The Big EFL Preview: Swindon And Fleetwood To Triumph On The Road?14 min read
Championship: Fulham v Preston North End
Under 2.5 goals
The common perception of Fulham, externally and internally, is that they would be nowhere near the automatic promotion places if they did not have Aleksandar Mitrovic.
That is a perfectly reasonable assumption.
The West Londoners possess the Championship’s most natural goalscorer in the Serb, who has managed to net 22 times in a side that has often looked short of creativity.
And yet, Mitrovic does not always look entirely at home in the current system.
In the promotion season under Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham crossed the ball a lot, giving him frequent opportunities to bully defenders in the air and be a key reference point.
This team, though, requires its centre-forward to drop in and link play – partly through Scott Parker’s preference for a patient build-up and partly because they do not have a strong enough anchor man to dominate games with three midfielders – so they do not tend to play into the final third until the main striker turns the midfield into a diamond.
That is not Mitrovic’s game.
Reid appears more proficient at carrying out the main things Parker appears to want from his centre-forward and, as evidenced by last month’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough, other players can get more chances as a result.
It seems unlikely that Parker will drop Mitrovic, because on paper the team is so reliant on him – but it would be fascinating to see how Fulham would look if they went a few games without a recognised centre-forward.
Preston North End have done that in certain games in a season that has seen seven different players start up top, but they failed to hit the target in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at West Brom.
David Nugent’s return to the club brought sentimental value, but the veteran has not since completed 90 minutes.
On current form, Jayden Stockley has been more influential, using his aerial prowess from the bench, but the former Exeter front-man’s lack of mobility means Alex Neil has started him just 14 times in a combined 11 months of league action.
North End have scored just 12 goals in 11 games since Christmas, while the Whites have 13 in 11, so we are likely looking at a low-scoring encounter.
Championship: Cardiff City v Brentford
Double Chance: Cardiff or Draw
Cardiff’s Play-Off hopes took a hit on Tuesday, when they lost 1-0 at home to Nottingham Forest.
There is not too much wrong with the work rate in that Bluebirds side, who competed reasonably well for large portions of that game.
Plus, the fact that midfielders Will Vaulks and Marlon Pack completed the most passes for Cardiff shows that Neil Harris is beginning to put into practice his desire to get the team playing higher up and using the central midfield more in the approach play.
He is also giving younger players, like vibrant right-back Dion Sanderson, an opportunity so as to re-invigorate a squad that had aged and stagnated in the latter stages of Neil Warnock’s regime.
Here’s some things we noticed from last night’s game (thread):
Will Vaulks and Marlon Pack completes the most amount of passes in a Cardiff shirt (WV the most for either team). There’s no doubt Cardiff style is evolving and the play is going through the midfield pivot. pic.twitter.com/xvrFDbyeKH
— View From The Ninian (@VFTNinian) February 26, 2020
The key thing for Cardiff to add, in their season’s finale, is creativity and craft.
Callum Paterson, who has come in for the injured Lee Tomlin in the hole, is not as gifted in possession, so Cardiff need their wide men, Junior Hoilett and Josh Murphy, to up their respective games in support of Robert Glatzel, who himself must start to justify the significant summer outlay.
If they are to rekindle Play-Off hopes this year, they will need to beat Brentford, who lost 2-1 at Luton in midweek.
The result means the Bees have taken just 10 points from eight games since Pontus Jansson’s injury – had the season started when the Swede became sidelined, they would now be 15th.
Without both Jansson and Julian Jeanvier, Thomas Frank has experimented with a 3-4-3 involving Henrik Dalsgaard as the wide right centre-back and Christian Nørgaard, a midfielder by trade, in the middle of the back-three, with less than desirable results.
The West Londoners also miss Mathias Jensen; the midfielder, who had been so effective at retaining the ball high up the pitch with his close control, is out for a few weeks with a hamstring injury.
Jensen’s absence is made more significant by the fact that January recruit Shandon Baptiste is taking longer than hoped to adjust to this level.
Not at full strength, Brentford could be vulnerable visitors to the Welsh capital.
League One: Gillingham v AFC Wimbledon
Wimbledon boss Glyn Hodges was pleased with the battling spirit he saw from his players last time out.
The 0-0 draw with Blackpool, whom the Dons restricted to just two shots on target, came after the 5-0 loss at Oxford, so there was a clear improvement in terms of organisation and work rate, as Jack Rudoni brought energy to the midfield.
— Steve Dowse (@misterdowse) February 22, 2020
Wimbledon have some young, hungry players in their ranks and while they can be a touch raw in the final third, they may have enough to keep out Gillingham, whose last defeat came against the Wombles back in November.
Steve Evans’ side are on a 15-game unbeaten run but they managed just three shots on target in their last two games – a 1-0 win at struggling Southend and a 0-0 draw at lowly Lincoln – which suggests they are having difficulty opening teams up.
