EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his thoughts in his EFL Midweek Preview.
Swansea to win to nil
Blackburn Rovers v Swansea City
Saturday was a great day for Swansea – and not just because Steve Cooper’s side won 2-0 at Barnsley.
Bournemouth’s 1-0 defeat to Luton meant victory for the Swans saw them move four points clear of the Cherries in the automatic promotion race, though Brentford – five points worse off – have two games in hand.
It was not a vintage display from the South Wales outfit, but one that highlighted their defensive resolve.
Ben Cabango was not only commanding from the back next to highly-rated Chelsea loanee Marc Guehi, he also proved his aerial prowess in the opposition box with a towering header from Connor Roberts’ long throw.
Once Cooper’s troops get into the lead, they are always difficult to catch – much like Jamal Lowe, whose pace in transition was key to the clinching goal at Oakwell.
Swansea will be a tough assignment therefore, for Blackburn, who were fortunate to salvage a point in Saturday’s 1-1 with Stoke.
It was a flat, lacklustre display from Rovers, especially in the first half, when they fell behind and though Jacob Davenport added midfield tenacity after coming on at the interval, it was not until the final quarter-hour that Tony Mowbray’s side carried a threat.
Like Davenport, fellow academy graduate John Buckley made an impact from the bench, tapping home from inside the six-yard box.
The return from injury of playmaker Bradley Dack and midfield dynamo Lewis Travis was hoped to inspire an improvement from Rovers, but it had the opposite effect: neither looked fit.
The performance increased the pressure on Mowbray, who is questioned more by natives than a lot of outsiders would imagine.
Swansea have got the second best defensive record after 24 games in Championship history.
— The Second Tier (@secondtierpod) January 17, 2021
I’m amazed that Swansea are as big as 2/1 for the outright win and am happy to enlarge my odds to 4/1 by backing the division’s best defensive side to accompany victory with a 15th clean sheet of the campaign.Gabriel Sutton
Double Chance: Draw/Barnsley
Watford v Barnsley
Xisco Muñoz was appointed Watford head coach to provide a contrast from previous boss Vladimir Ivic, who was dismissed last month.
Stylistically, there may be a subtle difference from Ivic’s strategies, with greater emphasis on direct wide play, but the greatest shift comes in terms of the Spaniard’s man management.
Muñoz interacts with his players in much warmer fashion, which may have been a factor behind the two league wins in three games under the former Dinamo Tbilisi boss.
And yet, performances remain unconvincing: the Hornets beat a makeshift Huddersfield side 2-0 last time out but enjoyed a slice of luck for their opener, when Tom Cleverley showed stamina to close down the opposition goalkeeper and turn the ball home.
While Ivic arrived with a fantastic track record with successive title wins in Serbia, Muñoz had managed just 11 games.
A winger in his playing days, Muñoz will hope to win games through early balls to the flanks, with two of Ismaila Sarr, Ken Sema and Philip Zinckernagel staying high and wide in positions to do damage.
The danger of that strategy here, especially with two up top in Joao Pedro and Troy Deeney, is that Cleverley and Nathaniel Chalobah – hardworking as they are – could get overwhelmed by an intense, energetic Barnsley press.
Two of the physical Victor Adeboyejo, athlete Conor Chaplin and the dynamic Dominik Frieser will flank the more technical Cauley Woodrow for Valérien Ismaël’s side, potentially forcing full-backs Kiko Femenia and Adam Masina into the box to support centre-backs William Troost-Ekong and Francisco Sierralta.
It’s likely the defensive quartet will be forced into clearances and while they may find the danger men out wide, there’s also a great opportunity for Tarn midfielders – chiefly Alex Mowatt – to use their tenacity to step onto second balls.
Callum Brittain will pose a direct threat down the right, while supporting play superbly with inverted runs from left wing-back Callum Styles, who has been nicknamed affectionately as “the Bury Baggio” – and not without cause.
"Callum Styles is the most talented player to wear a @BarnsleyFC shirt since John Stones".
