Sunday, 29 November 2015

When should you trade on corners?

The corner kick is a staple event of a football match, with regular occurrences of it seemingly regardless of the action or momentum.
Many teams still utilise corners as a big part of their attacking plan. Some, like FC Midtjylland of Denmark, have mastered them in recent seasons and reaped the rewards.
However, for analysts and traders it can be quite difficult to judge games that are likely to have a high number of corners, especially pre-match. In this piece we will investigate a few standard ways of predicting corners.
Later, we will use an Asian Handicap model to see if games where one team is expected to dominate produce more corners. For now, let’s just look at the average corners per game across 7 leagues in 2014/15:

The rest of this blog post can be found on the StrataBet website - sign up is free and I recommend you follow them on Twitter @StrataBet

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Scottish Premiership - Assessing Under/Over Performance

Data is becoming more and more available in football and is now largely accessible to the average fan. However, as is clear to most people, not all data is useful.
Shot data is a prime example of this.
The standard way of recording shots on target or off target can often give a misleading view of what happened during a game, particularly if you haven’t seen the shots in question.
In StrataBet, we don’t just record shots on/off target. We record the quality of chances.
Rich Huggan did an excellent job of explaining that here, but to summarise:
  • “Great Chance” is a situation that a player would be expectedto score from.
  • “Good Chance” is a situation that a player could score from but would not necessarily be expected to.
  • An “Attempt” is a situation that a player would not be expectedto score from.
This is simple, but extremely effective.
Rich’s blog gave detail on the conversion rates of these chances. It showed a linear trend that provides an excellent basis to investigate which teams are over-performing or under-performing.
This season I have been working on the Scottish Premiership, so have taken the chance to look at which teams have been “good” and which have been “lucky”.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Analysing Managerial Performance - A Follow Up

While working on my previous blog post around ways to look at managerial performance I though the findings of expected points compared to actual points was quite interesting and thought I'd dig into this a little more.

The method behind this is to take the odds provided by Bet365 and give each team a % chance of winning or drawing a fixture. This can then be estimated into how many points the bookmakers think each team SHOULD be taking from a game.

For example for Blackburn vs Ipswich on the final day of last season the odds were

Blackburn Win - 3.3
Draw - 3.5
Ipswich Win - 2.3

This means the chances of each event occurring were as follows (with rounding taken into account)

Blackburn Win - 29.61%
Draw - 27.91%
Ipswich Win - 42.48%

From this we can estimate that Blackburn would be estimated to get at least 1.17 points and Ipswich 1.55 points.

As Blackburn actually won the game they obviously took 3 points (1.83 more than expected), while Ipswich took 0 points (1.55 less than expected)

The table for last season is below - it's amazing how many managers have left since the end of the season! 6 managers are now longer in their jobs - McLaren, Gray, Warburton, Jokanovic, Clark & Redfearn - while I have included Malky Mackay and Ian Holloway as they were in charge of Wigan and Millwall for most of the season.

The table throws up some interesting points

  • It's no surprise to see Eddie Howe and Steve Evans near the top - both have done very well since guiding their respective teams out of League Two and to sustain that into the Championship deserves a lot of credit.
  • Mick McCarthy has managed to work wonders with Ipswich, making the play offs this season against the odds
  • Mark Warburton, Slavisa Jokanovic and Steve McLaren were harshly treated in being relieved of their duties.
  • Alex Neil was perhaps expected to do well although still outperformed the odds - this maybe shows how good a team Norwich and when he took over.
  • Managers such as Stuart Gray and Neil Redfearn who were thought to have done exceptionally well maybe didn't perform as good as the bias expected - they were marginally better than Russell Slade who Cardiff wants would like sacked!
  • Chris Hughton and Steve Clarke took over in mid season and continued to struggle despite the bookies expecting them to turn it around
  • It's clear why Malky Mackay and Ian Holloway were sacked - though interestingly both have positive away Expected points totals.
Looking at Norwich I wondered what the previous managers records looked like, especially with so many changes in the Championship so below is the record of every manager from last season

It's clear there's a lot more underperformance in this table, reflected by the lack of managers who achieved a positive difference in results. Of the ones that did 2 managed Watford!

  • Maybe Adkins and Peeters were rather hastily dispensed with by their clubs, though both were suffering a downward turn in form at the time.
  • Uwe Rosler is surprisingly low, he was excellent for Wigan in 2013/14 and it shows how bad they underperformed last season compared to expectations.
  • Norwich were the case in point and Neil Adams massive underperformance despite leaving them just outside the play offs in January shows that the bookies expected them to be one of the best sides in the division.
  • Sami Hyypia managed to wrack up an incomprehensible under performance in such a short space of time

While none of these findings are conclusive due to the small amount of games played and large volume of variance from game to game it's interesting to see which managers are perceived to be doing better than others.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Is it better to be direct or retain possession in the Championship?

Football is a game of many styles. While most fans would love their team to resemble Barcelona or Arsenal on a week to week basis it's just not possible mainly due to the skill level of most sides, especially the lower down the leagues you go.

The Championship has a reputation for being blood and thunder, very little skill and teams just 'hoofing' it down the pitch with little thought to keeping the ball.

But is it?

I wanted to look at whether teams who kept the ball better do exist in the Championship, and if so do they tend to do better than sides that play more direct.

I wanted to look in particular at a few things (all info using WhoScored), which teams played the highest percentage of longer passes compared to their total passes, were teams who are better passers of the ball generally able to play more accurate longer passes, where did the teams finish depending on their style.

Unfortunately as with all statistical data there are some provisos - The stats just show the number of passes so these are unrelated to goalscoring in anyway. A team could play 10 short passes across the back line before going long in 1 pass and it puts the striker through on goal - is that team a possession based game or long ball? The stats would show that they make 10 short to every 1 long pass - indicates a possession team even if their chances are created via longer passes.

The table below shows which teams play short/long passes as a percentage of their total passes.

Table showing % of Short/Long passes by team in the Championship 2014/15

The table clearly shows that the teams that play more short passes finish higher up the table. This is a common theme throughout the divisions as teams who are better at keeping the ball tend to create more chances - the obvious exception to this is Ipswich, who are ranked as the team playing the highest number of long passes compared to short but finished 6th in the league.

There are other anomalies such as Brighton being well down the league and also Fulham despite a passing style and Derby were the number 1 short passing team despite dropping out of the play offs on the last day.

While the number of long balls played could be a particular way of playing, how did the teams create their chances? We can see in the table below (click on the table to enlarge)

Table showing style of Key Passes made and difference to Total in Previous Table
Interestingly, most of the teams at the top created more chances as a % of their long passing than they did by their short passing, although most of the margins are quite small. Derby are interesting to note as they had the highest positive difference, despite being top of the previous table. So even though they played the highest percentage of short passes, when they did go long they made very little chances, which could be a sign of a team without a back up plan.

The teams down a the bottom, who tended to play a lot of longer balls, created more chances via short passing perhaps a reason they failed to deliver consistently as they persisted with a more direct game despite not creating as much from the longer passes they did play.

While these are just a couple of simple tables and don't give any clear definitions on a 'best' way to play it's clear that the better teams are able to do both, passing short to retain the ball but able to create chances via more than 1 method.

How do the Championship teams compare to the Premier League? Is the Championship really just constant long balls where the Premier League is beautiful?

From this table it's clear the teams in the Premier League play a much clearer passing  game - Derby, the team with the largest % of short passes to long passes in the Championship, would only be ranked 9th in the Premier League.

What is interesting is when we compare the top 8 in the Championship, who were much better than the rest of the division, and compare them with the bottom 8 in the Premier League, who spent most of the season battling to survive.

The table shows that 6 of the top 9 teams were from the Championship, with Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich all firmly in this section. Will they still play the same style when they are scrapping to stay up? It will be interesting to see if Bournemouth stick to their principles but this is another indication that maybe the Championship isn't quite as direct as it's made out to be.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Analysing Managerial Performance - Is there a better way?

With the heavy turnover of managers across most football teams these days, it's often hard to judge what passes for success.

Recent studies showed the Championship to be one of the most volatile leagues with 20 managers being sacked over the course of the 2014/15 season - though Watford and Leeds accounted for 6 of those between them, so some context must be given. The recent BBC story (available here) is an OK piece but it doesn't really dig beneath the surface, with quotes from Richard Bevan about the sackings affecting 200 families a little odd - are chairman sacking managers and replacing them with single males?!? Or are 200 other families benefitting from the replacements. Anyway.....

The questions leads to why so many managers are being sacked, what are they being judged on and what makes a chairman pull the trigger.

The obvious answer is that a lack of time is often the route cause of a manager being sacked. A bad run at any point in the season can lead to the chairman being a little quick to get rid, take Steve McLaren as a case in point. After turning Derby from a bog standard mid table team to promotion challengers last season the pressure was on to deliver this year - that they were top on 1st March and finished 8th shows a drop in form but should he have been sacked? There were other circumstances yes, but it's odd that a manager can be sacked by a Championship club and go on to get a Premier League job, which looks the case with McLaren.

