Gabriel Sutton has provided us with his thoughts on three of the weekend’s top clashes in the EFL.
West Brom to win
Championship: West Bromwich Albion v Birmingham City
West Brom have been the Championship’s best attacking team for much of this season, but they have now gone two games without a goal.
The Baggies have recently been held back by having two second-choice full-backs in the starting XI.
Dara O’Shea, as a centre-back by trade, is strong defensively at right-back and Conor Townsend tries his best at left-back, yet neither quite give Slaven Bilic’s side the thrust they would get from Darnell Furlong and Kieran Gibbs respectively.
The latter two could come into the side for the visit of neighbours Birmingham, who enter this derby off the back of a disappointing fortnight.
Not only have ownership concerns come to the surface amid recent reports, the Blues went out of the FA Cup due to a 1-0 loss at Leicester and they also saw their 10-game unbeaten league run come to an end with a 3-1 home loss to Reading.
Granted, Pep Clotet’s side could have been three goals ahead at the interval with the chances they had – Scott Hogan missed an excellent opportunity to complete a first half brace.
Once Jude Bellingham went off, though, Blues had to start attacking down the right, where the co-ordination of movement between Dan Crowley and Maxime Colin was not quite at the level we saw earlier in the campaign.
Birmingham left themselves wide open in that second half and if any of those issues remain against West Brom, who boast the Championship’s most creative player in Matheus Pereira, it could be a long afternoon.
Both Teams To Score
Championship: Millwall v Derby County
Millwall and Derby County were both expecting to enter mid-March with their minds largely on preparing for next season in the Championship, but events elsewhere have changed circumstances in their favour.
Preston North End and Bristol City, the prime contenders for the final Play-Off spot, have missed countless opportunities to solidify their position, making the scramble tantalisingly open to a late runner.
Millwall’s campaign appeared to be petering out owing to a lack of quality in depth; a recent 0-0 draw with Birmingham suggested they were short of energy in that final third.
After sticking with the same 5-2-3 system for long periods of his reign to date, Gary Rowett had little to lose by switching things up.
The 4-2-3-1 worked wonders in last Friday’s 3-0 victory at Nottingham Forest, where target man Matt Smith scored a first half hat-trick.
Surprisingly, the only change to the personnel was to swap centre-back Alex Pearce for versatile left-sider Shane Ferguson, who gives the team extra balance ahead of left-back Murray Wallace – ideal for quelling strong opposing right sides.
Ferguson’s cover freed up Mason Bennett to make diagonal runs from the number 10 position to the left channel, where he was instrumental in linking up with Murray Wallace to create for Smith’s goals.
The former QPR front-man will pose a threat to Derby, but Phillip Cocu’s side are also in impressive form, after Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Blackburn.
The absence of Wayne Rooney, Tom Lawrence and Duane Holmes, so often their creators in chief, looked problematic but that was not the case.
Graeme Shinnie and Max Bird patrolled the midfield with real authority and Louie Sibley relished the starting opportunity, hitting an impressive strike from distance, which shows that the fluency of Derby’s system is as important as the individuals within it.
Martyn Waghorn breaks quickly from the right channel to the centre-forward position to create space for four other players – currently Knight, Sibley, Bird or Shinnie – any of whom could temporarily assume the number 10 position, which is what makes the Rams hard to predict.
Wycombe to win
League One: Burton Albion v Wycombe Wanderers
Burton Albion are struggling to cope with the absence of Liam Boyce.
At the time of the Northern Irishman’s late-January sale, the Brewers were ninth – just two points off the Play-Off places.
Since that point, though, Nigel Clough’s side have accrued just one victory in 10 league games, the most recent of which being Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at home to Bolton.
Boyce gave them a focal point and it allowed them to play crisp, direct balls into the final third from deep, which becomes harder with their current attacking options.
Without the influential striker, Burton must be more patient in the build-up play and although that can work, as evidenced by Joe Powell’s opener in last week’s 3-2 loss at Lincoln, playing out from the back can be dangerous with one or two defenders who are less than accomplished in possession.
