Gabriel Sutton returns with his EFL half-season review, where he looks at how the season has gone so far, what he expects to happen, and what has changed since his pre-season predictions.
Mark Robins continues to work wonders at Coventry.
A repeat of last season’s 16th-placed finish and a less intense dice with the drop would have classed as a success for the Sky Blues, and a top-half finish would have been a great achievement – so this promotion push is a dream.
No-nonsense defending from Kyle McFadzean, improved midfield showings from Ben Sheaf plus the goals of Viktor Gyokeres and more recently Matt Godden has been key for the Midlanders, even if results have dropped off recently.
Blackburn, by contrast, are in outstanding form, even if they could not quite record a historic seventh win in succession against Huddersfield when they were held to a goalless draw.
🏴 Ben Brereton scored just 17 goals in 133 Championship appearances.
🇨🇱 Ben Brereton Diaz has scored 20 Championship goals in 24 appearances.
South American flair.#Rovers
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) December 29, 2021
Ben Brereton Diaz gains all the plaudits for Tony Mowbray’s critic confounders, but the likes of Darragh Lenihan and John Buckley in defence and midfield respectively have also made huge contributions.
We reckoned Barnsley looked well-placed to kick-on from last season’s 5th-placed finish, having only lost head coach Valerien Ismael, midfielder Alex Mowatt and striker Daryl Dike.
The theory was that the Reds would offset those losses by having a young squad who would continue to improve, as well as a continuation of smart recruitment.
Alas, head coach Markus Schopp did not turn out to be the head coach they hoped he would be after being poached from TSV Hartberg, while replacement Poya Asbaghyi has not exactly hit the ground running.
Mowatt has proved harder to replace – namely his battling qualities – and there is a criticism from natives that the board and data-based recruitment team do not put enough stock in the intangibles.
Fulham’s challenge and top spot along with Derby’s arduous campaign with a 21-point deduction were rather predictable, so too were Peterborough’s struggles and Hull, Bristol City and Cardiff’s campaigns locked in the bottom half – plus, QPR were popular dark horses.
Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham this season:
👀 23 appearances
⚽ 24 goals
🅰 6 assists
Currently the top goalscorer in the Championship. 👏#REAFUL #FFC pic.twitter.com/F6yFgXOFGK
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) January 11, 2022
Our best left-field shout, though, was a top-half finish for new boys Blackpool, who having been among the relegation favourites, sit proudly in 12th – exactly the position we chose.
After a five-game winless streak, Fulham emphatically re-affirmed their status as the Championship’s clear, stand-out side with a 7-0 thumping of Reading in midweek. Marco Silva’s side boast three of the best players in the division in Jean-Michel Seri, Harry Wilson and Aleksandar Mitrovic, meaning there is still a smidge of value in the 8/15 on the Whites to make top spot their own.
Bournemouth are top of the Championship after finishing 2021 with wins to nil over QPR and Cardiff.
Dom Solanke has grabbed the headlines for the Cherries but Jaidon Anthony, flying forward on the left-wing, has been a break-out star and at the other end of the age spectrum, Gary Cahill has brought elite experience to the rear-guard, forging a formidable centre-back pairing with the athletic Lloyd Kelly. Scott Parker’s side are a tasty 4/5 to finish in the top two.
To reach the Play-Offs
7/4 on Middlesbrough to reach the Play-Offs is our Championship best bet. Since Chris Wilder took charge, Boro have taken 17 points from eight games – impressive, bearing in mind they were very unlucky to drop points at the start of his reign against Millwall and PNE.
Not only that, Wilder has been backed in January to loan in highly-rated strikers in Dylan Connolly and Folarin Balogun, and if he can bolster the left side to complement a strong right flank, then the Teesiders can definitely finish in the top six.
