Threatening to runaway with things are West Brom and Leeds. This time last season nine points separated the top six but Slaven Bilic’s free-scoring Albion – only Manchester City have more league goals across England’s top five tiers – have established considerably more breathing space at the summit. Bilic has made his first taste of managing in the so-called madhouse look easy, so much so that his side have soared to the 50-point mark without appearing to work up too much of a sweat, and the sense is there is plenty of oomph to come.
West Brom are eight points better off than they were last campaign while Leeds are only a point worse off. Not that they should be worried, with Ben White’s form in the division’s best defence and the stealth of Kalvin Phillips major boons. Leeds could be forgiven for not getting too giddy – they imploded towards the end of last season and this month had to settle for a point after leading a 10-man Cardiff by three goals at Elland Road. Whether Marcelo Bielsa’s stubbornness over Eddie Nketiah comes back to bite remains to be seen; the Arsenal striker is yet to start a league match since joining on loan in August.
Beneath the top two things are splendidly congested between a flurry of teams with clear imperfections, with seven points separating third-placed Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers in 14th. For Wednesday, who have made impressive strides since Garry Monk took charge in September, the elephant in the room is the EFL misconduct charge over the sale of Hillsborough, with their fate in the hands of an independent disciplinary commission. Fulham, propelled by the division’s 17-goal leading scorer, Aleksandar Mitrovic, are fourth, level on points with a vibrant Preston, while a slick Brentford are primed for a tilt at the play-offs after tightening up at the back. Not so long ago Tony Mowbray was feeling the heat at Blackburn but they are one of the form teams and unbeaten in seven games.
A youthful Swansea have blown hot and cold under Steve Cooper but remain in the mix, largely thanks to André Ayew. The Ghanaian is the club’s highest earner, taking home around £80,000 a week but the striker has proved a priceless commodity, hitting double figures in goals to keep them in the hunt. Across the Severn Bridge, Bristol City have wobbled in recent weeks and crave to add that kind of firepower in January. Sabri Lamouchi seemed to have sussed out how to return Nottingham Forest to the big time but a so-far dreadful December – played four, won none – has caused panic and they need to ease the goalscoring burden on Lewis Grabban. If Hull can repel interest and cling on to Jarrod Bowen – 51 goals in 118 league games, including 15 in 23 this season, is an extraordinary return for a right-winger – then they will fancy their chances, while Cardiff have been steady if unspectacular since Neil Harris took the reins, losing only once. Meanwhile 13th-placed Millwall, for whom Jed Wallace is enjoying a fine season, have benefited from an upturn in results since Gary Rowett replaced Harris; they have lost two of Rowett’s 10 matches.
It is increasingly hard to believe but the bottom club Stoke City have the most expensively assembled squad in the division, weighing in at more than £140m, and another £50m-worth of talent out on loan. Back-to-back wins in Michael O’Neill’s first games in charge perhaps sugar-coated the size of the task, with Stoke taking a measly four points from the past available 18. Luton must shore up the leakiest defence in the division while Middlesbrough have been unconvincing at best under Jonathan Woodgate. Danny Cowley and his brother Nicky were managing Braintree Town three years ago and have injected belief into Huddersfield after they became the first of the six second-tier clubs to change managers this season. The one constant throughout has been the outstanding Karlan Grant, who has scored 16 goals in 36 appearances since joining from Charlton in January.
No team have been cut adrift and three consecutive draws have halted that sinking feeling at Wigan, who are a point from safety despite not winning since October. After a promising start Charlton have hit a brick wall but Lee Bowyer’s injury-hit side are six points above the drop zone. Barnsley may be a point below the dotted line but there are green shoots under Gerhard Struber. The 22-year-old former Portsmouth striker Conor Chaplin has been central to their mini-revival, having scored seven goals since the Austrian’s arrival in mid-November.
Derby’s run of two wins from their past 10 matches is deeply worrying and Philip Cocu’s side appear light on quality, having failed to replace last season’s loanees Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, all of whom are excelling in the top flight. Derby have not won away and are among the league’s lowest scorers. Enter player-coach Wayne Rooney: the 34-year-old is expected to make his Derby debut on 2 January against Barnsley. Reading have been Jekyll and Hyde since their sporting director, Mark Bowen, was appointed manager in October but should have sufficient quality to stay out of trouble, while Birmingham are above the drop but going nowhere fast after losing three in a row.