League One – Quarterly Review 2018/19

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EFL aficionado Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) made his team-by-team League One guides and predictions in the summer. With a quarter of the season gone, how is his pre-season analysis looking?

Portsmouth

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Portsmouth mounted last season’s play-off challenge through being strong in both boxes, but questions could be asked in midfield. Jackett appears to want to build this Pompey squad up slowly and while that’s admirable in some ways, progress might not be meteoric. 7th

Current performance: A great start to the season for the south-coast outfit sees them sit top of the table, with an impressive eight wins from 12.

Strengths: They get the ball into the front-man early which allows wide men Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis to quickly get into goalscoring positions, with the duo grabbing () league goals between them.

Weaknesses: Home form could potentially be an issue; one point from a possible six in what looked like routine home clashes with Wycombe and Gillingham is a poor return.

Stick or twist? Twist. Kenny Jackett’s side are far less reliant than expected on Brett Pitman and look more like automatic promotion contenders than play-off chasers.

Peterborough

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “The quality of the squad may not be high enough to eclipse the downsides of having Steve Evans in charge. While some fans are content to tolerate Evans if he delivers results, it is difficult to see the club having the inner-strength to pull through the difficult phases. 15th

Current performance: The Posh have started very well and remain second in the table, although performances have triggered debate as to whether they have been fortunate or simply clinical. A run of one win in five league games suggests they still need to prove they belong at the top.

Strengths: Siriki Dembele. A product of the Nike Football Academy, the wide man showed plenty of talent at Grimsby in his first season in professional football. Since moving to Posh this summer, the influential Ivorian has quashed any question marks about his application with a series of sparkling displays, which have seen him directly involved in eight goals.

Weaknesses: The fact that an abnormally high proportion of their shots went in early in the season suggests performance levels need to improve for them to stay in contention. The fact last week’s 4-0 home loss to Barnsley leaves them with just one win in five, with 12 goals conceded in that time and one clean sheet all season, questions can be asked.

Stick or twist? Stick. Evans is only popular when results are going well and now they are starting to decline, it is not inconceivable that Posh could end up finishing in the bottom half.

Sunderland

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Ross has addressed the team’s main achilles heel; conceding goals from basics deliveries and Chris Maguire, a technical specialist at Oxford, should fare well. This is an open division and in the absence of obvious alternative challengers, Sunderland have the financial muscle to bulldozer their way through it. 1st

Current performance: Sunderland currently sit 3rd; hardly a disastrous start for a side that has been bottom of their division for two years, but equally they haven’t been the dominant force some expected.

Strengths: Goals. Josh Maja is proving to be one of the most exciting young talents in the EFL this year, Maguire has once again shown his class in a winning set-up while Lynden Gooch has offered pace and quality out wide.

Weaknesses: A return of just one clean sheet must be considered a poor return. Not helped by injuries, Jack Ross has struggled to find a settled defence.

Stick or twist? Stick.

Barnsley

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “New head coach Daniel Stendel inherits a squad suited to his attacking, high-tempo approach .There isn’t the best value on Barnsley, but they should have enough quality to make the top six. 5th

Current performance: The Tykes might only be one place above the predicted finish – on goal difference – but their performance levels suggest there is a lot more to come from them.

Strengths: The spine. Ethan Pinnock joins a long list of Barnsley centre-backs who are very comfortable on the ball, Alex Mowatt has arguably the sweetest left-foot in League One while striker Kieffer Moore has been in sensational form.

Weaknesses: They’ve dropped points at home to bottom-five sides Wimbledon and Plymouth; perhaps they could do with performing better in the less glamourous encounters.

Stick or twist? Twist. We could well be looking at not just a shoe-in for the top six, but possibly even the most complete side in the division.

Walsall

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Fans have got behind Keates, a Saddlers legend for his playing days and that kind of support is vital during this transitional phase. There’s enough ability in that squad to suggest survival can be secured, but it will require unity, as Walsall once again bank on the unknown quantity of youth. 18th

Current performance: On a limited budget, Dean Keates has very quickly assembled a pragmatic yet exciting, counter-attacking 4-4-2 outfit at Walsall, who are flying high in 5th.

Strengths: Midfielder George Dobson is a massive part of their early season form. He’s got bags of energy and can press well when asked to, but he can also hold onto the ball in tight areas and will soon be playing at a higher level.

