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.

Reading



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.

Watford




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.


Middlesbrough




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.

Millwall


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.

Friday, 15 May 2015

My England Championship 2014/15 Review (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of my review of the 2014/15 season in the Championship.

Part 1 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.

Brighton & Hove Albion


Summary of the season

Brighton were one of the clubs expected to do well this season after appointing Sami Hyypia in the summer and reaching the play offs last season. However, if you looked at their squad it had taken a huge hit in terms of quality lost and they had failed to replace that while employing a manager without a discernable plan or style of play. They lacked goals right from the beginning of the season and that barely changed as Baldock, O'Grady, Best & Mackail-Smith managed just 4 league goals between them. Lewis Dunk, a centre back, actually outscored them all put together which gives a clear indication of where Brighton's failings lie. Once Hyypia had inevitably been sacked just before Christmas, Chris Hughton took over and steered them away from trouble and they weren't unduly worried about relegation despite a nervy end to the season. He will have a big job to turn around their fortunes as they have lost several of their better players as their loan spells came to an end.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Chris Hughton did well once he took over, making Brighton solid and difficult to beat. If they couldn't score at least they had a chance of keeping their opponents out. He will have to find a way to create more chances and get a striker in who is capable of scoring. The fans have taken to him and he should be given time to turn around the mess Hyypia seems to have created. He favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation but experimented with 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 towards the end of the season.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Brighton's 20th place finish will be seen as a very poor return on the season, finishing just 6 points clear of the drop. While a large portion of the blame will be given to Hyypia and Hughton did well to raise them clear of the drop, they did slip again towards the end of the season and if they are to realistically challenge for the play offs again next year they will be in for a very busy summer.

3 Key Players

Lewis Dunk - Dunk impressed at the heart of a tight defence. He took his place alongside Greer and formed a defence which let in the least amount of goals of the bottom 11 teams - just 54 in the season. His height and strength allowed him to be a physical presence and he would often throw himself in front of danger. He is also useful on set pieces in both boxes and was Brighton's 2nd top scorer.

Joao Carlos - Tricky and highly rated by Liverpool, the young Portuguese spent the season on loan at Brighton and became a fans favourite with his exciting play. He peaked against Ipswich in January as he was practically unplayable and scored twice and often looked the only Brighton player capable of making things happen. A broken leg in April against Huddersfield ended his season early but he will be fit and likely loaned out to a top end team next season.

Inigo Calderon - The veteran Spanish defender barely got much of a look in last season but his versatility proved invaluable in this campaign and he was deservedly voted the player of the year. He filled in initially at left back and right back but spent much of the later months on the right wing, which meant he could alternate positions with Bruno. He's been rewarded with a contract extension and his experience will be key once again next year.

Standout young player

Rohan Ince - Despite not featuring on a regular basis, Ince made enough appearances to be influential on the team and it was only when Kayal was brought in that he lost his starting spot. Tall and powerful he is capable of covering the pitch very well and though often a little clumsy in possession and lacking goals, given the right role in the team he could be the shield Brighton need in front of the defence which allows the rest of the team to become more attacking.


Cardiff City


Summary of the season

As the favourites to go up Cardiff were expected to compete at the top end of the Championship. Instead they had a season of transition, sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer early in the season after his numerous transfer dealings in the summer didn't work out and Cardiff slipped to the lower reaches of the table. With Russell Slade not being a popular appointment at the time he needed to start well and this didn't really materialise as they suffered a season of inconsistency, although ended reasonably with an upper mid table finish. The fans voted with their feet and attendances have dropped, with Slade and Chairman Tan both unpopular. The decision to loan out 3 of their better players in Le Fondre, Jones and Connolly as well as selling Brayford made little football sense and was purely to balance the books, which again didn't go down well the the supporters.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Russell Slade took over with a clear brief to reduce costs and steady them for a promotion push in 2015/16. He achieved some decent results, mainly away from home but his style is not attractive to watch and led to calls for his dismissal from the Cardiff fans. He has brought in several players which are a reduction in quality and he could be one of the first managerial casualties next season. He sticks rigidly to a 4-4-2 and rarely played anything else.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Cardiff finished 11th which is a higher position than many would feel they deserve. After being in the top 6 for the first few weeks of the season they fell like a stone and at one point looked as though they could face a relegation battle. After Slade took over the season lurched into mediocrity and the poor home form and lack of quality signings and entertaining football has seen a clear vote of no confidence from the fans.

