League One Gameweek 42: Sunderland To Continue Top Two Push?

Grigg and Grant the game-changers

Often, when we see a team getting good results but performing poorly on the Expected Goals metric, we would expect their form to take a slight dip.

Sunderland though have been able to re-write the rule book. Their season-long Expected Goals Ratio (xGR) stands at an underwhelming 51.04%; that rate is only the 10th-best in the division and it had been lower than that earlier in the campaign.

However, the Wearsiders’ financial clout relative to the level has enabled them to sign Championship-calibre operators, significantly boosting their chances mid-season.

Tenacious midfielder Grant Leadbitter was part of Middlesbrough’s promotion to the Premier League in 2015-16, while predatory front-man Will Grigg has scored 19+ goals in four of his last five full seasons in League One.

Leadbitter has not always been known at higher-levels for his ability on the ball but for League One, he does appear to offer a touch of class.

Grigg’s arrival, meanwhile, has helped the Black Cats get more out of Charlie Wyke. The target man had started a reasonable number of games as a lone striker, with George Honeyman, the man often behind him, acting like a third midfielder more than a second striker.

Since Grigg has come in, however, Sunderland have had someone to make the most of Wyke’s flick-ons and knock-downs, which had previously gone to the opposing centre-back.

The Northern Irishman has bagged twice in his last four league appearances and, if 67 minutes under his belt on Tuesday helps him get over a minor fitness issue as expected, he looks likely to finish the campaign in strong goalscoring form.

Performances, as well as quality of finishing, have improved too: the xGR is now at 56.33% if we sample only the last eight games, or 59.28% based on the previous four, which shows they are now getting closer to asserting the kind of dominance many anticipated in pre-season.

While it may be unfair to put all of that down to Grigg – Dylan McGeouch is starting to thrive in midfield as well – he can make a sizeable contribution on Saturday and in the remaining games.

 

Coventry short on goalscoring presence

There may be a parallel universe in which Coventry City somehow managed to find the fresh injection of cash required to beat Sunderland to the signing of Grigg, then went on a prolonged winning streak to secure promotion at Wembley.

In the real world, though, the Sky Blues drew 0-0 at home to Bristol Rovers in a game that epitomised their exciting yet frustrating campaign.

Mark Robins’ side get into good areas: speedy Chelsea loanee Dujon Sterling has formed a strong right-sided partnership with skilful Derby loanee Luke Thomas, while Jordy Hiwula offers pace and power from the left, supported by Watford loanee Brandon Mason’s ability to deliver accurately from deep.

Midfield ball-winner Liam Kelly has been driving influence from midfield and from a slightly more advanced role, Tom Bayliss’ canny movement opens up avenues.

The main problem Coventry have had since day one is that they are short on a reliable goalscoring presence, with the team among seven in the division without a single player to manage double-figures for league goals.

Amadou Bakayoko, 23 and Bright Enobakhare, 21 have shown flashes of potential – both looked strong in recent wins over Walsall and Coventry – but like to occupy areas outside the goalscoring zone and thus neither have quite had the instincts to convert chances clinically and consistently.

The Midlanders, whose gap to the top six stands at a sizeable eight points, would ideally be plotting with excitement how they can convert this vibrant, work-in-progress outfit into a ruthless winning machine in 2019-20.

Alas, off-field issues continue to hamper the club’s potential for progress.

It is likely that many of their impressive loanees will return to their parent clubs while Bayliss is likely to be sold as the biggest asset, so we are looking at an enforced, wide-scale re-build rather than the preferable scenario of retaining the bulk of their squad with two or three key tweaks.

 

Victory for Sunderland?

Sunderland are one point ahead in second spot with a game in hand on third-placed Barnsley, after a 1-1 home draw with Burton.

Although Ross’ men needed good goalkeeping from Jon McLaughlin on occasions in that one, they still came close through Wyke, saw Leadbitter hit the post and had a prospective own goal winner disallowed.

Barnsley’s drop in performance levels means, aside from runaway leaders Luton, the Black Cats must now be considered favourites for automatic promotion.

Tip: Sunderland to win 5/6

*Odds were correct at time of publishing the article

Specializing in the EFL as well as the Premier League, Gabriel Sutton has seven years of experience writing for various websites, including his own site The Football Lab, voted 2016's Best New Football Blog at The FBAs.

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