Weaknesses: A large proportion of their early-season goals came from shots from outside the box and sometimes, attacking records can be more sustainable if a team is creating close-range openings.

Stick or twist?tTwist. Walsall have shown they could be the surprise package of the season.

Doncaster

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “In flashes last season, Doncaster played with fluency and technical proficiency rarely seen at this level; add consistency and they have the ingredients to become a serious threat. 2nd

Current performance: Rovers, not fancied by many outside WLB in July, currently sit sixth; had controlled performances against Posh and Pompey been rewarded with three points rather than one, they could well inherit their promotion rivals’ position in the automatic promotion spots.

Strengths: John Marquis has scored 50 goals since joining in 2016. There were games last season when he would be isolated in the first half, then come alive in the second period when the team played at a higher tempo; new manager Grant McCann’s adventurous tweaks have seen that high-tempo be sustained for longer periods.

Weaknesses: If they are to remain in contention, performances like Saturday’s 4-0 home defeat to Fleetwood need to be nipped in the bud – and quickly.

Stick or twist? Stick. Winning automatic promotion won’t be easy, but Rovers have the potential to do it.

Accrington

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “We can expect Accrington to start strongly, due to the novelty of them playing at this level for the first time in their current incarnation; and John Coleman has the rigorous mentality to ensure those good runs are prolonged. 11th

Current performance: Very much in-line with expectations. Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Shrewsbury was their first defeat since the opening day; forgive the cliché, but it feels as though the club is on the crest of a wave.

Strengths: They’ve got Billy. Super Billy Kee. The portly predator bagged an incredible 26 goals last season and already has five in the league above. He might not have speedster Kayden Jackson running off him this year but Offrande Zanzala, who has shown great patience, now threatens to fill the void.

Weaknesses: Not all of their victories have been entirely deserved; Oxford could have scored more in August, then more recently goalkeeper Connor Ripley was in inspired form at Walsall.

Stick or twist? Stick. It’s hard to see Accrington staying 7th in the table but with Coley at the helm, they are capable of remaining in the top half.

Luton

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “With new stadium plans underway, fans might be glad to see their club re-familiarize itself with this level, maintain a sensible wage structure and promote from a promising youth academy. For the first time in nearly a decade, promotion for Luton is a hope, not an expectation. 9th

Current performance: As anticipated. The Hatters had a tough start but were unlucky to lose at Pompey and Posh; a continuation of positive performances means they are starting to see the fruits of their labour.

Strengths: While Nathan Jones is manager, full-backs will be vital for Luton in all three thirds of the pitch. Jack Stacey and Dan Potts have adjusted to this level with ease and it might not be too long before both are plying their trade in the Championship.

Weaknesses: Do they badly want to win promotion? It might sound strange, but going up would potentially open a can of worms: jumping so quickly from a League Two wage bill to a Championship one could be tricky with a stadium move planned for 2020.

Stick or twist? Stick. Luton will light up the league, but might just fall short of the top six.

Charlton

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Lee Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson are inexperienced and the re-building job ahead of them requires different qualities to the ones they have shown – albeit brilliantly – so far. While Roland Duchatelet remains in charge, last season’s top six berth could prove an anomaly, rather than a cue for better things. 13th

Current performance: Charlton currently sit in 9th, which is as good as they could have expected given the exodus of key players we saw in the summer.

Strengths: If the Addicks are to mount an unlikely play-off push, the strike-partnership of Karlan Grant and Lyle Taylor will be vital. The duo have scored 12 goals between them and have looked real livewires in attack.

Weaknesses: The squad however is top-heavy and major questions could be asked about this side in midfield; not helped by injuries to key defenders, they have conceded 18 goals, giving them the joint-seventh worst defensive record in the division.

Stick or twist? Stick. As good as Grant and Taylor have been, they won’t be able to carry Charlton forward on their own.

Fleetwood

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “The team could show glimpses of the slick interplay we saw in the 2016-17 play-off campaign as well as the tenacity that Joey Barton wants to stamp on his team. 8th

Current performance: As expected. The Cod Army have shown real potential with eye-catching thrashings of Scunthorpe and Doncaster, but are yet to secure back-to-back league wins.

