EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his fancies for EFL Gameweek 13, which includes a Lancashire Derby and a key clash at the top of League One.
Birmingham to win and under 2.5 goals
Luton Town v Birmingham City
Goals dictate narrative in football and perhaps that was the case on Friday night for Birmingham, who were held to a 0-0 draw by Coventry.
Aitor Karanka was criticized by his own fans after the match for settling for a draw, which may be unfair given the intelligence with which his side pressed. The switches from Mikel San Jose, the drive from Riley McGree, the skill of Ivan Sanchez and the attacking intent of the man who overlapped him on the right, Maxime Colin.
The West Midlanders managed 31 final third entries and 26 penalty area entries via passing alone. They created three good chances for Lukas Jutkiewicz, whilst nullifying their opponents all evening.
Birmingham might have got shot shy once they got into the final third, which is partly credit to the way their opponents defended. But, contrary to common opinion, much of the performance itself was positive. If those levels are sustained, wins will come.
Karanka hopes wins start coming at Kenilworth Road, where Luton had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Blackburn on Saturday, despite a first half performance that encouraged manager Nathan Jones.
Even during their better spells, the Hatters are perhaps short of a cutting edge up top when without James Collins, who came on in the second half on at the weekend.
Collins assisted Luke Berry’s opener on the half’s midway point. But, three minutes later, Matty Pearson and Sonny Bradley were guilty of mixing up marking responsibilities and allowed the opposing striker to level, which was a disappointing one to concede.
Luton have a lot of players who have risen through the divisions very quickly and Jones is tasked with leading them to new heights. The fiery Welshman is doing a good job of that with his excellent coaching but nonetheless, they do lack Championship nous which can affect them.
Birmingham, having conceded just 11 goals in 12 games, possess the defensive foundations to keep Luton out and, with perhaps braver finishing than we saw on Friday night, should find a goal or two at the other end.
Birmingham City come close to taking the lead as Marko Marosi makes an outstanding save to keep out Lukas Jutkiewicz from a header. Birmingham have created three good chances from crosses tonight but failed to take one so far. Coventry have been quite solid throughout however.
— Josh Bunting (@Buntingfootball) November 20, 2020
Birmingham played far better on Friday than given credit for and should get an improved result at Luton, who look well-coached but raw at this level.Gabriel Sutton
Preston to win
Preston North End v Blackburn Rovers
It took them long enough. But North End got their first home league win of the season on Saturday, beating 10-man Sheffield Wednesday 1-0.
There is no massive difference on paper in the current climate between playing at home or away. But, before the weekend, Alex Neil’s side had not taken a single point on familiar soil and this result was key to stopping Deepdale deficiencies from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Lancashire outfit also benefited from the return of Ben Pearson, who replaced Ryan Ledson for the closing stages. He was vital at the base of midfield to aid their excellent game management.
While Pearson has been absent, manager Alex Neil has struggled to find the right midfield balance because their other deep midfielder is Paul Gallagher, understandably declining at 36, while Daniel Johnson likes creative freedom, Brad Potts enjoys pressing high and Ledson sees himself further forward too.
If Pearson comes back into the XI on Tuesday night, therefore, he could have a massive impact against Blackburn, who were not at their best in the 1-1 draw last time out at Luton, where Sam Gallagher found the net.
The striker has been carrying a hefty price tag of £5 million from summer 2019 and last season, he maybe did not justify that fee before battling injuries this year whilst watching Harvey Elliott, Adam Armstrong and Ben Brereton thrive from the sidelines.
It will have been a significant boost for the former Southampton academy graduate, therefore, to score a crucial equalizer for Rovers four minutes after coming on.
Gallagher contributed to an improved second half display from Tony Mowbray’s side after a poor first half, in which the balance of the midfield looked off-key.
Tommy Trybull is primarily defensive minded and Bradley Johnson no longer has the mobility to influence games in the attacking phase; the difficulty in ball progression forced Joe Rothwell – the likeliest player to make things happen – to drop too deep.
Once Trybull was replaced by Gallagher, though, Elliott assumed more of a central role and that allowed Rovers to start calling the shots. After the equalizer, they dominated proceedings and could have found a winner.
However, it will concern Mowbray that his side needed goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski to help them stay in the game up until that point.
Ben Pearson absolutely outstanding for 25 mins btw. We’ve been missing the best DM in the league. Sensational.
— oli (@gorn__) November 21, 2020
Preston and Blackburn have performed to similar levels so far this season, but North End are so much better with Ben Pearson in the side and his return could elevate them above their Lancashire neighbours.Gabriel Sutton
Blackpool draw no bet
Doncaster Rovers v Blackpool
Doncaster drew 1-1 with Sunderland on Saturday thanks to Fejiri Okenabirhie’s injury-time equalizer. But the point he salvaged was scarcely deserved.
Rovers were second best for much of the contest and while the draw makes them unbeaten in three, it also leaves them with just one win in five since the 4-1 thumping of Ipswich.
The positive for manager Darren Moore is that this game showed his side has the right defensive personnel to bail them out, even when their use of the ball is so far off the standard we have come to expect.
Donny had a keeper crisis with Stoke loanee Joe Bursik recalled. But QPR loanee Joe Lumley was absolutely fabulous on debut, denying Charlie Wyke and Chris Maguire.
Joe Wright and Tom Anderson continued the excellent centre-back pairing they established last season, left-back Cameron John made a last-ditch clearance and Brad Halliday, who produced the cross for the leveller, was arguably Doncaster’s best outfield player.
The South Yorkshire outfit, though, will need to raise their levels significantly for the visit of Blackpool, who have won their last five games in all competitions.
