The Big EFL Preview: O’Neill To Continue Winning Start At Stoke?12 min read
The Championship returns after the international break, Which means a full bill of fixtures from which to pick my six best bets for the weekend’s EFL action.
Championship: Stoke v Wigan
Stoke to win
Stoke City went into the international break with a 4-1 win at Barnsley.
It took a lot of courage for new manager Michael O’Neill to take to the dugout after very little time working with his players.
O’Neill still saw areas of the performance in which his team could improve, but he must be very pleased with the quality of the goals scored.
— Marshall Gillespie (@NIStats) November 17, 2019
Joe Allen, a star with Wales, will be a huge asset in a second-tier dogfight, as will Sam Clucas, who is a very adaptable operator and arguably Stoke’s best player thus far.
Wigan Athletic have not shown quite such convincing signs of getting out of their current predicament and the big problem is their away form.
The Latics have accrued a paltry two points from eight road trips this term and have not won an 11v11 league match away from West Lancashire since August 2018.
They have a focal point in Kieffer Moore, who poses an aerial goalscoring threat and a counter-attacking specialist in winger Jamal Lowe, but still there is a lack of creativity.
Paul Cook’ side have scored 13 in 16 and they average 0.98 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game, so while they might have been slightly unlucky to lose 2-1 to Swansea, their rate of xGF is directly proportionate with their actual Goals For return.
We could see a continued Stoke resurgence here.
Championship: Huddersfield v Birmingham
Birmingham to win
Huddersfield Town are improving under Danny and Nicky Cowley, but the Terriers’ seven-game unbeaten streak came to an end just before the international break, when they lost 3-1 at Preston North End.
Town’s star man is Karlan Grant, who has scored nine league goals already this season; the joint-third most in the Championship.
The problem for the West Yorkshire outfit has sometimes been finding alternative sources of goals, as well as width.
Huddersfield do not possess attacking full-backs – Danny Simpson and Terence Kongolo do not stray beyond the half-way line with too much confidence – and Elias Kachunga is a striker by trade playing out wide so when the electric Adama Diakhaby is out of the game, Huddersfield are short on somebody to stretch the play.
Birmingham City though have a nice balance.
The Blues have Dan Crowley and Fran Villalba cutting inside from the right and left respectively to create, much like Jota and Jacques Maghoma did under Garry Monk last season.
Most chances created for #BCFC this season:
— BCFC EXTRA (@bcfcextra) November 15, 2019
The difference this term, under a more adventurous coach in Pep Clotet, is that the central midfielders are more attack-minded.
Ivan Sunjic dictates terms with real class while Jude Bellingham, surprisingly tenacious for one so gifted, can do a bit of everything; the duo take turns to push forward while the other stays back.
There is a lot of fluency about Blues’ play, so the West Midlanders could enjoy a successful road trip.
League One: Shrewsbury v Bristol Rovers
Shrewsbury to win 1-0
Shrewsbury Town have kept eight clean sheets this season, the joint-second most in League One.
They have three strong centre-backs in Omar Beckles, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and Aaron Pierre, protected by steady wing-backs Donald Love and Scott Golbourne, with a solid central midfield pairing.
Ebanks-Landell, Pierre and Beckles all scored big important goals this season. Making the difference at both ends #salop
— Lewis Cox (@LewisCox_star) November 5, 2019
The latter may comprise of the dynamic Oli Norburn, Salop’s star performer last season and Dave Edwards, who has arguably played himself into Sam Ricketts’ starting XI via his impact off the bench in the midweek 1-0 FA Cup victory at Bradford.
Salop’s strong protection could make it hard for Bristol Rovers, even with Jonson Clarke-Harris back fit.
Rovers boss Graham Coughlan is trying to create a siege mentality by praising the spirit, commitment and work ethic of his players, which is good to a point.
However, there is a clear lack of creativity in this side.
In open play, they average 0.54 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and a large proportion of the chances they have created via that route have been about exploiting blatant opposition errors, as we saw for their second goal in the 2-1 win at Rochdale.
If Shrewsbury negate the Gasheads’ set piece threat and avoid overt mistakes – they have the defensive personnel to do both effectively – then they stand an excellent chance of keeping a clean sheet.
Interestingly, the Shrews have only gone 2-0 ahead in one of their 16 league games, that being against a defensively deficient Southend side.