Since the beginning of November, Middlesbrough have:
– Appointed Chris Wilder as manager
– Collected 17 points
– Gone unbeaten through December
– Moved to within a point of the play-offs
– Reached FA Cup 4th round
– Signed Folarin Balogun on loan
🔴 #UTB | #Boro 🔴 pic.twitter.com/ZfuQ0H5AqF
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) January 12, 2022
While Wilder is making waves at Middlesbrough, Steve Cooper has also made an enormous impact at Nottingham Forest.
Had the Championship season started when Cooper took charge, the Reds would be fourth, so there is every chance the signings of Steve Cook from Bournemouth, Keinan Davis from Aston Villa and Richie Laryea from Toronto can kick them on if one or two competitors drop off.
For those who fancy a speculative punt, Forest are a whopping 20/1 for promotion – that looks tasty, for one of the second-tier’s form teams.
The relegation dogfight may not be quite as lively as the Play-Off scramble: Derby have a mountain to climb due to the 21-point deduction, Barnsley have just two wins all season and Peterborough have lost 11 of their 12 away games.
The Posh, 8/11 for the drop, are missing some Championship nous, but are by no means out of it if the sense of crisis at Reading grows after a couple of embarrassing defeats.
Derby County would be 13th in the Championship on 31 points without the deductions.
That would be eight points off the play-offs and 12 clear of the bottom three.
Wayne Rooney and his side are doing a remarkable job. #DCFC #DCFCFans https://t.co/Ateq4FtQat
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) December 30, 2021
Whether one looks at the table, the data or the direct, high-intensity football, it all points to Rotherham being the stand-out side in League One.
The Millers can beat opponents with early balls into target man Michael Smith, the wide pace of Cheo Ogbene or use the control of Dan Barlaser. Paul Warne’s side mix up their game, but positive results are the constant.
Rotherham, though, have benefited from keeping their manager, whereas Plymouth Argyle lost boss Ryan Lowe to Preston North End in December, giving way to a transitional period.
Steven Schumacher, though, has got the Devoners back on track recently with back-to-back league wins, followed by a convincing FA Cup victory at Birmingham.
While the Pilgrims may have lost influential midfielder Panutche Camara to the African Cup of Nations, the Bissau-Guinean’s absence hands Adam Randell the opportunity he has craved to build on last season’s stellar loan spell at Torquay.
Argyle have enjoyed something of a transformation, having found themselves at the lower-end of League One last season, and it’s a similar story for Wigan.
After a busy summer following Talal Al-Hammad’s ‘Tics takeover, head coach Leam Richardson’s remit has switched from firefighting to building the loft, helped by strong showings from the likes of Max Power, Will Keane and Callum Lang.
Cheltenham and Cambridge, meanwhile, are on course to secure survival in comfortable fashion, having been widely tipped to be among the prime relegation candidates after historic promotions under legendary managers.
After an expensive summer overhaul under new ownership, Ipswich were the title tip for many. We were slightly more conservative, predicting 3rd due to the high turnover of players, but the subsequent underperformance in midtable is beyond even our expectation.
20 years ago Ipswich Town were playing European Football and beating Inter Milan.
Barrow AFC were still trying to fight their way back into the football league.
Tonight, Barrow have knocked the Tractor Boys out of the FA Cup.#BarrowAFC #FACup pic.twitter.com/wyPWXtRJvN
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) December 15, 2021
However, Paul Cook has since been dismissed and replaced by Kieran McKenna, a former Manchester United coach who has already implemented the patterns of play he wants incredibly quickly. With that in mind, the eight-point gap to the Play-Offs may not be insurmountable.
Also hoping for a resurgence after a tough first half of the campaign are Lincoln, who believe Swansea loanee Morgan Whittaker can find consistency, after the left-footed forward enjoyed a stellar debut in the 2-0 victory over Oxford.
Survival for Michael Appleton’s side could ultimately prove a formality, but it would be anything but for Gillingham, who saw manager Steve Evans depart by mutual consent after the 4-0 defeat to Ipswich.
A combination of off-field strife, a brutal injury crisis and failure to address key areas in the summer could be defining for the Gills, who go into the weekend seven points adrift.
