Monday, 25 February 2019

EFL: (Championship, League 1 and League 2) January Review

The Championship, League 1 and League 2 firmly made its presence felt as 2019 got underway. A busy January saw plenty of excellent football, quality goals and even more managerial changes at the top and bottom of the leagues. The Championship is hotting up nearly both at the top and bottom while there is one side storming away in League 1 while the fights for promotion and survival are intensifying in League 2.

The Championship remains an league of endurance with a scrap emerging at the top of the table. Leeds, Norwich and Sheffield United are fighting for the automatic places while West Brom are not too far away. Bielsa's Leeds had a mixed January winning just twice in their 4 league games with the Spygate scandal causing plenty of controversy but despite that, Leeds are in the groove and promotion is within touching distance. Daniel Farke has really built something special in his 18 months at Norwich. After a bottom half finish in his first season in charge, Farke has built an ethos built on young players from Europe as well as the Norwich Academy and he is truly being rewarded. Norwich are having a terrific season and have enjoyed an unbeaten 2019 so far despite winning just once in the league. Norwich are winning plaudits for their enterprising attacking play but their hardworking and determined ethos is also something to be admired. The likes of Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey and Onel Hernandez have sparkled while Teemu Pukki has been one of the signings of the season. Norwich are charging towards the Premier League but will be well aware of the competition around them. Chris Wilder is a true blade and he will be delighted with his sides' application and performances in matches and although they are winless in their last two league games, Sheffield United are looking a far more dangerous team but also are managing games far better than last season were they disappointingly faded away. United head into February in confident mood and with the red hot form of Billy Sharp, United will fancy their chances of automatic promotion.

Meanwhile, the fight for survival is also looking interesting but Ipswich looked doomed at the bottom with just 18 points collected this season and Paul Lambert has failed to ignite the Tractor Boys' season. 5 defeats in their last 6 games has Ipswich further sink towards League 1 and it would take a miracle to surpass all miracles for them to stay in the Championship. Bolton are also getting that sinking feeling with Phil Parkinson's team also sliding towards League 1 with the Trotters on a run of just 1 win in their last 19 league games. Phil Parkinson is dealing with all sorts of issues both on and off the pitch. Bolton's defence is far too frail and their attack is pretty dry at times. While things off the pitch are no better with the club desperate for a new owner with a series of debts building up. A takeover is very near with a local business man closing in on a deal but the future of boss Phil Parkinson remain uncertain with the form woeful but the manager has the fans backing. The others scrapping for surivial include Reading, Rotherham, Millwall and Wigan. All 4 sides have made largely poor starts to 2019 with Reading occupying the final relegation spot with new manager Jose Gomes not having the desired affect yet with just 1 win in his 6 games so far with the new manager attempting to play passing football in a relegation battle which brings its own risks. Rotherham's more direct style has earned more points but a flat 2019 thus far sees them head into February on a run of 3 straight defeats. Millwall and Wigan are a slightly further away but their poor start to the new year has them firmly in trouble and while Millwall are playing well in the FA Cup, their league form is suffering with just 3 wins from the last 13 although those 3 wins have come in their last 5 games so although there is some improvement, The Lions remain firmly in trouble.

The start of 2019 has seen managerial changes in the Championship with Stoke and Nottingham Forest seeing a change of leadership in the dugout. Following a disappointing first half of the season and only 7 months in charge, Stoke sacked Gary Rowett. A summer of spending has severely backfired and Stoke are languishing in the bottom half of the table with the fans unhappy with the club's style of play under Rowett and a lack of consistency in their form. A run of 3 wins in 11 games saw Rowett's short reign come to an end. His replacment is the Luton manager Nathan Jones who arrives after a terrific 2018 in charge of the Hatters which saw promoted to League 1 and are currently flying high at the top of the League 1 table. Jones arrives with the task of igniting Stoke's flailing season. Howver, Jones hasn't started well losing 2 of his first 3 games in charge and it will certainly take a while for Jones to implement his playing style and winning formula which brought terrific success at Luton. In contrast, outsider interference saw Aitor Karnaka resign as manager of Nottingham Forest after 11 months in charge. Despite Forest charging towards the play-offs, Karanka has left following pressures from above and interference in his running of the team and club. His replacement is Nottingham Forest legend Martin O'Neill who arrives following his spell in charge of the Republic of Ireland. O'Neill is tasked with getting Forest back into the Premier League. However, O'Neill has endured a mixed start losing his first game but winning his second in charge. O'Neill will want February to be the month where Forest make their presence felt in the race to reach the Premier League.

