A Game Of 2 Halves
Why the second half of the season could be crucial for Rovers
Hello and welcome to Deadly Submarine's 2019-20 League One countdown. Twelve months ago, we launched our inaugural countdown feature in preparation for Tranmere's return to the EFL. The response was incredible, and so we are delighted to be able to bring the feature back as we look ahead to Rovers' third-tier return.
With just two days until Rochdale visit Prenton Park for the opening fixture of the League One calendar, we will bring you a new piece today and tomorrow, each related to the number of days remaining in some manner.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter (@DSubmarine17), Facebook (@DeadlySubmarine) and our new Instagram account (@deadlysubmarineofficial) to ensure you keep abreast of the latest releases. Each new entry will be released at 6am on the appropriate date, so you should have plenty of time to digest each.
And if you do miss an instalment, you will find links at the bottom of each day's entry to take you back to any that may have escaped your attention.
Please find below our content for day nine in the 2019-20 countdown.
“It's a game of two halves.”
A common cliché, the sentiment behind the statement is no less true simply because the phrase is repeated ad nauseum by commentators, journalists and fans alike. Football really is a game of two halves and for Tranmere Rovers, this fact could determine their 2019-20 season.
As we have progressed throughout this countdown, we've assessed various aspects of the upcoming term in the hopes of providing full and well-rounded coverage of Tranmere's preparations. Such analysis would not be complete without reference to some of the less obvious potential determinants for success.
In this, the penultimate addition to our countdown, these factors will be explored by assessing Rovers' performances in the first and second halves of seasons, the particular quirks of the 2019-20 fixture list and finally, addressing the millstone hanging over the entire league in the form of Bolton Wanderers and Bury.
Since relegation to the National League in 2015, Tranmere have built both a reputation and a proficiency for improving as the season develops. This is borne out by the statistics.
Starting in 2015-16, Rovers won 9 of their opening 23 league fixtures, just 39%. Their record of W9 D7 L7 would have yielded just 68 points if replicated over the course of a full season. Thankfully, Gary Brabin's charges improved significantly in the second half of the year, winning 57% of games with a record good for 83 points over a full term. Whilst Rovers would end on 78 points and miss the play-offs, they had set the foundations for what would follow in the coming years.
In 2016-17, a run of 6 wins in 7 games gave cause for optimism, however a dip in form saw Gary Brabin replaced by Micky Mellon. Surprisingly, the first half of that campaign saw Tranmere win 61% of matches, a record of W14 D5 L4 worth 89 points across 46 games.
Notwithstanding, Mellon managed to improve upon this, taking the win rate to 65% over the second half of the season as Tranmere reached the 2017 play-off final. Their second-half record would be the equivalent of a 96-point season. They actually achieved 95.
A disastrous first half of the season left Rovers with a 39% win rate, winning just 9 of their first 23 National League fixtures. If they had repeated this over the second half, they would have finished with 68 points and would have missed the expanded 7-team play-off zone by 5 points.
Thankfully, the recovery was exceptional, Tranmere winning 15 of their final 23 games at a win rate of 65%. Their second-half form would have produced 96 points over a full season, but they ended the campaign on 82 points, earning a promotion via the play-offs thanks to a title-winning second-half run.
Last season, Tranmere returned to the EFL by starting well before fading as the first half of the campaign progressed. Their 39% win rate and overall performance would have provided 68 points over a full season. Whilst a very solid return season it may have been, one suspects they would not have qualified for the play-offs with such a total.
An inspired January transfer window changed Rovers' fortunes, raising the win rate to 49% thanks to a run of 7 consecutive victories between 19th February and 30th March 2019. Their second-half record of W11 D6 L6 was equivalent to 78-point season, the 10-point difference proving enough to secure a play-off place and, ultimately, leading to a second successive promotion.
As we have hopefully proved, Tranmere have once again become a club that gets things done at the business end of the season.
But why does this matter in 2019-20?
A detailed look at the 2019-20 fixture list reveals a startling reality for the Super Whites.
With the first half of the season due to conclude at the final whistle of the December 26th trip to Burton Albion, Tranmere will have completed away trips to many of the division's promotion favourites.
In the first 23 games, Rovers are scheduled to travel to Portsmouth (10/08), Rotherham United (31/08), Ipswich Town (28/09), Coventry City (12/10), Sunderland (22/10), Milton Keynes Dons (02/11), Fleetwood Town (23/11) and Lincoln City (14/12) before the aforementioned Boxing Day game at the Pirelli Stadium.
