GILLINGHAM appear to be elevating themselves above the condensed League One dogfight and EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) is impressed by their rise.
One To Watch | Gillingham making progress
In August, we predicted an 11th-placed finish for Gillingham in our League One Team Verdicts.
Back then, the best price for them to reach the top half was 3/1. Now that they are concluding the season’s penultimate full month in 12th, on course to achieve that feat, the odds are even bigger at 16/5 with PaddyPower.
That shows how tight the division is between the top half and the relegation zone; as such, it would be premature to say the Gills are completely safe.
By current projections, however, 51 points will be enough to beat the drop and Steve Lovell’s side are currently on the favourable figure of 47.
They would have the likely required tally with five games to spare if they beat Rochdale at home next week and then begin April with a draw at Peterborough, neither of which being wildly unrealistic possibilities.
Here’s why they can elevate themselves above the dogfight and towards a top half finish.
They have Eaves
Tom Eaves was Gillingham’s top goalscorer last season, when he bagged 17 times in the league with the return including two hat-tricks – the 3-3 draw with Southend in August and the final day 5-2 victory over Plymouth.
Eaves beat that tally for 2018-19 when he scored the first equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Luton earlier this month, then extended his total to 19 on Saturday, when he netted in a 4-2 triumph at AFC Wimbledon.
Ironically, the striker had not necessarily thrived at previous clubs such as Yeovil but, tutored by a fellow Gillingham goalscoring grandmaster in Steve Lovell, he appears to be enjoying the best football of his career.
There is a cleverness about Eaves that can sometimes be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment. He is not the type of striker that will make the earliest possible contact with any cross or diagonal ball that comes his way.
Instead, his game is about identifying the weakest opponent and sometimes targeting them by peeling off to the back-post, which is where he appears to score a large proportion of his goals.
Plus, Eaves’ teammates look wired in to maximise his strengths, which is why with the likes of James Collins and John Marquis not in peak form, he looks decent value to finish the season as top goalscorer at 7/2 with Bet365.
It’s not just Eaves
Most teams that operate with a target man tend to get tarred with the long ball brush, but Gillingham are not as simple as that – goalkeeper Tomas Holy has made the second-most accurate throws in League One.
When they turn the ball over, they tend to look for the early ball in behind to Brandon Hanlan, who completes the attacking equilibrium by providing the pace that Eaves cannot.
Although Hanlan has scored a modest six league goals, his direct running and stretching of play has been key to chance creation, which is impressive considering this is his first season at this level.
Additionally, if the quick ball in behind is not on, they have alternative sources of creativity.
Leo Da Silva Lopes, a January addition from Wigan, has the technical prowess to control midfields, helping the tenacious Callum Reilly blossom and Mark Byrne rediscover his Player of the Year-winning form from 2017-18.
Graham Burke has linked play well at the top of the diamond, too, since arriving mid-season from Preston and fleet-footed forward Tahvon Campbell will offer another option when fit.
Beyond that, Gillingham have an honest, hardworking right-back in Luke O’Neill who is a whizz at set pieces, as he showed with a recent belter at Kenilworth Road.
Barry Fuller, meanwhile, has been surprisingly effective going forward from left-back, despite the veteran playing on his unnatural side.
They have coped without Zakuani
When Gabriel Zakuani got injured in February, many considered it a sizeable blow to their hopes of staying up.
Zakuani is a valued member of the squad due to his aggression, athleticism, spirit and commitment; he also has experience of playing at Championship level with Stoke and Peterborough.
Perhaps the one downside to Zakuani’s game though is that he is not particularly strong in possession, which is an increasingly important attribute for the modern centre-back.
As a left-back by trade, Connor Ogilvie has been able to provide a little bit more intelligence on the ball which, perhaps, has allowed Gillingham to at times establish a bit more control.
Plus, Ogilvie was generally a relatively conservative left-back so the shift in requirements in terms of basic defending, has not been huge, especially with stalwart Max Ehmer offering excellent guidance next to him.
We reckon things are looking up for the Gills.
League One – Gillingham to reach the top half (16/5 PaddyPower)
League One – Tom Eaves to be top goalscorer (7/2 Bet365)