Month: July 2013

The Championship 2013-14: A Preview

It’s been a while since I last posted for SmokedSammon, and that is not without reason. I have been keeping a very close eye on transfer proceedings as well as managerial changes and current squads in order to compile a complete prediction of the Championship standings. Obviously, it seems far too early to make a valid prediction with a month of transfer window still looming, but I do not want any predictions I make to be warped by the games that take place in August. So, without further ado, here it is.

  1. Wigan Athletic
  2. Nottingham Forest
  3. Reading
  4. Ipswich
  5. Bolton Wanderers
  6. Leicester City
  7. QPR
  8. Leeds United
  9. Brighton and Hove Albion
  10. Burnley
  11. Watford
  12. Derby County
  13. Middlesborough
  14. Bournemouth
  15. Blackburn Rovers
  16. Barnsley
  17. Blackpool
  18. Charlton Athletic
  19. Birmingham City
  20. Doncaster Rovers
  21. Yeovil Town
  22. Huddersfield Town
  23. Sheffield Wednesday
  24. Millwall

Barnsley – 16th

Barnsley finished last season very strongly, and I have a feeling that Flitcroft and co will survive again. Even with the signing of Dale Jennings however, their squad still lacks the quality to push any higher than a mid table finish. They will likely flirt with relegation without being under too much threat of succumbing to the drop.

Birmingham City – 19th

Birmingham haven’t had the best of times this summer. Obviously they have been running on a strict budget, which has led to the sales of Curtis Davies and Nathan Redmond and the bringing in of a number of relatively unproven loanees. Kyle Bartley, Scott Allan and Shane Ferguson will never be able to replace Davies and particularly Redmond, but they all have points to prove to their parent clubs. Their midfield seems to be their strongest area, while signings must be made in defense and particularly attack (Zigic is past his best and Marlon King is never going to stay out of the way of the law; Lee Novak is not good enough to replace either of them). If these things don’t happen, relegation is a possibility but they should have enough to stay up. Some stability upstairs wouldn’t go amiss either.

Blackburn Rovers – 15th

Blackburn Rovers have emerged as the team to take the Football League’s unneeded mantle of the “Newcastle of the Championship”. They went through managers quicker than Taylor Swift goes through boyfriends last season. And it wasn’t cheap – one big payout to Henning Berg and severance handed out to Steve Kean and Michael Appleton, and now the relative unknown Gary Bowyer, who has been constant throughout the revolving door that is management at Blackburn, takes the reigns. Jordan Rhodes will get the goals, we know that, but clearly something is missing from this side elsewhere on the pitch, otherwise they’d be pushing higher. More goals from midfield and some defensive discipline should be what the doctor would prescribe alongside a complete reshuffle of the directing staff and some new owners (not too much to ask for). Problem is, the signings of Alex Marrow, Alan Judge and Matt Kilgallon aren’t exactly inspiring, so more investment needed here.

Blackpool -17th

Paul Ince has done his number 1 job this summer: retain Tom Ince and Matt Phillips. He’s signed Michael Chopra, a relatively reliable source of goals. He has a long way to go yet though, and I see 17th place as an accurate place for them to finish. They may well have a blinding start to the season but their lack of numbers, particularly at the back, will catch up to them, and they may rely far too heavily on their wingers for goals, assists and, well, everything.

Bolton Wanderers – 5th

I had pencilled in Bolton to finish second and gain automatic promotion. What changed, you ask? That second place was dependent on one player staying away from the physio: Stuart Holden. A player who is much better than the Championship has suffered another knee injury that will likely keep him out for must of the season. It’s a shame really, as Holden really is a gifted player. Dougie has moved to replace him with former Palace signing Andre Moritz, but he just doesn’t have the fitness of Holden. Beckford will provide increased firepower in the absence of Kevin Davies, but the play-offs may be the best bet without Holden.

