EFL pundit Gab Sutton looks at the Championship’s only game this Saturday at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, as well as action in League One and Two in his EFL Weekend Preview.
QPR under 0.5 goals
Queens Park Rangers v Derby County
Drama rumbles on at Derby off the field, with question marks over how the uncertainty over a takeover that Mel Morris stated had been “agreed in principle” will influence the club’s financial capacity.
Considering those fears, the Rams produced an incredibly spirited, gutsy and aggressive display on Tuesday night, beating promotion contenders Bournemouth 1-0.
Wayne Rooney deserves credit, because he identified the flank on which the opponents would be most dangerous and shrewdly compiled a game plan to nullify that side.
Supported ably by left wing-back Lee Buchanan, Jason Knight did a great job of pressing the right-sided centre-back to deny the Cherries opportunities to play forward without switching sides.
Striker Colin Kazim-Richards led the press superbly by challenging the opposing goalkeeper, while Graeme Shinnie and goalscorer Krystian Bielik did the midfield dirty work with admirable tenacity.
In defence, meanwhile, Matt Clarke allied his usual ball-playing qualities with a willingness to help the midfield in closing down opponents, likewise centre-back partner Andre Wisdom.
In the second half, Derby had to defend their box well to preserve the victory and if they show that same determination in West London, they have a great chance of shutting out QPR.
Mark Warburton has tried to remedy his side’s goalscoring troubles by adding Charlie Austin and on the surface, that is understandable.
After all, the 31-year-old has scored 258 career goals – he bagged on debut, too, in a 2-0 victory over Luton before a 1-0 triumph at Cardiff on Wednesday.
Austin though does not have pace, strength or particularly good link-up play so while he could help in terms of putting away the few chances the Rs do fashion, he will not help them create more and the ex-Burnley man’s limitations could further the structural issues.
QPR’s full-backs or wing-backs are neither quick nor productive while the loss of Ebere Eze combined with the drop in motivation from Bright Osayi-Samuel, who has recently agreed a move to Fenerbahçe, leaves an overreliance on Ilias Chair for flair.
Given what Derby produced in their last game, they should have enough solidity to mark Chair out of the game and, with less recuperation time, it’s hard to see their hosts finding alternative routes to goal.
The sight of Matt Clarke’s black eye and Bielik trudging around the midfield with a busted face and blood on his top was enough to scare the Bournemouth attack just enough to only managed one challenging shot on target, which the Flying Dutchmen slapped off the line👍🏻 #dcfc
— Derby County Statistics (@DerbyStatistics) January 20, 2021
Derby were brilliant defensively last time out and I fancy them to keep another clean sheet here, even if QPR have just won back-to-back league games.Gabriel Sutton
Sammie Szmodics to score anytime
Ipswich Town v Peterborough United
Sammie Szmodics had a massive impact on Peterborough last season.
In the 10 games before the forward joined up, Posh accrued a paltry nine points, but in the 10 that followed his arrival on loan from Bristol City, they accrued 22.
That is an incredible impact, considering the ex-Colchester man was stepping in for Marcus Maddison, who had delivered over half-a-decade’s worth of PE2 productivity.
What Szmodics brought to the side was that willingness to make bold, penetrative runs from the number 10 position into dangerous areas – often beyond the classic centre-forward – forcing opposing defences back to create more space for deeper operators.
It was something of a surprise, therefore, that Szmodics took so long to hit those same heights again this season and the 25-year-old’s initial dip may have had something to do with the loss of Ivan Toney, who was unquestionably League One’s best centre-forward in 2019-20.
Toney was replaced by Jonson Clarke-Harris who is less mobile and thus must be hit with more accuracy, so when Peterborough’s build-up play from deep didn’t connect with their main front-man, there was less motivation for Szmodics to run beyond defenders.
More recently, though, Darren Ferguson’s sides have shown a willingness to play forward earlier and that has given Szmodics the encouragement to rediscover his natural game.
