Monday, 14 April 2014

Middlesbrough: Next Season's Promotion Contenders?

Aitor Karanka
On Saturday, a Jacob Butterfield goal saw Middlesbrough record a smash-and-grab 1-0 victory, their fourth in succession, over Burnley. Notably, their Lancashire opponents could have gone up that day, so Middlesbrough had to do their share of defending to grind out an impressive win. All in all, the difference Aitor Karanka has made on Teesside is encouraging. Though the Spaniard has not made quite as dramatic an impact as Steve McClaren had at Derby, or Uwe Rosler at Wigan, he has seen steady progress.

If the season had started when Karanka took over at the Riverside, Middlesbrough would be fifth. Given that they were sixteenth when he first took over, this is a big improvement, so it seems as though the team is in the right hands. This summer, he will have had five months to analyse the strength and weaknesses of his squad, and judge which players are part of his plans, and which are not. Middlesbrough have been in midtable in the second half of the season, and have never quite looked like making the play-offs. This could turn out to be an advantage, because evidence below suggests that Karanka is the type of coach to experiment with different players and tactics:
Karanka has made an average of 3.2 changes per match since taking over, so he falls into the ‘tinkerer’ category. However, the average number of changes he makes slightly decreases per month (aside from the two games so far in April), which suggests he is gradually identifying his best players. Left-back George Friend has played twenty-five of his twenty-eight games in charge, so Friend is perhaps the only player whose position is looking secure. The vast majority of the first team struggle to play two-thirds of the matches - not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

Aitor was Jose's assistant at Madrid
The lack of pressure on Middlesbrough for instant success, has perhaps given Karanka the freedom to try out new players and different tactical systems. He has used 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1 previously, and even 3-5-2 in the match against Burnley. While formations have varied, we have seen evidence of Karanka’s preference for high-tempo, counter-attacking football. Attacking wide men and plenty of shots from range are a consistent feature in this current Middlesbrough team, which is showing echoes of Real Madrid’s playing style under Jose Mourinho, to whom Karanka was assistant. In essense, the mediocrity of Middlesbrough’s season means Karanka can approach games with long-term planning at the forefront of his mind, rather than the pressure for three points.

Interestingly, Karanka is yet to field an unchanged side. Whether this is by principle, or by player merit, is unclear. Some may criticize him for this, and the recent success of Leicester and Burnley implies that having a more settled side can be beneficial. Yet potentially, the way Karanka is managing creates a sense of healthy competition within the squad, because nobody is given an excuse to drop standards. The more stalwart members of the first team know they need to work hard to retain their place. Meanwhile, the fringe players are kept motivated in knowing they will get their chance, should performances justify it. Great managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, are known for their knack of rotating the squad effectively, and creating a working atmosphere where standards are constantly improving. Karanka seems to be trying to do this.

Peter Kenyon
Middlesbrough have plenty of advantages going into the summer transfer market, compared to other Championship clubs. Their long-standing chairman, Steve Gibson, has a strong relationship with Peter Kenyon, who has an extensive contacts book. Indeed, it has been Kenyon’s work that has led to a change of regime at the Riverside. The ex-Chelsea chief executive is in close communication with Jorge Mendes, dubbed the most powerful agent in football. It was the link with Mendes that instigated a move for Karanka, who in turn, has a strong relationship with the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. Already, we can see how these high-profile contacts are accumulating in Middlesbrough’s favour.

Karanka has already imported youngster Nathaniel Chalobah, an energetic talent who can play anywhere in defence and in midfield, from Chelsea. Likewise Kenneth Omeruo joined from Stamford Bridge, another versatile young defender, who has already represented the Nigerian National Team. Both of these players have impressed since their introduction in January, and it is unlikely that the club would have been able to pull those kind of loan signings off, had it not been for a fantastic contact list.
You might think, by making these links and importing players from other clubs on short-term deals, that Middlesbrough are sacrificing their identity and tradition. They are a club notorious for their patience, and willingness to promote from within. Will this new regime take that away?

Luke Williams
It seems not. Aitor Karanka has spoken publicly about his readiness to introduce youth, and has backed it up with his selection policy. Attacking midfielder Luke Williams, who was on loan at Hartlepool just a few months ago, has just started four consecutive games. Defender Ben Gibson, nephew of chairman Steve, has missed just one of the last fourteen games he was available for. Forward Curtis Main had only been given one cameo appearance this season before Karanka arrived, now he has featured twenty-two times. Furthermore, the likes of Mark Kitching and David Atkinson have also been more involved with the first team squad in the last few months. The new coach has hardly disregarded the youth academy.

Middlesbrough also have a youth link with Atletico Madrid, currently at the top of La Liga. In fact, a few months ago youngsters Bradley Fewster, Bryn Morris, and the aforementioned Luke Williams, were sent to Atletico to train with the club for three weeks. This suggests that the development of youth is at the forefront of the club’s plans.

Going into the summer transfer window, the task will be to keep hold of the defensive players. The club will attempt to extend the loans of Chalobah and Omeruo, and Jozsef Varga from Hungarian outfit Debrecen, for another season. Furthermore, contract negotiations have begun on Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, who is only at the club on a short-term deal. He has kept five clean sheets from a possible nine, and pulled off a string of great saves to preserve a point at Bournemouth. Since Karanka’s appointment, Middlesbrough have conceded just twenty-one goals in twenty-seven games. This is an average of just over three-quarters of a goal conceded per game, which would equate to the best defensive record in the league. At the back, it is more about retaining their current players, than bringing in new ones.

Albert Adomah
In attack, they have scored just twenty-nine goals, which gives Middlesbrough an average of just over one goal per game under Karanka. This needs to improve, so the 40-year-old needs to make decisions now on the attacking players he wants. With Ledesma, Adomah, Kamara, Tomlin, Carayol, Butterfield and Williams all capable of playing in similar positions, the manager almost has too many options to choose from, and keep happy. Add to that, Karanka will no doubt have his own ideas on the attacking players he wants to bring in.