Let's move to League 1 and despite the surprise departure of Nathan Jones, Luton's momentum and rhythm has just kept on going. 11 points from their 5 games in January has seen Luton extend their unbeaten run to 17 games with club legend Mick Harford in interim charge, The Hatters are charging towards back to back promotions blowing all their opponents away. With Luton firmly bossing League 1, the fight for 2nd place is getting interesting with Portsmouth, Barnsley and Sunderland battling for that 2nd automatic promotion place. Its been a poor 2019 for Portsmouth with Kenny Jackett's side winless in January including losing their last 3 league games. Portsmouth are falling away despite bossing League 1 for virtually the entire first half of the season. As Portsmouth fall down, Barnsley are rising to the challenge and are motoring nicely towards the top 2 after a terrific month for Daniel Stendel's team. Barnsley collected 11 points from their 5 games in January and despite the departures of Brad Potts and George Moncur, Barnsley's rhythm hasn't been disrupted with the likes of Cauley Woodrow and Cameron McGeehan stepping up to the plate. Barnsley are unbeaten in their last 9 league games winning 6 of those and are pushing Portsmouth hard. Sunderland are also pushing but despite an excellent unbeaten run of 6 games, Sunderland have drawn far too many in recent weeks which has seen their charge stall slightly but Jack Ross has made an excellent impression at the club and Sunderland are very much in the race for a top 2 finish.

As the promotion scrap excites League 1 fans, the relegation battle is also bubbling away nicely with the entire bottom half fearing for their safety in the league. The resurgent sides in the scrap have certainly been Plymouth and Scunthorpe with new impetious and belief installed in both clubs. Plymouth started 2019 bottom of the table but 4 wins from 5 in January has the Pilgrims charging towards safety and certainly Derek Adams has had his critics this season but he has got a tune of the players and Plymouth look a completely different side. As do Scunthorpe and that is certainly down to Stuart McCall's excellent transfer business which has seen Scunthorpe go unbeaten in January winning 4 of their 5 games and are motoring towards safety and are only looking up. McCall has tightened a very leaky defence and add goal power in re-signing Kevin Van Veen. Overall the Iron are improving winning 6 of their last 7 games and McCall will be delighted having endured a mixed spell in charge thus far. The new manager bounce hasn't quite lifted off at Shrewsbury or AFC Wimbledon. Despite excellent FA Cup runs, both teams are enduring very poor runs in the league with the Shrews winning just one league game since Sam Ricketts took over while Wimbledon have lost 4 of their last 5 games and collected just 2 wins since Wally Downes replaced Neal Ardley. Wimbledon are stuck at the bottom and things must improve fast in February if they are to drag themselves out of trouble. Meanwhile, Sam Ricketts also needs a morale boost as the Shrews slowly sink towards the bottom 4.

Despite occupying the final play-off spot in League 1, Peterborough decided to end Steve Evans' spell in charge of Posh after a run of 3 wins in their last 13. Evans built a completely new squad in the summer that started the season brilliantly winning their opening 5 league games and overall lost just 3 matches in the opening three months of the season. However, disappointing results and performances especially at home has left the fans unhappy and chairman Darragh MacAnthony in a position where something has to change and Evans was dismissed just 30 minutes after Posh's home draw with promtion rivals Charlton. His replacement is man entering his 3rd spell in charge of Peterborough. Darren Ferguson is back and more determined than ever to bring success back to Peterborough but his third spell started with a disappointing draw at struggling Bristol Rovers. Darren Ferguson will be determined to get Posh pushing towards the top 2 with a big February on the horizon.

