FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Middlesbrough v Derby | Saturday 11th January 2020, 15:00
I’m never normally one to leap upon a small form side but it’s difficult to dismiss Middlesbrough’s prospects of extending their four-game Championship winning streak when Derby arrive at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Boro were in turmoil in late November after a 4-0 thrashing by league leaders Leeds left the Teessiders in the midst of the relegation battle. Valid questions were asked over rookie head coach’s Jonathan Woodgate’s role, leadership and suitability for the job and such concerns were hardly eased as we began the festive period.
However, a second-half battle back against Stoke inspired an upturn in fortunes. It was the first of the four recent league triumphs – all arriving alongside clean sheets – and included a surprise success away at promotion-chasing West Brom. The recent revival has pushed Middlesbrough into mid-table safety and eight points off an improbable top-six berth.
Woodgate’s troops followed those fixtures with a richly-deserved 1-1 draw at home to a near full-strength Tottenham side in last Sunday’s FA Cup third round showdown. Sure, there were plenty of nervy moments, but Boro’s recent resurgence ensured the hosts were reasonably comfortable, composed and confident throughout the cup clash.
Last week the club brought in Manchester City pair Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha on loan deals to pep up their attack but it’s Ashley Fletcher whose been earning recent plaudits in forward areas. The 24-year-old is in the form of his career, ending a 13-game stretch without a goal, to hit six goals in 11 outings, including four in his last five fixtures.
And in defensive areas, Woodgate’s somehow masterminding Man of the Match displays out of midfielder-by-trade Jonny Howson at centre-half. The ex-Leeds man was instrumental in a back-three alongside Paddy McNair and Dael Fry in the side’s 3-4-2-1 that was missing the league's best keeper, their captain, their vice-captain and record signing against Spurs.
At the Riverside this season, Middlesbrough have W6-D4-L3 in Championship action – two of those defeats came against the top-three – the Teessiders have actually enjoyed top honours in all six match-ups with the bottom-half, leaking a solitary strike. Across all venues, the hosts have suffered only three losses in 14 league games since mid-October also.
The improvements have also been seen in the underlying performance data and process as Boro have moved into the top echelons for ratio rankings across both Expected Goals (xG) and xG from open play figures. To put simply, the winning streak has been coming with the foundations being built for the club’s upswing dating back around 12 weeks now.
This weekend, Middlesbrough can be backed at 7/5 (Coral) against Derby alongside Under 4.5 Goals. Riverside encounters under Woodgate are averaging only 1.77 goals with just three creeping over the standard Over 2.5 Goals line. Meanwhile, only two of Derby’s away days have produced at least four goals, let alone five.
The Rams eased their own concerns at the wrong end of the table with back-to-back wins at home to Charlton and Barnsley following the arrival of new England’s record goalscorer Wayne Rooney, despite averaging 1.70 xG against in those two tussles.
But Derby’s displays have been maddeningly inconsistent for Phillip Cocu this campaign. County have been chalk and cheese between Pride Park and on the road, owning the second-best home record in the division, compared to the third-worst when taking to their Championship travels under the Dutch boss.
The Rams have been beaten in seven of 12 away days, failed to score in seven of those 12 fixtures and shipped two goals or more on seven occasions. If we ignore the bottom-five, the visitors have picked up a solitary point from a possible 24 in games as guests and their xG ratio return is below 30% outside of Pride Park, a shockingly bad feat.
Swindon v Crewe | Saturday 11th January 2020, 15:00
Game of the weekend in League Two is undoubtedly at the County Ground as table-topping Swindon host third-place Crewe. Six points separate the two sides before kick-off, although the visitors have two games in-hand on the pace-setters, whilst the duo also topping the Expected Goals (xG) and xG open play ratio rankings charts in the fourth-tier.
Swindon were dealt a body blow in midweek with runaway top goalscorer Eoin Doyle being recalled by Bradford from his loan spell. The Irish hitman netted 23 goals in 23 games for the Robins and his departure has come at the worst possible time for the Wiltshire outfit with head coach Ritchie Wellens also dealing with a number of injury concerns elsewhere.
Last season’s Player of the Season, Michael Doughty, hasn’t trained this week after being struck down by illness, whilst Zeki Fryers and centre back Mathieu Baudry will be out of action for at least a fortnight. Wellens has urged his chairman Lee Power to open his chequebook after admitting Town’s central defensive options are at an all-time low.
Prior to Swindon’s most recent match at home to Bradford, Wellens only had Tom Broadbent and stand-in Fryers at his disposal as centre backs with EFL experience. Yet, once Fryers went off and Broadbent was thrown on, Wellens was left with Taylor Curran and Luke Haines as fit and available replacements with Anthony Grant potentially filling in.
