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EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his thoughts ahead of the weekend action in his EFL Weekend Preview in the lead to Christmas.

Under 2.5 goals

Birmingham City v Middlesbrough

1/2

On nine occasions this season, Birmingham have had the same outcome – win, lose or draw – as they had in the previous league game.

Aitor Karanka will be hoping the sense of de ja Blue will not recur this Saturday, after back-to-back defeats to Watford and Cardiff. But performances in the first two thirds of those games against top 10 opposition brought some encouragement.

The West Midlanders had the better chances against Watford – Mikel San Jose hit the post with a header – and were not undeserving of their lead at Cardiff just before the hour mark.

Had Birmingham been able to iron out individual errors or had Karanka’s substitutes had a greater influence, the B9 outfit could easily be entering Saturday’s game on 26 points – six off the Play-Offs – rather than 22 – six above the drop zone.

The Spaniard will therefore be looking enviously at his old club, who are up to 7th after a midweek 1-0 win over Luton.

Middlesbrough mustered just four efforts at goal in that game though with Chuba Akpom’s winner being one of just two on target, so it was not a great attacking performance.

Neil Warnock’s side started the game sluggishly and, though the tempo picked up in the second half which was when Akpom scored, Sam Morsy’s controversial dismissal made the rest of their display all about rear-guard action.

Boro have scored just 20 goals in 19 league games, the same number as strugglers Coventry, so their Play-Off push has been largely about the quality of their defending.

Versatile defender Anfernee Dijksteel and ball-playing centre-back Paddy McNair are having excellent seasons for the Teessiders, while Birmingham have, in Ivan Sunjic and Maikel Kieftenbeld, two midfielders who will shield the defence with outstanding tenacity.

George Friend – whether at left-back or centre-back – makes a huge difference to this Blues rear-guard with his intelligence and calming leadership qualities, to counter-balance the more aggressive Harlee Dean.

There have been no official reports of a lengthy injury to Friend and if he returns to the XI here, we could see a game with both defences on top.

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63% of Birmingham’s league matches this season and 68% of Middlesbrough’s have seen under 2.5 goals scored. I’m putting my money on those trends continuing at St Andrew’s.

Gabriel Sutton

Double Chance: Wycombe/Draw

Wycombe Wanderers v Queens Park Rangers

After a steady improvement in performances across October was followed by solid November form, December has dealt Wycombe more setbacks reminiscent of their September struggles.

The Chairboys have taken just one point from their last five league games, leaving them five points off safety.

Why is this blog backing Gareth Ainsworth’s side to avoid defeat on Saturday, then? Two reasons.

Firstly, they produced an excellent performance in midweek at Bournemouth, where the Buckinghamshire outfit frustrated their hosts in the first half, then started the second the brighter.

Renowned target man Adebayo Akinfenwa, technical midfielder Nick Freeman and seasoned, agile-footed wide man Garath McCleary – who has proved an excellent in-season recruit – all forced smart saves from an international goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic.

Wycombe only lost that game because Alex Pattison was sent off just before the second half’s midway point and the team subsequently fell behind, but they even made a fist of things in the final 10 minutes when Uche Ikpeazu came on.

Ikpeazu is another reason why Wycombe could carry a threat because the former Cambridge striker, like Akinfenwa, has an obvious physical presence but, unlike his veteran teammate, can run at defenders.

“Da Beast” made a huge impression on Wanderers when he first came back from injury, so there is no reason why fit again Ikpeazu cannot have a similarly transformative impact.

Ikpeazu, if he starts, will relish any opportunity to peel onto QPR centre-back Yoan Barbet, who is tall but has a slight frame, or 5’9” left-back Niko Hämäläinen.

The Rs have won just four league games in 19 this season and Wycombe can make them wait for the fifth.

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Wycombe have arguably had the better of the play across each of their encounters with the current top three, so Gareth Ainsworth’s side should not be underestimated, despite their lowly league position.

Gabriel Sutton

Rochdale to win

Rochdale v Gillingham

6/4

Rochdale climbed up to 16th in League One on Tuesday night with a 5-0 thumping of Wigan.

Manager Brian Barry-Murphy was delighted with the “fluidity and verve” his side displayed, especially after disappointing defeats to Lincoln and Peterborough.

Dale set up in West Lancashire with an attacking 4-2-2-2 setup, with Stephen Humphrys leading the line and Matty Lund – a midfielder by trade – given licence to make bold runs off him.

Alex Newby, meanwhile, adds graft and craft from a right-sided attacking role while speedy Kwadwo Baah’s outstanding display exemplifies the club’s highly productive youth academy.

There is a high intensity about the way Rochdale play, not unlike the teams they produced under Keith Hill in the mid-2010s. That allows them to sweep up second balls and sustain pressure – the energetic Aaron Morley does a great job of that in midfield.

Left-footed defender Haydon Roberts, meanwhile, has impressed hugely since joining on loan from Brighton next to more experienced heads like leader Steve McNulty and ball-playing centre-back Eoghan O’Connell as well as attacking right-back Jimmy Keohane, who can produce a peach of a cross.

Rochdale will therefore be tough opposition for Gillingham, who come into this game off the back of successive defeats.

Steve Evans’ side might be three places and four points better off than their Lancashire hosts, but the shot data suggests they are the second-worst performing team in the division when it comes to creating chances and denying them for opponents.

The Gills average 1.15 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.83 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 38.64%, which betters only Wigan.

The displays the Kent outfit produced to beat Oxford, Crewe and Swindon – last-ditch defending and clinical finishing – look unsustainable.

