EFL pundit Gab Sutton provides his six best bets for the weekend’s action in his EFL Weekend Preview.
Double Chance: Draw/Gillingham
Hull City v Gillingham
Steve Evans is creating a siege mentality at Gillingham.
Numerous opposition managers have had a veiled dig at the way they play but, while Evans’ claim that the club has the lowest budget in the division may be more for effect than for accuracy, the Scot is at least having an impact.
Yes, most initial passes might be long but when the Kent outfit do get the ball into physical strikers John Akinde and Vadaine Oliver, they are quick to bring direct winger Jordan Graham, selfless wide man Alex MacDonald and midfield dynamo Kyle Dempsey forward in support.
Graham, Dempsey and Tom O’Connor’s set pieces combined with right-back Ryan Jackson’s long throws also cause problems, especially with an aerial specialist in centre-back Robbie Cundy, who joined in January from Bristol City after a productive loan spell at Cambridge.
Gillingham could dominate aerially at Hull, who managed just one shot on target in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Shrewsbury.
True, Greg Docherty hit a wonderful long-range strike against his former club, but Grant McCann’s side did not create any clear-cut chances.
Gillingham are well-drilled and, if they can keep Hull out in the first half, should have a great chance. McCann’s Plan As have often worked well, but the Northern Irishman has been criticized for struggling to change games that are not going his side’s way.
📈 A look at @Connor_Ogilvie’s season by numbers…
4️⃣2️⃣ games ⚽️
1️⃣9️⃣ wins ✅
8️⃣ clean sheets ⛔️
4️⃣ goals 🎯
4️⃣ assists 🅰️
2️⃣ winners 💪🏻
3️⃣6️⃣9️⃣3️⃣ minutes played ⏰
1️⃣ goal of the season 🚀
— GillsInTheBlood (@GillsInTheBlood) March 23, 2021
Gillingham are massively underrated here. I’m delighted to get Evens on a team that has lost just one in seven avoiding defeat against a Hull side that mustered a solitary shot on target last time out.Gabriel Sutton
MK Dons to win
Milton Keynes Dons v Doncaster Rovers
MK Dons secured a third consecutive victory on Saturday, winning 2-1 at Burton.
The run has seen Russ Martin’s side pass the 50-point mark – though relegation has never looked a serious possibility – whilst moving within two points of the top half.
Some would argue that the Buckhamshire outfit were somewhat fortunate to accrue all three points at the Pirelli, having mustered just four efforts at goal all game. But the flip side of that is that they have had numerous draws and defeats in which their performance merited far more.
MK possess a set of midfielders that would be envied by most in the division because, with David Kasumu and Louis Thompson spending time on the sidelines, Martin has added to left-footed technician Scott Fraser, forward-thinking dynamo Ben Gladwin and disciplined Jordan Houghton since the start of the season.
Cultured sitter Andrew Surman, goalscoring midfielder Matt O’Riley and deep-lying playmaker Lasse Sørensen have all joined to provide a rich array of options.
Up top, meanwhile, Martin can rotate between two strikers with real pedigree at this level in Cameron Jerome and Will Grigg.
Since Jerome joined on 9th October, MK have gone from being a territorially dominant but wasteful side, to the joint-third highest goalscorers in the division – and January acquisition Grigg, who has scored 103 goals at this level throughout his career, is hardly a bad alternative.
Either striker could do damage against Doncaster, who come into this game winless in four.
Donny’s defence looked alarmingly passive in the early stages of their 2-2 draw at Gillingham last time out, conceding twice in the opening four minutes.
Joe Wright and Tom Anderson have played together for three years now and are relatively experienced at this level, but perhaps the South Yorkshire outfit have left themselves short of a natural ball-winner who can snuff out opposition attacks.
A win different from the others. Penned in towards the end, shelled by Burton with balls into the box but some team defending got them through. A tough, hard-fought victory, grinding it out. #MKDons
— Toby Lock (@Citizen_Toby) March 20, 2021
MK Dons have won their last three games and, based on the shot data they have posted throughout this campaign, I expect them to finish it strongly and secure a fourth straight win over Doncaster, who are wobbling in the Play-Off scramble.Gabriel Sutton
Callum Lang - Anytime Goalscorer
Wigan Athletic v Ipswich Town
If Wigan beat the drop this season, amid all the financial woes that have engulfed the club, it will be thanks to many things – but two particularly.
Firstly, the perseverance from Leam Richardson, who stayed on at the club when long-serving colleague Paul Cook left in the summer, then John Sheridan departed for Swindon midway through this campaign.
Richardson has had to manage the whole club in many respects whilst working with a skeleton staff and a squad wafer-thin on senior players, with just 18 of them possessing any EFL experience – and many have spent time on the sidelines.
The 41-year-old has shown incredible character to not only keep going in those circumstances, but also deliver results that give the Latics a fighting chance of beating the drop before fresh investment is expected to come this summer following a Bahraini takeover.
Secondly, the form of Callum Lang, who has scored seven goals since being recalled from Motherwell in January.
Lang is playing regularly at this level of English football for the first time, but it does not faze him, having starred in the division below with Morecambe in 2017-18 and Oldham in 2018-19.
As the 22-year-old showed for his first-minute opener in Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Accrington Stanley, he is very quick with clever movement.
The Liverpudlian livewire loves to identify the slowest opposition centre-back, find ways of isolating them and then outpace the player in question to get on the end of a through ball.
Lang will fancy his chances of doing more damage to Ipswich, who do not have the strongest defence.