In terms of advanced strikers, Lukas Jutkiewicz is performing well at Bolton, and will return from his loan spell. You would question, however, whether a gangly target man is the type of player Karanka wants to accommodate his counter-attacking style of play. Danny Graham has improved in recent weeks, with four goals and two man of the match performances in his last nine games, but he remains contracted to Sunderland. With the Black Cats likely to go down and struggling to score goals, the club might want to hold onto Graham.

Middlesbrough have drawn more games than any other side in the Championship. The key will be for Aitor Karanka to use his contacts to bring in a reliable, out-and-out goalscorer this summer, who can convert those draws into victories. Four consecutive wins right now though, suggests things are going in the right direction on Teesside. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Solihull Moors 0-2 Barrow AFC

Solihull Moors fell to a 2-0 home defeat to Barrow AFC, on a windy day at the AutoTech stadium. Goals from Andrew Burns and Paddy Lacey secured a deserved victory for the Cumbrian visitors in a low key, end of season game.

Moors were forced to defend deep early on, as Barrow dictated the tempo. They played some intricate football with midfielder Sam Sheridan, previously of Stockport, often at the centre of things. While the hosts dealt with what was chucked at them in the air, they struggled to get to the second ball and lacked composure at times.

Solihull Moors’ first attempt of note came fifteen minutes in. A long throw from journeyman centre-back Exodus Geohaghon, currently at his seventeenth different club, found Richard Taundry, who fired wide from range. The versatile Taundry, a graduate of the successful Walsall academy, then picked up an injury shortly afterwards, to be replaced by midfielder Jay Denny.

That change briefly sparked the hosts into life, and they began to get forward with more ambition than in the first twenty minutes. Dior Angus managed to win one or two free-kicks in dangerous areas, and Barrow were relinquishing control. Moors still lacked quality on the ball, however. Whenever the forwards got the ball in advanced positions, they struggled to hold it up effectively, and were at times isolated. A sharp, neat exchange of passes between right-back Alex Dean and Jay Denny was a more memorable moment in a difficult half for the hosts going forward.

An injury to Omar Bogle did not help the cause of Marcus Bignot’s side, and Bogle was replaced by the stocky Gary Birch. Birch’s technique was very good for this level, he linked play quite nicely, and you got the feeling he could be playing in a higher league if he had more pace. The first half looked to be petering out, after a scrappy ten minutes. Barrow had other ideas, and epitomized this period in play with the opening goal. A cross from the left led to a dramatic scramble in the six-yard box, before right-back Andrew Burns tapped the ball in to put Barrow in front. A very scrappy goal, in what was at that point a scrappy game of football.

A half-time lead for the Bluebirds was justified. You would not have guessed that Darren Edmondson’s men were without a win in seven before today, because they had played much the better football, and kept the ball with ease. While Barrow have one of the better defensive records in the Skrill North, they do have a relatively young side. A 6-0 home loss to Gainsborough earlier in the season, and throwing away 4-2 injury-time lead against Boston United a few weeks ago, suggests they are vulnerable when put under pressure. Unfortunately, Solihull Moors failed to apply it.

The home side were slightly improved after the break, though. Michael Taylor won a free-kick just outside the box after a very dangerous challenge from the offender, who was not even booked, much to the wrath of the home fans. The free-kick was fired over the bar from striker Dior Angus, who had one of his less productive afternoons. Moors were upping the tempo and created a few more set piece situations which, given the lack of physical threat in Barrow’s defence, might have proved fruitful. In truth, Moors struggled to test goalkeeper Tony McMillan, and came closest when Gary Birch headed over the bar from Jay Denny’s corner.

Barrow fired a couple of warning signs at the other end. Jas Singh had to deal with a snap shot from Liam Willis, and shortly afterwards, he was called upon to tip over Robbie Williams’s acrobatic effort.
But with the score at 1-0, the hosts had their best chance of the match, and one which could have changed the game. A high ball from captain Rob Elvins was chased down by Michael Taylor, who managed to find himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but his effort was diverted behind for another Moors corner.

It came as a surprise when Barrow doubled their lead. Shortly after the visitors moved to a 4-4-2 system, a cross from Niall Cowperthwaite was put away by Paddy Lacey, arriving in the box late from midfield. That goal killed the game off and led to a rather flat final quarter of an hour, enlivened only by a man running onto the pitch wearing a horse mask, in reference to the Grand National weekend.
It was a victory that Barrow deserved, as Solihull Moors failed to impress on this occasion. There were spells, particularly in the second half, when they put Barrow under pressure. Ultimately, it did not happen often enough, and when it did, they could not test the keeper. Barrow can take heart from their first half display, and their ability to remain organized in the second. As not the most physical side, they were able to withstand the aforementioned Moors pressure, and in possession they looked a lot more assured than the hosts.

The result does little to change the dynamics of either side’s season, as both clubs are in line for a midtable finish. Barrow end their winless run, and ahead of the summer, Darren Edmondson may be looking to use the remaining few games to assess his squad, which he inherited just four months ago. A poor run of form for Solihull Moors continues, as their promotion ambitions a few months ago seem a far cry from their current position, ten points off the play-offs. Marcus Bignot’s side have won just four games out of a possible seventeen since the turn of the year, and will be without key man Ryan Beswick until the end of the season.

Inevitably, going to watch a sixth tier team means seeing a sizeable drop in the standard of football – or a minor one if you’re a Birmingham City fan. But by sacrificing that, you can get a day out watching a football match, where there’s change for a twenty pound note at the end. Furthermore, being able to stand or sit next to the pitch, hugely enhances the match-day experience. £4.50 for any season ticket holder at a Midlands club is a more than reasonable price, so a game at the AutoTech stadium is always worth the trip.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 12th April

This weekend, Burnley could confirm promotion with a home win over Middlesbrough, although Derby will be expected to delay the party, as they will be heavy favourites against out-of-form Huddersfield. Big spenders QPR and Nottingham Forest go head-to-head in the early game, while Leeds and Blackpool look to break out of their respective slumps, not helped by off-field drama. In a battle of the south-west, surprise play-off challengers Bournemouth can continue their remarkable form, and nudge Yeovil a step closer towards League One. Here’s a preview of the games.

