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Half-Time Report 2019-20

Tranmere's League One return reaches the halfway mark

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Posted: 31/12/19

By | Matthew Evans | @M_R_Evans1

mevans@deadlysubmarine.com

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Warning: Long Read

With the demise of Bury FC's EFL status on 27th August 2019, the 2019-20 League One campaign became a forty-four-game contest. As such, Tranmere's 1-1 home draw with Blackpool on Sunday 29th December — the twenty-second fixture of Rovers' third-tier return — marked the halfway point in the Superwhites' season.

In the build-up to 2019-20, the more realistic members of the SWA seemed to have accepted the season would prove a testing experience, the losses of beloved icons such as 2018-19 top scorer James Norwood, captain Stephen McNulty and midfield dynamo Jay Harris symbolic of the change at Prenton Park. It was always likely to be a season of transition with an influx of new players and the need to reacclimatise to the third tier after a five-year absence. Indeed, Deadly Submarine's season preview pencilled Rovers in for a seventeenth-place finish, safe from relegation but unable to make a greater impact following their May 2019 promotion.

On the face of it, in pursuit of this goal, Tranmere have had a reasonable season to date, finding themselves outside the League One relegation zone and having progressed to the third rounds of both the FA Cup and EFL Trophy. To be competing on three fronts going into the second half of the season is commendable.

Yet despite what has been a relatively sufficient performance with regards league position, it is hard to shake the feeling that the upwards momentum the Club had gathered over the previous three seasons has started to dissipate at an alarming rate. Whilst they are guaranteed to post their highest league position for six years come May, any finish that sees Tranmere return to the fourth tier at the first time of asking would be a hammer blow to a Club where ambitions involve exiting the third tier from the top rather than the bottom.

And at the halfway mark, there is nobody who can say with any certainty whether or not Rovers will remain above the trapdoor in just twenty-two games' time. Depending upon how one views the situation, there are strong cases on either side of the debate, but one thing that is certain is the performance over the first half of the season. In that spirit, let's take a more detailed look at the good, bad and ugly from the opening twenty-two fixtures.

Statistics

Sometimes, a team can feel hard done by when they look at the league table. This is not the case for Tranmere, whose season-to-date statistics reaffirm the accuracy of the current League One table.

Their overall record reads P22 W5 D6 L11 F26 A39 PTS21, which as previously mentioned places them in twentieth place in the division, above Milton Keynes Dons by three goals on goal difference.

Anyone who follows Tranmere will be aware of their difficult start to the season, with just one win in the opening eight fixtures. Whilst performances have improved since the eye-opening encounter with Rochdale back in August, the more recent results indicate that these changes have yet to translate into points.

Focusing on the past ten games, the record reads P10 W2 D3 L5 F10 A18 PTS9, placing them in twentieth position over the past ten matches. There is no change when it comes to the six most recent fixtures either, with a six-game form of P6 W1 D2 L3 F6 A9 PTS5 again good enough for the twentieth-best record in the division.

At Prenton Park, their record reads P8 W2 D4 L2 F8 A9 PTS10, which places them one place higher in the home table, and they occupy the same nineteenth position in the away table with a performance on their travels of P8 W2 D0 L6 F8 A20 PTS6.

With regards goals, top scorers Morgan Ferrier (eight goals, all competitions), Kieron Morris (five goals, all competitions) and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy/Stefan Payne (four goals each, all competitions) have helped Tranmere to twenty-six goals in League One so far, which sees them record another nineteenth place.

At the back, Rovers have kept just three clean sheets in twenty-two games (14%), with two at home (Bolton Wanderers 17/08/19 and Wimbledon 21/12/19) and just one away (Coventry City 13/10/19). Only Southend United (one) have kept fewer clean sheets than Rovers. Their thirty-nine goals conceded places them twentieth in the defensive table. However, given that most other teams have played twenty-three fixtures, Tranmere's 1.77 goals conceded per game means they currently possess the third-worst defence after Southend United (2.78 goals per game) and Bolton Wanderers (2.10 goals per game).

