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EFL League One 2022/23 Season Preview

Title Contender

Derby County

If this article had been written a month ago this would have been a completely different answer. At that time Derby County were in disarray, Chris Kirchner’s bid to buy the club had fallen through, and as a direct result of that Wayne Rooney decided to quit as manager.

Fast-forward to the present and things are looking significantly better for The Rams, local property developer David Clowes officially took ownership of the club on 1st July. His first move was to buy Pride Park from disgraced former owner Mel Morris, thus helping to move the club forward on a solid foundation. The takeover also meant the transfer embargo placed on Derby County was lifted, and they set to work right away.

The business Derby have done thus far simply can’t be ignored. They’ve brought in several players who have proven themselves at a higher level than League One. Conor Hourihane has come in from Aston Villa, he spent last season on loan at a Sheffield United team that finished 4th in The Championship, making 28 appearances. They’ve also added David McGoldrick from the Blades, who contributed in 19 games during the aforementioned season. Both of these players come with vast amounts of both Premier League and Championship experience. As does fellow addition James Chester, the centre half was a bit part player for Stoke due to his age but is an excellent addition for League One level. Tom Barkhuizen has joined from Preston, the 28-year-old lost his place in the team last season, but his pace will be giving League One defenders nightmares this season.

As well as the impressive signings, Derby have also managed to keep some of the core group of players that amassed 55 points in the Championship last season, albeit with 21 deducted. That total would have seen them finish in 17 th place without the points deduction. The likes of Curtis Davis and Eiran Cashin, who formed a fairly formidable ‘master and apprentice’ style partnership last season, as well as talented young players such as Max Bird, Jason Knight, Liam Thompson, and Louie Sibley, all of whom have another year of experience, will likely perform well at the level below. If they can do it in the Championship, why can’t they do it in League One? The major cloud is that they’ve lost Wayne Rooney as manager, the silver lining is that they’ve kept continuity by giving the job to his assistant Liam Rosenior. The 8/1 price seems generous, although understandable given the upheaval at the club.

Relegation

Fleetwood Town, Forest Green Rovers, Bristol Rovers & Cheltenham Town

Fleetwood Town were terrible last season. I’m sorry if there’s any Fleetwood fans reading this, but the evidence was there for all to see. Their 40-point total last season kept them up on goal difference but would have seen them relegated in every other season since its inception. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 1979/80 season (when it was two points for a win) for a team to stay up with 40 points.

They’ve made a few decent additions but nowhere near enough to bridge the gulf in quality between them and the rest of the league. They have appointed Scott Brown as first team coach, this will be his first season in the hot seat having spent last season as an assistant at Aberdeen. It’s going to be a baptism of fire and I’m not sure the Scot has the experience necessary to overcome the challenges. I think it’s going to be a season of struggle for The Cod Army, and one that will ultimately end in relegation.

It was a really strange season for Forest Green last year and, considering they went up as champions, things are strangely pessimistic around the club. They started the 2021/22 season on fire and were ten points clear at the top of the table at the halfway point, but only clinched the title on the final day after eventual runners-up Exeter City made up fourteen points in the second half of the campaign.

The offseason has been fairly turbulent, with manager Rob Edwards departing for Championship Watford on 11 th May. The Forest Green owner, Dale Vince, did not take this lightly, publicly calling out both Watford and Edwards for a lack of respect. Vince stated he knew nothing about the approach for his manager until he phoned Edwards himself following increasing media speculation. Forest Green have also lost arguably their best player with Kane Wilson moving to Bristol City. Not the ideal preparation when you’re stepping up a level.

It’s hard to reconcile the team that started last season so strongly with the team that faded so badly towards the end. Which of these teams shows up this coming season is tricky to predict, but I think the combination of bad form in the second half of the last campaign and a difficult off season means that staying up is going to be difficult for Rovers.

It could be a bad season for the other Rovers in the division too. Bristol Rovers ended last season in miraculous fashion, clinching automatic promotion on the last day of the season by winning 7-0 against already relegated Scunthorpe. They made up five goals on their promotion rivals Northampton and were promoted on goals scored, in one of the most remarkable final day results in EFL history. It was a great day for the club and the fanbase, and now they can focus on the challenge of staying in League One.