3 Key Players

Bruno Manga - After a difficult start to life in England (OK, Wales!) the Gabonese international grew into the team and gave some excellent performances at the back. He was highly rated and commanded a large fee but it wasn't until the turn of the year that he showed his worth and his reading of the game and physical presence, coupled with a good turn of pace saw Cardiff become much better defensively and grind out a lot of points, especially away from home.

Craig Noone - Noone didn't have the best of season but his inconsisyemt form hid a talented player, capable of beating his man and creating many chances. With Cardiff being direct the style didn't really suit him but when he could get the ball wide and put crosses in to the target men in the middle they looked a lot more dangerous. Started the season with an injury and maybe needed a full pre-season to show his true form.

Peter Whittingham - Whittingham splits opinion but he is clearly a valuable player for Cardiff. His composure on the ball and ability from set pieces is key to the team and he created many chances from corners and free kicks, ending the season with the most assists with 8 as well as 6 goals. His negatives are usually his reluctance to drive forward and his lack of mobility which when playing with Gunnarsson in midfield can leave them either short of attacking options or exposes their defence if they do push forward. Maybe needs to play with another man in the middle to get the best out of him.

Standout young player

Mark Kennedy - An exciting capture from Everton he was a surprise hit in a wide role after initially being thought of as a striker. He has good pace and enthusiasm and towards the end of the season had a decent run in the team where he won a couple of man of the match awards. He failed to regularly hold down a starting spot but big things will be expected of him next year.


Charlton Athletic


Summary of the season

Charlton started the season well under new manager Bob Peeters and were the last football league side to lose their unbeaten record, including some excellent victories over Derby, Watford and Norwich gave them a healthy start, though too many draws prevented them reaching too high in the table. They then went on an awful run of 14 games without a win, during which time Peeters lost his job and was replaced with the unpopular choice of Guy Luzon. After 5 terrible games it looked like he may follow Peeters quickly out of the door but he turned things around and Charlton finished the season reasonably - they were however the draw specialists of the division with 18 which killed any hopes of a play off push and will hope for better things next season.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Guy Luzon adapted well after initially struggling and changed Charlton from a slightly more direct team to one which was solid and played a nice passing game. They utilise the wingers heavily and the counter attacking style they played got them several important away wins under Luzon, otherwise he might not have lasted the season. A bad start is likely to see him come under pressure again. Changed things to a 4-4-2 and stuck with that after initially starting with a 4-2-3-1.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Finished bang in mid table in 12th place, something which was an improvement on the previous season but ultimately disappointing after an encouraging start. Too many draws meant they never realistically challenged for the play off places and if they suffer another season of mediocrity next year the fans are likely to demand change from the owners.

3 Key Players

Johann Gudmundsson - Gudmundsson was a bright light for Charlton and though he lacks the pace to be the type of winger who gets to the byline, he has an excellent left foot and created many chances and goals with his inswinging crosses from the right. Even more dangerous were his set pieces, which helped him get 10 goals and come 2nd only to Vetokele for the top scorer for the team. Likely to see some interest from clubs in the summer and Charlton may struggle to hold on to him.

Stephen Henderson - Charlton's dip in form coincided with Henderson suffering a bad shoulder injury which kept him out for 3 months. While not the sole reason behind the run of losses it played a big part as first Nick Pope and then Neil Etheridge failed to live up to his standards. An above average all round keeper, he is solid at making saves but commands his defence well and is good in the air, instilling confidence in those around him.

Roger Johnson - While Ben Haim and Bikey did a reasonable job in the first part of the season it was clear some leadership was lacking at the back and Roger Johnson's free transfer signing coincided with Charlton regaining some solidity at the back. While he lacks pace he makes up for this in his positioning and his physicality and aggressive nature allowed him to win plenty of balls that he had no right too. Surprisingly released at the end of the season.

Standout young player

Jordan Cousins - Cousins has gone from a bit part young player over the last 2 seasons into one of the first names on the team sheet and is likely to court interest from bigger clubs in the summer. Started last season at right back and played for long spells on the left wing which helped his development, though he fared much better in his natural position of the centre. An excellent passer and able to drive the team forward but also adept at breaking up the opposition play for Charlton.