Bournemouth – 14th

I think Bournemouth will surprise a few people this season. Bankrolled by a Russian and managed by Eddie Howe, I see them consolidating themselves in the division before pushing on next season. Howe and Bournemouth seem to be an unbeatable combination, and with Matt Ritchie and Danny Pugh setting up old favourite Brett Pitman, it’s only up from here for Bournemouth.

Brighton and Hove Albion – 9th

Still suffering the consequences of a failed play-off hangover, Gus Poyet has finally, and rather unceremoniously, been stripped of his position as manager of Brighton. I find it hard to believe that they will recover from the events of their off-season to fight for promotion. Retaining Liam Bridcutt has thus far been a success, and Craig Mackail-Smith returns having missed the end of last season. Other than that, not a lot has changed aside from the manager, and that will be their downfall this season.

Burnley – 10th

Sean Dyche has been quietly building a decent squad at Burnley. In my opinion, Tom Heaton is one of the better signings this season, in the Championship and beyond. The recent sale of Charlie Austin means that Danny Ings will get his chance to prove himself as the next promising striker in the division, and if he does, it could be a very profitable season.

Charlton Athletic – 18th

Charlton ended last season as the Championship’s in form side, to many people’s surprise. The form of Yann Kermorgant has been pivotal in this, and Charlton will need more of the same from him. Chris Powell has instilled a winning mentality in the squad, in much the same way that Brian McDermott did at Reading. However, I feel their squad is lacking in quality, and recent signings Simon Church and Marvin Sordell do not address that, simply because they don’t score enough. The release of Scott Wagstaff, in my opinion, is one of the biggest mistakes of the window, and they will have a fight on their hands to keep hold of Chris Solly. Expect a season which tails off come Boxing Day.

Derby County – 12th

Fantastic at home. Terrible away. No one can quite put their finger on the form problems that plague Derby County. Rams fans will be praying that forward Johnny Russell is the answer to their homesickness. In fact, they have made great business this summer. John Eustace and Craig Forsyth add strength to the squad, while Adam Smith arrives on loan to attempt to fill the gaping hole left by best player John Brayford. They will struggle without him season. On the whole though, I don’t expect their away day pain to go away with any amount of painkillers. It’s been a problem throughout Clough’s reign, so why would it suddenly change now?

Doncaster Rovers – 20th

They have just signed a guy from One Direction. I had hope for Doncaster with investment pending, but what hope I had has since evaporated. A club more interested in publicity stunts than squad investment has got it all wrong. As such, with the investment incoming, which means players, I expect them to be down there all season unless they start taking themselves more seriously.

Huddersfield Town – 22nd

They struggled big time for goals without Jordan Rhodes leading the line, and now they have lost Lee Novak without replacement. Their midfield is very strong though, especially with the signing of Johnathan Hogg, so maybe a formation with 5 in midfield would suit them. Their defense lacks depth though, and if they want to survive at least 2 more defenders are needed. Mark Robins is a steady hand, but at this stage the only way is down.

Ipswich – 4th

They had already made their best signing in Mick McCarthy last season. He knows what it takes to get them out of the division, which should be the aim for Ipswich with the squad and funds at their disposal. He’s brought in old Wolves player Christophe Berra and Cole Skuse to hold in midfield. Last seasons signings will have had time to settle as well, and I reckon, given the board’s willingness to give their managers time to develop a squad, and maybe another striker, they will be a force this season. The rise of Josh Carson won’t hurt, either.

Leeds United – 8th

Everyone’s least favourite team appears to be on the rise unfortunately. Luke Murphy is possibly the signing of the season, and this coupled with the rise of Dominic Poleon to first team prominence should catapult Leeds to play-off contention. However, I do feel like they lack a good pair of wingers. Ross McCormack should be played centrally, and Paul Green and Luke Varney aren’t exactly assist machines with great wingplay. As a result, I’m putting them down to miss out, just.

