The Big EFL Preview: Successes for Stoke and Coventry?13 min read
Championship: Barnsley v Cardiff City
Both Teams To Score
Barnsley took a hit to their hopes of staying in the Championship, last week, with a 2-0 loss at Reading.
On paper, the Reds did not play too badly – they had 62% possession and mustered 23 shots, of which seven were on target – but head coach Gerhard Struber felt they did not play with the pace and intensity they are capable of, especially in that final third.
Athletic forward Jacob Brown and technical left-back Clarke Odour, so influential in the Reds’ revival, have just lost an element of sharpness to their game and the switch from the diamond system to 3-4-3 has not quite worked as hoped.
Cardiff City, meanwhile, overcame an early two-goal deficit last week against Brentford to salvage a point, which keeps their Play-Off hopes just about alive.
The last two games have illustrated that the Bluebirds can pose a threat from Will Vaulks’ long throws, with Sean Morrison providing the reference point in the opposing penalty area.
Cardiff look better with Callum Paterson up top, rather than Robert Glatzel, just because the former’s work rate, aerial ability and battling qualities seem to best facilitate their direct style, while right-back Dion Sanderson’s vibrant displays illustrates Neil Harris’ attempts to rejuvenate an aging squad.
Barnsley have taken on average 14.4 shots per game – the third-most in the Championship – and will hope to be fresh after a full week of recuperation.
Championship: Stoke City v Hull City
Stoke to win -1 handicap
Stoke City felt disappointment last week at Luton; they led going into injury-time yet ended up having to settle for a 1-1 draw.
Michael O’Neill can at least take heart from the fact that they created the better chances against one of their relegation rivals, that Sam Vokes was a handful up top and that they could have made the game comfortable with the chances.
O’Neill may want to adjust the balance of his side, though.
Tom Ince, looking a tad languid and individualistic, could make way for the speedier Tyrese Campbell, who has played well on the right before.
The dynamic duo of Sam Clucas and Joe Allen may start in midfield, as they did for Stoke’s best performance of the season – the 1-0 win at West Brom – against out-of-form Hull City.
8️⃣ | Since Michael O'Neill's arrival at Stoke in November, only Derby (7) have conceded fewer home goals than the Potters (8)
— Between the Lines (@Between_TL) March 4, 2020
It is very easy to look at the way the Tigers have nosedived – two points from their last 10 league games – and think it is entirely down to the loss of Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki.
Any team would miss the pace of Bowen and the craft of Grosicki – the likes of Mallik Wilks and Marcus Maddison are comparatively unproven at this level – and up top, the hardworking Josh Magennis is not necessarily used to carrying a Championship goal threat.
More concerningly, though, McCann’s side have conceded 24 goals in the 10-match sequence, which shows they have major problems at the other end, too – their plight has been influenced by injuries.
Defenders Jordy De Wijs and Reece Burke are out for another week or two with calf issues and none of their alternative defenders are proven at this level, with a lack of experience, bravery and leadership representing huge concerns.
League One: Fleetwood Town v Blackpool
Fleetwood to win
Fleetwood Town boosted their top-six aspirations on Tuesday with a 1-0 victory at Ipswich.
With just four points separating second-placed Rotherham with the sixth-placed Cod Army, who have a game in hand on two of the teams above them, there is no reason why they cannot push for an automatic promotion spot, let alone a Play-Off berth.
Joey Barton’s side have a sturdy centre-back pairing of Harry Souttar, who was excellent in midweek and Everton loanee Lewis Gibson, who loves to carry the ball out from defence.
In midfield, controller Paul Coutts and battler Glenn Whelan bring pedigree at this level; as the previous game showed, they can cover all bases as a duo and not just as part of a trio.
There were fears, at Portman Road, how Fleetwood would handle the early injury to Callum Connolly, especially after Barton replaced him with striker Ched Evans to switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-1-2.
In fact, the shake-up worked with Wes Burns moving to right wing-back, Lewie Coyle to right centre-back and Barrie McKay into the number 10 role; Evans scored the first-half winner and the team defended their lead in the second half with minimal trouble.
The next task for Fleetwood is to beat their Fylde coast rivals, Blackpool, who are under new management.
Neil Critchley, previously Liverpool’s Under-23s boss who has taken charge of two of their first-team games this season, has taken on the Tangerines.
📽 "It's important that the team plays in a way that the supporters can identify…"
New Head Coach Neil Critchley on what fans can expect from his Blackpool side.
Full interview coming soon.
