The Big EFL Preview: Leeds Back On Track?14 min read
Championship: Leeds United v Reading
Leeds to win to nil
Leeds’ 1-0 win over Bristol City last week felt significant.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side were largely dominant thanks to the presence of Kalvin Phillips, who had returned from suspension that week and the combination play in wide areas.
You'd say that an enforced break has done Kalvin Phillips the world of good. He's been an animal in the past two games and when he plays like he did today, the opposition are snookered. Surely his last season in the Championship. #lufc
— Phil Hay (@PhilHay_) February 15, 2020
We saw Mateusz Klich link up nicely with Jack Harrison on the left while on the other flank, the intelligent support of Luke Ayling, the magical creativity of Pablo Hernandez and the direct running of Helder Costa blended very well.
The Whites created plenty of chances, some of which Patrick Bamford spurned to provoke fears of a recurring narrative, so they needed a slice of luck on one occasion – when Bristol City missed their big chance – in order to reclaim that winning feeling.
With it, they could prove too much for Reading.
On paper, Royals boss Mark Bowen has done a fabulous job to lift them from 22nd when he took over in mid-October to their current position of 15th, 11 points above the drop zone after Ovie Ejaria inspired a 3-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday.
That victory against the 10-men, however, was their first win in seven league games and there have been suggestions, from Bowen himself, that the players have dropped their levels slightly now that they know they will almost certainly be in the Championship next season.
This game will be all about counter-attacking for Reading but unless Ayub Timbe Masika starts, they could be short on pace.
It remains to be seen whether, in the final third, they can get numbers closely around forward George Pușcaș, who needs options in possession to utilize his technical qualities.
A win and clean sheet for the hosts looks likely.
Championship: Swansea City v Huddersfield Town
There were some positives for Swansea in last Friday’s 4-4 draw at Hull, where Conor GaFllagher showed his value with two assists.
When Gallagher starts in the same midfield as playmaker Yan Dhanda, he automatically assumes a circumspect role next to Matt Grimes which can undermine his creative potential.
When the Chelsea loanee starts alongside Grimes and somebody who operates deeper like Jay Fulton, we tend to see him off the leash and therefore more vibrant displays.
The downside to their performance last night, though, was that the marking was poor – the Swans will be disappointed in the manner of the goals they conceded.
In terms of depth, the south Wales outfit have four talented centre-backs – Ben Wilmot, Ben Cabango, Joe Rodon and Marc Guehi – but none of them have much senior experience, which means they can be short on both leadership and bravery at key moments.
Swansea would arguably be better off playing with three centre-backs to counter-balance that lack of experience but then, they may not have full-backs strong enough going forward to act as wing-backs, so it has been difficult for head coach Steve Cooper to find his best system.
Cooper’s side now face a Huddersfield outfit fresh from a creditable point at Derby, where Harry Toffolo’s first goal for the club gave them a 1-1 draw.
Toffolo is a player that Danny and Nicky Cowley worked with at Lincoln; the Norwich academy graduate was a big part of the Imps’ League Two title win last season and has acclimatized well to this level.
Excluding last Wednesday’s 3-0 home defeat to Cardiff, the Terriers have improved steadily and prefer not to have too much of the ball, because it allows them to operate with almost alternating number 10s.
As we saw at Derby, Lewis O’Brien pressed tenaciously as the #10 when out of possession, but then on the turnover he dropped in to give Andy King the freedom to get forward and link up with right-siders Danny Simpson and Elias Kachunga, who make some excellent decoy runs to create space for Frazier Campbell to get his shots away.
That display reduces the pressure on full returns for top goalscorer Karlan Grant and playmaker Emile Smith-Rowe.
Neither made the first XI due to fitness issues – and the fact Town could play so well without their two most naturally talented players starting highlights the meticulous pragmatism of the Cowley brothers.
If the Championship season started when they took charge in early September, they would be 15th and their gap to the drop zone would be 12 points, rather than five.
Huddersfield still have work to do, given the resurgence threatened by all current bottom three incumbents, but they are good value to claim another handy away point.
League One: AFC Wimbledon v Blackpool
Under 2.5 goals
AFC Wimbledon took a hit in midweek, getting thrashed 5-0 at Oxford.
The Wombles frequently went long from deep yet striker Joe Pigott struggled to win the aerial duels, which at times left midfielders like Max Sanders and Anthony Hartigan in no-man’s land.
Some would say that Glyn Hodges’ side need to play more through Hartigan, who looks their smoothest operator in possession, but their defenders – Luke O’Neill, Terell Thomas and Mads Bech Sorensen – are not particularly comfortable on the ball, so they are struggling to establish a coherent playing identity.
The reason they are still seven points above the relegation zone, therefore, is because they can normally do brave, last ditch defending in numbers – it helps, too, that they boast an excellent shot-stopper in Joe Day, who preserved a point in their previous home game, a 0-0 draw with Ipswich.
In fact, the West Londoners have a respectable Kingsmeadow return of four defeats in 16 – the same as leaders Rotherham – and they hope to maintain that form when they host Blackpool, who are looking for new management.
At the time of writing, Nathan Jones is the favourite at Evens and he would be a fantastic choice.