No matter how you interpret the data, there appears little doubt that Tranmere are exactly where they deserve to be in the League One table at the halfway point of the season.

The More Things Changeā€¦

With Tranmere ending the decade fighting for League One survival, they are about to enter the 2020s in precisely the same predicament that they found themselves in entering the 2010s.

Statistic 2009-10 (22 Games) 2013-14 (22 Games) 2019-20 (22 Games)
Position 22nd 19th 20th
Points 20 23 21
Won 6 6 5
Drawn 2 5 6
Lost 14 11 11
Scored 21 26 26
Conceded 43 40 39
Goal Difference -22 -14 -13
Fig.1: Table comparing Tranmere's 22-game records from 2009-10, 2013-14 and 2019-20

In 2009-10 — a season that saw the John Barnes circus descend upon Prenton Park — after twenty-two games, Tranmere were twenty-second, four points from safety but with a game in-hand over twentieth-placed Leyton Orient. They stayed up by a point ahead of Gillingham courtesy of a 0-3 final-day win at Stockport County.

In 2013-14, after twenty-two games, Tranmere were nineteenth, four points clear of Sheffield United in twenty-first, having played a game more than the Blades. Rovers were eventually relegated by three points (four with goal difference) behind Notts County thanks to a 1-2 final-day loss at home to Bradford City.

In 2019-20, after twenty-two games, Tranmere are twentieth, ahead of Milton Keynes Dons on goals scored (twenty-six to twenty-three) but with a game in-hand.

Although it was expected to be struggle, this season has been every bit as disappointing as the 2009-10 and 2013-14 seasons. Make no mistake, the current performance is no better than on those two occasions, and in many ways, it is actually worse. 2019-20 Tranmere are further down the table and have fewer points than the 2013-14 side that went on to be relegated, have fewer wins than in either of those seasons and have lost the same amount as their aforementioned relegated 2013-14 counterparts.

Whilst the Club's recent history has bought both the Club and the manager time to make the necessary adjustments, let's not forget that for the better part of the past three decades, Tranmere have played at League One level or above. This is the environment in which they should be competing. Staying up this term would be a successful season, but a second era of perpetual survival year upon year?

There is very little in the current performance to suggest Rovers are any better placed to compete in League One at the end of the decade than they were at its start.

Causes For Concern

Referring back to the statistics, it was clear that Tranmere deserve to be in their current league position. But where has it gone wrong?

Injuries

It's easy to blame injuries for a team's poor performance, but any fair appraisal would surely accept that Rovers have had more than their fair share of long-term, disruptive injuries this term. After the Blackpool match, Micky Mellon revealed that Liam Ridehalgh and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy missed the game due to injury too, expanding the numbers under medical supervision to even greater levels of ridiculousness.

Of course, the players that do represent the Club need to perform, but when so many players who have been, or would be, considered starting players are missing for large periods of time, it is little wonder that a new team has struggled to find any sort of consistency.

Discipline

Tranmere's five league red cards is the most in the division, whilst they are eighteenth in the overall disciplinary table. Although the standard of refereeing has been questionable on occasion, a team decimated by injuries cannot also struggle with discipline and expect the outcome to be anything other than what has come to fruition.

Slow Starters

Time (Mins) Home Goals (F-A) Away Goals (F-A) Total Goals (F-A)
0-15 0-3 0-2 0-5
16-30 1-3 2-4 3-7
31-45* 4-3 1-4 5-7
46-60 1-3 1-3 2-6
61-75 6-2 2-5 8-7
76-90* 5-0 3-7 8-7
First Half 5-9 3-10 8-19
Second Half 12-5 6-15 18-20
*Goals scored and conceded after the forty-fifth and ninetieth minutes are included in the 31-45 and 76-90 categories respectively.
Fig.2: Table showing timings of League One goals scored and conceded by Tranmere at home, away and in total by time

Tranmere start matches terribly.