QPR vs. Nottm Forest
Saturday’s early kick-off sees two of the Championship’s biggest underachievers meet. These clubs have spent more than anyone else, but due to injuries and a lack of consistency in team selection, both are a long way off the automatic promotion places. The focus has been on Benoit Assou-Ekotto over the last week, regarding his racial beliefs. It will be interesting to see how much Harry Redknapp is prepared to defend him, because on-field Assou-Ekotto has had a poor season, considering his Premier League experience. Coming back from 3-1 down in the closing stages, 10-man Nottingham Forest managed a draw against Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday, thanks to a Jamie Paterson goal. QPR’s home record is as good as Burnley’s, so I’d tip them to get a narrow win. 2-1.

Bolton vs. Barnsley
Barnsley’s away record had been the worst in the Football League until recently, but they have won their last two on their road. Now, their next two games are away, with relegation rivals Charlton away on Tuesday night. The Tykes must be going out to win both matches, yet now is hardly a good time to need three points against Bolton. Having struggled in the winter months, the Trotters have now lost just once since mid-February. They have benefitted largely from a more consistent back four lately, as Hutton, Knight, Wheater and Ream are gelling together well. Bolton to keep another clean sheet, and push Barnsley in the direction of League One. 2-0.

Marvin Sordell
Brighton vs. Charlton
Brighton are likely to be unchanged after their shock 4-1 win at Leicester in midweek. Dale Stephens bagged himself three assists, so Oscar Garcia will be hoping he will provide Brighton that attacking spark in midfield, which has been missing at times. Marvin Sordell was man of the match in Charlton’s 3-2 win over Yeovil, and his return has boosted the Addicks, who have lacked goals throughout the season. I would not read too much into Brighton’s win at Leicester, simply because the goals had more to do with awful defending from the home side, than Brighton being particularly menacing. Charlton to pick up a point. 1-1.

Burnley vs. Middlesbrough
After Leicester last week, another promotion can be confirmed this weekend, after what has been a rather predictable few months at the top of the Championship. Burnley will go up if they win, and Derby fail to beat Huddersfield. However, if they want to do the job this weekend, they will need to beat a solid Middlesbrough side who have won their last three matches, and seem to be finishing their season on a high. For this match, Boro will be without Kenneth Omeruo and Ben Gibson, due to sendings off against Birmingham on Tuesday. Both have been key players under Aitor Karanka, and both play at centre-back, which means the Spaniard will need to re-think his defensive options. Burnley have key players coming back into the squad after injury now, and that will see them over the line. 1-0.

Derby vs. Huddersfield
Craig Forsyth
Derby should provide a minor delay to Burnley’s promotion party. They are unlikely to drop points this weekend, at home to a completely out of form Huddersfield side. The Terriers cannot find a win for toffee at the moment, and are seeing out their season in disappointing fashion. The interesting thing about this match, is that both teams rely on one player on each flank for width. In Huddersfield’s case it’s wingbacks Adam Hammill and Paul Dixon, for Derby its attacking fullbacks Andre Wisdom and Craig Forsyth. Both teams look to overload the central areas, and this will create some interesting encounters out wide. I would expect Derby to prevail, so Sean Dyche may need to put the champagne bottle in the ice bucket for now. 3-1.

Ipswich vs. Doncaster
The concerning thing about Doncaster’s 2-1 defeat to Bolton, was that for both goals they gave their opponents time on the ball. They have always looked to defend deep, and that has sometimes invited too much pressure, and meant that defensive mistakes are more costly. Ipswich are at the heart of the play-off race after a 2-0 win at Huddersfield, thanks to goals from Paul Anderson and Rhys Murphy. The former netted only his fourth goal of the season, yet remains Ipswich’s highest-scoring midfielder, which tells its own story. We can expect Paul Dickov to set his team up to defend for a point, so if Ipswich had more pace out wide and creativity in midfield, I would back them to break Doncaster down. The problem is, they do not always have the quality to really stretch teams, which is why I think this might be goalless. 0-0.

Leeds vs. Blackpool
Michael Tonge
Two sets of fans enduring dramatic issues off-field, and poor form on it. A group of Blackpool fans have written a letter to the club bemoaning a lack of passion among players, but they should be angrier with chairman Karl Oyston. He has made some strange managerial appointments, and has re-invested very little of the money gained from selling the club’s biggest assets in recent years. Leeds cannot stop losing, and have failed to score on three consecutive occasions. In midfield, they have remnants of the Neil Warnock days in Michael Tonge and Michael Brown, both are big earners who the club needs to get rid of. Neither side has much of an attacking spark going forward, the obvious exception being Ross McCormack for Leeds, so this is likely to be a drab affair. 1-1.

Millwall vs. Watford
Just a week ago, the great escape looked nigh on impossible for Millwall, but back-to-back away wins against the Championship’s better sides have given them hope. Theoretically, you would think that playing a safe, midtable side at home would be a favourable fixture at this stage. However, Watford are more in the Middlesbrough category of finishing the season strongly, than ‘on the beach’, like Huddersfield or Leeds. Ikechi Anya added to a promising season with a goal and assist in a 3-0 win on Tuesday. The Scotsman always seems to excel when played in a more advanced central role, and you’d think with his pace and skill, he is the right man to play behind Troy Deeney. Millwall will attack in desperate need of a win here, and that might leave gaps open at the back for Watford to exploit. 1-2.

Sheff Wed vs. Blackburn
Lewis Buxton
After Leicester’s recent defeat, Blackburn are now the longest unbeaten side in the Championship, six games without defeat. They have scored some seventeen goals in that time too, even if a large proportion of those were thanks to talisman Jordan Rhodes. Sheffield Wednesday’s season is plateauing a little bit. Having been on great form over the winter months, in the final third of this campaign they have become something of a Jekyll & Hyde team. Right-back Lewis Buxton scored in the Owls’ 3-3 draw at Nottingham Forest, but he was arguably at fault for all of the goals. And, contrary to an ironic chant dubbing him the ‘White Cafu’, I’m not sure how much he offers Wednesday going forward. With Blackburn enjoying the services of an in-form left winger in Craig Conway, I’d fancy Rovers to record a win, to keep their feint play-off hopes intact. 1-2.