Derby County


Summary of the season

For 7 months of the season Derby were quite rightly one of the best teams in the division. Many people's favourites to go up after their heartbreaking loss to QPR in last seasons play off final, they started well, losing only 1 of their first 13 games and continued this excellent form up until February when they sat top of the league. Then the unthinkable happened as they lost Chris Martin to a hamstring problem and with no direct replacement they were forced to play Darren Bent. While Bent is a quality striker he doesn't have the same qualities and then with his injury in late March Derby had no recognised front man and suffered badly for it. They dropped out of the automatic spots and on the last day of the season, with their fate in their own hands, slumped to a disastrous 3-0 loss to Reading which dumped them out of the play offs. The whole club seemed shocked and it may signal the break up of one of the Championships best sides over the last 2 years.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Steve McLaren has done an excellent job of rebuilding the reputation damaged while he was the England manager and for long spells of the season he showed himself to be one of the best managers outside the top flight. His man management, style of football and approach to games won Derby many admirers and his signings also proved to be good acquisitions. He did let himself down by not sourcing a replacement for Martin and this ultimately led to their downfall, along with his reluctance to switch to anything other than 4-3-3, though they were forced to play 4-2-3-1 due to a lack of available players for most of the last 6 weeks of the season. Could be sought after by Premier League clubs over the summer.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Derby's 8th placed finish was a disaster for a team which led the league for long spells. Their dramatic fall away was unexpected and they even looked to be a certainty for the play offs with a handful of games left so to miss out completely was nothing short of a shambles for a club which would have been aiming for automatic promotion this season. Fans will demand change and the boos which greeted their 3-0 loss to Reading are reflective of what happened over the final 2 months.

3 Key Players

Chris Martin - So key to the way Derby play and to lose him for the final 2 months of the season was the nail in Derby's coffin. It wasn't just his goals but his all round game which Derby missed, he often held the ball up to allow their quick counter attacks and to get the wide players and attacking midfielders into advanced positions. The fact he scored 18 goals despite barely featuring after being injured in mid February speaks volumes about him.

George Thorne - Thorne was another key player Derby lost to injury and didn't adequately replace. He was actually injured in pre season and only managed 3 appearances over the entire season before being injury again, so his inclusion here may seem odd. It was more the lack of a player to fill his role which makes him key - with Eustace and Mascarell not doing the job well enough to be considered ahead of him when he did come back from injury.

Tom Ince - Ince was a bright light in the side after Martin's injury and though he had failed to do much at Hull or Nottingham Forest he was excellent for Derby. Often played on the right and inverting to cut across onto his left foot he was a regular supply of goals but his individualism didn't always help Derby's team play. Scored some stunning free kicks and Derby would like to get him back permanently from Hull in the summer.

Standout young player

Will Hughes - Has been a regular now for some time and his creativity and vision make him stand out as one of the most talented young midfielders in the country. Lacked in options going forward at times and a lack of goals (only scored twice all season) is an area he needs to improve. It could be said he's reached his peak at Derby and could be one of the players to leave in the summer.

Fulham


Summary of the season

Any thoughts Fulham had of spending their way out of the division were soon brought to a crashing halt. Felix Magath came to the club with a stellar global reputation and it was something of a surprise that he stayed on after relegation from the Premier League but nobody could have anticipated he would oversee 1 draw and 6 defeats from their first 7 games. Club legend Kit Symons took over and immediately improved their fortunes but his inflexibility to change things and lack of width saw Fulham remain predictable and in relegation trouble until the final few weeks of the season when an upturn in form saw them steer clear of relegation. With many big earners still on the wage bill they are in for another summer of upheaval and Symons could be one of the first casualties to get the sack.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Symons was hero worshiped when first appointed and took Fulham from rock bottom into the safety of lower mid table. While they were very inconsistent after his initial honeymoon period they started to drop off badly and went through an awful run which saw them once again come too close to relegation and his reluctance to play anything other than the midfield diamond was heavily criticised. Often way too open and with players forced to play in positions they were not used to.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Fulham 17th placed finish would seem like a disaster had you offered it to them before the season started but after picking up 1 point from their opening 7 games it is not a bad return. They could have finished higher had it not been for a drop in form from February and March and they struggled badly. A similar story next season will see Symons get the sack and attendances drop off and with FFP rules only allowing them 1 more season of massive expenditure they could suffer badly.

