Leeds, Boro, Coventry: 16 Conclusions on the EFL weekend

Date published: Sunday 25th August 2019 6:28

1) Lost last season’s top scorer? Check. Seen young star and youth academy product go to Manchester United without a replacement bought in with the money? Check. Manager gone to Brighton and Hove Albion and the checklist is complete for a side which looks set for a season of struggle. But throw that piece of paper out of the Liberty Stadium window because that’s not how things are done in this corner of South Wales. The Swans have already shown this season they can win against the odds in a multitude of ways. Coming from behind in three separate matches to take the spoils left Steve Cooper’s new side flying high. A three goal haul in a second half masterclass against Birmingham City on Sunday afternoon left them soaring at the top alongside Leeds United. Try all you like to knock this Swansea side down, they will just come back stronger. If last year was an adjustment season to the Championship, the opening month of this campaign has shown Swansea to have their shoulders high, chests out, and neck out.


2) In three of their first four fixtures in all competitions, Swansea had to come from behind to win. The exception; a credible 0-0 draw at Derby County. So far, that is the only blemish on their record. New signings this summer were scarce, but that was because the secret weapons had long since arrived in South Wales. Borja Baston is looking every part a £15million man three years after his initial arrival, while Ghana winger Andre Ayew is resuming his Swansea career once more. Five goals in as many games for the Spaniard have made him the unexpected lynchpin of these early shock promotion hopefuls. Against a lacklustre Birmingham, Cooper’s men were given no miniscule task in breaking down a five man defence, but once the opener came courtesy of Kyle Naughton’s strike, Swansea looked every inch a side capable of lasting the full season.


3) In midweek, I omitted a conclusion on Leeds on account of the fact that their table-topping position and constant dreamlike performances were what the majority of us had come to expect. But after another three goal haul and scintillating away performance maintained Marcelo Bielsa’s side’s seat at the very top of the early Championship table, it was simply impossible to ignore the highest-placed Yorkshire side in English football once again following their 3-0 triumph at Stoke City. Questions will of course be asked of United’s ability to last the full season again, but rather than let the previous campaign’s atrocious end hangover into this, Leeds have instead gone one better. Three different scorers, two of them wingers-cum-full-backs in Stuart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski, and this Leeds side seems even stronger than last year. In a Championship where the front runners are hard to find, this could finally, finally, be Leeds’ year.


4) Stoke meanwhile were heavily featured in those midweek conclusions, but unfortunately for the Potters, they were smashed at home and it came as little surprise to anyone with any iota of knowledge of the trouble which lurks at the bet365 Stadium. That the result came as no shock means manager Nathan Jones won’t be gone too long just yet, but his mis-diagnosis of the problems in the Potteries have done the former Luton Town boss no favours. A switch to a three man defence led by 17-year-old Nathan Collins was optimistic, but the lackadaisical diamond remained with just Lee Gregory up front on a sole mission where the objective was to avoid humiliation. Joe Allen and Jack Butland were both justifiably dropped, but the same problems remain. For rock bottom Stoke, the only way should be up. Right now, it’s difficult to envisage any Potter positivity.


5) And while Stoke remain rooted 24th in the Championship, their top scorer and perennial flop from last season Benik Afobe has hit the ground running for promotion chasing Bristol City. Last season, the Robins’ primary problems came from not having a reliable goal scorer to put the ball in the back of the net during the bad spells of form which too often encompassed Ashton Gate. Famara Diedhiou often took the flak, but placing expectation on one man can be counter-intuitive. In Afobe, Bristol City have another man capable of scoring goals regularly at this level. Behind him, the long-standing mix of youthful exuberance and quality experience has another outlet. The Robins won’t go counting their chickens just yet, but they might just have the secret ingredient to cease being ‘nearly men’ when it comes to getting to the Championship play-offs.


6) In a season where the promotion front runners were difficult to gauge, it looked as though the big boys were ready to make significant strides in recent weeks. Fulham mauled Millwall in midweek with each of their front three delightfully chipping in while West Brom were revelling in an unbeaten start. All of a sudden, it was beginning to look a lot like the cream would rise to the top. Then came Saturday. Nottingham Forest took all three points from Craven Cottage, largely nullifying that superb attacking triad while a lucky, late Baggies penalty was all that gave Slaven Bilic’s side a share of the spoils from Pride Park. More than ever, this Championship promotion race is open to all the elements.


7) That being said, there are some sides who look less capable of making the end-of-season promotion party. For Middlesbrough, it is pretty simple. They have changed the manager, and the style of play is beginning to evolve, but with the money spent on this squad, results are expected too. It was a risk taking on a rookie management duo in Jonathan Woodgate and Robbie Keane, and it could well pay dividends. 1-1 draws at home to Millwall are results all too reminiscent of last season’s dross campaign under Tony Pulis, two shots on target from 11 attempts even more so. The last thing Boro fans need or want is a continuation of last campaign. Something needs to give at the Riverside.


