The Number 9 Issue
Solving the problems raised by Andy Cook's departure could be key to Tranmere's prospects in 2018-19
On 22nd May 2018, just ten days removed from Rovers' epic victory in the 2018 National League Play-off final, out of contract striker Andy Cook broke SWA hearts by signing for League One Walsall.
Tranmere's number nine for the past two seasons, Cook had earned himself cult hero status at Prenton Park due to his impressive performances in the famous white shirt. In his debut season, he scored twenty-three goals in forty-four matches, whilst in 2017-18, he improved further, scoring twenty-eight times in forty-five fixtures.
Indeed, his exploits secured him the National League Golden Boot, whilst his final goal for Tranmere helped earn the Club a 2-1 victory in the National League Play-off final.
Unfortunately for everyone connected with the Club, his record also drew the attention of many potential suitors. Former Wrexham manager Dean Keates was a known admirer of Cook and, when he took the reins at the Bescot Stadium, he made Cook his primary transfer target. His pursuit would be successful, prising the striker from the grasp of Tranmere Rovers.
Whilst no fair-minded person could begrudge Cook a move to the third tier, there can be little doubt that his departure raised several problems for the Club. With just nine days remaining until the start of the 2018-19 League Two season, it is disconcerting to see some of those issues persisting.
The headline question raised by Cook's departure centres around how Tranmere can replace the goals lost by his departure. His overall record was outstanding, with fifty-one goals in just eighty-nine games.
The most obvious solution would be to recruit a proven replacement. Unfortunately, such a signing has failed to materialise, an outcome that, whilst disappointing, is entirely understandable given the likely financial cost of such a move.
With an expensive like-for-like replacement seemingly ruled out by Micky Mellon in recent post-match interviews, the Club will therefore have to replicate Cook's goals in the aggregate. Such replication will presumably come from a combination of external and internal sources.
On the external front, Paul Mullin has been signed from Swindon Town. In a player with one hundred and eighty-seven appearances and thirty-eight goals at League Two level or above, Rovers have gone partway to achieving this. Mullin's record suggests that, if he remains available for selection, he will reach double figures, scoring ten times in each of his previous three campaigns.
Nonetheless, it is perhaps unfair to expect him to produce a twenty-plus tally in his debut season at a new club.
The burden of replacing the remaining goals will have to be shared amongst any further signings, which may or may not be forthcoming, and the remainder of the playing squad. Discounting James Norwood, who will be tasked with repeating his own brilliant scoring performance, players such as Connor Jennings, Ollie Norburn, Ollie Banks, Ben Tollitt and Jonny Smith will be under pressure to not only supply the goals, but to score some more too.
It's important to reinforce the fact that these players have all proven themselves capable of scoring in the National League — Jennings scored eight, whilst on-loan Smith scored nine for AFC Fylde. They will need to ensure they can do so in League Two.
The second issue raised by Cook's transfer is the apparent lack of a physical presence in the attacking areas of the pitch. When the ball was in the air from a lofted pass, a cross or a corner, Cook's height and incredible aerial prowess not only brought direct rewards from Cook himself, but also created opportunities for his teammates too.
With the departure of James Alabi to Leyton Orient, and George Waring falling out of favour (he played as a trialist in a pre-season fixture for Grimsby Town earlier in the summer) and seemingly destined to play little more than a bit-part at best, Tranmere's frontline has an alarming dearth of height and aerial threat.
As with the goals, Cook's presence can be partially reproduced from other areas of the squad. From set-pieces, summer signings such as Mark Ellis and Manny Monthé can provide an aerial tussle from defence. Ritchie Sutton can hopefully continue his run as a goal machine by repeating his five-goal haul from 2017-18 (he was the Club's fourth-top-scorer).
However, central defenders seldom offer an attacking presence from open play, where their main objective will be to provide the platform for offensive moves, not to become their focus.
