Failure to beat Wigan Athletic at Ewood Park in the penultimate match of the season condemned Blackburn Rovers to relegation to the Championship. For only the second time in the Premier League era Rovers will endure life in the second tier of English football next season, but where did it all go wrong for Rovers?
Victory against Sunderland in late March lifted Blackburn six points clear of the drop zone with just nine games to play, offering a glimmer of hope that there could be light at the end of the tunnel following a thoroughly miserable season. Chinks of light emerged throughout, with a victory at Old Trafford the highlight, but eight defeats from the remaining nine games extinguished any lingering hopes of survival and saw Rovers slide six points adrift of safety on the final day of the season.
Blame can be laid at the feet of the owners, Venky’s, whose mismanagement of the club has been well documented this season, the manager, Steve Kean, who failed to galvanise the side sufficiently to avoid the drop, and the players whose performances on the pitch were not of a sufficient standard to match their Premier League peers. Ultimately it was a combination of factors that contributed to Blackburn’s demise.
Rovers Internal appointments
Chris Hutchings. Steve Wigley. Les Reed. Terry Connor. Steve Kean. The Premier League has always proved a baptism of fire for coaches who rise through the ranks and into their first managerial position. By steering Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn out of the Premier League last term, Connor and Kean became the latest additions to the list of failed internal appointments to head coach.
Chris Hutchings set the precedent over a decade ago, taking over at Bradford City in June 2000 following Paul Jewell’s departure. He lasted just 12 league games but Bradford never recovered and were relegated from the top flight. They haven’t come close to returning since and are now the lowest ranked side to have graced the Premier League as they will be the only former Premier League side to ply their trade in League Two next season.
Steve Wigley took the reins at Southampton in August 2004, stepping up from reserve team coach to take over first team duties. Outdoing Hutchings, Wigley survived 14 league games but with just one win during the period he too was dismissed. Again, Southampton never recovered and slipped into the second tier at the end of the season. Wigley’s appointment from within the club was all the more foolhardy after Stuart Gray’s unsuccessful accession to the manager’s post from the coaching staff in 2001 culminated in his sacking.
Les Reed stepped up from his role as Iain Dowie’s assistant manager at Charlton Athletic in November 2006, taking his first – and last – managerial post. One win and 41 days later Reed departed with Alan Pardew stepping into the managerial hot seat. Following on from the examples set by Hutchings and Wigley, Charlton were duly relegated at the end of the season.
The plights of Bradford, Southampton and Charlton have not been entirely dissimilar since relegation, each of them falling at least two rungs down the English football league ladder before showing signs of climbing back up. Charlton will return to the Championship next season after a spell in League One while Southampton look forward to a return to the top flight having themselves been in League One only a season previously.
The returning Southampton are a fine example of how foreign ownership does not have to be the disaster that it has proven under Venky’s. Marcus Liebherr’s investment in the club took them out of administration in 2009 and his tenure has coincided with a significant upturn in fortunes. Despite sadly passing away in August 2010 his legacy remains at St. Mary’s, continuing to drive the club forward financially. Sadly Venky’s appear to be following the blueprint of Southampton’s South Coast neighbours Portsmouth as serial mismanagement looks destined to stifle any chances of a swift return to the top flight.
Not only has the Premier League proved an unforgiving league for those who rise through the coaching ranks at one club, but it has often proved a step too far for those looking to leave a role as number two to take the top job elsewhere. Steve McClaren’s mixed fortunes at Middlesbrough, England and overseas after leaving his post as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager at Manchester United springs to mind.
It is the fortunes of another former United number two that should have raised the alarm bells at Ewood Park though prior to the appointment of Steve Kean. Brian Kidd made the transition from the backroom staff at United to the managerial dugout at Rovers back in December 1998. Five wins in 23 league matches put paid to Blackburn’s survival hopes and Kidd oversaw Rovers’ relegation just four years after they were crowned Premier League champions.
Prior to the promotion of Kean, Kidd’s win percentage of 27.3% in all competitions was the lowest of any Rovers boss since the advent of the Premier League. Kean has since eclipsed this however, posting a win percentage of just 25.8% in his season and a half as the Rovers manager. Having been twice relegated with coaches whose reputations had been built through their performances as part of a backroom coaching team, Blackburn are an advert for the perils of appointing men with little managerial experience.
