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Gabriel Sutton gave us his League One Season Preview in the summer and, with Christmas approaching, our EFL pundit returns with his revised predictions in his League One Season half-way Review.

Read Gabriel’s Championship Season Half-Way Review 1-24 here.

Read Gabriel’s League Two Season Half-Way Review 1-24 here.

Portsmouth

Season Preview Prediction: 7th

1st

Kenny Jackett has taken his fair share of criticism as Portsmouth manager.

The standard argument against the 58-year-old is the uninspiring style of football – at least previously, before a subtle recent shift – the failure to win promotion over the last three seasons and the perceived lack of outward passion.

Some of those criticisms have at times been valid. But Jackett has always had Pompey in contention on a budget deceptively lower than one might assume – and his side will sit top of League One on Christmas Day.

One big money signing from the last two seasons has been John Marquis. But the striker has had to adjust somewhat to the more direct approach, having been part of a more possession-based Doncaster side.

On the flip side, Pompey have also adjusted to Marquis at certain parts of the season.

There was a brief period when Ellis Harrison – athletic and possessing a remarkable spring at 5’11” – was injured, rendering the Portsea Islanders unable to employ their usual crossing game.

To incorporate Marquis more successfully, Jackett has encouraged fast-paced transitional play on the floor, chiefly through Marcus Harness, a strategy crucial to October victories over Gillingham and Sunderland.

In Harness, Ryan Williams and Ronan Curtis and fit again Michael Jacobs, Portsmouth have a set of wide forwards who are all capable of enjoying a purple patch, helped by the arrival of more attacking full-backs.

When opposing teams double up on the wide forwards, Callum Johnson and Cameron Pring are more capable of offering an alternative threat than the players who started at right-back and left-back every week last season, James Bolton and Lee Brown – though the latter has improved his attacking output.

While Jackett’s side have added new dimensions to their attacking play, they have retained a sturdy spine.

Sean Raggett is an aerially commanding centre-back, while midfielder Tom Naylor is not shy to a challenge – nor are Pompey.

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Lincoln City

Season Preview Prediction: 9th

2nd

Michael Appleton and Lincoln’s recruitment team used the absence of live football in Spring to their advantage.

They invested extra time in analysing data and watching videos from obscure leagues, in hope of finding a gem that could help lead them on a journey towards the Championship.

Appleton and co. certainly found that gem in Lewis Montsma, who has not only been a dominant defender since signing from FC Dordrecht, but also has an aptitude for getting among the goals. He has six already this term.

The Imps have been able to recruit slightly closer to home as well, with Brennan Johnson arriving on loan from Nottingham Forest to make an equally impressive impact.

Though an attacking midfielder by trade, Johnson has tended to operate slightly further forward than he might have expected to, wide of the athletic Tom Hopper.

Johnson’s experience in his previous position means he is more than comfortable dropping into space to link play with the midfield, but his pace means he can stretch teams in the other direction.

Opposing rear-guards do not know quite what to expect from Johnson and that unpredictability is a massive part of his and Lincoln’s game.

Appleton can keep teams guessing by introducing Robbie Gotts, who starred for Leeds at Under-23s level and impressed against Arsenal in the FA Cup as a number eight, yet has been kept out of the side by the likes of James Jones and Jorge Grant.

With solid operators like Liam Bridcutt and Conor McGrandles still to return, Lincoln will not be short of midfield depth.

Having met Arsenal in the FA Cup as a non-league side back in 2017, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, next season, they could resume contact with the Gunners as equals.

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Doncaster Rovers

Season Preview Prediction: 17th

3rd

This season had the feel of a tough assignment for Darren Moore.

His side prepared for this season with a thin squad, having lost Kieran Sadlier plus various key loanees including Ben Sheaf, Seny Dieng and Niall Ennis from the previous campaign.

2020-21, therefore, looked more likely to be about returning to last season’s levels, rather than using 2019-20 as a springboard for a promotion push.

It is credit to Moore, therefore, that Donny can enjoy their Christmas turkey sitting in League One’s top six.

