EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) casts his eye over the incredibly congested bottom half of League One and looks at a team that could find itself in serious danger.
One To Watch | Southend's concerning struggles
It is never nice to see a club get relegated – from an emotional perspective in terms of how a division drop can impact jobs, wages and the community.
However, the League One relegation battle is one of the most fascinating stories in English football this season – everything you think you know can change in an instant.
Take AFC Wimbledon, for example. They were bottom, a seemingly insurmountable 10 points adrift of safety, after beginning February with a dour 2-0 home defeat to Burton: seven games and five wins later, they are third in the form table, a mere three points off safety – and within six points of the top half.
By contrast, Plymouth Argyle began 2019 bottom of the division but are now as high as 12th; their defensive vulnerabilities mean even they are by no means safe, just three points above the dotted line.
Bradford currently prop the table but have made the best possible appointment in Gary Bowyer and even Rochdale have accrued four points from a possible six under caretaker Brian Barry-Murphy – there is not a single bottom half side that knows with any clarity what division they will be in come August.
The chaos favours sides like Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers, who have found a formula to rely on going into the season’s finale, but less so those that are completely out-of-form.
After attaining just four points from their last 10 games, 20th-placed Southend United are bang in trouble – here’s why.
When Southend won five times in a seven-game Autumn sequence, they had their best XI intact.
Goalkeeper Mark Oxley was furthering his reputation as the next in a long line of excellent Southend goalkeepers, before injury forced him to be replaced by Nathan Bishop, who deputised competently.
The Shrimpers boasted two of the strongest full-backs, too, in speedy Cypriot Jason Demetriou and left-footed technician Ben Coker, before both were ruled out for long spells.
Talented young centre-back Harry Lennon was only able to start five league games since joining from Charlton, prior to picking up an injury; although he, Oxley and Demetriou started in Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to AFC Wimbledon.
Tom Hopper, so important to the team’s impressive patch of form earlier in the campaign with his mobility and positive movement, picked up an injury in October’s 3-0 win over Walsall.
Since Hopper’s injury, the Shrimpers have lost 14 of their 23 league games with no team losing more in that timeframe.
They have been overly reliant on Simon Cox, who has a presence about him – and bagged a hat-trick to inspire that remarkable comeback in February’s 3-3 draw with Portsmouth – but is unlikely to get in behind in quite the same way as Hopper.
Crucially, Southend are short of a reliable, mobile partner for Cox with Norman Wabo yet to score a senior professional goal with limited opportunities and Harry Bunn a wide man by trade; the January decision to loan out Theo Robinson is looking increasingly dubious.
Questions asked of Powell
Chris Powell confirmed his legendary status at Charlton in 2012-13, when he inspired the Addicks to the League One title; his last full season as a manager at that level.
Back then, he successfully built a direct outfit around target man Yann Kermorgant – but the league has since evolved.
More teams are enjoying success by keeping the ball on the deck and Powell has perhaps found it difficult to compromise his principles and, in some ways, keep up with more innovative tacticians like Daniel Stendel and Grant McCann.
A reasonable proportion of Shrimpers fans now feel that, although Powell is well-respected from his time as a player at Roots Hall and is a very likeable person, the honourable thing for him to do now would be to step down.
However, chairman Ron Martin remains stoic in his support for Powell – that is admirable in many ways but it also means Southend could have a divided camp at a time when unity is needed most.
Too trusting of established pros?
Injuries to key squad members have forced Powell to field young players goalkeeper Nathan Bishop, right-back Elvis Bwomono and left-back Sam Hart.
In other areas though, he has been very loyal to high-profile performers, especially Sam Mantom and Timothee Dieng in midfield.
Although Mantom has potential for the odd strike from distance, as we saw in January’s 4-0 win at Bradford, his main selling point is his energy. He does not quite have the quality to not be at optimum level in terms of intensity – as he perhaps hasn't been recently – and still influence games.
Timothee Dieng, meanwhile, has a presence about him and can play the odd decent pass in behind – he played a prominent role in Cox’s equalizer against Pompey – for a holding midfielder, he is sometimes slightly languid without the ball, even if that is down to his physique rather than anything else.
With Michael Timlin having left for Stevenage in the summer, Powell does not have a consistently tenacious ball-winner on whom he can rely to shore things up.
Given that though, it could be argued that younger players like Michael Klaas and Dru Yearwood have shown enough commitment and talent to earn more of an opportunity than they have got.
In terms of Expected Goals over the last eight games, Southend have averaged 0.89 For (xGF) and 1.54 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 36.67% (xGR); the 23rd-worst in the division.
In terms of Actual Goals over that same period, they have scored on average 1 per game, conceding 2.13.
Worryingly, they have been getting better results than their performances have merited – and this a team winless since January.
Considering that the teams just below Southend in the drop zone, Wimbledon and Walsall, are on an upward trajectory in terms of performances, they must improve their current form drastically to beat the drop.
We might not get any pleasure out of saying it, but 3/1 on relegation for the Shrimpers looks good value.
League One – Southend to be relegated (3/1 Bet365)