So, if a manager is given time how should they be judged?

1) Win Ratio

Many managers point to a win ratio as a badge of honour. This is the industry standard, the thing mainstream media use and is in all honesty a terrible way of looking at things. It is often talked about with no context, so how do we know what a good win ratio is? I'm sure Luis Enrique has a phenomenal win ratio, should all others be compared to him?

I'll use 5 Championship managers from the middle of the table (9th - 13th) and compare their records since they were appointed in all competitions

Gary Rowett (Birmingham City) -        44.12% (15 wins in 34 games)
Guy Luzon (Charlton Athletic) -          38.10% (8 in 21)
Russell Slade (Cardiff City) -                37.84% (14 in 37)
Gary Bowyer (Blackburn Rovers) -      37.27% (41 in 110)
Stuart Gray (Sheffield Wednesday) -    35.71% (30 in 84)

The above list shows that Gary Rowett has the best win ratio (sample size permitting) but there is not a massive difference between him and Gray. If Gray won his first 5 games of next season and Rowett lost his first 5 - unlikely but not unthinkable - Gray immediately has a better win ratio - this shows the volatility of it. So what is a better way?

2) Average points per game

Taking 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw - if a team wins half and loses half their matches from a sample of 20 (50% win ratio - 30 points) has the manager done much better than one who has won 7 drawn 8 and lost 5? (35% win ratio - 29 points)
While they would have 1 point more, if they are purely being judged on Win Ratio they are much better off going for it and trying to win games than settling for a draw. I read recently about the philosophy of Paco Jemez the Rayo Vallecano manager in the Spanish La Liga, he had this to say:-

So are draws worthless? Taking the 5 managers above into account how do they compare?

Gary Rowett - 1.62 Points per game (55 points from 34 games)
Gary Bowyer - 1.46 Points per game (161 from 110)
Guy Luzon - 1.45 Points per game (29 from 20)
Russell Slade - 1.41 Points per game (52 from 37)
Stuart Gray - 1.37 Points per game (115 from 84)

So Gary Bowyer comes out much better in this ratio than just using Win Ratio. While it's still relatively close a different metric produces a different result. Does that mean Bowyer should be doing better than he is? At 1.46 points per game over a 46 game season he could expect 67 points - nowhere near enough for the Championship top 6 that Blackburn are aiming for.

3) Trophies/Promotion/Cup runs

While major trophies are almost unheard of outside the top flight teams these days (Sheffield Wednesday being the last team outside the top division to lift a major trophy - the League Cup in 1991) a team higher up the leagues will be judged on their achievements. Is it enough for Arsene Wenger to be happy with finishing 4th every season (alright, not this year!)? Should clubs at the higher end be judged if they do win a cup? If so, why do so many Premier League clubs pay little attention to the League Cup/Europa League in particular? The simple reason is the money. Stoke/Swansea/West Brom etc are much better staying the Premier League and reaping the financial rewards than winning a trophy and being relegated (look at the plight of Wigan - would they swap the FA Cup win for keeping their place in the Premier League)

So given this, should managers be judged on whether they achieve promotion from the Championship? Aitor Karanka was certainly unlucky and nobody would have expected Mick McCarthy to take Ipswich into a top 6 finish - but Steve McLaren has lost his job as Derby boss by coming 8th, Nigel Clough led Sheffield United to 5th and the play offs but still suffered the chop.

Again, looking at the managers above, while none have achieved promotion Gary Bowyer has been under pressure for not getting Blackburn near the play offs - though a successful FA Cup run somewhat took the heat off him. Russell Slade has barely been in the job a season but the Cardiff fans want him out. Stuart Gray and Gary Rowett on the other hand are not far off worshipped by the fans of their respective clubs. For this to be taken into consideration it must be based on perceived expectations. Gray may find himself under deeper pressure this season due to lifted expectations amongst the Sheffield Wednesday fans.

4) Points per £

Another method - and this may not work for all clubs, though with Financial Fair Play rules impacting across the whole of Europe it is worth considering - is which managers get the most points for their money. I did a similar style of summary for this on the MLS in 2012 as they publish the salaries of all players so you can work out a cost per point, at least from the playing staff.
More recently, Brentford seem to have taken this massively into account when appointing their new manager Marinus Dijkhuizen. I'm sure there were lots of other factors but his over performance with Excelsior in the Dutch Eredivisie compared to the budget was quite stark as this table by Martijn Hilhorst shows

Unfortunately most English clubs won't reveal their budget - most is simply guesswork - so a simpler way could be to look at overall operating costs, turnover etc. However, these take in several factors not necessarily linked to performance on the pitch, such as the Academy, Commercial operations, Community work etc, so may be a reach to just use a simple figure such as this.

However, a savvy chairman will at least be able to work out the return per budget for his manager, though may struggle to use this as a comparison figure.

The other danger with this is that most of the teams at the higher end of this table were battling relegation. To win/be promoted you need a bigger budget and the pay off from this is that the points expectation then goes up. If Marinus Dijkhuizen was given PSV's budget would he have achieved as well with Excelsior? Unlikely as he would have needed to gain 467 points!!

5) Attacking Style

Some teams naturally will play an exciting style, where others will play to the best of their abilities and use what they have. Sometimes these clash between expectations and reality.

A prime example of this would be a team like West Ham United and Sam Allardyce. This would always be a clash of styles between a manager who favours efficiency and making the most of what is available to a group of fans who want their team to play the "right way".

For me, in football there is no "right way" - the "right way" is generally whatever works - but I have to say from watching Sheffield Wednesday when Gary Meson was in charge the feeling changed quickly when a couple of defeats in a row happened - you don't mind watching poor football if the results match up but when you're watching poor football and losing the fans can quickly turn.

Anyway, back to Allardyce - West Ham generally play a more direct style and the fans want to see more attacking, possession football. This is fine, and probably goes a long way to what cost Allardyce his job at the end of a reasonable reason - they are in Europe, even if it is via the back door.

So what metrics should be looked at to see which teams play more attacking football?
While available statistics in the Championship are not as good as the Big 5 European leagues, the data is there behind the scenes from companies like Opta.
Even just using WhoScored we can look at things like Shot Share (shots for/shots against), Key Passes, Short Passes Per Game can all be used - I'll put a few of these in the table below for the managers I've named above, just to show an example of the different styles - this is simply a table and not analysis on any of the 5 and due to the limitations of the data this is taken over the full season (which usually combines more than 1 manager) - it's enough to paint a picture either way.

In a nutshell, the above shows:-

1) Charlton are regularly outshot by their opponents (Charlton have 0.55 shots for every 1 of the opposition)

2) Charlton have the best ratio of Chances created by Short Passing to Long Passing - They create 3.96 chances with a short pass for every long pass

3) Blackburn do more short passes than the other 4 teams, 3.86 short passes for every long pass (this is standard passes, regardless of location on the pitch)

4) Charlton have a much higher percentage of their shots from Open Play & Counter Attacks than via any other method (penalties, set pieces etc)

There are obviously caveats to the above data but it gives an idea that a chairman can use statistics to see how his team performs in an attacking sense.

6) Points over Expected

This utilises an idea from Simon Gleave, in that some games managers are EXPECTED to win.

Take Chelsea for example. They would be expected to win a home game against QPR, so when they do pick up the 3 points does it mean they are performing well? On the reverse of this, a team such as Swansea or Crystal Palace may be in mid table, but picking up more points than they are expected to get.

So we can see whether the 5 managers we are looking at have under or over performed in the Championship games they have been in charge of. To do this I will use the Bookmakers odds from Bet365 to calculate the probability that they would win the game.

To look at an example for Blackburn vs Ipswich on the final day of the 2014/15 season the odds were 3.3 for Blackburn, 3.5 for the draw and 2.3 for Ipswich - this means that the bookies thought Blackburn had a 29.6% chance of winning, there was a 27.9% chance of a draw and Ipswich had a 42.5% chance. We can use that to estimate the number of points they were EXPECTED to get from the game = Blackburn were expected to get 1.17 points, Ipswich were expected to get 1.55 points (Win % * 3 + Draw % * 1). The final result was a Blackburn win, so Blackburn over performed by 1.83 points and Ipswich under performed by 1.55 points. We can use this method in the table below to see how each manager has faired in league games under their tenure.

As you can see from the list above, all the managers are performing slightly better than expected - even the unpopular Slade has picked up more points than the bookies thought he would (this is due to their away form, they actually underperformed at home).

Again, this method isn't foolproof but it does give an idea of expectation and takes out some of the bias of having a better team.

7) Relationship with fans/chairman/players

Above all one thing that cannot be discounted is the relationship the Manager has with the fans, chairman and players. All the Win Ratios, Points per Pound and exciting football will do the manager no good if he doesn't have all 3 on board.
Take the example of Alan Pardew at Newcastle - the fans have been against him for a long time and though several tables showed he was over performing based on his expectations the relationship was at a point where his position was untenable. He has continued his relative success at Crystal Palace, where he shares a much better relationship.
Similar examples exist when managers have "lost the dressing room" - which supposedly happened to Beppe Sannino at Watford, despite them sitting top of the Championship after 6 games.
Losing the support of the chairman will always lead to the sack no matter how highly the fans regard you - it seems at Leeds it is better to have the support of the chairman than it is the fans or players which Neil Redfearn found out to his cost.