The two main things that undermined Simon Grayson’s regime was, firstly, that they tried to manage leads too early and, secondly, lacked courage in possession, especially from deep.
Somebody like Jones would certainly put a stop to those problems, although any incoming manager this week would not have enough time to implement their ideas for Saturday’s game, which could be a low-scoring affair.
League One: Ipswich Town v Oxford United
Both Teams To Score
Oxford United had a poor run after New Year, but they can take huge confidence from Tuesday’s 5-0 win over AFC Wimbledon, which kept them in touch with the Play-Off contenders.
The right-sided blend of direct runner Anthony Forde, subtle technician James Henry and box-to-box dynamo Mark Sykes allowed them to create a regular stream of chances in the first half of that match.
James Henry (30) Vs. AFC Wimbledon:
4 Key passes
3 Big chances created
26 Acc. passes (76% success rate)
— The 72 Statto (@the72statto) February 18, 2020
On the left, meanwhile, Nathan Holland held the width to allow Marcus Browne to roam and create with a swagger as Cameron Brannagan dictated teams from a central role.
Crucially, though, the Yellows allied this good football with strength at both ends: Elliott Moore was proactive from centre-back and Matt Taylor, up top, gave them a genuine focal point – the tireless front-man thoroughly deserved his brace.
Oxford represent a challenge, therefore, for Ipswich, but they themselves got their promotion push back on the right lines with last week’s 4-1 victory over Burton.
There are still question marks over their defending of that gap between right wing-back Gwion Edwards and right-sided centre-back Luke Woolfenden, which was exposed for the opener.
Going forward, though, manager Paul Lambert has settled on a trio of speedster Kayden Jackson, all-rounder Will Keane and creator Alan Judge that can unhinge opponents – ironically, Town could be better collectively without their top goalscorer, James Norwood.
These two teams may have missed the boat for automatic promotion, but both have re-composed themselves in the last week and found an attacking formula that will enable them to carry a threat in the Play-Off scramble.
League Two: Crawley Town v Stevenage
Graham Westley has this week resigned as Stevenage boss and Alex Revell, a former front-man for the Boro who has been on the coaching team, has taken charge until the end of the season.
Some are sceptical of Revell’s decision to appoint Russell Slade as a managerial consultant due to the 59-year-old’s chequered recent history.
Then again, when the now widely respected Michael Flynn took charge of Newport in a similar situation three years ago, he needed to lean on the wisdom of Lennie Lawrence and Slade has plenty of experience in the game.
Ordered my #stevenageforleaguefootball t-shirt
I love how our fans are rallying with huge amounts of positivity 👏🏼👏🏼
As a long term fan and shareholder of the club, I couldn’t be more proud of our fan base.
Let’s get behind Revs and the boys until the end of season 🙌🏻 pic.twitter.com/EXwBvJnJoe
— Kevin Basham (@KevinBasham) February 19, 2020
The same can be said of John Yems, who has done a fabulous job since returning to Crawley Town as manager.
The Red Devils have taken 20 points from 15 games under the 61-year-old, winning four of their seven home encounters.
The speedy Ashley Nadesan has formed a strong understanding with enigmatic poacher Ollie Palmer, whose form has been key under Yems, while the likes of Nathan Ferguson and Reece Grego-Cox are in resurgent mood.
Crawley, almost certain to be in League Two next season, have shown more quality this season and are likely to play with the kind of swagger that often comes with this relatively low-pressure situation.
Stevenage, meanwhile, have displayed less quality but have a committed left-back in Patrick Reading, a tenacious midfielder in Diaguely Dabo and an attacking livewire in Dan Kemp – moreover, they should be fiercely determined to maintain their EFL status.
We expect a spirited first half from the visitors, but Crawley may prove more refined in possession and their qualities could come to the fore in the second half.
League Two: Crewe Alexandra v Macclesfield Town
Crewe to win -1 handicap
Macclesfield admirably embraced the spirit of this Cheshire Derby in January’s reverse fixture, which saw Crewe need an injury-time leveller from Callum Ainley to secure a point.
The Railwaymen looked below-par at Moss Rose that night, but they could be a different proposition at Gresty Road, where they have stuck five goals past Morecambe, four past Carlisle, four past Salford and three past leaders Swindon.
Chris Porter missed a sitter in last week’s 2-1 loss at Plymouth Argyle but that chance, with scores level, shows they were close to winning away to their promotion rivals – and Porter will carry with him a staunch determination to lay the ghost.
Creating for the experienced front-man will be the supremely talented Charlie Kirk, whose partnership with inverted left-back Harry Pickering remains a key asset in this Alex side.
Kirk’s ability on the ball is allied with a selflessness to at times hold the width to make the pitch as big as possible for large swathes of play, allowing Pickering to come inside and unleash his quality, evidenced by that terrific strike at Home Park.
Throw in the midfield talent of Ryan Wintle, who dictates play with an assurance that is almost unique at this level and it is difficult to see Macclesfield containing their hosts.
The Silkmen earnt a creditable 1-1 draw with Plymouth Argyle on Tuesday but away from SK11, they have accrued just 12 points from 17 games.