The Big EFL Preview: Could Luton Stun The Hawthorns?15 min read
Championship: Queens Park Rangers v Bristol City
Bristol City to win
Bristol City put themselves back in the Play-Off places thanks to Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Reading, where Lee Johnson’s side showed impressive resilience to grind out a victory.
Johnson appears to have system that allows his side to be compact when needed and offer the right protection for Ashley Williams and Nathan Baker, but also produce moments on the counter-attack and both things happened in midweek.
For parts of this season, Andreas Weimann has started up top alongside Famara Diedhiou but at the Madejski he was on the left; the former Aston Villa forward can slot into any system and carry out any role his manager picks out with consistent efficiency, which is testament to his adaptability.
With Weimann providing the balance, Jamie Paterson relished the freedom to make positive runs into pockets of space between the defence and midfield while in-form winger Niclas Eliasson produced some excellent crosses from the right.
Niclas Eliasson 2019-20 league record for #BristolCity:
3️⃣ goals ⚽️⚽️⚽️
1️⃣1️⃣ assists ?️?️?️?️?️?️?️?️?️?️?️
— Goodbrand Stats (@StatsChristian) January 29, 2020
City fans just hope they can build on a run of three consecutive wins to nil, which puts them nine points above their forthcoming hosts.
QPR showed some good build-up play in Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss at Blackburn and look nicely balanced on the flanks; technician Todd Kane supports speedster Bright Osayi-Samuel on the right while from the left, adventurous full-back Lee Wallace overlaps a prodigious talent in Ebere Eze.
Still, the Rs were short of those touches of quality in the final third and, at the latter stages of a long-term process to undo the financial mismanagement from previous eras, their hierarchy are unlikely to part with big money in pursuit of a striker.
That could be problematic, because Jordan Hugill has been in indifferent form since November despite his goal in midweek – his first league strike in 11 – and Mark Warburton’s side need somebody suitable to replace the recalled Nahki Wells, who himself could be moving this week to Bristol City from parent club Burnley.
Wells would be a fine addition for the resolute Robins, who look good value for victory.
Championship: West Bromwich Albion v Luton Town
Luton +2 handicap
Luton Town manager Graeme Jones has questioned his squad.
He has publicly doubted their ability to cope with injuries to the likes of versatile defender Martin Cranie, left-back Brendon Galloway, driven holding midfielder Glen Rea and creative magician Izzy Brown.
Some might suggest his words could have disrupted the spirit in the camp but in fact, the players responded defiantly in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over Derby.
?️ "You have to make mistakes to grow as a coach."
– Graeme Jones pic.twitter.com/1M7kBrgnGl
— CV Academy (@academy_cv) January 28, 2020
Rea’s return to full fitness to play at the base of the midfield has aided performance levels in the last two games; Harry Cornick’s nippy movement from the right has been impressive, too and they are starting to play with some of the confidence that allowed them to dominate in League Two then League One.
Jones will therefore be happy about the timing of this trip to his former employers because West Bromwich Albion have failed to win each of the seven league games that followed an unconvincing 3-2 mid-December victory at Birmingham.
When West Brom were thriving, it was generally down to proficiency at one end of the pitch.
14 of the first 16 points Slaven Bilic’s side picked up came from losing positions, due to their collective spirit and strength in forward areas, then they went through a run of five wins by the 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline in 11 but since then, they have had problems at both ends.
The Albion have not kept a clean sheet in their last 10 league games due to difficulty in defending crosses, set pieces and long throws – and they have scored just six in seven, too.
Going forward, the Baggies have struggled without the pace, skill and thrust that Grady Diangana provided in the first half of the season.
The left-winger is staying until the end of the campaign, although his early injury in the 1-0 home defeat to Stoke has led to fitness doubts.
Luton are underdogs, of course, but there is no reason why they cannot produce a competitive display and we back them via the +2 handicap selection, which will pay off if the Hatters win, draw or lose by a one-goal margin.
League One: Oxford United v Blackpool
Oxford to win
With no midweek fixture to contend with, Oxford boss Karl Robinson was at Wycombe in midweek to assess his forthcoming opponents – and in truth, he will not have seen too much from Blackpool in their 2-1 loss, to be unduly fearful of.
Simon Grayson’s side were hugely disappointing in the first half and while the club’s decision to back their manager with eight January recruits was intended to help the team, the fact six of them started in Buckinghamshire meant they lacked fluency and cohesion.
The Pool could not get their off-the-ball distances right, while their lack of care in possession meant they could rarely give themselves a breather, let alone serve a frustrated Gary Madine.
While the second half was better from the Tangerines, they struggled to identify clear routes to goal until substitutes Liam Feeney and Armand Gnanduillet found a more familiar pathway; both, along with fortuitous goalscorer Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, could come into the next XI.
That XI will need to deliver significant improvement in this trip to the Kassam Stadium, where Oxford have kept eight clean sheets in their last nine home league games.
The Yellows played well in last week’s 0-0 FA Cup Fourth Round draw at Newcastle, where they restricted Premier League opposition to just four shots on target and were able to create openings on the break, with Sam Long putting an excellent shift from right-back following Chris Cadden’s exit.
Ball-playing centre-back Rob Dickie, all-action midfielder Shandon Baptiste and versatile forward Tariqe Fosu are all enjoying the best seasons of their careers to date for Oxford, who will hope to boost their top-six aspirations.
