FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Swansea v Wigan | Saturday 18th January 2020, 15:00
Swansea supremo Steve Cooper said his side were “frustrated, in a good way” after playing out an evenly-contested 0-0 draw against bitter Welsh rivals Cardiff last weekend. The result keeps the Swans on the cusp of the Championship play-off places and the former England youth boss has made no secret of the club’s desire for a promotion push this season.
Any irritations surrounding last weekend’s derby will have been lifted following an eye-catching foray into the January transfer market, mind. Swansea have significantly bolstered their squad with the arrival of Rhian Brewster, on-loan from Liverpool, as well as the loan capture of Conor Gallagher, who spent the first half of the campaign with Charlton.
The latter is expected to add much-needed dynamism to the Swans midfield, as well as goals, after playing a standout role at The Valley already in 2019/290. Elsewhere, Cooper’s also made use of his connections to secure the temporary signing of England U21 defender Marc Guehi from Chelsea. And so it’s clear the Welsh outfit are targeting the top-six.
Saturday’s hosts made a blistering start to life under Cooper, banking 16 points from their first six Championship games, but the Swans have since earned just six triumphs from their following 21 outings (W6-D8-L7). Despite their patchy form, the former Premier League outfit arrive this weekend in a strong position and buoyant from their recent business.
In fairness to Swans, performances have been reasonably consistent of late, particularly against the league’s lesser lights. Exclude the top-eight and City have W11-D8-L1, including W6-D3-L2 at the Liberty Stadium; the home side have also collected three successive clean sheets and conceded only five goals in their last seven outings at their Glamorgan base.
Wigan are Saturday afternoon’s visitors and the Latics are in the thick of the relegation battle having registered only five victories in their 27 league tussles this term. Athletic were unable to build upon their 3-2 victory at Birmingham last time out as Bristol City bagged top honours at the DW Stadium to keep Paul Cook’s team three points away from safety.
That aforementioned success at St Andrew’s is Wigan’s only win on the road in 2019/20 and since promotion back to the second-tier, the Latics have registered a wretched W3-D9-L25 on their Championship travels – a 68% loss rate, recording just two shutouts and failing to find the back of the net themselves on 16 (43%) occasions.
Athletic have been beaten in 11 of their 16 outings when excluding the bottom-eight, and performance data remains underwhelming with the guests occupying 23rd in the division for Expected Goals (xG) from open play ratio due to their dreadful offensive output.
Those limp attacking efforts were evident again against Bristol City seven days ago as Wigan huffed and puffed, dominating in terms of possession and territory for an hour without ever really looking like having the guile or craft to break down their opponents. A similar insipid performance in South Wales is unlikely to garner rewards against Swansea.
The home side are an appealing proposition at even-money (William Hill) but I’m going to bolster the odds on offer to 17/10 (William Hill) by adding Wigan to collect Over 1.5 Cards. The Latics are amongst the divisional leaders for fouls and cautions, whilst also collecting two bookings or more in 30 (81%) of their 37 away days since the start of last season.
Accrington v Southend | Saturday 18th January 2020, 15:00
Southend manager Sol Campbell praised the professionalism of his players after the Shrimpers ended a turbulent week with a point against Tranmere last Saturday. The build-up to the Roots Hall clash had been overshadowed by sections of Blues’ squad not picking up their December wage packets until the situation was finally sorted on Friday afternoon.
And Campbell was happy with how the second-from-bottom Shrimpers brushed aside their difficult preparation to enjoy the better of a goalless draw against their fellow relegation battlers. The result saw Southend keep just their second clean sheet of the season and their first at Roots Hall since shutting out Gillingham on New Year’s Day 2019.
Sure, the Essex outfit have still triumphed just once in League One this term, but the stalemate was yet another small step in the right direction. Under Campbell’s guidance, Southend have at least now become harder to beat, producing competitive and consistent performances that make their pre-match price this weekend a little too large to ignore.
Five of the Shrimpers past seven fixtures have ended all-square (W0-D5-L2) with only one reverse since the start of December arriving by a margin of two goals or more – that came at Bristol Rovers in a match where Southend stormed into a two-goal half-time advantage, only to collapse after the interval and suffer a morale-sapping 4-2 defeat.
Nevertheless, developments have been noticed in Blues’ underlying data metrics. Southend boast a 52% Expected Goals (xG) ratio supremacy in the aforementioned seven-game streak, generating 1.59 xG per-game. However, Campbell is still striving for improvements in the final-third with the Shrimpers netting just once from open play in their last five fixtures.
