EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his thoughts ahead of the midweek action.
Under 0.5 first half goals
Birmingham City v Derby County
Boxing Day’s 0-0 draw at Nottingham Forest last time out was far from a classic but, with no team below 13th winning, Birmingham remain seven points above the drop zone.
A lot of Blues’ games this season follow a similar pattern: they keep things tight in first haves – no team has conceded fewer than their seven before the interval.
Aitor Karanka wants his side to build on the solid platform that aggressive centre-back Harlee Dean, intelligent defender George Friend and tenacious midfielder Ivan Šunjić provide in the second halves.
There tends to be a 15-minute spell of pressure during which Blues push the defensive line higher up, commit midfielders into the final third, step onto second balls and create chances.
The challenge for the West Midlanders, therefore, is to widen the window of time in which they are on the front foot in that manner to 30 minutes, to help the striker – poacher Scott Hogan or target man Lukas Jutkiewicz – and reduce the burden on their rear-guard.
Derby County’s rear-guard was also stretched last time out, but their defensive display more by circumstances than design.
Martyn Waghorn was sent off midway through the first half of Boxing Day’s clash with Preston North End and the numerically disadvantaged Rams came close to a hard-fought point, but for a 96th minute goal.
Wayne Rooney’s side are hoping to add a striker in January and possibly a number 10, so there is room for improvement going forward.
Waghorn’s absence here will affect Derby not just because of his goalscoring instincts, but also because he is a left-footed player in a squad that is imbalanced in favour of right-footed players, which can affect their build-up play.
Andre Wisdom has formed a good centre-back pairing, though, with Matt Clarke and a double-pivot of Graeme Shinnie and Kristian Bielik is not easy to dislodge.
Nice to keep a clean sheet on Boxing Day. Good to bounce back from a tough run of results. Another point away from home and now on to the next one! 🎄⚽️ #KRO #Birmingham #football #goalkeeper #cleansheet #hardwork #togetherness pic.twitter.com/0fCZFOwVHL
— Neil Etheridge (@Neil38Etheridge) December 26, 2020
Birmingham have been drawing at half-time in 15 of their 21 league games this season and, if Boxing Day’s games are anything to go by, I’d be surprised if there’s a goal before the break.Gabriel Sutton
Nottingham Forest to score under 0.5 goals
Stoke City v Nottingham Forest
Nottingham Forest have improved defensively since Chris Hughton took charge in October, but the lack of creativity remains problematic.
Hughton is staunch in his belief in a disciplined double pivot which, as we saw at Brighton, can make his sides successful, but his current charges are short of inspiration from deep.
Many Championship managers would trade their strikers for Lewis Grabban and Lyle Taylor, likewise their wide options for Joe Lolley, Anthony Knockaert, Sammy Ameobi and Alex Mighten.
It can be difficult, though, for the Reds to get those match-winning players on the ball in the relevant areas, unless they have just turned the ball over and can get Mighten running at defences – even then streetwise opponents can survive those attacks by tactically fouling the speedster and backing themselves to deal with the resultant set pieces.
It would be wrong to question the individual merits of Ryan Yates, who is a gladiator in midfield and capable of making an impact in the opposition box, or Samba Sow, whose availability last season was a pivotal factor in Forest fortunes.
In possession, though, neither Yates nor Sow quite have the vision or craft to open up deep blocks.
The solution for Hughton could be to encourage one of them to make bold, third-man runs deep into the final third and allow Cafu to drop deeper, so that the Portuguese playmaker can see more of the ball without the overall shape being disrupted.
Recent trends though, suggest it will be hard for the Tricky Trees to dislodge a notoriously solid Stoke side.
The Potters have kept 12 clean sheets this season after a 0-0 draw last time out at Coventry, where high-pedigree midfielder Joe Allen returned from injury to play 27 minutes from the bench.
Allen, it should not be forgotten, was among the best players at Euro 2016 and is still only 30, making him capable of bringing energy and dynamism to this Stoke midfield as well as class and control.
