Our EFL expert Gabriel Sutton looks ahead to the Boxing Day EFL action, a traditionally busy day over the festive period.
“Blackpool are boosted by a 3-1 victory over Peterborough last time out and I think Neil Critchley’s side will either pull themselves into midtable with back-to-backs or take a point back across the Pennines.”Gabriel Sutton
Huddersfield Town v Blackpool
Double Chance: Draw/Blackpool
The Championship Play-Off scramble is such that all the participants are falling over one another to drop points.
For that reason, Huddersfield were never out of the reckoning – even during a run of one league win in seven – and a 3-2 victory at Bristol City last time out has reignited the West Yorkshire club’s ambitions.
Danny Ward deserves special credit because, after the forward missed a first half spot kick, he brushed it off to make two big attacking contributions, scoring and assisting one apiece.
Where Huddersfield may fall down with an attacking trio comprising of Ward’s energy, plus the intelligence, movement and creativity of Danel Sinani and Duane Holmes is that they do not have a focal point.
This could be especially problematic against a Blackpool side who, under Neil Critchley, are one of the best-coached pressing sides in the league.
Tom Lees, for example – despite having a good season generally after joining from Sheffield Wednesday – is not especially accomplished in possession on the best of days, let alone under pressure.
One dynamic Huddersfield could find themselves in danger of getting into is being forced into clearances or long balls to alleviate the pressure short-term, but then having no-one at the top end of the pitch who can hold the ball up and get them up the pitch.
If Pool’s persistent pressers like Shayne Lavery, Josh Bowler and Keshi Anderson do what they do best, then the Terriers risk getting backed into a corner.
Keshi Anderson v Peterborough United:
Passing Accuracy – 75%
Dribbles Completed – 4
Key Passes – 3
Fouled – 2
Shots – 2
Interceptions – 1
Tackles Won – 1
Assists – 1
Goals – 1
— The Near Post (@TheNearPostEFL) December 20, 2021
“Elijah Adebayo has been crucial for Luton this season and with January approaching, it would not be a huge surprise if the former Walsall striker had a little additional motivation to thrive against a struggling Bristol City outfit.”Gabriel Sutton
Luton Town v Bristol City
Elijah Adebayo to score anytime
Luton striker Elijah Adebayo took his seasonal tally into double-figures last time out in a 1-1 draw with leaders Fulham.
The former Walsall striker has come on leaps and bounds since joining last January, and has been a key part of the Hatters’ hopes of securing successive top-half finishes.
There is a concern, though, that Adebayo – one of the best strikers in the Championship behind the likes of Mitrovic, Brereton and Solanke – could get poached by a side with greater financial muscle.
The second-top scorers for Nathan Jones’ troops are versatile forward Harry Cornick on seven and box-to-box midfielder Luke Berry on four, with neither featuring last time out – and nobody else has bagged more than once.
The big concern, therefore, would be that if Adebayo leaves next month, who takes on his mantle?
There is a likelihood, though, that the one-time Fulham graduate – who has matured superbly over the last couple of seasons and gone from being a League Two poacher to a genuine Championship hold-up man – will have half an eye on possible options in January, and a couple of goals between now and then would really help his cause.
Conveniently for the 23-year-old and Luton, the next opposition are Bristol City, who have the division’s second-worst defensive record.
— Daniel Ashby (@danlukeashby) December 21, 2021
“Ben Wiles is having an outstanding season this year. The born-ball carrier has bulked up recently and is adding new layers to his game. I’m really excited to see what he can do if – as is highly likely – he’s playing Championship football next season.”Gabriel Sutton
Accrington Stanley v Rotherham United
Ben Wiles to score anytime
Stanley have improved drastically since Colby Bishop returned to the side, winning three games in four.
The 6’1” striker has an excellent spring and gives the Reds a focal point, which is crucial in the absence of naturally progressive defenders.
The back four for John Coleman’s side, though, will play a crucial role in keeping quiet Rotherham target man Michael Smith, who has been arguably the best striker in the division this season.
Going under the radar in John Coleman’s 3-1-4-2 setup is Ben Wiles, who has been a fantastic ball-carrier ever since he came through the academy, but has added upper-body strength in recent years which adds to his all-around skill set.
If Smith is unable to get any aerial change out of the home defence, then much of Rotherham’s game could be about attempting to score from outside the box.
Dan Barlaser produced a fine strike to allow Paul Warne’s side to edge a hard-fought encounter at Cambridge last time out, and this time Wiles could be the one to gain the glory.
The Millers academy graduate averages two shots per game, which is more than any midfielder in League One who has played 20 or more league games this season and he’s also found the net an impressive six times.
If Stanley produce the measly version of their rear-guard we have seen in December, rather than the more generous version seen in October and November, then as Miranda Hart would say… lookout for the Wiles.
'There's nothing I don't like on Christmas day.'