Looking at the remaining players, there doesn't appear to be anyone in the squad who can provide the same type of presence as Cook. James Norwood and Connor Jennings are, and Paul Mullin appears to be, the same style of aggressive in-your-face front men whose physicality comes in the form of harassing the opposition. Rovers still lack a 'battering ram' type of player.
Maybe they won't need one — some teams are incredibly successful without such a striker — but last season's table suggests that players such as Adebayo Akinfenwa (Wycombe Wanderers — third, promoted) and Matt Rhead (Lincoln City — seventh, play-offs) help a team reach the upper echelons of League Two.
League Two top scorer Marc McNulty (twenty-five goals) played alongside Max Biamou (6ft1in) for Coventry City (Play-off winners). Luton Town's (runners-up, promoted) Danny Hylton (twenty-one goals) is himself six feet tall, whilst his partner James Collins (nineteen goals) stands at six-feet-two-inches.
Of the leading teams, only champions Accrington Stanley lacked a regular physical presence in attack. This proves that whilst teams can be successful without one, it is much less likely.
Influence and Partnership
Whilst goals and presence can, albeit with great difficulty, be replaced, for certain intangibles it is not as straight-forward. Eden and Waring (1937-38). Williams and Eglington (1957-58). Yardley, Williams and Pritchard (1966-67). Moore and James (1975-76). Muir and Steel (1988-89 and 1990-91).
When Tranmere Rovers have a well-gelled partnership (or trio) leading the lines, they invariably achieve success. Indeed, only the partnership between Colin Clarke and John Clayton (1984-85) failed to foster any wider success for the Club.
Between 2016 and 2018, Rovers struck upon another successful partnership — James Norwood and Andy Cook. With a combined total of one hundred and seventy-eight games yielding ninety goals for Tranmere, the relationship between the two linchpins of the Rovers attack cannot be underestimated.
They complimented each other perfectly. Off the field, they were close too, on one occasion photographed sharing a car into training. Such closeness found its way onto the pitch, with the pair developing an almost telepathic understanding — they did not make the same runs, because they did not have the same speed. They did not jump for the same headers, because they had different strengths in the air. Aside from a rare on-pitch argument over a penalty, they understood each other's strengths and weaknesses perfectly.
Excellent players on their own merits, their attributes dovetailed to produce a lethal combination of pace and power. Tranmere came to rely heavily upon the pair. In 2016-17, their combined thirty-nine goals represented 49% of Tranmere's entire league total. The following season, their combined forty-three goals represented 55% of Rovers' league output.
Even in the play-off final, it was Cook and Norwood who scored a goal each, Norwood crossing to provide an assist as well.
Of course, new relationships can be formed, wavelengths synched and influences grown. It is entirely possible that Paul Mullin could form a new, different combination with Norwood, Jennings et al.
Naturally, if this is to happen, it will take time and the question must be how long you afford the players to develop that. It surely must be longer than the likes of James Alabi and George Waring were given during 2017-18.
Players come, and players go. That's the nature of football. If your leading scorer spearheads a successful promotion, and finds themselves a free agent shortly thereafter, it would be extremely naïve to think they would not attract the attention of clubs further up the pyramid.
There is no issue with Andy Cook leaving. There are issues because of Andy Cook leaving.
With just nine days to go until the start of the season, questions remain about how successfully Rovers have adapted to their post-Cook reality. Paul Mullin appears to be a very solid signing and there are few doubts he will prove to be so in due course. Will he replace Cook? No, because they are different types of players, Mullin far closer to James Norwood than to Andy Cook.
Following the departures of Andy Mangan and James Alabi, and an apparent reluctance to play George Waring, Tranmere have so far failed to sufficiently address Cook's absence. What happens if Norwood or Mullin get injured? Where are the options? The strength in depth?
With a trialist playing in Tuesday night's 0-1 victory, it's clear that Micky Mellon is in the process of recruiting further reinforcements. His potential success, or lack thereof, in identifying the correct person(s) to solve the number nine issue could well prove the difference between an average and a good season.
Remember: Check back tomorrow for day three of our ten-day countdown to the 2018-19 season.« 10 Days 8 Days »