Yeovil vs. Bournemouth
With a gap of twenty-six points between these two freshly-promoted sides, there’s no prizes for guessing which club has adapted better to life in the Championship. Realistically, Yeovil need a miracle of at least four wins from their remaining five games to have any hope of survival, but many Glovers fans seem resigned to the drop.  When Bournemouth were getting good results in March, you had the feeling they were simply ending the season positively. Now, they have caught us all by surprise, and must be seen as serious contenders for the final play-off place. The impressive Matt Ritchie netted a brace, as Eddie Howe’s side played some fantastic football in the 3-1 win against Reading – the side who occupy the aforementioned play-off spot. Bournemouth to win this West Country clash, and it could be a complete annihilation. 0-3.

Last time…
*1pt for correct result
*3pts for exact score

Correct Results – 3
Exact Scorelines – 1, Barnsley 0-1 Burnley
Points – 6

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 8th April

On Tuesday night’s round of fixtures, the focus is largely on the battle to beat the drop. Charlton could go five points clear, with games in hand on those in the relegation zone with a win over fellow strugglers Yeovil. Barnsley and Millwall look to keep their survival hopes alive, but they both have unenviable opponents, playing Burnley and Wigan respectively. Reading could cement their play-off place with a win at in-form Bournemouth, but a win for the Cherries would see them move just two points off sixth place. Here’s a preview of the action.

Keith Treacy
Barnsley vs. Burnley
Barnsley drew 0-0 at home to Brighton on Saturday. Despite having far less possession than the visitors, they created more chances and limited Brighton to few shooting opportunities. The suspension to right-back Kelvin Etuhu will not be too much of a blow for Barnsley. In Jack Hunt they have a full-back who, though at times defensively vulnerable, likes to move forward and get the ball into the box quickly. That is the type of player they need. Burnley were behind for the vast majority of their match against Watford, but ended Saturday having gained a point on QPR and Derby, both of whom lost. Given Burnley’s ten point cushion, their injury problems are actually a good opportunity for fringe players Keith Treacy, Ross Wallace and David Edgar, to play for their places in the Premier League. Those three have struggled for game time this season, due to Sean Dyche’s preference for a consistent first eleven, so now is the time for them to prove their worth. 0-1.

Blackburn vs. QPR
If QPR had Jordan Rhodes in their team, they would be much closer to Burnley. The Scottish striker has scored more goals for Blackburn this season (23), than QPR have away from home (19). Going into the play-offs next month, QPR fans may be boosted by the return of Charlie Austin, who made his first appearance since January, as a substitute in the 2-1 loss at Bournemouth. Interestingly, Austin was put on fifteen minutes before Bobby Zamora, which suggests Harry Redknapp believes he can make an instant impact. Austin’s form and fitness will be a key factor in QPR’S play-off chances. Blackburn are unbeaten in six, scoring sixteen goals in the process. QPR may have more of the ball, but at the moment, it is the hosts who possess more in-form players, capable of making the difference. 2-1.

Bournemouth vs. Reading
Daniel Williams
There are a cluster of sides five points below Reading at this stage, but of those, Bournemouth are the only in-form side. A draw will serve the Royals quite nicely, whereas Bournemouth are so close to the play-offs, they will be thinking “we’ve got nothing to fear, we might as well go for this”. Eddie Howe’s side naturally play on the front foot too, and this is a factor which could feed into Reading’s hands. They were strong on the counter attack once again on Saturday, nicking a 1-0 win at Charlton, thanks to a late goal from Daniel Williams. Nigel Adkins had left the American out of the side for much of March, but a man of the match performance on Saturday suggests he has benefitted from that exclusion. If Reading get a result here, it is hard to see any other side getting that final play-off spot. 1-2.

Charlton vs. Yeovil
The fixture list has been kind to Charlton, who have six home games this April. Although they lost the first to Reading on Saturday, the next two are against relegation rivals Yeovil and Barnsley, and the following three Valley visitors will be midtable sides with little to play for. However, Charlton do face the possibility of Yeovil Town going level on points with them with a win on Tuesday night, albeit having played two games more. The Glovers picked up a 2-1 win at Blackpool on Saturday, winning despite the absence of Ishmael Miller, who refused to play for the manager. Gary Johnson says that Miller’s personality was not ‘conducive’ to the environment he wanted to create, but the problem is, Yeovil would already be goners were it not for Miller’s goals. Without that attacking quality, I cannot see Johnson keeping them up. 2-0.

Doncaster vs. Bolton
Joe Mason
Doncaster fell to a rare home defeat on Saturday. Their 3-1 loss against Birmingham was their first at the Keepmoat since Boxing Day. James Husband had began to look more solid for Rovers in recent weeks, but it was his sloppy play in the box which led to Birmingham’s equalizer, while the defending for Birmingham’s second was simply a collective failure to keep shape. This was uncharacteristic of Doncaster, because before that match, they had only conceded seventeen goals in their last seventeen games. Bolton are looking a solid outfit themselves, having kept five clean sheets since mid-February. They did it again on Saturday when they won 1-0 at Huddersfield, thanks to a late goal from Joe Mason, his fifth goal in just eleven starts for the Trotters. Bolton to extend their unbeaten away run to six games with a draw, leaving Doncaster in need of one more win to be sure of safety. 1-1.

Huddersfield vs. Ipswich
Huddersfield are in poor form, having taken just three points from their last seven matches. Their U21s are top of their league by some distance, and you wonder if Mark Robins will be tempted to cherry pick one or two younger players from the Development Squad, just to shake things up. Yes they had plenty of the ball against Bolton, but the chances they created were either from set pieces, or from looping, hopeful crosses. Nahki Wells aside, Huddersfield are lacking pace and guile in the final third at the moment. Ipswich lost 2-0 at Blackburn on Saturday, with Christophe Berra looking largely at fault for the opening goal. However, the centre-back has been a key player for the Tractor Boys in recent weeks, and was arguably unlucky to miss out on March’s Player of the Month award to Ravel Morrison. Ipswich might grind out a narrow away win. 0-1.