3 Key Players

Ross McCormack - Although he didn't hit the high standard he would have set after his £11million transfer last summer he eventually settled in after a tough opening few months. The pressure seemed to get to him and he was declared unfit by Felix Magath but his clear skill and creativity was badly what Fulham needed. Finished the season with 17 goals for a bottom 8 side so clearly has the ability and could be on the move again this summer.

Marcus Bettinelli - Before the season Bettinelli was probably preparing to be 3rd choice, but with Stekelenberg joining Monaco and Joronen not cementing a place he got the nod and his consistency proved to be key to playing 39 games over the course of the season. He was not infallible and made some mistakes at times but his agility and positivity in the area helped behind a regularly changing Fulham back 4.

Scott Parker - Parker's experience was often key, though his endurance is no longer there. Struggled to keep up with the rigours of the Championship and couldn't often play the midweek round as well as games on either Saturday but organised the midfield at the base of the diamond and protected the defence well. Though he was often guilty of slowing down the play instead of playing forward, he rarely lose the ball and was missed when out of action.

Standout young player

Lars Vigen Christensen - Christensen was another player who wouldn't have expected a lot of game time but proved to be one of the best finds of the season. He has great vision and ability to run with the ball and was one of the few players who regularly made things happen in the difficult early stages of the season. A bad hamstring injury after Christmas meant he didn't feature much in the last couple of months but will be one of the key men next season.

Huddersfield Town


Summary of the season

Huddersfield's season started about as bad as it could possibly have, losing 4-0 on the opening day and with Mark Robins leaving his position as manager. After that early upheaval and the appointment of Chris Powell, things settled down and they turned in some decent performances and were in lower mid table for much of the season. They had a bad run of home form in the final few months and their away form carried them to safety. Too many draws over the season meant they struggled for any consistent run of form.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Chris Powell was very well liked at Charlton and fits the ethos of the family run club such as Huddersfield. He did well to take over in difficult circumstances but his lower mid table finish and lack of ambition for anything higher could harm them in the longer run. If they are to challenge for the play offs he will need to take the shackles off some of their better players. Switched between a 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 - often during games - as the lack of a genuine left wingers often forced Scannell to play as a wing back to balance the side.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Officially Huddersfield have finished 16th, though this is mainly due to the disgraceful decision of the Football League to only award them a single point from he game with Blackpool. They would consider finishing above Leeds a successful season, though they never really looked like finishing anything other than lower mid table and the fans are beginning to get used to the mediocrity.

3 Key Players

Sean Scannell - Scannell showed his usefulness and versatility by often switching between an attacking ring wing role and that of a right wing back, due to Huddersfield's need to balance the formation. He finished the season with 7 assists, though his return of only 4 goals will disappoint him. Usually led the break away on Huddersfield's swift counter attacks and his ability to travel with the ball was one of Huddersfield's biggest threats.

Mark Hudson - Hudson was brought in as a solid stopper to bring experience to what is a young squad. He immediately took over as captain and proved to be an excellent addition to the team, barely missing a game after signing. His organisation qualities and effective communication has seen Smith progress as a player and he provides a good threat on attacking set pieces.

Jacob Butterfield - Butterfield was the makeweight in the transfer of Adam Clayton to Middlesbrough and has had a very good season for his new club. He is very talented with the ball at his feet, though was often played on the left of midfield and his lack of pace saw him come inside to make a midfield 3. Created many chances for the strikers with his through balls and his long range shooting was spectacular, if not always effective.

Standout young player

Harry Bunn - Bunn was not expected to feature much after joining last season and barely getting a taste of first team football but under caretaker manager Mark Lillis he was handed a start and never looked back. A constant danger on the left when cutting in and equally capable of playing with the strikers he chipped in with 9 goals and was badly missed for balance after a hamstring injury cut his season short in March.


Thanks for reading, I'll be publishing the 3rd part soon.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

My England Championship 2014/15 Review (Part 1)

I've managed to let my blog slip quite badly once again - I cover the Championship for Onside Analysis/Stratagem Technologies for a living and it's an intense and unforgiving league which leaves little time for anything else. Despite this I do want to blog more and now it's the close season it should free up at least a little time to write the occasional blog.

