EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Tuesday night's best Football League fancies.
Derby v Wigan | Tuesday 5th March 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
While it would be premature to say that Derby County are in crisis, given that they have not dropped below seventh since the season’s infancy, their current form necessitates a response.
Saturday’s 4-0 defeat at Aston Villa means they have lost their last three league games – each of them in worrying circumstances.
In the 1-0 home loss to Millwall, they moved the ball far too slowly and were unable to penetrate a disciplined rear-guard.
In the 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, they displayed a concerning lack of drive in an East Midlands derby in which they had 88 minutes to respond to the opener.
Then, of course, there was the capitulation at Villa Park – where they were four goals behind by the interval.
It is tempting to put some of this decline down to Frank Lampard’s inexperience – but in his last interview, he spoke with a level of poise, honesty and authority that made it hard to imagine him losing the respect of a young group of players.
While Lampard should shoulder some of the blame, at least an equally big issue is the players out of the team.
Mason Mount has been crucial for the Rams this season, because so much of the play had gone through him and there does not appear to be another midfielder in that squad who offers drive and creativity simultaneously.
Tom Lawrence can produce moments of magic in the final third and perhaps he played a part in taking some of the attention off Harry Wilson, who himself was dropped to the bench last time out.
Plus, a possession system necessitates attacking full-backs.
Andre Wisdom was a solid enough option in a Gary Rowett setup but looks slightly off-the-pace for Lampard’s methods and completed 90 minutes for the first time since November last time out.
Academy graduate Jayden Bogle is the only other option in that regard and he, too, is having a challenging period in his first season of senior football.
On the left, it seems amusing to think of Scott Malone being better than the once world-class Ashley Cole but the former Fulham man, despite two defensively suspect displays recently, offers more energy going forward and it is surprising that he has been dropped for the last three matches.
Derby look out of sorts and Wigan Athletic can be dangerous opposition for a troubled big-spender, as they proved in their two best performances of the season – 3-0 victories over Stoke and Aston Villa.
Since beating the latter, they have only scored five goals in seven games – they are currently on a five-game unbeaten streak as well as a run of four consecutive draws.
Paul Cook’s Portsmouth and Wigan sides in League Two and League One respectively liked to dominate possession, which was why the attacking quartet in his setup saw a lot of the ball and could create a high-volume of chances and goals.
Since moving into a bigger pond, Cook’s side have averaged just 49% possession and perhaps it has been harder for them to bring forwards into play.
The Liverpudlian, notorious in lower leagues for being stubbornly loyal to his beloved 4-2-3-1, was pushed to switch to 3-5-2 for Saturday’s 0-0 nullification job against Middlesbrough.
Cook has shown a surprising willingness to compromise his philosophy in order to adjust to the level and a possible relegation battle – his side could produce another defensive display here.
Accrington v Blackpool | Tuesday 5th March 2019, 19:45
Accrington Stanley are doing better than a lot of pundits expected in League One but equally, they are still looking over their shoulders.
In League Two, anyone can have a poor season and still be relatively safe with only the two worst sides going down, but with four relegation spots in League One, anyone in the bottom half in March will get a touch of the jitters.
The Reds began 2019 on a run of six games without a goal (including a 4-0 home defeat to Peterborough before New Year), but their Expected Goals For (xGF) sample in that period ranked them 13th in quality of chance creation, which implied they were not getting too much wrong.
Sure enough, stocky hold-up man Billy Kee has since rediscovered a hint of the form that saw him score 25 goals in League Two last season, while deceptively diminutive strike-partner Paul Smyth has begun to settle in since joining on loan from QPR.
The attacking duo complimented one another very well in a 2-2 draw at Sunderland which gave them plenty of belief, because the Reds beat Oxford 4-2 just four days later – and they could have scored more, such was the quality of their attacking play.
Contrary to most teams operating at this level with a small budget, John Coleman’s side are very brave in possession – the likes of Daniel Barlaser and Sam Finlay like to hold onto the ball when placed under pressure.
Perhaps, that might have counted against them in Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Coventry, when they were hit in transition for the winner, but Stanley are certainly not overawed by more glamorous opposition.
Their next challenge is the visit from Blackpool, who have had excellent news off the field in the last week, with the Oyston family finally leaving the club.
However, that did not help them on the field on Saturday, when they lost 4-0 at Bristol Rovers.
Unusually, there was something not quite right about Terry McPhillips’ men’s midfield make-up at the Mem.
Captain Jay Spearing covered all bases as always, but one might question whether he had enough help from partner Jordan Thompson, or whether the likes of OIiver Turton and Harry Pritchard offered enough support in wide areas.
With two strikers by trade on the pitch in Armand Gnanduillet and Nathan Delfouneso, it is important that every other player is switched on without the ball.
It might be that Terry McPhillips decides to bring Michael Nottingham in for Pritchard to switch to an orthodox 4-4-2 and tighten things up slightly.
Regardless of the form they take, defensive-minded tweaks are likely after a mauling – which can be considered an anomaly for a side that have kept 16 clean sheets, the joint-most in the division.
Accrington and Blackpool have Expected Goals Ratios (xGR) of 50.33% and 50.39% respectively, meaning despite stylistic differences there is negligible difference between their performance levels – that could show in this cross-Lancashire clash.
Cheltenham v Bury | Tuesday 5th March 2019, 19:45
Cheltenham are making excellent progress under Michael Duff.
They have won their last four home games, all against teams now below them in the table, which has given them a healthy 11-point cushion from the relegation zone.
Although they lost 4-2 at promotion-contenders Mansfield on Saturday, it was not the worst day for them, because it was a reasonable performance aside from individual errors and the gap to the bottom two remained the same with one fewer game to play.
Duff now has a dilemma. He could stick with the counter-attacking 3-4-2-1 setup deployed in Nottinghamshire, in which Jordan Tillson impressed in a holding role, with the dynamic Kevin Dawson pushed further forward next to Jacob Maddox behind Luke Varney up top.
However, Bury tend to have few problems guarding against breakaways, despite having a very attacking setup; they are well coached and have a habit of regaining the second ball whenever an initial attack breaks down.
Rather, their weakness is defending crosses and, with one of the best deliverers of a ball below the Championship in ex-Shaker Chris Hussey, that is something Cheltenham could exploit.
Duff might therefore be tempted to pair model pro Varney with fit again target man Tyrone Barnett, because he can peel off onto the weakest Bury centre-back and win every header from crosses, with the athletic Ryan Broom also providing a reasonable standard of centres.
If we think about players who have done the most damage to Bury this season – Chris O’Grady and Richie Bennett – they are big, powerful players and in Barnett, Cheltenham have the tools to test their mettle.
Equally, there’s a possibility that the away side will use the ball well enough to stop their hosts being in the position of getting balls into the box– and of course, they have a multitude of threats themselves.
With Jordan Rossiter dictating play, the visitors can look to two number 10s – dribbler Danny Mayor and goalscoring specialist Jay O’Shea – meaning when one is nullified, the other has extra space.
Ryan Lowe can also call upon mobile forward Dominic Telford to partner ruthless line-leader Nicky Maynard, should he need to freshen up his attack for the midweek fixture – and that’s before we mention assist-king Nicky Adams on the right.
Cheltenham can get on the scoresheet, without stopping Bury attaining a fifth consecutive league win.
Derby v Wigan – Wigan clean sheet (10/3 William Hill)
Accrington v Blackpool – Draw (12/5 Bet365)
Cheltenham v Bury – Bury to win and Both Teams To Score (31/10 BetVictor)