By following in the footsteps of Kidd, Kean has added weight to the argument that a good coach does not always make a good manager. Ultimately however, it is the performances of the players on the pitch that have not been of a high enough standard this season, which ended Blackburn’s ten year stint in the Premier League. A look back at some of the key statistics from 2011/12 highlights the areas where Rovers did not perform this term.
One of football’s truisms is that while you have the ball the other team cannot score. Blackburn’s passing statistics therefore go a long way to explaining how they came to ship the second highest number of goals this season. With 78 goals conceded Rovers were second only to bottom club Wolverhampton Wanderers who let in 82. Completing 9,017 passes, only Stoke City (7,518) passed the ball fewer times than Rovers this term, leaving Blackburn almost 4,000 passes short of the league average of 12,928 passes completed.
It is telling that four of the five sides that were in the bottom five in the final league table were also in the bottom five when it comes to passes completed. Only Wolves bucked the trend, completing 11,364 passes despite finishing bottom of the table and their corresponding position in the passes completed table was taken by Stoke, who must be the most efficient side in Premier League history when it comes to converting possession into points.
Blackburn’s passing accuracy of 72.6% is also among the worst in the league, with only Stoke (again) with 69.5% and Bolton Wanderers with 71.8% – belittling the claim that Owen Coyle’s Bolton are more of a passing team than under his predecessors – posting a lower passing accuracy.
It is, perhaps, overly simplistic however to draw comparatives between pass completion statistics and league positions, despite eventual title winners Manchester City completing the most passes (17,930) and having the highest passing accuracy (85.9%). Swansea City were lauded throughout the season for their possession football, pushing City closest both in terms of passes completed (17,811) and passing accuracy (85.7%) but still ended the season outside the top half, in 11th position. The direction of passes, for instance, also has a bearing.
On that front Swansea played the lowest percentage (40%) of their passes forwards, which contrasts with Blackburn’s 50%. The most telling statistics though, come when looking at where the passes were made. In terms of passes in the attacking half (including passes into the attacking half), Swansea played the 10th most (10,396), more befitting their final league position of 11th, while Manchester City (13,615) played the most, followed by Manchester United (13,332), again in line with their final league positions.
Rovers’ downfall is easily attributed to their passes in the opposition’s half, with just 7,921 passes in the attacking half this season, a league low. Only Stoke’s direct approach to the game (they play a league high 54% of their passes forward) prevents Rovers being bottom of the accurate passes in the attacking half, with 4,695 passes to Blackburn’s 4,707. This, however, does not mask the fact that both sides are over 1,000 passes adrift of the next nearest side.
To put this into context, Rovers were out-passed in the opposition half by the Manchester City midfield quartet of David Silva, Yaya Touré, Gareth Barry and Samir Nasri who completed 4,993 passes between them. This statistic becomes all the more alarming when considering they only averaged 68 minutes on the field of play per game, while Blackburn’s most prolific completers of attacking half passes, Steven N’Zonzi, Morten Gamst Pedersen, Junior Hoilett and David Dunn, completed less than half of the four City players with 2,050 completed.
Looking at the passes in and into the final third of the pitch highlights arguably the most damning statistic of all this season. With 4,281 passes in the final third, Rovers have attempted the 3rd fewest, but when considering that 13% of those passes – the most of any player in the squad – have been completed by one player, and that player is the goalkeeper, this presents cause for concern.
Paul Robinson’s 555 passes into the final third go a long way to explaining how Blackburn ended the season with the lowest number of completed final third passes of 2,269. Robinson’s passing accuracy in 2011/12 was just 26%, the lowest of any player in the league to have attempted 100 passes or more, and 12% lower than his nearest rival for the unwanted position of least accurate passer, Bolton’s Adam Bogdan who completed 38% of his passes. This is in stark contrast to Swansea’s Michel Vorm who completed 71% of his passes, a league high for a goalkeeper, and puts Robinson well below the average for Premier League goalkeepers of 52%.