So, welcome to part 1 of my review of the 2014/15 season in the Championship. As mentioned above as I cover the league I consider myself an 'expert' on most of the teams in the division having seen them all plenty of times and written previews for every single match - that's 552 previews not including the upcoming play offs!

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.

AFC Bournemouth


Summary of the season

Bournemouth achieved something beyond their wildest dreams by being promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history. They did this on the back of some wise spending (almost every player cost a fee so the stories of the penniless club achieving promotion are somewhat wide of the mark), an exciting young manager and a stable squad.
They rarely changed the starting XI unless absolutely needed, something which mirrors Burnley and Leicester when they were promoted last season and play one of the most attractive styles of football in the country, scoring the most goals (98) and having the best goal difference (+53) in the division. This went some way to getting them promoted as heavy victories over Birmingham and Blackpool amongst others earlier in the season saw them have a huge advantage over most of the other teams chasing a top 2 finish.
I expected them to fall away as they suffered injuries and suspensions but they managed to avoid these for the most part of the season with 10 players starting at least 35 games. The squad will need to be bolstered for next season but Eddie Howe is unlikely to make too many changes to both personnel and style but with huge losses (£10.3m) posted for the 2013/14 season it's clear they had to go up sooner rather than later to sustain their outgoings.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Eddie Howe is one of the brightest young managers in England and widely tipped as a potential future international manager. He has been in charge of the club since they were down near the bottom of League Two, only leaving briefly for a short spell at Burnley. He favours attractive passing football, playing out from the back with 2 attacking wingers and 2 strikers. He is likely to stick with this next season which could leave them a little open against the better teams but it worked in a very competitive league in the Championship. They almost always stuck to a 4-4-2 formation.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Bournemouth finished 1st, well beyond most people's expectations. I thought they could make the play offs with a good run but by avoiding injuries they surpassed most peoples thoughts and become one of the early favourites to go up. They never looked like dropping out of the top 6 and finished as champions thanks to a last minute goal conceded by Watford.

3 Key Players

Matt Ritchie - outstanding on the wing and destined to shine in the Premier League. He has an excellent left foot and got 15 goals and 17 assists which is more than some teams managed, never mind an individual player. Would be one of my contenders for the top 3 players in the Championship.

Callum Wilson - A talented young English striker playing his first season at Championship level and managed to bag 20 goals and an England U21 call up. Likes to play on the shoulder of the last man and is great at creating chances but his finishing can be a little wayward at times, often made up by the amount of chances Bournemouth create.

Harry Arter - Has been excellent in midfield and weighed in with a lot of important goals, particularly in the 2nd half of the season. Scored some screamers to help the team but his passing, vision and combative nature (picking up 13 yellow cards) helped Bournemouth add variety to their play.

Standout young player

Ryan Fraser - Although he didn't get as many starts as he would have liked due to Eddie Howe's reluctance to rotate, Fraser played his part in almost half the games Bournemouth played. He is a tricky winger, with pace and the ability to go past his man and often plays on the left, allowing him to cut inside on his right foot.



Birmingham City




Summary of the season
Birmingham started awfully and it wasn't until Lee Clark was sacked in October that things improved. After Gary Rowett was appointed they went from strength to strength, banishing an abysmal home record to move up the table based on a well organised defensive game. They had a useful striker in Donaldson and pace and creativity in the supporting wide players to cause problems for teams without ever looking to worried at the back.
After the 8-0 home loss to Bournemouth they would have been very worried but only conceding 36 goals in their remaining 32 games (including letting in 4 goals on 4 separate occasions) shows the improvement they made defensively.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Gary Rowett has done an outstanding job. He took over a club in very difficult circumstances and by signing few players he has turned them around. Expectation will be greater on him next season and he will have to work on a tight budget but he knows what he wants and will work with a smaller squad to achieve it. He stuck very firmly to a 4-5-1 formation but altered slightly towards the end of the season playing 4-4-1-1 and 3-5-2 at times.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Birmingham finished 10th and given their position when Rowett took over it was an outstanding achievement to propel themselves into the top half of the table. Fans are happier with their home form (winning 10 and drawing 7 compared to winning 2 and drawing 8 the season before) and would gladly have taken mid table before the start of the season.