Joe Lumley has been absolutely fabulous between the sticks, Matthew Smith has successfully filled Sheaf’s void, Taylor Richards has brought incredible technical prowess in an advanced midfield role while Fejiri Okenabirhie – a January acquisition – is replicating the form he produced at Shrewsbury two seasons ago.

Moore has not only recruited very well, but also been creative with his existing options.

Reece James, for example, has always been an athletic, forward-thinking left-back but his manager has seen potential in the former Wigan man in central midfield, where he adds thrust and drive next to the ever reliable Ben Whiteman, as well as wide left, where he has scored four goals in five games.

If Doncaster finish in the top six, Moore must be in the conversation for Manager of the Year.

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Sunderland

Season Preview Prediction: 8th

4th

Sunderland have made an excellent appointment in Lee Johnson, who has won plaudits for his work in all three EFL jobs at Oldham, Barnsley and Bristol City.

Johnson will be supported by Kristjaan Speakman as Director of Football and, having been Academy Manager at Birmingham, the 41-year-old knows the value of youth.

That is not something that can be said of Sunderland over the last decade, but the fact Johnson has been prepared to start vibrant wide forward Jack Diamond shows he relishes the challenge of developing younger players.

A more experienced head, Aiden McGeady, had been frozen out under Phil Parkinson. But, as the enigmatic Irishman showed in the 2018-19 campaign, he can produce moments of individual quality that are unique at this level which is something Johnson has recognized.

Diamond and McGeady look good forwards to flank an out-and-out striker, be that the industrious Charlie Wyke or poacher Will Grigg, who has an outstanding record at this level but has not quite fit in with the tactical approach of previous managers.

Johnson can hope with some optimism for more attacking performances like the 4-0 win at Lincoln in his first away game as boss, but it is also important the Wearsiders retain the defensive solidity that was evident under Parkinson.

Bailey Wright, who has played at international level with Australia, is a key leader in defence while Dion Sanderson, who looked promising in the division above with Cardiff last term, has been used at centre-back rather than right-back for his ball-playing ability.

There is room for optimism once football returns safely for Sunderland, who have been forced to postpone three December matches for health reasons.

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Hull City

Season Preview Prediction: 13th

5th

On the face of things, Hull are prime promotion contenders.

They have a strong squad for the level, they are 3rd at Christmas with a better points per game record than the leaders and boast the second best shot data in the division.

The Tigers also possess arguably the best midfielder in the division in George Honeyman, an attacking right-back in Josh Emmanuel who has produced some excellent deliveries and, in Josh Magennis and Tom Eaves, two strikers who have starred at this level before for different reasons.

Magennis has a likeable ability to be the best player on the pitch without scoring, such is the former Charlton front-man’s willingness to graft selflessly in wide areas, while Eaves – generally used as an impact sub thus far – showed at Gillingham he loves a back-post header.

Throw in the presence of Reece Burke, who has had good patches of form as a centre-back at Championship level and Jacob Greaves, who lit up League Two last term and Hull should compete.

Even during their best runs of form, though, there was a reluctance from fans to go too far on praise for manager Grant McCann, who had overseen a horrific drop from 8th to 24th in the second half of last season.

The run of three straight defeats has prompted concerns over a similar capitulation under the Northern Irishman, who has been staunch in his loyalty to 4-3-3, leading to criticisms of him having no Plan B.

Hull have had spells of pressure in losses to Shrewsbury and Portsmouth, without testing the opposition goalkeeper. With Lincoln and Charlton to come, now would be a great time for McCann to show his adaptability.

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Blackpool

Season Preview Prediction: 5th

6th

If there was an award for the EFL team to improve most between September and October, it would likely go to Blackpool.

Neil Critchley’s side showed flashes of potential in the early weeks, with the individual showings of midfielder Ethan Robson and speedy forward CJ Hamilton.

Those flashes, though, were brutally undermined by a soft centre that made the Tangerines far too easy to score against, taking just four points from their first seven games.

The arrivals of loanee Daniel Ballard – compared at Arsenal to a young Tony Adams – Iceland international Daníel Leó Grétarsson and tenacious ball-winner Kenny Dougall – a promotion-winner at this level with Barnsley – steadied the ship.