Such a direct approach illustrates how the plans Steve Kean laid out upon his appointment as the permanent Rovers manager have not come to fruition. “I’d like to see us a little more dynamic in the wide areas, add some pace and a few more passes, because I feel if you are going to exploit a team you don’t always need to be so direct,” Kean had said after signing his long-term contract in January 2011, but the statistics demonstrate that the long ball approach has not disappeared under his stewardship.
For a side who do not base their game around retaining possession, the regaining of possession and breaking quickly represents one of Blackburn’s best chances of converting their limited possession into chances and goals. Despite this, Rovers won back possession the fewest times of any side, reclaiming the ball on 1,416 occasions, just behind Norwich City who did so 1,424 times. More significantly, Blackburn won possession just 595 times in the midfield or attacking thirds of the pitch, again less frequently than any other side and considerably fewer times than Wigan, who won possession 714 times, the second fewest times in the division.
Blackburn’s failure to regain possession high up the pitch can only have damaged their prospects of success, making converting possession gained into goal scoring opportunities more difficult. This was borne out by the shots after counter attack statistics where Rovers managed just 10 all season, bettering only Swansea (4), who meticulously build almost every attack from the back regardless of where they regain possession and so rarely counter attack, the two other relegated sides, Wolves (3) and Bolton (7), and QPR (7) who avoided the drop on the final day.
Blackburn’s low levels of possession coupled with an inability to regain possession in dangerous areas kept chance creation to a minimum this season. Rovers created the second fewest chances (307), behind Stoke (271) who were the league’s lowest scorers having averaged less than a goal a game in scoring 36 goals this season, leaving both sides considerably below the league average 407 chances created. This culminated in the third fewest shots on goal of 453, ahead of Aston Villa (438), the league’s second lowest scorers with 37 goals, and Stoke (376).
Despite creating few chances, Rovers were the league’s ninth highest scorers with 48 goals and were only outscored by Norwich (52) outside of the top seven. This is an impressive feat when considered in conjunction with the limited number of chances created and is testament to the finishing abilities of Junior Hoilett – who’s return of seven-league goals represents his best season in a Rovers shirt – and in particular Yakubu who finished the campaign on 17 goals.
Rovers’ shot conversion rate of 15% was the league’s fifth highest, behind both Manchester sides, United (19%) and City (18%), Arsenal (16%) and Newcastle United (16%). This is in large due to Yakubu’s eye for goal, as he posted a chance conversion rate of 30%, which, of the 35 players to score eight or more league goals this term, was only bettered by Newcastle’s prolific January signing Pappis Demba Cissé who converted 37% of his chances as he netted 13 times in just 14 appearances.
Yakubu became the fifth player to fire 17 or more goals in a Premier League season for Rovers, joining Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz as the only players to have done so. That each of the former Rovers players did so in sides that secured top half finishes is testament to Yakubu’s finishing prowess and the recent reports that he does not want to play Championship football next season – while unsurprising – will certainly impede Blackburn’s chances of returning to the top flight at the first time of asking.
While the forward line was undoubtedly one of the few positives from the season just passed, defensively Rovers struggled this term. That the three sides who conceded the most goals, Bolton (77), Blackburn (78) and Wolves (82), went down in that order shows the importance of having a strong defence.
The departure of Phil Jones before the season started, the loss of Ryan Nelsen for much of the season to injury and subsequently to Tottenham Hotspur in January, as well as Chris Samba’s move to Anzhi Makhachkala were all undoubtedly significant losses and contributed to the high number of goals conceded. The arrival of Scott Dann did not bring the defensive solidarity that was expected and he suffered the ignominy of back-to-back relegations after dropping out of the Premier League with Birmingham City in 2010/11.
With an unsettled defensive line-up in front of him, Paul Robinson has often been left exposed in the Rovers goal this year but, by averaging 1.35 shots saved for every goal conceded, this season’s statistics don’t make positive reading for the former England number one. This ratio is comfortably the worst in the league when comparing all goalkeepers to have started five or more matches, followed by Bolton’s Jussi Jääskeläinen at 1.70 saves per goal conceded and then Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny at 1.71.
Overall the season has been an undeniable disappointment as the fans’ fears about the direction of the club under Venky’s and Kean have been realised, culminating in relegation to the Championship. It is often said that the league table doesn’t lie and having reviewed the statistics at the season’s conclusion it can only be argued that it certainly doesn’t where Blackburn are concerned this time around.