On Saturday, the Essex club make the long journey to Accrington as 11/2 outsiders, a price reflective of their rotten season-long results rather than the more recent proposition put together under Campbell’s tutorship. And I’m happy to invest faith in Southend keeping this contest close with the Shrimpers 4/5 (Red Zone) with a +1.25 start on the Asian Handicap.
The selection sees us make a full-stakes profit on an away victory or draw, with a half-stakes return ensured should the match at the Crown Ground see Accrington succeed by a solitary strike. The only way in which our angle of attack won’t make money is if Stanley triumph by two goals or more, a feat the hosts have managed on only four occasions this season.
Accy manager John Coleman was forced to apologise to Reds supporters who travelled to Suffolk last weekend for what he called a “diabolical” first-half as Stanley were shredded 4-1 at Ipswich. Pulling no punches after seeing his side 3-0 down at the break, the Accrington boss was bemused by his team’s lack of energy, fight, ideas and accuracy at Portman Road.
The Reds have lost back-to-back league matches in 2020, having enjoyed a fine end to 2019, and Coleman has admitted losing both Sean McConville and Jordan Clark to injury has been a hammer blow to Stanley, regarding the pair as the best wide players in the division. Clark could return here but regardless, I’m happy to oppose a comfortable home win.
Plymouth v Mansfield | Saturday 18th January 2020, 15:00
The League Two table might suggest otherwise but Plymouth are the form team in the fourth-tier. Sitting outside the automatic promotion places on goal difference, the Pilgrims have earned 32 points from 15 fixtures (W10-D2-L3) since late September to occupy a strong position in the hunt for an immediate return to League One.
Argyle’s excellent run of results has been matched by an ever-improving return in the performance data metrics too, particularly when welcoming opposition outfits to Home Park. The Greens boast an excellent W7-D3-L0 record when hosting sides below them in the standings, scoring at least two goals in nine of those 10 encounters.
Ryan Lowe’s troops are now generating the third-highest Expected Goals (xG) output from open play in League Two, as well as the sixth-best average across the whole of the EFL. Remarkably, 17 different players have gotten on the scoresheet from the glut of chances being created with the emergence of young Luke Jephcote catching the eye.
Having been recalled from a spell on loan at Truro in the Southern League, the 19-year-old academy graduate has scored four goals in two starts since then and has been joined in the squad by Ryan Hardie from Blackpool on-loan, the latter of whom was also on-target after making a debut from the bench in last weekend’s domineering 3-0 defeat of Carlisle.
Momentum is building around the Devon giants, there’s been an impressive buy-in from players and supporters alike, and Plymouth are quite simply in-synch, on and off the field. There’s a confidence and buoyancy surrounding Home Park and I expect Argyle to seal a top-three finish between now and May.
In contrast, the scene at Mansfield – Plymouth’s visitors on Saturday – is of frustration, irritation and exasperation. The Stages have endured a disastrous campaign considering the budget and expectation coming into 2019/20 and new boss Graham Coughlan said the club hit rock-bottom following last week’s infuriating loss against Forest Green.
Town were excellent for large swathes of the first-half against Forest Green before conceding right on half-time. Coughlan said his players’ legs “turned to jelly” thereafter and questioned the character and confidence in the group following a diabolical defensive display in the second 45 minutes that cost the club a vital victory.
Before the match, Mansfield chairman John Radford delivered an angry rebuke of some of the players in his programme notes, accusing some of the squad of not giving their all for the badge and demanding more hunger and pride to play for the club, whilst experienced pair Krystian Pearce and Jacob Mellis have been told they can leave.
Mansfield begin the week 17 points off Plymouth and only five points above the relegation zone. I expect the Stags to suffer more pain on Saturday before pride can be restored, although they should at least go down fighting in this fixture with the Stags one of the most card-happy teams in the division.
Town are amongst the league leaders for fouls committed and cautions collected, earning at least two cards in 10 of their 13 away days thus far. With Trevor Kettle owning the whistle – a 4.65 cards per-game average – this weekend, it would be a surprise if Mansfield avoided a few run-ins with the referee, especially against one of the more possession-friendly outfits.
With that in mind, I'll take the 13/8 (William Hill) on Plymouth to win and Mansfield to collect Over 1.5 Cards at Home Park. The general Match Odds on a home success are decent enough, however, a move for the Greens in the past 48 hours meant previous odds-against quotes became unavailable, hence the search for a more juicier price elsewhere.
Swansea v Wigan – Swansea to win and Wigan to collect Over 1.5 Cards (17/10 William Hill)
Accrington v Southend – Southend +1.25 Asian Handicap (4/5 Red Zone)
Plymouth v Mansfield – Plymouth to win and Mansfield to collect Over 1.5 Cards (13/8 William Hill)