promotion to the Premier League under Chris Wilder remain – Billy Sharp, Ollie Norwood and John Egan continue to be key pillars – but in Iliman Ndiaye who, like Sorba Thomas at Huddersfield, made big strides at non-league Boreham Wood, they possess a welcome unpredictability. The 21-year-old forward ran from inside his own half on Monday to beat Fulham and earn a fourth straight win. “You’ve not seen the best of him yet,” was Heckingbottom’s verdict.
Wilder is now at Middlesbrough and has overseen an impressive upturn, which has restored optimism, though they may need to bolster their forward line to sustain their push. Coventry City have lost momentum in recent weeks but Mark Robins’ side, for whom Callum O’Hare has been particularly instrumental, remain very much in the conversation. Their unlikely ascent towards the top is one of the stories of the season. Millwall and Huddersfield appear too inconsistent to trouble the top six.
Weighed down by a 21-point penalty, Derby County’s primary focus is on surviving as a club, never mind in the division. Any hopes of staying up vanished a long time ago but Wayne Rooney continues to pull results out of the bag with a mishmash of a squad. The administrators, Quantuma, remain confident of selling the club in January. Last month supporters clubbed together to pay off the club’s £8,304 debt to St John Ambulance, one of dozens of creditors.
Reading are another side nursing a points deduction for breaching financial rules. They have no shortage of pedigree – Andy Carroll, Junior Hoilett, Danny Drinkwater, Scott Dann, Alen Halilovic, Baba Rahman, George Puscas, the list goes on – but a team that began last season so promisingly have shown few signs of taking flight, even if John Swift has been one of the division’s standout performers for a team one place above the drop.
Peterborough are leaking goals but are in no way adrift and will hope to drag Cardiff, Hull, who have lost only one of their past seven games, Bristol City and Birmingham into trouble. Second-bottom Barnsley have got nowhere near replicating a memorable last campaign – they have won one of their past 21 matches and are the division’s lowest scorers – but the head coach, Poya Asbaghi, can see green shoots. “I’m sure when we start winning that we can create a machine that goes on and on,” he says.