The Big New Year’s Day EFL Preview11 min read
2020’s EFL action begins on Wednesday and I’m focusing on six New Year’s Day clashes, including an eye-catching match between the Championship’s two stand-out sides.
Championship: Birmingham City v Wigan Athletic
Birmingham to win
Birmingham are undergoing a transitional season, with a significant change in style of play under head coach Pep Clotet, so results have understandably been mixed.
The Blues have played some good football with wide playmaker Dan Crowley, midfield controller Ivan Sunjic and 16-year-old whizzkid Jude Bellingham all displaying huge potential.
Jude Bellingham, way ahead of his years. What a player. pic.twitter.com/KGsfeoNbtT
— BrummieJoe (@BrummieJoeHD) December 29, 2019
The technical standard of their play has improved significantly, as we saw in Sunday’s 5-4 home loss to Leeds, in which Clotet’s troops enjoyed much of the play with Gary Gardner asserting himself nicely on the game next to Sunjic in midfield.
Yes, there are defensive imperfections in this side – a proven goalkeeper and a calming centre-back partner for Harlee Dean is still required – but those imperfections were exploited to the max by a Leeds side high on quality, whereas Wigan are raw in the final third.
They have Jamal Lowe making direct runs as well as full-backs Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson and Josh Windass likes to get in behind too, but neither of these players are technically refined.
Birmingham have won five of their six home games with bottom half opposition and a repeat of Sunday’s performance levels should pay off against theoretically more limited opposition.
Championship: West Bromwich Albion v Leeds United
Over 4.5 goals
Marcelo Bielsa’s side won 5-4 at Birmingham on Sunday, ending their three-game run without a victory.
For much of the season, we have seen a Leeds United side control games and keep the opposition at arm’s length, often winning to nil – Kalvin Phillips at the base of the midfield and Ben White in defence have consistently stood out.
Last time out, though, their victory was largely about their incisive attacking play, especially via the wide areas through Helder Costa and Jack Harrison.
Costa and Harrison can be so effective in transition that Leeds can be on the back-foot for large spells, as they were at St Andrews, and still carry a threat.
That is just as well, because defensively, they did not look anything like the team that has kept 12 clean sheets so far this season.
White and Liam Cooper were not as dominant as they so often are and Phillips has had a quiet December, not helped by the injuries to Jamie Shackleton and Adam Forshaw.
West Brom will hope to take control of those central areas via Romaine Sawyers, who is expected to come back into the XI after being rested for Sunday’s 2-0 home loss to Middlesbrough.
That performance highlighted Albion’s vulnerability to counter-attacks, so we can expect Costa and Harrison to do damage to a suspect rear-guard.
Costa divides folk but today his tracking back looked noticeably better. His numbers are pretty good too considering he's newest to the 11. Also I don't buy this he doesn't want to be here attitude; you don't throw your head into an hospital ball if you're not mustard. #lufc
— Sean G (@SeanyGee) December 29, 2019
Equally, the Baggies are not the division’s top scorers with 47 goals for no reason: the reason is they have a lot of quality in depth, especially in those attacking areas.
Grady Diangana is hoping to be back fit for this match and the West Ham loanee’s pace, power and trickery, from the left of the attacking quartet, makes a huge difference to the final third play, meaning more space for Matheus Pereira to influence proceedings high up the pitch.
Expect a thriller at the Hawthorns.
League One: Gillingham v Portsmouth
Gillingham to win
Gillingham have already kept one big-hitter at bay over the festive period: they held Ipswich to a 0-0 draw at Portman Road.
What’s more, Steve Evans’ side had the chances to win that game through Mikael Mandron and Brandon Hanlan, although the subsequent 1-0 win over Rochdale makes the draw a good result.
Gillingham’s openings tend to come about through pressing their opponents intelligently and pouncing on errors; Evans has made his team very hard to play through and that arguably helps them going forward as well as defensively.
The Gills have won seven of their 12 home games this season, which looks ominous for Portsmouth, who have lost six in 10 on the road.