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This is something that Wycombe Wanderers will look to exploit.
The Chairboys possess one of the most natural pressing strikers in League One in Alex Samuel, who is quick, aggressive and tenacious.
Paul Smyth, who operates just off a main striker, is full of running too and fit again right-sider Fred Onyedinma has the qualities to take advantage of any vulnerabilities Burton may have in the left-back position.
The composed Dominic Gape and the tenacious Curtis Thompson, meanwhile, should keep a lid on the midfield.
With Sunderland losing and Portsmouth drawing with Fleetwood, midweek results fell in Wycombe’s favour, so this is an excellent opportunity to get back in the top six – Gareth Ainsworth’s side look underrated in East Staffordshire.
Portsmouth to win and Under 3.5 goals
League One: Portsmouth v Accrington Stanley
Portsmouth’s home form this season is flawless.
Kenny Jackett’s side have accrued a whopping 42 points from 18 games on familiar soil and remain the only team in the entire EFL to be undefeated on their own turf.
Accrington Stanley, meanwhile, are hoping to keep the gap to the drop zone at eight points, to which it was reduced on Tuesday due to Tranmere’s run of three straight wins.
One of Rovers’ victories came at Stanley last week, so while John Coleman’s troops are not expected to pick up any points on the south coast, it may be fair to say that they are under a touch more pressure at Fratton Park than would be the case ordinarily.
In terms of general play, the Reds do not deserve to be in a relegation battle because, between both boxes, they press teams back superbly at times with Sam Finley looking such a strong influence in midfield.
With Mark Hughes out for the rest of the season, though and none of their strikers having thrived at this level previously, they can at times be naïve in their own box and wasteful in that of the opposition.
Portsmouth’s superiority in both 18-yard areas could prove a defining factor.
Northampton to fail to score
League Two: Forest Green Rovers v Northampton Town
Forest Green kept their Play-Off hopes just about alive last week.
A shock 2-0 victory at then-leaders Swindon was the type of result Mark Cooper’s side needed to shake themselves out of their slumber.
Ebou Adams proved his value to the Green with his powerful, dynamic performance in midfield and although the team were outshot 15-4 at the County Ground, it was hard to begrudge them their victory after such stout defending from the likes of Chris Stokes and Nathan McGinley.
That triumph, though, only became relevant because the Play-Off scramble was loosened up by results elsewhere, the most notable of which being Northampton Town’s 2-1 home defeat to Mansfield.
Sam Hoskins’ suspension, after his 10th-minute red card last week, is a blow for Keith Curle’s side, but Nicky Adams has played left wing-back previously, so Paul Anderson looks likely to return as the most advanced midfielder in their 3-5-2.
Although the return for target man Harry Smith is a boost for the Cobblers, he is similar stylistically to Vadaine Oliver, so it is concerning that the more mobile Callum Morton, who has been outstanding since joining on loan from West Brom, is unlikely to be fit to travel to Nailsworth.
Without Morton, Northampton could be a touch one-dimensional in the final third.
League Two: Morecambe v Plymouth Argyle
Derek Adams will have mixed memories of his time at Plymouth Argyle.
The first three years of the Scot’s reign in Devon were outstanding, with the Green Army winning automatic promotion under his guidance in 2016-17 and challenging for the League One Play-Offs in 2017-18.
The final term, which ended in relegation, went sour for various reasons, but the change of manager has worked for both parties.
Argyle are in pole position for an instant return to the third tier under the impressive stewardship of Ryan Lowe, while Morecambe are thriving under Adams.
Inspired by excellent January additions, the Shrimps have not lost a single home game in 2020, despite welcoming Play-Off challengers Colchester and Port Vale along with leaders Crewe to the Globe Arena in that period.
Their visitors, meanwhile, have so far proven to not miss suspended defender Gary Sawyer as much as expected.
Callum McFadzean has since switched to the left of Lowe’s back-three, enabling George Cooper to return to left wing-back and strike up an excellent understanding with dribbler Danny Mayor, which was crucial to recent 3-0 wins over Grimsby and Macclesfield.