EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his thoughts in his EFL Midweek Preview.
Barnsley to win and both teams to score
Barnsley v Preston North End
Callum Brittain and Callum Styles have produced some exciting performances this season for Barnsley.
It was unclear how well Brittain would step up to Championship level. He had a mixed period in the divisions below with MK Dons – but the right-backs energy, enthusiasm and direct running makes him tailor-made for this high-pressing Reds side.
Brittain gives Valerien Ismail’s troops the pace, width and thrust they need down the right flank to force opponents back, creating space for midfielder Alex Mowatt to switch play with his sweet left foot.
Styles, nicknamed “the Bury Baggio”, then puts the finishing touches to Tarn’s attacking moves with his star quality.
The two Callums will be a lot to handle, therefore, for North End, who fell to a 3-0 defeat at Luton last time out.
Alex Neil’s side could not deal with the intensity with which their opponents pressed – hardly convenient, therefore, that they are now facing the Championship side most renowned for pressing.
Ironically, Preston used to have that very moniker but right-back Darnell Fisher, centre-back Paul Huntington, midfielder Alan Browne and versatile forward Tom Barkhuizen – who started at Kenilworth Road – were all arguably better in 2017-18 than they are now.
Over the last three years, questionable recruitment has seen the Lancashire club go from an exciting, young side full of energy and vigour to a more laboured outfit.
Neil has not been given the funds to improve the squad each season, so has generally favoured players who are in decline – just because they have been part of Play-Off pushes before – over players who can breathe new life into the side.
North End’s decline lies primarily with Trevor Hemmings and the board, but it’s also possible that Neil is drained and burdened by the constant budgetary challenges – which he is not shy to speak about publicly.
A new manager, with equal ability to Neil but a different voice, mind and energy, might get more out of this declining North End squad
"Chaps, who is the Bury Baggio?" 🗨️ pic.twitter.com/DFa16DxNA6
— Barnsley FC (@BarnsleyFC) December 10, 2020
Barnsley under Valerien Ismael remind me of Preston, early in Alex Neil’s reign. Full of energy, hunger and youthful exuberance, with incisive transitional play.Gabriel Sutton
Brentford draw no bet
Watford v Brentford
Results wise, Watford have had a steady first half of the season.
Saturday’s 1-0 win at Birmingham put the Hornets up to third, keeping them just one point off the automatic promotion places.
Performances, though, will need to improve if the Hertfordshire club are to secure a top two berth.
Ivic has gained some criticism for a perceived lack of attacking ambition, but a key factor is the imbalance of the squad, with a clear dearth of left-footed players.
Ken Sema has been a useful outlet on the left but all Watford’s other available outfield players are right-footed, with midfielder Will Hughes and full-back Adam Masina still to return from injury.
Kiko Femenia, who has often played at left-back, tends to check back inside onto his right foot which can halt the momentum of attacks.
Ben Wilmot, who tends to operate as the left-sided centre-back, can play diagonals to the right well but cannot quickly progress the ball into the left channel.
These problems mean that Watford are an easy side to read and, because opposing teams can predict the general direction of play, they have an easier time nullifying the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro, who should theoretically be tearing apart the second tier.
Having conceded only 16 goals in 18 games this season, keeping eight clean sheets, Brentford can certainly stop those attackers.
Due to the truncated pre-season and congested fixture list, the Bees are not employing as high a press this season as we saw last year.
This drew some criticism from fans, especially before the 11-game unbeaten run they are currently enjoying, but a deeper shape has also helped the West Londoners defensively.
Brentford’s game has been very much about keeping things tight, then gearing all their creative play towards providing for striker Ivan Toney, trusting the ex-Peterborough man to make the decisive actions.
Save your Ivic or players fault debate for now. Who hires a coach that plays 433 and then allows him to start the season with no left back and one left footed player in the squad. #watfordfc
— Nick DA (@gwr_nick) December 5, 2020
Brentford may be happy to cede possession to Watford, to put more focus on keeping Pedro and Sarr quiet. I don’t see Thomas Frank’s side losing to an imbalanced Hornets outfit which is why I’m backing them via draw no bet at odds-against quotes.Gabriel Sutton
Oxford to score under 0.5 goals
Oxford United v Northampton Town
Keith Curle may be the most underrated manager in the EFL.
The Bristolian is often criticized for the direct style of football he employs, but it can easily be forgotten that, when he first took charge of Northampton in October 2018, they were 21st in League Two – fast forward 26 months, his side are 18th in League One.
Clear progress, over such a long period, does not happen by accident. While Curle was given a generous budget to get out of League Two last season, he’s also delivered good results without spending big.
Firstly, he inherited a squad that did not suit his direct, 3-5-2 strategy in 2018-19, despite which the Cobblers had the division’s eighth best record after he took over that season – and this current Northampton squad has been weakened since promotion.
Goalkeeper Dai Cornell, defenders Jordan Turnbull, Charlie Goode and Scott Wharton, midfielders Alan McCormack and Paul Anderson plus strikers Vadaine Oliver, Callum Morton and Andy Williams have all departed – and there has not been an obvious upgrade on any one of those players.
Curle has therefore been working with the weaker individuals in almost every game, so naturally it has made sense for his side to make contests as tight as possible and force the opposition into lots of sterile possession, then trust the three centre-backs to deal with simple balls into the box.
Oxford have failed to score in eight of their league games this season – no side has drawn more blanks – after recent goalless encounters with Ipswich and Blackpool.
Karl Robinson’s side will likely dominate possession, but they did so against Lincoln, Charlton and Ipswich without finding the net.
Northampton should bounce back from a disappointing afternoon against Crewe to deliver a well-organized display, which may be enough to keep their hosts at bay.
