GK: Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough)
You know what you’re getting with Tony Pulis. Middlesbrough have a comically miserly defence and shot-shy attack. Pulis has entered hyper-Pulis mode. Their league matches this season have averaged just 1.92 goals per game.
But Middlesbrough aren’t quite so defensively solid as you might think. Twelve Championship clubs allow fewer shots per game on their own goal, and four cede fewer shots on target. The key to them conceding so few goals has been the majestic displays of Randolph, now 31 and in the best form of his career. It’s no wonder he is cemented as Ireland’s No.1.
RB: Reece James (Wigan Athletic)
James was slightly crowbarred into the official EFL Team of the Year, picked at centre-back despite playing 30 of his 38 league games at right-back and the other eight in defensive midfield. None of that tactical silliness here.
Norwich’s Max Aarons can consider himself unfortunate, but James has excelled in a struggling Wigan side that are still far from securing their place in next season’s Championship. You can make your own joke about James making it at his parent club Chelsea, given their tendency to farm players out on loan before selling them permanently, but that only makes his displays at Wigan more important. At 19, he is setting up the rest of his long career.
LB: Enda Stevens (Sheffield United)
This is slightly controversial given that Sheffield United play a 3-4-1-2 formation with wing-backs rather than regulation full-backs, but Stevens still makes the grade. There are more talented players than him in the Championship, but few have improved quite so markedly over the last two seasons. He has become established as Ireland’s first-choice left-back.
Stevens’ role at Bramall Lane is an interesting one. As a wing-back he is expected to push on and provide a significant number of crosses from open play; he’s managed six assists already this season. But if you thought that might impact upon his defending, think on – only six players have made more tackles. He is the all-action left sider that Wilder’s system needs to flourish.
CB: Liam Cooper (Leeds United)
Leeds supporters might idolise Pontus Jansson, but it’s his central defensive partner and captain who makes this team. Rather than detail his impact on their promotion campaign, sit back and take in this gushing praise from Marcelo Bielsa: “I can tell you what I am impressed about. You can’t find a better professional than him. He feels love for his profession apart from the fact it is his job. He is generous and prioritises the needs of his team-mates before his own needs.”
And there describes the perfect club captain, who somehow still hasn’t yet been capped by Scotland at senior level.
CB: Adam Webster (Bristol City)
Only Sheffield United and Middlesbrough have conceded fewer Championship goals than Bristol City this season, and Webster has been the best performer in their backline. There were eyebrows raised when Lee Johnson paid a fee of £3.5m that could reportedly rise as high as £8m with add-ons, but Webster has already justified that hype. At 24, there is surely still room for more improvement and it would be no surprise if there was Premier League interest this summer.
Webster and his manager would insist that Bristol City’s defensive success is founded upon his partnership with Tomas Kalas and both were under consideration, but Webster’s composure with ball at feet means he gets the nod. He has everything the modern manager wants in a centre-back.
NEXT PAGE… The Championship’s top sharp-shooters