8) Preston North End meanwhile, continued where they left off in midweek with that somewhat fortuitous, but certainly deserved victory over Stoke. This weekend, it was more of the same. You’d bet good money that the bookies would have predicted both the Potters and Sheffield Wednesday to finish higher than the Lilywhites come May, but in the space of four days, Alex Neil’s side have taken three points off both opponents. On both occasions, the Deepdale outfit have dug deep and ridden their luck – two Butland errors in midweek followed by a couple of Daniel Johnson penalties either side of half time this weekend – but Preston are making their own luck. If they can keep hold of that rabbit’s foot for the next nine months, promotion could be delivered in this corner of Lancashire.


9) One side for whom it seems ludicrous to think of being up at the top end, even just five matches in to the new season, is Huddersfield Town. Under caretaker manager Mark Hudson, any change has been negligible. Losing is one thing, but this is still a Terriers side carrying the burden of over a year of constant negativity. Shifting that is no easy task, and if the new manager is, as believed, Hannes Wolf, it will take more than a new coach to add bite to this stupendously blunt Huddersfield side. Last season, he failed to take overwhelming promotion favourites Hamburg back to the Bundesliga. On Saturday, his potential new side looked like overwhelming favourites for successive relegations. It is difficult to envisage the 38-year-old breaking not living up to that tag.


10) In League One, there is a side in even worse form. Four games, four defeats, and forlorn across the pitch, and Southend United were in desperate need of something, anything, to kickstart their season. A Wycombe Wanderers side who had started the season in scintillating form by comparison, did not appear the best opposition to get those first points on the board. A shock lead at Adams Park though against a dominant Chairboys outfit meant the Shrimpers could start thinking about sitting relatively pretty outside the relegation zone. Fast forward to full time and Kevin Bond’s side sit still on nil pois, 22nd only by virtue of the plights at both Bury and Bolton Wanderers, and with a worse defensive record than the latter who have conceded five in each of their last three fixtures. If the veteran Bond is to last much longer, he has a tougher mission on his hands than his namesake James.


11) Like Bury and like Bolton, Coventry City are bearing the brunt of off-field problems. They do say you’re never more than five feet away from an awfully-run League One club, after all. But unlike the Lancashire couple, it is proving much harder to take out the Sky Blues, who are thriving in their own home away from home. While landlords Birmingham are having a hit-and-miss season, Mark Robins’ team are interested solely in the former. Dominic Hyam scored the winner for the St. Andrew’s side as they kept their rented house in superb condition. Three league games, a 100% record and clean sheets all round. Perhaps Coventry will even be thinking about extending their stay.


12) For the two sides who are suffering similar fates off the pitch but with no silver linings on it though, the message is clear. Bury have been given some reprieve to keep alive their EFL status, and their deadline is now the same as Bolton’s. If come Tuesday evening, both clubs are still in existence as Football League outfits, it will be a victory every true football fan wants to see. But we must learn from this, and not let it happen again. Next time, it could be your club.


13) It wasn’t so long ago that Northampton Town were nearly in the same position, and they were fortunate to live to tell the tale. Right now, their on-field problems pale in comparison to the issues which saw their EFL existence threatened during the 2015/16 season which fell alongside record breaking promotion to the third tier under the wonder that is Chris Wilder. We can always tell ourselves that it could be worse, but that is no reason to not complain when the going is tough. After a busy summer with no fewer than a dozen new faces arriving at Sixfields, a spell of bedding in was always to be expected, but with Mysterious Keith Curle in charge, there are questions over the Cobblers ability to fit this jigsaw of new and old faces alike together. Yet to score more than one goal in any of their first six fixtures in all competitions, this cobbled together side looks a shoe-in for a relegation battle.


14) Plymouth Argyle have perhaps been the most fortunate recipients of Bury’s plight, taking on manager Ryan Lowe, who is riding high on managerial credit. A rookie, he is not. Taking on a plethora of signings from the Shakers have shook things up on the south coast too. Immediate promotion back to League One looks a real possibility. Considering the circumstances Lowe and half of this Argyle side went up in last campaign, it should be a certainty. 10 points from the opening five games is promotion form. Now to keep it up over the next 41 matches.


15) One of last season’s League Two promotion favourites Mansfield Town suffered play-off heartache against Newport County in May. Manager David Flitcroft paid the price with his job, and rather unsurprisingly given that top three should have been the aim for the expensively assembled Field Mill outfit. Leaving a similar squad under the guidance of first time manager John Dempster already looks to be a risk not paying off. Lax defending throughout the early stages of the season put paid to just a second clean sheet of the campaign on Saturday at home to an out-of-sorts Stevenage by sacrificing the goals scored this weekend. Another season without promotion would be failure. Already, it’s looking a tough ask for the Stags.


16) Having defeated Mansfield in those play-offs last season, Newport couldn’t go all the way and lost out on promotion to the third tier at the expense of Tranmere Rovers. If only the final was played at Rodney Parade. A late winner against fast starters Crewe Alexandra on Saturday was good, but even better was yet another stellar defensive performance at their home stadium. Those two goals conceded in the opening day draw with the last season’s play-off semi-final opponents were two of just five County have let in on home turf this calendar year. If a solid backline is crucial to promotion, Michael Flynn’s side must be near-certainties to finally get out of League Two.


Nathan Spafford is on Twitter – and so is his Football League podcast TALK72. Football League news and views: for the fans, by the fans. Out every Monday in all your usual good podcast places.

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