These are just some examples - I'm sure there are others but maybe it's time to look beyond the obvious and easy statistics and try something different.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 1 June 2015

My Championship Team of the Season 2014/15

Following on from my comprehensive review of the Championship season I have decided to do what I consider to be the team of the season.

These are often polarising and most people can make a case for at the very minimum one or two different players so this is just my opinion having watched a lot of Championship games this season for my job.

I decided to start with a 4-4-2 formation. There tends to be a mix of styles in the Championship and a lot of teams have begun to play with a lone striker but with the quality of centre forwards in the division it would have been incredibly hard to only pick one.

So on to my team....

GK - Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday)

Really can't argue with the official PFA team for this one, Westwood was outstanding in goal for Wednesday and a big part of them keeping a joint record number of clean sheets in a season. Giving confidence to his defence with his commanding presence, he is an excellent shot stopper, making several saves which really should have ended in goals for the opposition. On numerous occasions he was a one man barricade and allowed Wednesday to snatch several vital away wins.

Notable mentions - David Button (Brentford), Stephen Henderson (Charlton), Marco Silvestri (Leeds)

RB - Simon Francis (Bournemouth)

Francis has been with Bournemouth since 2012 and seems to be a late developer as he improved on an excellent first season at Championship level in 2013/14 and was one of the most deadly partnerships in the league on the right side for the Cherries. His attacking style, mixed with a great engine, pace and the ability to recover his position quickly, led to countless Bournemouth attacks going between him and Ritchie, with Francis overlapping and allowing Ritchie to come inside and effectively play as a striker at times. Francis rarely got caught out at the back and chipped in with 6 assists, also finishing as WhoScored's 2nd highest rated player over the season.

Notable mentions - Moses Odubajo (Brentford), Chris Solly (Charlton), Paul Caddis (Birmingham City)

CB - Christophe Berra (Ipswich Town)

Berra was one of the primary reasons that Ipswich got anywhere near the play offs, his contribution defensively was outstanding in a team not packed with superstars. He often played the role of the covering defender, allowing his more aggressive partner Tommy Smith to attack the ball, but his reading of the game was excellent as he constantly got back into position to cut out any danger. He is capable of stepping in to win the ball before needing to make a tackle, ending the season with an average of 2.7 interceptions per game and was the highest rated player in the Championship to make a minimum of 20 appearances. His season ended on a sour note as he was red carded as Ipswich lost to local rivals Norwich in the play offs but he can hold his head high for a successful season.

CB - Michael Morrison (Birmingham City)

This may seem a strange choice with some other notable candidates but Birmingham were in a real mess when Gary Rowett took over and he immediately moved to sign Morrison from Charlton, initially on loan but later on a permanent deal. Their upturn in form was dramatic, in no small part thanks to the introduction of Morrison in defence. They picked up points in 11 of the 13 games he played before a knee injury curtailed his season at former club Sheffield Wednesday. Birmingham started to slide and when he made his comeback picking up points in 6 of his 8 games played. Of the four teams they lost to 3 were Bournemouth, Watford and Derby - all top sides. His contribution cannot be undervalued and he was a big part of their revival.

Notable mentions - Steve Cook (Bournemouth), Tommy Elphick (Bournemouth), Russell Martin (Norwich), Danny Batth (Wolves), Matt Kilgallon (Blackburn), Tom Lees (Sheffield Wednesday), Michael Hector (Reading), Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough)

LB - George Friend (Middlesbrough)

Friend was a regular in the Middlesbrough side that came so close to promotion and after being watched by many Premier League teams could leave in the summer. He missed only 3 games all season and was a threat going forward as Middlesbrough tended to play Tomlin on the left of midfield who liked to cut in so Friend was relied on to overlap. His crossing is good and he has the ability to beat his man but he is also very strong defensively and contributed in no small part to Middlesbrough's excellent defensive record over the season, which was the meanest in the league.

Notable mentions - Charlie Daniels (Bournemouth), Craig Forsyth (Derby), Tyrone Mings (Ipswich), Jordan Obita (Reading)

RM - Matt Ritchie (Bournemouth)

Hard to argue against a player with so much contribution to his teams attacking prowess. At one point early in the season Ritchie had more goals and assists as an individual than most of the bottom half teams! He finished the season strongly, continually chipping in with goals and always a threat from the right where he could cut in with Francis overlapping. He earned a Scotland call up, a shame in a way as he had the potential to play for England if he continues his upward curve in the Premier League. He played some part of every game during the season, ending with 15 goals and 17 assists - astonishing for a winger.

Notable mentions - Tom Ince (Derby), Johnny Russell (Derby), Jota (Brentford), Johann Gudmundsson (Charlton), David Cotterill (Birmingham)

CM - Grant Leadbitter (Middlesbrough)

Leadbitter was often maligned, especially during Tony Mowbray's stint as manager, as a player who was limited. Under Aitor Karanka he has got back to his best and is a superb calming influence in a Middlesbrough team who came very close to promotion under his captaincy. Often sitting in front of the defence and breaking up the play, he isn't the most mobile so had to have a superb knack for positioning himself in the right place or it would have been easy to bypass him. Chipped in with 11 goals and 9 assists, mainly from penalties and set pieces, but to say he didn't score after early January it shows his impact in the first half of the season.

CM - Alex Pritchard (Brentford)

A tough one to call for central midfield but due to choosing a 4-4-2 he doesn't really fit anywhere else! He tended to play centrally behind the striker for Brentford in their 4-2-3-1, but continually rotated with Judge and occasionally Jota into the wide positions. Known more for his free kicks, which seemed to catch a lot of Championship goalkeepers out from range, but also with excellent movement and capable of finding space between the lines high up the pitch. His passing and fluid movement bought him time and space and for a young player his decision making and vision are both excellent. Could feature for Tottenham next season and wouldn't look out of place.

Notable mentions - Harry Arter (Bournemouth), Johnny Howson (Norwich), Bradley Johnson (Norwich), Almen Abdi (Watford), Jeff Hendrick (Derby), Cole Skuse (Ipswich), Jonathan Douglas (Brentford), Kevin McDonald (Wolves), Alex Mowatt (Leeds), Lewis Cook (Leeds), Lars Christensen (Fulham), Jamie O'Hara (Blackpool)

LM - Michail Antonio (Nottingham Forest)

This was a close run choice between Sako and Antonio. I went for Antonio mainly due to the improvement he has shown over the last year and how much Forest now rely on him. When he was at Sheffield Wednesday he took a while to settle to Championship football and was very inconsistent. He seems to have regained much of his energy and drive since moving to Nottingham, and after starting on the left of a 4-3-3, he was mainly used wide in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 for the majority of the season. Excellent at picking the ball up from deep and driving at the opposition, he uses his physique and close control to get past men and is a good finisher, ending the season with 14 goals and 12 assists during what was a disappointing campaign for Forest.

Notable mentions - Bakary Sako (Wolves), Ben Marshall (Blackburn), Demarai Gray (Birmingham), Joao Carlos (Brighton), Ben Pringle (Rotherham)

ST - Troy Deeney (Watford)

Deeney secured Watford promotion to the Premier League, firing another 20 goal haul, his 3rd successive season achieving that landmark. But it wasn't just his goals that took Watford to a top 2 finish. Playing in a team which always looked to attack but changed style somewhat from deep passing and counter attacking, to being able to be more direct when required. That meant Deeney had to play the role of both target man and also be able to run in behind. He is an excellent all round striker and if Watford hadn't gone up I'm sure he would have been snapped up by a Premier League team for big money. He is a leader and a huge influence on Watford.

ST - Darryl Murphy (Ipswich)

Murphy has been a player who has often had to play 2nd fiddle to other strikers. Generally overshadowed by the more enigmatic McGoldrick at Ipswich, this year he stepped up and it was mainly due to his contribution that Ipswich ended the season in the play offs. He scored a division high 27 goals but has improved his all round game. Ipswich's direct style requires him to be a powerhouse in the air, something he excels at, but his workrate and ability to run the channels as well, with better pace than you'd imagine, helped Ipswich keep the ball high up the pitch. Scored some stunning goals as well and will need to repeat the feet next season for Ipswich to challenge again.

*note - this was the hardest position to chose - I could have gone for any of the notable mentions below and easily justified it!

Notable mentions - Callum Wilson (Bournemouth), Yann Kermorgant (Bournemouth), Cameron Jerome (Norwich), Chris Martin (Derby), Benik Afobe (Wolves), Britt Assombalonga (Nottingham Forest), Rudy Gestede (Blackburn), Clayton Donaldson (Birmingham)


So there we have it, feel free to disagree in the comments below if you think I've not justified somebody well enough or other should have taken their place!