— Oxford United FC (@OUFCOfficial) January 25, 2020
League One: Milton Keynes Dons v Wycombe Wanderers
Wycombe Draw No Bet
Wycombe needed their midweek 2-1 victory over Blackpool.
Many of League One’s big-budgeted promotion contenders are all currently in resurgent form, so the Chairboys had to offer a reminder as to why they are and deserve to be in the mix with them.
In a display that was superbly tenacious throughout combined with quality at the right moments, Gareth Ainsworth’s side did just that.
With the evergreen Matt Bloomfield and the dependable Dominic Gape keeping a lid on the midfield, Nick Freeman was freed up to cause endless problems by picking up pockets and sliding in through balls.
Latching onto them was Alex Samuel, who led the line with mobility and vigour, thus suggesting that Wycombe can play well without Adebayo Akinfenwa starting – although they do need David Wheeler, who at 5’11” has an excellent spring, providing an alternative reference point from the right.
Well done, Alex! pic.twitter.com/WXN5UZpILq
— W y c o m b e W a n d e r e r s (@wwfcofficial) January 29, 2020
Wheeler’s wing-partner, Jason McCarthy, provided drive and verve from right-back and looks a hugely important signing this window, especially with Jack Grimmer sidelined.
Wycombe surely did enough on Tuesday to give themselves confidence for their trip across Buckinghamshire, even if their hosts are improving.
Milton Keynes Dons beat Rochdale 2-1 last time out, with a strong second-half performance, making Russ Martin’s return as manager stands at a respectable 15 points from 12 games in charge.
The former Norwich centre-back might be just three months into his managerial career, but he has already shown his willingness to make changes when a display is not going accordingly.
He replaced midfielder David Kasumu at the interval in midweek to bring on Sam Nombe, whose pace and energy made a huge difference to the intensity of their pressing – Martin’s former Canaries colleagues, midfielder Louis Thompson and striker Carlton Morris, impressed too.
We can expect MK to show their progression by enjoying some of the play here, but Wycombe will be incisive in transition and should have enough to avoid defeat.
League Two: Oldham Athletic v Bradford City
Under 2.5 goals
Oldham Athletic and Bradford City played in English football’s top flight in different parts of the 1990s; both are also among 22 clubs who have played in a League Cup Final in the last 30 years.
Despite this, a wide variety of problems stemming largely from either mistakes or a lack of investment at boardroom level, means these two once-proud clubs meet in the fourth-tier.
Oldham, at least, got their first win in eight on Tuesday, a 3-1 victory over Mansfield and it was of little surprise that silky footed wide man Jonny Smith, a bright spark in a largely dreary campaign, was one of the key inspirations behind that victory with a tight-angled opener.
— Oldham Athletic AFC (@OfficialOAFC) January 29, 2020
Christopher Missilou, who can be very tenacious and proficient at the 15-yard forward passes, looked good in midweek, too.
Missilou protects a vocal, seasoned centre-back in David Wheater, who is partnered by the aerially accomplished Carl Piergianni; in the four games that have followed Piergianni’s arrival on loan from Salford, the Latics have conceded only three goals.
That does not make great reading for Bradford, who have scored just 13 goals in 15 away games; the Bantams often struggle to impose themselves on the road and, after a 3-0 loss at Mansfield in their last road trip, manager Gary Bowyer came under criticism.
On the one hand, Bowyer has tried to tighten the team up and re-establish the basics after 18 months of recurring defeats – that has happened to an extent, with just 28 goals conceded in 30 league games.
On the other hand, though, the standard of football has been less than inspiring and the fact Eoin Doyle, League Two’s runaway top goalscorer, has not bagged a single goal this year for Bradford prior to a possible return to Swindon, raises alarming questions over the lack of creativity.
League Two: Swindon Town v Exeter City
Both Teams To Score
Swindon and Exeter have been the two best teams in League Two this season, so this match should be a great advert for the division.
Swindon’s 3-0 win over Port Vale in their last home game was arguably the most important result of their season – and not just because it sandwiched defeats away to Newport and Colchester.
The match showed that despite having lost loanees Doyle and Jerry Yates – who had scored 35 of their 49 goals before kick-off – they could still produce a strong performance, create a lot of chances and pose a direct goal threat, with Hallam Hope starring on debut.
That speaks volumes for the skill of Diallang Jaiyesimi, the craft of Kaiyne Woolery, the direct running of Lloyd Isgrove, the intelligence of Michael Doughty and even the dogged discipline of Anthony Grant; they all fit into a fluent system that Richie Wellens deserves huge credit for coordinating.
Exeter, by contrast, could not get the right result in their own recent meeting with the Vale; they lost 3-1 in Burslem despite possessing a half-time lead.
Matt Taylor’s side were dominant in the first half of that match and can take encouragement from the performances of wing-back Jayden Richardson, who has impressed since joining on loan from Nottingham Forest and midfielder Archie Collins, a recognised talent in the West Country.
Once they came under pressure after the interval, though, Exeter conceded three goals in a 20-minute period, which hints at issues with their game management on the night, by Taylor’s own admission.
The Grecians remain second in the away form table yet oddly, they have also conceded more goals on the road, 19, than they have scored, 17.
Swindon, meanwhile, have been able to get Yates back and are reportedly hoping Doyle will re-join, which would be a huge boost – sometimes, though, the system can be just as important as the individuals within it.