The Tangerines looked too easy to play through earlier in the season. But in the latter stages of the window, Neil Critchley made crucial additions.
Daníel Leó Grétarsson brings international experience with Iceland while Kenny Dougall has added much-needed tenacity in midfield. Dougall was part of the Barnsley side that won promotion from this level in 2018-19 and the ball-winner would have started regularly were it not for strength of competition.
Grétarsson and Dougall have made Pool more solid, giving attacking players like speedy wide man CJ Hamilton and forward Jerry Yates the platform to express themselves.
— Blackpool FC (@BlackpoolFC) November 22, 2020
After a great win at Peterborough, in-form Blackpool look massively underrated here, because Doncaster were very fortunate to take a point off Sunderland at the weekend.Gabriel Sutton
Hull to win
Ipswich Town v Hull City
Hull are the new leaders of League One after Saturday’s 3-1 win at MK Dons.
Grant McCann’s side had to be strong without the ball against English football’s possession specialists and it was no surprise to see Josh Magennis onto MK’s main ball-playing defender like a flash all afternoon.
Perhaps a bigger surprise, though, was the brace for Magennis, who has always been the League One striker most capable of playing well without finding the net.
The Northern Irishman is a selfless grafter, has a strong physical presence and will make runs to create space for his teammates. So, if he can add goals to his repertoire he will become even more of an asset. And that’s five for the season now.
Magennis and Hull will feel this is a good time to face Ipswich, who beat lowly Shrewsbury 2-1 on Saturday.
Town lost midfielders Jon Nolan and Teddy Bishop to injury during a vastly unconvincing performance, which needed a comical own goal and a 97th-minute winner to paper over cracks.
Having been criticized for changing formation so much last season, Paul Lambert has stuck with the 4-3-3 in every game so far this term and yet, it could be argued, his side look even more disjointed.
Although Town are 3rd in the table, they are averaging 1.29 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game this season and 1.28 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 50.23%, which ranks them 11th on shot data – ironically their finishing position last season – below the likes of Wimbledon and Crewe.
Won 75% of our league games, ALL by total fluke. Can see why opposition managers are angry, we really are just so so lucky, wow. #hcafc
— Imo (Imogen)🎗 (@imoprescott) November 22, 2020
Ipswich and Hull might both be competing at the top of the table right now, but only the Tigers have produced a level of performance to suggest they will sustain their form.Gabriel Sutton
Will Boyle to score anytime
Cheltenham Town v Cambridge Town
Ben Tozer has a reputation in League Two for being a long throw specialist.
Although Cheltenham’s 2019-20 campaign was outstanding overall, Tozer’s handled deliveries were perhaps one thing they did not quite exploit to maximum effect.
Michael Duff has been keen to put that right this season and indeed, the Robins have been far more effective from Tozer’s throws, as we have seen in recent victories over Carlisle and Walsall.
On top of that, left wing-back Chris Hussey remains a potent threat with his centres from set pieces. It would be hard to pinpoint anybody who has produced more accurate dead ball deliveries below the Championship over the last decade than Hussey.
Tozer and Hussey’s work is a dream for goalscoring centre-backs and Will Boyle fits the bill.
At 6’3”, Boyle is a huge aerial threat who loves to get on the end of deliveries, evidenced by the fact the 25-year-old has mustered 22 efforts at goal, more than any centre-back in League Two.
For those of a slightly superstitious disposition, the last two players to score against Cambridge have been centre-backs – Ashley Eastham and Matty Platt for Salford and Barrow respectively.
In the 8 games that Will Boyle has started in the league this season, Cheltenham Town have only conceded 4 goals.
— Cheltenham Town Stats (@CTFCstats) February 23, 2020
Cheltenham have a stable back-three that has played together regularly since February 2019 and that shows in their defensive work but this weekend, I fancy aerial specialist Will Boyle to have some joy in the opposition box, too.Gabriel Sutton
Stevenage to win
Stevenage v Port Vale
Port Vale have more strength in depth this season than they did last year, yet still they remain reliant on key players.
It was hoped that Manny Oyeleke, back fit, would provide good cover for Luke Joyce, who is still serving a three-match ban for his red card against Tranmere. But the screening role has arguably made the former Aldershot man perform within himself in a run of three straight defeats.
Vale’s form did not pick up until David Amoo returned from injury so the wide forward’s absence is clearly a sizeable blow. The ex-Tranmere man’s unpredictability allows him to change games single-handedly. Well-rounded right-back James Gibbons is absent too.
While the Burslem outfit do have strikers in Mark Cullen, Theo Robinson and Devante Rodney, neither have made the lone striker role their own this season and thus, Tom Pope is taking on more importance than he might have expected to – like Joyce and Amoo, the talismanic target man will be absent here.
The odds suggest a gulf between Play-Off chasing Vale and relegation strugglers Stevenage which is understandable given the table, but the shot data tells a slightly different story.
Vale average 1.37 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.33 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 50.73%, whereas Boro’s xGR is 49.64% – a minimal gap in quality of chance creation and defending.
Alex Revell’s side have technically capable players in Arthur Read and Tom Pett, the latter having been a respected part of Lincoln’s title win at this level in 2018-19.
They have experience at the back, too, in Scott Cuthbert and Ben Coker, so Stevenage might get the win they need to kick their season into life against Vale, who could lament the absence of key men.
— 💜Leon Legge💜 (@leonlegge32) November 22, 2020
Port Vale have five players who are currently sidelined but would get into John Askey’s XI with everyone fit and available. Stevenage are of course in trouble but the data would imply a steady improvement in results is coming.Gabriel Sutton