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Do Formations Matter?

The headline sounds like a stupid question - of course they do! Before you accuse me of clickbait, read on...

I read an excellent article recently by @tompayneftbl on Twitter talking about Bournemouth, their style of play, how they press (find the article here if interested, it's an in depth read but worth it) and all the time I was reading his work I was thinking "this is all great, but Bournemouth don't play a 4-2-3-1 - they play a 4-4-2"

At first I thought I was unnecessarily nit picking a fine piece of work, but from an analysts point of view it raises some good questions.

The key player in this argument was Kermorgant. In my opinion he plays as a striker and drops to receive the ball and link the play. This allows Wilson to run in behind, with his movement causing problems.

Does this make him a 'number 10'? I don't think it does. In essence he plays a similar role to the traditional target man striker such as Heskey, Andy Carroll even Peter Crouch. He will come into the gap between midfield and the forwards to win flick ons, hold the ball up and then look to lay off to the midfield or wingers and get in the box. Kermorgant is very successful at this (his aerial ability in attacking crosses is one of the best in the Championship) but this role is not a 'number 10'

The central player of the 3 in a 4-2-3-1 would generally be an attacking midfielder, looking to get on the ball in advanced midfield positions and play the ball in behind the back line to the advanced wingers or striker making runs behind the line. Think Kevin de Bruyne, Hazard when not playing wide, Ross Barkley or Cristian Eriksen.

Ultimately does it matter? The player knows what role he is doing, if he doesn't do what the manager tells him he'll be subbed. It doesn't matter what formation you put out as long as the players do what they need to, hence the creation of the 'false 9' role.

Well for the analysts it does matter. With the increasing number of Technical Analyst roles being created, especially in the Premier League, it's important that when assess a player you are comparing like for like.

We all know how football positions are abbreviated, RB = Right Back, CM = Central midfielder etc and generally when a line up is given it can include these positions. For the Technical Analysts it will be useful to put each player into the role he played.

However, if you were Chelsea, looking for a replacement to play behind the striker and Kermorgant had the best stats (OK - huge leap of faith but this is just an example!) could you see him fitting into the Chelsea team in the same way Hazard does? He clearly doesn't and plays a completely different role.

Another example would be at Norwich with Nathan Redmond and Bradley Johnson. Both play on opposite flanks so Redmond would be an RM while Johnson an LM. However, Redmond is a traditional winger, capable of beating his man, while Johnson comes inside to play a central role and allow the full back to overlap.

Nathan Redmond's stats radial as produced by Statsbomb

That is why all stats have to be put into context. A striker may only play backwards passes, does that mean he's not creative? What if he's holding the ball in the box and laying it back? If a winger has few take ons is he not doing his job? I don't suppose Beckham did many, but he was capable of putting the ball into the box with great accuracy without beating a man.

The increasing popularity of statistics in football is excellent in my opinion but they must be put into context and there is currently a huge gap between what is popular and what is understood by the mainstream public. Most work on this is done behind the scenes so what I've written above is likely common knowledge. Either way, Yann Kermorgant is a striker :-)

Friday, 29 May 2015

My England Championship 2014/15 Review (Part 4)

Welcome to the final part of my review of the 2014/15 season in the Championship.

Parts One, Two & Three can be found here and as mentioned I've split this into 4 parts to make it more readable and hopeful it will give you some insight into one of the most underrated and exciting leagues in the world.


Summary of the season

After missing out on the play offs on the final day of last season Reading had high hopes for this year but they were almost immediately crushed by a complete lack of transfer activity due to the prolonged nature of their takeover. This left them with a squad short of quality players though this did not show in the early weeks as they competed reasonably well, including an away win at Middlesbrough. However a run of just 2 wins from 12 matches saw them slump down the table and by mid December Nigel Adkins was sacked with Steve Clarke taking over just 1 day later after a hammering at Birmingham. The expected upturn in form didn't really materialise and though they completed a double over Norwich it wasn't until early February that they started to string some results together to lift themselves into lower mid table. This coincided with an FA Cup run and though they had some favourable draws the highlight of the season was making the semi finals where they took Arsenal to extra time and only a horrific mistake by the normally reliable Federici cost them. With everything put into this cup run they were woefully inconsistent and though never seriously in relegation trouble their final position was way too low for many fans liking.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Steve Clarke had done well at West Brom and many thought he was unlucky to be sacked so it was a good appointment by Reading to get him. He struggled to turn their fortunes around on a consistent basis and though they had a good cup run he will be expected to perform much better next season and make them into a side that can challenge for the play offs. The key to this is their consistency as they have shown they can beat the better teams but tended to struggle against mid table sides. Clarke has shown he can be versatile with both his preferred formations and styles, with 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 all used while they can be direct but also use a patient build up and the pace of the wide players.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Reading finished 19th and while most eyes were on their run in the FA Cup and they weren't seriously threatened by relegation after February the final place was too low for most fans likings. The new owners will also be looking for a significant improvement from a team that was in the Premier League just 2 years ago. A lack of consistency and a poor goal threat with Simon Cox the top scorer with just 8 goals and failing to score in 18 matches proving to be their ultimate downfall.

3 Key Players

Adam Federici - While he will be remembered for his mistake in the FA Cup final, Federici is an outstanding goalkeeper at this level and capable of making truly excellent saves. He has been left exposed on occasion by an inexperienced backline but has proven to be reliable and able to pull off spectacular stops. He does have a mistake in him as he can often make a great stop and follow this up with a howler but he has generally been one of Reading's better performers throughout the season.

Jordan Obita - Obita has grown from a breakout season last year and held down the left back spot on a regular basis this campaign. After being moved between left wing, left back and centre midfield last year he has benefitted from playing a more consistent position this year but his attacking instincts allow him to give excellent width to the team and get forward well. His set piece delivery and crossing from wide areas was one of the best sources of creativity for Reading.

Michael Hector - Originally expected to play a holding midfield role, Hector spent almost the entire season partnering Alex Pearce in the defence and proved his growing reputation as he performed consistently throughout the season. He has a good physical nature and is rarely outmuscled for a young defender but due to his previous experience playing higher up the pitch is comfortable on the ball and capable of playing forward from the keeper if needed.

Standout young player

Jake Cooper - Reading were excellent at allowing their younger players to get game time with several players getting bit part roles throughout the season. Jake Cooper managed to not only make the breakthrough but also prove himself a capable defender, keeping Zat Knight off the bench even when he was available. A towering defender at 6ft 6 he is as you would expect very good in the air and adept in both boxes.

Rotherham United

Summary of the season

Rotherham were massive underdogs - largely by their own admission - as they embarked on a first campaign at 2nd tier level for almost 10 years. A dramatic rise through the divisions had left them with a squad big on heart but short on the talent required to stay in the division and so Steve Evans had to do plenty of dealings in the transfer market in order to ultimately keep them safe. Many loan signings were brought in and there was a worry that the balance in the team wasn't right but they did more than enough to stay up and would have been safe earlier had it not been for an admin error which cost them 3 points when Farrend Rawson played when he was not registered. They avoided the drop on the final midweek of the season but the next campaign is likely to have to see them rebuild once again and it will be hard to repeat the feat.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Steve Evans is one of footballs characters - disliked by many but with a clear understanding of what he wants to do within the game. Not exactly a tactical genius but capable of getting players to play well above their own ability though a knack of motivation he also is very adept at keeping the pressure off his players by being in the spotlight - his constant gripes over penalty decisions (some of which he had justification for but many seemed to be just him giving soundbites to the cameras) and indication that "somebody doesn't want us in this division" added fuel to the fire for fans of other teams. He did a great job of keeping Rotherham up, largely sticking to a 4-4-2 for the first half of the season before switching to a 4-2-3-1 after Christmas, but he is known to jump ship when the going is tough and with Rotherham facing an even tougher challenge this year it could be the end of the road for him.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

For many teams, finishing in 21st would be a poor season but for Rotherham to avoid the drop was a fantastic achievement. They have come through the divisions very fast and were in League Two just 2 seasons ago so the ability to get players in to keep them in this league was necessary. Just 4 of the squad that got them promoted from League One last season remain and this shows the turnover in players but the fans will be happy at having the chance to prove people wrong once again.

3 Key Players

Kari Arnason - Arnason has been with Rotherham since they were in League Two and the step up to the Championship was a big one for him. He spent the majority of the first 3/4 of the season playing at centre back and though he was effective and did a reasonable job, he had a tendency to be caught out at times and was at fault for a few goals. In early March he was moved into a defensive midfield role and he was much better in this position, stabilising the team in front of the defence with his ability on the ball meaning that Rotherham could control the game much better through the middle.

Richard Smallwood - Smallwood was one of the unsung heroes of the team, rarely talked about but one of the first names on the team sheet every week. He was excellent at breaking up the play and another one capable of retaining possession, though his lack of vision going forward could be seen as a problem at times as he didn't create too much. In fairness, that is not what he was there to do and given the task of breaking up the play and keeping the ball he was a force in the middle of the pitch.