The Welshman could run the show next to the more disciplined Jordan Cousins and, if Forest are forced long due to their creativity issues, 6’6” centre-back Harry Souttar will not have to exert himself to win the subsequent aerial duels.
— Gareth Morris (@mozzie1982) December 26, 2020
Forest have major creativity issues in midfield and given how well organized Stoke have been under Michael O’Neill, I think they’ve got a great chance of keeping a clean sheet.Gabriel Sutton
MK Dons to win
Swindon Town v Milton Keynes Dons
MK Dons beat Bristol Rovers 2-0 on Boxing Day and, in truth, the scoreline did not reflect their level of dominance.
All six of the shots their opponents mustered occurred inside the first five minutes of the second half, while MK created by far the better chances in the first and even better opportunities from the 50th minute onwards.
That display is especially impressive when we consider that Russ Martin’s side were without numerous first teamers, because it showed the playing identity is so clear that players can come into the XI at late notice with minimal disruption.
Without midfield dynamo Kasumu, Lasse Sørensen dictated play superbly next to the experienced Andrew Surman, while Daniel Harvie produced some excellent deliveries from the left in the absence of inverted wing-back Matthew Sorinola.
With Regan Poole and Dean Lewington both capable of playing as a wing-back, full-back and wide centre-back on the right and left respectively, the Buckinghamshire outfit had the flexibility to shift shapes.
At the other end, striker Carlton Morris is set to join a Championship club, but that expected move gave Martin an opportunity to switch from 3-5-2 to 3-4-2-1, which only further emphasizes the strength of options his side have in midfield with Scott Fraser and Ben Gladwin producing extremely high technical standards.
If MK Dons perform to full capacity, they will have enough to defeat Swindon.
John Sheridan’s side are playing direct without the benefit of a tall, physical striker, with the persistent Tyler Smith on the shorter side and Brett Pitman little more than a poacher.
Town needed a 90th minute equalizer from Pitman last time out, too, to avoid a fifth straight defeat.
Russell Martin on an important win for his #MKDons side 👇
— MK Dons (@MKDonsFC) December 27, 2020
It’s only been on a couple of occasions this season on which MK Dons have not maintained a high level of performance and Russ Martin’s side are a lot more dangerous than the current table suggests.Gabriel Sutton
Luke Jephcott to score anytime
Plymouth Argyle v Oxford United
Argyle boss Ryan Lowe was delighted with his side’s Boxing Day performance at Charlton, even if they were denied successive wins.
Lowe is a possession coach fundamentally but, as we saw in the 2-2 draw in South London, the Liverpudlian can find ways of setting his side up to threaten in transition.
Danny Mayor’s reception of possession on the left side of their midfield trio is a prompt for teammates to fly forward, because the former Bury man can carry it forward extremely well – and has quality worthy of a higher level.
That is ideal when he is working in the same channel as striker Ryan Hardie, who loves to stretch opposing defences when running in behind and, if we add the technical capabilities of left wing-back Conor Grant into the mix, the Devoners can create plenty of chances via that avenue.
Argyle have that ability to draw defences towards that side, which opens up space for poacher Luke Jephcott.
12 months ago, Lowe’s side looked short of finisher while Jephcott was in excellent form for seventh tier Truro City, watched on by Argyle legend Paul Wotton; it was a brave decision to recall him but one that paid dividends.
Jephcott has since scored 19 goals in 32 appearances, stepping up three divisions then a fourth with unerring composure and the striker thoroughly deserves the international recognition with Wales that has since come his way.
Oxford beat AFC Wimbledon 2-0 last time out thanks to two early goals from Jordan Obita and Matty Taylor, but there was a drop off in performance levels.
On another day, the Yellows could have let their opponents back into the game with the chances they gave up.
Karl Robinson continually addresses the midfield area during his time in charge, but he still has the same full-backs he had in his first full season – Sam Long and Josh Ruffels – who do not provide much attacking thrust.