Leicester vs. Brighton
Oscar Garcia
Leicester are over the promotion line, but they still have a couple of things to play for. They are yet to wrap up the title, and they will be hoping to hold onto their unbeaten run. The Foxes are undefeated in an impressive twenty-one league games, and their last loss actually came against Brighton, a 3-1 defeat at the AMEX back in December. Seagulls fans will be forgiven for not joining in with the “let’s all have a disco” chants. Oscar Garcia’s side are without a win in five games, losing three of them, meaning they are five points off sixth place Reading. Leicester will be playing Premier League football next season, and the way things are looking, Brighton are unlikely to join them. 2-0.

Middlesbrough vs. Birmingham
If only home form counted, thirteenth-place Middlesbrough would be two points off the play-offs. If only away form counted, eighteenth-place Birmingham would be in the play-offs. Middlesbrough have only lost three games at the Riverside, just four teams in the Championship have lost fewer home encounters. Meanwhile, Birmingham have won a remarkable nine times on the road, and only Leicester and Reading have won more. Both teams come into this game off the back of a weekend win, too. A Nathaniel Chalobah goal saw Middlesbrough beat Derby on Saturday, while a brace from Federico Macheda helped Birmingham on their way to three points at Doncaster. Both managers will feel confident of getting a result. 1-1.

Nottm Forest vs. Sheff Wed
Gonzalo Jara
Nottingham Forest’s winless run showed no signs of ending when they lost 2-1 at home to Millwall, with Gonzalo Jara at fault for both goals. He is clearly not a natural right-back, with tendencies to stay on his feet and hold position, which are more suited to a sitting midfield role. The problem is, a host of injuries in the centre-back area has meant regular right-back Greg Halford has had to move, so Jara has been forced to fill in the gaps. The worrying thing for Forest is that Sheffield Wednesday’s left side is very strong, particularly with Michail Antonio back fit. On his return from injury, the two-footed winger scored at Leicester, and won the man of the match award. Him, and possibly the energetic Jeremy Helan at left-back, can combine to cause Jara problems. After Saturday’s defeat, I cannot see Forest getting back into the play-off race. 1-2.

Watford vs. Leeds
Despite being talked about as play-off contenders at various times this season, Watford and Leeds are ten and sixteen points respectively off sixth place. Watford’s chances next season will be boosted if Troy Deeney can replicate his twenty-one goal haul. Arguably the most underrated striker in the Championship, Deeney netted his seventh goal in seven games against Burnley on Saturday. Leeds’ chances are dependent on off-field issues, as much as on. It looks as though the takeover of Massimo Cellino will go through, and given the Italian businessman’s legal convictions, the future of Leeds United could be in jeopardy. At the moment though, a lot of Leeds fans are happy that the deal is going through, and it might give the players a boost on a short-term basis. They will need it, after four straight defeats. 1-1.

Wigan vs. Millwall
Martyn Waghorn
At no point this season have Millwall wanted Yeovil to get a result, but that is their best hope of them catching Charlton. In the very plausible scenario that Charlton win and Millwall lose on Tuesday, they will be five points off safety having played two games more. Lions fans were singing non-stop in the win at Nottingham Forest, which suggests they still believe their side can stay up, but you suspect that Millwall have left themselves too much to do. Wigan managed to grind out a 1-0 win over Leeds on Saturday, thanks to a first half goal from Martyn Waghorn. The Latics need ten more points to guarantee a play-off place, but that’s under the extreme assumption that two sides below Reading take maximum points from their remaining games. In truth, Wigan have done enough already. 2-1.

Blackpool vs. Derby
The reverse fixture back in December saw Derby run out 5-1 winners at Pride Park, in front of the Sky cameras. In the run up to Christmas, they were scoring at will, but since then the goals have dried up to some extent, and the Rams have failed to net five times since the start of March. Blackpool are not the most efficient goalscorers themselves. Despite 59% possession against Yeovil on Saturday, the Tangerines had just three shots on target, and did not create enough decent chances. That result means Blackpool cannot quite consider themselves out of relegation trouble. These two teams have scored a combined total of just thirty goals from thirty-four games since the turn of the year, so a goalless draw might be on the cards. 0-0.

Last week…

On Saturday, Gabriel had one of the worst ever prediction weeks. No correct scores, and just two correct results out of a possible twelve. The right calls were Leicester to beat Sheffield Wednesday, and Wigan to beat Leeds, but late goals for Burnley, Middlesbrough and Bolton meant that none of the other predictions came off. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Championship Weekend Review: Leicester Special

Leicester City’s inevitable promotion to the Premier League has been mathematically confirmed. They beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on Friday night, thanks to goals from Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert. QPR’s defeat at Bournemouth, and Derby failing to win at Middlesbrough, meant the job was done. In light of their promotion, this week’s weekend review will be based around the Foxes.

The story of their season
If you had to pinpoint the main factor behind Leicester’s promotion, it would be their team spirit. The heartbreak of losing the play-off semi-final to Watford last season, in such dramatic circumstances, would have had a negative affect on most clubs. Nigel Pearson’s job was on the line, and it looked as though the young group of players would fall victim to a summer overhaul, as Leicester’s Thai owners wanted instant success.

Play-off heartbreak last season
This theory could not have been less accurate. Very few players were brought in, or indeed sold, during the summer months. In Autumn, Leicester won seven of their first ten matches to get a foothold in the promotion race. The first half of their season could not quite be described as mesmerising, more industrious and efficient. Eleven of their fifteen wins before the turn of the year came by just one goal, which underlined the team’s ability to grind out narrow wins in tight games.

Recovering quickly from back-to-back defeats in December, Leicester began to assert their dominance. A crucial, smash-and-grab 1-0 win at QPR before Christmas spring-boarded a nine game winning streak, which included a 4-1 demolition of promotion rivals Derby at the King Power Stadium. After this performance in front of the Sky cameras, Leicester were destined to run away with the league title. Since then they have never looked back, and remain unbeaten since December.