Staying up also looks like a long shot for Doncaster, who are now nine points of safety, missing battlers and leaders in key defensive areas and led by a rookie in Gary McSheffrey.
BetVictor hates to say we told you so, but we did have Crewe going down this season and, baring a significant turnaround, that’s how it could be panning out.
The Alex finished in the top half last year, but are now sorely feeling the losses of four Championship calibre players in Perry Ng, Harry Pickering, Ryan Wintle, Charlie Kirk, on top of sagas with Tommy Lowery and Owen Dale.
Morecambe, meanwhile, are making a decent fist of their survival attempt thanks to the form of Cole Stockton – the second-top goalscorer in League One – but could be held back by severe defensive deficiencies.
Wimbledon’s campaign has gone largely in line with expectation, with young stars like Jack Rudoni and Ayoub Assal continuing to develop, but with stabilization being the best the club can hope for in a division jam-packed with resurgent big-hitters.
At the other end of the table, Wycombe – our tip for automatic promotion – are in the mix for the top two, with mobile target man Sam Vokes proving an inspired acquisition for the level.
Rotherham have earned the respect of being backed for top spot at 4/5, with Warne’s troops being ahead of their rivals in all departments. The only possible stumbling block would be the loss of Freddie Ladapo to PNE, but the reports are that the Millers would get hardworking forward Sean Maguire in exchange.
*Rotherham in League One*
Gravy: Different gravy: pic.twitter.com/5JLek8Ci5w
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) October 23, 2021
Sunderland are something of an enigma, having turned on the style in recent thumpings of Doncaster and Sheffield Wednesday, but fell to a no-show against Lincoln in a 3-1 defeat.
The Black Cats agreed to play that match – and the 3-3 draw at Wycombe – despite the absentees through COVID, which looks the main obstacle standing between Lee Johnson’s side and the consistency required for automatic promotion.
Overcome it and the 11/8 on a top-two berth could look good value.
To reach the Play-Offs
Ipswich, eight points off the pace with no games in hand on any of their immediate competitors, are 3/1 for a Play-Off finish. Are we simply overrating Town because of their stature at this level? The truth is, not quite.
Yes, the Tractor Boys have a lot of work to do, but the Suffolk outfit have enjoyed an instant transformation under former Manchester United coach, Kieran McKenna.
Not only have Ipswich started McKenna’s tenure with back-to-back wins, they have also played sumptuous football with delightful co-ordination of movement, which suggests the new boss has got his ideas across straight away.
When Wycombe were last in League One, they won a historic promotion to the Championship by defeating Oxford 2-1.
The Chairboys’ success in 2019-20 came very much against the odds, and this season’s squad is far stronger, boasting the likes of Sam Vokes, Garath McCleary, Anis Mehmeti and Ryan Tafazolli.
Gareth Ainsworth’s side are hoping to challenge for the top two, but if they miss out they look well-placed to thrive in the Play-Offs, having already dealt with the pressure of Wembley last time around.
Much like in the Championship, the sides currently in the relegation zone will be concerned about whether there is enough vulnerability shown from the sides immediately above them. Shrewsbury have Daniel Udoh in form, Fleetwood have picked up since Stephen Crainey took charge and Lincoln, boosted by the arrival of Morgan Whittaker on loan from Swansea, are threatening to surge up the table.
It paints a bleak picture for Gillingham, Crewe and Doncaster, all of whom are at very short prices for the drop.
The biggest odds for relegation, 8/13, are on Morecambe, who have the division’s second-top goalscorer in Cole Stockton but must eradicate deep-rooted defensive woes, having conceded more goals than anyone else in League One.
The Shrimps look short of both an aerially dominant centre-back and a tenacious ball-winner – fix neither of those issues and the club’s first-ever season in League One could become their most recent.
Sutton have surpassed all expectations in their maiden EFL campaign, sitting as high as fourth, with broadly the squad that got them up from the National League last term.
Centre-back Ben Goodliffe, unpredictable winger David Ajiboye and selfless front-man Omar Bugiel have all caught the eye for Matt Gray’s fairytale writers.
