The Big EFL Preview: Blackpool & Burton To Boost Play-Off Bids?14 min read
A reduced EFL schedule this weekend due to the FA Cup, but here are my best bets from the league action.
Championship: Stoke City v Swansea City
Under 2.5 goals
Stoke City produced arguably the best defensive display of the Championship season to date in Monday night’s 1-0 win at West Brom.
It is easy for a team to be compact, but far harder to know the right moments to press or drop off and how to cut off passing lanes.
Michael O’Neill deserves great credit for organising his side so precisely, as well as his excellent man-management of Tom Ince and Nick Powell – once perceived as languid talents, Ince and Powell have now wholly bought into the cause.
🗣️ "I haven’t been happy with my performances and stepping out of the team has made me become more focussed.”#SCFC 🔴⚪
— S t o k e C i t y F C (@stokecity) January 22, 2020
The next task for O’Neill will be to plot a way of stopping Swansea, who may have a lot of the ball.
The key will be to deny Rhian Brewster opportunities to run in behind, as he did for his goal in last week’s 2-1 victory over Wigan, so we can expect the tenacious Joe Allen and the dynamic Sam Clucas to block any avenues for through balls.
The other player for them to stop will be Matt Grimes, who dictates from deep allowing George Byers and January recruit Connor Gallagher to push on.
Stoke may not want to pressurize Grimes from their four-man midfield in their 4-4-1-1 for fear of risking Byers and Gallagher getting space between lines, so it could be a case of Powell closing down Grimes, whilst staying between the 24-year-old and his preferred pass recipient.
The hosts will likely be happy for centre-backs Ben Wilmot and Ben Cabango to have the ball unchallenged, as well as Kyle Naughton, if space is denied for Swansea’s other seven outfielders.
Having just kept clean sheets against the Championship’s in-form side and the team with the league’s best attacking record, Stoke will be hard to break down.
Swansea, themselves, have kept four shut-outs in their last six league encounters, so a low-scoring affair seems likely.
League One: Blackpool v Tranmere Rovers
Blackpool to win and Under 2.5 goals
The summer goodwill at Bloomfield Road has not lasted too long.
After a period of post-Oyston Pool positivity, attendances are dwindling as natives are growing restless over the defensive football.
New chairman Simon Sadler has shown faith in manager Simon Grayson, whose record of four promotions from this division arguably merits some loyalty.
We could, perhaps, see the Tangerines improving if they start deploying a three-at-the-back system – they have lost just one in nine with those setups – and now they have a left wing-back in Marc Bola who will provide more pace, skill and quality than previous incumbents.
Much of Blackpool’s play has been about Liam Feeney’s crosses from the right for Armand Gnanduillet – five of their goals have come from that combination – but when Feeney and Gnanduillet are off form, the team needs alternative ideas.
Some of them could come from midfielder Grant Ward, who has played well at times in the division above for Rotherham and high-pedigree target man Gary Madine; both have signed this month.
Tranmere cannot make those kinds of coups and, having been a non-league club as recently as 2018, they have found it difficult to acclimatize to this level.
They have a combination of recent National League performers who have thus far shown to not quite possess the quality required for this division, and players who have played at a higher level but now look past their best.
Blackpool have a better squad than Rovers on paper, although as soon as they get ahead, they tend to drop deep rather than stick to the blueprint that got them the lead.
The Tangerines have not won a game by a margin of more than two goals in 10 months, so a modestly margined victory could be on the cards.
League One: Burton Albion v Accrington Stanley
Burton to win
Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley, managed by Nigel Clough and John Coleman respectively, met in the 2001-02 Northern Premier League, managed by… Nigel Clough and John Coleman.
The two managers have had stints away from their respective clubs, but their strong connections are helping both inspire their teams to perform against the odds.
Burton moved into League One’s top six for the first time earlier this month before dropping to 9th due to other results.
The Brewers have a 14-goal top scorer in Liam Boyce – two January bids have been rejected – arguably League One’s most creative player in Scott Fraser and adaptable stalwart Lucas Akins – they have signed a seasoned winger, too, in Jamie Murphy.
Clough’s 4-3-3 outfit also press with hunger and intensity; when they faced a possession-based MK Dons side in their last encounter, they were willing to close down the opposing goalkeeper in his own six-yard box, highlighting their intent.
— Burton Albion FC (@burtonalbionfc) January 15, 2020
Part of the reason they can do this is the dynamism of midfielder Ryan Edwards, who can act as a holding midfield partner for Stephen Quinn one moment, then a strike-partner for Boyce the next, such is his boundless energy.
Stanley possess an equivalent in Sam Finley who, although previously recognized as a ball-winner, has been let off the leash more this season to make brave runs off the ball and at times operate further up than the wide players.
That has been a huge positive for Stanley for much of the campaign, because opposing teams have not been used to a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 being quite so expressive.
