FOOTBALL LEAGUE fanatic Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) highlights three bottom half EFL teams that could yet win promotion this season.
On 10th December 2017, Millwall were 17th in the Championship with 23 points from 21 games; two places worse off than their current position on the same date this year with four fewer points, having played one more game.
They were winless away at this stage that season but then, oddly, went on a six-match winning streak on the road from January and, incredibly, entered mid-April inside the top six before narrowly missing out.
The newly-promoted outfit of 2017-18 showed that Millwall can bridge the budgetary gulf at this level to be very competitive – and there is an argument to suggest that this year’s squad is stronger, with the bonus of a managerial honeymoon period.
As soon as Gary Rowett was appointed Lions boss, the connection between him and the club just felt right.
Rowett has the two main qualities that any successful Millwall manager needs: firstly, he has sufficiently old-school values to appreciate and share what natives respond well to and secondly, is open-minded enough to sometimes review or question the way he looks at the game and therefore lead a Championship team in the modern era.
The former Birmingham manager has already got wide forward Jed Wallace performing to a very high standard, as we saw in the recent 2-2 draw with Nottingham Forest.
Rowett has also reorganised the team: in eight games since he took charge, the South Bermondsey outfit have conceded 10 goals but their Expected Goals Against (xGA) per game in that period reads 0.96.
We can, therefore, expect them to keep more clean sheets in forthcoming encounters – and of course they are already on a five-game unbeaten run, leaving them five points off the play-offs with 26 to play.
It was a tricky summer for Doncaster. They lost manager Grant McCann, who led them to a top six finish, as well as top goalscorer John Marquis and key loanees.
The squad that started the season was not exactly big, so it is perhaps a credit to McCann’s replacement, Darren Moore, that they have had numerous injuries up to now and are still just seven points off the play-off places, with three games in hand on sixth-placed Coventry and two in hand on most other competitors.
There is reason to think that once key players return to the match-day squad, performances will return to the level we saw over Autumn.
Take Cameron John for example. The versatile defender’s poised and commanding performance on his return from an ankle injury was a huge positive for Donny, even in an underwhelming 1-1 home draw with MK Dons last time out.
With Tom Anderson back from suspension in a week, Rovers could start putting a strong centre-back pairing together and improve on their current return of three clean sheets in 16 league games – bearing in mind that as it is, they have only shipped more than one goal in four games this term.
Wolves loanee Niall Ennis’ anticipated return from injury will also boost Rovers, as will the rise of fellow striker Kwame Thomas, whose physicality allows him to occupy centre-backs in a way that Rakish Bingham struggles to.
If Donny can land one excellent striker in January, then suddenly their options may start to look a lot stronger, because at that point they will have Ennis available to offer energetic pressing and quality from outside the box.
Once the pressing improves, Rovers will get more out of Ben Whiteman, who can dictate play from deep, Ben Sheaf, who follows his midfield partner’s lead and possibly Madger Gomes, who is also highly-rated by the manager.
A few key tweaks could have the South Yorkshire outfit right back in contention.
In Autumn, it felt like crisis point at Scunthorpe. The Iron accrued just a solitary point from their first seven games, leaking 15 goals in that period and scoring only five, leading many fans to fear a second successive relegation and an EFL exit.
If the League Two season started at their lowest ebb, though, Paul Hurst’s side would be third. They have taken a remarkable 23 points from their last 13 games, scoring 22 goals, the third-most in this table and conceding only 11, the third-fewest.
Scunthorpe are the only team to be unbeaten at home since 8th September, winning four of their seven Glanford Park encounters – and, thanks to 2-0 victories at Leyton Orient and Forest Green, have just won back-to-back away games for the first time since January.
It is fair to say things are looking up for Scunny, who are getting better at executing the blueprint Hurst cultivated successfully at Shrewsbury Town, which is essentially to control games without having the ball.
Scunthorpe are learning how to press their opponents back and force them into suitable areas, then attacking quickly in transition, chiefly through the speedy Abobakar Eisa, as we saw at Forest Green recently.
A consistent centre-back pairing has helped this positional familiarity; Andy Butler was brought in as a key signing but in fact, the team’s best defensive performances have come with the confident Harrison McGahey partnered by the streetwise Rory McArdle.
Meanwhile, the returns from injury of industrious front-man Lee Novak, skilful wide forward Ryan Colclough and long-range goalscoring specialist Kevin Van Veen has given Scunthorpe fresh attacking quality.
Keep this up and a 2020 promotion push could be on the cards.
This article was published on Tuesday 10th December.
Championship – Millwall to make the play-offs (9/1 PaddyPower)
League One – Doncaster to win the play-offs (13/1 Betfair)
League Two – Scunthorpe to win promotion (16/1 Bet365)