EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Tuesday night's best Football League fancies.
QPR v Leeds | Tuesday 26th February 2019, 19:45
Queens Park Rangers have endured a disappointing start to 2019, with a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa on New Years’ Day followed by a seven-game losing streak.
It is important to recognise that they have reached the Last 16 of the FA Cup this season for the first time since 1997 and are well on course to perform above expectation, given that chairman Amit Bhatia pinpointed survival as the target in September.
Understandably for a club with one of the lowest budgets in the division however, they do not have the greatest squad depth and that has been evident recently.
When Massimo Luongo went away to the Asian Cup, there was no alternative midfielder to provide drive and creativity – and the Australian has looked perhaps slightly jaded since returning.
While Geoff Cameron has been injured, there has been nobody in midfield who can provide his level of discipline, physicality and positional awareness.
Striker Nahki Wells has always relied so heavily on his ability to run in behind meaning, when his energy levels have taken a hit from the quick run of games, there has been no like-for-like option for Steve McClaren to bring in.
Joel Lynch and Toni Leistner, meanwhile, are good centre-backs when their remit is to head balls away from the box – and Leistner played reasonably well in the 3-2 home defeat to West Brom last time out – but both can be exposed in transition and QPR have no other options.
Plus, while Joe Lumley had done very well for the Rs before Christmas, he is still experiencing his first run of games at this level and so a temporary dip in form is inevitable.
When QPR have their first XI fit, available in-form and confident, they are a match for most teams in this league but when things have gone awry, McClaren has not had the luxury of being able to shuffle his pack effectively.
Similarly, opponents Leeds have endured a somewhat sticky start to 2019, which might perhaps have been influenced by ‘Spygate’. The club looked set to pull of the Deadline Day signing of Daniel James but, when Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins deceptively refused to answer the call that would confirm the wide man’s move, it did not go through.
One need only look at James’ performance in Swansea’s 4-1 FA Cup victory over Brentford to see that he would have added some much-needed pace and quality to Leeds’ attacking play.
To rub salt into the wound, 18-year-old star Jack Clarke, also an attacking wide man, picked up a virus that unfortunately rules him out – hardly ideal, considering that Marcelo Bielsa is not working with the biggest of squads.
The Whites did not play last week, instead watching Norwich and Sheffield United record convincing four-goal victories, which certainly put the heat on Leeds – although they responded well on Saturday, with a 2-1 win over relegation-threatened Bolton.
The one concern for Bielsa could be the goalkeeping issue. Bailey Peacock-Farrell had received a lot of criticism in the first half of the campaign, despite making crucial saves in certain games like 1-0 wins over Reading and Sheffield United. The club opted to replace him with Kiko Casilla, who joined from Real Madrid in January.
The problem with bringing in a goalkeeper from abroad mid-season, as Aston Villa have discovered with Lovre Kalinic, is that it can be difficult for them to adjust to a completely new country.
When a foreigner arrives in pre-season, they tend to get a month or two to ease themselves into their new surroundings before the action starts whereas Casilla has been asked to perform straight away, and he did not look especially convincing in their last away game, a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough.
Bielsa’s side should be backed at 3/1 to accrue three points in West London without keeping a clean sheet.
Shrewsbury v Doncaster | Tuesday 26th February 2019, 19:45
Shrewsbury deserve immense credit for their FA Cup run, which saw them take Wolverhampton Wanderers to a replay at Molineux after a 2-2 draw in Shropshire, before ultimately going out respectfully in the last-16.
Similarly to previous memorable runs in that competition however, like when they beat Everton in 2003-04 and played Manchester United in 2015-16, they are also in a relegation battle.
Although they have been helped by a vital 2-1 win at 10-man Peterborough on Saturday, Salop have still won just one of their last 10 league games, form that has left them just two points above the drop zone – every team below bar AFC Wimbledon are within three points of them.
Early in Sam Ricketts’ reign, he kept faith in the diamond system that had worked well during Danny Coyne and Eric Ramsey’s productive four league game spell in interim charge, which incidentally accounts for two of their eight league wins to date.
