FOOTBALL LEAGUE analyst Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) returns with his best bets from Saturday's EFL action.
QPR v Swansea | Saturday 13th April 2019, 15:00
Steve McClaren’s sacking at QPR on April Fool’s Day felt inevitable despite the slightly surprising timing of the decision. Rangers were occupying a lofty eight-placed position on Boxing Day but a run of just one victory in their following 15 games (W1-D4-L10), including back-to-back defeats at home to basement battlers Bolton and Rotherham sealed his fate.
Take a step back and the ex-England boss was far from a failure. The R’s started the season as fifth favourites for relegation, although on the day of his departure the West Londoners were sitting 17th and eight points above the drop zone. I’m adamant that if QPR’s streaky results were more sporadic at the start and end of his reign, he’d still be in the dugout.
Assistant manager John Eustace has been asked to fill-in as the inept board cut their usual corners to appoint another uninspiring figure to take the top job and his first task always look insurmountable, an away day at Norwich. The Super Hoops were inevitably smashed 4-0 at Carrow Road last Saturday and fears began to grow over a bottom-three finish.
Thankfully, there were positive signs in Wednesday night’s goalless draw at Millwall. Results largely went QPR’s way and the rudderless R’s also enjoyed the better opportunities in a physical battle at The Den. Matt Smith, Nakhi Wells and Bright Osayi-Samuel all spurned decent chances and Eustace was understandably chuffed with his team’s response.
There’s never been a question about QPR’s character, commitment or application in 2018/19. The hard facts are, the squad is short of Championship quality – particularly in defence – and a lack of available bodies has made a hectic 2019 difficult to deal with. Rangers’ midweek exertions are also bound to have an effect on their efforts here.
In-form Swansea have left it too late for a play-off push but Graham Potter’s posse have thrilled followers in recent weeks. The Welsh outfit put Stoke to the sword in midweek, winning the shot count 31-2 and the Expected Goals (xG) battle 3.41–0.43. Highly-rated youngster Daniel James was once again the star of the show.
The fine performance came hot on the heels of convincing triumphs over both Brentford and Middlesbrough with City’s fluidity in forward areas again hitting the headlines. Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Oli McBurnie have been dovetailing wonderfully well and Swansea have now landed 33 efforts on-target over their past five fixtures.
The data is also beginning to reflect Swansea’s resurgent form. City now stand inside the top five teams for xG ratio and xG from open play ratio in the Championship and so I’m anticipating another eye-catching display on Saturday with the 7/5 (Unibet) appelaing on an away-day success.
True, Potter’s charges have lost six of their most recent seven away days but recent losses at Nottingham Forest and West Brom were unjust and all seven of those encounters came against top-half teams. What’s more, the numbers now rate City as the fourth best team on their travels in terms of xG ratio despite losing 11/20 (55%) games as guests.
Swansea’s record against the lesser lights since relegation also commands plenty of respect (W9-D4-L3) as the visitors have scored at least three goals on seven occasions. City have taken top honours in half of their eight trips to the bottom-half and meet a QPR side that’s tabled four triumphs in 25 league fixtures since November’s international break.
Portsmouth v Rochdale | Saturday 13th April 2019, 15:00
A major wobble at the start of 2019 (W1-D5-L3) threatened to derail Portsmouth’s promotion prospects in an ultra-competitive top-six battle in League One but Kenny Jackett’s charges have survived the storm to nestle right back into contention for a top-two finish as we enter the final furlong.
Five victories from six (W5-D0-L1) have propelled Pompey to within three points of Sunderland with a trip to the Stadium of Light still on the cards this season. It’s a far from straightforward run-in for Portsmouth but the Hampshire outfit look worth siding with on Saturday for their visit of Rochdale at Fratton Park.
Sure, Pompey are the shortest-priced favourites in League One this weekend but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the hosts will justify their 8/13 (Betway) offering. However, I’m happy to bolster the price on a home victory to 10/11 (Betway) by adding Over 1.5 Goals to the mix, ensuring we profit by any Portsmouth win other than 1-0.
The return of veteran striker Brett Pitman appears to have given the hosts a helpful second wind. His partnership with the physical Oli Hawkins has caused opposition defences plenty of problems and their pairs presence, experience, movement and smart finishing has seen Pompey strike 16 times in their most recent six encounters.
A white-hot atmosphere is expected inside PO4 on Saturday, with the Fratton faithful set to crank up the volume as the hosts chase automatic promotion. Four of the south coast club’s remaining six games are on home soil and Jackett has called on his in-form troops to harness the support, starting with Rochdale.
Portsmouth might only be ranked sixth in the home standings but the underlying numbers rank Pompey higher when viewing Expected Goals (xG) figures. The Fratton outfit are cemented inside the top-three for all the major performance data metrics and their record against sides outside the top-eight is worth inspection.