On the other hand, it can mean that when Finley pushes too far up, takes unnecessary risks or does not find the accuracy in search of a creative pass, Stanley can be carved wide open, as was arguably the case in last week’s 2-1 home loss to Southend.
That game showed that the Reds are weakened down the left when Jerome Opoku and Sean McConville are missing simultaneously – and one could argue that they do not have quite enough strength in reserve to improve with substitutions.
We know that an expert management team of John Coleman and Jimmy Bell can find one good player for each position with their small budget but finding two equally good players per area is a huge ask, so their side suffers more than others when key men either become unavailable or slightly drop their standards.
Burton could take advantage of a Reds rough patch.
League One: Peterborough United v Rotherham United
Both Teams To Score
In Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Wycombe, Peterborough United benefited from a highly questionable early red card, but they also exploited the advantage to maximum effect.
Rotherham United manager Paul Warne will be under no illusions that he has to find a coherent strategy to stop Darren Ferguson’s side, who now share with his side the league’s joint-best attacking record.
Ivan Toney’s athleticism is an obvious danger, as reflected in his brace on Tuesday and Peterborough’s midfield is starting to look stronger, too.
Barnet recruit Jack Taylor runs the show with real authority next to fellow winter signing Reece Brown; the inside forwards, the skilful Siriki Dembele and livewire Sammie Szmodics, love to cause problems in pockets too.
Posh’s main threat may come in the central areas, while Rotherham will likely dominate out wide.
Warne’s troops have pace on the flanks in Chiedozie Ogbene and Hakeeb Adelakun, as well as an aerial front-man in Michael Smith, partnered by the mobile Kyle Vassell.
The hosts are not averse to pushing wide centre-backs Nathan Thompson and Frankie Kent into midfield during prolonged spells of possession, so Rotherham can create numerical advantages in the final third if they bring their attacking quartet into play quickly, as they did in their 3-1 victory at Oxford earlier this month.
Both teams will ask questions of the other and an exciting game could be in store.
League Two: Morecambe v Cambridge United
Morecambe to win
Morecambe’s performance levels have increased significantly this month and manager Derek Adams has been helped by the arrival of five new additions.
Ryan Cooney, an inverted right-back with technical qualities who likes to come inside and support the midfield, has struck up a positive partnership with Adam Phillips, who will in turn drift into the right channel and put crosses in.
The Shrimps often looked the more technically accomplished side last week at Northampton and, with forward Carlos Mendes Gomes offering pace and quality, played better than the 4-1 defeat suggests.
Cambridge United also shipped four last week but they, by contrast, can take no positives; Colin Calderwood’s side were torn apart by a Stevenage side that scored more goals in that 90 minutes than they had in their previous 11 games combined.
That is a worrying indictment of an alarming drop in performances from the Yellow and Black, who have now lost six of their last seven league games.
There is something not quite right about the body language of the players, who are not defending basic punts upfield or simple crosses into the box.
There are also question marks over the structure of the club off-the-field and whether it has recruited well enough.
Of the 11 signings since the end of last season, only right-back Kyle Knoyle, playmaker Jack Roles, dynamic midfielder Luke Hannant and front-man Sam Smith have enhanced the group; Roles and Smith are on loan, so a lot of summer work lies ahead.
Morecambe could lift themselves off the bottom this weekend.
League Two: Carlisle United v Walsall
Walsall Draw No Bet
After a run of four wins in six league games, retrospective logic can be applied to Walsall’s tough start to life in League Two.
After relegation last season, incoming manager Darrell Clarke had to change the culture at the club, instil a more driven mentality into the group and identify a core of players he can trust whilst weeding out the ones he cannot.
To do that, he regularly threw down gauntlets to his players and challenged them on numerous occasions, once suggesting some are “weak-minded” and questioning whether they had the mental strength to be professional footballers.
Clarke’s behaviour came with risks – would it destabilize the dressing room? – but a lot of the players are now responding positively and finally a reliable spine is starting to emerge.
Dan Scarr and Mat Sadler have joined James Clarke as defenders upon whom the manager knows he can rely, while the midfield experiment of the lively Rory Holden and the more tenacious Liam Kinsella is working well.
The attacking quartet of Josh Gordon, Caolan Lavery, Elijah Adebayo and Wes McDonald – the latter scored a delightful late winner in last week’s 2-1 win over Crawley – is coming to fruition too.
TAKE. A. BOW. @WesMcDonald10 👏
— Quest (@QuestTV) January 18, 2020
Carlisle United manager Chris Beech must initiate a similar process at Brunton Park to build a group he can trust, but a summer overhaul may be needed to do that.
Beech’s side are not necessarily without talent – wide forwards Nathan Thomas and Harry McKirdy are skilful, as we saw in last week’s 1-1 draw at Oldham.
The work rate, commitment and leadership we have seen in previous Cumbrian outfits, though, is not apparent in this one, especially while spirited ball-winner Kelvin Etuhu is absent.
Walsall are arguably six months ahead of Carlisle in terms of the process of changing the culture at the club and on Saturday, that could show.