FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) takes a look at the New Year’s Day contest between Brighton and Wolves.
Brighton v Wolves | New Year’s Day 15.00 | Sky Sports 1
You have to feel for Brighton. Chris Hughton’s men set a Championship record with their 21-match unbeaten streak to start a season (W11-D10-L0) but without a win in five (W0-D3-L2), certain pundits are suggesting Albion’s challenge is already over.
I’m not for a second claiming the Seagulls are still serious candidates for the top-two – I’m well aware they have failed to score in three following their 1-0 loss to Ipswich on Tuesday – but the after-timing notion that they were never that good in first place is sheer nonsense.
Yes, Brighton were top of the tree on 12 December and now they’re fourth. Yes, all of their 11 wins this term have arrived by a single goal margin. And yes, they’ve won just three of their last 12 games but they’re still a top-six side and deserve a little more respect.
Hughton’s had to deal with a major injury list – seven players with a realistic chance of making the starting XI are sidelined – and on New Year’s Day he’l be unable to field on-loan Rajiv van La Parra due to the terms of his deal with parent club Wolves. That’s certainly not helped.
Albion began the season on fire. Six of their 11 victories were squeezed into August and the first half of September, before Kazenga LuaLua’s groin problem launched the procession of casualties.
Twenty of Albion’s 44 points were accumulated in those opening eight matches. In the absences at various stages since then of LuaLua, Gaetan Bong, Sam Baldock, Liam Rosenior, Solly March, Uwe Huenemeier and now Gordon Greer, only five victories have been sneaked in 15 games.
However, all the performance data to hand confirms that over the course of the year, Brighton have been one of the best teams in the league. They rank third in the shot ratio standings (each team’s share of the total match shots) with a solid 55.5%, fourth in the same standings when looking at home games only and sixth when viewing the shots-on-target ratio figures (54.5%).
The Seagulls have W8-D2-L2 at the Amex in 2015/16 but that’s where my defence of Hughton’s boys will end. Why? Well, the aforementioned injury crisis is of major concern but so is the fact they’ve kept a solitary clean sheet on home soil since Preston’s visit in October.
The hosts were forced to rely on a man of the match performance from goalkeeper David Stockdale at Brentford when drawing 0-0 in their last road trip and looked a little unconvincing at the back. And in midweek, the normally reliable Lewis Dunk made a costly error to allow Daryl Murphy to fire Ipswich to three points on the south coast.
It’s also rather revealing that across Brighton’s past 20 AMEX outings (W11-D4-L5) they’ve only accumulated a +4 goal difference. Tie in that stat from earlier about all 11 triumphs coming via a one-goal margin, the unavailability of seven starters, no goals in three, zero victories in five and the case to oppose the Seagulls at 5/4 (BetVictor) grows.
Now Wolves have hardly been pulling up trees in 2015/16 and their off-pitch flux is bound to have had an effect on their stunted progress but Kenny Jackett appears to have steadied the ship with a back-to-basics approach.
The Black Country boys recorded successive shutouts when beating Reading (1-0) and Charlton (2-0) to move back into the top-half of the table and just nine-points off the play-off positions. Neither match will have gotten bums off seats but Jackett and his side deserve praise for stemming the bleeding.
The visitors are determined that, after several false dawns, their two latest victories represent a turning point in their stumbling season. Having leaked seven goals in two games, Wolves defended deep in a 4-5-1 formation before pushing forward in the second half to score two goals in what was a very competent away performance at the Addicks.
Dave Edwards and Conor Coady excelled in London and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme has had little to do either of the previous encounters. For probably the first time since Mike Williamson was recalled by Newcastle, Wolves were panic-free at the back and that can only build confidence ahead of a trip to Brighton.
The travellers have picked up 14 of their 17 away points – the seventh best away record in the division – against the bottom-half and conceded 18 across their 12 (W5-D2-L5) road trips but in youngster Jordan Graham and forward Benik Ofobe they possess players capable of giving the home defence nightmares.
Talking of their away travails, across the past 20 contests not at Molineux, Wolves have W8-D3-L9 – impressively, they’ve scored in all bar three of those matches and recorded a +1 goal difference, which again suggests they’re accomplished guests.
The performance data purports the visitors to be a top-half team on their travels and yes, despite my defence of Brighton, I reckon the value sits in keeping Wolves onside here. Their new-found solidity can frustrate Albion and at 3/4 (BetVictor) they can avoid defeat with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start.
Brighton v Wolves – Wolves +0.50 Asian Handicap (3/4 BetVictor)
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