Leicester City – 6th

They’ve been there or thereabouts for a few seasons now, but they’ve not made it to the finals of the play-offs. And that’s something that’s quite hard to diagnose. Three years ago, they had Yann Kermorgant’s ridiculous Panenka effort to thank for that, but last season was different. They had one foot there and gave Troy Deeney an opening after a grueling 97 minutes of football. I think they will make the play-offs again regardless, but one has to start thinking how far Nigel Pearson can take them now. The tools are all there, time to deliver.

Middlesborough – 13th

Never have I seen a team tail off so badly after Christmas like Middlesborough did. Fighting for automatic early on, they were fearing relegation after a record of 3 wins, 3 draws, and FIFTEEN losses in 2013. Maybe it was a combination of nerves and inexperience – after all, the team is largely comprised of youth. Dean Whitehead brings buckets of experience though, but not much quality. Other than him, it’s been a slow off-season for Boro. They need to start doing some business, particularly the signing of some defensive cover. I would also suggest more prominently featuring Marvin Emnes, because he is much better than the bench he warms weekly. I don’t see this happening though, so mid-table again for Mowbray’s men.

Millwall – 24th

There just isn’t enough to this side. Super Millwall from The Den are a team that relies heavily on grinding results out through resilience and hard-work. My concern is that Steve Lomas won’t continue this philosophy ingrained by Kenny Jackett. The quality just isn’t there to do anything else. Without Jackett I think Millwall will struggle to finish 22nd, let alone 21st. They lack fire power and midfield creativity. Henry and Trotter are solid wingers, and everything seems fine at the back, but scoring goals could be a real issue. Expects lots of 1-0 losses.

Nottingham Forest – 2nd

Surprised? I can’t think why you would be. Billy Davies knows how to get this club up the table. If it wasn’t for the sheer quality of Newcastle and West Brom a few years back, they’d have been promoted very easily. It’s been all change since he left though; now bankrolled by Al-Hasawi, he has the cash at his disposal to sign great players at this level. He has Sean O’Driscoll’s old signings like Simon Cox and Simon Gillett fully settled, and he himself has signed Jamie Mackie (which is a quality signing), Djamel Abdoun, Gonzalo Jara, Eric Lichaj, Jack Hobbs, and record clean sheet holder at Swansea Dorus de Vries. Business has been the strongest of any side, they’ve cured their defensive cover issues, and I expect that to translate into a very very strong season that will see them sneak into 2nd spot and a shot at the Premier League.

QPR – 7th

Clearly the strongest squad in the division. Probably the best manager as well. Still no play-offs? Stats on paper are just stats on paper. These players are still the same bunch of overpaid slouches that got the team relegated last season under the same manager. Yes, Redknapp now has a pre-season under his belt. This doesn’t change their wages does it? Hopefully most of them will leave so ‘Arry can rebuild, pronto. Maybe buying Mackie back will help too. Currently though, they have the ability to dazzle and disappoint too, perhaps one too many times.

Reading – 3rd

Reading have relied on team spirit in the past to get them wins. I don’t expect this to change under Adkins, who is also one of those managers who knows how to instill positive squad mentality. Amazingly, they’ve also managed to hang on to their best players thus far as well, whilst also acquiring Royston Drenthe to provide assists and a major attacking threat. I fully expect all championship defenses to be trembling in the wake of Pogrebnyak and ALF, and whilst I don’t think they are good enough at the back to get automatic promotion (remember Southampton’s defense last season?), promotion through the play-offs looks very likely.

Sheffield Wednesday – 23rd

Like Millwall, I’m not convinced that Wednesday have a good enough first team to stay afloat this season. The signings they have made are unproven, and in the case of Atdhe Nuhiu, not even prolific. They relied very heavily on high-profile loanees for success last season: it brought them nothing. They’re going to go down, or at least be scrapping at the bottom all season. I’d also place money on Dave Jones being the first manager sacked, because even with a squad full of big names last season, he achieved literally nothing with them.