The Pool have since won by one goal in seven of their last 10 games, which shows they now have a far sturdier spine, allowing Swindon recruits Keshi Anderson and Jerry Yates to strut their stuff in attack.

The West Lancashire outfit average 1.21 Expected Goals For (xGF) and 0.86 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 58.29% – the fourth-best in the division.

Keep up those performance levels and a top six finish could be on the cards.

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Charlton Athletic

Season Preview Prediction: 23rd

7th

Had the off-field woes that have plagued Charlton for half-a-decade persisted in the summer, a season of doom might have unfolded.

Instead, the club managed to get vital fresh investment from a consortium led by Thomas Sandgaard, who sanctioned 11 new high-profile additions.

Those signings changed the complexion of Charlton’s season but Lee Bowyer deserves credit for the swift in-season integration of this new look squad, with the team winning six straight games from that point.

More recently, the injury to aerial specialist Ryan Innis has affected the Addicks defensively, though Jason Pearce’s return means they no longer have to field a makeshift centre-back pairing.

Chris Gunter brings international experience at right-back and the Welshman’s left-sided counter-part, Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen, may have an international future.

Ben Watson is an asset at the base of midfield, having run games at Championship level last season with Nottingham Forest, while Alex Gilbey brings energy and Jake Forster-Caskey is capable of pin-point deliveries with his sweet left-foot.

Going forward, meanwhile, Bowyer will be hoping his side can recreate the attacking levels that allowed his side to score four in the second half against AFC Wimbledon.

Prominent roles for Jonny Williams and Chuks Aneke will be key to instigating the swift, one-touch football with which Charlton are at their best, even if that makes it harder for a more languid wide forwards like Marcus Maddison to keep his place.

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Peterborough United

Season Preview Prediction: 2nd

8th

Peterborough had a great start to the League One season, leaving them three points clear at the top after 11 games.

In recent weeks, though, Darren Ferguson has had to contend with the absence of Jack Taylor and Nathan Thompson, which has destabilized his side.

Ferguson has a reputation for being a possession-based coach, but the best teams he has built over three different stints with the Cambridgeshire club have tended to be high-tempo pressing sides ruthless in transition.

Posh’s use of the ball from deep has been questionable and, when they have been pressed, they have been forced into aimless, long passes.

That was less problematic last season, when Ivan Toney had the mobility to harry defences, but Jonson Clarke-Harris is more static and needs service from higher up the pitch.

Clarke-Harris’ link-up with the energetic Sammie Szmodics and the skilful Siriki Dembele had been a key part of Peterborough’s strong early season form, but Szmodics’ levels have dropped alarmingly in recent weeks while opposing teams are starting to nullify Dembele.

When that happens, Posh need more from their wing-backs – though the introductions of Idris Kanu and Harrison Burrows has made a positive impact – while Reece Brown must start dominating games to the level he is technically capable of.

Peterborough are still just three points off the automatic promotion places, but recent form suggests it will be a case of scrambling for the Play-Offs rather than racing for a top two berth.

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Ipswich Town

Season Preview Prediction: 4th

9th

Ipswich might be in the mix for promotion now, sitting sixth, but there is little local optimism that they will be in the mix in the run-in.

Indeed, Town led League One in November last season ended up slipping to as low as 11th. Many in Suffolk are fearing a similar capitulation.

The Tractor Boys’ shot data is particularly worrying: they average 1.17 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.23 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 48.75%, ranking them 15th in that metric, worse than four current bottom half sides.

Many fans, though, have belief in the individual merits of the squad.

Luke Woolfenden and Mark McGuiness are two talented young centre-backs, with Luke Chambers and Stephen Ward bringing experience and nous either side.

Andre Dozzell, who loves to spray passes to the flanks and Teddy Bishop, who has quick feet and can break into the box with four goals in 11, are two members of a capable set of midfield options.

Kayden Jackson’s searing pace makes him a threat at this level, especially when combined with the selfless hold-up play of Oli Hawkins, who has missed large parts of the season through injury.

The players are there for Ipswich to challenge more convincingly, but there’s question marks over whether the management team have devised a coherent style of play to maximise this squad’s potential.

