ANALYST James O'Rourke (@JamesOR1) has picked out four sides from across the top four English divisions that he feels could be underrated coming into the 2019/20 campaign, with the potential to impress in the Handicap markets.
Southampton +43 (15/1 Bet365)
Southampton certainly did not pull up any trees in the Premier League last season. In the end, the Saints only finished the campaign five points safe of relegation. Nevertheless, there could be bigger and certainly better things to come at St Mary’s. A big reason for that, in my opinion, is the impact that Ralph Hasenhüttl could have now getting a full pre-season with this team, along with a full season, too.
Hasenhüttl was something of a surprise appointment at the South Coast club in December of last year. Mark Hughes’ time with the club had come to an unsurprising end, and the club were therefore in limbo to see who exactly can prevent them from the drop. Enter the 51-year-old Austrian, who developed a decent reputation from his time managing in Germany, most recently with RB Leipzig.
It is worth noting the fact that Hasenhüttl only left that job in the first place after failing to agree a new contract. He wasn’t sacked because of poor form, it was the man himself who said he wanted to leave, having consolidated the club in the top-flight and guided them into the Champions League.
Now for Southampton. We can argue he has had around half-a-year in the job to get his feet under the table in Hampshire. You do get the feeling that if he is indeed given the time then he can certainly get the club up the table. Whilst Southampton have finished 16th and 17th in the last two seasons, they did enjoy a period of four consecutive campaigns which culminated in 8th, 7th, 6th and 8th-placed finishes. That’s good going for a club like them.
Although Saints arguably had a better team back then, they’ve got a manager now who knows what it takes to compete at the other end of the table. We should clear up that we don’t necessarily expect Southampton to ‘do a Leicester’ or anything comparable to that, but I for one don’t solely expect them to battle against relegation.
The signings of Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo strike me as the sort of additions Ralph would have made if in charge of Leipzig. He is very much someone who likes to work with young players to ultimately improve them and get everything out of their potential. Other players such as Yan Valery really made an impression last season and will undoubtedly soon be linked with a move to bigger clubs in the next year or two. It is worth remembering that James Ward-Prowse is still only 24, having made his first team debut at the age of 16.
Someone like Michael Obafemi could be another to make more of a breakthrough as well. Losing Mario Lemina would be a blow, but Hasenhüttl will only want committed players in his roster. They would get a decent figure on his sale anyway, which would then be pumped back into signing a replacement or two across the squad.
Finally, one reason for optimism at Southampton despite their lowly finish last year is that they could have so easily had more points to their name. They drew 12 of their 38 matches, more than any other side in the top-flight. They only lost four more games than fourth in the table and Champions League finalists Spurs. They did beat Arsenal and Spurs at home, whilst also drawing with Man Utd and away at Chelsea.
Saints have shown in flashes what they’re capable of and with a full pre-season, could be one of the teams to really improve upon last season. Teams like Wolves and Everton are favoured to be the ‘best of the rest’ outside the big-six clubs, but there is room for others to step up too. Southampton could be one of those.
There are many doubts about other clubs that finished in the bottom half last season to suggest they might not be the ones to fill that void; Newcastle are in turmoil, Crystal Palace are set to be weakened, Watford and Bournemouth are inconsistent, whilst Burnley are tipped by many to struggle, and Brighton are under new management.
The odds suggest Southampton are expected to finish around 14th, but I fancy them to do a fair bit better than this.
Reading +27 (18/1 Bet365)
A bit like Southampton in the Premier League, Reading are another club that finished low down the table hoping for much better this time around. It was a 20th place finish for the Royals last time around, and, again like Saints, they experienced a managerial change during the campaign which did appear to transform their fortunes.
Jose Gomes was appointed to the gig a couple of days before Christmas, and he has managed to avoid defeat in 16 of the 25 matches he has taken charge of. In the end, Reading proved to be seven points better off than the relegation zone, but expectations are higher this time around to at least avoid a repeat. The bookies however don’t fancy them at all, as they’re 10/3 to now go down.
Reading have finished 20th in the last two seasons, so it is understandable on that basis, however, they were third the season before, only to fall short to Huddersfield in the play-off final on penalties. It might surprise many, even some Reading fans, that I’m tipping them to do a bit better than expected this time around!