England's 4th tier is getting very exciting indeed with scraps both at the top and bottom of the table. Lincoln continue to lead the way but Mansfield and Bury are hunting them down as the MK Dons slowly fall away. A good January for Lincoln saw them collect 9 points from their 5 games and also avoid defeat. However, Bury are hunting them down after an even better January which saw them collect 13 points from their 5 games and are beginning to heap the pressure on Lincoln who have led all season. David Flitcroft's Mansfield are also very much in the race following an extremely busy January which saw them play 7 league games due to various fixtures changes. 4 wins and a draw from those 7 represents a good return from a tough month of matches. Mansfield remain in the hunt for the automatic promotion as well as the title but the MK Dons have dropped off the pace after a disappointing January which saw them lose 3 of their 5 games and Paul Tisdale will be frustrated with his sides' severe loss of form after an excellent first half of the season. Chuks Aneke's injury has hit them hard but Tisdale will be hoping his fit and firing in February.

Another side in the promotion race is Carlisle who enjoyed a terrific December and start to 2019 which in this period has seen them win 6 in a row. However, John Sheridan resigned from his post despite the Cumbrians terrific run to takeover at National League side Chesterfield a club close to Sheridan's heart. So its a unique situation for a new manager to walk into and that is excatly what Steven Pressley has found out. The Scot arrives following spells at Coventry and Fleetwood and he is tasked with continuing Carlisle's excellent run of form and push for promotion. Pressley heads into February with a perfect record having won his opening 2 league games in charge and Carlisle very much the dark horses in the race for promotion.

The relegation battle is also getting interesting with Macclesfield closing in on the sides above after a really positive run under Sol Campbell while Notts County are enduring a tough run under their third manager of the season Neal Ardley. Its been a good start to Sol Campbell's reign at Macclesfield and although they haven't moved out the relegation since his takeover, they are firmly moving in the right direction having collected 7 points from their 5 games in January. However, Notts County are slowly getting that sinking feeling having won just once in Neal Ardley's 9 league games in charge. A winless start to 2019 has left the fans concerned and to add to their misery the club is up for sale with chairman Alan Hardy deciding its time to leave the club. As Macclesfield push for survival the sides above are certainly becoming very worried. Yeovil, Morecambe, Cambridge, Port Vale and Cheltenham are all looking over their shoulders. Yeovil are a sinking ship with Darren Way's side on a very poor run which has seen them win just twice in the last 13 league games although they have won 2 of their last 3 games. The fans are unhappy with Way and despite having games in hand on the sides around them, The Glovers are not taking advantage and the pressure is growing on Way. However, this pressure has proved too much for Neil Aspin at Port Vale who has resigned as their manager following a disappointing first half of the season and a run of just 2 wins in the last 14 league games including losing 4 of the last 6. Port Vale are sliding towards danger and Vale has replaced Aspin with the former Macclesfield and Shrewsbury manager John Askey who is tasked with keeping Port Vale in League 2. His reign kicks off in the first round of February fixtures with a crucial six pointer against fellow strugglers Cambridge. Morecambe continue to look over their shoulders as Jim Bentley's side slowly sink towards the relegation zone after a winless 2019 and an overall run of 7 games without a win. Colin Calderwood has certainly had a positive affect at Cambridge and the U's had an excellent January which saw them collect 3 wins from their 5 games and are slowly easing any fears of relegation but Calderwood will be aware there is still plenty of work to do. 

The first month of 2019 was excellent in the EFL and as the business end of the season approaches, teams will be wanting to find form or continue their good runs to push towards their aims of the season. The promotion battles are heating up nicely in all three leagues as are the scraps for a play-off places and the fight to avoid relegation.

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