Luke Chambers and Stephen Ward, both 35, are slow while Toto Nsiala can be rash and the rear-guard are not protected by a reliable holding midfielder, so the Wigan striker should get lots of opportunities to run in behind.
Ipswich have won just one of Paul Cook’s first five games in charge and although the Tractor Boys will see this as a game they need to win to re-enter the top six mix, Callum Lang has a great chance of continuing his fine individual form.Gabriel Sutton
Ryan Bowman - Anytime Goalscorer
Exeter City v Salford City
Salford, this week, have replaced Richie Wellens as manager with Gary Bowyer.
The club, ran by the Class of 92 and chiefly Gary Neville, have made two changes in the dugout this season, switching from the direct style employed by Graham Alexander to Wellens’ more expansive methods and now reverting to Bowyer’s relative conservatism.
It’s surprising, given Neville’s history of only playing under one boss throughout his career – and given his stance for so long on the need to give managers time – that he has been so ruthless in his decision-making.
Wellens might not have been delivering Salford instant results, but he is the most recent manager to win a title at this level – having done so with Swindon last season – and would surely have delivered success in 2021-22, after a pre-season to work with his players and bring in his own personnel, with conditions more likely to suit possession football.
Bowyer is a capable manager, having won promotion from this level with Blackpool via the Play-Offs in 2016-17, but he has a far more rigid blueprint than that of his predecessor.
The 49-year-old is known to be a good ship-steadier – someone who can inherit a difficult situation and re-establish the defensive basics – but perhaps not someone who can inherit a side that is expected to achieve success and deliver.
One player who has delivered this season, for Exeter, is Ryan Bowman, who has 12 goals to his name.
Bowman has taken 65 (94%) of his 69 efforts at goal this season from inside the penalty area, which shows the 29-year-old is an expert at finding shrewd finishing positions – even if he was unable to convert his big chance in the 2-1 loss at Oldham last time out.
The Carlisle-born man is a key focal point for the Grecians, who need him to come up trumps in this vital game in the Play-Off scramble.
🗣 "We’ve got 11 games now to go and play some really aggressive football with and without the ball, and see where it takes us."
— Salford City FC (@SalfordCityFC) March 23, 2021
Gary Bowyer has his first game in charge of Salford this weekend, but it’s another Bow I’m expecting to grab the headlines, with the Exeter striker fancying his chances of hitting the target.Gabriel Sutton
Port Vale draw no bet
Crawley Town v Port Vale
Port Vale’s situation looks a lot brighter after back-to-back wins over Newport and Colchester.
Speaking after the latter, Darrell Clarke praised the adaptability of his players, having switched from the familiar to a 3-5-2 mid-game to counter the opposition’s diamond formation.
A wing-back role arguably suits Cristian Montano more than the conventional left-back position because, having been a winger under Clarke at Bristol Rovers, he relishes the extra freedom to get forward.
David Worrall, the division’s top assister with 12, switched from a wide forward role to right wing-back which gave Vale plenty of attacking thrust in wide areas, with Luke Joyce anchoring midfield, surrounded by the energy and quality of Manny Oyeleke and Tom Conlon.
Up top, meanwhile, the Burslem outfit have a burgeoning star in Devante Rodney, who has now hit two winners in his last two games.
Vale look more flexible under Clarke and that should show at Crawley, who have scored just 13 goals in 13 games since Max Watters left for Cardiff in January, having found the net 34 times in 22 league encounters beforehand.
MIND THE GAP SMALLSALL 😂😂😂
— Scott ⚽ (@PicardyBreezer) March 20, 2021
I’ve liked the look of Port Vale in the last couple of games and I expect this match to nudge both sides closer to another pair of league meetings at this level next season.Gabriel Sutton
Liam Sercombe - Anytime Goalscorer
Morecambe v Cheltenham Town
Liam Sercombe has been one of Cheltenham’s star performers this season.
Having been part of hometown club Exeter’s meteoric rise from the National League to League One, Sercombe moved in 2015 to Oxford where, partnered by John Lundstram, he had the freedom to drive forward and score 14 goals in their League Two promotion campaign.
From 2017 came a mixed spell at Bristol Rovers, where the midfielder was often shunted out wide. But he is relishing the chance to play a more natural central role at Cheltenham.
The 30-year-old averages 1.9 shots per 90 minutes of action, which is the joint-fourth most out of all fourth-tier midfielders who have played 25+ games in 2020-21.
He has also scored eight goals in all competitions and, with Conor Thomas maturing into a leader figure who can run midfields, skilful Finn Azaz and Sercombe have that extra freedom to push forward and express themselves.
Sam Smith is a striker with the physical capability to occupy defenders while Alfie May will hassle them and run in behind, with both creating space for Sercombe to pick up the pieces and drive shots at goal.
As the midfielder showed in the 2-0 victory over Salford last time out, he can also produce close-range finishes, turning home Matty Blair’s cross on the goal-line for the second goal of the game.
Sercombe will cause problems for Morecambe, who are defying the odds this season by chasing their promotion dream.
Something I've mentioned before is our effectiveness when we don't have the ball. The Salford game on Saturday highlighted this.
— Dave (@DaveCohen_) March 22, 2021
Whenever Liam Sercombe operates in League Two, he’s always one of the best players in the division and could be about to join the likes of Nicky Adams, Danny Mayor and Adebayo Akinfenwa in winning three or more promotions from this level. A goal on Saturday would help him towards that ambition.Gabriel Sutton