Gabriel Sutton returns to provide you with his EFL preview ahead of a busy weekend with an impact on promotion and relegation.
You can read his mid-season thoughts here
“Not only has Jordan Hugill scored two goals in three for Cardiff, but the team has won all three of those league encounters. What an impact! Those 12/5 anytime quotes look chunky to me.”Gabriel Sutton
Millwall v Cardiff City
Jordan Hugill to score anytime
Cardiff hauled themselves a whopping 12 points clear of the drop zone in midweek when they thrashed their closest relegation rivals, Peterborough United, 4-0.
A few questioned the £3.5 million sale of Kieffer Moore to West Brom, given how important the target man was to the way the Bluebirds played last season, but this year they can become stronger without him.
While the Welshman has undoubtedly a rich array of qualities, he has looked somewhat jaded after a busy summer with Wales, which may have restricted the energy and agility with which he can press for Steve Morison’s side.
Jordan Hugill, by contrast, has come in with a fire in his belly and a point to prove after a tough time with West Brom, with the former PNE front-man catching fire straight away: three league starts, three wins, two goals.
The 29-year-old brings an exemplary appetite for the game, he tends to still be closing down the opposition keeper right up until the latter stages, which has had a massive bearing on Cardiff’s pressing game.
Added to the mix is the boundless energy of his strike-partner, Isaak Davies, the arrival of box-to-box Man City loanee Tommy Doyle and the resurgence of technical Crewe recruit Ryan Wintle, with the duo guided in midfield by goalscorer and set-piece specialist Joe Ralls.
Cardiff have energy in both wing-back positions in Leeds loanee Cody Drameh, as well as Joel Bagan, who has developed closer to home, while goalscoring centre-back Aden Flint has sufficient protection either side of him in the back three in Perry Ng and Mark McGuiness.
All in all, the capital club have a very clear blueprint to move away from danger and there is reason to think they can continue to climb the table at Morison’s former club.
Millwall are dropping down the table, having failed to score in four of their previous five league games.
Another great performance from everyone involved tonight! Another sausage roll ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/zAlipjFIv2
— Jordan Hugill (@JordanHugill) February 9, 2022
“Peterborough have shipped a whopping 18 goals in their last six league games and are up against a North End side showing more attacking ambition under Ryan Lowe.”Gabriel Sutton
Peterborough United v Preston North End
Preston to win and over 1.5 goals
Darren Ferguson was “devastated” after the midweek 4-0 loss at Cardiff, which he called a “humiliation” and “embarrassment to the club”, with the Scot unable to take one single positive.
The crazy thing is that, because 21st-placed Reading have just lost six in a row and are therefore just two points better off, the PU5 outfit could conceivably spend Saturday evening out of the relegation zone.
That can only happen, though, if the Posh rally in response to events in the Welsh capital: so the question is whether they can do that.
To unpick that question, it’s important to determine how much of the no-show in Cardiff was down to lack of effort from players, and how much was lack of ability.
Firstly, it’s clear the Posh have very obvious limitations: they do not have a dominant centre-back, despite the talents of Ronnie Edwards, and they do not have a ball-winner when Jack Taylor is injured, although Jeando Fuchs was supposedly signed for this remit.
There are clear examples at Cardiff of the likes of Fuchs, Kwame Poku, Josh Knight and Hayden Coulson especially either ducking out of challenges, failing to put a block in when required, hesitating to run back or doing so meakly.
Equally, there are defenders like Frankie Kent who do give everything but cannot dominate in the air and is let down by those around him, while Oli Norburn – despite not wanting to be at the club – is one of the few players who looks like he does.
Either way, it paints a grim picture ahead of the visit from Preston North End, who have lost just one of their 10 league games under Ryan Lowe’s tutelage.
While North End scraped some results together under Frankie McAvoy with a compact 5-3-2, there has since been a clear shift under Lowe from onus on defence to attack, with the Lancashire outfit now setting up with a far more expansive 3-1-4-2.
Although the goals have not exactly been raining in for PNE lately with one in three, they have been creating plenty of chances in that time and could find the finishing touch against a side with all sorts of vulnerabilities.
