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Fans are back this week, as is EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton with his best bets in his weekend EFL preview.

Bristol City to win

Bristol City v Birmingham City

Bristol City consolidated their place in the top six in midweek with a 2-1 victory at QPR.

Dean Holden’s side rode their luck, especially in the first half, requiring defiant last ditch defending from Zak Vyner and Tomas Kalas as well as excellent goalkeeping from Daniel Bentley.

Holden replaced attacking left-back Jay Dasilva with the more streetwise Tommy Rowe at the interval. That re-solidified the Robins, who won through Ádám Nagy’s strike.

Nagy and winger turned midfielder Callum O’Dowda earnt post-match praise from their head coach for their energy levels, which have remained consistent amid a congested fixture schedule.  Holden hopes for more big performances against Birmingham.

The Blues surrendered a second half lead to lose 2-1 last time out to Barnsley, a result that leaves them winless in six.

In that sequence, four of their opponents have been promoted from League One in the last two years while Bournemouth are the only ones higher than 11th.

Aitor Karanka has recently picked three centre-backs as well as a technical, cultured midfielder in Mikel San Jose, but the Spaniard plays better ahead of a four-man defence.

If Karanka were to swap one centre-back for an attacking player, he would get more out of San Jose because opponents would not get as much encouragement to press and thus the midfielder would have more space to dictate terms.

As it is, whenever he receives the ball he’s being hunted in packs, because the opponents have less to worry about at the other end.

Birmingham are by no means an easy club to manage, but Karanka has so far been overly cautious in his approach.

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Birmingham were unable to establish clear superiority against Wycombe, Coventry, Luton and Barnsley, so it’s hard to see them having much joy at Bristol City, who are outside the automatic promotion places only on goal difference.

Gabriel Sutton

Coventry to win

Coventry City v Rotherham United

In Rotherham’s 2018-19 season at this level, Paul Warne was perhaps guilty of setting up his side too defensively on the road – wide men tracked back habitually, thus isolating selfless target man Michael Smith.

Warne went into this campaign intending to make his side look more like an aggressive 4-3-3 rather than a conservative 4-5-1. But problems have reoccurred.

In the last two games, the Millers boss has switched to 3-5-2, to give his side the insurance of an extra centre-back whilst being able to pair Smith with a more instinctive finisher in Freddie Ladapo.

That change worked a treat in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Bournemouth, in which Ladapo bagged a brace and Joe Mattock had the game of his life at left wing-back with a series of sumptuous setups – the South Yorkshire side had enough chances to win.

Against Brentford the following Tuesday, though, Warne was arguably too adventurous in his alterations.

He brought off a semi-fit Matt Olosunde and a struggling Mattock at wing-back, replacing the duo with wingers by trade in Florian Jozefzoon and Mikael Miller, which left gaps at the back for their visitors to exploit in a 2-0 defeat.

The fact this is a different kind of mistake to the ones made previously at least suggests Warne is trying to find the right balance. But it has been questioned whether he has the tactical acumen for this level.

This match represents a big opportunity, therefore, for Coventry.

The Sky Blues remain yet to play six bottom half sides, a quirk of the fixture list that may have distorted their performance data and results. Perhaps their natural rank within this division is closer to midtable than the current position of 19th would suggest.

Mark Robins’ side have lost only one of their five meetings with bottom half opposition. That was at Nottingham Forest, a game they could easily have won with better finishing.

After Gustavo Hamer’s injury-time free-kick salvaged a slightly fortuitous point at Derby in midweek, City are now four games unbeaten and will fancy their chances of extending that.

Robins could make one or two adventurous tweaks with Maxime Biamou standing a good chance of coming into the XI – and as we’ve seen earlier in the season, the physical front-man can have a transformative impact on their attacking play.

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I’m expecting Coventry to extend their unbeaten run to five games with a win over fellow promotees Rotherham, which is generously priced. The Sky Blues can accumulate a healthy points tally between now and New Year.

Gabriel Sutton

Blackpool draw no bet

Fleetwood Town v Blackpool

Blackpool continued their excellent form with a midweek 1-0 win over Portsmouth.

The scoreline would suggest a narrow victory, but Neil Critchley’s side were unquestionably the dominant force.

Earlier in the season, the Tangerines were too easy to play through and talented players like Ethan Robson were struggling to handle the physical side of the game.

Since ball-winner Kenny Dougall arrived in mid-October, though, the West Lancashire outfit have accrued 16 points from nine games, giving them the fifth-best PPG return in that time frame.

Because Dougall does the dirty work so well, Robson and others are freed up to influence games higher up the pitch.

Dougall’s tenacity will be crucial in this Fylde Coast Derby, which has arisen in the previous decade – despite a stark contrast in the natural stature of their respective clubs – due to contrasting ownership regimes.

Fleetwood, who thanks to Andy Pilley’s investment, are into their seventh season at this level, were beaten 1-0 in midweek at Northampton where, following a controlled first half, they conceded moments after the interval then had half an hour of sterile possession.

It was only for the closing stages, in which Joey Barton’s side had to throw caution to the wind, that they carried a threat – in fact all evening, only Ched Evans’ free-kick truly troubled the opposing goalkeeper.

Fleetwood might be four points better off, but the momentum is with Blackpool.

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Without getting overly consumed by individual matches, I think it’s relevant that Blackpool dominated against a strong Portsmouth side while Fleetwood couldn’t dislodge a limited Northampton outfit.

Gabriel Sutton

Ipswich draw no bet

Plymouth Argyle v Ipswich Town

Argyle come into this game off the back of a shock 4-0 defeat to Rochdale in midweek.

Manager Ryan Lowe was deeply disappointed with his side’s display and the passive nature of the defending will greatly concern the Liverpudlian.