This means that Liam Kelly and Marcus McGuane will need to provide overloads in wide areas and this, potentially, could increase the defensive burden on midfield enforcer Alex Gorrin.
If Oxford stretch their midfield too much, Argyle may find gaps in transition.
🏴 Luke Jephcott (20) is THE striker to watch in EFL League One.
The @Only1Argyle striker’s season:
☑️ 15 starts
⚽️ 12 goals
🥈 2nd in EFL League One – Goals
🔥 A goal every 92 minutes
🧮 40%+ of Plymouth’s goal output
A brace so far today!
Wales debut & a move incoming? 🐉 pic.twitter.com/7dvZBdaiHm
— Football Wonderkids (@fbwonderkids) December 26, 2020
I’m really impressed with how Luke Jephcott has stepped up to this level and I expect the Welshman to do damage once again.Gabriel Sutton
Bradford to win
Bradford City v Port vale
Bradford City are managerless in name but not in nature.
Chairman Stefan Rupp is yet to confirm the replacement for club legend Stuart McCall as manager, but Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have done so well in caretaker charge that the process feels far less important than it did initially.
Under the duo, who had managed the academy previously, Bradford have accrued 10 points from four games after a 1-0 win at Tranmere last time out.
Following a series of poor performances under McCall, the Bantams are now battling with passion and vigour.
The contrast is best exemplified by Lee Novak’s winner at Prenton Park where Levi Sutton, long established as a standard ball-winner, had the gumption to attack the flank and put a cross in for the striker to head home.
It seems likely that, under the previous regime, Sutton in an identical situation would have recycled the ball sideways rather than produce such a strong burst of pace.
Trueman is showing a surprising level of tactical acumen for one so inexperienced, too and we are seeing opposing managers shift their natural shape to accommodate Bradford, which is something we have not seen for some time.
The rejuvenated Bantams will be tough opposition, therefore, for Port Vale, who are sliding down League Two at an alarming rate.
The Valiants have accrued just five points from their last nine league games after Boxing Day’s 2-0 defeat to Barrow.
— Tom (@tomscrawford) December 26, 2020
Port Vale might be a point above Bradford, but the contrast in December performance levels is so great that recency bias should be applied.Gabriel Sutton
Barrow to win
Barrow v Tranmere Rovers
Barrow now have a permanent first team manager in Michael Jolley, who represents an excellent appointment, but Rob Kelly comes out of the interim period with immense credit.
The Bluebirds had won just two in 18 league games when David Dunn was sacked and, although they had performed better under the former midfielder than results suggested, it shows how well Kelly did to oversee back-to-back wins in caretaker charge.
Kelly, who has worked at a much higher level and assisted Ryan Lowe to promotion from this one with Bury, is the ideal coach for a younger boss like Jolley to learn from.
Barrow were worthy 3-0 winners against Cheltenham just before Christmas and were also good value for Boxing Day’s 2-0 win at Port Vale, mixing up their game well in both encounters.
The LA14 outfit can play out from the back via Sam Hird from the right of defence, they can look for incisive, penetrative passes into the final third from inverted left wing-back Josh Kay and can even play long at times because of Scott Quigley’s ability to keep opponents guessing.
There are so many different elements to Barrow’s game that make them a difficult side to read, whereas Tranmere rely heavily on the goalscoring instincts of James Vaughan.
Keith Hill is still trying to find the right midfield partner for ball-winner Jay Spearing, who can at times be overworked in a Rovers side that have delivered poor shot data this season.
The Wirral outfit average 0.94 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.25 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 42.81%, which is the fifth-worst in the division, so it is fair to say they are massively struggling to get near their pre-season billing as likely promotion contenders.
— Barrow AFC (@BarrowAFC) December 23, 2020
Barrow have been performing as a top half side all season and, under Michael Jolley’s guidance, I expect them to close that gap on the top half.Gabriel Sutton