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As 2021 begins, EFL pundit Gab Sutton looks at which sides will enjoy fresh starts this weekend – and which could still be on the metaphorical prosecco.

Under 2.5 goals

Preston North End v Nottingham Forest

December was great for North End and manager Alex Neil.

They began 2020’s final month languishing in 18th but have since soared seven places thanks to victories over Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Derby and Coventry.

It’s fair to say, though, that more recent victories have not been down to great attacking play.

The Lancashire outfit enjoyed a man advantage for over an hour against Derby and only exploited it in the 96th minute, thanks to a moment of individual magic from Alan Browne.

North End then beat the Sky Blues 2-0 by capitalizing on a stray pass and a failure to clear from their opponents, which led to goals from Daniel Johnson and Sean Maguire.

There is nothing wrong with that method of goalscoring per se but given that those strikes were two of just seven efforts at goal all game, it has to be questioned whether they are creating chances at a sustainable rate.

What is sustainable, though, is their defensive record with three consecutive clean sheets and the 3-4-1-2 system, with the Lilywhites winning both games in which Neil has deployed that formation.

It suits conservative left-back Andrew Hughes more to play as a left-sided centre-back, because it means he can support play intelligently from behind and is not asked to overlap with too much gusto.

Ben Davies is a reliable presence in the centre of the back three and the system arguably suits energetic dynamos Ryan Ledson and Brad Potts, thus helping North End on the transition towards life without out of contract Ben Pearson.

The hosts should be solid, therefore, likewise Forest, who are yet to concede more than one goal against a side lower than eighth under Hughton’s management.

In the intelligent Tobias Figueiredo and no-nonsense Joe Worrall, the Reds have the makings of a strong centre-back pairing, for which the athletic Ryan Yates and dynamo Samba Sow provide excellent protection.

Forest do not have much pace, especially when Alex Mighten does not feature as was the case at Stoke, so their game is about crossing from deep.

Although Anthony Knockaert can put in some good deliveries, they are unlikely to be taken from near the byline, which means North End’s three centre-backs will have plenty of time to judge the centres and head them away.

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The stats suggest a low-scoring encounter: North End have not conceded in three while Forest have shipped just two in their last four.

Gabriel Sutton

Bournemouth to win

Stoke City v Bournemouth

Whether Stoke are in good or poor form is in the eye of the beholder.

An optimistic fan would see just one defeat in nine league games and only two conceded, but a pessimist would see a paltry five goals scored in that period with three wins in 10.

This blog has often sided with the positives for the Potters, who are superbly organized under Michael O’Neill’s guidance, but their use of possession has been underwhelming.

One concern about the above statistics would be that, in none of their last nine games, have they faced top six opposition.

The hope is that Stoke will start to look after the ball more once midfielders Joe Allen and John Obi Mikel, who both have elite profiles within British football, return to full fitness, but forthcoming opponents Bournemouth are strong.

The Cherries might have lost 2-1 at Brentford in their final game of 2020, but they started that game at a terrific intensity and should have been ahead within a minute through Dominic Solanke.

As the striker’s opener proved at the end of a wonderful team move, Jason Tindall’s side contributed to a fantastic footballing game, with Jefferson Lerma showing real quality in the middle of the park.

Lerma, Lewis Cook and Phillip Billing are all technical players who mix up their passing very well, while David Brooks brings that unpredictability in the final third.

That last match, compared with many recent games in the Championship including Stoke’s draw with Nottingham Forest, suggests there may be a gulf in class between the top four teams in the Championship and those hoping to claim a lower Play-Off berth.

Bournemouth are only three places above Stoke but, even making some allowances for injuries, they have looked a better footballing side and created chances at a far superior rate.

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Stoke are well organised and might improve in possession once they get some key players back fit, but so far Bournemouth have used the ball far better this season and I think that will be apparent in the Potteries.

Gabriel Sutton

Double chance: Burton/Draw

Burton Albion v Oxford United

4/5

Jake Buxton has been dismissed as Burton Albion boss after a 4-3 loss to Wigan left his side bottom of League One after four straight defeats, with just 13 points from 21 games.

Evens to replace Buxton in the Next Burton Manager market is John McGrath, a Brewers playing legend who is working wonders in the Northern Premier League with Mickleover.

Many would look at that theoretical appointment and deem it another case of oversentimentality, after Buxton had been given the gig off the back of his playing career, with McGrath yet to manage at professional level – four divisions would be a jump.

On the flip side, McGrath already works full-time at Mickleover, where he has coached Andy Dales, Marcus Dinanga, Connor Hall, Max Watters and Morgan Williams, all of whom have since gone from step three or four of non-league football to earn an EFL move.

If the former midfielder can have such a strong effect on players in non-league, why couldn’t he produce Championship players when working in League One, or League Two, if that’s where Burton are next season?

Germany produce the best managerial talent in the world and their policy is to fast-track coaches who are doing well at lower levels into higher placed jobs, whereas in England we can be guilty of disregarding unfamiliar names – often unfairly.

