FOOTBALL LEAGUE analyst Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) returns with his best bets from Saturday's 3pm kick-offs.
Norwich v Leeds | Saturday 25th August 2018, 15:00
Football is a funny old game, they say.
Norwich fans would tend to agree after seeing three fairly promising performances returning a solitary point at the start of the season, before a disjointed and bitty display produced a victory in midweek against Preston.
The Canaries laboured for 80 minutes and saw North End crash an effort against the crossbar and blaze over when it was easier to score as Daniel Farke’s charges rode their luck. However, Teemu Pukki made the visitors pay and Alexander Tettey settled matters in the Yellows’ favour with a superb half-volley.
The 2-0 win was City’s first of the 2018/19 campaign and eases pressure on Farke. Traditionalists will be quick to tell you we’re in a results-driven business but Norwich have competed well over the first six hours of Championship football thus far with elementary errors to blame for a lack of three-pointers.
Only Bristol City and Birmingham have fired in more goal attempts, while only Brentford have landed more on-target efforts. Meanwhile, only three second-tier sides are returning a higher Expected Goals from open play average than the Canaries with January signing Onel Hernandez particularly eye-catching.
Defensively, City have struggled. Shipping eight goals in their opening three fixtures before Tuesday, the hosts are giving away too many good opportunities. Indeed, the Canaries have conceded the fifth most shots from inside their own penalty box and until Farke stems the flow, inconsistency will abound.
On Saturday, Norwich welcome a Leeds side that saw their 100% winning start under Marcelo Bielsa ended on Tuesday night at Swansea. Pablo Hernandez rescued a point for the Whites in an exhilarating 2-2 draw and the early signs suggest United will be competing for top honours this term.
Leeds had won all three of their previous matches with a swagger, scoring nine goals and playing with the high-octane intensity, which has defined the career of their world-renowned boss Bielsa. The Argentine bemoaned his side’s slow start in Wales but reaffirmed his belief in his squad’s ability ahead of this trip.
With defensive duo Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson both absent and unlikely to be fit for Saturday, Bielsa refused to blame injuries for his team’s lax defending. Young right-back Jamie Shackleton is therefore in line to keep his place with Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi fulfilling the centre-half positions.
So with neither side in tip-top shape at the back, yet menacing in the final-third, the obvious selection here is to back a goal-heavy game, especially so with Over 2.5 Goals chalked up at 4/5 (Bet365). It’s a play that’s already proven profitable in six of the duos eight league outings this season.
Leeds have seen three or more goals in 16/25 (64%) away days since the start of last term and Norwich have posted Both Teams To Score winners in 14/25 (56%) home matches under Farke, meanwhile the pair are amongst the leading pack for total Expected Goals per-game average in the early stages of the season.
Rochdale v Walsall | Saturday 25th August 2018, 15:00
Walsall have silenced pre-season critics with a remarkably strong start to the League One season. The Saddlers have accumulated 10 points and scored eight goals from their opening four fixtures to cement their place amongst the leading lights from the third-tier.
A midweek 3-1 triumph at Wimbledon was particularly impressive, especially coming on the back of a deserved 2-1 beating of Gillingham last weekend. Post-match manager Dean Keates suggested his new-look side were delighted with their opening stanza but that, so good have his side been, they could be sitting pretty with maximum points.
Summer signing Morgan Ferrier has made the step up from National League level with aplomb; his pace, power and technical ability have caused defences plenty of problems and strike partner Andy Cook has been working brilliantly in tandem in attacking areas.
Kieran Morris deputised for the injured Zeli Ismail on the wing and scored a 20-yard thunderbolt, whilst the re-signing of Isaiah Osbourne adds experience and knowhow to a young squad in midfield alongside George Dobson.
I’m not getting too excited too soon regarding Walsall’s prospects – the Saddlers have been out-shot 52-74 across their first four games, as well as on the shots on-target count despite returning a very positive 64% Expected Goals from open play ratio, although I do want the West Midlanders onside on Saturday.