The diminutive forward will relish facing an Ipswich side that have conceded 15 goals in their last 10 league games.
Great to see Sammie Szmodics getting another couple of goals. That was the Sammie Szmodics of last season.
— Mark (@poshfanupnorth) January 20, 2021
Our traders rate Szmodics as only the joint-14th likeliest player to score in this match which, after successive braces for the forward, I think is incorrect.Gabriel Sutton
Double chance: Draw/Northampton
Lincoln City v Northampton Town
Northampton aim to avenge the 4-0 defeat they suffered to Lincoln last month and there is reason to think they will be stronger.
The Cobblers were without key players such as Shaun McWilliams in mid-December, but the tenacious utility man is back fit.
Keith Curle has overseen a crucial return of four points from two games – a 3-1 win over Gillingham and a 0-0 draw with Sunderland – while January recruits strengthen his side.
Northampton have at times missed a reliable midfield general this season but Bryn Morris, who has been part of promotion pushes at this level with Portsmouth and Shrewsbury, looks an excellent addition.
Mickel Miller – highly regarded at Hamilton – will bring quality in a wide forward role after joining on loan from Rotherham, with potential for Sam Hoskins to move to the right of a front three in a switch from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3.
With that formation, Curle would have springy Danny Rose, athlete Benny Ashley-Seal and Ryan Edmondson – top scorer for Leeds Under-23s for successive seasons – all competing to play down the middle.
Those crucial additions make Northampton’s squad look stronger and the visitors, though prime relegation candidates, can effectively execute stout, backs-to-the-wall performances in individual matches.
Hosts Lincoln are faring superbly this season and deservedly lead the division, but they missed a focal point in their last league game – a 1-1 draw with Peterborough two weeks ago.
The Imps put in a lot of crosses in the second half against Posh but, without athletic target man Tom Hopper, did not have the tools to maximize aerial chances.
It is unclear the reasoning for Hopper’s absence, likewise whether he will be fit and firing against Northampton.
If the former Scunthorpe striker is either unavailable or not at his sharpest, there is an opportunity for the visitors to cede the wide areas to Lincoln then back themselves – with centre-backs like Cian Bolger – to aerially dominate their own penalty area.
Bryn Morris signing for Northampton Town from Portsmouth on loan is a solid signing for the Cobblers. Not quite good enough for Portsmouth but can pass, at Pompey he didn't influence matches enough but I certainly think he has the ability to work in Keith Curle's system #EFL.
— Josh Bunting (@Buntingfootball) January 18, 2021
Very much a price-based selection. It is not expected that Northampton will muster a hard-fought point or smash-and-grab victory, but the chances of either outcome taking place may be greater than the 13/10 suggests.Gabriel Sutton
Oxford to win and both teams to score
Oxford United v Bristol Rovers
One of football’s greatest charms is it’s capacity to surprise – and sometimes, to prove people wrong.
The long-held accepted consensus on Oxford’s Sam Long was that he was an honest, hardworking right-back who will not hesitate to throw himself into challenges, but that he has significant limitations going forward.
Long had neither searing pace nor oodles of quality which was a weakness that, though tolerable in a direct side, was holding the Yellows back in their attempts to reach the Championship whilst executing expansive, possession football.
While some managers see a player’s existing ability to define them indefinitely, the best managers see potential for a player to add new dimensions to their game and that is what Karl Robinson has done.
Robinson has worked hard with Long on improving the attacking output and challenged him to be bolder in his forward movement, which has borne fruit in the last two games.
The 25-year-old made a gutsy, bursting run to turn home a low cross from the right in the 3-2 win at Plymouth Argyle, then managed a hat-trick of assists in the 5-1 thumping of Burton – where opposite number Josh Ruffels bagged a brace from left-back!
Oxford are getting far more productivity from their full-backs than thought possible and that could be a massive factor against Bristol Rovers.