Not only will McGrath be able to spot gems from the non-league circuit, he likes his teams to keep possession with an attractive style of play, which should suit technical midfielder Joe Powell, wide forward Lucas Akins and striker Kane Hemmings.

Burton’s squad is not as bad as their league position suggests which is why, whether led by McGrath or someone else, they might be able to avoid defeat against Oxford.

Jack Stevens, who Karl Robinson brought in between the sticks due to a drop in form last month for goalkeeping stalwart Simon Eastwood, has been busy, facing 12 shots on target in his last two games.

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If Burton go with John McGrath as manager, many will point to his inexperience in professional terms but then again, someone with an outstanding record at a higher level might not be attainable. I think it could be a very imaginative appointment.

Gabriel Sutton

1st goalscorer Dion Charles

Accrington Stanley v Portsmouth

No striker has played a double figured number of League One games this season and completed more tackles per 90 minutes than Dion Charles’ 1.6.

It is rare for so much of a striker’s game to be about tackling, because some like to conserve their energy to ensure they are productive at key moments.

That, at least, is the thinking of forwards who have come into the EFL via elite academies, but Charles has taken a different route.

The Prestonian was unable to get a kick at Blackpool or Fleetwood and thus has had various non-league stints, including a time on loan in the seventh tier with Skelmersdale, which shows he has had to fight for his place in the professional game.

Even when Charles joined Stanley, he was jumping three divisions after good form in the National League North with Southport and he had to prove himself.

Because of the 25-year-old’s background, he is not content to waste a single second and wants to influence games in any phase of play, so will take every opportunity to hassle and harry defences which makes him a key component in the Reds press.

John Coleman’s side average 1.88 points per game, which is better than Portsmouth’s PPG of 1.84, so the hosts should not be clear underdogs here – despite being six places lower.

Charles is Stanley’s top goalscorer this season with six goals and has scored three of their last four.

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Portsmouth are a very efficient side and deserve to be 2nd in League One, but I still think the traders could be underestimating Accrington Stanley for this one - Dion Charles in particular.

Gabriel Sutton

Grimsby draw no bet

Grimsby Town v Cambridge United

Grimsby fans who have campaigned for an end to John Fenty’s regime as Majority Shareholder can, now, see a gleaming light at the end of the tunnel.

The Mariners are set to be taken over by a consortium led by Jason Stockwood, Tom Shutes and Andrew Pettit, about whom all the information so far is positive.

Stockwood is from Grimsby, a Town fan and a successful businessman, while Shutes has already been working on regeneration projects in the town.

The new regime are bringing Paul Hurst and Chris Doig back to Cleethorpes with the manager and assistant respectively taking training from the Monday after Saturday’s game.

Hurst and Doig led Grimsby into the EFL in 2016 and led Shrewsbury to an unlikely League One promotion push in 2017-18, so there is likely to be a new-found sense of positivity around the club which could have a massive bearing on the pitch.

The timing of this fixture, therefore, does not suit Cambridge, who have lost five of their last seven league games.

Mark Bonner’s side remain short in midfield, where Paul Digby is a solid anchor man but needs a partner capable of providing drive, thrust and creativity like Hiram Boateng did prior to injury.

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There have been huge question marks over the leadership of Grimsby Town, so the return of Paul Hurst and the anticipated takeover of a local consortium is fantastic news for the club as well as the area. I’d be amazed if it doesn’t give the players a massive lift.

Gabriel Sutton

Salford to win and both teams to score

Leyton Orient v Salford City

In Richie Wellens’ current first XI, he likely has eight players whom the former midfielder trusts to take Salford City to League One.

Vaclav Hladky is a fantastic goalkeeper who was crucial to keeping the Ammies in contention early in the season, while ball-playing centre-back Ashley Eastham has played to a high standard in League One with Fleetwood and left-back Ibou Touray gets forward with gusto.

In attack, meanwhile, James Wilson loves to run in behind and Brandon Thomas-Asante takes on opponents at will while Ashley Hunter and Ian Henderson can decide games with right-footed curlers and clinical finishing respectively.

If Salford can add an attacking right-back and a deep-lying playmaker to partner ball-winner Jason Lowe, they could very quickly elevate themselves into the automatic promotion places.

In the meantime, it’s a case of staying in the mix for Wellens’ side when they travel to Orient, who have firepower with lanky but skilful Conor Wilkinson operating to the right of persistent poacher Danny Johnson.

Ross Embleton often moves James Brophy into the front three against possession-based opposition, because he knows the direct left-sider will get space to exploit in transition.

The East Londoners, though, are weak in lots of other areas of the squad and could be vulnerable defensively.

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Salford are not quite the complete package, but Wellens’ side should have more than enough in their armoury to see of Leyton Orient, who rely very heavily on the goalscoring instincts of Danny Johnson.

Gabriel Sutton
Odds are correct at the time of posting

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