Watford – 11th

Watford suffered in the play-off final last season because they lacked a certain Matej Vydra upfront. They seemed toothless without him, and while Troy Deeney has been in fine form, will it continue? And can Forestieri step up to the plate? Aside from that, they’ve brought in the same Pozzo bunch that played last season for good this time, and additionally Lewis McGugan. While not a regular last season, he’s still a goal threat. However, essentially these are the same players that every team is now more accustomed to playing against minus top scoring Vydra, and as a result they will push for the playoffs but fall short.

Wigan Athletic – 1st

Shock, Wigan to finish top. Anyone who bets against this is an idiot. Best squad on the PITCH, not paper necessarily, but on the pitch, where it matters. They’ve managed to keep hold of coveted midfield trio Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and James McCarthy for now, whilst replacing Arouna Kone with cult hero Grant Holt and signing James Perch, Thomas Rogne, Leon Barnett, Stephen Crainey and Juan Carlos Garcia to add some serious depth to what was a terrible defense last season. Chris McCann enters the midfield and Marc Antoine Fortune adds to the frontline. If anything, they’ve left the Premier League with a better squad, and should really have no problems obliterating all other teams in the division, unless Owen Coyle’s rumoured lack of tactical savvy prevents this.

Yeovil Town 21st

Let’s face it, neutrals will be supporting one team and one team only: Gary Johnson’s Yeovil Town. The ultimate away day. The underdogs. the surprise package. And I think they’ll surprise everyone by staying up – JUST. Let’s face it, even with some good signings like Alan Tate, they lack quality all over the pitch barring the strikeforce of Paddy Madden and James Hayter, who will both keep Yeovil up this year. They will have to rely on Gary’s famed opposition scouting, team and fan spirit, and a little bit of luck, but I can see them surviving.

Tactics talk: Derby County

I cannot profess to have the knowledge of a Jonathan Wilson when it comes to football formations, but having watched Derby County for many years, I think I can contribute to the tactical discourse.

 

Since his appointment in January 2009, it’s fair to say that Nigel Clough has, generally, been a 4-4-2 man, although he isn’t as rigid or stubborn with his formations as people think. At the start of the 09/10 season (his first full season as Derby boss), he started the season encouraging passing and width in a 4-5-1 formation, with energetic midfielders Paul Green and Stephen Pearson (don’t laugh) pushing on whilst Robbie Savage sat back in the centre of midfield, with Gary Teale and Lee Croft filling the wide areas. Furthermore, influenced by backroom coach Johnny Metgod’s native Netherlands team at the 2010 World Cup, the 10/11 season began with a 4-2-3-1 fluid passing system. Nevertheless, ‘started’ and ‘began’ should be highlighted here; when results have gone awry, Clough inevitably shifts back to a 4-4-2 approach. This formation reversal has had mixed results; results generally picked up when Kris Commons played off Rob Hulse in the 09/10 season, but despite successive defeats mid-season 10/11, a return to 4-4-2 didn’t really reignite the season.

 

I admit bias here, as I’m not a fan of 4-4-2. We’ve seen at international level the weakness of it; ask England at the 2010 World Cup against Germany. None of the top teams, at club or international level, play it anymore, and 4-4-2 proponents will often find their teams simply outnumbered and overrun in midfield. I don’t wish to appear too harsh on Nigel Clough; he has a positive footballing philosophy, and wants his teams to play attractive, attacking football. However, this approach is often sacrificed for ‘solidity’ in Clough’s case, so his creeds aren’t always borne out for people to see; it is very common for central midfielders to be shifted to the wing (think Paul Green, Stephen Pearson, Ben Davies and Paul Coutts, to name a few).