To make matters worse, Keshi Anderson has been sidelined for five weeks leaving the hosts thin on the ground for Saturday’s mouthwatering showdown and it’s no surprise to see the Robins’ pre-match price take a hike in the past few days. Despite my admiration for Swindon’s efforts this term, I’m happy enough opposing the hosts in their current condition.
Town have taken top honours just once when taking on top-10 rivals in 2019/20, returning an unimpressive W1-D5-L5 in that sample, and the hosts’ makeshift backline are welcoming League Two’s most feared offensive outfit here. Crewe have plundered 13 goals in their past four league fixtures and have only fired five blanks across the campaign thus far.
David Artell’s visitors have lost only three fixtures since mid-September and are averaging a league-high 1.78 xG per-game with 1.20 xG arriving from open-play opportunities. The guests are also firing in just shy of 10 attempts from inside the penalty area per-match and should be well-capable of breaching Swindon’s patched up backline here.
Backing Crewe to avoid defeat is a little too short so add in Crewe to receive Under 2.5 Cards alongside Crewe in the Double Chance market via William Hill for a 4/5 shot. The Alex are the cleanest team in the division for cards, averaging only 1.29 per-game. Artell’s troops have collected fewer than three cards in all bar three outings since August this season.
Only four of Swindon’s nine guests have breached the 2.5 cards line, whilst Darren Handley has been handed the whistle for this encounter and he averages 3.53 cards in 2019/20.
Exeter v Cambridge | Saturday 11th January 2020, 15:00
Exeter will look to maintain their push for promotion this weekend when they welcome Cambridge to St James Park. It’s the duos fourth meeting this campaign having already met twice in the FA Cup this term and the Grecians enjoyed enough supremacy in those two November encounters to suggest they’re good enough to justify odds-on favouritism here.
City are in fine form and unbeaten in League Two since the 2nd November (W5-D3-L0), a run of results that earned Matt Taylor his second Manager of the Month award of the campaign. The Devon outfit are only three points off the summit with a game in-hand over league leaders Swindon and boast the second-best home record in the division (W7-D4-L1).
Exeter occupy a top-three berth across a range of performance data metrics, including Expected Goals (xG), xG from open play and shots attempted from inside the box with the Grecians excellent defensive displays the foundation for their assault on the automatic promotion places. The hosts have silenced six of their past 10 league opponents.
At St James Park, City have kept their sheets clean on seven occasions and across Taylor’s reign, the hosts have earned a 54% win-rate when welcoming League Two teams, shutting out 15 (43%) of their 35 visitors. Only Bradford and Newport are giving away fewer open play opportunities, although Nigel Atangana’s ban is a blow for protecting the backline.
The 3/4 (Bet365) on a home success is fair enough. However, I’m going to bolster the price to 20/21 (Coral) by chucking in Under 4.5 Goals – it’s a tally that’s only been beaten in seven of the two teams combined 51 fixtures.
Cambridge boss Colin Calderwood clocked up 50 league games in charge last weekend and admitted he and his players are grumpy with themselves after a disappointing festive period. The U’s only took three points from a possible 15 during the two-week Christmas spell, with the solitary victory coming scratchily against rock-bottom Morecambe.
The Yellow and Black Army were beaten at home by Leyton Orient and Mansfield, and on their travels at Swindon and Macclesfield, the latter loss arriving seven days ago. Cambridge have now bagged just four triumphs since mid-September – a 17-game sequence that’s seen the U’s fail to score seven times and that faltering forwardline could prove costly here.
Jabo Ibehre remains out, the experienced Gary Deegan and Elliott Ward left the club last week and Samir Carruthers remains absent. Highly-rated full-back Kyle Knoyle is unlikely to be fit to return just yet and on-loan Spurs playmaker Jack Roles is also a major doubt after being forced off at half time at Macclesfield, although Harrison Dunk may be available.
Under Calderwood’s tutorship, Cambridge have suffered 13/25 (52%) losses on their travels, failing to score on 13 (52%) occasions and scoring more than a solitary strike in just six games. Only two of those 25 fixtures featured five or more goals so I’m happy taking almost even-money on the home victory alongside Under 4.5 Goals.
Middlesbrough v Derby – Middlesbrough to win and Under 4.5 Goals (7/5 Coral)
Swindon v Crewe – Crewe Double Chance and Crewe Under 2.5 Cards (4/5 William Hill)
Exeter v Cambridge – Exeter to win and Under 4.5 Goals (20/21 Coral)