Paul Tisdale’s side have goalscoring potential themselves with 11 goals in their last seven league games, but they have not shown enough defensively to suggest they can contain the in-form U’s, who have just won four on the bounce.
— OxfordAnalytics (@AnalyticsOxford) December 30, 2020
I expect the Sam Long renaissance to continue against Bristol Rovers, with Oxford in sublime form.Gabriel Sutton
Walsall to win
Port Vale v Walsall
One of the long-accepted concepts of football is that strong, tenacious players are fundamentally defensive while those more technically gifted play further forward.
In more recent years, though, managers have seen merit in dropping technicians deeper, knowing they will enjoy more time and space, whilst being aware of what combative performers can offer in a high press, which may be the mind-set of Darrell Clarke.
The Walsall boss has deployed midfielder Liam Kinsella – who has completed the second-most tackles in League Two this season with 59 – further forward than Alfie Bates, who has a reputation as a bright, creative talent.
That combination has shown some promise for the Saddlers, who are hoping to edge their way back into Play-Off contention after 1-1 draws with Oldham and Morecambe.
Clarke has been backed to strengthen his squad with three loanees – highly-rated Aston Villa winger Tyreik Wright, athletic Birmingham striker Jayden Reid and Bournemouth technician Frank Vincent, who will challenge or compliment Kinsella and Bates in midfield.
Wright though has not yet tasted life in the EFL while Reid and Vincent arrive off the back of underwhelming stints at Barrow and Scunthorpe respectively, so Clarke must hope that his driven, uncompromising management style strikes a chord with the young loanees.
Victory will be essential against Port Vale, who have won just one of their last eight league games and look likely to plateau in midtable – despite a decent start to life under the interim stewardship of Danny Pugh.
"We're delighted to bring Frank into the team.
"He's left-footed & we see him as an attacking number eight.
"He can open things up, he can play in a two or in a three & he strengthens our midfield options." pic.twitter.com/YYk8Flu3O2
— Walsall FC Official (@WFCOfficial) January 20, 2021
This Staffordshire Derby has been played in all three EFL divisions this century so both sets of fans will hope it returns to a loftier level – I fancy Walsall for this one.Gabriel Sutton
Bolton draw no bet
Tranmere Rovers v Bolton Wanderers
When managers speak positively about performances after a poor run of form, there is often a temptation for the cynics in us to assume they are looking for ways to take pressure off themselves.
In the case of Ian Evatt, who described Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Cheltenham as “the best his side have played” this season, there is valid cause for his optimism.
That is not to detract from the fact Evatt’s side, tipped by many for the title, are underachieving in the bottom half, but signs of progress are there.
The former centre-back has recently switched from the 3-4-1-2 that brought him the National League title at Barrow to a 4-3-3 that suits Bolton’s squad more naturally and that is reflected in the improved rate of chance creation.
Over the last four matches, the Lancashire outfit have averaged 2.30 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.25 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 64.79% – the fourth-best in the division in that timeframe.
In veteran goalkeeper Matt Gilks, committed centre-back Ryan Delaney, all-action midfielder Antoni Sarcevic and predatory poacher Eoin Doyle, the Trotters possess a competent spine and the challenge has been to find missing pieces in and around it.
Lloyd Isgrove represents one piece because, having starred in the division above with Barnsley, he can pose a direct threat when deployed on the right while Ben Jackson enjoyed a steady debut after joining on loan from Huddersfield.
With that in mind, Bolton have a good chance of keeping their season alive with victory over Evatt’s predecessor, Keith Hill, who is now in charge of Tranmere.
Rovers kept themselves in touch with the Play-Off scramble thanks to a 3-2 victory over Forest Green last time out, but Bolton look value here.
— Marc Iles (@MarcIles) January 16, 2021
Bolton must average two points per game between now and the end of the season to reach the Play-Offs. A huge ask, but with performances like the one against Cheltenham they can give themselves an outside chance.Gabriel Sutton