Kenny Jackett’s side have been hoping to get themselves back into the promotion mix thanks to home wins over Ipswich and Wycombe, but 4-1 and 3-1 defeats at Accrington Stanley and MK Dons respectively is undermining their progress.
Jackett’s attempts to freshen the team up over the festive period have interfered with the continuity that brought Pompey a good run of form between October and December; defensively, they look unreliable on the road.
League One: Wycombe Wanderers v Ipswich Town
This match pits first against fourth in League One – although few would guess it on recent performances.
Wycombe have gone through a mini-blip due to the absence of key players, while Ipswich look vulnerable on the pitch due to uncertainty off it: there are question marks over Paul Lambert’s future at Portman Road.
The Tractor Boys are seven games without a win in League One, which is not good enough for a team with automatic promotion ambitions, and there are concerns over the inconsistency in team selection – although this issue has been partially dictated by injuries.
Wycombe are also affected by absentees; they lost 3-1 at home to Coventry on Sunday and suffered significantly without Jack Grimmer, Darius Charles and Dominic Gape.
This is arguably the lowest point so far in the season for both sides and given the destabilizing factors, we could be looking at a stalemate.
League Two: Grimsby Town v Salford City
Salford to win
Brandon Thomas-Asante has often made an impact from the bench this season for Salford, but the big test for him was to influence games from the outset.
The speedy forward did just that on Boxing Day, when he starred and scored in his first EFL start, a 3-1 win over Crewe – the 20-year-old then scored a brace in the 4-1 demolition of Oldham.
It is somewhat ironic that Salford, backed by the Class of 92, are spending a lot of money on high-pedigree players and yet arguably their most dangerous attacking performer is unproven.
Craig Conway, though, brings touches of quality from wide right and Richie Towell offers tenacity in midfield, so the top seven budget has by no means gone to waste.
Salford face a Grimsby side that have drawn 1-1 in their last two games, with Macclesfield and Crawley, results which at least end their eight-game goal drought.
Continued poor performances since Michael Jolley’s November exit have not accelerated Majority Shareholder John Fenty’s search for a new permanent manager; if anything, it seems like the board are waiting for results to get better under caretaker manager Anthony Limbrick before giving him the permanent job.
Whoever takes charge – Ian Holloway has implied his interest – will want to re-shape a squad that has proved imbalanced, with the team suffering from a lack of width and creativity since September.
League Two: Plymouth Argyle v Swindon Town
Swindon to win
Swindon striker Eoin Doyle has gone on an incredible run of goalscoring form, netting in 11 consecutive matches before Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Port Vale.
Keshi Anderson stole some of Doyle’s limelight on Boxing Day, when the wide forward bagged a hat-trick in the 4-0 demolition of Cambridge.
This could give way to a theme, because two of Anderson’s goals came about from selfless work from Doyle.
Keshi Anderson vs Cambridge:
⚽️⚽️⚽️ Hat trick
? 4 Shots ⭐
? 3 Shots on Target ⭐
? 1 Key Pass
? 65 Touches
? 48 Touches
⭐ MOTM – Perfect 10 Rating#STFC pic.twitter.com/ell9OULKFC
— Between the Lines (@Between_TL) December 26, 2019
Anderson’s first was through selfless movement into the right channel which dragged a centre-back – assigned to man mark Doyle – away from a dangerous area, then his last was after a Doyle cross.
The first thing opposing teams now will do when preparing for Swindon is work out how to stop Doyle – the subsequent theme could be that Anderson profits from the extra space.
Opponents Plymouth Argyle needed a 96th-minute winner from Niall Canavan to secure a 2-1 win over strugglers Stevenage on Sunday, after a dicey second half.
They are reportedly signing midfielder Tyreeq Bakinson on loan from Bristol City but he will not join up until the transfer window opens – and Ryan Lowe will feel he needs to add a clinical striker or two to his squad, too.
Without underestimating Argyle, who can play the kind of free-flowing football Lowe wants for parts of their games, Swindon are at a more advanced stage of developing their playing identity and that could show at Home Park.