By contrast, 11th seemed a rather unkind forecast for a Tranmere side that had strong promotion ambitions, after a Play-Off finish last season, and in fairness to Micky Mellon, his troops are defying their doubters.
Rovers have kept a chart-topping 13 clean sheets, with the defensive quartet of Josh Cogley, Peter Clarke, Tom Davies and Calum MacDonald benefitting from the familiarity of playing with one another so regularly; Clarke, at 40, is providing inspirational consistency at the heart of that defence.
✅ Beat Bradford 2-1
✅ Beat Oldham 1-0
✅ Beat Exeter 1-0
✅ Beat Leyton Orient 1-0
✅ Beat Barrow 2-0
✅ Beat Scunthorpe 4-0
✅ Six wins on the spin
✅ Five consecutive clean sheets
✅ Up to 2nd in League Two
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) January 9, 2022
Northampton have built their own promotion push on sturdy defensive foundations, with defenders Jon Guthrie and Fraser Horsfall starring in another consistent back-four, but going forward Jon Brady’s side must hope Cardiff loanee Chanka Zimba can prove an adequate replacement for Kion Etete.
Recruitment will also be crucial for Swindon, who require the finishing touches to a squad that was well but swiftly assembled in the latter stages of the summer window.
Ben Garner has been able to add much-needed defensive depth, loaning Jake O’Brien from Crystal Palace, but they will need to replace Aston Villa loanee Kaine Kesler at right wing-back as well as take some of the burden off striker Tyreece Simpson.
Also needing a striker are Port Vale, who have suffered from injuries in that department to Jamie Proctor, James Wilson and Devante Rodney, so Darrell Clarke hopes tall Leeds loanee Ryan Edmondson can do the business.
The Vale have also boosted their promotion hopes by signing delivery specialist Chris Hussey from 2020-21 League Two title winners Cheltenham, meaning the Burslem outfit now have three of the better wing-backs in the division including James Gibbons and David Worrall, on top of the midfield brilliance of Tom Conlon.
Crawley, meanwhile, take pride in their front-three, with creator Tom Nichols, nippy poacher Ashley Nadesan and target man Kwesi Appiah all bringing different qualities to the table.
On top of that, full-back George Francomb is relishing the midfield role that is allowing him to maximize his technical qualities, while the experience of Tony Craig and Joel Lynch is proving telling at the back.
Led by the gruff management of John Yems, Crawley are not the most fashionable Red Devils in the world – and no outsiders had them anywhere near the Play-Offs this season. Are they out to prove everyone wrong?
Similar to Ipswich in League One, Bradford were the side many saw taking top spot this season, after poaching last season’s miracle man at Morecambe, Derek Adams.
Despite a promising start, it has not panned out accordingly, with a combination of defensive tactics, injuries to key players and too many draws – 11 in 23 – leaving the Bantams stuck in midtable.
The shot data, though, reflects surprisingly kindly on the West Yorkshire outfit, who are hoping for better times in 2022, much like Bristol Rovers.
The Gas must hope last month’s 4-2 victory over Rochdale, combined with the signing of hold-up striker Ryan Loft from Scunthorpe, can catalyze the lengthy winning run required to propel Joey Barton’s side into Play-Off contention.
Rovers are unquestionably underachieving with their squad, which includes star man Antony Evans, while Stevenage are failing to live up to their summer billing.
Almost every League Two follower tipped Boro to be the division’s dark horse this term, but it did not work out for rookie Alex Revell, who was dismissed in favour of the more practiced hands of Paul Tisdale.
The former Exeter boss has strengthened defence and midfield, but it’s in attack where the Hertfordshire outfit must improve, having scored a paltry 19 goals in 24 league games.
Having tipped them to finish runners-up, Forest Green are well on course to go one better than our reckoning, seven points clear at the summit with a game in hand.