Catch up with this week's Red All Over show here now: https://t.co/94IPA1nn8A
— Joe Beardsall (@josephbeardsall) January 14, 2021
Watford have won 11 of their 23 league games, Barnsley have lost 10 in 24, so the bare stats suggest a 55% chance of the visitors avoiding defeat. BetVictor’s odds of 21/20 on that eventuality imply a probability of 49%. I’m following the maths with this one.Gabriel Sutton
Portsmouth to win and under 3.5 goals
Portsmouth v AFC Wimbledon
Portsmouth fans have long been calling for a combination of the efficiency of the side that achieved successive Play-Off finishes, with more aesthetically pleasing football.
This season, they have been given just that, with more fluent play on the deck combined with the joint-best defensive record in the division, after a 1-0 victory at Fleetwood last time out.
The surprise is not that this squad can play slicker stuff, but that it could do so under manager Kenny Jackett, who has been at times a divisive figure.
The trio of Marcus Harness, Ryan Williams and Michael Jacobs have rotated and interchanged superbly behind lone striker John Marquis, who is benefiting greatly from the stylistic shift with 10 league goals to his name.
Marquis and co. will be confident of defeating AFC Wimbledon, who come into this game off the back of a 3-0 loss to Sunderland last time out.
Manager Glyn Hodges felt a lack of concentration was key to the goals his side conceded and the 57-year-old was disappointed with the lack of creativity.
Forwards Joe Pigott and Ryan Longman can do damage when Wombles do get the ball into the final third, but ball-winner Alex Woodyard and controller Jaako Oksanen are not natural ball progressors, so there is a big reliance on Jack Rudoni and Ethan Chislett to make things happen.
Rudoni and Chislett, though talented, only have 43 EFL appearances under their respective belts and, due to where Wimbledon are financially, they must rely on them to feed Pigott and Longman which is a big ask.
Tom Naylor is now the best holding midfielder in the league now that Ben Whiteman has gone
— Olly (@PFCOlly) January 14, 2021
Four of Portsmouth’s last five league games have resulted in a victory with fewer than four goals scored. With Sean Raggett heading balls away at the back and Tom Naylor battling in midfield, I don’t see them giving anything away against out-of-form Wimbledon.Gabriel Sutton
Luke Jephcott to score anytime
Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle
The short-term impact of Lee Johnson’s appointment as Sunderland manager is difficult to gauge.
On the one hand, the former Bristol City boss has inspired a 4-0 victory at Lincoln and, last time out, a 3-0 win at AFC Wimbledon where striker Charlie Wyke, long established as somebody the Black Cats could upgrade on, scored a hat-trick.
Those triumphs, striking in nature though they were, have been mixed in with a 1-0 defeat to Wigan in Johnson’s first game in charge and a three-match winless streak, so it may be premature to trust Sunderland as heavy favourites based on individual matches.
The Wearsiders face a Plymouth Argyle side that have lost just one of their last six games in all competitions, after a 1-1 draw with Crewe last time out.
Ryan Lowe was largely happy with his side’s bright and inventive display, in which the Devoners created lots of chances – especially in the first half, when Nottingham Forest loanee Tyrese Fornah dictated play smoothly at the base of midfield.
Argyle are a difficult team to contain, particularly down their left flank, where Lowe’s side initiate crisp, triangle passing sequences.
If opposing teams close down technical wing-back Conor Grant, they open up the game for midfield dribbler Danny Mayor – and if they double up on Mayor, there tends to be space in behind for raw runner Ryan Hardie to get in behind.
That triple threat detracts from the major goalscoring threat of Luke Jephcott, who has scored 13 of Argyle’s 29 league goals.
For many of those goals, Jephcott benefits from the opposition’s positional shift towards combating the left-sided threat and, when the ball comes across, it’s harder for them to then re-organize themselves and block the poacher’s efforts at goal.
Finishing is a huge part of Jephcott’s game and the Welshman unquestionably benefits from both playing in a possession-based system and having an athletic strike-partner.
The 20-year-old, though, is improving in terms of work rate and link-up play as the season progresses and could pose a huge threat at the Stadium of Light.