Whilst Pompey have W4-D4-L4 against clubs in eighth and above, the hosts have returned W18-D7-L3 against the rest of League One, including W8-D4-L1 at Fratton Park. Meanwhile, Portsmouth have managed W14-D6-L0 against clubs in 14th and below, scoring at least twice in 15 of those 21 tussles, highlighting their ability as flat-track bullies.
Brian Barry-Murphy deserves huge credit for guiding Rochdale from seemingly relegation oblivion to a position outside of the bottom-four since taking over from Keith Hill. The current Dale boss has W3-D2-L1 in his last six matches, restricting opponents to just five goals, and was rewarded for his efforts with a two-year contract in charge.
However, Sunderland were the only heavyweight the guests have faced in that sample and Rochdale went down 2-1 in that fixture, with Dale scoring with their only effort on-target. Barry-Murphy has worked minor miracles for the Lancashire club, tinkering with systems and settling on a three-at-the-back approach but this contest could be beyond his battlers.
Rochdale have lost 10 of 12 ties against teams in the top-seven, leaking at least twice on 10 occasions too. Dale have shipped two or more goals in 12/16 (75%) away trips when excluding the bottom-four. have given up a league-high 1.79 xG on their travels and convincingly lost each of their last five games as guests on the xG battle.
Sunderland v Coventry | Saturday 13th April 2019, 15:00
Sunderland have suffered only two defeats in League One since relegation last summer. Jack Ross has put the Black Cats into pole position to pinch an automatic return to the second-tier with an unbeaten Stadium of Light record and a side that’s managed to find the back of the net in all but one match, a feat that deserves plenty of plaudits.
I never anticipated an immediate bounce back from the Wearsiders after the shambles that had preceded 2018/19. I dismissed Ross’ troops at short-priced favourites for promotion and was keen to oppose Sunderland at every opportunity in the early exchanges of the campaign so I’ve been extremely impressed by their consistency in results.
Of course, I’d still aggressively argue that Sunderland are not the second best team in this division and the Black Cats haven’t often convinced me of their quality, regularly defying the data to pinch precious points when it matters most. It’s that character, that relentless attitude and application – instilled by Ross – that’s really come to my attention.
Nevertheless, after a stodgy enough start, the League One giants have gradually found their range. Sunderland are only on the cusp of the top-10 when viewing Expected Goals (xG) and Shots In The Box ratio rankings, but the Black Cats have slipped into the top-six reckoning for xG from open play ratio, a metric I take particularly seriously.
As hosts, only Luton and Portsmouth have generated a higher xG figure and I think most Football League observers would fancy the Wearsiders to get on the scoresheet on Saturday, regardless of opponent and even if magic man Aiden McGeady misses out for the third fixture in succession. The Irishman is rated “touch-and-go” for the weekend.
Lewis Morgan and George Honeyman have been asked to play on the left and right of a narrower midfield in McGeady’s absence after Ross realised a switch was required to help front two Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg. Opportunities are still arriving with the Black Cats getting 12 shots on-target in their recent duels with Rochdale and Burton.
Despite few concerns about Sunderland’s attacking potential, questions can be posed about their defensive resilience. Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin has been one of Ross’ standout stars of the season with the Black Cat keeping out a league-high 79% of on-target attempts – not bad going considering the hosts are conceding almost 4.50 shots on-target per-game.
So there’s plenty of encouragement for Coventry this weekend. The Sky Blues have been one of the third-tiers most maddeningly inconsistent outfits this term with Mark Robins’ men shaping up as one of the division’s more rounded and efficient sides. But a frustrating campaign in front of goal has curbed any hopes of back-to-back promotions.
City are ranked in the top-five worst performers for conversion rates when looking at shots and on-target strikes in League One, which might put a few folk off supporting Both Teams To Score at a bulbous 10/11 (10BET) here, but not this writer. Only Barnsley generate a bigger xG figure on the road than Cov, also prominent in terms of xG from open play.
Last weekend’s goalless draw with Bristol Rovers saw the Sky Blues boast a 2.48 xG figure and their 4-2-3-1 system is bound to test Sunderland’s defensive flaws. Finishing may have been a regular negative for Coventry but goals-based backers should always be looking for opportunities to support a side that’s creating chances and City fit that bill superbly.
The visitors have failed to score once on their travels since December, have notched in 10 of 11 tussles with the top-seven, including all four away trips. Coventry have kept only five shutouts away from the Ricoh Arena and seen this BTTS selection bank in 12/20 (60%) games as guests. Sunderland have also provided BTTS profit in 15/20 (75%) at the SOL.