3 Key Players

Darren Randolph - has improved a lot from the error stricken goalkeeper who signed from Motherwell and has played almost every game since the start of 2013/14. A good shot stopper, he still occasionally struggles on crosses but it's important for Birmingham to tie him down to a new contract

Michael Morrison - a key player after signing, initially on loan before making it permanent, from Charlton. Birmingham's defensive record took a huge hit when he was injured in February and only started to improve again when he came back into the team. An old fashioned centre back who has excellent positioning.

Clayton Donaldson - Often had a very tough role, playing the lone striker, but adapted to it very well. Capable of holding the ball and competing for headers but also with a good turn of pace, the majority of his 15 goals came from poachers finishes in the box.

Standout young player

Demarai Gray - Built up massively after a few impressive cameo appearances last season and the subject of numerous bids from Bournemouth in the January transfer window (topping out at £5m if rumours are believed). The 18 year old has excellent dribbling ability and an eye for goal but has also improved the team aspects of his game thanks in no small part to Rowett. Birmingham will be hopeful of getting him to sign a new contract in the summer.

Blackburn Rovers



Summary of the season

Blackburn flattered to deceive for large parts of the campaign and looked to be heading into a fight for the play off spots before their FA Cup run took control and they dropped vital points in successive home games against Brentford and Brighton. This left them with too much to do and they slipped away to end the season in upper mid table. While they were close to the FA Cup semi finals and play offs the season will have more than a tinge of disappointment about what could have been. A huge injury list for the latter half of the season did not help with the final few weeks being played with no recognised central defenders.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Gary Bowyer did an excellent job of steadying Blackburn both on the field and financially. He has coped well under an FFP embargo but some fans still can't take to his rigid tactics and lack of positive substitutions. He goes with a 4-4-2 for most games and has taken to playing 2 attacking wingers but occasionally sets out with a 4-5-1 in difficult away matches.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

While finishing 9th is not bad given their financial restrictions and injury problems it probably is not quite good enough. The lack of a concerted play off push could mean that the better players such as Rhodes, Cairney and Gestede are head hunted in the summer and this will severely weaken Rovers for next season. Take Rhodes and Gestede out and they would lose 41 goals from a team that scored 66 all season - a potentially catastrophic hit.

3 Key Players

Rudy Gestede - While Rhodes tends to grab most of the headlines Gestede is an absolute handful of a striker. He is superb in the air, one of the best in the Championship at attacking the ball and as well as scoring goals he created a good number, either through taking men away or being the focal point for Blackburn's more direct play.

Ben Marshall - Started the season on the fringes of the team but his ability quickly shone through to become one of the most dangerous wingers in the Championship during the first half of the season. Though he tailed off a bit after Christmas his delivery from wide and ability to cut inside and shoot was key in the early stages for Blackburn.

Matt Kilgallon - Despite barely featuring until after Christmas Kilgallon showed his value to the team by stepping into an injury ravaged defence and helping hold it together. By the back end of the season he was captain and marshalling a young defence. Some excellent positional play and a good eye for a timely challenge helped him stand out from the rest.

Standout young player

Adam Henley - didn't get much of a look in when Blackburn were at full strength but took his opportunity when it came and his solid, consistent performances were rewarded with a call up to the Wales squad. Likes to get forward and has good pace but can be caught out positionally at times. Showed plenty of promise.

Blackpool


Summary of the season

An absolute horror show of a season for Blackpool which started in the worst possible fashion and only went downhill from there. Jose Riga seemed a decent appointment after keeping Charlton up in 2013/14 but he immediately clashed with chairman Karl Oysten - vilified by fans - and things never got going. A list of their problems:-