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Crewe Alexandra

Season Preview Prediction: 14th

Crewe have been able to retain their top talent for longer than would ordinarily be the case.

After 2018-19, higher-placed clubs were less preoccupied by the current crop’s ability because the Alex finished outside League Two’s top seven, then following 2019-20, the health climate quashed the appetite to buy.

Intelligent right-back Perry Ng, deep-lying playmaker Ryan Wintle plus Harry Pickering and his dovetailing left-sided partner Charlie Kirk have been good enough to operate at Championship level for some time, yet each have slipped under the radar.

David Artell, though, won’t be complaining.

While two fellow promotees are struggling due to losing their best players, Artell’s side have kept their own and have thus been able to impose the same formula to the one that brought them success in the fourth tier – with excellent results.

Crewe are flying high in ninth which, according to their xGR of 55.16%, is exactly where they deserve to be based on performances.

Ng and Wintle are out of contract this summer and the Alex may be tempted to cash in this January rather than lose their stars on a free.

With relegation extremely unlikely, Artell may hand opportunities to unproven youngsters like Travis Johnson and Regan Griffiths, to see if long-term replacements can be sourced from within.

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Milton Keynes Dons

Season Preview Prediction: 16th

MK Dons are a better team than results suggest.

Beyond the bare possession statistics, which rank Russ Martin’s side by far the highest average in the EFL, MK have also created far more chances than their opponents in most games too.

In early October, for example, the Buckinghamshire outfit took just one point off Ipswich and Portsmouth, despite having dominated both matches.

This has been a common theme for MK Dons, who have one of the division’s strongest set of midfield options. Dynamic talent David Kasumu does a lot of the dirty work to free up creative maestro Scott Fraser, who was expected to leave Burton in the summer for a Championship club.

That speaks to the persuasive qualities of Russ Martin, an excellent motivator and the influence of Luke Williams, who is one of the EFL’s brightest tactical minds.

Williams was unable to succeed as a number one at Swindon, struggling perhaps with the man management side of the job. But he is the brains behind this MK operation while Martin brings people together.

The midfield is good enough for a Play-Off push, but the defence is underperforming – despite having an experienced figure in Richard Keogh.

In attack, meanwhile, Rhys Healey’s departure in the summer was a big loss for MK Dons and while Carlton Morris and Cameron Jerome are hardworking strikers, it remains to be seen whether either can produce enough quality to elevate MK into the top six conversation.

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Accrington Stanley

Season Preview Prediction: 12th

Stanley are defying their doubters once again.

John Coleman and Jimmy Bell continue to work their magic with the perennial pre-season relegation favourites, who are achieving promotion-winning form.

The Reds are accruing 1.88 points per game, a record enough for automatic promotion in three of the last five League One seasons.

One of the dream duo’s greatest strengths is their adaptability, which they have needed after losing two key wide men: direct creator Jordan Clark left for Luton in the summer, while hardworking technician Sean McConville missed a large portion of the campaign through injury.

Coleman fondly recalls non-league clashes with Chris Wilder’s Halifax sides and freely admits to having studied his former opponent manage Sheffield United, whose overlapping centre-backs worked a treat in the Premier League last term.

The Liverpudlian therefore overcame the absence of Clark and McConville by opting for a 3-5-2, with Ross Sykes or Michael Nottingham and Cameron Burgess as the overlapping centre-backs.

Sykes – an athletic right-sided centre-back who loves a forward gallop – and Cameron Burgess – a ball-playing, left-sided centre-back who loves to support the attacking play – do a great job of getting beyond wing-backs Harvey Rodgers and Tariq Uwakwe respectively, breaking into dangerous areas unchartered.

This strategy might be bold, but it is enabled by the pillars of stability that are Seamus Conneely, who willingly plugs gaps from his midfield role and Mark Hughes, who organises the defensive unit superbly.

Ironically, McConville has recently returned from injury but the formation has proved so successful that the Liverpudlian has had to compete with box-to-box men Jonny Russell and Matt Butcher as well as key creator Joe Pritchard for a place in the three-man midfield.