Ben Pringle - Pringle is another who has come through the divisions at Rotherham and he has matured into an excellent player. Generally seen as a central attacking player, he played on the wing for most of the season with his left foot able to deliver outstanding balls into the middle. His play from the wings was one of the key successes of Rotherham as he aimed for the strikers and he notched up 7 assists over the season - by far and away the most of any Rotherham player. Having decided to leave as his contract is up, he will be badly missed and not short of offers.

Standout young player

Damien Martinez - Martinez only played 8 games for Rotherham at the end of the season on loan from Arsenal but coming into the side after some high profile mistakes by regular first choice Adam Collin his signing was instrumental in Rotherham staying up. They were unbeaten in 5 of the final 6 games and many fans put this down to Martinez, he has great ability as a shot stopper but has grown in confidence since his time on loan at Sheffield Wednesday last season and commands his defence much better. While it's debatable if he will ever be a regular in the Premier League he played a pivotal part for Rotherham in his short time there.

Sheffield Wednesday

Summary of the season

After several seasons bouncing between the Championship and League One and a couple of seasons fighting off relegation, Sheffield Wednesday finally had a season of mediocrity. While it doesn't sound like much to shout about, a lack of investment in the playing squad had left them with little chance of competing at the top end of the division but one of the meanest defences in the league helped to contribute to a solid mid table finish. The takeover by Dejphon Chansiri gives the fans renewed optimism for next season and after having to put up with one of the worst pitches in the division, 2nd only to Blackpool, they will look forward to having a more productive 2015/16, especially at home where they failed to consistently deliver.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Stuart Gray has done an excellent job since taking over from Dave Jones with the club fighting relegation in 2013/14. He has overseen a turn around which has resulted in a much more solid defence with Westwood outstanding in goal and the central pair of Lees and Loovens dominant in many games, even against opposition generally seen as superior. He often set them up to be quite defensive away from home and this saw them have a very good away record, which was necessary as there was often a lack of creativity when the onus was on Wednesday to attack more in home matches. He stuck to a 4-4-2 for most of the season, only changing to 4-5-1 for tough away games.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Wednesday finished 13th and while a top half finish would have been nice the mid table ending to the season was a far cry from the drama of the last couple of years when they have had to avoid relegation, sometimes on the last day. They were always in a comfortable position, and though a good run just after Christmas saw them with slim hopes of the play offs it is more likely to be over the next couple of years which sees them edging towards a return to the Premier League. Most fans would have accepted a mid table place at the beginning of the season but the pressure is on more now that they have money to spend.

3 Key Players

Kieren Westwood - Westwood was the outstanding goalkeeper in the division and rightly took his place in the PFA team of the season at the end of the year, the first Wednesday player in almost 25 years to achieve this. His initial signing was met with surprise as Kirkland had been a more than adequate number 1 for a couple of seasons but having watched Westwood the difference in quality is apparent and he had a big hand in Wednesday keeping 17 clean sheets - tying a club record. His ability made confidence flow through the defence and one of the clubs biggest tasks will be to fight of potential suitors over the summer.

Tom Lees - Lees came from Leeds with his reputation in tatters. Having played for the club for his whole career he was roundly turned on last season and none of their fans rated him. Wednesday picked him up very cheap and he immediately set about repairing his reputation by turning in some excellent performances alongside Loovens in the heart of defence. He is a towering, commanding defender who was handed the captaincy towards the end of the season and it was a well earned achievement for somebody who should go on to be a key player for Wednesday for many years to come.

Lewis McGugan - While McGugan only featured in 15 games in the back end of the season, his creativity in midfield and eye for a pass is exactly what Wednesday had been missing. A lack of goals had seen the strikers regularly become targets for the boo boys but the introduction of McGugan seemed to breathe new life into the team once he had settled into the side. His set piece delivery created a slew of chances and when he missed the last 3 games of the season it was evident as Wednesday missed his quality.

Standout young player

Caloan Lavery - Lavery recovered from a bad knee injury suffered in pre season to finish in the side and as one of the brightest prospects to come out of the Academy in years. He had shown flashes of his skill last season and scored his first goals in the 6-0 win over Leeds so big things were expected of him but it took him until March to get back anywhere near fitness after a loan spell at Chesterfield. He scored twice in 9 games and while not a stellar record his movement and willingness to run into the channels while holding the ball up brought a better dimension to Wednesday's play that had been missing after Will Keane's injury. He has recently been called into the Northern Ireland side and fully deserves his call up.


Summary of the season

Watford had a turbulent season that eventually ended in success as they were promoted back to the Premier League for the first time since 2007. Despite 4 wins in their opening 5 games there were rumours of discontent amongst the players and Beppe Sannino handed his resignation in after a 4-2 home win over Huddersfield. Little did they know it was the start of a merry go round which would first see Oscar Garcia take over before he had to resign due to health problems and Billy McKinlay take charge for just a week before Slavisa Jokanovic took over in early October after some patchy form. Watford were still well in contention for the play offs and though Jokanovic got off to a good start a run of 4 defeats in a row during November left them on the fringes of the play offs. They turned things around and won 12 of their next 16 games with the firepower they possessed up front incredibly hard to stop and this saw Deeney, Vydra and Ighalo finish with a combined 57 league goals between them. They were eventually promoted as their consistency saw them win 5 of their last 6 after Easter and a win over Brighton on the penultimate day sealed their return to the top flight.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Jokanovic took charge for the majority of the season and must be given great credit for the promotion achievement. He took over at a difficult time as though results were good the feeling of the fans was not and Watford were being judged by the rest of the football world due to the managerial changes. He did well and adapted Watford's style to be able to play more direct and get the best out of their forward players, whereas before they had been a team that could pass the ball and attack quickly but were often short on ideas if a team sat back. He tended to favour a 3-5-2 or 4-3-1-2 formation which allowed the full backs/wing backs to provide width and get forward in support while being able to control the game through the midfield.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Watford's 2nd place finish left the fans in dreamland and finally achieved what the Pozo family had intended 2 years after taking over. Watford had come close under Gianfranco Zola but struggled to maintain those heights last year so the hope was they could at least make the play offs this season. At times even that was in doubt but an excellent run of form after Christmas helped them be the most consistent of the teams at the top and the only tinge of disappointment for the fans was Sheffield Wednesday's equaliser in the 92nd minute of the final game which robbed them of the title. Never the less it was without doubt a successful season.

3 Key Players

Troy Deeney - Troy Deeney capped a remarkable season by firing the winner in the penultimate game which sealed Watford's promotion. He has had 3 successive seasons scoring 20+ goals and his leadership of the team is excellent. He is a new breed of forward, strong and capable of holding the ball but also with the pace to run in behind and the flair and finishing ability to worry the keeper from any position. He had previously been linked with a big money move away but that is unlikely now he has been promoted and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the Premier League.

Almen Abdi - Abdi is a cultured playmaker and his absence for much of last season was one of the key reasons Watford struggled to badly. His vision and passing accuracy when playing behind the strikers helped create so many chances that it is no wonder the front 3 scored so many goals. He is calm and composed and a big factor in why Watford keep possession so well and has great ability from dead balls, both within shooting range and when playing the ball in from wide.

Gabrielle Angella - Watford's defence was not their strongest area, but Angella and Cathcart were the corner stones of the run in the final few months which helped Watford secure promotion. Angel tended to play in the centre of the 3 when they started 3-5-2 and though he has a tendency to be rash and overplay with the ball at his feet, he covers the other defenders very well and his reading of the game often makes up for his errors. He is strong in the air but will need to improve against better players in a higher division.

Standout young player

Tommy Hoban - Hoban had featured sporadically in the defence in the previous season but been unable to hold down a regular starting spot. That changed in 2014/15 and he eventually became one of the first choices in defence, both in the centre and at left back. Though he was not a natural in the wide position, he was excellent defensively and often provided balance to the attacking full back on the other flank. He has a good understanding for such a young player and his positional ability and covering play when part of a 3 belied his age.

Wigan Athletic

Summary of the season

Wigan started the season as one of the favourites for promotion, mainly due to the outstanding run they had put together last season under Uwe Rosler which propelled them from lower mid table into a play off position and they were unlucky not to get through to the final against QPR. After a big spending summer they did look a little suspect, Delort and Riera had been signed to play up front and neither had experienced the rigours of the Championship before. It proved to be the case with just 1 goal between them before both returned to their home countries on loan in January. Goals were a problem all season with McClean finishing as top scorer with 6 and after Rosler was still somewhat surprisingly sacked in November the controversial appointment of Malky Mackay heaped further pressure on the club. He failed to win a home game during his 6 month tenure and after a huge upheaval in personnel during January he was sacked too in April with Wigan staring relegation in the face. Gary Caldwell took over and though he restored some pride he couldn't prevent the inevitable and they were relegated when Rotherham secured a midweek win before the final game of the season.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Rosler was highly rated when he took over and spent big in the summer, so their position under him can be seen as a huge failure as they failed to ever get going but that was nothing compared to the disaster that happened under Malky Mackay. He favoured a 4-4-2 but would also switch between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 at times but they lacked any kind of finishing touch, had no control over the midfield and constantly made costly individual errors in defence. For such an experienced team to make the kind of errors they did is unthinkable. Gary Caldwell only managed the final few games, he lacks experience but has been given the role for next season and he has a huge rebuilding job to do.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Many people had Wigan as one of the pre season favourites to go up to the Premier League, so their eventual relegation was a huge shock. All season long they flattered to deceive and on paper they actually had a very good team. The fact they failed to make it work should partly be attributed to the coaching and partly to the players themselves as they struggled to be motivated at times and played well below their best. The fans have every right to be angry and the 23rd place finish was in all honesty sealed well before they were eventually relegated with a spell between 30th August and 18th April without a home win too costly for them to come back from.

