EFL expert Gabriel Sutton looks ahead to the opening weekend of the 2021/22 season, which will welcome back fans to stadiums up and down the country.
Blackpool to win
Bristol City v Blackpool
Bristol City and Blackpool have spent pre-season in contrasting moods.
While City were relieved their previous Championship campaign did not last the extra month it would have taken to land them into relegation trouble, Blackpool are buoyant after beating Lincoln in the League One Play-Off Final.
Neil Critchley’s side look well-placed to embrace the challenges of the second-tier and the fact they are so effective without the ball – with an aggressive yet intelligent pressing structure – is a massive advantage.
The Tangerines could disrupt play for the hosts, who may be coming into this season in tentative fashion.
After a poor second half of the 2020-21 campaign which was disrupted significantly by injuries, the BS3 outfit may take their time to ease into the campaign, so in some respects this type of fixture is not favourable.
Pearson is expected to deploy controllers Adam Nagy and Matty James in the same midfield along with, potentially, 17-year-old Alex Scott, who has come through the academy and would be making his first league start.
The danger with that trio, though, is that none of those players are renowned for their physicality or tenacity, which makes the hosts potentially vulnerable to the Blackpool press.
Of course, the Tangerines are not without problems of their own, operating in the absence of a natural senior right-back and without influential midfielder Kevin Stewart, while fellow ball-winner Kenny Dougall is battling to be fit.
They still have the tools, though, to be strong without the ball, especially if Critchley deploys a front-two of Jerry Yates and Shayne Lavery.
The latter not only has the energy and work rate to meet his head coach’s demands off the ball, he is also an extremely intelligent forward with goalscoring instincts and the ability to draw fouls.
Lavery displayed the latter trait in the final friendly of pre-season, a 4-1 defeat to Man City, in which he dribbled past Ruben Dias as though he were not there and won a penalty off the world-class Portuguese centre-back which Luke Garbutt converted.
That moment might have been enough for Critchley to be bold and pair Yates, who will be the object of Bristol City’s defensive focus after scoring 23 goals last season, with the Northern Ireland international, who arrives from Linfield with rave reviews.
With attentions likely to be primarily on Yates, Lavery could prosper.
🗣️ "I thought that for long periods we were in the game against them."
The gaffer's thoughts on this evening's match at Manchester City.
— Blackpool FC (@BlackpoolFC) August 3, 2021
Half-time - Draw/Full-time - Luton
Luton Town v Peterborough
Luton are the benchmark for Peterborough.
After winning the League One title in 2018-19, the Hatters stayed in the Championship the following season thanks to the impact made by returning boss Nathan Jones, who then led them to a top half finish the following season.
If the Posh could achieve those same results after automatic promotion, chairman Darragh MacAnthony would be delighted: but mere survival is the immediate target, and a tough one to achieve at that.
The main thing holding Darren Ferguson’s side back could be a lack of depth, beyond a core of 13 reliable first team players, and perhaps quality.
While the first half, we can expect the Posh – eager to prove their worth in their first game at this level – to be solid and competitive, therefore, the big question is whether they will be able to capitalize on their better spells.
Siriki Dembele, who would ordinarily start on the left of a 4-2-3-1, has been linked with a move to Newcastle, Celtic or Rangers and, were the skilful forward to depart or be off his game, the Cambridgeshire outfit could be short of craft in the final third.
Joe Ward, on the right, is used primarily for his diligent work ethic, Sammie Szmodics’ main qualities lie in his off-the-ball work while Jonson Clarke-Harris is a capable hold-up front-man who can score goals – in the division below, at least – but something would be missing.
Joel Randall, having spent the second half of last season injured, signs from Exeter to provide searing pace on the left to potentially replace Dembele, but it would be asking a lot for the 21-year-old’s game to be refined at this stage.
Luton possess not only superior quality in attack, but also more depth: Jones is evolving the squad nicely and the wide array of options available to the fiery Welshman will present itself in the second half.
The Hatters could name a reasonable first XI which would still allow them to bring similarly abled players off the bench: like athletic full-backs Peter Kioso and Amari’i Bell plus talented wide forward Carlos Mendes Gomes and experienced front-man Cameron Jerome.