The concern I have with Rovers is that they are back in League One under the same manager that was in charge when they finished cut adrift at the bottom of the table. In the 2020/21 League One season, Bristol Rovers finished five points behind Swindon Town who finished in 23 rd place, and theyfinished ten points from safety. I haven’t really seen anything that suggests Joey Barton is going to lead them to safety in this campaign. I don’t think the squad is deep enough, there’s an argument that the momentum from the end of the previous season could see them start strongly but after that fades away I don’t think they have enough quality to survive.

Cheltenham Town were fantastic in their first season back in League One since the 2009/10 season, their final position of 15 th is the highest position achieved by the club in the English Football League system. A massive credit to Michael Duff and his staff.

Cheltenham were great entertainment last season; the standout result undoubtedly being a 5-5 draw away at Wycombe. They were the top scorers in the bottom half of the table with 66 goals, 23 of those coming from talisman Alfie May, however only relegated duo Doncaster and Crewe, as well as strugglers Morecambe and Fleetwood conceded more goals.

The main issue going into this season is that Michael Duff has now left the club for fellow League One side Barnsley. If they can manage to keep hold of last season’s top club scorer Alfie May, if he can perform to the same level as last season, and if new manager Wade Elliot can add some semblance of structure to the team then perhaps they can manage to stay up. That’s too many questions marks for me and unfortunately I think The Robins might be destined for the drop.

Over-achiever

Morecambe

Morecambe are best price of 11/10, and in most places odds on, to be relegated. I think they can surprise everyone yet again this season and keep their place in the division. The Shrimps were similarly discounted last season, nobody gave them a hope of staying in the division and yet they managed to finish in 19th place, albeit only staying up by 2 points in a record-breaking year for low points totals. I think the low points totals at the bottom of League One are here to stay, the gap between the big clubs and the smaller clubs is growing every year as more traditionally successful teams come down to this level.

Derek Adams returned in February for his second spell in charge of Morecambe and managed to get them enough points to secure survival in League One. He has spent most of the off-season trying to get rid of players who don’t fit the system, transfer listing ten players with only one (so far) managing to find another club. Adams favours hard working players above anything else and having wide forwards that are just as happy running back towards their own goal as they are going forwards is crucial. The likes of Dylan Connolly, Ash Hunter and Arthur Gnahoua provide an abundance of pace to dovetail beautifully with that work ethic that Adams demands, and I believe this group of players have both the defensive capabilities and the attacking talent to help Morecambe survive this coming season.

Last year Cole Stockton was the big fish in the small pond and keeping hold of him has been the best bit of business Morecambe have done this summer. The 28-year-old scored 23 goals in 44 games last season to finish as the joint third highest scorer. He’s the focal point for Morecambe and everything goes through him. Even if he isn’t able to match his goal scoring exploits of the season before he will still make a huge contribution.

The beauty of a Derek Adams’ system at a club like Morecambe is that it’s more about creating an underdog mentality and carrying out the game plan than the individual qualities of players. Morecambe were promoted from League Two under Adams averaging far less possession than their opponents, often as low as 35%. Adams places value on statistics such as shots on target and chances created rather than possession and has often spoken quite openly about this. When you consider that The Shrimps have genuine quality in those forward areas, as well as the ability to sit in a low block and defend without the ball, I think the team are more than capable of defying expectations and surviving in League One yet again.

Under-achiever

Ipswich Town

Ipswich start the season as joint favourites for the League One title, both them and Sheffield are 9/2 to win the league. They finished 11 th last season, which leads me to suggest the pricing is based mainly on the size of the club rather than the evidence on the pitch. MK Dons, who finished 19 points ahead of Ipswich last season, are over treble the price at 16/1. That price discrepancy just doesn’t add up to me.