  • Had to cancel a pre-season tour as they only had 8 players
  • Didn't sign a goalkeeper until the day before the season
  • Only had 9 registered players on the morning of their first game of the season
  • Only had 4 on the bench against Nottingham Forest on their first game of the season
  • Fielded an unregistered player in the Capital One Cup defeat to League Two Shrewsbury (for which they were fined)
  • Didn't win a game until 3rd October
  • Twice tried to replace Riga while he was still in post
  • Appointed Lee Clark
  • Nile Ranger went AWOL in November with the club not knowing where he was amid claims he was being paid £90 per week
  • Clark systematically alienated almost every player signed by Riga, making many train with the youth team
  • The awful state of the Bloomfield Road pitch, which is worse than many Sunday league pitches.
  • Relegated by Easter
  • Only 4 wins all season
  • No away wins - first time in a season at Championship level since 1989/90
  • Lowest amount of points in the 2nd tier since it switched to 24 teams
  • Forced abandonment of their final game of the season against Huddersfield amid a pitch invasion by fans
  • Chairman suing his own clubs fans
  • Record profits of over £9million yet none of it invested back into the club
  • Removed the statue of club legend Stan Mortensen to try and prevent fans gathering next to it to protest
  • At least 2 players received summons to appear in court for different criminal offences
  • The kit man quit mid way through the season and so the bus driver doubled up as kit man.
  • Joe Lewis had to wear a goalkeeper shirt he had signed as a raffle prize before the game against Reading as they had no other kit to wear
Safe to say not many fans will be buying the season review DVD and even fewer are likely to renew their season ticket until the chairman leaves - a tough season in League One awaits.


Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Lee Clark had his hands tied in part to be fair but he came with a poor track record. He lives on an unbeaten run for Huddersfield which stretched 43 league game - though many of these were draws which cost them promotion. He was sacked at Birmingham with a terrible home record and didn't fair much better at Blackpool with only 3 wins after he took over in October. He signed quite a few players, increasing the huge turnover in the last 18 months and stuck to a 4-5-1 for the latter part of the season, though it did little to stem the flow of goals they conceded. It's no surprise he has now taken the decision to resign.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Blackpool finished bottom and it was nothing that was unexpected at the start of the season. Thing went from bad to worse and it's not just their last placed finish and record low points total that is the problem but the knock on affects it will have for next season. The club is systematically being drained of it's life blood by the chairman.

3 Key Players

Jamie O'Hara - the standout player by quite some distance. It seems unlikely he will be at the club next year and he seems to have regained his joy of playing after almost 2 years out of the spotlight whilst at Wolves. His set pieces in particular show he still has the quality though he doesn't have the fitness to get up and down like he used to.

Joe Lewis - Despite regularly being dropped with claims that it had nothing to do with a payment trigger in his contract to Cardiff (which no one believed!) Lewis performed heroics at times to keep the score down in many games. He pulled off a string of good saves through out the season and though he wasn't completely blameless he still stood out as one of Blackpool's better players.

Andrea Orlandi - though he didn't consistently perform he at least showed glimpses of his ability to travel with the ball and pick a pass out in tough circumstances. He played in a wider role for the latter part of the season and it suited him by releasing him from any defensive obligations, allowing him to get on the ball and go forward.

Standout young player

Henry Cameron - Cameron came into his own later in the season with his quick feet and dribbling ability and youthful enthusiasm. He has pace to beat a man and makes some good movement off the ball but does lack experience which can show at times but at just 17 years old he has a promising future - mentions must also go to Dom Telford and Mark Waddington who also impressed, though the latter had his season cut short but a foot injury.

Bolton Wanderers


Summary of the season

Bolton went into the season with a fair bit of optimism after finishing last season very strongly. Though they had to reduce the budget they were confident of a play off place. Safe to say things didn't go according to plan and by the beginning of October Dougie Freedman had been sacked. Neil Lennon took over and after a very good start they became one of the more inconsistent teams in the division as a host of injuries and loan players disrupted their season. At one time they had 12 players out injured and 9 players in on loan (bearing in mind only 5 can be included in a match day squad). They will look to improve next season but a huge debt from their Premier League days seems to be hampering any plans they had to spend their way into the big time.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Lennon did very well when he first took over and lifted Bolton away from relegation trouble within the first 2 months of his appointment. After Christmas, things slipped into a bit of a rut as they struggled to put any kind of run together and never seriously looked like finishing anything other than lower mid table. He will have a difficult summer as he tries to mould the squad into the one he ones on a tight budget. He is one of the more flexible managers int he division, regularly switching formation between 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Bolton finished 18th and while they would have taken that when they were in the bottom 3 in October  they will be slightly disappointed they failed to kick on after Lennon's initial good form. Too many dropped points from good positions and inconsistency means their season was pretty much over by March as they were well clear of the drop and never going to trouble the play offs.