Strengths: Alex Cairns appears to make at least one Gordon Banks v Pele-esque save every season; this year’s one being an astonishing stop from Tom Flanagan at Sunderland. Cairns is among the best goalkeepers at this level and is surely set for an opportunity in the Championship.

Weaknesses: Now and again, they can get caught trying to play out from the back, as we saw in last month’s 1-0 loss at Southend.

Stick or twist? Stick. At their best, Fleetwood have played some impressive, fast-paced football this year but inconsistency could be an issue.

Southend

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Chris Powell has re-enthused Southend fans and rejuvenated the squad, which now boasts the perfect blend of youth and experience. The Shrimpers can reach the top six. 4th

Current performance: The Shrimpers were plagued by inconsistency early on but after taking 10 points from the last 12 available, they are threatening to fire themselves into contention.

Strengths: Goals from strikers. The industrious Simon Cox, the mobile Theo Robinson and poacher Tom Hopper have bagged 13 between them in the league.

Weaknesses: Goals from non-strikers. Aside from the aforementioned trio, midfield technician Stephen McLaughlin and all-action right-back Jason Demetriou are the only players to get on the scoresheet, bagging one apiece.

Stick or twist? Stick. The Shrimpers are scoring a large proportion of their goals from close-range, which would suggest their recent good form is sustainable.

Scunthorpe

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “While fans of other clubs might have the patience for a scrap, Scunthorpe are used to promotion challenges and with the squad lacking the durability for the winter fixture congestion, a bad start could be fatal. 22nd

Current performance: In fact, the bad start has been fatal only for Nick Daws, who left as manager after just () games. Replacement Stuart McCall though has overseen a significant change in fortunes.

Strengths: Since McCall took over, Scunthorpe have scored a highly-impressive 15 goals in seven – no League One side has scored more. Lee Novak and Stephen Humphrys have found good goalscoring form, Josh Morris is getting closer to his best while Ryan Colclough and Matty Lund look tidy recruits.

Weaknesses: The defence has leaked 24 goals in 12. An experienced centre-back in January wouldn’t go amiss.

Stick or twist? Twist. The prediction looked potentially half-accurate in August but McCall has proved a game-changer.

Blackpool

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Ball-winner Jay Spearing won promotion with Bolton in 2016-17, as did new goalkeeper Mark Howard. Oyston’s unwanted presence means stabilization is the most realistic target, but while the cool-headed Bowyer is around, it’s one that should be met. 16th

Current performance: Spearing and Howard have been among Bolton’s stand-out performers this year, but they have thrived without Gary Bowyer, who left after just one game.

Strengths: Bowyer’s replacement, Terry McPhillips, has fostered a great team spirit in adversity at Bloomfield Road; his side have kept six clean sheets, the most in the division.

Weaknesses: A large proportion of their goals appear to come from set pieces and balls into the box from deep; that’s working for them now, but it’s not inconceivable that opposing teams might become more savvy to their approach play.

Stick or twist? Stick. If the Tangerines can build on their current nine-game unbeaten run and reach the top half this season, it would be a great achievement, but they might just fall short.

Coventry

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “It remains to be seen how they will cope without Marc McNulty. Ownership uncertainty might limit scope for further progress, but Mark Robins at least offers this deep, young squad a steady pair of hands. 14th

Current performance: We’re only 12 games in, but already the 14th-placed Sky Blues appear to be the most likely team to still be in League One next season.

Strengths: Barring a mad 16-minute period at Bristol Rovers last month, Coventry have looked solid defensively. Although Dujon Sterling was billed as a right-sided utility man after joining on loan from Chelsea, his best performances more recently have, ironically, come at left-back.

Weaknesses: A return of 10 goals post-McNulty is slightly concerning; although the speedy Amadou Bakayoko bagged a brace in the 2-1 win at Charlton, he is still young and raw so it would be premature to suggest that he can solve all their problems.

Stick or twist? Stick. Although Robins targeted a play-off push in the summer, the continued tensions between board and fans means a midtable finish would mark a steady return to this level.

Rochdale

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Rochdale must re-discover the quick interplay that made them a force in their first three seasons at this level, rather than resort to the more fearful football that we saw at times in 2017-18. They might have enough to scrape another final day survival. 20th

Current performance: 15th , but with their cushion to the relegation zone being just three points, they cannot afford their current four-game winless streak to continue much longer.