Stanley might just fall short of a promotion push, but a top half finish would be a wonderful achievement.

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Fleetwood Town

Season Preview Prediction: 3rd

Managing one of League One’s more modestly supported clubs has both perks and pitfalls.

On the one hand, there is an argument to say that Joey Barton’s work in getting Fleetwood into the top six last season – two points off the automatic promotion places – went under the radar.

On the other hand, the scale of the Trawlermen’s underachievement under Barton this season may be going under the radar too.

Paul Lambert, Phil Parkinson and Kenny Jackett have all felt the wrath of big fanbases when results and performances have not been as desired, which dominates social media, whereas there has been less focus on the former Burnley midfielder.

And yet, Fleetwood have one of the biggest budgets in the division and should therefore be judged with the same lens as managers of Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth.
The vast majority of this Fleetwood squad have performed successfully before in the third tier – like technical wide man Josh Morris, creator in chief Callum Camps and persistent poacher Paddy Madden – or above.

In the case of ball-playing centre-back Charlie Mulgrew and midfield controller Paul Coutts, both have performed at international level with Scotland.

Ironically, it could be that this Fleetwood squad has so many players who are already proven, that they are almost missing an injection of pace and hunger.

Harvey Saunders was handed a start against Hull in October and made a massive impact with his willingness to run in behind the right channel, before picking up an injury the following month.

Fleetwood have more than enough experience – but may need another injection of youthful exuberance to meet Barton’s targets.

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Oxford United

Season Preview Prediction: 1st

Karl Robinson hoped his third full season as Oxford boss would follow a similar pattern to his second, in which his side were 90 Wembley minutes away from a historic promotion to the Championship.

Instead, though, it has bore greater resemblance to his first.

In the early months of 2018-19, there was an almost weekly debate about whether the Yellows had produced a soft-centred, sideways showing with no real cutting edge, or a promising performance with lots of shots, in which they were unlucky that opponents scored from a high proportion of their chances.

As that season wore on, results improved to suggest the latter assessments may have been more accurate. Robinson’s side ended up finishing 12th having been in a relegation battle all season – and a lower top half finish may also be the best they can hope for this year.

Oxford are only two points above the drop zone but, with two games in hand on most teams around them and after a four-game unbeaten run, the OX4 outfit are unlikely to find themselves in much trouble.

The squad still looks somewhat imbalanced due to the shortage of left-footed players, though Jordan Obita’s arrival has been key to giving them outward pace and thrust on the left flank.

In Marcus McGuane, Oxford have a midfielder who can unleash a delightful crossfield pass and the Nottingham Forest loanee has formed a strong trio with Alex Gorrin and Liam Kelly, who are tenacious whilst being sufficiently accomplished in possession to support a high tempo.

Performances like the 4-0 win over Northampton suggest the Yellows are starting to execute quick, one-touch play with more confidence than we saw earlier in the season – and another defensive addition to deal with John Mousinho’s fitness issues will only improve them.

It’s fair to expect them to finish higher than their current position of 17th, even if more Wembley drama would be a stretch.

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Plymouth Argyle

Season Preview Prediction: 10th

The festive period brings dilemmas for Ryan Lowe.

The Argyle boss has had huge success with his possession-based 3-1-4-2 setup in League Two with Bury and Argyle, then for the most part in League One, but a six league game losing streak is the first time where his methods have not had the desired impact.

The challenge for Lowe is to strike a balance between adapting to the needs of the immediate problems facing the Devoners, whilst staying true to the core principles that got them this far.

While Tyrese Fornah’s two-footedness has allowed him to dictate some games at this level, the Nottingham Forest loanee is lacking in certain physical attributes and does not always have the passing range to make up for that.

With Danny Mayor taking on little defensive responsibility to his left and Panutche Camara given licence to press high to his right, Fornah’s cheap giveaways in Argyle’s half have often been costly – and put more pressure on the defence.

The return of dynamic midfielder Lewis MacLeod – who has positive experience at Championship level from his time at Brentford – was therefore a key factor behind the 1-0 win over MK Dons with which Argyle arrested their slump.