This shows that Ricketts’ side, who have won 1-0 in three of their eight home league games, are comfortable operating within fine margins.
League One: Accrington Stanley v Bolton
Accrington Stanley to win and Under 3.5 goals
It was a spirited second half showing last week at Rotherham from Accrington Stanley.
They created a reasonable amount via the left-sided combination play, helped by Sean McConville’s half-time introduction, but fell to a 1-0 defeat.
John Coleman’s side are playing well at the Wham Stadium, too.
The Red average 1.43 goals in home league games, only the 15th highest-rate in League One, but they average 1.70 Expected Goals For (xGF) per home game, ranking them sixth in that metric, which shows they are having a high volume and quality of chance creation in East Lancashire.
Part of the reason Stanley have not quite matched up to their shot data in terms of results is because their fit, available strikers – chiefly non-league recruits Colby Bishop and Dion Charles – are not always clinical.
The positive sign for Bishop though is that he is still getting into goalscoring areas and he has managed 19 shots on target this season; only Ipswich and Peterborough possess players who have mustered more in 2019-20.
Colby Bishop is definitely one of the ex #Notts youth players that the team let go without being given a proper chance. At least it's good to see him make the most of his opportunity at Accrington after working his way back up the leagues. #ASFC #ITFC
— Tom Sutherland 🔶🇪🇺🇵🇱 (@SimplySuvo92) October 20, 2019
Bolton, meanwhile, beat 10-man MK Dons 1-0 last time out to take them onto positive points, after a pre-season points deduction of 12, which may yet be extended further due to the club’s failure to fulfil it’s August fixture with Doncaster.
Keith Hill and David Flitcroft are doing a marvellous job in the circumstances but this season is very much about building belief and performance levels for a promotion push in League Two come 2020-1.
League Two: Plymouth Argyle v Bradford
Either draw: 0-0 or 1-1
Sitting 13th before last week’s game, Plymouth Argyle needed a result to kick their promotion push into life and at Forest Green Rovers, they got just that.
Ryan Lowe’s side toppled the league leaders with a 1-0 win, thanks to a fine strike from Antoni Sarcevic, combined with some brave, last-ditch work in the second half from a doubter-defying defence of Scott Wootton, Niall Canavan and Gary Sawyer.
Lowe’s teams are typically adventurous and creative, so the fact that they could dig in for that result shows Argyle have that tough, cynical side to them.
Bradford City, like Argyle, were relegated from League One last season and Gary Bowyer has, very quickly, turned a team used to losing for 18 months into one that can compete at the top of a division.
Understandably, the Bantams have not been fluent in the first third of their campaign, but the most pleasing aspect of their performances so far is their strength in both boxes.
With Anthony O’Connor, who has preserved his reputation with natives through his leadership this term, partnered by the athletic Ben Richards-Everton, Bradford have repelled invaders.
This has allowed them to grind out results away at Grimsby, Stevenage, Walsall and Morecambe, where they have been able to withstand pressure.
They will need to do so again at Home Park, where the Green Army will look to dictate terms.
They are though short on a striker who could offer a clear focal point to attacks and occupy Bradford’s centre-backs, which is why we may be looking at a stalemate.
League Two: Leyton Orient v Forest Green
Half-Time/Full-Time: Forest Green/Forest Green
Leyton Orient lost 2-0 at home to Scunthorpe United last week, just after Carl Fletcher’s 29-day tenure as head coach came to an abrupt conclusion.
Seriously worried. They get Fletcher out of the equation and then stroll around like that with no fight. A lot of players need to up their game big time #lofc
— Lee Swallow (@LSwallow74) November 16, 2019
There was a worrying lack of creativity in this O’s side who, despite being behind for the whole of the second half, rarely threatened an equalizer.
The likes of Jordan Maguire-Drew and Louis Dennis, on paper their most creative players, struggled to influence the game as much as they could have done.
By contrast, when Forest Green Rovers lost 1-0 at home to Plymouth Argyle last week, they did so with a competitive display, especially in the second half, but could not quite hit the target.
There is a case to say that the performance from Mark Cooper’s side merited a point, because a lot of the build-up play was good; ball-playing defender Liam Kitching and midfield dynamo Ebou Adams look like being excellent signings.
The just needed a final touch of inspiration in that second period and, ultimately, were short of fresh quality to bring off the bench.
The Greens are good value to win this, but if they do it seems likely to come off the back of a half-time lead.