EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Wednesday night's best Football League fancies.
Norwich v Reading | Wednesday 10th April 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Norwich City’s 4-0 demolition of QPR last time out was another emphatic reminder of what this team is capable of, after a series of games in which they had won without necessarily playing their best football.
Over the whole season, Norwich have posted 1.67 Expected Goals For (xGF), which is the highest in the Championship and 1.20 Against (xGA) – the sixth-best – which shows that their attacking play has often been their most noticeable strong point.
Over the four games prior to Saturday, however, the Canaries have posted 1.24 xGF – just the 11th-highest in the Championship – but 0.72 xGA which is the second-best over that period.
That implies that while the pressure has cranked up with the team so close to the finishing line – and one or two question marks had been raised about the midfield pairing of tenacious Tommy Trybull and 10-by-trade Kenny McLean – they have found new ways to win games.
The Yellows have defended their penalty area superbly in the 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, where they came under a lot of pressure but Christoph Zimmermann’s leadership qualities allowed them to remain resolute.
The German has provided excellent guidance for 21-year-old Ben Godfrey, a midfielder by trade who has adjusted to the centre-back role seamlessly, meaning they can restrict the quality of shots from their opponents.
Against QPR and many other opponents, they have won by total dominance, but against Swansea and Boro, their solidity meant it just took a moment of individual magic from Onel Hernandez or Emi Buendia to make the difference.
The next team tasked with an unenviable trip to Norfolk is Reading, who have picked up an impressive 10 points from their last six games – a return that has lifted them out of the drop zone.
2-1 and 3-2 victories over Ipswich and Wigan respectively though were perhaps slightly fortuitous, with the results being the reward for a spirited finale rather than particularly controlled displays against their relegation rivals.
Some Royals fans point to a return of five clean sheets in 17 league games under Jose Gomes as evidence that they have solidified after a paltry two in the preceding 23.
That is true to an extent; the 0-0 draw at Stoke showed they can defend their penalty area well with centre-back Matt Miazga and Emiliano Martinez both making significant contributions since joining on loan from Chelsea and Arsenal respectively.
The 2-1 home win over Preston, too, was arguably their most complete performance of the campaign.
However, last week’s 3-1 loss at Hull – as well as the 4-0 defeat at Sheffield United – highlighted that sometimes, when they do not deploy a wholly defensive setup, they can struggle to maintain the correct distances between units and this was an issue Gomes was criticised for in Portugal.
It is one thing to be well-organised when parking the bus – but it’s another to move forward in a way that is structured and Reading have a little bit of work to do in that regard.
Norwich, therefore, are rightly expected to continue their surge towards the finish line – even without Emi Buendia, who starts a three-match suspension.
Millwall v QPR | Wednesday 10th April 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Millwall have improved hugely over their last three league games.
After a 2-1 loss at Bolton, the Lions looked in very deep trouble and Neil Harris’ position was talked about by some fans, if not in the boardroom.
To Harris’ credit, his change of system has had a transformative effect.
Rather than stick to the direct 4-4-2 that has brought the club so much success over the previous three seasons but had gone slightly stale this term, he shifted to a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1 with Ben Thompson playing just off Lee Gregory.
That was a brave move, because Gregory is not that powerful and he is used to getting on the end of moves rather than acting as the initial focal point like previous strike-partner Steve Morison.
That though has not mattered too much, because unlike the methods we all know Millwall employ when Morison starts, they have played more on the ground with the attacking impetus coming from wide man Jed Wallace or full-back Mahlon Romeo down the right.
Gregory has only touched the ball a combined 108 times over the last three league games – roughly once every three minutes – so his main job has been to make decoy runs to drag centre-backs across, creating space for Ben Thompson to make late runs into the box.
Thompson has relished this new role, scoring three in his last three – four if we were to rather generously count his ‘deflected’ effort in Saturday’s 2-0 win over West Brom that bounced off Hegazi!
Because Thompson is only a centre-forward at the end of moves, Millwall have a third man linking play in central midfield which has enabled them to get a stronger grip on games, which is important with Ryan namesakes Leonard and Tunnicliffe focused primarily on defensive work.
It was another bold move to drop the experienced Shaun Hutchinson but Alex Pearce and Jake Cooper have formed a very strong centre-back pairing, limiting the load for veteran goalkeeper David Martin, who himself has replaced Jordan Archer.
Queens Park Rangers will hope to test Martin, but they will have to muster more than the one shot on target they managed at Norwich last time out.
The 4-0 drubbing at Carrow Road means the Rs have now lost 11 of their last 14 league encounters, leaving them just five points above the relegation zone.
Steve McClaren was dismissed over that concerning run of form; while the quality of opposition in John Eustace’s first game in temporary charge can be considered, the early evidence suggests the change has not had a positive effect.
It’s one thing to set up with a deep-block but when the opposing team gets in behind, that’s when it’s vitally important to have midfielders tracking runners, otherwise a clear-cut chance can be gifted to the opposition very early on and that is exactly what happened.
The West Londoners could be very vulnerable down their left flank because, with Eustace expecting Jake Bidwell to be out injured, they do not have another natural, senior left-back and the corresponding wide midfielder, Luke Freeman, is not defensively-minded.
It is very easy to envision, therefore, Millwall having a lot of joy through Wallace and Romeo down that right side.
Harris’ troops appear to be heading into this match in much-better form, with a much stronger fighting spirit and a clearer sense of their playing identity.