The final international break of the year is over and Gab Sutton is here to give us his EFL week 18 preview.
“Aleksandar Mitrovic is a deadly centre-forward and I see him doing damage to Barnsley, who will be watched by their incoming head coach, Poya Asbaghi.”Gab Sutton
Fulham v Barnsley
Fulham -2 handicap
It seems increasingly unlikely that a side that is not Bournemouth or Fulham will win automatic promotion from the Championship this season.
There is a huge gulf in quality between those two and the pack of 12 teams jostling for a Play-Off spot, while West Brom are lodged somewhere in between.
The Whites have responded defiantly to the setback at Coventry, where a chaotic second half saw them fall to a 4-1 defeat, with five straight league victories by an aggregate score line of 21-1.
It was a modest margin of victory for the West Londoners at Peterborough, where Aleksandar Mitrovic’s second half header sufficed for another three points.
Marco Silva’s side naturally look to create chances by seeking combination play between a triangle of players out wide – marauding full-back Kenny Tete, flank over loader Bobby Reid and inverted winger Harry Wilson on the right, for example – to carve out the space for a cross into Mitrovic.
The Serb is spoilt for service and the results have been devastating, with “Mitro” bagging 20 goals already!
The task looks arduous, therefore, for Joseph Laumann, who has his final game as Barnsley’s interim head coach, having won one and lost one so far.
The Reds have confirmed the appointment of Sweden Under-21s Coach Poya Asbaghi, who has a watching brief at Craven Cottage.
The board’s vision to think outside the box when it comes to head coaches has to be commended – and Asbaghi could prove an excellent appointment.
The Iran-born boss has previously been nominated for Manager of the Year in the Allsvenskan (Swedish top flight) for his work with IFK Göteborg, with whom he won the 2020 Swedish Cup.
Nonetheless, Asbaghi will not be able to influence his new players on Saturday and Fulham could leave the 36-year-old with much to pick on Monday.
Poya Asbaghi is known for the playing the high pressing style Barnsley want, but also likes a possession-based approach when his team have the ball. Perhaps somewhere between Ismael and Schopp's style, but most important is making sure it is clear to players and works in Champ
— Doug O'Kane (@dougokane88) November 17, 2021
“If Sanderson and Friend are back for Birmingham, I see them keeping a clean sheet against a Hull side overly reliant on Keane Lewis-Potter for goals – and for an attacking spark.”Gab Sutton
Hull City v Birmingham City
Hull to score Under 0.5 goals
Hull gained a crucial 2-0 win at Barnsley just before the international break, but the stats don’t lie.
Grant McCann’s side have just three wins to their name all season, and four in their last 37 Championship outings, stretching back to the second half of the 2019-20 campaign.
The Tigers are struggling for goals, with Keane Lewis-Potter, on four, the only player to net more than twice.
Josh Magennis is not a goalscoring centre-forward, due to his selfless aptitude for running the channels, which is great if the team gets goals from midfield, but the likes of George Honeyman and Greg Docherty are not chipping in as hoped, likewise wide forward Mallik Wilks.
Birmingham, meanwhile, are making progress under Lee Bowyer but were affected by injuries in the 2-1 loss to Reading, which stopped their winning streak at four-games.
The absence of right-sided defender Dion Sanderson, left-sided defenders Kristian Pedersen and George Friend, right wing-backs Maxime Colin and Jordan Graham, plus attacking midfielders Tahith Chong and Iván Sánchez significantly affected Blues, who could easily have avoided defeat with so much as one or two of those players available.
The international break, therefore, may have come at a good time; Friend was rested rather than injured so should come in for Mitch Roberts to provide some experience and assurance on the left of the three-man defence in Bowyer’s 3-4-1-2.
Key man Sanderson, meanwhile, is targeting a return for this match after spending some time with parent club Wolves, but Chong, Colin and Pedersen are guaranteed absentees, while Graham and Sánchez are doubts.
Whether Birmingham will have enough creativity to unlock Hull remains to be seen, but if Sandersen and Friend return as expected, they will flank Marc Roberts in what should be a reasonably strong rear-guard.
Friend, Sanderson, Graham, Pedersen, Colin and Chong all injured and we missed them today, hope people don’t overreact too much about the loss.
Think the international break has come at a good time and hopefully a few of them will be back for Hull #BCFC
— BCFC EXTRA (@bcfcextra) November 6, 2021
“I expect Lincoln to have opportunities to hit strugglers Doncaster on the counter-attack in this clash and Dan Nlundulu could be the perfect player to exploit those transitional attacks.”Gab Sutton
Doncaster Rovers v Lincoln City
Dan Nlundulu to score anytime
After a wonderful 2020-21 campaign, Lincoln have regressed into midtable this term.
It may be easy to blame that on the loss of key loanees like Brennan Johnson, Morgan Rogers and Alex Palmer from last season, but the Imps would be fairing far better without injuries too.
For Saturday’s game, Michael Appleton is expecting to bring no-nonsense centre-back Adam Jackson back into the fold after concussion, but that’s the only the known boost.
Appleton feels the trip to South Yorkshire “may come too soon” for dribbler Anthony Scully, while Liam Bridcutt’s lack of match sharpness suggests expecting more than a 20-minute substitute appearance might be optimistic.
The good news, though, is that Southampton loanee Dan Nlundulu has impressed since finding fitness, carrying a threat when released in wide, open spaces because of his pace and direct running ability.
Nlundulu could be the man to do damage at the Keepmoat Stadium, where he may get the counter-attacking opportunities he craves.
Doncaster boss Richie Wellens will demand that his side play on the front foot, partly because they are at home and need to appease the crowd, but partly because a victory could take them level on points with safety, which would alleviate some of the pressure.