Keith curle has done miracles with last seasons squad and this seasons. Cobblers fans complaining we don't play football from the back. Have you seen our defenders try and play football? 100% over achieveing with our squad. @JournoJakeS @James_ChronNTFC#ntfc
— Alex wells (@Alexwel81304031) December 5, 2020
Northampton have taken 13 points from five games against sides below them in the table and have a better chance of keeping out Oxford than perhaps the odds suggest.Gabriel Sutton
Sunderland -1 handicap
Sunderland v AFC Wimbledon
Lee Johnson’s reign as Sunderland boss kicked into life at the weekend with a surprising 4-0 victory at high-flying Lincoln.
This was the first league game in which Johnson had had a full week of training to work with his players and the effect was clear to see.
There was a lot more confidence, assurance and quality in the decision making from Sunderland who, having been a long ball side under Phil Parkinson, are now playing far better football.
The Black Cats pressed from the front led by the industrial Charlie Wyke, supported ably by Max Power and Josh Scowen, who broke beyond Grant Leadbitter from midfield.
Aiden McGeady had been frozen out under Parkinson but the enigmatic Irishman rediscovered his 2018-19 form at Sincil Bank, with his jinking runs in from the left into pockets to produce moments of quality that belongs well above this level.
Jack Diamond, on the right of the front three, made more vibrant, direct channels from wide at Sincil Bank and produced a fantastic left-footed finish, which was sandwiched by Wyke’s brace after Leadbitter opened with a penalty.
It’s great for Sunderland that Johnson is willing to take a chance on a young, unproven player like Diamond, because it means the club’s best youngsters know they can get a chance and the club know they are worth keeping, rather than selling well below their full value.
AFC Wimbledon are having a good season but their recent defensive record is concerning, with nine goals conceded in their last two league games.
Glyn Hodges admitted his side were not prepared for the second half at Charlton, in which his side shipped four in a 5-2 defeat and they will have to re-organize themselves quickly for the trip to Wearside.
— Gash (@GashB76) December 13, 2020
After Saturday’s result, Sunderland may have found their rhythm surprisingly early under Lee Johnson and another commanding win could be in the offing.Gabriel Sutton
Morecambe to win
Morecambe v Leyton Orient
Since Derek Adams took charge 13 months ago, there has been a clear change of mentality at Morecambe.
The Shrimps beat Harrogate 1-0 on Saturday and created a host of chances to add to Aaron Wildig’s goal, but post-match the midfielder spoke not of the controlled nature of the performance, but of the team’s failure to extend the lead.
It seems plausible that such an interview, in an identical situation, would not have occurred under Jim Bentley’s reign, during which there was a heavy focus on the size of club and the challenges it faces.
Adams never mentions budget as a factor behind poor performances – even if he would be within his rights to do so – because he wants to hold his players to high standards and right now, they are delivering on that.
Morecambe are on course for their best season in over a decade, just two points off the Play-Off places.
Occupying the final Play-Off spot are Leyton Orient who, like the Shrimps, were not expected to challenge this season.
One of the reasons why Orient are flying high in seventh is because they are effective in short bursts of possession.
Ross Embleton’s side love to quickly get the ball into the final third, because lanky wide forward Conor Wilkinson, top goalscorer Danny Johnson and direct left-sider James Brophy can do damage in transition.
The East Londoners, though, are not a side that enjoy having long spells of possession, so a meeting with Morecambe – who average 44.7% possession per game which is the second-lowest in League Two – might expose the weaker areas of their game.
Derek Adams special for the Shrimps 👏
— Harry Quinn (@mightyquinn89) December 12, 2020
A lot of Leyton Orient’s goals have come from quick turnovers and I just wonder if Morecambe deny them those opportunities by being compact, they might have some joy.Gabriel Sutton
Exeter to win and over 2.5 goals
Exeter City v Harrogate Town
Exeter are the most exciting team to watch in League Two on current form.
The Grecians have scored 18 goals in their last four – yes FOUR – league matches, with striker Ryan Bowman grabbing two hat-tricks.
Bowman’s current form is somewhat ironic because, last season, some suggested he did not pose enough of a goal threat to help the Devoners kill games off. Those criticisms even extended into the current campaign, which he started with one goal in 13 appearances.
The former Motherwell man, though, has always brought a lot in terms of work rate and hold-up play, so it is great to see him gaining more confidence in front of goal – but it helps him, too, that the team is more creative.
Exeter’s game, last season, was dominated by Randell Williams and when opposing teams doubled up on the right-sider, Matt Taylor’s side struggled for alternative ideas.
This year, Matt Jay is enjoying the best form of his career in the number 10 role while Joel Randall has been a revelation on the left wing and even the rise of right-back Josh Key has given Exeter another threat, freeing up Williams to drift infield more.
Throw in the growing creative talents of Archie Collins as well as the unexpected goalscoring form of Jake Taylor and Exeter have far more dimensions to their game, which is reflected in the types of results they have been getting.
This trip to St James’s Park is therefore an ominous assignment for Harrogate Town, who have taken just five points from their last 10 games.
The Sulphurites started the season positively but the intensity of the high-press, which was so crucial to their game, has subsided, possibly due to the volume of matches.
There are not many areas of this Town squad where they can rest or lose a first teamer and bring in a fringe player, without seeing a significant reduction in quality.
Exeter City 5-Tranmere Rovers 0
Exeter have now scored more goals than Bradford, Stevenage and Southend combined…#EFL
— Edward Walker (@edward_w97) December 12, 2020
Exeter have gone goal-crazy lately – Ryan Bowman in particular – and I see no reason why the Grecians won’t continue their sizzling form against Harrogate, who may start to look over their shoulders.Gabriel Sutton