The Championship typically looks as open as ever, and of course there is room for several to demonstrate their promotion credentials right from the very off. Something Reading must do is start the season a little better – they didn’t win any of their openings six, and actually only won three of the first 15. That ultimately led to the change in boss, with Paul Clement again showing a shortcoming as a number one at club level.
Gomes will fancy his chances this time around of getting Reading much more competitive. Five of the six wins he oversaw in the league all came at the Madejski Stadium, so home form is likely to be the bedrock of any potential success. Improvement on the road however is simply a must, as they only won twice on their Championship travels, one of which to rock bottom Ipswich.
Interestingly, the Royals have not added too many new faces in the close season thus far, although Michael Morrison is experienced at this level and provides a threat in both boxes. Again, that is probably reflected in their relatively slim odds to drop into League One. They have however trimmed the squad, which was a must, and it now allows Gomes to work with the players he wants.
Reading still have plenty of deadwood to move out to further highlight how much bigger their squad is than it should be. More new faces should still enter the building before the transfer window closes, but already on the books they boast some solid performers at this level. Players like Liam Moore are often linked with bigger clubs, whilst getting players such as John Swift and Sam Baldock fully-fit can only boost their prospects.
Reading can also call upon several talented youngsters in the form of Gabriel Osho, Ryan East, Michael Olise and Danny Loader who are starting to break onto the scene, too. The future should be bright for the Royals, and I’d expect the near future to be a little better than the recent past has been.
The Berkshire boys most definitely have to improve their end product. They netted only 49 times last season, a number which was only bettered by four Championship clubs – relegated Rotherham even managed to score 50+. It is worth mentioning that they used almost 40 players last season tool; clearly they’ve have to find a formula and stick with it, and having a smaller squad has to be of their benefit.
Getting players back from injury will feel like new signings tool, whilst Gomes certainly won’t want a squad full of loan players either. The former Rio Ave boss wants Reading to play a pure-possession game, and again they showed in patches last year of what sort of impact they can have. They’ll have worked hard on this and many aspects during their Marbella pre-season training camp, which included a narrow defeat to a strong Sevilla.
Outright odds suggest that Reading should just have enough to avoid relegation, but will be again roughly around the 20th position that they’ve occupied at the end of the last two campaigns. You’d like to think they won’t have gotten any worse, and things can only get better.
The three promoted clubs have to prove themselves at this level, QPR, Birmingham and Hull are under new management, whilst Wigan and Millwall are others looking for much better this time around. Reading aren’t as bad as their odds suggest.
Gillingham +18 (18/1 Bet365)
Since returning to League One, Gillingham’s best finish over the past six seasons is ninth in the 2015/16 campaign. The next best came last year when ending in 13th, in what was a crazy year for the division with practically half the league involved in a relegation battle until the final few weeks. Now where do they go?
The Gills lost their best player and top scorer over the last two seasons in Tom Eaves, who has since moved up a division to link up with Hull. The question therefore is, why is Steve Evans here?
Leeds, Mansfield and Peterborough have been Evans' last three jobs. All very good clubs at their respective level. Something however has lured him to this challenge, one which I didn’t necessarily expect him to take up. The odds are firmly against them challenging for promotion this time around, and that will suit the polarising Scot down to a tee.
Everything is arguably set up for the Gills to gate-crash the party and spoil the applecart. Little old Gillingham, the only EFL club based in Kent and with a temporary stand erected at their stadium – this is certainly a different type of challenge for Evans and he doesn’t have the immediate pressure to have to challenge for promotion. That will come from within, as he prides himself on setting up teams and making them compete for honours at this kind of level. It is going to be tough going, but I do think they fall into the category as a potential club to cause a surprise or two in League One.
The Gills have made a few handy recruits to their roster over the summer. Full back Lee Hodson adds experience, as does Stuart O’Keefe. Ousseynou Cissé adds cultured quality in possession, and signing Matty Willock from Manchester United will catch the eye. A trio of Premier League youngsters have been added on loan, too. Losing Eaves is a blow, plus Tomas Holy left a void, but that was quickly filled up by Brentford’s Jack Bonham. They may need a little time of adjustment for everyone to gel but there is most certainly something to work with at Priestfield Stadium.