Squad Analysis
It is hard to argue that Leicester have had any stand-out defensive performers. Having a settled back-line has helped, as De Laet, Moore, Morgan and Konchesky played almost all of the games in the first half of the season. On average, they have conceded 3.6 shots on target per game. This is an unremarkable record, and does not necessarily suggest defensive organisation has been a key factor in Leicester’s success.

Kasper Schmeichel
Kasper Schmeichel has been an efficient goalkeeper, without really catching the eye, and he has fallen under the limelight of many other Championship goalkeepers. Though a reliable shot stopper, he has at times been liable to errors from set pieces earlier in the season, most notably at Charlton and Doncaster. Now at the age of twenty-seven, next season will be the ultimate test of whether the Dane can make it as an established Premier League goalkeeper.

It has been a very productive season for Leicester’s wingers. Riyad Mahrez has made a fantastic contribution, with three goals and four assists in just six starts since signing in January. The pacey Lloyd Dyer has been impressive on the left, particularly in the first half of the season, though his form and fitness has declined somewhat since January. Anthony Knockaert has formed arguably the best right-sided partnership in the league with attack-minded full-back, Ritchie De Laet. Knockaert, an excellent spot from the Leicester scouting system, has provided a few key moments of magic. His strong left foot gives the Frenchman a versatility, and has often moved to the left wing in Lloyd Dyer’s absence.

In the centre, Danny Drinkwater and Matt James have had undoubtedly their most successful professional season, since coming through the prestigious Manchester United academy. Both are intelligent players, who can link play from Leicester’s half to the attacking areas very quickly. Drinkwater, seen as one of the stand-out performers for the Foxes, was shortlisted for the Championship player of the year award. In reserve, Leicester have ex-captain Andy King, and Dean Hammond, who played a key role in Southampton’s promotion to the Premier League two years ago.

Jamie Vardy
Up front, Leicester have a very good strike partnership. Jamie Vardy’s relentless pace and energy has the ability to frighten defences into mistakes and rushed clearances, forcing them further back, to create space for the more composed David Nugent. The top assisting striker in the Championship, Nugent has contributed to 39% (30) of Leicester’s seventy-six goals this season, through goals and assists. Leicester have plenty of depth going forward too. Chris Wood has proved a great squad option lately, with three goals and two assists in his previous seven appearances, many of which as a substitute. Kevin Phillips adds a wealth of experience, not just in finishing quality, but as a wise head in the dressing room, having been in promotion battles countless times before.

Summer Strengthening

In essence, this talented young squad has achieved promotion due to the familiarity factor - Nigel Pearson’s consistency of team selection. The dilemma for the Leicester boss now, is what approach to take in the transfer market. Add too many proven, Premier League players, and he risks disrupting the balance of the team, as well as taking an inflated wage bill down to the Championship. Change too little, and this inexperienced group of players could crumble under the pressure.

West Ham's Joey O'Brien
A left-back might be needed, depending on the fitness of Paul Konchesky, who has suffered from hamstring injuries this season. Pearson will be hoping Konchesky can play a part, as one of the few squad members who have played in the top flight before, for a long time. 21-year-old Jeffrey Schlupp, a forward by trade, may not be relied upon to play left-back against the top teams. Pearson might be inclined to make a bid for Ipswich’s Aaron Cresswell, who has been the most promising left-back in the Championship. For want of more experience, he may move for players along the lines of Andy Wilkinson or Joey O’Brien, versatile squad members at Stoke and West Ham respectively.

Pearson’s dealings in the transfer market will test his faith in young centre-back Liam Moore, whose transition from Leicester’s academy to first team has been seamless. However, in certain games, Polish defender Marcin Wasilewski has been favoured. If Pearson opts for another experienced player alongside Wes Morgan, perhaps John O’Shea if Sunderland go down, that could give the side some leadership. However, the potential downside for an aging defender, would be a lack of pace, as Morgan is not the most mobile player.

While Leicester’s wingers have had good seasons, Lloyd Dyer, Anthony Knockaert and Riyad Mahrez are all left-footed. Pearson may want a right-footed winger, perhaps to add some variety. Marc Albrighton has only played nineteen times in his last two years at Aston Villa, which suggests he is not part of Paul Lambert’s plans. Albrighton’s contract expires in the summer, too, so Pearson may be inclined to snap him up, and add more Premier League quality.

Overall Chances
Nigel Pearson
This is a massive opportunity for some unproven players, the likes of Liam Moore, Matty James and Jamie Vardy, to establish themselves among England’s elite. The key will be for Pearson to add experience to the side, and one or two leaders in the dressing room, without going overboard and ripping apart the squad which got Leicester to the Premier League in the first place. The manner in which those players have dominated the Championship from January onwards, suggests they are capable of holding their own in the top flight.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 5th April

This weekend, we could have our first up/down of the season decided. Leicester may have their promotion rubber-sapped, if results go accordingly. Burnley are hoping for a similar fate, but will travel to midtable Watford without a number of key players. Barnsley will see if they can build on impressive away wins against Reading and Yeovil, when they host out-of-form Brighton. Stuart Pearce is likely to be at the City Ground watching Forest host struggling Millwall, as he will take charge of Nottingham Forest this summer. Here’s a preview of the weekend’s action.

Leicester vs. Sheff Wed
Chris Wood
Leicester could tie up promotion this weekend if they win on Friday night, QPR lose at Bournemouth, and Derby fail to win at Middlesbrough. If this does happen, it seems a shame that Leicester’s match will be played before QPR and Derby kick-off. Promotions are always more enjoyable for fans when they are completed by beating a team, rather than waiting for the results to come in. Sheffield Wednesday lost 4-1 at home to Watford last week, and they looked vulnerable through the middle. Loovens and Onyewu are not the most mobile of defenders, so perhaps the one piece of good news for Stuart Gray is that the ever-energetic Jamie Vardy might miss out for Leicester. Still, if Chris Wood’s goal against Burnley last week was anything to go by, the loss of Vardy will not be a telling one. 2-0.