This has been an issue for a few seasons but has become more pronounced this term. Fig.2 reveals they have failed to score a single goal in the opening fifteen minutes of a league game this term (whilst conceding five times), have an aggregate score of 8-19 in the first halves of games (18-20 in second halves) and have only scored first in four of twenty-two matches (18%), which is the fewest in the league. The opposition has been leading at half-time in ten of twenty-two matches (45%), whilst Rovers took a lead into the break just twice (9%). This frustration is compounded by the fact they have won all four in which they have scored first.

Conversely, the opposition scored first in eighteen of twenty-two matches (82%) and Tranmere have won just once (5%) in those games, losing eleven (61%) with an aggregate across the eighteen games of 16-38. Rovers have spent an average of 39.6 minutes behind and just 8.3 minutes leading, and these statistics combine to reinforce the premise that Tranmere are consistently chasing games due to poor starts.

If they want results to improve, one would imagine they have to switch on and perform from the first whistle on a much more consistent basis.

Away Form

Tranmere have been patchy travellers for a few seasons, although they have tended to come good in the second part of the season. In 2019-20, they would struggle to get much worse!

64% of their total goals conceded have come away from home, whilst they have lost eight of eleven road games (73%) and conceded an average 2.27 goals per game. They have lost by two goals three times, three goals twice and by five goals away at Sunderland. Tranmere have won just twice away from Prenton Park (18%) and are averaging just 0.64 points per away game.

If they can't start to put points on the board away from home, Rovers are going to continue to struggle. Whether it's different tactics, different personnel or a combination of the two, something has to change on the road to enable the team to collect more points in these fixtures.

Set Plays

This is another clear weakness in Tranmere's game. Poor in both boxes, they concede far too many and score far too few from dead-ball situations.

Further to their inability to defend or attack set-pieces with any sort of competency, their actual delivery from corners and free-kicks is often severely lacking. How many times has a delivery either failed to beat the first man or been ballooned over its intended target? Whilst one can criticise the big men in the squad for a lack of dominance in both boxes when the ball does arrive at them, one also has to be fair to them and condemn the often poor service they are provided with in such situations.

Style Of Play

Possibly the hardest question to answer this season is “What is Tranmere's style of play?”.

Whilst they have a poor disciplinary record, they are not a particularly physical outfit.

They are certainly not a counterattacking team, as, whilst they possess players with pace, a lot of their build-up play is reasonably slow and calculated.

They aren't exceptionally well-organised, as they ship far too many goals to be considered as such, but they don't exactly play open and expansive football that leaves them exposed either.

Perhaps the inconsistency of selection has played a role in this, but it is possibly the biggest indictment of the season to date. It is almost impossible to say with any certainty what the SWA can expect from their side from one game to the next.

They appear stuck in a quagmire of trying to do and be a lot of things, and achieving none of them.

Pitch

Speaking of quagmires, the Prenton Park pitch has deteriorated so badly that it seems almost inevitable it will have a real impact on the remainder of the season. Whilst in some cases it could be to Tranmere's advantage, the fact almost every home game between now and the end of the season is likely to descend into a war of attrition is going to make getting home results even more difficult than it already would have been.

Obviously, the Club relies upon the income from hosting non-TRFC matches on the pitch, but the surface can't be allowed to fall into such disrepair for the sake of financial gain. How much will repairing it cost? How much would relegation cost? If either of those questions aren't answered by the phrase “a lot less than the income the extra games generate”, then one has to ask whether the revenue is worth it?

And, if the revenue is worth it, surely the investment has to be made to ensure it isn't going to negatively impact Tranmere's league performance?

Reasons For Optimism

Up until now, it has seemed quite a bleak report for Rovers, hasn't it?

Well, there's no hiding from how poor it has been so far, however there are plenty of positives to come out of the first half of the campaign.

Own Hands

Given the unfortunate departure of Bury, the financial situation at Bolton Wanderers and the absolutely horrid performance of Southend United (one win in twenty-three, seventeen defeats), Tranmere remain outside relegation zone. If the season ended today, Tranmere would have survived. With a game in-hand over most of their relegation rivals, their survival is very much in their own hands.