Lowe wants to build a possession-based 3-1-4-2 setup that can be successful at this level and the Devoners have still had a decent start. But, with 10 goals conceded in three consecutive defeats, there are clearly balance issues.

Conor Grant, Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves are all tidy but lightweight midfielders and perhaps Lowe misses a Tyreeq Bakinson or an Antoni Sarcevic from last season – somebody capable of imposing themselves on games.

A start for Panutche Camara – quick, strong and tenacious – might help Lowe redress the midfield balance short-term, even if the former Crawley man is not exactly a tiki-taka specialist.

Based on Argyle’s recent struggles, Ipswich may look to build a strong, transitional performance with a strike-pairing of Oli Hawkins and Kayden Jackson, who got half an hour from the bench in the midweek 0-0 draw at Oxford.

Hawkins is a selfless striker who has height and aerial prowess, but more mobility than one would expect from your average target man. He makes clever runs into wide areas which drags defenders away and creates space for others.

Kayden Jackson, meanwhile, has searing pace and loves to make direct runs from wide into goalscoring areas.

The two of them can combine dangerously on the turnover, which is especially important for Ipswich who, with nine absentees, will be without their more technical midfielders – Teddy Bishop, Flynn Downes, Emyr Huws and Andre Dozzell.

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If Argyle put extra emphasis on re-organization, we may see a draw at Home Park. But if they open up again, Town have the potential to cause problems on the counter-attack. I’m backing the visitors via Draw No Bet, so the stake is refunded if the game ends all square.

Gabriel Sutton

Both Teams to Score

Cheltenham Town v Exeter City

A clash of south-west outfits who both suffered a heart-breaking Play-Off defeat last season to Northampton, but continue to outperform their budgetary rank this year through shrewd recruitment, slick football and managerial stability under a popular former centre-back.

Cheltenham’s current centre-back, Ben Tozer, is carrying a huge threat this season – quite literally.

Tozer gets huge power and distance on his long throws and, with 6’3” defender Will Boyle throwing himself at those handled deliveries, other players can pop up undetected as we saw in Tuesday’s 2-1 win at Bradford, where Chris Clements scored a diving header.

That goal means Cheltenham have scored five goals directly from Tozer’s touchline takes already this season, which represents 21% of their overall ‘For’ column.

Throw-ins are often perceived as a dull stage of play and heavy use of long throws can be associated with perennial underdogs like Tony Pulis’ Stoke, or more recently Iceland, but Cheltenham – second in the division – are proving they can be a key function within a more consistent outfit.

Opponents Exeter look a handful themselves after three consecutive victories in all competitions, with a remarkable 13 goals scored combined.

The Grecians thrashed Colchester 6-1 as star showings from wide talent Joel Randall and creative maestro Matt Jay supported a Ryan Bowman hat-trick, before the Devoners knocked League One Gillingham out of the FA Cup.

After a 4-1 thumping of Grimsby on Tuesday, it’s safe to say Exeter have that finishing touch and, perhaps, the types of chances that were being spurned last season are now being routinely dispatched, a sign of growing confidence.

Randell Williams was the chief threat at Blundell Park and, while last season the ex-Wycombe man was tasked primarily with providing Exeter’s pace, width and thrust down the right flank, this year he is doing more damage centrally.

The rise of right-back talent Josh Key means Williams does not need to hug the touchline so much and can instead link-up centrally with Randall, Jay, Archie Collins and others, making City a hard side to read.

Saturday’s game could be a fantastic advert for League Two – both sides possess numerous players who have the potential to throw in a great performance.

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It’s great that fans are allowed back in and those present at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium (Whaddon Road) should witness a treat, with both promotion contenders in fine form.

Gabriel Sutton

Double Chance: Draw/Morecambe

Newport County v Morecambe

Morecambe are up to 11th in League Two after a 1-0 midweek win over Barrow.

Of course, it helped the Shrimps playing 75 minutes of that game with a numerical advantage. But they created plenty of chances while at 11 v 11 and the opener came before Sam Hird’s dismissal.

It has been a tough season so far for Burnley loanee Adam Phillips and wide forward Carlos Mendes Gomes, but they combined for the goal.

Both have arguably dropped off a notch this season individually, which is ironic given that the team collectively has made huge strides.

Phillips can be slightly wasteful, averaging 15.6 inaccurate short passes and long balls per 90 minutes, which is more than any midfielder in League Two. But he’s also played the fifth-most key passes in the division at 2.2 per 90, so his aptitude for riskier passes can at times be rewarded.

Mendes Gomes, meanwhile, was one of the most unpredictable players in League Two last season and has taken some time to recapture those lively displays – but he is a confidence player so the goal on Tuesday will have done him a world of good.

If Morecambe can maintain the impressive collective levels they have displayed this season, whilst reclaiming the 2019-20 versions of Phillips and Mendes Gomes, they could be a match for Newport.

The Exiles are of course having a fabulous season with Swansea loanee Brandon Cooper, midfielder turned libero Matty Dolan and stalwart Mickey Demetriou forming an excellent defensive combination.

The trio, though, have started 13 games together in the space of 70 days – effectively one every five days – and fatigue could creep in.

Newport have won just one of their last four league games and have negative previous experiences of playing Morecambe – who have won seven of the two sides’ 14 EFL meetings – and their manager.

Derek Adams not only got his first win as Shrimps boss against the South Wales club, his Argyle side also beat them in the FA Cup to win a glamour tie with Liverpool in 2016-17 – and thrashed them 6-1 to secure promotion that same season.

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In any match, I consider it a big opportunity to back a top half side to avoid defeat at odds-against quotes – so I won’t be passing up this one. Newport are the leaders but they have won just one of their last four league games and Morecambe are playing well.

Gabriel Sutton
Odds are correct at the time of posting

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