Wigan vs. Leeds
Wigan had Ali Al-Habsi to thank for a point last week at Bolton, ironically the Omani’s old club. That match was talked about as one of their worst performances of the season, but it does say something about Wigan’s quality that they still took a point. Al-Habsi has a wealth of experience in the top flight, and with him keeping the margins tight, Bolton’s lead was always vulnerable. After home defeats to Doncaster and Charlton, Leeds have now lost six of their last seven, conceding nineteen goals in that time. There have been too many situations where they are out of a game by the hour mark, and have given themselves too much to do to come back, such was the case against Doncaster. You’d suspect that if Wigan are on form, it could be a resounding win for the Latics. 3-0.

Barnsley vs. Brighton
David Rodriguez
Just a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about Barnsley as a team that could not score. They have just won back-to-back games, scoring seven goals, which is more than half the number they had scored since the turn of the year, before that. Unfortunately for the Tykes, Charlton won at Leeds on Tuesday, so they remain odds-on to go down. Like Barnsley, Brighton’s last match showed a sign of improvement going forward, as the Seagulls netted three times at Blackburn on Tuesday, even if they did only pick up a point. Forward David Rodriguez scored his first goal since signing in January, and will hope to build on that. I can’t see a couple of good results changing Barnsley’s season, and I think Brighton will return to the play-off fringes with a win. 1-2.

Blackburn vs. Ipswich
In the first half of the season, Blackburn’s home form was one of their strong suits. Now, they have not won at Ewood Park since February 1st – a 2-0 win against Blackpool. They missed the opportunity to end that record in midweek when they conceded a late equalizer against Brighton. In that particular game, Tom Cairney played very well and will be someone to watch out for next season. Ipswich have taken an impressive seven points from three difficult games, against Brighton, Derby and Nottingham Forest. However, their away form has been a problem at times this season. Four games on the road this April will be the ultimate test of whether they can break into the play-offs. 1-1.

Blackpool vs. Yeovil
Byron Webster
Unfortunately, it’s looking like curtains for plucky Yeovil, who fell to a 4-1 home defeat against relegation rivals Barnsley. A horrendous mistake from defender Byram Webster epitomized an afternoon of awful defending from the Glovers. Blackpool might not be in great form, but seven points from their last five is a notable improvement, given they recently went eighteen games without a win. The Tangerines defended deep to pick up a respectable draw at QPR last week, but this time the onus will be on them to take control against Yeovil, who seem destined for the drop. 2-0.

Bournemouth vs. QPR
A contrast of perspectives here. If Bournemouth break into the play-offs, they will be celebrating a remarkable achievement. If QPR stay in the play-offs, they will be quite disappointed. In just one month, Bournemouth picked up almost half the number of points needed to stay up, accumulating nineteen points in March. QPR dropped two points at home to Blackpool last week. Despite dominating, they could not break their opponents down - copy and paste that sentence a few times, and you’ve got the story of QPR’s season. The way Bournemouth are playing, they will be a real handful for the Rs, in a game where both teams may have to settle for a point. 1-1.

Charlton vs. Reading
Sean Morrison
Charlton won at Leeds in midweek, thanks to another clean sheet. Impressively, the Addicks have kept fourteen of them this season, in all competitions. If you go purely on their defensive record, it is hard to believe that they have ever been in a relegation battle – a lack of goals being the obvious problem. Reading captain Sean Morrison returned from injury against Huddersfield, but that is not necessarily an advantage for the Royals. They conceded nineteen goals in fifteen games with Morrison in the side, and twenty-seven goals in twenty-four games without him. In other words, their defensive record has been slightly better without him, and it may take a few games for the Irishman to get back to his peak. Perhaps due to a lack of match sharpness, Morrison looked at fault for Huddersfield’s goal on Saturday. Reading’s away form cannot last forever and I would back Charlton to grind out yet another narrow win towards safety. 2-1.

Doncaster vs. Birmingham
Doncaster’s fine form has been rewarded with an eight point gap between themselves and the drop zone. That 5-0 humiliation against Bournemouth, at the beginning of March, seems a very long time ago now. Birmingham lost 4-2 at home to Bournemouth last week. The Blues lacked protection in midfield with Paul Caddis, an attacking right-back by trade, deployed as a holding player in the centre. They also have problems at left-back, with Tyler Blackett looking defensively frail, since coming in on loan from Manchester United. Doncaster often look to attack down the right, through James Coppinger, or possibly Marc Duffy. That is where they will cause Birmingham problems. 2-1.

Huddersfield vs. Bolton
Alan Hutton
Given how tight this division usually is, it is rare for a Championship outfit to approach April with nothing to play for, but that can be said about both of these teams. For Huddersfield, Nahki Wells has scored three goals in his last four, taking some of the pressure off his shoulders, following a brief goalscoring drought. But overall, Huddersfield appear to be on the beach, and so Bolton have moved to one point off the Terriers, following an impressive run of form. The Trotters have extended Alan Hutton’s loan spell from Aston Villa, until the end of the season, which is good news for the North-West club. Hutton is a very complete full-back, and seems to be getting better under Dougie Freedman. These are two mediocre sides in the context of the table, and a draw is the obvious call. 1-1.

Middlesbrough vs. Derby
Derby’s away form has declined dramatically since the turn of the year. They have only won one of their last seven on the road, and this is why they are not really challenging Burnley at this stage. Middlesbrough do not always dominate possession, and are at times reliant on shots from range, but they are difficult to beat at the Riverside. The unfortunate 3-1 loss against QPR a couple of weeks ago, was their first defeat in nine home games. In truth, neither side has that much to play for. Derby are getting ready for the play-offs, and Middlesbrough are in a similar position to the above mentioned Huddersfield and Bolton – lower midtable obscurity. In the entire Football League, only Bury have drawn more games than Middlesbrough, and I think they will share the points once again. 1-1.

Nottm Forest vs. Millwall
Stuart Pearce
Stuart Pearce has been appointed as the new Nottingham Forest manager, but he will not take over until the summer, with caretaker boss Gary Brazil taking charge until then. While Pearce could be a good appointment, it creates an impression that the board have given up on their promotion ambitions this season, in exchange for getting the man they want long-term. Millwall conceded a late equalizer at home to Blackburn last week, despite having a man advantage. Unless they can win about five of their last seven games the Lions, like Yeovil, are doomed. I’ve got a feeling that Forest having finally decided on a new manager will give the players a big lift, and their winless run could come to an end in style. 3-0.