The real question lies in midfield: Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu loves to collect the ball from deep and spray it wide, Allan Campbell is bold and aggressive in the press, but they would not work as a duo.
Jones is a fan of long-serving anchor man Glen Rea, even after a mixed pre-season, but if the 26-year-old starts, that gives the Bedfordshire outfit the luxury of being able to bring proven Championship midfielder Henri Lansbury or Joe Morrell – who has played 19 games for Wales – off the bench.
Luton might take some time to find their rhythm, but once they do they could carve open the newcomers.
— Oh When The Town Podcast (@OhWhenTheTown) August 3, 2021
Oxford to win to nil
Cambridge United v Oxford United
Thanks to last season’s achievements from head coach Mark Bonner and company, Saturday’s game will be Cambridge’s first match in the third tier since 2001-02.
The U’s will be keen to make an impression to mark the occasion, but they have lost key players such as Paul Mullin and Kyle Knoyle, with midfielder Jensen Weir being arguably the only addition to truly set pulses racing – and even the Brighton loanee is unproven in senior football.
Given the palpable lack of quality, with grafter Joe Ironside and target man Sam Smith unlikely to fire double-figures at this level, the CB5 outfit will need to rely on unity and an excellent atmosphere provided by the Yellow and Black Army.
The positivity might influence proceedings up to a point, especially with Bonner now out at 12/1 to be the next MK Dons manager, but the visitors have quality – they wouldn’t have reached the Play-Offs in the previous two seasons if they didn’t.
The loss of key centre-back Rob Atkinson could be a blow for the Yellows, but Karl Robinson has since added to his side’s defence and it is hoped that Jordan Thorniley will be a competent replacement partner for the aerially commanding Elliott Moore.
Plus, Steve Seddon is arguably an upgrade on long-serving left-back Josh Ruffels, providing more in the press and more direct running power, which should create the space for Oxford’s central technicians like Marcus McGuane, Cameron Brannagan or James Henry to strut their stuff.
Plus, Mark Sykes has looked full of confidence in pre-season and the Northern Irishman looks ready to drop in and collect the ball, before progressing the ball to bring compatriot Gavin Whyte into play on the right.
Whyte, who rejoins on loan from Cardiff, brings a different dimension to this U’s side, similar to Dan Agyei, in his willingness to inject this slick passing play with an element of drive and thrust to create for a proven goalscorer in Matty Taylor.
Cambridge have fond memories of beating Oxford 5-1 on national TV in October 2014, but a repeat of that on opening day looks unlikely – in fact, the hosts could struggle to find the net at all.
— Cambridge United FC (@CambridgeUtdFC) August 4, 2021
— Ipswich Town FC (@IpswichTown) August 4, 2021
Ipswich Town v Morecambe
Ipswich and Morecambe come into the season with wildly different hopes and expectations, but both have new-look squads.
Town have added 10 new players this summer, while the Shrimps have signed 15 – an unusual influx for a newly-promoted side on top of a managerial change – so both teams will be in the early stages of the process of amalgamating as a unit.
In some respects, one might think that might be easier for the Suffolk club, who have added the quality to back up their promotion ambitions with Joe Pigott, Wes Burns, Lee Evans and Václav Hladký all looking impressive signings.
On the other hand, the Tractor Boys will be under pressure in this game to break their opponents down with around 60% possession, meaning they will need to establish subtle, nuanced patterns of play in a short timeframe.
The task for Stephen Robinson’s side meanwhile will be harder, of course, yet oddly simpler.
While Robinson, replacing promotion-winning boss Derek Adams, will want his side to play on the deck at times this season through midfield talents like Leeds loanee Alfie McCalmont, this game is mainly about organisation.
The primary task for the Lancashire visitors is to establish a straightforward defensive structure, work incredibly hard to maintain the right distances between units – and hope for a slice of fortune along the way.
Morecambe will have the means to threaten on the counter-attack, too, through Bolton recruit Arthur Gnahoua, who provides searing pace.
The Shrimps will want to ride out the Ipswich storms, then play the initial pass into McCalmont, who will look for a more ambitious pass to hold-up front-man Cole Stockton, who will in turn aim to release Gnahoua’s pace with Aaron Wildig also breaking forward from midfield.