The Tractor Boys were one of the best defensive teams in the division last season under Kieran McKenna. Ipswich conceded 46 goals, only bettered by the top three, Wigan, Rotherham, and MK Dons. They found things very difficult at the other end of the pitch though, they scored just 67 goals, which was less than all ten teams that finished above them. They will hope that the signing of Marcus Harness can go someway to alleviating their goal scoring woes, but he only scored 11 goals in 40 appearances last season for a Portsmouth side that were creating far more chances than McKenna’s Ipswich.

It may well be that the solid foundation created by McKenna and his backroom staff can be built upon over pre-season, and that we will see a freer flowing and freer scoring version of Ipswich this coming campaign. That isn’t something I would feel confident in, and I would like to see evidence of the attacking improvement on the pitch before I was rushing to back them at such a short price for the league title, especially considering the overall quality at the top end of the league this year.

Top Goal Scorer

Matty Taylor or Michael Smith

If Mo Eisa hadn’t ruptured his Achilles in April I think he would have been a really strong contender for the top goal scorer, unfortunately that injury is likely to rule him out until the new year. As such, I’m torn between two players for this one, Matty Taylor of Oxford United and Michael Smith of Sheffield Wednesday.

Matty Taylor scored 20 goals in 44 games last season for an Oxford United side that constantly create chances due to their style of play. His numbers have been fairly consistent during his spell in League One, with 18 goals in 46 games for the 20/21 season and 13 goals in 26 games during the 19/20 campaign. That improvement season on season bodes really well, and the 32-year-old could be about to have his best ever goal scoring campaign. There has been a real trend in football recently of strikers maintaining, and arguably improving, well into their 30’s. I’m referring to the likes of Lewandowski at the top level, Jamie Vardy in the Premier League, Billy Sharp in the Championship, and countless other examples which I’m sure will pop into your mind as you’re reading this. I think Taylor could be another to add to that list, his intelligence and anticipation around the box has significantly improved which could, and should, lead to more goals.

Michael Smith scored 19 goals for champions Rotherham last season and has now dropped back down to League One to join The Millers’ Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, much to the chagrin of Rotherham’s supporters. The Owls are joint favourites for the league and a proven goal scorer form the previous season joining a title favourite always has to be considered for the golden boot. Last season was Smith’s best ever season in terms of goals scored, beating his previous total of 13 way back in 2014/15, I should also mention that in 20/21 he scored 10 goals in the Championship so further improvement this campaign wouldn’t be a surprise.

I think the consistency of Matty Taylor’s goal scoring record at this level, combined with the style of play that Oxford utilise so well, means I’m just about leaning towards him for this season’s League One Golden Boot award. I’d always recommend backing goal scorers each way as you can still get a decent pay out for them finishing in the top four, even if they fail to top the scoring charts.

Player to Watch

Jason Knight

Jason Knight is only 21 years old, yet he has over 100 Championship games under his belt and is attracting interest from Bundesliga teams. If Derby manage to keep hold of him then the Irishman could be in for a wonderful season. I could easily have picked his partner in crime Max Bird for this, but I think the ability Knight possesses to get around the pitch just about gives him the edge. Knight has seemingly endless energy and total commitment to the cause, he’s powerful, a great tackler and even chipped in with a few goals (10 goals in 111 Championship games).

We’ve seen several central midfielders who are used to playing at a higher-level drop into League One and suddenly start finding the back of the net with regularity. Last season we had Barry Bannan, who scored 9 goals at this level, meaning 36% of his league goals over a career that has spanned 18 seasons came in just a single League One campaign. Prior to that there was Lee Cattermole, who scored 14 goals in his 15-year career and 50% of those came in one League One season. If Jason Knight can follow that trend then he’ll certainly be one to watch this season.

Bonus Bet

When researching for this article there was one bet that jumped out at me immediately. The market is available on Sky Bet and is ‘League One Team to Score the Most Goals’ and the pick is Oxford United. The Yellows were a great bet for us last season, backing over 2.5 goals in their matches never let us down. In 2021/22 Oxford were the top scorers in the division, in the 2020/21 season they were third, in 2019/20 they were second. The style of football they play is always going to be focused on creating chances and scoring goals which makes this a great value bet at 10/1 in my mind.

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