— Blackpool FC – 🏡 #StayHomeSaveLives (@BlackpoolFC) March 2, 2020
Given that Critchley played a critical role in the development of arguably the best right-back in world football in Trent Alexander-Arnold, there is reason to be very excited about his appointment – even if it remains to be seen how he fares coaching senior players in a different environment.
One of the first things Critchley will look to address is correcting the Seasiders’ use of the ball, because the retention from deep has been very poor along with the intensity of pressing – those issues cannot be solved overnight.
League One: Ipswich Town v Coventry City
Coventry to win
These are bleak times for Ipswich Town, who lost 1-0 at home to Fleetwood in midweek.
The real shame is that the Tractor Boys entered March in a supposed promotion race, without having a coherent playing identity.
Whenever Tomas Holy had the ball, there was nobody offering him the short option, so the former Gillingham stopper tended to pump it long to Will Keane, who lacks the power, aerial prowess and battling qualities to thrive from that kind of service.
The club’s decline undoubtedly precedes Paul Lambert’s involvement and there is a genuine debate to be had about the capability of the existing squad; the expectation for the club and the expectation for the current group of players should not necessarily be identical.
One must question, though, whether Lambert has been getting enough out of that crop and there have been reports of a managerial change.
Coventry City, meanwhile, have taken 33 points from the last 39 available to them in a 13-game unbeaten sequence dating back to mid-December.
The Sky Blues were not at their best going forward in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Sunderland, but the way they defended was particularly impressive.
Michael Rose was aggressive from the right of Mark Robins’ three-man defence while Kyle McFadzean negated the opposing centre-forward, with Fankaty Dabo putting in an excellent shift at right wing-back and Liam Kelly offering sound protection from midfield.
If the Midlanders can bring Callum O’Hare and Matt Godden into their game with more regularity, they could have some joy against Ipswich, who will once again be without key midfielder Flynn Downes, speedster Kayden Jackson, along with possibly athletic full-back Kane Vincent-Young and striker James Norwood.
League Two: Scunthorpe United v Grimsby Town
Grimsby Draw No Bet
Scunthorpe United did not play too badly in their midweek 2-0 defeat at Swindon, where the game was ultimately decided by a difference in quality in the final third.
Swindon are the league leaders while Scunthorpe were without the likes of Abo Eisa and Kevin Van Veen, so naturally they were a touch raw in key areas.
Eisa and Van Veen are doubts for the visit of Grimsby, who themselves returned from a lengthy Tuesday night trek empty-handed.
The Mariners lost 3-0 at Plymouth Argyle, a result that means they have now conceded eight goals in their last three games.
Ian Holloway has tried to get his side playing football that is easier on the eye but there have been teething problems.
Luke Waterfall has not been comfortable operating with a high defensive line – an issue hardly helped by the fact Harry Davis is just coming back to full fitness – so Holloway may look to bring teenager Mattie Pollock into the XI.
If the three substitutes from midweek – Pollock, Anthony Glennon and Max Wright – do start though, the visitors do look underrated for the Humber Derby.
In the kinds of areas in which Scunthorpe could be short on quality, Grimsby have a magician in Charles Vernam, who could prove a real match-winner.
League Two: Carlisle United v Colchester United
Carlisle to win
Carlisle United are making impressive strides under manager Chris Beech.
Had the season ended when he took charge on 26th November, the Cumbrians would have League Two’s joint-third worst defensive record with 31 goals shipped in 19.
Had it started on that date, they would have the 14th-best with 22 conceded in 16, so there are tangible, if not overwhelming, signs of progress.
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It has taken Carlisle more time than they might have liked to find their mojo going forward under the former Rochdale assistant, but the performance in last week’s 2-1 win at Cambridge – where they mustered 19 shots of which seven were on target – looked hugely encouraging.
The front three of Lewis Alessandra, Omari Patrick and Harry McKirdy is starting to link up nicely.
Carlisle could cause problems, therefore, for Colchester United.
The U’s entered February on a 17-game unbeaten run yet begin March with four defeats in their last six in a sequence that has thrown their Play-Off credentials into question.
Colchester lacked creativity in Saturday’s 2-0 home loss to Cheltenham and struggled to penetrate in the final third, due to a lack of movement.
They appear to have a lot of players who like to occupy the central areas, but not enough of them are making brave runs either into wide areas or in behind to create space for others.
Luke Gambin might not always be massively productive in possession, but sometimes his movement away from the general direction of play can free things up for Kwame Poku and others – one wonders whether the Malta international is being underused.