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Rochdale will be buzzing after that thumping of Wigan. I expect Brian Barry-Murphy’s side to control the play here against a defensive Gillingham side and am therefore happy to back them at 8/5.

Gabriel Sutton

Charlton to win

Swindon Town v Charlton Athletic

5/4

Charlton were losing to AFC Wimbledon at half-time last week but, after Jonny Williams and Chuks Aneke entered the fray early in the second half, there was no stopping them.

The Addicks ran out 5-2 winners against their fellow Londoners, attacking with renewed gusto after the change.

Williams, who impressed at Euro 2016 with Wales, brings a level of creative energy that is unique at this level while Aneke brings more agile craft than the man he replaced, striker Omar Bogle, who suits a different style of play to the one that maximizes Charlton’s strengths.

If Williams and Aneke come into Lee Bowyer’s XI in Wiltshire, it could be a productive afternoon against relegation strugglers Swindon.

John Sheridan’s side were unfortunate to lose 2-1 at Doncaster in midweek, having created their fair share of chances and having had a reasonable amount of the play.

Town let themselves down though through positional errors with Mathieu Baudry and Akinwale Odimayo especially culpable, while stars arguably re-aligned themselves.

Sheridan’s two wins in charge came in a 1-0 victory over Bristol Rovers – a tight affair decided by Brett Pitman’s clinical finish – and a 2-1 triumph at Oxford.

Although the latter result bore great local significance, it was in fact a poor display for the most part, with the game-changing moment being centre-back by trade Tom Broadbent coming on as an auxiliary striker.

Broadbent did brilliantly from the bench at the Kassam, but that is not a solution Sheridan can rely on every week. And since that day, Swindon have lost four on the spin.

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Charlton look a different proposition with Williams and Aneke on the field. If those two start, I expect the Addicks to have too much for struggling Swindon to handle.

Gabriel Sutton

Morecambe draw no bet

Colchester United v Morecambe

Sitting either side of the Play-Offs’ dotted line, Colchester and Morecambe are level on points and separated only by goal difference: nothing to choose between them, right?

The shot data, though, tells a very different story. The U’s have a positive goal difference and their forthcoming visitors are at -6 – twice as bad as 17th placed Harrogate.

True, Derek Adams’ side have suffered anomalistic thrashings at Cambridge and Crawley, but they fully deserve to be in the mix.

Morecambe average 1.26 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.17 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 51.99% – the ninth-best in the division.

Colchester’s xGR, meanwhile, is in fact 32.46% – League Two’s second-worst Ratio. Perhaps the form of seven-goal man Jevani Brown has masked a lot of problems.

Brown’s shot accuracy lies at 75%. No striker who has scored more than four goals in League Two has a better rate, which was always likely to be unsustainable for a player who has spent much of his career as a creative midfielder.

Sure enough, ColU have scored just eight goals in their last seven games and Brown is goalless in that time.

Morecambe, meanwhile, have Adam Phillips, Aaron Wildig, Carlos Mendes Gomes and Cole Stockton all chipping in and their rate of chance creation suggests they will stay in Play-Off contention for far longer.

Wildig has always been a hardworking, dynamic midfielder but under Adams, the 28-year-old has already achieved the highest-scoring campaign of his career – with 28 games still to play.

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Morecambe often seem to be priced based on what we should expect from a club of their modest size at this level, rather than performances and results. Their shot data looks far more sustainable than that of Colchester.

Gabriel Sutton

Scunthorpe draw no bet

Grimsby Town v Scunthorpe United

These are dark times for Grimsby and Scunthorpe.

These clubs fondly remember brief stints in the second tier earlier this century but now both are battling to stay in the fourth.

The threat of an EFL exit is particularly real for the Mariners, who have taken just one point from their last five games.

There is a case to be made for the individual ability or potential of lots of players in that squad, but collectively there has been no real cohesion.

Ian Holloway has made 16 signings, of which seven have been on loan. Meaning there are now 14 players who are either a striker, an attacking midfielder or a wide player.

Because Grimsby have so many players vying for gametime, it has been difficult to give any of them the regular minutes they need to fulfil their potential.

Holloway has tried numerous different approaches to fix their defensive woes, including starting three sitting midfielders – Harry Clifton, Danny Rose and Elliott Hewitt – against Exeter earlier this month in a 4-1 defeat and, most recently, dropping James McKeown.

The goalkeeper is a Town legend who has not only played a big part in keeping Grimsby heads above water in recent seasons with his shot stopping, but also been a vocal character.

Sam Russell, though, had a torrid time in McKeown’s absence in Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat at bottom side Southend and Holloway might be tempted to recall the stalwart.

Luke Waterfall, though, will be suspended after his red card last time out which may concern Holloway, who did not name a centre-back on the previous substitutes bench.

It feels like crisis point for Grimsby and while it may have felt similarly for Scunthorpe earlier in the campaign, they are now up to 18th and retrospective logic suggests the fixture list influenced their early season struggles.

The Iron have taken 12 points from five games against teams below 13th, which suggests that while they may be some way short of being a top half proposition, they are a level above the prime relegation candidates.

The front-three of John McAtee, Ryan Loft and Abo Eisa have caused problems for opponents in recent weeks – the 5-2 win at Harrogate being a prime example – while Alex Gilliead can be a driving force in midfield.

The return from injury of Jordan Clarke, meanwhile, means vital leadership for Scunny – the right-back scored a crucial stoppage-time winner in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Barrow.

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This is a key game not just for Lincolnshire bragging rights, but also in terms of both clubs’ battle to avoid the EFL’s trap door. Scunthorpe are in superior form.

Gabriel Sutton
Odds are correct at the time of posting

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