Wing-backs Kane Wilson and Nicky Cadden, plus target man Jamille Matt and nippy finisher Matty Stevens have gained most of the plaudits for Rob Edwards’ trailblazers, but spare a word for controller Ben Stevenson and versatile battler Dominic Bernard – the Green Devils’ unsung heroes.
Forest Green in League Two this season:
Unbeaten in their last twelve games, nine points clear and top of the table. 👏#WeAreFGR pic.twitter.com/2eQRj8CAKj
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) January 11, 2022
Harrogate, meanwhile, are hopeful of securing the progressive campaign we tipped them for in our Season Preview, having been in the Play-Off mix all season despite a recent drop to 13th.
Luke Armstrong has shone for the Sulphurites with nine goals in 22 up top, but Alex Pattison has been a vibrant presence in midfield, too.
Rochdale are struggling in the bottom half of League Two, finding themselves two places above our predicted finish of 19th.
Robbie Stockdale’s side have been better, performance-wise, than results suggest, but the loss of key striker Jake Beesley and possibly right-wing-back Corey O’Keeffe – on loan from Mansfield – could take its toll on any ambitions of a notable surge up the table.
Scunthorpe and Oldham, meanwhile, were our tips to finish in the bottom two – which is where both clubs currently find themselves – although in both cases, there is new-found hope.
The Iron have look much improved under Keith Hill, despite one league victory in seven under his guidance, while the Latics may be getting closer to an end to Abdallah Lemsagam’s ill-fated ownership regime.
It’s difficult to dispute the credentials of Forest Green, who are a wafer-thin 1/6 for top spot – and let’s be honest, you’re hardly on here for prices like that, are you?!
Forest Green, Exeter and Newport made up this blog’s predicted top three for League Two this season and that is what we’ll stick with.
The Grecians have the funds for one or two additions that could make a transformative difference, while the Exiles have taken 19 points from James Rowburry’s first 12 games in charge.
Plus, Rowburry has added James Waite who he knows from Cardiff’s youth setup; the midfielder is extremely highly rated and could be ready to take the fourth tier by storm.
Newport have the 2nd-best Expected Goals Ratio in League Two this season while Exeter have the 3rd and there is reason to think both can kick on for a top-three finish, the former at a whopping 8/1 and the latter at 9/2.
To reach the Play-Offs
Bradford have been creating good chances all season, but not always been ruthless in front of goal, but Derek Adams is hoping his side can be more clinical in the final third in 2022.
Key striker Andy Cook’s return from injury is a massive plus for the Bantams, who have loaned in technicians Jamie Walker and Dion Pereira from Hearts and Luton respectively, in hope that either can bring the quality for the West Yorkshire outfit.
Bradford are 7/2 to reach the Play-Offs, when they are currently six points shy with a game in hand.
Port Vale have done well to stay in the mix amid the chronic shortage of strikers, with injuries to Jamie Proctor, James Wilson and Devante Rodney, with Darrell Clarke remedying the loss by loaning in Ryan Edmondson.
The Valiants have also added a 2020-21 title-winner in Chris Hussey from Cheltenham, as well as replacing veteran Leon Legge with giant Connor Hall, who arrives from Harrogate – 15/8 on promotion looks decent, baring in mind Clarke has won promotion as a manager both automatically and via the Play-Offs.
✅ Beat Swindon
✅ Beat Harrogate
✅ Beat Scunthorpe
✅ Beat Leyton Orient
👏 Four wins on the spin and Port Vale are up to third.#PVFC pic.twitter.com/dQEm6gP5WU
— BetVictor (@BetVictor) October 3, 2021
With Scunthorpe upping their game under Keith Hill, Stevenage making some good signings and Carlisle winning four in five, things look bleak for Oldham, who are 8/13 for the drop.
The value, though, could be with Colchester, who due to developments elsewhere could be in danger of sleepwalking into trouble, at 11/4 for relegation.
Hayden Mullins’ side have a mixture of veterans well past their best and youngsters learning their craft, and the shortage of peak-age performers could be problematic for the Essex club.