Some good performances today from Grant, Mayor & Fornah. However Jephcott my man of match – got the goal (again), hold up play was good & work rate second to none #pafc
— Robert Smith (@Robert1979Smith) January 16, 2021
Plymouth Argyle look underrated collectively here and that is reflected in the anytime price on a goal for Luke Jephcott. Having bagged 11 in his last 16, the poacher is available to back at a delicious 9/5.Gabriel Sutton
Both teams to score
Crawley Town v Stevenage
Rarely in business can one buy something for free, then sell it for £1 million just three months later.
That though is what Crawley Town have achieved after the eight-figure sale of Max Watters to Cardiff, with the forward having scored 13 goals in 15 league games.
Praise must go to the Red Devils’ recruitment team and hats off, too, to the players, who performed superbly in Watters’ absence, defeating Leeds 3-0 in the FA Cup 3rd Round.
That game required other players to step up well above their previous levels and that is what we saw from Nick Tsaroulla and Ashley Nadesan.
Tsaroulla showed incredible skill to dance his way towards the opener, Nadesan’s pace came to the fore for the second before highly-rated defender Jordan Tunnicliffe added a third.
Caution is urged, though, for those keen to jump on the Crawley bus on Tuesday night.
John Yems’ side average 1.13 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.46 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 43.68% which is the sixth-worst in the division, inferior to Stevenage’s xGR of 45.10%.
Alex Revell’s side have been marginally better than results have suggested for much of the season and have lost just one of their last eight in the league, a run complimented by competitive FA Cup displays against Hull and Swansea.
Revell felt Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Tranmere was a fair result but was pleased with the impact of his substitutes – Forest Green recruit Matty Stevens, speedster Danny Newton, silky Jack Aitchison and dynamic midfielder Jack Smith – who all helped Boro finish the game strongly.
Stevenage possess a very spirited midfielder, too, in Charlie Carter, who has an excellent work rate, an intelligent eye for pass and enough goalscoring potential for his manager to name the former Woking man, at one point, on the right of a front two.
🎶 Whoa Terence Vancooten. 🎶
Is that twice in a row? If so
— Patrick Jackson (@Rateus_Johanson) January 16, 2021
It would be foolhardy to back against Crawley after such a strong performance against Leeds but equally, their shot data in the league doesn’t inspire me and I suspect Stevenage are underrated. For that reason, I’m taking a neutral stance and going with goals.Gabriel Sutton
Cambridge to score under 0.5 goals
Southend United v Cambridge United
At the end of November, Southend had just five points to their name and were six adrift at the bottom of League Two.
Had the season started on 1st December, though, Mark Molesley’s side would be fourth with 15 points from eight, boasting the best defensive record in the division.
The fact Southend are still bottom shows, in many respects, just how important this run of form has been to keeping them in the dogfight – now they are only one point off safety.
This resurgence has coincided, to varying extents, with the return to fitness of stalwart John White as well as summer recruits: attacking left-back Sam Hart, midfield general Alan McCormack and lively forward Simeon Akinola, while experienced defender Greg Halford has been a great influence among a young crop.
Southend’s midfield balance is starting to emerge, with Timothee Dieng offering a calming defensive presence at the base, Jason Demetriou bringing dynamism to the right and James Olayinka bringing craft and skill from the left.
This is therefore a dangerous time to play Southend for Cambridge, who rely too heavily on Paul Mullin for goals and Wes Hoolahan for creativity.
The balance of the U’s midfield has not been great since Hiram Boateng got injured and now, they will be without adaptable operator Luke Hannant, whose understatedly reliable work ethic has been vital.
Full-backs Kyle Knoyle and Harrison Dunk have not been getting forward with the gusto they are capable of lately, so Southend may continue to plot their escape route from the EFL’s dungeon.
Captain. Leader. Legend.
— Southend United (@SUFCRootsHall) January 15, 2021
Since 1st December, Southend have accrued two more points than Cambridge in two fewer games, whilst conceding just four goals - a third of the number Mark Bonner’s side have shipped in that time.Gabriel Sutton