Once Lowe’s side stop gifting opponents chances with more clean sheets from their defensive trio of Will Aimson, Niall Canavan and Kelland Watts, they can start to threaten again with their array of different types of strikers.

Ryan Hardie, the winning goalscorer last time out, loves to run in behind, Luke Jephcott is a talented young poacher who has achieved international recognition with Wales, Dom Telford adds boundless energy while Frank Nouble offers that different physical dimension, enabling Argyle to retain possession high up.

Now the nightmare run is over, the task of finding four inferior sides should become a simple one.

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AFC Wimbledon

Season Preview Prediction: 20th

For the first time in 29 years, Wimbledon fans could watch their team play a home game in the club’s original hometown.

Those home games, though, were witnessed from home: New Plough Lane was opened with November’s 2-2 draw with Doncaster but fans have been unable to attend due to restrictions.

Dons fans will be especially disappointed not to have witnessed, first-hand, the excellent strike-pairing of Joe Pigott and Ryan Longman.

Pigott, 6’2” with a great spring, makes the initial industrial runs into the channels, allowing Longman – mobile and intelligent – to pick up pieces in the gaps his partner vacates.

Pigott and Longman’s form has been a key part of Wimbledon’s goalscoring exploits this season, but finding the right midfield trio has been a challenge.

Jaakko Oksanen and Anthony Hartigan bring control, Callum Reilly and Alex Woodyard add tenacity while Ethan Chislett and Jack Rudoni provide an elusive, creative spark.

Oksanen and Hartigan simultaneously would leave the Wombles short on legs, Reilly and Woodyard together leaves them short on creativity while either Chislett or Rudoni could isolate their midfield colleagues with attacking instincts.

An objectively reliable midfield blend may not lie within this Wimbledon squad, thus manager Glyn Hodges must tailor the approach to individual scenarios rather than plump for a default strategy.

Whatever the outcome of battles on the field, though, the real battle has been won.

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Bristol Rovers

Season Preview Prediction: 15th

After Ben Garner failed to make the arduous transition from being a respected coach to a successful head coach at the Mem, Bristol Rovers turned to the more seasoned hands of Paul Tisdale.

The former Exeter boss detaches himself emotionally from outcomes of individual matches and is very much a big picture thinker.

On the one hand, this mentality has allowed him to aid the sustainable running of clubs he manages by developing young talent to sell on.

Tisdale’s outlook can disillusion fans who want to see more outward passion but, for where the Gas are as a football club, a period of quiet stability may be what they need.

The 47-year-old has inspired dribbler Sam Nicholson to a purple patch, with some exceptional individual goals from the right of Rovers’ attacking trio, enabled by the strong running of Brandon Hanlan up top.

With players like centre-back Max Ehmer, who was part of one of the best defensive units at Gillingham last season, as well as midfield technician Zain Westbrooke, a 2019-20 League One title-winner with Coventry, the Gas should comfortably beat the drop.

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Shrewsbury Town

Season Preview Prediction: 19th

The league table would say that Shrewsbury are still in a relegation battle, but that’s not how it feels.

Performances and results have been transformed under manager Steve Cotterill, to the extent Salop must be judged almost as a team that sits eighth in League One, going from the date the Cheltonian was appointed.

There is a completely different energy about the club, exemplified by the resurgence of Sean Goss – cast aside under Sam Ricketts – who is now staring as the attacking midfielder in Cotterill’s 3-4-1-2 setup.

Much like Luke Freeman in Cotterill’s title-winning Bristol City side of 2014-15, the technical Goss is given freedom by two energetic, dynamic midfielders in Oli Norburn and Josh Vela, while the physical Daniel Udoh grafts will incredible persistence up top.

Shrewsbury have improved their attacking productivity whilst re-establishing the defensive solidity that ball-player Ro-Shaun Williams, the imposing Ethan Ebanks-Landell and the athletic Aaron Pierre provided as a centre-back trio for much of the 2019-20 campaign.

Cotterill’s driven leadership has reignited the Shropshire outfit, who have won at prime promotion contenders Hull and Lincoln with the luxury of being able to bring slight technician Marc Pugh – a recent Premier League footballer with Bournemouth – off the bench.