Wimbledon operate with a back-three, so they can commit one aerially proficient centre-back in Terell Thomas to engage in every duel with the opposing centre-forward, likely John Akinde, and still have two other centre-backs, Luke O’Neill and Mads Bech Sorensen, in the correct position.
If Thomas can cut out the long balls to the target man, that will go a long way to quelling Gillingham’s goal threat and thus Wimbledon could boost their chances of staying up with a valuable point.
League One: Tranmere Rovers v Fleetwood Town
Tranmere gave their hopes of staying up a much-needed lift with Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory at Shrewsbury.
Over the last few games, Micky Mellon has started with two target men Andy Cook and James Vaughan, which has given way to a discernible pattern to their encounters.
They tend to start games at a very high intensity and, had their last five games finished at half-time, they would have collected a combined six points rather than four.
Because neither Cook nor Vaughan offer pace in behind, the other eight outfielders must play at a very high intensity to keep the duo engaged, which normally means they heavily pressurize their opponents in the first half – even if the end product during those periods vary in quality.
In the second half, though, we tend to see Vaughan tire after doing a lot of harrying before the interval and the rest of the team no longer has the legs to stay in touch with the front two, thus a chasm appears between the eight and the two, which is where Doncaster and Wycombe have taken advantage.
Fleetwood Town can do likewise.
The Cod Army were held to a 1-1 draw by Sunderland whom, prior to a 97th-minute sucker punch, Joey Barton’s side outplayed for long periods.
Fleetwood produced some delightful, one-touch play in the opposing half, with Paddy Madden at times dropping in to allow the athletic Wes Burns and dribbler Barrie McKay to break beyond him.
Further back, Paul Coutts dictated play with real authority next to the energetic Callum Connolly and the tenacious Glenn Whelan, while Lewie Coyle and Danny Andrew brought quality from the full-back positions.
Expect the visitors to come on strong after the break.
League Two: Mansfield Town v Swindon Town
Swindon to win
Mansfield Town manager Graham Coughlan felt his side were the better team “by a country mile” in last week’s 1-0 loss at Cheltenham.
Certainly, the Stags shaded the game on clear cut chances, because Nicky Maynard could have had a brace on another day while Harry Charsley and Willem Tomlinson also went close in a clash that saw the opposing goalkeeper scoop the official man-of-the-match award.
Equally, not many of the chances Mansfield created came from their own approach play – they relied on opposition errors and opportunistic balls in behind.
Almost all their play from deep went long to Danny Rose and while the former Barnsley striker has a good spring on him, whenever he did not win his aerial duel, it undermined the whole strategy.
Swindon Town, meanwhile, keep the ball on the deck for longer and play some excellent football, so they fully deserve to lead the way in League Two.
85 points is the projected tally to be required for automatic promotion and Swindon are already on 66, so they are looking at approximately 19 points from their final 12 games to secure a return to League One.
They should achieve that tally, because they are hugely proficient at creating overloads.
When Lloyd Isgrove finds himself marked out of the game, for example, we see Diallang Jaiyesimi, who starts in the number 10 position, make a diagonal run out to the channel for Paul Caddis to pick him out from right-back, then Isgrove can escape his marker and get back on the ball.
Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates, meanwhile, act as alternating centre-forwards; when one attacks a goalscoring area, the other drifts out to the left to maintain the attacking equilibrium.
Swindon are a far better team than Mansfield and less predictable in their approach play.
They boast the division’s best away record while their hosts suffer the second-worst home form, so a Robins victory should be snapped up at an odds-against price.
League Two: Port Vale v Scunthorpe United
Port Vale to win
Last week’s 2-2 draw at Walsall was a good result for Port Vale.
They were well below-par, working without key players starting and up against in-form opposition, so returning from their short jaunt to the Black Country unscathed must be a positive.
John Askey can call upon his two influential full-backs, James Gibbons and Mitch Clark, with whom they may not have been quite so vulnerable as they were in the second half last week to crosses from their right flank to the back-post.
Wide forward David Amoo and midfielder Jake Taylor, who like Gibbons made the bench last week, could also positively influence the Valiants, who face a Scunthorpe side edging towards mid-table.
The Iron have won two and lost two so far under Russ Wilcox, with both victories – 1-0 wins over Cheltenham and Forest Green – being sturdy defensive jobs.
The North Lincolnshire outfit, operating with a 3-4-3, will be compact for long spells, then counter-attack via the speedy Abo Eisa, from the left of the attacking trio, with the cultured John McAtee breaking from midfield.
Wilcox, who had overseen the Under-23s, is starting to blood young players like McAtee, ball-playing centre-back Jacob Bedeau and left wing-back Lewis Butroid, which gives the club a better chance of operating more sustainably long-term.
For this match, though, Vale are likely to have the edge.