Strengths: Ian Henderson. The striker has reached double-figures for league goals in each of his five full seasons with the club and is already well on course to continue that trend. He currently has six, thanks to a hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Gillingham, which was completed by a superb, acrobatic strike.

Weaknesses: The defence. Dale have conceded 25 goals, more than any other side in the division; although they haven’t been completely outplayed in games in which they have lost heavily, they are yet to find defenders who can stand strong when under the cosh.

Stick or twist? Stick. Another relegation battle looks likely.

Shrewsbury

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “There should be enough depth in this Salop squad to beat the drop with Shaun Whalley and Mat Sadler staying on. Replacing a lot of key players is a challenge, but without Paul Hurst, one just as big will be maintaining performance levels of those still present. 19th

Current performance: 16th. Not a great start but a reasonable one, after an extremely turbulent summer which saw Hurst depart along with five of their seven most-used players.

Strengths: Salop have enjoyed a run of defeat in seven, during which they have drawn at high-flying Portsmouth and Walsall; they should have prevailed in ties with Bristol Rovers and Gillingham, conceded a 90th-minute equalizer against the latter. They are not doing too much wrong.

Weaknesses: Expectation. After enjoying the excitement of a promotion race the year before, it can perhaps be difficult to endure a relegation battle, even if circumstances made it likely. John Askey has been questioned in some quarters when, had he taken over at the beginning of last season, the performance levels he has delivered might have perhaps made him more popular.

Stick or twist? Stick. They should avoid the drop even if, following last season’s near-fairytale, that doesn’t seem like glowing praise.

Wycombe

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Wycombe deserved their promotion but had the oldest squad in League Two and little has since been done to lower the average age; therein lies a concern. Such a strong reliance on Adebayo Akinfenwa could prove unhealthy and they may be more exposed in transition against higher-quality opponents. 23rd

Current performance: 17th, after getting their second win of the season against Burton last time out.

Strengths: Long throws. Right-back Michael Harriman and wide forward Randell Williams are very effective from those scenarios; it helps, of course, that the target is not hard to spot.

Weaknesses: The back-line is perhaps not the most reliable at this level. Ainsworth has been prepared to build his side around Akinfenwa, which naturally means committing numbers forward and thus, defensive gaps can appear.

Stick or twist? Stick. Wycombe don’t look quite as well-structured as other League One sides – but ‘Wild Things’ Ainsworth has worked miracles before and will no doubt relish the underdog tag.

Burton

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Burton have a concerning shortage of peak-age performers. Nigel Clough’s apparent pessimism could dampen the sense of fearlessness that had been central to the club’s rise. 21st

Current performance: 18th – 10 points off the top six and only one clear of the relegation zone. Clough will always be a Brewers legend but the decline under his watch cannot be ignored.

Strengths: Liam Boyce is top scorer by some distance with five goals. The SPL’s top scorer from 2016/17 – who was hit by a long-term injury last term – also works hard running the channels, not dissimilarly to Stuart Beavon.

Weaknesses: Their away form is a massive concern. Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Wycombe means they have just a solitary road point to their name.

Stick or twist? Stick. Burton look likely to be among the candidates for relegation.

Gillingham

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Steve Lovell has not only built bridges with Gillingham supporters, he also got the team playing further up the pitch. They can challenge for the top half. 11th

Current performance: With a section of fans beginning to question Lovell for the first time, Saturday’s impressive 2-0 win at leaders Portsmouth was as timely as it was unexpected.

Strengths: Tom Eaves. The tall striker, who scored 17 league goals last season, is on course for another strong campaign at Priestfield. He got them out of jail in the 2-2 draw at Shrewsbury, then scored a stunner at Fratton Park the following week.

Weaknesses: Some fans suggest Lovell might be too loyal to the diamond system. Whether they have the quality of wingers required to successfully change it though is another question.

Stick or twist? Stick, for now. But it all hangs on whether they can follow up that brilliant win at Pompey, or whether it was just a flash in the pan.

Wimbledon

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “James Hanson’s arrival suggests the Wombles will stick to the route one approach and the lack of depth could be an issue. A struggle surely beckons. 24th

Current performance: Wimbledon might be one place above the relegation zone, but they have lost four of their last five games and might consider themselves fortunate to beat Oxford 2-1.