Better times lie ahead for Shrews.

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Rochdale

Season Preview Prediction: 22nd

The ultimate aim for Rochdale is to bring back the glory days of the mid-2010s when, under Keith Hill, they had a young, energetic, attacking side that challenged for the Play-Offs at this level for three consecutive campaigns.

After the Hill era grew stale, some might have assumed the club would need to re-build in League Two but, over the last two years, Brian Barry-Murphy has given Dale fresh hope that those days may yet return.

After keeping the Lancashire club up in 2018-19 and delivering incremental progress last term, there has been much to like about Rochdale this year – despite the loss of full-backs Luke Matheson and Rhys Norrington-Davies, as well as evergreen goalscorer Ian Henderson.

“Hendo” has not been missed as much as expected, with Matty Lund and Alex Newby – who has impressed since joining from Chorley – carrying a goalscoring threat from attacking midfield roles.

In recent games, Lund has been given freedom to make brave runs beyond Stephen Humphrys and, since the former Southend striker returned from injury in November, Rochdale have scored 11 goals in five.

Matheson might have been a miss at right-back but Jimmy Keohane, used to playing in a more advanced role while at Exeter, has proved productive in his absence while Haydon Roberts has been magnificent since joining on loan from Brighton, so it is only left-back where Dale have been weakened from the previous campaign.

The emergence of exciting striker Kwadwo Baah combined with the continued development of energetic midfielder Aaron Morley makes of a season of progression for Rochdale.

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Gillingham

Season Preview Prediction: 11th

Gillingham’s campaign to date has been about merely maintaining last season’s levels, rather than using the 10th place springboard for a Play-Off push.

The loss of various loanees like Alfie Jones and Olly Lee, combined with the departures of Max Ehmer and Brandon Hanlan, has hit the Gills harder than perhaps the bare results show.

Steve Evans’ side begin Christmas 13th in League One, but their shot data is better only than Wigan and, without fortuitous victories over Oxford, Crewe and Swindon, they would be deep in the mire.

There is a youthful feel about this current Gillingham squad with eight additions being under 22, as defence and midfield units both look short of an experienced leader.

One thing the Kent outfit are not short of up top, as striker John Akinde proved in the 4-1 win at Rochdale just before Christmas, is physicality.

Akinde has starred in the division below with Barnet and Lincoln yet has taken time to adjust to the third tier, with Vadaine Oliver – another unit – enjoying better form for the Gills this term.

The injury to Dominic Samuel, though, means Akinde will be leaned on that bit more and it is important he can continue to perform he did in Lancashire.

Also sidelined is winger Jordan Graham, who has been a key creative outlet but Steve Evans has recently experimented with a narrow 4-3-2-1, which may be the way to lift performances.

Because Gillingham do not always have the knowhow in central defence and midfield to dominate battles individually, it makes sense for them to crowd opponents out and become a difficult side to play through.

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Northampton Town

Season Preview Prediction: 21st

Northampton went into League One unprepared.

Many perceive Keith Curle to be a big part of the reason why the Cobblers are battling against an instant drop to the fourth tier, with the former Carlisle boss getting criticism for his defensive style of football.

There may be valid reasons behind Curle’s caution, though, because he is working with the weakest squad in the division bar Wigan.

Most teams after promotion would want to make up for the unfamiliarity of the higher level with the familiarity of having the same group that got them there, but that has not been possible for Northampton.

Six of the XI that thrashed Exeter in the Play-Off Final – Charlie Goode, Jordan Turnbull, Scott Wharton, Alan McCormack, Vadaine Oliver and Callum Morton – have all left and been inadequately replaced.

Creator in chief Nicky Adams has been able to start only seven league games due to injury, while the dearth of quality in attack has forced Sam Hoskins to operate further forward – having excelled as a wing-back in League One.

Northampton have an average League Two squad because the funds simply have not been there for Curle to assemble a group he can trust at this level.

In the circumstances, being in a position to have a chance of staying up at this stage is something of an achievement.

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Swindon Town

Season Preview Prediction: 6th

During a four-game losing streak, Swindon boss John Sheridan stayed positive about performances.

