FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from the weekend's EFL action.
Preston v Luton | Saturday 14th December 2019, 15:00
Preston snapped a four-game losing streak in midweek by overcoming Fulham 2-1 at Deepdale to move back inside the Championship’s top-six. The Lilywhites are now targeting back-to-back home triumphs this weekend when Luton arrive.
Injuries and suspensions played a major role in North End’s recent downturn but with Alex Neil able to field round pegs in round holes once more, a significant on-field improvement was seen against the Cottagers. Although Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson were still missing from the midfield, Alan Browne and Brad Potts produced improved displays in the middle.
Centre-half pair Patrick Bauer and Paul Huntington were so solid in their first competitive start together, although right-back Joe Rafferty’s red card ensures another reshuffle to the defence is necessary for Saturday. Tom Clarke is one option, with the skipper coming on a substitute in midweek to play there late on, with Darnell Fisher still doubtful with injury.
Neil has given little away in terms of a fitness update on his injured players. Going forward, the Preston boss seems set to stick with David Nugent up front and Billy Bodin on the right after they came into the side and made a big impact. With the likes of Jayden Stockley and Tom Barkhuizen waiting in the wings, the host are hardly short of offensive options.
PNE’s form at Deepdale has been their strength this season and I’m expecting the Lilywhites to extend their fine W8-D2-L1 return with top honours here. Preston boast a perfect W7-D0-L0 record when welcoming teams outside the top-six – scoring at least twice in each – and following that same pattern appeals at 21/20 quotes with Bet365’s Bet Builder.
North End have plundered 27 goals in their 11 Deepdale outing, averaging an impressive 1.76 Expected Goals (xG) per-game in front of their home faithful. Neil’s charges should be afforded plenty of opportunities in Saturday’s showdown considering Luton are really struggling to keep the back door closed, especially when taking to the road this term.
The Hatters were comprehensively beaten 3-0 at Stoke on Tuesday night, losing the shots on-target count 8-1 and xG battle 1.84 to 0.50. Graeme Jones' group have now lost six away league games in a row and have conceded 20 goals in that period, slipping to within three points of the Championship’s relegation zone in the process.
Jones bemoaned individual errors for the loss, Town’s 13th in 21 league outings since promotion. Under Jones’ leadership, Luton have kept a sole shutout and shipped at least two goals on 13 occasions. Only Barnsley (1.08) are giving up a higher xG from open play figure than the Hatters’ 0.99 per-game average as only Charlton face more shots in the box
Exclude the bottom-eight and Luton have W2-D1-L8, leaking an average of 2.82 goals per-game. With that in mind, I’m happy to take on Preston to win and Preston to score Over 1.5 Goals at a generous odds-against offering of 21/20 (Bet365).
Plymouth v Morecambe | Saturday 14th December 2019, 15:00
The same selection stands out again in League Two as Plymouth prepare to host rock-bottom Morecambe at Home Park. The Pilgrims can be backed to win, and score Over 1.5 Goals, at a smidgen of odds-on (10/11 Bet365) this Saturday.
The Devon club were tipped for an immediate return to League One following an eye-catching summer of recruitment, plus the appointment of Ryan Lowe. However, Argyle’s inconsistency has hindered their early promotion prospects. Still, the Greens remain in touch with the top-seven, sitting two points adrift of the play-off positions.
The majority of Argyle’s no-shows have come on the road with Plymouth largely reliable operators at Home Park. The hosts have succeeded in five of their nine League Two tussles here and struck at least twice in seven of those contests. That’s no real surprise considering the Pilgrims are averaging 2.03 Expected Goals (xG) in front of their home supporters.
Across the campaign as a whole, only three clubs have posted a larger xG from open play figure, whilst the hosts have also fired in the second-highest shots on-target on home soil. I’m therefore happy to invest faith in Argyle’s attacking artillery coming to fruition despite the absence of almost ever-present wing-backs Callum McFadzean and Joe Edwards.
Conor Grant, Byron Moore and George Cooper are all being touted as potential replacements for Saturday’s match with Lowe piling praise on his players in midweek for their versatility with his favoured 3-1-4-2 formation. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe Plymouth’s visitors could be in far greater need for reinforcements before the match-up.