Due to the difficulty his side had had scoring goals in open play, however, Ricketts has more recently switched to a 3-4-3, with Stoke loanee Tyrese Campbell leading the attack flanked by Alex Gilliead and Shaun Whalley.
As we saw for his opener in the recent 1-1 home draw with Burton, Campbell offers pace in behind which troubles defences; Gilliead and Whalley pride themselves on dribbling, which suggests counter-attack will be the name of the game.
However, none of those players quite offer the physicality and touch to hold the ball up in tight areas, which means the Shrews are perhaps slightly limited in terms of the ways they can attack.
Like Shrewsbury, Doncaster can take a lot of pride from their run to the Last 16 of the FA Cup.
They produced a reasonably competitive performance in the 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace; they never once compromised their possession principles and, without exactly carving their opponents open, they created numerous half-chances, as well as Alfie May’s headed effort from close range and Kane’s drive that stung Wayne Hennessey’s palms.
The encounter showed that Ben Whiteman, although not a holding midfielder in the traditional sense, can influence games not through physicality and aggression, but through intelligence and technical proficiency – even against top-flight opposition.
The rotation of the midfield worked a treat with James Coppinger pressing in wide areas, then the likes of May, Kane and set piece specialist Ali Crawford all interchanging positions.
Many League One teams in that position would have looked at a starting eleven containing the likes of Michy Batshuayi and Andros Townsend and adopted a defensive approach, so it is a sign of how much belief Donny have in their playing identity that they are willing to impose it against Palace.
Additionally, Doncaster have an excellent goalscorer in John Marquis who acts as a focal point to their attacks which is essential, even in a possession-based side.
Shrewsbury do not quite have that focal point and that could prove the difference on Tuesday night – the visitors will fancy their chances of attaining victory at 8/5 with Bet365.
Lincoln v Exeter | Tuesday 26th February 2019, 19:45
Although Lincoln blew a two-goal lead with four minutes of normal time to play in their last home game, against Stevenage, in terms of general performance they were still arguably fortunate to draw 2-2 – at least according to the opposing manager.
After Saturday’s 2-0 win at Morecambe, Danny Cowley’s side are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches, even if that is less impressive when we consider they have drawn four of their last five.
There appears to be defensive problems for the leaders. Cowley has been unable to maintain a stable centre-back pairing for various reasons, plus the goalkeeper position has changed hands between Grant Smith, Josh Vickers and Matt Gilks, all within the last two months.
Going forward though, they have a lot more variety about their play than we saw in the previous campaign. In 2017-18, the plan was largely centred around early balls into target man Matt Rhead and when he was nullified, they looked short of alternative ideas.
This year, they not only have a more mobile big striker in John Akinde, who has scored 12 goals in all competitions, but they are also getting more out of their midfield in a creative sense.
While classic winger Harry Anderson has been suspended, we have seen Bruno Andrade occupy his position on the right, with Tom Pett on the left and Danny Rowe just behind Akinde; all three attacking midfielders have been given licence to rotate and interchange.
Visitors Exeter have adjusted reasonably smoothly to the post-Tisdale era; because the long-serving boss had been such a divisive figure towards the end of his reign, there is perhaps an element of relief among natives that there’s a new face at the helm to get behind.
Matt Taylor has not exactly been helped by losing arguably his side’s best player in his first two transfer windows, with Jordan Moore-Taylor going to MK Dons in the summer and then Jayden Stockley moving on to Preston last month.
It remains to be seen just how the Grecians will fare without the latter who, being a target man as well as somebody who scored 29 goals throughout 2018, was crucial to the way they played.
However, Ryan Bowman and Jonathan Forte are capable strikers at this level and Taylor was pleased with the power his side showed at the top end of the pitch in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Crewe.
He has been backed to bring in players of reasonable calibre, with intelligent midfielder Nicky Law looking arguably the signing of the League Two season and January addition Randell Williams rated at Wycombe in the division above, so there is reason to think they can cause problems.
Six of the last 10 league games at Sincil Bank have seen the points shared, with both teams finding the net at least once – a repeat is 4/1 with Betfred.