— Football League Zone (@TheFLZone) January 3, 2022
“If Stanley play as they did against Oxford in midweek, John Coleman’s side have a great chance of beating error-prone strugglers Crewe.”Gabriel Sutton
Accrington Stanley v Crewe Alexandra
Stanley to win
Events at the Alexandra Stadium on Tuesday night, specifically those between 8.53pm and 9.01pm, represented a microcosm of why Crewe look destined for League Two.
David Artell’s side had enjoyed a positive first half, leading through Chris Long’s goal, and had looked boosted by the late-January additions of full-backs Ryan Alebiosu and Tariqe Uwakwe, midfielder Rekeem Harper plus forwards Dan Agyei and Bassala Sambou.
A mad eight-minute period, though, shortly after the interval, meant the Railwaymen went from chuffing on the right lines to going off the rails.
Artell accused the players of stopping running at times in that spell, saying some “won’t recover” from this dereliction of duty, but the severe lack of defensive assurance at key moments was problematic too.
Bill Sass-Davies and Luke Offord are talented but, at 21 and 22 respectively, cannot be relied upon to lead a defence, while goalkeeper Will Jaaskelainen offers nothing of the commanding presence desired in the absence of a dominant centre-back.
The problem is complicated by the fact that Tommie Hoban was signed in the summer to be that experienced head, but retired soon after signing, then Donervan Daniel joined but has not been good enough and – presumably due to circumstance rather than choice – the club could not land a seasoned centre-back in January.
Equally, Jaaskelainen will likely keep his place despite being hugely culpable for three of the goals in midweek, because the alternative is Dave Richards, who is not quite good enough for this level.
It’s a myriad of problems for Artell: Crewe are not an awful side, but rather a middling side that all too often have awful moments.
That vulnerability could be costly once again in East Lancashire, where Stanley have just beaten Play-Off candidates Oxford 2-0 thanks to goals from John O’Sullivan and Ethan Hamilton.
If those two can bring their A-game, along with stalwart Sean McConville and if midfielders Matt Butcher and Tommy Leigh can replicate their second-half showing from midweek, while Mitch Clark continues his progression at right-back, then the divisions perennial underdogs will be confident of embracing the favourites tag.
Listening to Artell last night he said that if players aren’t serious about us staying up, they won’t play.
But by the same token, if he’s serious about staying up, surely he needs to really look at the free market for a GK and CB for us to have a proper shot at it! #CreweAlex
— Tim T (@Tants_88) February 9, 2022
“Argyle can definitely continue their Play-Off challenge with a third victory in succession over Shrewsbury. Steven Schumacher’s side are rightly odds-on.”Gabriel Sutton
Plymouth Argyle v Shrewsbury Town
Argyle to win
Anyone who thought Argyle would fall away after Ryan Lowe’s move to Preston North End have been mistaken.
The continuity option of Steven Schumacher, who was promoted from assistant to Lowe to the number one, has paid dividends for the Devoners, who remain firmly in Play-Off contention.
The Pilgrims have accrued 14 points from nine games since Lowe’s departure, which would put them 10th in the standings in that timeframe, even more impressive when we consider that form has come alongside a memorable FA Cup run.
Argyle played Birmingham off the park in January, winning 1-0 at St Andrew’s, before giving European champions Chelsea an excellent game the following month, losing honourably 2-1.
Wing-back Ryans Law and Broom earnt special praise for their energetic showings in midweek, the midfield trio of Panutche Camara, Adam Randell and Danny Mayor provided the perfect blend of athleticism, control and dribbling ability, but the star man was Ryan Hardie, who bounced back emphatically from seeing his penalty saved at Stamford Bridge.
Last season, Hardie often used his running power to plough the channels and create space for Luke Jephcott to poach at the back-post, but this season he has been able to use it for his own gain: Tuesday’s hat-trick took the former Blackpool man to 12 for the campaign.
The 24-year-old could be in the mood once again when Shrewsbury travel to Home Park, with the relegation strugglers – winless in six – having been fortunate to escape Wycombe with a point last time out.
🗣 "It's a sigh of relief."
Ryan Hardie on bouncing back after a difficult weekend.
— Plymouth Argyle FC (@only1argyle) February 8, 2022
“Alex Bass was excellent for Bradford in midweek and I back the former Portsmouth stopper to complete back-to-back shut-outs against Exeter.”Gabriel Sutton
Bradford City v Exeter City
Exeter not to score
Tuesday’s 1-0 victory at Stevenage not only kept Bradford’s feint Play-Off hopes intact but also relieved some of the pressure on manager Derek Adams.
