Phil Hay: Why it has to be Chris Wood for Championship player of the year

Chris Wood.
Chris Wood.
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News of an injury to Chris Wood and the concern it caused yesterday said everything about the way in which he has driven Leeds United’s season.

News of an injury to Chris Wood and the concern it caused yesterday said everything about the way in which he has driven Leeds United’s season.

The club have coped without him in isolated fixtures but the shortlist for the Championship’s player-of-the-year award underlined the feeling that Wood is an essential cog in the machine.

He was one of two United players named in the Championship’s team of the year, along with centre-back Pontus Jansson, and positive influence at Elland Road has been more widespread than that but Wood’s nomination for player of the year marked the striker out from the rest.

The shortlist for that prize - Wood, Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert and Newcastle United forward Dwight Gayle – has leaned towards attacking footballers, as shortlists of this nature often do, and Ross McCormack was the last Leeds player to compete for it in 2014. McCormack was beaten by Burnley’s Danny Ings that year, despite scoring 29 goals.

Here, the YEP assesses the chances of the three contenders and considers whether Wood will go one better:

Chris Wood

Wood has credited his form to the fact that Leeds United, in his words, are “creating loads more chances” in comparison to last season.

Statistically there is virtually no difference – an average of eight a game in both campaigns – and his prolific tally of goals owes more to the consistency of his finishing.

His 24 in the league have come from 92 shots on goal and 41 on target, an accuracy level far above his record in 2015-16, but Garry Monk is still right when he says that Wood has been well serviced by other players round about him.

Anthony Knockaert

Anthony Knockaert

The 25-year-old is bona fide poacher with eight of his Championship finishes taken from inside the six-yard area and the remaining 16 scored from other positions inside the box.

Leeds have been as clinical with their build-up play as Wood has been with his touch and that combination has allowed Monk’s 4-2-3-1 formation to hold together.

Where Wood’s numbers become particularly impressive are in the spread of his strikes.

He has scored in 23 separate matches and Queens Park Rangers are the only Championship side to date who have played Leeds twice without conceding to him.

Dwight Gayle

Dwight Gayle

He has opened the scoring 15 times and, including assists, has had a hand in 29 goals in both the Championship and the EFL Cup. That figure is unrivalled.

Monk’s squad as a whole are only marginally outscoring him – 28 efforts in the league to his 24 – and if it is not fair to say that Wood has carried Leeds, he has carried an immense amount of weight since August.

History will forget that this is a forward who was jeered from the pitch during United’s first home game of the season but that in itself is a reason why Wood’s performance has been worthy of accolades.

Dwight Gayle

The question they will ask of Gayle is how many goals he would have scored had injury not held him back this season. The forward’s appearance on the shortlist for the player-of-the-year award comes despite him starting only 23 times but he is Newcastle’s leading scorer by a street and no-one in the division can match his strike rate.

His finish in a 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town on March 4 was his 21st in the league, three short of Wood who has played almost 1,000 minutes more than Gayle.

Of the forwards who have featured regularly in the Championship, Gayle is as accurate as any of them with 68 per cent of shots on target and his display at Elland Road in November, when Newcastle beat Leeds 2-0 courtesy of Gayle’s brace, demonstrated his ability to bury anything that falls to him.

That said, Newcastle have a deeper and more expensively-built team than Wood has behind him and assists have come in spades from Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie; players who, like Gayle, fall into the £10million-plus bracket.

But it should also be recognised that when Newcastle blitzed the Championship in 2010, Andy Carroll scored 17 times, Kevin Nolan scored 17 times, Peter Lovenkrands weighed in with 13 goals and Shola Ameobi reached double figures.

The club finished that season with a positive goal difference of 55.

That they are top of the division under Rafa Benitez and on course for the title again is in no small way down to the fact that Gayle’s finishing is more reliable than his fitness.

There is no arguing with his inclusion in the EFL’s shortlist.

Anthony Knockaert

Wood has never shown this form in the Championship and prior to this term, Gayle had played only half a season in it – albeit while showing enough talent at Peterborough United to earn a £6m move to Crystal Palace in 2013.

Knockaert, in contrast, is proven many times over in this division: a promotion winner with Leicester City in 2014 and also twice featuring in the play-offs.

His contribution for Brighton this season has been broader than the other two nominees: 13 goals and seven assists alongside more key passes than every player in the Championship except Fulham’s Tom Cairney and Nottingham Forest’s Ben Osborn.

Knockaert, who won August’s player-of-the-month award, is what you want in his position and his quick, direct running has played to the strengths of Glenn Murray and Sam Baldock at the front of Brighton’s team.

Albion have had goals from a variety of sources this season and Knockaert is one of four players who have passed 10 already but 13 is a big haul for an out-and-out winger.

The 25-year-old lost his father in November, a bereavement which by his own admission affected his performances before Christmas.

“I didn’t do anything for three weeks in a row because I was in the hospital every day with my dad,” Knockaert said.

It has not stopped him having what might well pass as the best season of his career.

Verdict

There are strong arguments for Gayle and Knockaert and the winner of the EFL’s award will not pick itself but in an unfancied squad which was put together quickly and with limited funds last summer, Wood’s performance is most remarkable.

When he won the player-of-the-month award in January, the EFL aptly described him as “the symbol of his club’s on-field renaissance” and his own transformation has been equally compelling.

Wood was nose-to-nose with Elland Road’s Kop in August, as frustrated with the crowd as they were with him.

He flew home from New Zealand yesterday with a thousand fingers crossed for good news on his injury. This has been some journey and the player of the year award should be his, by a fraction from Knockaert.

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