Strengths: Scott Wagstaff is starting to add goals to his game and, having helped Charlton to the League One title in 2012/13, the versatile midfielder could be an asset; the Wombles have an excellent centre-back, too, in Deji Oshilaja.

Weaknesses: The division’s joint-lowest scorers with nine goals in 12 can be a tad predictable at times; they are yet to recover any points from losing positions.

Stick or twist? Stick. Neal Ardley’s side could be in serious jeopardy.

Bristol Rovers

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Key departures mean they don’t yet have the feel of a club ready to reach that next level. A top 10 finish might be the best they can hope for. 10th

Current performance: As well as Darrell Clarke has done at the Memorial Stadium, he tended to trust the same core of players who won promotion from the National League in 2014-15. Now almost all those players have left, he appears to be struggling to re-build the side.

Strengths: Clarke tends to work well with players he knows and trusts. It’s therefore unsurprising that the likes of Tom Lockyer and Ollie Clarke, when fit, have been among the better players.

Weaknesses: During their first two seasons at this level, Bristol Rovers normally had a star attacking player like Matt Taylor or Billy Bodin. It is hard to see where the stardust will come from though this year, in a side which has scored just nine goals – the joint-fewest in the division.

Stick or twist? Twist. Back-to-back promotions was a wonderful achievement for Rovers and Clarke, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that we could be coming towards the end of a brilliant era.

Bradford

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “In appointing rookie Michael Collins as head coach, Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp have taken a massive, massive risk. Bradford’s abysmal form in the second half of last season hasn’t allowed them to build steadily on the previous two play-off campaigns; instead, they must start all over again. 17th

Current performance: Bradford’s 2018 goes from bad to worse. That’s just seven wins from 33, four managers – the latest being David Hopkin – and off-field strife.

Strengths: Jack Payne. The diminutive playmaker has shown his quality at this level with Southend, Oxford and Blackburn and is the creative fulcrum behind Bradford’s better attacking play.

Weaknesses: Almost everything else. Defending set pieces though has at times bordered on comical – see Craig Mackail-Smith’s goal for Wycombe at Valley Parade in August.

Stick or twist? Stick. Make no mistake, they are in a relegation battle.

Plymouth

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Plymouth have achieved progress in each of their last five campaigns; a continuation of that trend would mean a shot at promotion come Spring. 3rd

Current performance: In fact, Argyle sit 23rd with seven points from a possible 36. The prediction did have a 3 in it, in fairness…

Strengths: Argyle fans hope the impressive performance in the 1-1 draw at Barnsley can prove a turning point; especially given that it was followed by their first win of the season, against Wimbledon, four days later. The club has been through bad runs under Derek Adams before and come out fighting, which suggests there’s plenty of unity at Home Park.

Weaknesses: Adams has tried to introduce more exciting full-backs this year like Tafari Moore and Ashley Smith-Brown, but sometimes their defensive naivety has led to sizable gaps in the defensive third. A return of nine goals in 12 league games needs improving on, too.

Stick or twist? Twist. Baring a miraculous resurgence, this looks like a rare year of regression for the Pilgrims.

Oxford

Gab’s pre-season prediction: “Oxford might have finished 16th last season, but Pep Clotet takes some responsibility for that; Karl Robinson won promotion with a similar squad at MK Dons in 2014-15. After he has had a summer to impart his possession principles, the play-offs are a realistic target. 6th

Current performance: They currently sit bottom of the pile, but to say they are the worst team in League One might not be entirely accurate; performances against Accrington, Sunderland, Wycombe and Wimbledon deserved far more than a combined two points.

Strengths: The midfield. Academy graduate Shandon Baptiste has been one of the bright sparks of their season to date, while Ricky Holmes, Marcus Browne and James Henry are an advanced trio with the potential to excite.

Weaknesses: A combination of poor defending and wasteful finishing at key moments have been problematic.

Stick or twist? Twist, it would be foolhardy to say otherwise. However, Plymouth were putting in worse performances and had one fewer point after 12 games last season, then were in the top six by March. It’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that Oxford could put a similar run together.

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Gabriel discovered the betting world through his passion for English football; he had a mixed start in April 2014, landing a solid treble before being let down the week after by beleaguered Torquay winning at Bristol Rovers. Although he often follows his beloved Birmingham City, he also covers other teams in the Midlands and enjoys visiting new grounds further afield now and again. Quite likes sitcom Not Going Out, too.

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