FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from the weekend's EFL action.
Sunderland v Coventry | Saturday 23rd November 2019, 15:00
Coventry picked up top honours when hosting Rochdale last weekend to consolidate their position in League One’s top-six. Victory (2-1) was only the Sky Blues’ second in eight league outings (W2-D4-L2) and was capped by a sensational solo goal from Liam Walsh.
“Genius” was how Mark Robins described Walsh’s match-winning effort before hailing the St Andrew’s success as the biggest of the season given the team’s injuries, illness and suspensions that forced him to hand full league debuts to two youngsters– midfielder Josh Eccles and defender Declan Drysdale – and once again have just one fit striker available.
Amadou Bakayoko again led the Coventry line with aplomb (despite a glaring miss), and although crocked Matty Godden and suspended Max Biamou miss out again here, Jordy Hiwula is expected to make his return to the team on Saturday for the trip to Sunderland. And the Sky Blues can also welcome back Liam Kelly and the returning Jamie Allen to the fold this weekend.
With only two league defeats to their name all season – one of which came despite absolutely dominating Tranmere in the Wirral -Cov look a little underrated for the away day in Wearside. Robins’ robust outfit have already earned a share of the spoils at Portsmouth, Peterborough and Oxford this term, whilst taking four points off the Black Cats last season.
Picking up positive results against the third-tier’s elite is becoming a regular occurrence for Coventry. The Sky Blues survived unscathed from away days at promoted trio Barnsley, Luton and Charlton in 2018/19, and with very little between themselves and Sunderland in terms of underlying data, I’m more than happy to put faith in Robins’ troops once more.
Whilst Coventry are comfortable in their own skin, the same can’t be said for Sunderland. Since Phil Parkinson was appointed, the Black Cats have tabled only two triumphs from nine matches and exited three cup competitions, including a miserable 1-0 reverse against Gillingham in the FA Cup on Tuesday night when going to extra-time in Kent.
That 600-mile round trip can’t have helped. Sunderland failed to land a single shot on-target in midweek and have been seriously struggling in the final-third; the hosts have notched more than a solitary strike just twice in their last 10 League One encounters and had to scramble to clinch a 1-0 win over a dreadful Southend side in their last league outing here.
With target man Charlie Wyke unavailable, Parkinson has remained reasonably stubborn towards his traditional direct tactics. But with Will Grigg and injury doubt Marc McNulty leading the line, the personnel employed just aren’t fitting the system and supporters are growing increasingly restless.
Sunderland are winless against top-half teams (W0-D3-L3) and that record could quite conceivably be extended come Saturday night with Coventry well adept at keeping bigger League One fish in-check. I like the Sky Blues to avoid defeat in a match featuring at least one goal – Cov double chance and Over 0.5 Goals is an even-money shot at Bet365.
Newport v Oldham | Saturday 23rd November 2019, 15:00
Rodney Parade hosts my most straightforward of EFL selections this weekend. Newport might have stuttered in recent weeks during League Two action (W0-D1-L2) but the Exiles progressed in the FA Cup in midweek and should be supported in their quest to deliver back-to-back victories when Oldham arrive this weekend.
Michael Flynn’s troops are devilishly difficult to beat at their Welsh base and have pocketed W19-D9-L4 here since the beginning of last season. County’s 59% win rate is mightily impressive and all bar two of those triumphs came in games featuring fewer than five goals, so that’s my preferred play – Newport to win and Under 4.5 Goals at 11/10 (Betway).
The home team are comfortably positioned inside the top-six of League Two’s performance data rankings due to their phenomenal defensive efforts. The Amber Army might not be creating bucketloads of chances for their clinical forwards, however, Flynn’s troops are giving up a minuscule 0.40 Expected Goals (xG) per-game on average to opposition outfits.
Set-pieces continue to be one of Newport’s key attacking weapons, although they should enjoy a little more freedom in the final-third this weekend. Oldham are conceding the joint-highest xG from open play figure in the fourth-tier, managing to keep only three shutouts across their opening 17 fixtures, as well as leaking two goals per-game on their travels.
Latics boss Dino Maamria is seeking a much-needed upsurge in fortunes on the road with the visitors’ only success away from Boundary Park during his tutorship coming at non-league Gateshead in the FA Cup. And the Oldham supremo admitted, “Yes, we won at Gateshead, but even that day I wasn't happy with the performance. We conceded far too many chances.”
Defensive pair Zak Mills and David Wheater are rated as doubtful for Athletic this weekend but even at full-strength I’d be keen to support the home side in this match-up.
Swindon v Mansfield | Saturday 23rd November 2019, 15:00
Mansfield were expected to produce a serious assault on title honours this season following another eye-catching summer spending spree. However, the Stags’ decision to install academy boss John Dempster in the top job could potentially prove their downfall.
Pressure is building on rookie boss to turn the club’s ailing fortunes around with the ante-post 10/1 shots marooned in mid-table and seven points adrift of the top-seven following a deeply unsatisfactory opening stanza. Last weekend the Yellows were held to a 0-0 draw at financially-stricken Macclesfield with Town struggling to carve out any meaningful chances.
Despite eventually falling short of their pre-season targets under David Flitcroft last season, Mansfield were amongst the front-runners across a range of underlying metrics. But such standards have dramatically dipped during Dempster’s reign and there has to be serious concern from the club’s head honchos as the cash-rich Stags continue to flatter to deceive.
The Nottinghamshire outfit are outside of the top-10 positions in League Two for both Expected Goals (xG) ratio, as well as xG from open play, and hard-nosed analytics experts will tell you that a top-three finish – or realistic promotion campaign – is a long way off should Mansfield continue to produce such underwhelming displays in the coming weeks.
Town’s task doesn’t get any easier on Saturday with a trip to table-topping Swindon next up. Four wins in a row have catapulted the Robins to the League Two summit and the Wiltshire raiders will be smarting from their midweek cup exit to Cheltenham where head coach Ritchie Wellens felt his side didn’t deserve to lose.
Swindon may have accumulated all their victories against bottom-half teams thus far but the Robins top the Expected Goals (xG) from open play standings with a 64% ratio and have two in-form strikers leading their attack in 16-goal Eoin Doyle and the eight-goal schemer Jerry Yates who could profit from key absentees in the visitors squad.
Otis Khan and Neal Bishop have a chance of featuring here for Mansfield but Hayden White is absent, along with top scorer Danny Rose and suspended Mal Benning.