 

Turning to the present, Clough has the (happy) dilemma of accommodating three quality central midfielders in Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and the rising star of Will Hughes. In the 12/13 season, Clough was not averse to playing all three, but too often Bryson was placed uncomfortably on the left wing, somehow trying to tuck into a 4-4-2. Coutts, who started the season brilliantly, faded, and played out of position. With Michael Jacobs arguably the only natural winger in the team, the starting XI often looked lopsided. However, 4-3-3 looks to be the likely scenario for next year, with this team the likely outcome (with current players as of 01/07/13):

————————————Grant——————————————-

 

Brayford————Keogh—————Buxton—————Forsyth

     ————Hendrick——–Hughes———–Bryson

 

            Russell—————Sammon————-Ward

 

In this formation, Russell and Ward could provide the width, whilst providing licence to drift in and capitalise on their flair abilities. The hard-working nature of the pair should take care of tracking back, and John Brayford’s over-lapping prowess is plain for all to see (with Craig Forsyth hopefully doing the same job on the left). Hughes could sit deep and use his burgeoning abilities to retain possession and start counter attacks, with Hendrick and Bryson pushing on and doing the box-to-box work. As a Plan-B (or even Plan-A), Hughes could push further forward into more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, playing in the trequartista role and threading through killer balls in the final third. Whilst dividing fans at the best of times, Sammon’s pressing and hard running could create space for Russell and Ward (and maybe even Hughes). Michael Jacobs is more than capable of filling in for the Russell or Ward role in the front three, with Paul Coutts and Ben Davies other candidates in a more solid approach. Should injury inevitably hit the first choice midfield three, I’d like to see Coutts and Davies coming in to their more natural roles; they’re not at the standard of Hendrick or Bryson, but they typify the hard-working approach which Clough demands. Injury to Will Hughes would be more problematic, but I’d like to see Jacobs coming into the side and play off the striker in a 4-2-3-1 shape in that scenario; he excelled in the role around January time in 2013 in a 4-4-1-1 preference.

 

I think the XI listed above could provide attractive and attacking football for the 13/14 season, promising football which we saw in parts last year. I’d like Clough to stick to his guns with a 4-3-3 outlook, but when results haven’t gone well he has often been under pressure to “stick another striker on” and “be more positive”. However, “one up front” doesn’t have to be negative; it’s the approach that counts. When on the front foot, as many as 4 or 5 players can be attacking in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, whilst there’s nothing positive about playing 4-4-2 against the likes of Brighton when you’ll lose the possession as well as the numeric battle. Nevertheless, when the inevitable “4-4-2 chants” emerge, it won’t be difficult for Ward or Russell to partner Sammon up front, with the other switching to the left wing and Jacobs (ideally), Davies or Coutts coming on to fill the right-wing slot.

 

For a 4-2-3-1 to work next year, a bit of flair is needed for the trequartista role. If Hughes isn’t playing there, then additional signings are required. Chris Martin could play there, as could Johnny Russell and Jamie Ward, but in these instances it’d be hard not to see a cloaked 4-4-2. I’ll put my tin hat on and say that yet another free transfer from Nottingham Forest could work in the shape of Lewis McGugan, but it is unlikely to happen for financial and tribal reasons. I’d dearly love another season-long loan for Alberto Bueno or even Arturo Lupoli, but again I cannot see these signings happening. Chris Burke would have been a great signing to solve the dearth of wingers in the side, but he recently extended his contract at Birmingham City, although they may still be tempted to sell in their financial state. However, having signed Lee Grant, Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Craig Forsyth (for an outlay of just under £1 million), Clough’s stance seems to be that only a centre back will be added now to the ranks, with an optimistic punt for Richard Dunne mooted. However, an addition of flair in the mould of an Alberto Bueno would greatly complement the hard-working philosophy which is firmly instilled, but money is tight without selling Will Hughes or John Brayford (and I hope they won’t sell them).

Whatever the formation that Clough chooses, there’s a buzz of optimism around Pride Park for the upcoming season. Whatever my personal preferences, Clough can shut me up and keep me contented by grabbing three points on a regular basis.