Rovers then wait until the final day of the season, 3rd March 2020, to travel to Peterborough United's London Road home.
In the interim, all of the above must play the return fixtures at Prenton Park, a potentially huge advantage.
As we explored yesterday, Tranmere have a history of beating the best on home soil, yet this trait is not consigned to the past.
Following a terrible 2015-16 season in which they lost 9 non-League matches with home advantage, there was a sea change in the atmosphere on The Wirral. The SWA started getting behind the team like they hadn't for a generation and the results speak for themselves.
Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Tranmere have hosted 72 league and play-off matches across National League and League Two campaigns. They have won 47 of them (66%), whilst they have lost just 14 (19%). One can look at it the other way too; including draws, they have not lost in 58 of their last 72 home matches.
Prenton Park is once again a fortress and none of the more fancied League One sides will relish making the trip to Birkenhead. Tranmere have every chance of ensuring they don't relish the trip home either.
From difficult away fixtures to home fixtures with difficulties, 2 of Tranmere's first 3 home encounters should see them playing crisis clubs Bolton Wanderers and Bury.
Beset with financial difficulties, neither club has been able to construct anything resembling a first-team squad. Therefore, one would be forgiven for presuming these fixtures provide a good buffer between League Two and League One competition. However, it may not be as simple as that.
Although Bolton have been given permission to start the season at Wycombe Wanderers as scheduled, Bury's game at home to Milton Keynes Dons has been suspended by the EFL. They have been given a deadline of 12pm on 2nd August to provide further evidence of their ability to fulfil the season which, depending upon its outcome, could see their second game of the season — against Accrington Stanley on 10th August — suspended too.
There are myriad issues why playing both of these teams so early causes alarm.
The first surrounds the viability of the fixtures. With particular reference to Bury, there are huge concerns as to whether or not Rovers' game, scheduled for 24th August, goes ahead. With Bolton due to arrive the week before (17/08), what happens to Tranmere if one of the games is suspended? What if it's both?
With the transfer window open and two bumper crowds expected, could this have a knock-on effect in terms of Rovers' ability to strengthen their squad? If neither game is played and Rovers' League One rivals secure points whilst Micky Mellon's men watch the scores come in, does that not leave Rovers playing catch-up from the very start, through no fault of their own?
And if the games do go ahead against scratch sides thrown together at the last minute, one would expect Tranmere to have a good chance of beating both. If that occurs and the clubs fail to complete the season, Rovers could lose 3, 4 or even 6 points — a threat that could hang over the Club for the entire campaign — deep into the season.
One would imagine the paths forward for both clubs will have become much more apparent by the time the season passes the halfway mark but being involved in the early season drama at both Gigg Lane and the University of Bolton Stadium could have lasting consequences for Tranmere.
From financial ills to physical ailments, the final reason why the first half of the season could be testing for Tranmere is the prevalence of injuries plaguing the squad mere days before the season opener with Rochdale.
Injured last season, Mark Ellis and Evan Gumbs are likely to miss the first half of 2019-20 as they continue their respective rehabilitations. In addition to these, Rovers have picked up further injuries during pre-season.
Attacker Corey Blackett-Taylor has missed most of the warm-up fixtures with an injury that may or may not delay the start of his season. Full-back Calum Woods is also likely to miss the kick-off, whilst right-back Jake Caprice and striker Ishmael Miller sustained nasty-looking injuries in Rovers' last first-team friendly with Walsall on Saturday. With the timescale for returns on all of these players unknown, Rovers enter the season missing almost a quarter of their current 25-man squad before a ball has been kicked.
As the season develops, these players should come back and give Micky Mellon greater flexibility in his selections and, by extension, Rovers greater ability to adapt to individual opponents on a game-by-game basis.
In football, half a match is an age. Half a season is an eternity.
Going into the first half of 2019-20, it's clear Tranmere are facing a challenging start to the season. A propensity to start the season slowly, a trying set of away fixtures, direct involvement in the Bolton and Bury circuses and a sizeable injury list will all push Micky Mellon's management to the limit.
However, there are plenty of causes for optimism when looking into the second half of the campaign. A track record of second-half improvement, astonishing home form built over three seasons and the returns from long-term injuries of players such as Mark Ellis can help build a second-half momentum for the fifth consecutive year.
And look where that has taken Rovers recently…
Remember: Check back tomorrow for the final day of our ten-day countdown to the 2019-20 season.« 03 Days 01 Day »