Morecambe are without Sam Lavelle through suspension – the Shrimps have lost 11 of 18 games without their star centre-half since the start of last season, shipping an average of 1.89 goals – and manager Derek Adams has said a number of players have been struggling with flu this week, revealing, “We’re unsure of the squad we’ll be taking this weekend.”
Adams returns to Home Park with his new club propping up the division with 11 defeats from 20, leaking an average of 1.80 goals per-game. The guests have conceded the largest xG average, the highest xG from open play figure, as well as allowing the most shots from inside their penalty area in League Two this term, with those figures swelling on the road.
Morecambe have earned a share of the spoils in two of Adams’ first three league fixtures in charge – at bang out-of-form Crawley and last week at home to strugglers Carlisle – but the Shrimps were smashed up 5-0 when travelling to Crewe (allowing over 30 shots), and a similarly soft defensive approach could prove catastrophic here if Plymouth are in the mood.
Newport v Stevenage | Saturday 14th December 2019, 15:00
Newport meet Stevenage on Saturday and it’s impossible to foresee a thrilling encounter unfolding in the Welsh city. The duo are amongst the division’s lowest scorers, are ranked in the bottom-six for shots on-target, as well as efforts attempted from inside the penalty area, whilst no League Two teams have seen fewer goals in their games than this pair.
Despite progressing in both the FA Cup and EFL Trophy, Newport are in the midst of their worst run of league results under Michael Flynn’s tutorship. The Exiles have lost four on the spin and haven’t earned three points since beating Scunthorpe on 19th October, sliding into mid-table in the process and four points off the top-seven (with two games in-hand).
An injury crisis has been blamed for County’s downturn. The Amber Army were without Mickey Demetriou, Dan Leadbitter, Scot Bennett, Joss Labadie, Robbie Willmott, Ade Azeez and Keanu Marsh-Brown for last weekend’s 1-0 reverse at Bradford, a match settled by a second-half penalty, after an under-hit back-pass from defender Ryan Inniss.
In fairness, Newport limited damage from open play, but were still thankful for two terrific saves from man of the match Ryan Townsend in-goal. County didn’t manage a shot on target until deep into time added on and supporters are beginning to grow frustrated by the club’s lack of attacking ambition in recent weeks.
Flynn’s men have the joint-best defensive record in League Two but they have been goal-shy all season with just 17 from 18 games. The Exiles boss has been critical of his strikers for failing to take the chances and has said that he is looking for goalscorers in January with Newport landing a combined total of just six shots on-target in the last four league matches.
It’s not all the front men’s fault. Only Macclesfield are creating fewer open play opportunities than Newport and Flynn’s aware that service has been poor in recent weeks and a creative midfielder or two should be chief on County’s shopping list. Still, defender Mickey Demetriou and destroyer Joss Labadie are close to returning to bolster numbers.
Visitors Stevenage played out their third successive 0-0 draw last weekend when welcoming Crawley to Hertfordshire, a game that featured only two attempts on-target. Disgruntled supporters bemoaned interim boss Mark Sampson’s negative tactics with Boro bagging one non-penalty goal in their last six league outings, a run of almost 10 hours.
Even so, Stevenage have remained solid of late, silencing four of their last five opponents and limiting 10 of their last 11 adversaries to no more than one goal. Naturally, with such an impotent attacking output, goals have been scare as those aforementioned 11 contests produced only 14 goals in total, seven of which paid out for Under 1.5 Goals backers.
Amazingly, five of Boro’s 10 road trips have ended 0-0 – a repeat is 7/1 (Bet365) and is well worth a couple of quid – as away matches have produced just 1.50 goals on average. It’s a very similar tale to Newport with the Exiles producing Under 2.5 Goals profit in seven of their 10 Rodney Parade games this season and 22/33 (67%) since the start of last season.
Clearly, I’m keen to oppose goals and Under 2.25 Goals is my preferred play at 4/5 with Matchbook. This selection sees a half-stakes profit made should exactly two goals be netted with one goal (or a goalless game) returning a full pay-out – the only way in which this angle of attack doesn’t make money is if the match ends with three or more goals.
Collectively, Newport and Stevenage have seen Under 2.5 Goals in 28/37 (76%) league outings, including 15/20 (75%) when viewing respective home/away records. The duo have combined to see 19/37 (51%) games feature Under 1.5 Goals, 11/20 (55%) of which arrived via home/away encounters. The two teams average just 1.76 goals per-game this season.