3 Key Players

James McClean - It was incredibly tough to pick 3 standout performers for Wigan this season, with only James McClean performing anywhere near like he can. He was by far and away Wigan's best player and often looked like he was having to do it all himself. That he finished as top scorer with just 6 goals and was also the top assister speaks volumes. Regularly switching between a left wing role and a striking role, sometimes playing as the lone striker, he did show his versatility though he had a tendency to drift out of the middle and towards the left wing when he was playing up front, which left Wigan short of options in the middle.

James Perch - Perch was a regular starter and his versatility allowed him to play in a number of positions. He usually filled the right back spot but also played on the right of midfield, central defence and had a spell in a midfield 2 during the latter months of the season. He was never fantastic but was consistently good, which is much better than some of the players alongside him and it was he who scored the goal which eventually broke their home hoodoo. That all 3 managers over the season picked him consistently shows his worth.

Emyr Huws - Huws came with a big reputation and a big price tag from Manchester City. He had excelled in a loan spell at Birmingham last season with a history of hitting long range goals. After initially struggling to settle into his new team and their playing style he suffered an ankle injury with Wales which kept him out for a while and when he tried to make his comeback he suffered the same injury again which ended his season. Wigan had intended for him and Forshaw to anchor their midfield which would have given them plenty of quality but as both were out, Huws injured and Forshaw sold they had little control in the middle.

Standout young player

Tim Chow - Chow had been told he would be released by Wigan by Malky Mackay in early March but Mackay's sacking and Caldwell's appointment - he had previously been the youth team manager - gave Chow a chance in the first team. He grasped it with both hands, scoring within 11 minutes of his full debut and starting the final 3 games of the season. He could have a big role to play next year as he has now been kept on and as Wigan look to rebuild they will need more players from their academy to push for the first team.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Summary of the season

Wolves came up from League One with optimism after putting an end to a horrific 2 years which saw them drop through the divisions out of the Premier League and into League One. They were not expected to struggle but few saw them capable of challenging at the top end of the table. However, they produced consistently good form and narrowly missed out on the play offs, ultimately finishing with the most number of points to not finish in the top 6 since the division was changed to 24 teams. That they only missed out on goal difference and on the final day looked capable of beating Millwall by any score shows how close they came, with the triple threat of Sako, Dicko and Afobe a constant menace throughout the season.
A bad week during April is what ultimately cost them as they lost to local rivals Birmingham and Middlesbrough before only drawing with Ipswich - had they taken a point from either of their defeats they would have faced Norwich in the play offs.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Kenny Jackett has been well liked wherever he has gone and has done well at Wolves since leaving Millwall. He managed them to promotion last season and has gone from strength to strength this year. A manager who truly knows his preferred starting XI, they had very little rotation throughout the season with 6 players making over 40 appearances (including as a sub). Had it not been for injuries to Ikeme, Dicko and Golbourne the chances are this number would have been higher. He generally went with a 4-4-2, especially as they chased down the play off pack later in the season but had been going with a 4-2-3-1 at times before this.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Wolves finished 7th, only missing out on the play offs by goal difference as they had +14 to Ipswich's +18. It was an outstanding effort and they were constantly written off throughout the year as people expected them to fall away. The signing of Afobe was a masterstroke as he scored 13 goals in 21 games to fire them so close to extending their season. While they were disappointed to miss out on the top 6 the signings they are making and the basis of the squad, which has a solid core but is packed with young hungry players, should see them make another attempt at promotion next year.

3 Key Players

Benik Afobe - Afobe was an instant hit at Wolves, this was something of a surprise. While he came with a hefty price tag (rumoured to be over £2m) he had scored plenty of goals for MK Dons in the first part of the season. However, if you analysed these goals a few had been penalties and he had a knack of scoring when games were already won. He proved the doubters wrong at Wolves and often took the lead role off Dicko as the season progressed. Strong, quick and excellent with his movement and finishing, he does a lot of work outside the box but the majority of his goals come from in the area. Will certainly be one to watch next season.

Bakary Sako - Sako has stayed with Wolves through tough times and grown into one of the best players in the division and one of the most wanted. Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and West Brom all were linked with him, so for Wolves to keep him was a major boost. He is very direct and strong and capable of ghosting past his full back from the left side with ease. He is not a traditional winger and doesn't cross the ball too much but instead comes inside to link with the strikers and this led to him chipping in with 15 goals over the course of the season to be top scorer. He has elected not to sign a new contract and will be missed next year.

Danny Batth - There were plenty of candidates for the 3rd key player spot, including Kevin McDonald as a lynchpin in midfield, but Danny Batth led throughout the season as an example along the back line. He has improved immensely and a run of 90 consecutive league starts was only ended but a broken foot late in the season. His positional sense and skill in winning the ball back, either via tackle or stepping in and intercepting has come a long way since Wolves were relegated and he is now one of the first names on the team sheet, forming a formidable partnership alongside Stearman.

Standout young player

Dominic Iorfa - This could have gone to Iorfa or Kourtney Hause, both of who have had breakout seasons but I went with Iorfa as he forced his way into the team on merit, while Hause took advantage of an injury to Golbourne. Such was Iorfa's rise that club captain Sam Ricketts was forced to leave to get game time and starting right back Doherty couldn't get back in the team. Iorfa, who can also play at centre back, was excellent defensively and often got into very advanced positions to provide width down the right. He is also in the England youth set ups and Premier League clubs will be keeping a close eye on him.

I'll be publishing my Team of the Season blog post soon.

Friday, 22 May 2015

My England Championship 2014/15 Review (Part 3)

Welcome to part 3 of my review of the 2014/15 season in the Championship.

Parts One & Two can be found here and as mentioned I've split this into 4 parts to make it more readable and hopefully it will give you some insight into one of the most underrated and exciting leagues in the world.

Ipswich Town

Summary of the season

At the start of the season a local newspaper did a poll and as many Ipswich fans thought they would be relegated as those that thought they would finish in the top 6. The fact they were still competing for an automatic promotion spot until March gives an indication of the kind of miracle Mick McCarthy managed to work. This is all the more amazing given that probably their most gifted and influential player David McGoldrick, barely played in 2015 due to a nagging thigh injury. They had the divisions top scorer in Darryl Murphy and though their style of football isn't to everybody's taste it is very effective and plays well to their strengths. Only a complete football snob would deny that Ipswich are a good side and they came close to the play off final, as their game with Norwich was firmly in the balance until Berra's red card.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Mick McCarthy has spent very little and managed to forge a team based on playing to their strengths and a very high level of workrate and intensity. The team is very much crafted in his image and every player works hard to ensure they do their job in as good a manner as possible. They were helped by a standout season from Murphy, something which probably wasn't foreseen given his previous record but McCarthy has consistently got the best from the sum of the parts of his team. They almost exclusively stuck to 4-4-2, though they did dabble with 4-3-3 for a short spell during the season and notably in the play offs.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Ipswich's 6th place finish was more than acceptable given their angst at the start of the season about where they would finish. While the club were confident most people had them pegged as a steady mid table team and in some respects they were the surprise package, although this was lost a little bit given Brentford and Bournemouth's achievements. They were unlucky in the play offs and were very evenly matched with Norwich, a game which probably suited them more than their opponents, until they were reduced to 10 men.

3 Key Players

Darryl Murphy - Murphy had not particularly excelled in his career to date, so to finish as the top scorer in a very competitive race for the divisions Golden Boot shows the impact he had this season. Even more surprising given the number of different strike partners he has had, with McGoldrick and Sears being the main two but numerous others playing alongside him at points throughout the campaign. His height and physical power make him ideal for the way Ipswich play but he is very capable of running in behind and has a good turn of pace which often catches defenders out.

Christophe Berra - For me, the best defender in the division this season and it was such a shame what happened in the 2nd leg of the play off semi final where he instinctively stuck out an arm on the goal line and was sent off, changing the game. His performances have been outstanding all year, a model of consistency and able to play as an aggressive man marker and challenge for he ball or more astutely cover in behind Smith and read the game, he was a huge part of why Ipswich finished in the top 6.

