EFL pundit Gab Sutton has six fancies for the weekend’s EFL action in his EFL Weekend Preview.
Double Chance: Draw/Preston
Cardiff City v Preston North End
Cardiff are unbeaten since Mick McCarthy took charge, but the data doesn’t quite back up the results.
The Bluebirds have won their last four games and, in that time, averaged 1.04 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.53 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 40.48%: the fifth-worst in the Championship.
Granted, the 3-1 win over Coventry was all about the focal point that in-form front-man Kieffer Moore provides, with the in-form Welshman having scored five goals in his last six games.
In Tuesday’s 2-0 victory at Luton, though, Cardiff won an even game – in which their hosts had arguably the better chances – thanks to strikes from Harry Wilson and Will Vaulks from outside the box.
It is arguable that the Welsh outfit were creating more chances under Neil Harris but were not as clinical, so they could be caught out by variance against Preston North End.
Alex Neil’s side have been lifted by January additions of Jayson Molumby and Ben Whiteman.
The former – a tenacious ball-winner capable of carrying the ball upfield – was an enforced signing due to the loss of Ben Pearson to Bournemouth, while Whiteman brings North End more quality from deep to unlock teams.
Liam Lindsay has strengthened the Lancashire outfit defensively, too and if the Stoke recruit, along with Jordan Storey, can keep Moore quiet, they have a good chance of quelling Cardiff’s overall threat.
North End are stronger for their January business and that could show in the Welsh capital, because I’m not expecting Cardiff’s unbeaten run under Mick McCarthy to last too much longer.Gabriel Sutton
Reading to win
Reading v Middlesbrough
— Talk Reading (@TalkReading) February 17, 2021
Power, tenacity, skill, quality… Reading have a little bit of everything about their game and I think they’ve got a good chance of beating Play-Off outsiders Middlesbrough, who are not in the best of form just now.Gabriel Sutton
Double Chance: Draw/Blackpool
Portsmouth v Blackpool
Portsmouth suffered a 3-1 loss at Bristol Rovers last time out.
Manager Kenny Jackett was absent for health reasons and Joe Gallon, who took charge, felt his side created chances, but the goals Pompey conceded were soft.
It was a missed interception from auxiliary centre-back James Bolton that led to the first and a stray header from the right-back by trade that allowed their opponents to go ahead, before Sean Raggett gave away the penalty for the third.
Raggett is strong in the air and was commanding during the Portsea Island club’s run of six league games without conceding, but in five of those matches he was partnered by Jack Whatmough.
The Pompey academy graduate has the pace to cover Raggett and the ball-playing qualities to account for his limitations, but he also has an unfortunate history with injuries – though reportedly that was not the reason he was mysteriously left out of the squad at the Mem.
Rasmus Nicolaisen is a left-sided alternative who replaced Bolton to play the second half last time out, but the Dane is not the quickest and Portsmouth’s lack of pace at the back is something Blackpool can exploit.
Pool striker Ellis Simms is described at parent club Everton as being “rapid as a cheetah” and Jerry Yates, who partnered the 20-year-old last time out, has intelligent movement too, while wide man Sulley Kaikai won post-match praise from Neil Critchley for his work ethic after scoring in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Rochdale.
That result leaves Critchley’s side eight points off the Play-Off places with a game in hand – a positive result at Fratton Park would boost their chances of closing the gap.
A loan is the right next step for Ellis Simms. 8 goals in 12 games for #EFCU23s this season but will learn infinitely more in six months at Blackpool than in PL2. Quick, excellent finisher & has improved his all-round game over the last 12 months
— Patrick Boyland (@Paddy_Boyland) January 20, 2021
Don’t let the fact Blackpool are 14th deceive you: had the League One season started in late-October, Neil Critchley’s side would have the 3rd best PPG record. They are very much part of the Play-Off conversation.Gabriel Sutton
Plymouth to win -1 handicap
Rochdale v Plymouth Argyle
The January addition of Niall Ennis has made it harder for Argyle’s opponents to second-guess them.
Before he came in on a permanent deal, much of their play went down the left flank via the trio of wing-back Conor Grant, dribbler Danny Mayor and energetic striker Ryan Hardie.