Using Bet365’s Bet Builder, we can support the visitors in the Double Chance market while also backing Over 1 Goal at 13/10 when they travel to Rochdale. It means we’ll make money should Keates’ charges avoid defeat by any correct score other than 0-0 and 1-0. The pair have collectively seen their first four fixtures feature an average of 3.50 goals per-game with two or more goals plundered in all eight games.
All doesn’t appear to be too well at Rochdale of late. Manager Keith Hill told disgruntled fans who want to see him sacked to call club chairman Chris Dunphy and make the request after seeing his side blitzed 4-0 at home to Barnsley in midweek.
It was the second successive home league loss in which Dale have shipped four goals and fans aimed their frustrations at Hill, as well as Harrison McGahey who was the subject of mock applause after being taken off free-kick duties.
Last weekend – to the delight of Hill – Rochdale twice fought back from behind to grab a 2-2 draw at Fleetwood and the boss decided to bring Matty Done and Calvin Andrew into his starting XI following impressive cameos in that encounter. However, Jim McNulty was hooked at half-time on Tuesday and goalkeeper Josh Lillis picked up an injury in a poor performance at Spotland that might see the hosts ring the changes in search of a positive result.
Hill will certainly need to try and stiffen up the home side’s defence. No League One side have given up a higher Expected Goals from open play average (1.50) thus far, with no side facing more on-target attempts. Dale have lost the shot count 38-63 in those opening four games and Walsall should be capable of at least avoiding defeat in a watchable encounter.
Forest Green v Swindon | Saturday 25th August 2018, 15:00
Forest Green maintained their unbeaten League Two record on Tuesday night but were left to rue missed chances after a goalless draw with Stevenage.
Theo Achibald forced a fine save before Christian Doidge saw one effort cleared off the line and another opportunity skewed into the side netting. And with seven minutes left on the clock, substitute George Williams met Liam Shephard's cross while unmarked and in front of goal but sent his headed effort over.
Rovers fired in 16 shots in all but landed only two on-target. Manager Mark Cooper was pleased with his team’s application and performance levels but blasted referee Brett Huxtable for denying the Green Devils a penalty for handball after only 20 minutes.
It was the third consecutive draw for Forest Green although it’s not been from the want of trying. Saturday’s hosts are averaging a 65% Expected Goals ratio from their first four fixtures, which is the third-strongest figure thus far. Only three sides have landed more on-target attempts and only two have fired in more shots at this early stage.
The hosts welcome Gavin Gunning back from suspension but Paul Digby’s impressive display in midweek may mean an unchanged side from Cooper here with Rovers’ preferred 4-3-3 system remaining intact. And certainly at home, in the derby environment, I’d anticipate a forward-thinking approach.
If Forest Green are settled, Swindon are probably anything but. Boss Phil Brown revealed there has been ‘genuine hurt’ on the Town training field in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s dramatic 2-2 draw at Crawley.
The Robins boss was left frustrated by his side’s ill-discipline after Toumani Diagouraga and James Dunne were both shown red cards in separate incidents shortly after the second half started. Those tackles signalled the start of Swindon’s downfall as they failed to match their 11-men hosts thereafter.
Jak McCourt, Ellis Iandolo and Steven Alzate will all be pitching for a first-team spot with Michael Doughty following the three-match bans handed out to Diagouraga and Dunne. It leaves Brown’s boys a little weaker in the heart of midfield, although their offensive approach is unlikely to waver.
Games involving Swindon have already produced 19 goals – the highest number in League Two – and their four matches have produced an Expected Goals per-game average of 2.73 – the heftiest figure in the Football League, and so there’s plenty of reason to believe another high-scoring contest could be on the cards.
Since the start of last season, the Robins have delivered Over 2.5 Goals in 19/25 (76%) away days and with Forest Green following suit in 13/25 (52%) at The New Lawn, I’m more than happy to gobble up the 19/20 (Bet36%) available for a repeat on Saturday afternoon.