— Arif Ahmed (@ArifAhmedITV) December 23, 2021
“Daniel Udoh has gone from being one of the most likeable strikers in League One to one of the most productive, after a brace against Cheltenham last time out. The ex-Telford front-man is to watch on Boxing Day in a key clash between two sides hovering just above the drop zone.”Gabriel Sutton
Fleetwood Town v Shrewsbury Town
Daniel Udo to score anytime
Stephen Crainey has earned himself the permanent Fleetwood job after a respectable return of seven points from four games.
The former Blackpool defender will give himself a great chance of keeping his position beyond the end of the season if he can keep the Trawlermen in League One, and victory over relegation rivals Shrewsbury would be a big help.
The two clubs currently find themselves two points above the drop zone, and may consider themselves fortunate if they are spared a plummet into League Two due to the various issues at Crewe, Doncaster, Gillingham and Morecambe.
Shrewsbury, though, secured a 3-1 victory over Cheltenham last time out with a makeshift defence, with David Davis scoring an impressive solo goal to give manager Steve Cotterill a weight off his shoulders.
Crainey is on the younger end of the spectrum but, having been promoted from Under-23s head coach, is hoping to aid Fleetwood in their attempts to develop youth and remain competitive whilst scaling back financially.
The 40-year-old already takes credit for the progress of teenagers like versatile midfielder Paddy Lane, who already has international recognition with Northern Ireland and is League One’s joint-top assister with seven – despite having only started 10 league games!
There is potential for goals here, because both sides have recently been forced to play full-backs by trade in central defence, but the crucial difference is that Shrewsbury have the physical presence up top to take advantage of that.
Daniel Udoh has always been a likeable striker for the Salop who natives wanted to do well due to his running power, but this year the former Telford front-man has added goals to his game and is fresh from a confidence-boosting brace in the 3-1 victory over Cheltenham.
When we have time to get fully fit, we’re a decent team. The lack of numbers are severely being exposed though with the relentless turnaround between games. #salop
— Shrews Analysis (@AnalysisShrews) December 21, 2021
“A motivated, driven Aaron Morley could inspire Rochdale to the Play-Offs. Perhaps being benched for a game and seeing Stephen Dooley play so well is exactly what he needed?”Gabriel Sutton
Carlisle United v Rochdale
Rochdale to win
Aaron Morley is arguably League Two’s greatest enigma.
The Rochdale academy graduate has the technical ability, not only to be comfortably the best midfielder in the league, but also to play in the top two divisions of English football.
Whether it’s a deft caress, a neatly lofted diagonal, an effortless studded roller or a curver with a positive inflection, Morley is a delight to watch.
With that in mind, why is he not closer to fulfilling that enormous potential? Why was he left out of Robbie Stockdale’s XI for the 3-0 victory over Newport last time out?
Part of the reason is his lack of engagement against the ball.
Nobody is asking the 21-year-old to turn into the next Stephen Dawson, but he needs to be more competitive in the periods of games in which he isn’t running the show, in which Liam Kelly is unable to carry the midfield destructively.
The exciting thing for Rochdale fans, though, is that Stephen Dooley played very well when handed a midfield role alongside Kelly against Newport, which means Morley can no longer rest on his laurels. He can no longer stay as he is.
Now, Morley has a point to prove. Now, Morley should have a fire in his belly. If he can retain his usual technical brilliance whilst becoming slightly more competitive against the ball, the results could be scary – certainly for supporters of strugglers Carlisle.
A brilliant update from @SimonGauge. I can honestly say I've never felt a closer bond between club and supporters as I do now and I'm incredibly grateful for all the hard work that everyone has put in to create that. This is our club, it's not theirs. Up The Dale! https://t.co/OBKyV6j0hQ
— Chaff (@ChaffRAFC) December 24, 2021
“Hartlepool’s chances of a positive second half of the campaign rests on the fitness of on-loan Millwall forward Tyler Burey, who had starred prior to a serious injury. For Mansfield, it’s all about another Championship loan player.”Gabriel Sutton
Mansfield Town v Hartlepool United
Mansfield to win
Mansfield have taken 20 points from the 11 games in which Ryan Stirk has featured this season.
Conversely, the Stags have accrued nine points from 10 in which the Birmingham loanee has been absent.
The 21-year-old has made a huge contribution to Nigel Clough’s side in their attempts to challenge for the Play-Offs last season and bounce back from two disappointing campaigns.
Stirk was promoted from the Under-23s to play in two dead-rubber games for Blues back in May, when survival was assured, and the two games proved a baptism of fire.
The loan spell in Nottinghamshire, though, has given the left-footed midfielder a fairer induction in senior football, helping him adjust to the game’s physical demands only at a more reasonable level.
Suffice to say, if Stirk were to be recalled by Blues in January to provide cover, he might find life easier than he did eight months ago.
Not only is the young midfielder capable of controlling games and dictating the tempo, he also brings boundless energy against the ball whilst learning off consummate professionals like Stephen Quinn.
Stirk could run the show against a Hartlepool side that flattered to deceive last time out in a 0-0 draw with Scunthorpe.