Gillingham seemed to run in snatches last season. They won back-to-back games on three occasions, and following the first they would then go winless in eight. Conceding goals was ultimately the issue, shipping over 70. It is curbing those kind of issues which will ultimately lead to any potential improvement. Even so, they managed 60+ goals, and whilst Eaves contributed a lot, they're likely to be a more balanced in their approach this time around. .
If the pre-season outright odds are anything to go by, then Gillingham should finish around the 18th mark and I just can’t buy the fact Evans would be taking on a job and be happy just to stay in this league. I fancy the Gillss to have a real go, and whilst they could easily come up short in this ultra-competitive league, I don’t put them down as being pushovers.
You can bet your bottom dollar the Kent club will be up for games against the likes of Ipswich, Sunderland, and all the other more fancied sides among the 24. It was actually their home form which cost them last season, as they claimed 30 points on their travels.
There are lots of clubs with question marks heading into this new campaign in League One. There’s plenty of middle of the road clubs that have been at this level for a while now, and it could be argued that they’ve become a little stale. The relegated clubs have their issues and it's hard to say how the promoted foursome will get on.
Meanwhile, Gillingham appear to be actively trying to make something happen. They’re embracing change. Getting Evans through the door might just be the shock to the system they require to go places.
Stevenage +18 (18/1)
Rewind to the end of last season in League Two and there was an almighty battle going on to try and claim the last play-off position. Just by looking at how the table ended, you can see how close it really was.
Tranmere and Newport made it on 73 and 71 points respectively, whilst Colchester, Exeter and Stevenage all narrowly missed out on 70. In fact, if the League Two table was based purely on the last 10 results of the campaign, Stevenage would be second. They ended really strongly and if the campaign would’ve been extended slightly then there’s every chance they’d have made it.
Stevenage have seemingly been under-appreciated in the pre-season ante-post markets for League Two. The odds suggest that Boro will likely battle against relegation in the mid-to-lower portion of the bottom half. Considering they were only a point off making the play-offs last season, this may seem a little curious.
It would appear that losing some key players over the summer has led to the bookies downgrading Stevenage. At least 12 have been let off the books, whilst Ilias Chair has returned to QPR after his highly successful loan spell. Although players have gone back, the Hertfordshire outfit have added some solid recruits; luring Dean Parrett back could prove to be a game-changer, whilst Paul Digby, Chris Stokes and Tyler Denton will all have a handy role to play.
The Boro has achieved two top-10 finishes within the last three seasons, suggesting that they’re not a million miles away. They’ll have experienced changes to their roster within that period, so I’m quite surprised to see them priced up so high.
Stevenage's Lamex Stadium has been given an upgrade with the North Stand now finally rebuilt. In my opinion, this is an exciting period in the club's history and there is every chance that they can really make the next step. Getting to January is key as that is when Dino Maamria can work in the transfer market and get the necessary recruits, just like he did last season with Chair.
Having Salford in League Two has rather ruined the outright market in one sense as they’ve already been backed to a point where promotion appears inevitable. I for one won’t be touching them, but it at least opens up value elsewhere across the division.
I don’t foresee Stevenage flirting around the lower echelons come next May. The one doubt is they’ve been a little inconsistent since being relegated from League One, proved by the fact their end finishes have been 6th, 18th, 10th, 16th and 10th. Nevertheless, they’re a much bigger price than they really should be.
Stevenage were rather up-and-down last season. They ended the season winning five of their last six (drawing the other), but they only won two of the 11 beforehand. That’s ultimately why they missed out on the top-six, having given themselves too much to do. They started brightly, losing two in 10, but November/December could’ve been better. You could argue that is just the nature of life in the EFL.
Boro ultimately needed a few more goals last term. They’d be in the bottom half based on goals scored, but the top half when viewing goals conceded. Stevenage ultimately finished where they deserved, but with a bit of fine tuning they will more than believe they can step up the desired level.
Pre-season has seen Maamria's men prove hard to beat, conceding very few. Being strong defensively is nothing to be sniffed at and it’s ultimately the bedrock of any successful side. Only four other League Two sides won more games than Stevenage last season, which again is proof that they did a lot right, despite finishing 10th. Progression is not out of the question, by any means.