The Big EFL Preview: Late Presents For Rhodes, Wyke And Gordon?12 min read
With a bumper Boxing Day slate of fixtures in story, who will be sending their fans home happy this Christmas in this week’s EFL Preview?
Championship: Stoke City v Sheffield Wednesday
Jordan Rhodes to score anytime –
Stoke’s results are improving under Michael O’Neill with 10 points from eight games but at the same time, the results are no better than the ones we would have expected them to get had they stuck with Nathan Jones.
Since the change of manager, the Potters have been proven to be better than Barnsley, Wigan and Luton, which is what performance data had been telling us all season.
As we saw in Friday’s 2-1 loss at Middlesbrough, their setup revolves around Tom Ince, who is very indulgent on the ball and takes shots from optimistic positions.
While the wide forward has some quality, it might not be enough to justify the volume of possession he has in comparison with, for example, Sam Clucas, who is more selfless on the ball, takes less time on it and increases the tempo of their play more effectively.
Sheffield Wednesday certainly play at a high tempo under Garry Monk, who has delivered competitive results since taking on the baton from Lee Bullen; 30 points from 17 league games, with Barry Bannan pulling the strings in midfield with some outstanding through balls.
As he did at Birmingham, Monk has favoured two up top in recent weeks with target man Steven Fletcher – a fantastic reference point for long balls from deep – holding the ball up for poacher Jordan Rhodes, who announced his resurgence with a first half hat-trick in the 4-0 victory at Nottingham Forest.
? Jordan Rhodes became the fourth player in our history to score a first half away league hat-trick
Rhodes v Forest | December 2019
Derek Dooley v West Ham | December 1951
Charlie Napier v Southampton | October 1938
Jimmy Stewart v Forest | April 1906 pic.twitter.com/TPg3WV0xSu
— Sheffield Wednesday (@swfc) December 16, 2019
Fletcher is expected to return from illness to start on Boxing Day alongside Rhodes, who is set to rebuff reported interest from Celtic in January and possibly fire Wednesday to promotion.
Championship: Cardiff City v Millwall
Double Chance: Draw/Millwall –
After spending 16 of the last 21 years of his life associated with Millwall across various capacities, Neil Harris, now Cardiff manager, faces his old club.
The end of Harris’ marriage with the Lions was arguably what both parties needed because, just as the 42-year-old has enjoyed a positive start to life in Wales, his former employers are also thriving under Gary Rowett.
Having been in danger of a bottom half finish a month ago, Cardiff and Millwall now look set to challenge on another for a Play-Off spot.
The key to the revival at both clubs? Getting the best out of the most technically gifted player.
For the Bluebirds, Lee Tomlin has looked outstanding over the last six weeks in the hole and, given that Harris has previously been criticized for being too wedded to his usual workmanlike 4-4-2 system, he has shown the adaptability to get the best out of an enigmatic attacking midfielder.
For Rowett, the key has been to get Jed Wallace firing.
Wallace has played wide right in a 4-4-2 at home, usually, but on the right of an attacking trio in a 3-4-3 on the road, which is a system that seems to be working well.
The Londoners have accrued 10 points from their five away games under Rowett and look good value to avoid defeat in Cardiff.
League One: Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers
Charlie Wyke to score and Sunderland to win 1-0 –
Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson faces Bolton Wanderers for the first time since leaving his post there back in Autumn.
Parkinson oversaw two successful seasons in Lancashire out of three, with financial issues taking hold in his final year in charge and he conducted himself admirably at such an uncertain time.
The 52-year-old, though, is already under pressure at the Stadium of Light, with just 10 points accrued from his first eight games in charge.
The performance, in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Blackpool, was slightly improved and assistant Steve Parkin was pleased with the courage his players showed on the ball after falling behind, although natives could be forgiven for demanding higher standards.
The return of Charlie Wyke, at least, gives the Black Cats a focal point to facilitate Parkinson’s direct style, which they do not have when Will Grigg or Marc McNulty start up top.
Someone's a Charlie Wyke fan https://t.co/NJEoolr09i
— Niall Groark (@niall_groark) December 19, 2019
Bolton’s 3-2 win over Southend on Saturday does not do a great deal for their hopes of beating the drop.
Keith Hill’s side are 15 points off safety due to the deduction and, with 5’9” Liam Bridcutt playing at centre-back, they looked vulnerable defending crosses and set pieces, which is something Sunderland may be able to exploit.
