FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from the weekend's EFL action.
Leeds v Blackburn | Saturday 9th November 2019, 15:00
Leeds returned to winning ways last weekend when swatting QPR aside 2-0 at Elland Road. Despite controlling the match for long periods, the Whites were again left nurturing a slender one-goal advantage until Jack Harrison eventually ended the contest with eight minutes to play, grabbing the decisive second strike.
Harrison’s goal also meant Marcelo Bielsa’s men scored more than once in a home game for the first time in 2019/20, having now mustered just 19 in 15 league matches – the joint fewest in the top half of the Championship table.
Profligate finishing and elementary defensive errors cost Leeds promotion last term and the Argentine head coach will be hoping his team iron out their issues in the final-third following another remarkable spell of dominance during the opening 14 weeks of the campaign. For the second successive season, the Whites are operating in a league of their own.
No second-tier team has registered more shots, on-target efforts, attempts from inside the box, generated a larger Expected Goals (xG) figure, posted a higher xG from open play return or enjoyed more touches inside the opposition penalty area. Meanwhile, only Fulham (63%) are monopolising possession more than Bielsa’s boys (59%).
In contrast, the Whites are allowing their opponents fewer than nine shots at goal on average – 4.40 of which are from inside the box – and giving up only 0.41 xG from open play per-game, the same figure as PSG in Ligue 1. So whilst the offence might be misfiring, United’s form this season has been built on their impenetrable defence.
It’s therefore no surprise to see Leeds chalked up at miniscule prices when welcoming league rivals to Elland Road and that’s the case again here when Blackburn arrive. The hosts boast a 60% home win rate in regular season action under Bielsa, have kept 13/30 (43%) clean sheets and scored in all but four fixtures. All bar two tussles featured under 4.5 Goals.
With such domineering data, plus persuasive goal statistics in our favour, I’m happy to chip away at the 4/5 (Coral) on Leeds taking top honours on Saturday in a fixture featuring fewer than five goals. Sixteen of the team’s 18 Championship triumphs since the start of last term have followed a familiar path to profit and I expect the Whites to keep Rovers restrained.
Blackburn ended a six-game winless streak (W0-D2-L4) with a last-gasp turnaround victory (2-1) against Sheffield Wednesday seven days ago. Tosin Adarabioyo's looping header put Rovers back on terms with two minutes to go, before 20-year-old John Buckley's deflected effort in stoppage time won the game as he netted his first senior goal.
Owls stopper Keiren Westwood had kept the visitors in the game with a string of second-half saves and the Ewood Park outfit appeared to be heading for an eight league loss of the season. However, sad-faced Tony Mowbray felt his side got their just rewards for a decent display following a second-half horror show at Deepdale just a week earlier.
Blackburn are now back on the road looking to enhance a rather miserable W8-D5-L16 record on their travels since returning to the second-tier at the beginning of last season. The Lancashire lot are operating off a bottom-six xG and xG from open play ratio and once again are without influential defensive pair Greg Cunningham and Darragh Lenihan.
The absence of Lenihan has often proven problematic. With the Irish defender on the field for an hour or more, Rovers have W18-D11-L14 since the start of last season, including 15 (35%) shutouts in 43 fixtures. However, that record drops to a worrying W3-D4-L11 without him as Blackburn have leaked an average 1.83 goals per-game, picking up a sole clean sheet.
QPR v Middlesbrough | Saturday 9th November 2019, 15:00
“People say the league table tells the truth, but it’s not. It’s lying at the minute because we deserve to be higher than we are. We’ve had chances to score goals and missed opportunities and had refereeing decisions not go in our favour.”
That was Jonathan Woodgate’s retort at the end of October after being asked about his Middlesbrough team’s position in the bottom three of the Championship. The Teessiders responded to those comments with a resounding 2-0 reverse at Derby, extending Boro’s winless streak to eight games (W0-D3-L5) and increasing pressure on the rookie boss.
Woodgate’s right, in a way. The league table always tells lies, especially at this early stage. However, he’s telling porkies of his own if he believes Middlesbrough should be shopping in much safer waters. Since a bright, enterprising and exciting opening encounter at Luton (3-3), Boro have largely been ordinary, underwhelming, stodgy and quite forgettable.
Strip out those three goals from Kenilworth Road and the Teessiders have scored eight times in 14 Championship outings – that’s over 21 hours of football. Only once in that sample have Boro struck twice or more in a match and Woodgate’s charges have fired blanks in half of that sequence, including each of their most recent four fixtures.
The proud Nunthorpe man promised supporters “attacking, exciting football” after being handed the reigns following Tony Pulis’ departure. But Boro rank rock-bottom for goals, 21st for shots on-target attempted, 22nd for efforts inside the box, 22nd for xG output, 19th for xG from open play generated and 17th for touches inside the opposition penalty area.
The only reason Middlesbrough are ranking as high as 12th in the standard shots attempted table is due to Lewis Wing firing in 30 efforts from outside the box – that’s 16% of the club’s overall shots at goal this season. Not since that curtain-raiser against Luton has one of those attempts resulted in a goal for the Teessiders.
To make matters worse, Woodgate’s troops travel to the capital with options limited. Ace keeper Darren Randolph is out and back-up Aynsley Pears is suspected to have fractured a finger, putting his involvement as 50-50. Elsewhere, George Friend, Ryan Shotton, Rudy Gestede, Ashley Fletcher and Marcus Browne are crocked with George Saville suspended.
Britt Assombalonga is the only senior striker available as the visitors seek to improve upon a winless road record (W0-D3-L4). But the lack of bodies almost negates the possible positives of playing against a ramshackle QPR defence on Saturday; and with confidence-sapped, it’s difficult to foresee the Teessiders taking maximum points away from Loftus Road.
QPR have suffered deserved back-to-back defeats against Brentford and Leeds in the past week and it’s clear from the inside that Rangers won’t be troubling the top-six this term despite a promising start under Mark Warburton’s watch. The R’s have lost six of their eight games against the top-14, conceding at least twice in seven of those contests.
Nevertheless, a match-up with Middlesbrough appears much more within range as the Super Hoops have returned W5-D2-L0 when locking horns with the division’s bottom-third. QPR themselves have scored twice or more in six of those seven showdowns, accumulating 17 goals with the likes of Nahki Wells, Jordan Hugill and Ebere Eze headlining.
Rangers remain inside the top-10 for all major data metrics and will point to the fact that 10 (36%) of their 28 goals against this season have come from shots outside the box or penalties. This is arguably our best chance in a while to arrest those defensive concerns and as an R’s fan, I’d be bitterly disappointed to leave W12 pointless this weekend.
As expected, the cash has come for QPR this week and an odds-against proposition has now turned into a best-priced 93/100 (Marathon) option. That doesn’t quite float my boat – forgive my pessimism for backing Rangers at odds-on – so instead I’ve dipped into the alternative markets to find a similar price with a little more pragmatism.
888 go 9/10 on QPR double chance, Over 0.5 Goals and Over 2.5 Cards via their Bet Builder option and that’s a more palatable play when opposing Boro. Essentially, I’ll be supporting Rangers not to lose in a match that produces at least one goal and three or more cards.
David Coote is the referee and he’s averaging 3.86 cards per-game in 2019/20. He’ll be officiating two of the divisional leaders for fouls committed, whilst the pair have seen at least two cards each in 22 of their combined 30 encounters already this season, suggesting the league average for cards per-game will be met comfortably.