The league season returns this weekend, so EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton is back with his tips and expert analysis.

Wycombe Wanderers v Rotherham United

Under 2.5 goals

Wycombe Wanderers and Rotherham United enter the Championship as the division’s biggest underdogs, but with one key difference between them.

While the Millers are preparing for their fifth season in seven at this level, their hosts taste second-tier football for the first time in their history.

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It’s no secret how these sides will approach the challenges ahead: Wycombe will press intelligently in hope of exploiting mistakes for the first hour of most matches, then either employ cynical game management to protect a lead or go route one to chase a deficit.

Rotherham will likely play direct to Michael Smith in a move that shall see their 4-5-1 turn into a 4-3-3 with the speedy Chiedozie Ogbene and the technical Kieran Sadlier getting close to the target man from wide, along with goalscoring midfielder Matt Crooks.

The Millers are prepared to overload the penalty area, but that is where Wycombe could be strongest.

With space congested centrally, it remains to be seen whether the visitors can exploit the wider areas – they have a left-back in Joe Mattock, for example, who may be slightly fortunate to start the season as first choice, despite an excellent free-kick at Mansfield in pre-season.

Equally, Wycombe could struggle for chances to turn possession over in the opposing half; aerial specialist Michael Ihiekwe is among a set of Millers defenders unlikely to dally on the ball.

Both have the characteristics to nullify the other’s threat, so we may see a low-scoring opener between two sides with modest ambitions.

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Centre-backs Anthony Stewart and Darius Charles specialize in the kind of last-ditch defending that Rotherham’s direct, aggressive play tends to force, even if Wycombe could miss suspended midfielder Dominic Gape.

Gabriel Sutton

Preston North End v Swansea City

Preston to win

Preston North End and Swansea City are hoping to bridge the budgetary gulf and achieve a Play-Off berth.

Their opening day visitors were somewhat carried last season by Andre Ayew, Connor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster – the latter two were loanees.

Steve Cooper hopes Morgan Gibbs-White can replace Gallagher’s craft but the Swans look short of a clinical striker in Brewster’s mould, though a loan move for Brighton’s Viktor Gyokeres has been mooted.

Cooper has dubiously not brought in any new full-backs, nor a convincing box-to-box partner for deep-lying playmaker Matt Grimes.

The Swans lost 2-0 to Newport in the EFL Cup 1st Round while North End thrashed Mansfield 4-0 – the stark contrast in levels against League Two opposition seems noteworthy.

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Alex Neil’s side look good value, at handsome odds-against quotes, to kick-off with a win.

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Swansea made the grade last year but North End will be a threat this term with a fluid attacking combination of Tom Barkhuizen’s direct running, Sean Maguire’s energy and Josh Harrop’s wriggling runs – they have so far retained key defender Ben Davies and enforcer Ben Pearson, too.

Gabriel Sutton

Accrington Stanley v Peterborough United

Peterborough to win

Accrington Stanley’s EFL Cup involvement was cut short last week on penalties, but manager John Coleman can take positives from the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion in 90 minutes – namely the early patterns of play in his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

Wide centre-back Ross Sykes charged high up with Ben Barclay covering his place from midfield which confused their opponents, though Coleman faces problems in the wing-back positions.

Callum Johnson has gone to Portsmouth and Newcastle loanee Tom Allan, a right-winger by trade, looks an unnatural fit on the left, meaning wing-back additions are required.

Any defensive discomfort could be exploited by Peterborough, who relish transitional attacks as returning Bristol City loanee Sammie Szmodics supports the physical Jonson Clarke-Harris and the skilful Siriki Dembele.

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If they cannot get in behind, Posh will feed midfielder Reece Brown who, next to energetic all-rounder Jack Taylor, has freedom to drift into pockets and create.

Accrington Stanley are at an earlier stage of developing their own wing-back system and that could be apparent on Saturday.

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Darren Ferguson’s side were the second-best team in League One from late January and, despite the loss of star striker Ivan Toney, already know how to make their 3-4-3 setup work.

Gabriel Sutton

Fleetwood Town v Burton Albion

Fleetwood to score Under 0.5 goals

If Burton make inroads into the top half, clean sheets may be key.

As well as boasting a creative talent in Joe Powell, therefore, Albion have the solidity to make life difficult for Fleetwood, who found themselves two down last week to woe-ridden Wigan – though they came back to win the EFL Cup tie 3-2 – and begin the season short on options.

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Morgan Boyes, returning from international duties with Wales Under-21s, would likely partner James Hill and while both are talented centre-backs, they are both teenagers and the lack of experience at the back could add to the midfield’s defensive responsibilities.

Plus, if Wes Burns is forced to cover again at right-back, they shall be short of quality on the flank, so Joey Barton’s side may have a narrow look which could play into Burton’s defensive hands.

Fleetwood will do business before window’s end, but this could be a good time to play them and Buxton’s side appear to have the tools to quell their attacking threat.

 

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Jake Buxton’s system should get the best out of aerial beast Michael Bostwick, flanked at centre-back by John Brayford and John-Joe O’Toole, as Stephen Quinn will offer midfield protection while wing-backs Neal Eardley and Kieran Wallace are disciplined too.

Gabriel Sutton

Barrow AFC v Stevenage

Barrow to win

5/4

Barrow and Stevenage had three and five months respectively between their last action of the 2019-20 campaign and knowing their division fate for this one, with both facing the possibility of National League football.

Boro could put last year’s horror-show behind them under rookie Alex Revell – an encouraging performance in their 3-3 EFL Cup draw with Portsmouth, prior to defeat on penalties, boosts optimism.

Barrow did themselves equally proud last week at Derby, creating chances for strikers Dior Angus and Jack Hindle prior to an honourable shootout exit.

Debutant Kgosi Ntlhe was impressive at the back, offering another positive to new manager David Dunn.

His side will control possession here, with Mike Jones and Tom Beadling coming short from midfield to the centre-backs – James Jones, Tom Platt and Ntlhe – hoping to release dynamo Lewis Hardcastle in the hole.

The dilemma for Stevenage midfielders Elliot Osborne and Charlie Carter will be following Jones and Beadling to apply the press, without leaving anchor man Romain Vincelot exposed to Hardcastle’s direct running.

Vincelot as well as centre-backs Scott Cuthbert and Luke Prosser should be strong if Stevenage stay compact, but could be vulnerable if Barrow play through the press with the intelligence they showed in the National League.

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Barrow play their first Football League (EFL) match in 48 years and wholly deserve their place, while Stevenage are extremely fortunate to stay up.

Gabriel Sutton
Any odds mentioned in this article are correct at the time of posting

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