The latter, though, has since had to settle for a place on the bench as Ennis, starting on the right of the two-man attack in Ryan Lowe’s expansive 3-1-4-2 setup, has a similar job, with top goalscorer Luke Jephcott moving more towards the left.
The former Wolves man, who was tipped for a career at the top at 16 before injuries stunted his progress, runs the channels superbly and links play well, making him key to some free-flowing moves from the Devoners.
Lowe’s side have a lovely balance in midfield, because Panutche Camara – who has direct, raw running off the ball instincts stemming from his time in non-league with Dulwich Hamlet – often presses up with the strikers to force opponents back.
That, in turn, creates space for Nottingham Forest loanee Tyrese Fornah to caress the ball with his delicate feet and dictate with class.
Argyle have the tools, therefore, to cause problems for Rochdale, who are one of seven teams in danger of finishing in the bottom four.
Dale have been known for their involvement in high-scoring games this season but recently, their attacking threat has subsided with just one goal in their last three games.
— Conor Morgan (@saint_conor) February 13, 2021
Rochdale won the reverse fixture 4-0 at Home Park but, with Argyle in excellent form and Brian Barry-Murphy’s side having won just one in 11, I suspect we could see a very different game here.Gabriel Sutton
Both teams to score
Cheltenham Town v Bradford City
Alfie May has already shown the nation what he can do with his performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup.
Doncaster let the striker go in January last year to Cheltenham, who will be glad they tied him down to a two-and-a-half year contract, after an excellent first 13 months with the club.
May has been in fine individual form for the Robins – scoring four goals in his last eight games – and there is far more to his game than just finishing.
The 27-year-old presses superbly and, as we saw for his assist for Sam Smith in the 2-1 win at Walsall last time out, has the intelligence to pick out teammates in the final third which more single-minded strikers lack.
Alfie May could star at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium on Saturday, likewise Callum Cooke, who has been fantastic in recent weeks for Bradford.
Cooke showed a lot of potential at the beginning of his career with Crewe, playing his way out of tight areas, earning himself a move to League One with Peterborough.
That Posh stint did not quite work out as hoped and the Peterlee-born playmaker was forced into a more circumspect role for the Bantams under Gary Bowyer, before an inconsistent patch under Stuart McCall.
Ironically, it’s a management team with far less experience than either of those two in Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars who are getting the best out of Cooke, who is enjoying a more advanced role.
The League Two side lead Manchester City! 😳
Alfie May fires Cheltenham into the lead! 👏
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 23, 2021
I’m expecting Alfie May and Callum Cooke to be the two stand-out players in this game, which is why I’m going for Both Teams To Score.Gabriel Sutton
Salford to win
Salford City v Carlisle United
Salford could start to impose the level of dominance their budget suggests they are capable of.
The Ammies have a squad comparable to one or two in the Championship, but it’s only since January that they have begun to play with the fluency and coherence to back up the individual quality.
Earlier in the campaign, manager Richie Wellens had two problem areas: the dearth of a quality, attacking right-back and a midfielder who can dictate and create from deep.
Paul Coutts, a Winter addition from Sheffield United, represents so much of what Salford were crying for earlier in the campaign; somebody who can dictate games with his sweet left foot, collect the ball off the defence and bring the more advanced operators into play.
The former issue, meanwhile, has been solved by the switch to 3-4-2-1 with Ashley Hunter, an enigmatic left-sided forward by trade, deployed as a right wing-back as Di’Shon Bernard, a right-back by trade on loan from Manchester United, brings ball-playing qualities on the right of a back-three.
While attacking players have been dropped deeper than used to under Wellens, the inverse is also true: Richie Towell, a ball-winner by trade, has been deployed as the right-sided number 10.
The former Swindon boss recognizes that by dropping technicians deeper, they will get more time on the ball and that by moving aggressive, hardworking players like Towell further forward, they can contribute strongly to the press.
Salford have a system that could allow them to dominate in the latter stages of this campaign and they have a great opportunity to prove their credentials against Carlisle, who played only their third game in seven weeks on Tuesday.
The Cumbrians, who lost 1-0 at Harrogate, have seen lots of games postponed and could suffer from a lack of match practice.
— Salford City FC (@SalfordCityFC) February 16, 2021
The way Salford are playing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they generated the consistency to pull away from the pack and end up dominating the division.Gabriel Sutton