In that sequence, Town conceded nine goals but were projected to concede just three, with their xGA averaging at the incredibly low rate of 0.66.

Even if results were not showing it, the evidence was there that the Wiltshire club were solidifying, in the same way that Oldham, Newport and Fleetwood have done in recent years when those endangered clubs have called on Sheridan’s firefighting skills.

The former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder needed a change of luck, though, with natives restless. So, it will have been a great relief to see Brett Pitman net an injury time equalizer against Charlton, stopping the run of defeats from extending to five.

“Hitman” Pitman’s return from injury is a plus for Swindon, who now have a much-needed rotation option for the persistent Tyler Smith, but neither striker provides the physical presence to relish aerial duels, which is vital in a defensive side.

“Shez” troubleshooted that problem for a historic derby victory at Oxford where, with half an hour to play, he brought on centre-back Tom Broadbent to act as an auxiliary target man – it worked a treat, with the ex-Bristol Rovers man scoring and assisting in half an hour.

Broadbent cannot perform heroics every week, though, so Swindon’s survival chances depend on whether Sheridan is backed to sign a natural target man, capable of battling with centre-backs.

Do that and perhaps the quality Town have out wide in Diallang Jaiyesimi and Jonny Smith – as well as in midfield with Matt Smith – can come to the fore and we could see another Sheridan inspired revival.

Without the right target man, doom awaits: either way, it won’t be pretty.

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Burton Albion

Season Preview Prediction: 18th

Jake Buxton has delved right into the deep end at Burton.

The centre-back only finished his playing career in the summer and, with no period to focus solely on coaching, he has jumped straight into senior management.

Unsurprisingly, Buxton has found the plunge rather challenging, overseeing just two wins in his first 19 league games in charge.

The Brewers’ struggles at the foot of League One are not solely down to the rookie: they have had injury troubles too.

Aerial powerhouse Michael Bostwick has been affected by injury, likewise full-backs John Brayford, Neal Eardley and Colin Daniel, meaning Buxton has been forced to name some makeshift defences.

Going forward, meanwhile, joint-top goalscorer Kane Hemmings has spent time on the sidelines, meaning Lucas Akins has had to start down the middle, even though he is far more effective coming into goalscoring areas from a wide right position than playing with his back to goal.

Another wide forward, Charles Vernam, has been unable to showcase his mazy dribbling ability with just eight league starts so far.

The decision to loan Ben Fox out to Barnet may have been a financial decision more than a footballing one and the dearth of quality midfield options means Stephen Quinn, at 34, has had to start 18 league games in a congested fixture schedule.

Burton have given the EFL some amazing stories over the last 10 years but look set to complete a full circle and find themselves back in the basement tier.

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Wigan Athletic

Season Preview Prediction: 24th

In the current climate, the challenge of holding onto a club to support can feel more significant than results on the pitch.

That is especially relevant at Wigan Athletic, who are plagued by financial uncertainty.

Many fans are hoping that Felipe Moreno, a successful, driven, risk-taking and passionate Spanish businessman who has worked wonders with Leganes, will complete a takeover to rejuvenate the Latics.

The question, though, is whether firstly, that takeover will be sanctioned by the EFL and secondly, whether it will happen in time to influence Wigan’s actions in the January transfer window.

In the meantime, the challenge for Leam Richardson and his youthful squad stacked primarily with academy graduates mixed with a handful of experienced pros like Joe Garner and Kal Naismith, is simply to hang on in there.

It is a credit to Richardson, who was assistant to predecessor Paul Cook in the Championship last season, that, if the takeover comes, the West Lancashire club may still have a chance of beating the drop by the time it does.

December victories over Sunderland and Accrington Stanley mean Wigan spend Christmas just three points off the drop zone with a game in hand on Swindon, Northampton and MK Dons.

Youngsters Alex Perry and Chris Merrie have formed a sweet-sounding midfield partnership, while midfielder Thelo Aasgaard and forward Charlie Jolley are teenagers with huge potential.

Youthful promise, alone, is not enough: Wigan need a successful takeover to be ratified in time to positively influence their campaign.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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