Ipswich are heavy favourites, but Morecambe’s remit is plainer for a new group of players to carry out, which is why Stephen Robinson’s side could emerge from Suffolk with a respectable, hard-earned opening day point against what could be disjointed hosts.
Crawley draw no bet
Hartlepool United v Crawley Town
Hartlepool’s preparation for the new season has not been ideal.
Not only has there been an extremely quick turnaround, having played the Play-Off Final last season 50 days ago, but they have also lost key players.
Defenders Lewis Cass and Ryan Johnson have moved to Port Vale, forwards Rhys Oates and Luke Armstrong have gone elsewhere in League Two – and the squad is short on midfielders, considering that Dave Challinor intends to use three of them.
The start looks demanding, especially against a Crawley side that finished in the top half last season and have, by comparison, not lost any key players.
Pools have, at least, signed leader Neill Byrne, popular in the National League last season with Halifax, who will slot into the left of the three-man defence, while Timi Osudina – having played well in the Final – looks a competent option too.
In attack, meanwhile, Challinor has assembled a range of qualities with the physicality and athleticism of Olufela Olomola, who signs after an injury-hit stint at Scunthorpe and the finishing instincts of Mark Cullen, who joins from Port Vale.
Nonetheless, sharpness could be an issue for Olomola and Cullen – the former did not start a single game in any competition last season while the latter has kicked off just 40 games over the last four years.
For that reason, there is a good chance that the dependable Jordan Tunnicliffe and the experienced Tony Craig might be able to quieten the rusty duo: in which case, Crawley’s numerical advantage in wide areas could come to the fore.
John Yems’ side will have Archie Davies and Sam Matthews linking up on the right against left wing-back David Ferguson, plus Owen Gallacher and Tyler Frost combining to outwit Jamie Sterry, with Nick Tsaroulla more than capable of changing things from the bench.
Use the wide areas shrewdly and Crawley could prevail.
Cullen signs | 📲 Full reaction
🗣"𝙄 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙛𝙖𝙣𝙨 𝙖𝙧𝙚 𝙥𝙖𝙨𝙨𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙖𝙩𝙚, 𝙄 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙮 𝙜𝙚𝙩 𝙧𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩 𝙗𝙚𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙙 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙩𝙚𝙖𝙢…"
New signing @Markcullen21 gives his reaction after signing for the club.
Click below for full video:
— Hartlepool United FC (@Official_HUFC) August 1, 2021
Walsall draw no bet
Tranmere Rovers v Walsall
Saturday’s opener at Prenton Park sees two bosses start their reigns with their respective clubs, but in contrasting fashion.
Micky Mellon is a familiar figure at Tranmere and not just because he played for them, but also because he led the club to successive promotions to League One – not to mention his experience of winning promotion from this level with Shrewsbury.
Matt Taylor, on the other hand, is a rookie: the former Portsmouth left-back has his first competitive game as a head coach, hoping to convert the Saddlers from being underachievers to serious contenders.
What Mellon and Taylor have in common, though, is that they are guided reliably by wise, well-intentioned ownership regimes: Mark and Nicola Palios are excellent custodians at Rovers, while Leigh Pomlett has gained credit for his honesty and structural transformation of Walsall.
Pomlett, Taylor and co. have every right to be excited about recruitment for the Saddlers, who have struggled for goals from their strikers in recent seasons and are hoping Kieran Phillips can provide the firepower.
The Huddersfield loanee showed brief spurts of promise in the Championship last season and, with Everton Under-18s in 2018-19, he scored 13 goals in a 12-game sequence.
Unfortunately for the 6’2” striker, his time with Everton’s Under-23s mirrored his start to life in West Yorkshire: massively hindered by long-term injuries, which may be an explanation as to why Phillips is now plying his trade in League Two rather than catching Rafa Benitez’s eye.
Whether Walsall can rely for 46 games on the availability and productivity of a 21-year-old who, at one point in his youth, was sidelined for two-and-a-half years remains to be seen.
With any new striker brought in likely to arrive at too late notice to start on Saturday, though, there is a real chance that Phillips thrives.