Norwich City, Leeds United and Sheffield United title chances analysed

Norwich, Leeds and Sheffield United have broken away at the top of the Championship table – but who will take the crown?

All three clubs won their midweek fixtures, but the Canaries are on the most impressive run of form – reclaiming top spot with their fourth successive win in a 3-2 victory against Hull on Wednesday evening.

Norwich have a two-point advantage over Leeds, while the same gap divides Marcelo Bielsa’s side and the Blades – who are seven points clear of four-place West Brom.

We look at each club’s form, stats, fixture list and commitments to see how their chances of automatic promotion fare.

Goals scored & conceded

Norwich won only one of their opening six league games, but a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough in mid-September sparked a remarkable reversal in form – winning 12 of their following 17 games and losing only once in that time.

Like Leeds, the Norfolk side also suffered a dip in form after the festive schedule, but recently rekindled their emphatic form from October and November – winning seven of their last eight league games.

Leeds were cruising atop the table until a 2-0 defeat to Hull at Elland Road in December was followed by quick-succession defeats against Nottingham Forest, Stoke and rivals Norwich.


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But, since then, Bielsa’s men have restored solidity at the back, only conceding four goals in seven games and keeping their third consecutive shutout in the 3-0 win at Reading on Tuesday.

Sheffield United kicked off their campaign with back-to-back defeats against Swansea and Middlesbrough, but have been relatively consistent since – bar blips in late October and December.

Chris Wilder’s side have hit peak form at the perfect time – winning six of their last eight games, not conceding a goal since a 3-3 draw at Aston Villa in early February and are unbeaten since mid-January.

Expected goals (xG)

Expected goals data reflects the Canaries’ spectacular transformation in form with Daniel Farke’s side creating far more clear-cut chances after their morale-boosting 2-1 win against Villa in October.

The data suggests Leeds’ shaky start to the New Year was primarily due to conceding more chances against opponents, but have restored comfortable superiority in their last three fixtures.

According to xG, Sheffield United would actually top the table – only recording inferior figures in seven league meetings this season, fewer than their two rivals.

Attack

Norwich are the most clinical of the three clubs in front of goal with 75 goals and a 19.4 per cent conversion rate – with 10 of those coming from outside the box.

A dismal return from 12 yards has seen the Canaries miss six of their seven penalties – with Jordan Rhodes missing twice and Mario Vrancic, Marco Stiepermann, Teemu Pukki and Kenny McLean also failing to convert from the spot.

The interactive distribution tab below also reveals how Norwich are far more likely to attack down the central channels instead of from wide positions – firing a league-low 357 open-play crosses to date.

Leeds have recorded a league-high average of 63 per cent possession this term, primarily from setting another league high of 518 passes per game.

Sheffield United have recorded less possession and fewer passes with only 52 per cent and 444 per game, but have the highest proportion of forward distribution and pose considerable aerial threat with 17 headed goals to date.

Defence

Despite being the most prolific in front of goal, the Canaries have also been the least watertight with 47 goals shipped – some 13 more than Sheffield United and nine more than Leeds.

The interactive graphic below suggests Norwich assert less physical dominance during games than their rivals, while a more intricate style of play has resulted in 522 fouls won.

Leeds have recorded more tackles, duels and aerials than their two promotion rivals – conceding 459 fouls and receiving three red cards in the Championship so far, of which two came from second bookable offences.

Meanwhile, Sheffield United have shipped a league-low 34 goals – boosted by their remarkable six-game run of shutouts contributing to a league-high 16 clean sheets, joint with Middlesbrough.

Formations & consistency

In terms of formation consistency, Norwich have been marginally more dogged than Leeds – starting with a 4-2-3-1 in 34 of their 37 games to date.

Bielsa has favoured a 4-1-4-1 in 31 league outings this campaign, while experimenting with three at the back on four occasions.

In contrast to the top two, Sheffield United’s impressive defensive record has been boosted by Wilder’s preference to use centre-backs, primarily a 3-4-1-2.

In terms of line-up changes, Norwich and Leeds have been far less likely to adjust their starting XI, while the Canaries have increasingly made no changes at all – only making two changes in nine games.

Conversely, Sheffield United have been shuffling their pack frequently and have made more than one change in each of their last nine games – amounting to 25 changes during that period in total.

Norwich target man Pukki has played more minutes than any other outfield player for the Canaries this term, while full-backs Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons have also been cornerstone members of Farke’s line-up.

Alioski has excelled in numerous roles for Leeds during this campaign and has clocked more minutes than any other player from Bielsa’s squad this season, ahead of midfield duo Klich and Kalvin Phillips.

In addition to Wilder’s preference to play three central defenders, his side’s solidity has been boosted by consistency – with stopper Den Henderson racking up the most minutes, followed by defenders Enda Stevens and John Egan.

Strength in depth & dependencies

In terms of strength in depth and dependencies, Norwich have relied heavily on Teemu Pukki’s league-topping 24 goals – which accounts for one third of the Canaries total tally – while Emiliano Buendia remains the central creative force.

Leeds’ goals have been distributed more evenly, with Kemar Roofe leading the way on 14 ahead of Pablo Hernandez (10) and Mateusz Klich (eight), while Alioski has been a key attacking force down the left flank.

Billy Sharp’s resurgent form for Sheffield United has been central to the Blades’ form, with midfielder David McGoldrick next on the club’s scoring list with and Oliver Norwood controlling distribution from midfield.

Upcoming fixtures

As the graphic below shows, Norwich have a favourable run-in with only three top-half opponents to play in their remaining nine games, with a particularly easy run until mid-April – bar a trip to the Riverside.

Leeds potentially have the toughest fixture list, softened with home fixtures against bottom-half opponents Millwall and Wigan before travelling to rock-bottom Ipswich on the final day.

Sheffield United’s toughest period is now: kicking off at Leeds on Saturday, before hosting Bristol City and travelling to Preston and Birmingham.

Conclusion

On paper, Sheffield United have the easiest run-in out, while second-place Leeds have the toughest schedule – suggesting the pressure is on Bielsa’s side to avoid a slip against higher-quality opposition.

All three clubs are in form, but Norwich have been edged the rest in recent weeks to earn their place at the Championship summit, but the Canaries will need key players Pukki and Buendia to remain fit during the run-in.

The stats suggest automatic promotion is only for Norwich to lose, while a tough battle awaits between Leeds and Sheffield United to claim the final automatic spot and leave the loser to run the play-off gauntlet.

And that contest plays out over 90 minutes on Saturday, when Leeds host Sheffield United live on Sky Sports Football from 12pm.

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