The demanding Scot divides opinion in this corner of West Yorkshire because he rarely engages with supporters and has a distant man-management approach, while the style of football is not to everyone’s taste.
Then again, what Adams has firmly in his favour is that he enjoyed three hugely successful seasons in four at Plymouth Argyle, as well as converting League Two underdogs Morecambe from perennial strugglers into promotion-winners.
Plus, Adams’ work in the south-west involved overseeing a whole club, as well as just on-field matters, and while Bradford are structurally unrefined – despite some good work from CEO Ryan Sparks – there is an argument for dugout stability.
It was a bold call for Adams to send Niall Canavan, somebody he captained and has worked with previously at Plymouth Argyle, to Barrow late in January, especially given that the indications are it would have suited the centre-back geographically to stay in West Yorkshire.
But, if the 46-year-old did not fundamentally believe Canavan to be the man to lead the Bantams to League One, then it shows he has the courage of his convictions and is not afraid to make tough, unpopular decisions, which is arguably a trait.
It helps Adams’ cause that, not long after Canavan’s exit, the team won 1-0 at Stevenage with a centre-back pairing of Yann Songo’o and Paudie O’Connor, a combination blending strength and aggression with positional awareness.
Plus, while the Bantams needed goalkeeper Alex Bass to make some big saves in Hertfordshire, they were arguably due some positive variance.
The previous Saturday, the team had created numerous chances at Harrogate, spurned chiefly by Jamie Walker and Andy Cook, but lost two late goals; this time, Walker grabbed the first goal for the club that the gifted wide man had long threatened after joining on loan from Hearts.
Victory for Bradford would put them within striking distance of the Play-Offs and the timing may favour them, with Exeter unconvincing in the 1-0 victory over Leyton Orient last time out.
Matt Taylor admitted that defenders Pierce Sweeney, Sam Stubbs and injury-time goalscorer Cheick Diabate were the best players on the night, which shows the more attacking players were not quite on their game.
Hopefully he keeps the same team on Saturday apart from Ridehalgh. I like him, but Foulds deserves the start over him. #bcafc
— Jake #RuppOut (@Guttsy04) February 10, 2022
“I’m not sure the bookies have cottoned onto how good Hartlepool have been lately: I like them at the 11/10 draw no bet. This bet will land if they travel back from Sussex with all three points, and return the stake if it ends honours even.”Gabriel Sutton
Crawley Town v Hartlepool United
Hartlepool draw no bet
After Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over Barrow, which followed a memorable FA Cup trip to Crystal Palace, Hartlepool are hopeful of a strong finish to the campaign.
When Graeme Lee took charge, it appeared as though the remit would be to pick up from Dave Challinor’s 3-5-2 template which got Pools promoted and into a healthy position in League Two: i.e. get wing-backs Jamie Sterry and David Ferguson operating like additional forwards, then trust the midfield trio of Mark Shelton, Gavan Holohan and Nicky Featherstone.
Instead, it’s been more of a renovation job for the former Middlesbrough Under-23s head coach, who is finding 4-3-3 to be the best formation.
Luke Molyneux, having ironically been something of a bit-part player in the National League, is benefiting from the change of system, with the natural wide player bagging a brace on Tuesday.
Joe Grey, a quick, nippy forward with an eye for goal, has also thrived in the front-three, while technician Joe White and class act Tom Crawford have been outstanding in midfield.
At 23, 18, 19 and 22 respectively, though, Molyneux, Grey, White and Crawford need experience around them, and they have that in Bryn Morris in midfield and Omar Bogle in attack.
Morris has endured a tricky spell but, having played 89 League One games, brings higher league nous to a squad still acclimatizing to this level, while Bogle, having scored 116 career goals, knows where the net is.
The former Solihull Moors and Grimsby hit-man has struggled to cope with the demands higher up, but if Lee can show him a bit of love whilst simplifying his game to the things he does best – holding it up and scoring goals – then there is every chance he could flourish once again.
With those things in mind, as well as a defender like Timi Odusina who is so good at holding a high line because of his pace and strength in recovery, the County Durham outfit will travel south with optimism, even with hosts Crawley in good form.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Omar Bogle will be special for Hartlepool
— Matty Mason (@MattyMason_1908) February 9, 2022