3 Key Players

Tim Ream - Mr Reliable and his versatility was a huge bonus to Neil Lennon as he played most of the season at left back but was comfortable in a back 3 and as a wing back as well. While not excelling in any position he did well enough to be one of the first names on the team sheet and get involved with the USA team again, though Klinsmann seemed to feel he was not up to the standards of a regular pick. His lack of pace could be exposed but he is comfortable on the ball and his positioning and reading of the game are very good.

Eidur Gudjohnsen - Showed his complete class when he came back to the club he left many years previously and although he wasn't an automatic pick due to his age and inability to play 2 games back to back in a demanding league, his vision in the role behind the strikers was often key to unlocking a tight defence.

Adam le Fondre - Struggled badly at Cardiff and failed to make a decent impression, but it was still a surprise when he was loaned to Bolton in January. He immediately looked like the player he was at Rotherham and Reading and finished with 8 goals in 17 games - a good record for a lower table team. His poachers instant and movement around the area is very difficult to pick up.

Standout young player

Zach Clough - this was one of the more difficult selections as Tom Walker or Josh Vela could easily have got the nod. Clough though looked to have that bit of magic which could make the difference for Bolton next season. He likes to play off the strikers and his ability to find pockets of space and be brave on the ball resulted in him scoring 5 goals in just 8 league appearances before a dislocated shoulder ended his season.

Brentford


Summary of the season

Promoted from League One just 1 season ago, Brentford achieved success beyond their expectations and landed a play off spot by winning on the final day of the season. Their base of buying talented younger players and making them into saleable assets while pushing themselves up the table is a very good business model and one not often found in football. They are very well backed by a chairman with a clear vision and though this has caused some contention with the decision of Mark Warburton to leave at the end of the season despite their achievements, it is one that will keep Brentford on an upward trajectory. They were the team most expected to drift away after a promising start but their exciting style of football won many people over and gives them a real shot as they go into the play offs.

Manager Assessment & Usual formation

Mark Warburton is a likeable man, who has bonded a talented team of players together. His background is not really in football and he is one of the newer breed of managers capable of looking beyond the result and into the performance. Brentford have based their recruitment strategy heavily on statistical modelling and while this has been fruitful for a few years Warburton wanted the final say, something which owner Matt Benham disagreed with so they will part ways at the end of the season. Warburton should have no problem finding employment, though whether he finds it as perfect a fit for him as Brentford was when he took over is debatable. Stuck rigidly to a 4-2-3-1 formation and very rarely had to rotate the squad as they avoided injuries and suspensions for the most part.

Finishing position and was it acceptable

Brentford finished in 5th place, something they could only have dreamed of at the start of the season. Though they were not one of the favourites to go down they were expected to be in mid table and so to push for a top 6 finish was a great achievement. They didn't look like they would make the play offs after a few disappointing performances at home against Cardiff, Millwall, Forest and Bolton saw them drop points but they took advantage of Derby's slip up on the final day to extend their season.

3 Key Players

Alex Pritchard - an excellent capture on a season long loan from Tottenham, he had impressed previously at Swindon but stepped his game up in the Championship and was one of the key creative forces playing in behind the lone striker. His long range goals and creativity in a fast paced attacking unit helped Brentford to swiftly break down their opponents and he finished the season with 12 goals and 7 assists.

Jonathan Douglas - not one of the players who will take the limelight but a key man alongside Diagouraga for much of the season in a solid midfield unit. They often did the dirty work to allow the front 4 to play with so much freedom and though defensive in nature Douglas often got forward to chip in with important goals. His work rate and ability to control the tempo in midfield was very important.

Moses Odubajo - Signed for a big fee from Leyton Orient and intended to play as a midfielder he was switched to right back in October as Alan McCormack suffered a bad injury to his ankle. Odubajo took to the role with ease and slotted comfortably into the formation, providing an excellent attacking outlet as he played so high up the pitch but his pace and stamina allowed him to recover so he rarely got caught out. Has now made the position his own and looks very comfortable in it.

Standout young player

James Tarkowski - at such a young age to be playing so many games at centre back should give an indication of Tarkowski's talent. He is classy on the ball and able to receive it from the keeper and play out from the back but capable of also doing the physical nature of defending as he puts in tackles and takes up excellent positions to head the ball clear. Several times this season it looks like he could have lost his place to either Tony Craig or Liam Moore but he not only kept it but is now one of the first choices on the team sheet.



I'll be publishing the 2nd part of my review soon.