FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite three selections from the weekends EFL action.
Stoke v Bristol City | Saturday 14th September 2019, 15:00
Last week Stoke chairman Peter Coates broke his silence for the first time on the current crisis at the club to say he remains confident Nathan Jones will steer the Potters away from the foot of the Championship. Despite losing five of their first six games, Coates has offered the former Luton boss the dreaded vote of confidence from the club’s hierarchy.
City are searching for that elusive first success of the season and Jones has come under plenty of criticism from supporters for his constant chopping-and-changing as he seeks a winning formula. The Welshman has appeared exasperated in dealings with the press after overseeing August’s fruitless opening, openly attacking his underperforming players.
However, the head coach needs to take his fair share of the blame game. Stoke have performed reasonably well in parts, with positives to take out of disappointing defeats to Charlton and Derby. But Jones has since opted to move away from his tried-and-trusted 3-5-2 system, switching formation almost every half, including an unsuccessful attempt at 4-3-3.
The task to turn around fortunes at the Bet365 Stadium is obviously tall. The Potters have endured a ghastly 2019, coming off the back of a diabolical 2018, and a miserable 2017. This weekend’s hosts haven’t tasted top honours since early April, registered back-to-back triumphs since October last year, or scored three goals in a game since December 2017.
Extra time on the training paddock during the international break may have aided Jones’ cause but the feisty boss has been situ since January with green shoots of progress few and far between. Sure, exclude results and Stoke haven’t been the worst team in the league this term, but their propensity to implode and their soft-centre has to cause concern.
The Potters have shipped 15 goals – twice as many as their Expected Goals (xG) against tally – with Jack Butland particularly at fault for a few. Only five teams are facing fewer attempts, although issues arise in the attacking third with Jones’ group generating just 1.17 xG on average and ranking mid-table from shots attempted from inside the penalty box.
Confidence is brittle at Stoke, the Potters’ identity is waning and I think they’re ripe for opposing when a bullish Bristol City arrive on Saturday. Since a chastening opening defeat to Leeds at Ashton Gate, the Robins have found their feet to unassumingly take their place in the top-six off the back of a five-match unbeaten streak (W3-D2-L0).
Lee Johnson’s men may have Adam Nagy back to partner Josh Brownhill in midfield and the visitors are well adept at picking up positive points on the road. The guests have been beaten only seven (27%) times on their travels since the start of last season, scoring in all bar four of those 26 tussles, and shutting out their opposition on nine (35%) occasions.
Top-level performance data suggests Bristol City have been largely unremarkable thus far – just five sides have fired in fewer shots than the Robins and the visitors top the charts for efforts faced. However, if we dig deeper, the away side have restricted chances conceded in key areas, whilst averaging a hefty 1.59 xG across their opening three away days.
There’s value to be found keeping Bristol City onside but I’ll bolster the odds on offer to 9/10 by backing the Robins via the Double Chance market and adding Over 0.5 Goals into the equation via Bet365’s Bet Builder. All 12 of the two teams’ combined contests have featured at least two goals with 10 also producing Over 2.5 Goals profit.
Rotherham v Bolton | Saturday 14th September 2019, 15:00
Rotherham's coaching staff have opted to change dugouts for their home games, in an attempt to help turn around a poor start to the season at the New York Stadium.
The League One side have failed to win any of their four home games (in all competitions) so far this campaign, with the concession of crucial stoppage-time goals to Sheffield Wednesday in the EFL Cup and Tranmere in League One proving to be the tipping point.
Millers boss Paul Warne hopes that his communication with his players will be enhanced by being further away from the loud home stand that his team prefers to attack in the second half. The United supremo is looking for marginal gains any way possible with pressure mounting after last weekend’s dismal derby defeat at Doncaster.
Warne spent almost an hour-and-a-half locked in the dressing room with his players following that disappointing display at the Keepmoat Stadium, emerging only after revealing plenty of home truths to his underperforming squad in a deep-layered inquest. The Rotherham manager knows a reaction is now necessary when Bolton pitch up on Saturday.
Warne expressed his displeasure about facing the Trotters so soon after their last-ditch recruitment spree, saying “It feels like we're going into it blindfolded. They know everything about us and how we play but we don't know what system they'll adopt or what their set-pieces will be like.” But Rotherham are undoubtedly in a better place.
New boy Chiedozie Ogbene has been ruled out until mid-October, midfielder Shaun MacDonald is a doubt and both Kyle Vassell and Billy Jones are absent for the hosts. Nevertheless, this looks like the perfect opportunity to get their campaign back on track and the Millers are generously priced at 8/13 to clinch an overdue three points.
Only a fortnight ago Rotherham went off at the same price when welcoming Tranmere to the New York Stadium, and I’m not at all convinced Bolton will be ready to roll (and compete) just yet. Wanderers will be backed by a sold-out away following and could field up to six of their nine deadline day signings in the starting XI on Saturday.
New boss Keith Hill refused to reveal any details about his team and remained coy about a number of training ground injuries sustained in the run-up to the trip to Yorkshire. Few of the recent incomings will be match fit and so I’m finding it hard to foresee a situation where Bolton can be rated at a similar level to a Tranmere team that here just two weeks ago.
I’ll happily take the 10/11 (Bet365) on Rotherham to triumph in a match featuring Over 1 Goal using the Bet Builder function.
Crewe v Cambridge| Saturday 14th September 2019, 15:00
We might be barely six weeks into the 2019/20 campaign but the early signs suggest Crewe could be serious title contenders in League Two. The Railwaymen finished last season like a train, picking up the most points in the division over the final 23 games, and have continued their fine form this term, tabling five victories in their opening seven outings.
An opening day 3-0 defeat at Plymouth wasn’t a fair reflection on how the contest played out and the Alex have responded to that speed bump superbly with a number of eye-catching efforts thereafter. Indeed, Crewe’s performance in the first-half at Crawley was as good as any I’ve seen at League Two level for quite some time. They were sublime.
Newport managed to edge David Artell’s outfit out at Rodney Parade three weeks ago, but like their loss against Plymouth, Crewe won all the major data metrics and deserve immense credit for their character and application when going away to in-form Grimsby last weekend and pocketing a commanding 2-0 triumph at Blundell Park.
This Crewe side has a wonderful mix of youthful exuberance, and experience. There’s a collection of future stars strutting their stuff and old, gritty heads around and about to mop up the dirty stuff. I suspected the Alex might be bullied at Grimsby, but Artell’s troops dominated possession and limited their muscular opponents to very few clear-cut chances.
Renowned for their aesthetically-pleasing style, Crewe can continue to their hot streak at Gresty Road by dispatching Cambridge here this weekend at kind 5/6 (Marathon) quotes. The hosts have fired in more on-target attempts than any other in League Two this term, attempting the second-most shots, and feature at the top end for Expected Goals (xG) output.
The Alex have won 17/26 (65%) home league fixtures since the start of last season and look well suit to cause a Cambridge side lacking offensive inspiration plenty of problems. The U’s come into this contest on the back of three straight league defeats against Oldham, Forest Green and Port Vale, failing to score in their most recent two encounters.
The visitors have fired blanks in four of their first seven games and been beaten in 8/15 (53%) road trips since Colin Calderwood took charge. In fairness, Cambridge were unfortunate not to pick up points against Oldham and Forest Green at The Abbey, but the side’s lack of a clinical edge and misfiring forwards have long been a problem, as well as their wretched road record.
Defensively, the guests are well set-up under the Scot but I’m backing Crewe’s class to prove decisive in Cheshire. Victory for the hosts would make it the club's best start since 1949 and I make them good value to succeed.