Hayden Hackney and four other players to watch in the EFL Championship in 2023/24

2PADJHJ Swansea, UK. 11th Mar, 2023. Hayden Hackney of Middlesbrough in action. EFL Skybet championship match, Swansea city v Middlesbrough at the Swansea.com Stadium in Swansea, Wales on Saturday 11th March 2023. this image may only be used for Editorial purposes. Editorial use only, license required for commercial use. No use in betting, games or a single club/league/player publications. pic by Andrew Orchard/Andrew Orchard sports photography/Alamy Live news Credit: Andrew Orchard sports photography/Alamy Live News

EFL Championship action returns this weekend with newly-promoted Sheffield Wednesday and recently-relegated Southampton kicking off events at Hillsbrough on Friday evening and Sunderland and Ipswich bringing a close to the opening round of fixtures on Sunday.

There are six new teams in the relegated Premier League trio of Leicester City, Leeds United, Southampton and League One title-winners Plymouth Argyle, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday.

And given the struggles of Norwich City and Watford last season in being unable to replicate Burnley's immediate return to the Premier League, how the Championship table will look come next May is anyone's guess.

Using PFF metrics and grading from the 2022/23 season, we have picked five players who showed they possess the quality to be a difference-maker for their respective teams as all 24 Championship clubs get ready to battle it out again.

Adam Wharton, Blackburn Rovers, midfielder

Ball carrying grade: 77.0

While limited to only 12 starting appearances last season, there is a strong expectation that Adam Wharton will become one of the Championship’s brightest young talents as he aims to carve out more of a first-team regular role at Blackburn Rovers.

Wharton doesn’t turn 20 until February but showed last season he can compete across all areas demanded by a central midfielder, earning a passing grade of 76.1, a ball carrying grade of 77.0, and a challenge grade of 66.8.

Blackburn will be hoping to go one step further and claim a top-six place this season after narrowly missing out to Sunderland for the final play-off qualification spot in May, doing so only to an inferior goal difference after Rovers managed to beat fellow play-off contenders Millwall 4-3 at The Den.

Wharton scored in that match and could be the key to unlocking opposition defences after registering 1.7 defensive line-breaking pass attempts per-90 last season. The second-best rate among all midfielders to have played over 1,000 minutes, trailing Coventry City’s Gus Hamer (1.8).

Tommy Conway, Bristol City, striker

PFF shooting grade: 81.8

Homegrown Bristol City talent Tommy Conway finished last season at the team’s top goalscorer with 13 in all competitions.

After not being in the mix for the play-offs nor facing the threat of relegation in 2022/23, a nucleus of young players could be the springboard City need to launch themselves into play-off contention.

Bristol City striker Tommy Conway
2JR13R7 Bristol City's Tommy Conway celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game during the Sky Bet Championship match at Ashton Gate, Bristol. Picture date: Sunday August 21, 2022. Alamy

Midfielder Alex Scott is the Championship’s hottest commodity and has been linked with a string of Premier League clubs, and striker Sam Bell also competed with Conway for minutes last season.

But Conway’s finish in the top 20 of PFF’s shooting grading at 81.8 offers plenty of fuel to the feeling of optimism that surrounds Ashton Gate over the season to come. Of strikers aged 21 or youngster, only Premier League loanees Thomas Cannon (87.8) and James McAtee (85.9) graded higher than 18th-ranked Conway during their stints at Preston North End and Sheffield United.

Hayden Hackney, Middlesbrough, midfielder

PFF passing grade: 88.2

Hayden Hackney came from relative obscurity at the start of last season but went on to claim a place on the EFL’s shortlist for Championship Young Player of the Year, which was claimed by Bristol City’s Alex Scott.

No player arguably benefitted more from the departure of Chris Wilder as he was handed a first-team opportunity by interim head coach Leo Percovich. And Michael Carrick’s arrival saw Hackney excel to the point he has now signed two contract extensions since December – extended this summer by an additional year to 2027.

Hackney’s passing grade of 88.2 ranked fifth overall among midfielders and sixth overall in the Championship. An accuracy-adjusted pass completion rate of 88% also ties Hackney to the second-best rank among midfielders, bettered only by Swansea City’s Matt Grimes (90%).

Nevertheless, the Scotland Under-21 international registered four assists and six second assists (the distributor credited with passing to the assist player) in his 34 Championship appearances for Boro.

Joel Latibeaudiere, Coventry City, defender

PFF One-touch passing grade: 85.8

Last season acted as a microcosm for the tumultuous two decades endured by Coventry since their relegation from the Premier League in 2001, as they entered the mid-season World Cup break 20th in the Championship standings after the start of their season was interrupted by a host of postponed home matches due to a pitch deemed unplayable after their stadium hosted Commonwealth Games events.

But upon the resumption of the season, Mark Robins’ side launched a play-off run that would see them reach Wembley in May. Their gut-wrenching loss on penalties to Luton Town has been followed by the sale of key striker Viktor Gyökeres to Portuguese giants Sporting CP this summer and there are increasing doubts over the future of star midfielder Gus Hamer.

Coventry have been active in the transfer window, however, making eight signings so far with centre-back Joel Latibeaudiere being one of them on a free transfer. The Jamaica international played at right-back for Swansea City last season but could figure to be a replacement for Callum Doyle who has returned to Leicester City after playing 3,679 minutes for Coventry as a loanee.

Latibeaudiere has earned a reputation for his ability as a distributor and that is backed up by his PFF passing grade of 86.6. Interestingly, when analysing one-touch pass events Latibeaudiere’s grade of 85.8 is in lock-step with Coventry full-back Jake Bidwell’s 86.0 – the two top-graded defenders in the Championship in this regard.

Gabriel Sara, Norwich City, midfielder

Norwich City Gabriel Sara
2PEWWB8 Gabriel Sara of Norwich City and Pierre Ekwah of Sunderland – Norwich City v Sunderland, Sky Bet Championship, Carrow Road, Norwich, UK – 12th March 2023. Alamy
PFF dribbling grade: 83.8

Norwich City will be hoping midfielder Gabriel Sara can get up to speed fast after playing a minimal number of minutes during the club’s pre-season after requiring appendix surgery.

He has shown signs of doing so with a goal from a free-kick and an assist in the 2-0 win against Toulouse in a friendly last week. That could bode well for the Canaries prospects as they prepare for the new season without striker Teemu Pukki, who ended a five-year association with the club to sign for Minnesota United as a designated player in June.

Sara ranked 13th for chances created in 2022/23 with 72, the fifth-most at his position, comfortably the most for Norwich with Onel Hernández and Max Aarons trailing on 46 and 45. His high chance creation might be aided by Sara's dribbling ability with an 83.8 grade on 52 events the eight-best overall rank.

As a distributor, the Brazilian’s 80.2 passing grade also ranked inside the top 20 at 18 among all midfielders, while he went one further as a ball carrier with a 10th-place rank owing to his grade of 79.3 – no other Norwich midfielder or winger graded better.

A key role awaits Sara as Norwich aim to improve on last season which saw them fade from play-off outsiders to a 13th-place finish in the Championship. If they are unable to, then at least Sara may help to maintain their 14-year unbeaten run over fierce rivals Ipswich Town who have returned to the Championship as League One runners-up.

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