Which dark horses have started the season at a gallop?

          The EFL's surprise packages of 2020/21

          2021/01/08 12:41
          Tad Chenery

          Everyone's an expert before the season starts, the media and fans alike prematurely crowning champions and dashing the survival hopes of clubs based on past campaigns and highly fallible gut instinct. 

          Often the teams who go on to challenge for promotion and enjoy successful seasons do follow the form book - but there are always a few dark horses who surprise everyone.

          In this article, Playmaker's Tad Chenery looks at five clubs across the EFL who have defied expectations so far in 2020/21. 

          1. Reading

          After Veljko Paunovic was named Reading boss just two weeks before the start of the season, it might have been reasonable to expect the Royals to start the season slowly and improve later in the campaign. However, after eight games, the Serb’s side were unbeaten and clear at the top of the Championship. 

          After losing their next four in a row, conceding eleven goals (four times as many as they had shipped in their first eight) any socially distanced promotion parties were postponed. However, the Berkshire side’s form has levelled out since then and they currently sit fifth in the league, just three points off the automatic promotion places. 

          In Michael Olise, Reading boast one of the most promising players not just in the division, but across the whole of English football. The 19-year-old has four goals and nine assists in all competitions this season and his link up play with top scorer Lucas Joao has been impressive: the Royals' performances dropping off notably when these two are not involved. 

          If both Olise and Joao can stay fit, and neither move in the January window, Reading look poised to maintain an unlikely promotion push.

          2. Lincoln City

          When Michael Appleton signed a four-year deal to take over from the outgoing Danny Cowley in September 2019, he had some big shoes to fill. Cowley along with his brother Nicky, had led Lincoln from the National League to League One in just three seasons, playing some impressive football in the process and the Imps' fanbase was understandably downbeat in the wake of their departure. 

          After a mediocre first season, Appleton stamped his mark on the Imps squad this summer by bringing in a number of young exciting talents with a view to his team challenging at the top end of the table. 

          Perhaps even the former Oxford manager has been surprised by just how well it has gone though this season! The Imps sit top of League One and look potential champions based on their form and performances so far during the current campaign.

          Two players at either end of the pitch have stood out so far. Going forward, Jorge Grant looks to have matured into a top-class League One midfielder and his stats reflect that. Grant tops the charts for both goals and assists for the Imps and has made 42 key passes this season, second only to Hull’s George
          Honeyman in the division. 

          Further back, Dutchman Lewis Montsma has grabbed the headlines. The centre-back, brought in from FC Dordrecht in the Dutch second division, has been a key factor behind Lincoln keeping the most clean sheets in League One this season and he has also offered plenty of offensive threat with five goals to his name already. 

          In a league full of big names, it’s good management and a young, hungry squad that lead the way.

          3. Accrington Stanley

          A few years ago Accrington Stanley v Wigan Athletic could only have been a cup fixture, but with Stanley now an established L1 outfit and Wigan having dropped a couple of divisions, it's a reality.

          When the two teams did meet three weeks ago, the Latics came out on top in an end-to-end 4-3 thriller. Despite coming out on the wrong end of the result, it was only Stanley’s first loss in eight games, in a run that stretched back to late October. 

          Since that defeat, Accrington have bounced back to win four points from their next two games and Stanley currently sit eighth in the table...but the points don’t paint the whole picture.

          John Coleman side have only played 16 games this season, four less than table-toppers Lincoln, who are only 11 points ahead. In what has been a stop-start season for the Lancashire-based club due to factors out of their control, what they have produced on the pitch has been impressive. 

          Coleman has set his side up in a rigid 3-5-2 so far this season to good effect. Their strike partnership of Dion Charles and Colby Bishop has combined well, with Stanley averaging a league high 14.1 shots per game, with 4.8 shots on target per game which is also the best figure in the division. 

          Defensively, only Hull and Lincoln have recorded more clean sheets than Stanley who are shaping up as promotion dark horses.

          4. Carlisle United

          After Barrow’s promotion from the National League, Carlisle didn’t let losing the title of ‘only EFL club in Cumbria’ get to them and have instead focused on gaining the title of 'only team from Cumbria in League One'!

          As things stand, Chris Beech’s side sit top of League Two with only one loss in their last seven games. Boxing Day’s collapse against Bolton could have proved to be a turning point in their season, but United put it behind them impressively with a comfortable 2-0 away win against Walsall, a game in which they had 15 shots. That might seem like a lot, but it’s still under their average of 17.4 shots per game, which is the highest in the EFL. 

          These aren’t just shots in vain either: the Cumbrians lead League Two in shots on target per game (5.4) and big chances missed (35). As the old saying goes, ‘attack is the best form of defence’ and it’s true in this case. 

          Carlisle keeper, Paul Farman averages only 1.4 saves per game which is the lowest in the league and only Forest Green and Salford have conceded fewer goals than Beech’s side. 

          These stats make for great reading, and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Carlisle at the top of the tree come the end of the season.

          5. Morecambe

          Morecambe celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2020 and it looks like they are still celebrating out on the pitch. Boxing Day’s 3-1 home win against Grimsby was the Shrimps fourth in a row and moved them into the play-off places.

          Derek Adams has his side playing some defensively sound football, with players that can hurt teams on the break going forward, and there seems to be a real buzz around the club that something special could happen this season. 

          With a trip to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea in the FA Cup this weekend, Adams and his side have the belief that anything is possible. 

          Key to any hopes against Lampard’s men, or even promotion this season, is Carlos Mendes Gomes. The Spaniard, who joined Morecambe after impressing scouts while playing for the Manchester College Football Academy, has five goals in his last six games. His confidence on the ball and ability to take players on is key to Morecambe’s counter-attacking style of play with Adams' side’s good current form directly correlating with Gomes’ own. 

          With confidence and a proven manager, you’d be silly to write off Morecambe in this topsy-turvy season.


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