Cole Skuse - Often maligned and playing in one of the 2 positions which rarely get any credit, defensive midfield (the other being the target man striker), Skuse was the protective shield needed in front of the Ipswich defence which allowed the rest of the side to go out and play. Often sitting deep and letting the other midfielders race forward to support the front men, he would position himself excellently to cut out any attacks. His lack of goals and some wayward passing were his only faults as he started the season as one of the crowds boo boys but finished gaining heaps of praise.

Standout young player

Teddy Bishop - A relatively easy choice as Teddy Bishop went from playing for the Under 18's to an influential first team regular. Excellent on the ball and calm in possession he was one of the few players in the Ipswich team able to put their foot on the ball and pick a man out with vision and accuracy. He had to increase his stamina to be able to fit into the high intensity game played by Ipswich but by the end of the season he looked every bit the seasoned pro.

Leeds United

Summary of the season

A season largely to forget for Leeds which saw them have 5 managers in the space of a year, lurch from one PR disaster to the next and at the end of the season see the fans turn on owner Massimo Cellino. The controversial Italian had started on the wrong foot anyway but the appointment of Dave Hockaday as manager was nothing short of laughable and he lasted 6 games. Redfearn took over as caretaker manager and moved them up the table but was passed over for Rapid Wien coach Darko Milanic - who also only lasted 6 games. Redfearn was put back in charge but disagreements over transfers, the banning of Cellino for a tax conviction in Italy and the abrupt sacking of assistant manager Steve Thompson did everything to destabilise the club and send them falling down the table at the end of the season after it looked like they would finish in the top half. Redfearn was replaced at the end of the year, with Uwe Rosler taking charge. While he is a good manager it remains to be seen how long he lasts.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

With so many managers over the course of the season I will just focus on Neil Redfearn who did an excellent job in very tough circumstances. At one point Leeds could have been in with a shout of the play offs, though they never truly came close enough to be really in the running but they were comfortable after spending the early part of the season in the relegation zone. After the sacking of Thompson Leeds went on a 6 game losing streak and Redfearn constantly seemed to not know what was happening behind the scenes which left him very vulnerable. He leaves with his head held high and should have no problem finding another role. He favoured a 4-5-1, with young exciting talent given plenty of chances under him.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

From the situation they were in at the start of the season, 15th is probably about right for Leeds. However Cellino thinks they should be contending promotion, but given the threadbare squad and sometimes bizarre signings, mostly from Serie B, they actually did well to not become embroiled in a relegation scrap. The fans are demanding and will see lower mid table mediocrity as unacceptable.

3 Key Players

Marco Silvestri - One of the few shining lights to come out of the transfers from Italy and will surely be sought after by many teams after often keeping Leeds in the game for long spells. One particular match that stands out was the away win at Middlesbrough when he was a one man barricade to prevent the home side equalising. A good shot stopper, his command of his box was sometimes lacking and forced the defence to drop too deep but this is one of very few faults he has.

Alex Mowatt - Mowatt grew in stature after his breakout season last year, his culture on the ball and vision in being able to play killer balls into the strikers was often key for Leeds attacks. He is excellent on set pieces and of his 9 goals many came from direct free kicks. He has already been looked at by clubs in a higher division and it could be tough for Leeds to hang on to him this summer.

Sol Bamba - Bamba arrived in January from Palermo and already had experience of the division having played for Leicester. He settled in very well and his bravery and willingness to tackle and block was key in Leeds good run at the turn of the year. Despite his ungainly stature and often clumsy nature he is a solid no nonsense defender. One of the minor gripes is that he didn't score more goals as he is a huge threat on set pieces with his aerial power.

Standout young player

Lewis Cook - By head and shoulders the most surprising and promising thing was the emergence of Cook. At just 17 years old he was holding down a first team place and was one of the first names on the team sheet for much of the season. He is very composed on the ball for one so young and though he plays in a deeper role to Mowatt he is capable of playing forward with the ball. Already watched by several Premier League clubs, he signed a new contract in May but the sacking of Redfearn may make him regret his decision.


Summary of the season

Middlesbrough grew in strength as the season went on and were constantly in the top 6 for most of the campaign. This was mainly down to the new style played by Aitor Karanka who has turned them from an outfit with a lot of potential to a solid, resilient unit who conceded the least goals in the Championship but also play a possession based game which is capable of opening up any defence in the league. With some astute loan signings, helped in no small part by his relationship with Jose Maurinho, Middlesbrough just fell short and this could be blamed on a very tough run in which saw them face 6 of their rivals for promotion in the final 10 games. Though they did well in these they ended up in the play offs where they will be confident of taking on a Norwich side and returning to the big time.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Karanka has already achieved what none of his predecessors could do and got Middlesbrough into the play offs. They have been a side which has flattered to deceive in recent years and though they have always been well funded they have always fallen short. While the job is far from done currently they have their best opportunity since falling out of the Premier League in 2009. His approach work and eye for detail before every game is above the normal levels and he has implemented a passing style which has won many admirers. He is surely destined to manage in the top flight in England or Spain, whether it's with Middlesbrough only time will tell. Very rarely moves away from the 4-2-3-1, often playing players out of position in order to keep the shape.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

While some Middlesbrough fans will be disappointed at only finishing 4th, having been top with 3 games to go after beating Norwich away, the top end of the division was very competitive and key defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in their run in proved to be too much. It will only be clear whether 4th was good enough after Monday's play off final but they have certainly had a good season and if they don't go up will be on of the favourites next year.

3 Key Players

Grant Leadbitter - A key component in Middlesbrough's midfield, the captain had a stellar season, particularly in the 1st half when he not only anchored a very capable midfield but also chipped in with 11 goals, though the last of these was scored in January. His passing range is excellent and his composure on the ball was needed in a relatively young team. Along with Clayton he often allowed the front 4 to play without fear as they always had the reliable figure of Leadbitter behind them.

George Friend - With Adomah a regular on the right side of midfield but a lot of changing on the left Middlesbrough could have been in danger of being lop sided, but the quality of George Friend meant this was barely noticed. In the latter part of the season Tomlin played on the left side but he almost always came infield, allowing plenty of space for Friend to exploit on the overlap. He showed excellent defensive qualities as well, with his pace and ability to recover and stop the crosses coming in a key reason why Middlesbrough conceded so few goals.

Patrick Bamford - Bamford was voted the player of the year in the Championship, something I disagree with. Despite this, he is clearly a very talented player and was key in Middlesbrough's play. With the team only conceding 37 goals, one was often enough to take all 3 points and with Bamford scoring 17 goals - a large majority of these single goals which proved to be game winners - he was a massive weapon in Middlesbrough's arsenal. He does lack some skills and had a tendency to drift badly out of games when he didn't see the ball, struggled to hold the play and often became frustrated but he has the flair to win a game on his own at times.

Standout young player

Ben Gibson - Gibson was one of the most impressive young players in the division and his positional awareness for such a young player is outstanding. He made the central defensive position his own after battling with Omeruo for the early part of the season and was deservedly called into the England U21 squad for the European Championships. He is able to play as the covering defender, win vital aerial duels and be more aggressive in his challenges to prevent the opposition playing into the strikers.


Summary of the season

Millwall started the season reasonably well but it ended with managerial changes and relegation. With 3 wins and a draw from their first 6 games Millwall were in a very safe position but the early table was a huge false dawn and they fell into a rut of defeats, though they never gave up and showed some excellent fighting spirit with some outstanding comebacks. 3-3 after being 3-0 to Wolves and 2-2 with 10 men after being 2-0 down against Blackburn were amongst the highlights but their biggest failing was their home form as they failed to win a game at the Den between late October and early April. Ian Holloway paid the price for his constant tinkering and was sacked and though Neil Harris failed to save them from the drop he at least showed signs of instilling the traditional Millwall spirit and has been appointed on a permanent basis for next season.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

It seems only fair to dedicate most of this section to Ian Holloway. Always good for a soundbite but seriously lacking in any kind of tactical nous, his usual trick seems to be hope Plan A works and if not throw up to 5 strikers on the pitch to try and rescue the game. Some utterly baffling decisions such as to throw a youth team player into a vital game without them having featured in the squad at all, sub them at half time and then not see them again for 3 months when he'd do the same thing became the norm, as did constantly changing the side. He attempted to fix things by ditching half the squad in January - most of which were his signings - and bringing in a lot of new players but this didn't work and Neil Harris had to pick up the pieces. He favoured 4-2-3-1, though did sometimes go with a flat 4-4-2. Harris showed signs of improvement and at least got them playing in a more disciplined way though he couldn't save them from relegation.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Millwall finished 22nd and in all honesty had it not been for Rotherham's points deduction they would have suffered the drop well before the final midweek of the season. A disastrous campaign for much of the year, they fans became resigned to the drop well before it was confirmed and only the slight hope of Holloway's sacking and Harris' appointment lifted spirits. They will rebuild and will be one of the stronger teams in League One next year but may find it tough to bounce back at the first attempt.