Watford vs. Burnley
Albert Riera, who played for Man City and Liverpool a few years ago, could make his Watford debut on Saturday. As a winger, you might question where he will fit into this Watford side, and whether he will have the stamina and discipline to track-back enough to fulfil the wingback role. Burnley might be nine points clear at this stage, but just how smoothly they can finish the job is questionable. The Clarets will be without Kieran Trippier, Sam Vokes and Danny Ings, who have been without doubt their stand-out performers. Given their solid home record, I might tip Watford for a surprise victory. 2-1.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Will Assombalonga leave Posh?

25 goals - Assombalonga
What a season it has been, so far, for Peterborough United’s Britt Assombalonga. The Congolese forward had a taste of Wembley glory on Sunday, scoring a late penalty to confirm victory for his side in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. He looks to be following in the footsteps of other goalscorers seen at London Road in recent years, such as Aaron McLean, Craig Mackail-Smith and Dwight Gayle. These three strikers have a lot in common. They were all brought in from the lower leagues, they were all of the hardworking and industrious ilk, but crucially, they were all sold on when they reached their peak.

Darragh MacAnthony is the type of chairman who believes in financial sustainability. Indeed, with attendances of less than 10,000 at the Cambridgeshire club, it is difficult to generate much spending power. This factor ultimately contributed to the sale of McLean, Mackail-Smith and Gayle – though in McLean’s case he handed in a transfer request.
Dwight Gayle

Dwight Gayle had scored thirteen goals in twenty-eight games for Posh last season, having joined the side in November, initially on loan. This summer, Gayle signed for Premier League new boys Crystal Palace for a fee of at least £4.5 million. But over the last few years, Peterborough have developed a knack of finding a good replacement for the strikers they have sold. To replace their talisman once again, Peterborough picked up Britt Assombalonga from Watford, for a fee believed to be around £1.5 million.

Dwight Gayle has netted just three times this season for Crystal Palace. In the meantime, Britt Assombalonga has scored twenty-five goals in all competitions for Peterborough. Both are young strikers with time to develop, yet on a short-term basis, Peterborough found better value for money.
In his tenure at London Road thus far, Assombalonga has shown blistering pace, a powerful finish, and great strength for a relatively small player. However, if Darren Ferguson’s side do not get promoted this season, you wonder how long it will be before Assombalonga, too, is sold. Here’s a look at a few clubs who might be interested:

Nigel Adkins
Adam Le Fondre is likely to leave the Royals this summer, and they would need a replacement. Nigel Adkins is a very good developer of talent, the kind of manager who likes to give less experienced players a chance in the first team. Assombalonga has the pace and clever movement to take advantage of any space in behind defences, so he is built to suit Reading’s counter-attacking style of play. However, the club’s ownership situation remains unclear, so the key would be whether Adkins will be given the funds to make the move happen.

Nottm Forest
Nottingham Forest will need to re-assess their striking options this summer. Recent signing Rafik Djebbour is having injury problems, Jamie Mackie has disappointed this season, while Marcus Tudgay, Dexter Blackstock and Matt Derbyshire are likely to be moved on. Owner Fawasz Al-Hawasi has not been afraid to splash the cash, having invested £10 million on players in the last year. Gianfranco Zola could be in the Forest hotseat this summer. He is an advocate of counter-attacking football, and worked briefly with Assombalonga at Watford. However, regardless of Forest’s manager, promotion to the Premier League will be the club’s short-term principle. They may not want to take a punt on a young striker, who is unproven above the third tier of English football.

Paul Taylor
Mick McCarthy likes 4-4-2, a formation which could play to Assombalonga’s strengths, for want of more attacking wingers at Ipswich. The board have not re-invested much into the side since the £8 million sale of Connor Wickham a few years ago, and with the most expensive season tickets in the Championship, you would think the funds will be available for Ipswich to compete for Assombalonga’s signature. However, Ipswich still have a number of strikers left in their squad. Much would depend on the future of fringe players, such as Franck Nouble and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Paul Taylor. Indeed, Taylor was one of Darren Ferguson's first signings in his second spell at Peterborough, before leaving for Ipswich. He has struggled to impress at Portman Road, so a swap deal could be on the cards.

Assombalonga would join a collection of young talent at Derby, and Steve McClaren may have some cash to spend, given the club’s big stadium sponsorship deal. The key issue is whether there will be a starting spot for the striker. Derby play with one advanced striker in Chris Martin, and two inside forwards. As a striker that operates centrally, Assombalonga may not be able to play week in, week out, but he would give Derby a different dimension. If they are in need of a goal towards the end, they might be able to bring him on in place of a midfielder, and assume a more direct style of play. Connor Sammon has only started three matches this season for the Rams, he rarely makes an impact as a substitute, and could be on his way out. However, Peterborough are likely to demand more than the £1.5M they paid for Assombalonga, and Derby may not be prepared to pay large fees for a squad player.

Gary Bowyer
Top scorer Jordan Rhodes may leave Blackburn for a Premier League club this summer. If so, it is likely to be for a fee higher than the £8 million Blackburn initially paid for him, and that will give the club some money to spend. The Venky’s have been relatively quiet in recent months and have let Gary Bowyer, on a 12-month rolling contract at Ewood Park, build for the long-term. Bowyer is the kind of manager who favours working with younger players and could be inclined to move for Assombalonga, but if so, a deal will depend on how much the Venky’s will be prepared to invest.

Whoever comes in for Assombalonga this summer, Peterborough may dig their heels in and refuse to sell, which they would be entitled to do given the young striker’s four year contract. However, if the scenario is the same next January, in that Assombalonga is still scoring goals and Peterborough are a long way off the automatic promotion places, then he is likely to leave. A lot more Championship clubs at the higher end of the table will be prepared to pay an inflated fee, in an attempt to bring in a goalscorer that can make a difference.

There is no doubting that Assombalonga is one of the most talented forwards in the Football League, and it is only a matter of time before a bigger club comes calling.