Blackburn Rovers secured their Premier League safety on the final Sunday of the season but it is the action off the pitch this summer that will go a long way to ensuring their survival again this season.
Fuelled by the rise of Twitter and a demand for perpetual updates of the goings on at each and every club, the rumour mill is spinning faster than ever this close season. Even the oft ignored sides such as Rovers are receiving plenty of media attention and a host of potential signings have been mooted. After the second season in succession that no Blackburn player has managed to hit double figures for league goals it is pleasing to see an apparent focus on bringing in a front man before the new season starts.
AS Roma’s talismanic forward Mirko Vucinic has hit 10 or more goals in Serie A in each of the last three seasons and has been linked with the club, as has Freiberg’s Pappis Cisse following a prolific Bundesliga campaign in which he notched 22 goals to finish second in the scorers’ charts. Rumours of Robbie Keane’s arrival persist – although whether or not he is still capable of scoring regularly in the Premier League is open to debate (he has not reached 10 Premier League goals since the 2007/08 season with Spurs), while the latest rumours see CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda linked, a man who rose to prominence during the 2010 World Cup after a string of impressive performances for Japan. Yet, with pre-season well underway and less than a month until the start of the new season, the signings of the aforementioned players have not come to fruition.
The completion of Mariano Pavone’s move from Real Betis (via River Plate) on a free transfer appears to be a formality, and he will bolster the Rovers forward line. The speed with which he will become acclimatised to the rigours of the Premier League remains to be seen though, and Rovers fans will be hoping that Pavone isn’t the last attacking arrival of the summer.
After a season in which Blackburn Rovers only outscored Sunderland, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City (46 goals to 45, 43, 40 and 37 respectively) it is unsurprising that finding a man who can hit the back of the net on a regular basis is the priority in the transfer market. This is particularly evident given that last season Niko Kalinic, Jason Roberts and David Hoilett were Rovers’ top scorers with just five league goals apiece, while all 19 other sides had someone who netted 7 or more. However, while the transfer window has brought an opportunity to resolve the goal scoring situation it has also brought cause for concern at the other end of the pitch.
The departure of Phil Jones to Manchester United will undoubtedly be a big loss, while speculation that Christopher Samba may follow him out the door has shown little sign of waning and represents great cause for concern. Rovers’ captain has done little to quell the rumours to date, posting on Twitter a simple but alarming response to a fans enquiry about where he will be playing next season, “no idea”.
If Samba were to leave Ewood Park this summer too, this may necessitate a change in transfer policy. The loss of the defensive duo would call into question Rovers’ ability to escape relegation next season, as demonstrated by last season’s statistics.
Although Jones was deployed as a holding midfield player for much of last season, his defensive qualities offered the back four plenty of protection that was otherwise missing. When Samba and Jones both started Rovers conceded just 1.39 goals per game, compared with 1.55 when just one of the two was present and 2.50 when both were absent. A season without both would clearly present a major problem for Rovers’ survival ambitions, particularly with Samba’s central defensive partner Ryan Nelsen not getting any younger – he will turn 34 later this year. Further analysis of the games in which Samba and Jones featured adds weight to the conclusion that reinforcements at the back will be needed if Samba moves on. Both featured in the 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the champions at Old Trafford last season, without which the goals conceded per game would have been just 1.14. While only 4 games were played without both players, these were against Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Aston Villa – hardly the Premier League’s most feared sides going forward – who averaged 1.21, 1.47, 1.18 and 1.26 goals scored per game respectively.
A look at the defensive statistics of Rovers’ most frequent occupiers of the defensive quartet plus Jones highlights the importance of the pair further.
Each of the defensive statistics listed above, when considered not in absolute terms, but in relative terms (i.e. minutes per action or percentage of action won rather than total actions) are topped by either Jones or Samba. Jones’ involvement from midfield in shielding the defence is plain to see as he both intercepts and tackles more regularly than each member of the back four. Samba’s physical strengths are obvious when watching him play and these are borne out in the statistics where he can be seen to win the highest proportion of aerial challenges and also makes most clearances and blocks. Samba’s strength in the air would be a significant loss were he to move on, taking away a key strength of the side both defensively and from set pieces at the other end. In 2010/11 he won a higher proportion (69%) of his aerial challenges than Nemanja Vidic (67%) who is renowned for his strength in the air, while also finding the back of the net on four occasions, just one shy of Rovers’ top scorers for the season. Taking two key defensive players out of any side would have serious repercussions but the implications of the removal of those from a side who avoided relegation on the final day of the season does not need to be spelt out.
With long-standing problems scoring goals at one end and the prospect of losing two vital players at the other, Blackburn’s off-field activity this summer will go a long way to determining their prospects on it this season. Without strengthening both the offensive and defensive thirds this summer Steve Kean will certainly face a challenging first full-season at the helm and his first priority should be to persuade Samba to remain at the club.