League One: Oxford United v Lincoln City
Oxford to win –
Michael Appleton is arguably Oxford United’s best manager this decade.
The Mancunian endured an underwhelming first term in charge of the Yellows but, having been backed faithfully by then-chairman Darryl Eales, he inspired them to promotion in 2015-16, then a top half finish in League One the following season with plenty of cup memories mixed in.
Appleton is credited with the outstanding development of George Baldock, John Lundstram and Kemar Roofe, who are now all playing in the upper echelons of the game.
He hopes to have a similar impact at Lincoln City who, like Oxford, have an excellent structure in place thanks to the work of his predecessors, Danny and Nicky Cowley.
Although the Cowley brothers had a reputation for favouring direct play, they evolved the style at Sincil Bank towards the end of their tenure, so Appleton is unlikely to need nine months to start getting his ideas across, as was the case at the Kassam.
The Imps possess exciting players like attacking left-back Harry Toffolo, midfield controller Joe Morrell, advanced playmaker Jack Payne, wide technician Jorge Grant and mobile forward Tyler Walker, all of whom are likely to be well at home under Appleton.
The manager, though, will want to add defenders who are comfortable on the ball, because Michael Bostwick and Cian Bolger do not quite come into that category so, at Coventry last time out, they were not able to have enough of the ball to play their better players into feet and ultimately lost 1-0.
The 44-year-old’s former employers, though, enjoyed an impressive 1-0 win over leaders Wycombe last time out.
The combination of Cameron Brannagan, Alex Rodriguez Gorrin, James Henry and Tariq Fosu gives Oxford arguably the best midfield in the division and with Matty Taylor up top, Karl Robinson’s side have goals all over the park.
League Two: Morecambe v Oldham Athletic
Derek Adams has not quite had the start he might have hoped for as manager of Morecambe, with four points from five games.
The Scot, though, has overseen some challenging fixtures including trips to Crewe and old club Plymouth Argyle; after a 2-1 home victory over Newport, Adams will hope to record back-to-back wins that would boost his side’s hopes of staying up.
Visitors Oldham, though, beat Crawley 2-1 last time out and they will hope that a similar level of performance to the one in their previous road trip – a 2-0 loss at league leaders Swindon – will yield a more favourable result against less clinical opposition.
The Latics enjoyed a very positive first half hour in Wiltshire and Chris McCann, who arrived from DC United in October, is starting to add a touch of nous to the midfield.
The real problem lies up top because, as much as Désiré Segbé Azankpo is a willing runner, he is not somebody with the presence to hold the ball up and bring the likes of Mohammed Maouche and Jonny Smith into play.
Azankpo moved out wide last time out, when John-Louis Akpa-Akpro came in, but the 34-year-old lacks the athleticism he had seven years ago, so Dino Maamria will need to add a genuine focal point in January if his style of play is to be successful.
On the one hand, Oldham are slightly upping their standards but remain short of a focal point, while Morecambe’s performance data looks unsustainable, yet they carry a favourable goal threat in the powerful Cole Stockton and the nippy Lewis Alessandra.
The two teams could therefore cancel each other out, especially in the context of this year’s relegation battle, in which the problems at Macclesfield dictate that a point is always likely to represent a step towards staying up.
League Two: Scunthorpe v Walsall
Josh Gordon to score anytime –
Two years ago, Paul Hurst and Darrell Clarke were two sought after managers – who could go from strength-to-strength in the game and show it’s possible to go from the non-league scene to the upper echelons of professional football.
That may yet be the case, but Hurst’s struggles at Ipswich and the slightly stale end to Clarke’s time at Bristol Rovers mean both have to re-build their careers in the fourth-tier, at Scunthorpe and Walsall respectively.
Hurst oversaw a very disappointing start to life at Glanford Park but, had the League Two season started in early September, his side – currently 12th – would be third.
The former Shrewsbury boss has been able to maintain a consistent back-four and going forward, Kevin Van Veen’s technical quality makes him a class above this level.
Unlike Hurst, Clarke is yet to see his side really catch fire and he will be frustrated that imposing recent home performances against Stevenage and Macclesfield led to 0-0 and 1-1 draws respectively, rather than victories.
Josh Gordon, though, came very close to scoring against Macclesfield and he averages two penalty area shots per game, the joint-fifth most in League Two.