3 Key Players

Shaun Williams - Williams is one of the few Millwall players who could accurately and carefully pick a pass and his role playing in front of the back 4 was one which was necessary due to the prolonged injury to Nicky Bailey. Versatile and also capable of playing anywhere across the back line, Williams has an excellent free kick on him though by scoring only 2 goals this is an area he needs to improve. An injury ruled him out of the last few games and this was one of the final nails in Millwall's coffin.

Lee Gregory - Gregory faced a difficult start to life at Millwall having made the jump from the Conference with Halifax last season. It was big step and one he struggled to handle until he grabbed his first goal against Birmingham at the end of September but he only registered 4 goals in 18 games before Christmas. He grew into the role he needed to play much more after this and after fighting with Fuller for a starting spot he made it his own for the last few months. Although the goals didn't exactly flow for him he became a key part of the team as he has the pace to run the channels but can also hold the ball and he should have a successful season in 2015/16.

Jos Hooiveld - Hooiveld arrived in January having spent the first part of the season not featuring much for Norwich where he was on loan from Southampton. He seemed much more at home at Millwall and his debut against Reading marked the start of 7 points from 4 games for Millwall. His composure and leadership style was key in helping a leaky defence to become tighter and his aerial ability was useful in both boxes. He grabbed the late winner against Charlton in April which finally ended their home drought and had he not been injured for the final few games of the season they may have snatched the points they needed to put pressure on Rotherham.

Standout young player

Sid Nelson - Nelson was very highly rated in pre-season and fancied to make the jump to the first team but a broken hand forced him to wait until the turn of the year to make the squad on a regular basis. He was sent off on only his 4th appearance in the league but came back stronger and alongside Hooiveld played a part in their desperate battle against the drop. He is an old school defender but also capable of playing out with the ball at his feet and his physique will stand him in good stead for the rigours of League One.

Norwich City

Summary of the season

Norwich were many people's pre-season favourites to go up and their early form seemed to justify this. They started the season with 7 wins from their first 9 games and led the table for spells but rookie manager Neil Adams never seemed fully confident and after this they went on an awful run of just 1 win in 10 games. This ultimately led to them being well outside the play offs and struggling and though their form did pick up a little just before Christmas the loss to Preston in the FA Cup ultimately forced their hand and Adams stepped aside. Very few people had heard of Alex Neil and he was a surprise choice but turned into an inspired appointment as Norwich won 15 of the 22 league games he was in charge for and only missed out on an automatic spot, mainly due to the home defeat to Middlesbrough in late April. They face the same team in the play offs after overcoming local rivals Ipswich and will be confident they can bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Alex Neil has proven himself to be a very astute and forward thinking manager. He prefers Norwich to pass the ball and control the tempo of games but is not averse to playing a more direct style when needed and in Cameron Jerome they have an excellent outlet up front. He is confident in his ability and seems to have the midas touch as his record at both Hamilton and Norwich show so far. He rarely rotated the side, preferring to stick with a core group of players and favoured a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation. One of the brightest up and coming managers and should be one of the favourites for the manger of the year award (although Eddie Howe will probably win)

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Norwich's 3rd place finish did have a tinge of disappointment around it. They had come from outside the play offs in January to put together a phenomenal run and almost catch the top 2 until a defeat to Middlesbrough knocked them out of the favourites role. Had they won that game they would almost certainly have take one of the top 2 spots, so the fans have a slight right to be disappointed . They will go into the play off final with renewed confidence having beaten Ipswich for a 3rd time this season and look to avenge matters against Middlesbrough, but it remains to be seen whether the season is seen as successful if they don't go up.

3 Key Players

Russell Martin - It's quite hard to pick just 3 players from a very talented Norwich team but the clear leader at the back was captain Russell Martin. Adaptable enough to switch between right back and centre back in the early part of the season. He finished the campaign playing every minute of all but 1 match and led the back line in a comfortable manner, capable of being the aggressor in defence or covering behind and allowing Basing to challenge as their partnership developed well in the latter stages of the campaign.

Bradley Johnson - Johnson played a varied role and though the first half of the season was good, his 2nd half was outstanding as he found a new lease of life under Alex Neil to finish the campaign with 15 goals. His long range shooting was excellent but so were his late runs into the box which were very tough to track, especially when he often came from a wide left position inside the full back and on the blind side of the central defender. He is capable of being a combative midfielder and with Olsson always looking to overlap it allowed him to come inside without Norwich losing their width.

Cameron Jerome - Jerome is key to the way Norwich play as his all round style allowed him to play the different kinds of role needed for the way Alex Neil likes to play. Strong and able to play comfortably with his back to goal, you only need to look at the way he shrugged off Tommy Smith to lay on the opening goal in the 1st leg of the play off to see how able he is to hold the ball. He also possesses a very good turn of pace and though he sometimes lacks a clinical edge to his finishing he still topped Norwich's scoring charts with 19 goals.

Standout young player

Nathan Redmond - Norwich played a very experienced team throughout the season, with Redmond being the only player under 23 to get significant minutes on the pitch. In fact the other players under 23 played a combined total of 30 minutes across the whole season - this shows how much Neil decided to go with experience. Redmond was the exception to this and though he flitted in and out of the team in stages he is a very exciting winger and capable of beating his man with pace, skill or directness. He can use either foot, so is capable of going both ways and the only thing which lets him down slightly is his lack of awareness at times as he could look up and find a team mate in a better position instead of shooting. Still, he gained 13 assists so is clearly capable of setting up chances as well as his return of 5 goals.

Nottingham Forest

Summary of the season

Forest suffered a bitterly disappointing season after things began so brightly. Up until the end of September they were top of the league and under fans favourite Stuart Pearce everything looked to be positive. However, an awful run of form which saw them win just 3 out of 21 games left them struggling badly and without a hope of even making the play offs. Pearce had been given a lot more grace than most managers would have got in the same situation due to his links to the club but patience wore thin and Dougie Freedman took over. He began very well and Forest even looked like they may just challenge for the top 6 but 1 win in 10 to end the season saw them once again end on a sour note.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Both managers had up and down spells, Pearce is an excellent motivator and it's no lie to say that every single Forest fan wanted him to succeed. Unfortunately when things got tough he struggled to turn them around and even a win away at local rivals Derby only bought him a little more time. Freedman managed to give the team a confidence boost and propel them back up the table as he stuck to the basics and made them a little more tricky to beat. However, his one dimensional tactics and longer style came unstuck as the season progressed and Forest went back into a rut. Freedman rarely strayed from a 4-2-3-1.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Forest's mid-table finishing position was a huge disappointment to a club which had spent that much they had been forced into a Financial Fair Play imposed transfer ban midway through the season. Spending big on Britt Assombalonga and Michail Antonio they should have been competitive throughout the season as a team packed with experience failed to consistently challenge at the right end. Though the fans were very patient they have a right to be angry that the team fell away so badly and with Darlow and Lascelles both leaving to return to parent club Newcastle and question marks over the fitness of Reid, Cohen and Assombalonga they could struggle again next year.

3 Key Players

Michail Antonio - Antonio showed glimpses of his true potential at Sheffield Wednesday but never managed to produce it on a consistent basis so both sides seemed happy with the deal which took him to Forest for almost £2m at the start of the season. It turned out to be an inspired move on Forests part as he became the pivotal player in the squad. Often playing from the left, he had an excellent knack of arriving on the back post in the early weeks of the season to chip in with several goals but as the season wore on he would pick the ball up deeper and drive at the defence. His pace and power are difficult to stop although doesn't always look in full control of the ball but scored some fantastic goals to lift Forests flagging spirits.

Karl Darlow - Darlow has been Forest's first choice goalkeeper for a number of season's now and it was somewhat of a shock that he was sold to Newcastle in the early weeks along with Jamaal Lascelles. Allowed to remain on loan for the season, he continued to develop and grow in confidence. There are no doubts about his shot stopping qualities but he improved his aerial ability and command of the box during the season and he will be badly missed next season with Freedman's first task to secure a new keeper.

Britt Assombalonga - Assombalonga settled into life in a higher division straight away after his £5.5 million move from Peterborough. He was always amongst the goals and regularly the focal point for Forest's attacks. His pace allowed him to play on the shoulder of the back line but his height and strength meant he was also a feasible target for more direct balls from the back. He had recorded a very good return of 15 goals from 27 starts before a terrible knee injury suffered in March means he will be out for around 12 months and is likely to miss the majority of next season. With Reid also doubtful to ever return from a persistent groin problem and Cohen facing a recovery from a 3rd ACL operation the loss of another key player is a huge blow to Forest.

Standout young player

Ben Osborn - Osborn had been around the squad for spells last season, showing good vision on the ball and a very capable left foot. He was in and out of the team for most of the 1st half of this season but almost became a hero overnight with his 90th minute winner at Derby. He had proven himself very capable before this, playing as part of a central midfield 2 or 3 or playing a wider left sided role, though not a true winger. He will be looking to nail down a regular starting spot next season and he has the talent to play at a higher level.

I'll be publishing the 4th and final part of my Championship review soon.