FOR every Preston, Wycombe and Cheltenham, who are bridging the budgetary gulf to compete for promotion in the EFL, there is another team that is performing well below expectation, so EFL expert Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) picks his three underperformers.
Derby’s position of 17th at this stage may not be the greatest surprise in the world, given that they ranked 18th on shot data when they finished sixth in 2018-19 – and subsequently lost their three best players.
The Rams saw ball-playing centre-back Fikayo Tomori, goalscoring wide forward Harry Wilson and playmaker Mason Mount all return to their parent clubs and did not replacing them with the same quality.
Matt Clarke, on loan from Brighton, was the attempted replacement for Tomori but the ex-Portsmouth man has only started 12 of the 23 league games – and has not been as good as the Chelsea loanee when available.
It was hoped that Kieran Dowell would replace Mount but in truth, he is not the same type of player; Dowell’s game is largely about energy and shooting from distance, so he possesses only a fraction of Mount’s creativity.
Jamie Paterson is, perhaps, the closest thing to an attempted alternative to Wilson but he and Dowell have only started a combined 13 league games.
As well as this, the East Midlanders look short on natural width apart from right-back Jayden Bogle – and even he often could do with more combination options than he sometimes gets.
Phillip Cocu normally starts at least two midfielders – out of Kristian Bielik, George Evans, Tom Huddlestone and Graeme Shinnie – who tend to stay deep.
Tom Lawrence dribbles from the left flank into the number 10 position, then Martyn Waghorn will dart from the right to the centre-forward position along with Chris Martin; when these things happen, there tends to be nobody moving onto the outside to maintain the equilibrium.
Plus, while Jack Marriott is sidelined, none of the strikers run in behind to truly stretch the defence, so Wayne Rooney’s January introduction is unlikely to solve the real issue.
There are a lot of tactical dilemmas for Cocu to fix in 2020 and while some of them were foreseeable, Derby are so often in the mix for promotion that they must be seen to be underachieving.
Whenever Sunderland grace the third tier, there is always likely to be an element of pressure on them.
The Black Cats are a huge club, with a massive fanbase at that level and, since entering this division in 2018, they have been by far the biggest spenders.
Natives, understandably, want to see their club much higher up in the football pyramid and in some ways, managing the expectation has been a challenge for those in charge.
Jack Ross failed to impose a clear playing identity on his group of players, having had 16 months to evolve the squad as he wanted, so one can see why fans had called for him to leave before his eventual sacking in October.
However, Ross at least delivered competitive results and since he has left, Phil Parkinson has overseen a return of eight points from eight league games.
The return of battering ram Charlie Wyke led to a slightly improved performance in last week’s 1-1 home draw with Blackpool, but still the team feels some way short of where it ought to be.
Too often, we have seen square pegs shoehorned into round holes, we have seen disjointed systems, we have seen managers chop and change to try to find a winning formula with no real success – and we have seen a team with little pace or flair, despite having a budget to dwarf that of their competitors.
Sunderland are in the bottom half of League One, making this their lowest ebb for decades.
Salford entered their first season in the EFL as favourites for promotion.
That expectation, it should be said, came from onlookers who were aware of the Class of 92’s project, rather than internally, because most fans seemed content with a year to acclimatise to this level.
If more outsiders place bets on Salford to win promotion, that is likely to shorten the odds.
Still, the Ammies have been working with a top seven budget and began the season with six players who had worked in the Championship.
Add to that, Graham Alexander was backed to sign Craig Conway, an exquisite wide technician at this level and goalkeeper Mark Howard, who had enjoyed an excellent 2018-19 season in the division above with Blackpool.
Despite a high calibre of personnel, Salford still play the kind of direct football that many would associate with a perennial underdog, like a Millwall or a Wimbledon.
The M7 outfit have played 91 long balls per game this season – effectively one a minute – which is the most in the division.
It is a matter of when, rather than if, Salford are competing for promotion from this level, such is their financial power – but is the current management team getting the most out of the current squad?
League One – Sunderland to finish outside the top six (17/10 Betfair)
League Two – Salford to finish in the bottom half (1/2 PaddyPower)