The huge overhaul of players in the summer may go some way to explaining Rovers’ struggles so far this season, but that means they have needed reliable stalwarts to be at their very best and players like defender Tom Anderson just have not been able to hit previous heights.
“Ipswich have gone from underachievers to one of the division’s form sides, which is why I think they could secure all three points at Sunderland, who have lost three on the bounce.”Gab Sutton
Sunderland v Ipswich Town
Ipswich to win and Both Teams To Score
The Tractor Boys have accrued 21 points from their last 11 games, which is the third-best record in League One in that timeframe.
Having spent August and the first half of September looking muddled and disjointed, Town now look like a bona fide Paul Cook side.
Battler Sam Morsy has forged an excellent double-pivot with dynamo Lee Evans in Cook’s 4-2-3-1, while the Wes Burns, Conor Chaplin and Bersant Celina rotate seamlessly; especially in the latter stages of last week’s 0-0 draw with Oxford, when Chaplin replaced Gwion Edwards.
Because the three attacking midfielders combine closely, there is always that space on the overlap for attacking full-backs to drive into.
For all the money Ipswich spent last summer, it’s two unlikely names who are thriving in the full-back positions: Janoi Donacien was a Lambert signing who looked likely to be out the door in the summer, while Bailey Clements has come through the academy.
The visitors have their mojo and form suggests they have a good chance of victory at the Stadium of Light, where Lee Johnson’s Sunderland have lost three league games in succession.
The Black Cats have excellent teenage talents in Callum Doyle and Dan Neil, in defence and midfield respectively, but need to ally those prospects with strength and experience elsewhere.
There are question marks over whether Tom Flanagan is a top six League One defender, while neither Corry Evans nor Luke O’Nien are currently cutting the mustard in midfield.
Can only be one winner, Imps 🤷♂️ https://t.co/nxJNlaitEM pic.twitter.com/Hrs1L4CY4K
— Lincoln City FC (@LincolnCity_FC) November 12, 2021
“If Jamille Matt is back, Forest Green have a great chance of taking advantage over the uncertainty at Hartlepool, who are deciding on a permanent replacement for departed manager Dave Challinor.”Gab Sutton
Hartlepool United v Forest Green Rovers
Forest Green to win
Hartlepool were left in the lurch when manager Dave Challinor moved to Stockport County earlier this month.
Challinor had taken Pools from midtable in the National League to the fringes of the League Two Play-Off scramble in the space of just two years, making him a legendary figure at Victoria Park.
Memories of his reign, though, are now tarnished up to a point due to the underhanded circumstances in which the 46-year-old departed, and the danger is that the County Durham outfit’s season could peter out, or even unravel.
While Hartlepool are currently three points off the Play-Offs – and this could still be a memorable season if Raj Singh gets the next appointment right, or if Anthony Sweeney proves to be a caretaker manager from heaven – it should not be forgotten that the objective is still to reach 50 points.
To secure survival, 27 are required from 29 league games: and it is not a given that they will attain that tally in Challinor’s absence.
Rob Edwards will not want to say it publicly, but this could be a convenient time for his Forest Green side to make the trip to the north-east.
The Green Devils could be something of a wounded animal, after their 3-2 FA Cup defeat to National League South side St Albans, which leaves them with a point to prove.
Jamille Matt missed the defeat at Clarence Park with a calf problem, which was not believed to be anything too serious, so Edwards will hope the key target man can rekindle his excellent strike-pairing with Matty Stevens.
Elsewhere, attacking wing-backs Kane Wilson and Nicky Cadden will be a key creative force for the visitors, who will be hopeful of re-establishing their status as League Two’s top dogs with an emphatic victory.
Forest Green’s record since the start of the 20/21 season when Jamille Matt has started:
Win percentage: 49%
Forest Green’s record when Jamille Matt hasn’t started:
Win percentage: 23% #FGRFC #WeAreFGR pic.twitter.com/xFPgeunNqN
— Laurie Martin (@lauriemartin263) November 10, 2021
“Port Vale are the most exciting team in League Two on current form, so I see Darrell Clarke’s troops recording a comfortable victory at Boundary Park, piling the pressure on Oldham.”Gab Sutton
Oldham Athletic v Port Vale
Port Vale -1 handicap
Port Vale are enjoying an excellent season so far
Ball-player Lewis Cass, leader Nathan Smith and long throw extraordinaire Dan Jones have forged a reliable back-three, David Worrall brings advanced creativity from right wing-back and, in Tom Conlon, the Valiants have arguably the most complete midfielder in League Two.
Smith, Worrall and Conlon’s fine form this season is not a huge surprise, but Darrell Clarke’s highly driven leadership has coaxed the best out of players who were unwanted elsewhere.
Striker James Wilson – once an exciting prodigy for Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United – for example, had endured a difficult few seasons that culminated in a tough stint at Salford, but in Burslem the 25-year-old looks full of confidence, bagging seven goals in all competitions.
Elsewhere, Ben Garrity struggled at Oldham but his incredible stamina has made him a valuable component of Vale’s midfield, alongside more technical operators in Conlon and Tom Pett.
Vale also have the ability to respond to fresh challenges: when Garrity got injured, Clarke switched from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3, brought wide forwards David Amoo and Dennis Politic into the side and they continued their form.
There is an adaptability about this team which speaks to sturdy squad depth and strong tactical flexibility from their manager, which makes them serious contenders.
Troubled Oldham could be in peril: Keith Curle’s side have individuals capable of moments of magic, but do not look like a coherent unit.
That Darrell Clarke interview with Henry Winter… wow.
Here's just a flavour… pic.twitter.com/Z5cqlWVpmr
— Foxpunter (@foxpunter) November 13, 2021