Opposition (Position) Result
AFC Wimbledon (18) W 1-0
Rochdale (19) L 2-3
Milton Keynes Dons (21) W 1-3
Southend United (22) D 1-1
Bolton Wanderers (23) W 5-0
Fig.3: Tranmere's results against the bottom six clubs in the first half of 2019-20

This could be hugely important given Rovers' impressive results against fellow strugglers. Fig.3 highlights the Superwhites' performance against the bottom six to be P5 W3 D1 L1. They beat Bolton 5-0, drew 1-1 with Southend, bested MK Dons 1-3, won 1-0 versus AFC Wimbledon and lost 2-3 at home to Rochdale on the opening day of the season. Taking ten points from fifteen available against sides in and around them suggests that Tranmere can get the better of those with whom they are engaged in a relegation battle, which in turn bodes well for what looks like a close survival scrap.

Home Form

Over the past few seasons, Prenton Park has become a fortress for Tranmere. This season, it has not yielded the same returns as in previous campaigns, however it is still a difficult place for opposition teams to play football (and not just because of the pitch).

67% of Tranmere's points and 65% of their total goals have been secured at Prenton Park. Averaging 1.27 points per home game, almost twice as many as away, over the course of a twenty-two game home season this would lead to twenty-eight points. With the bottom three clubs currently on course for sixteen (Southend), twenty-six (Bolton) and forty-two points (Milton Keynes Dons) respectively, such a home total could go a long way to securing League One safety.

Tranmere are also very strong in the second halves of home games, with an aggregate score of 12-5 at home in the second half, and 11-2 in the final 30 minutes. If they avoid making early mistakes, they have a great chance of returning Prenton Park to its fortress status.

Players

Despite the poor results to date, there are plenty of players at Tranmere who give cause for hope.

Top scorer Morgan Ferrier has been an excellent addition to the squad and, had he been fit for a greater period of the season, it is possible Tranmere would have more points on the board.

Kieron Morris is another player who has enjoyed a productive campaign thus far, with five goals and four assists making him a key player in the attacking arsenal for Rovers.

At the back, injured Scott Davies provides a solid platform and Sid Nelson and Manny Monthé continue to grow both as players and as a partnership.

With experienced and influential players to come back from injury, such as Ollie Banks and Mark Ellis, the squad isn't necessarily as poor as some may believe. It needs strengthening in certain areas, of that there can be little doubt, but there are good players already at Tranmere and that fact shouldn't be overlooked.

Good Performances

Performances such as those against Blackpool are what give cause for optimism going into the second half of the campaign. There have been a number of games, or more specifically a number of portions of games, when Tranmere have looked a real threat at League One level. The latter part of the game against Burton Albion (2-1 win), large portions of the match with Peterborough United (2-2 draw) and the second half of the game against Blackpool (1-1) are just some of the performances worthy of praise.

It's also worth noting that Rovers have played League One leaders Wycombe Wanderers three times in league and cup and have won one and drawn one, including knocking them out of the FA Cup, away from home, with ten men for seventy-five minutes, in extra time.

The question isn't about the players being able to do it. It is about them being able to do it consistently.

The Manager

This is where having Micky Mellon as manager is crucial for Tranmere's success. If there is one person at the Club who demands more of the players than the SWA do, it is probably Micky Mellon.

It is hopefully not hyperbole to state that without Mellon, Tranmere likely wouldn't be in League One in the first place. He dragged a team that appeared no more than a good League Two team to promotion at the first attempt and identified a way of playing that got the Club results.

His business in January 2019 changed the course of the 2018-19 campaign and, with January 2020 mere hours away, will hopefully replicate this mid-season reinforcement in 2019-20 to positive effect.

When one looks at the managers in League One, especially in the relegation battle, it would be madness to suggest having a man of Mellon's calibre isn't a huge advantage for Tranmere. Sol Campbell at Southend United has little more than twelve months' experience, albeit successful in keeping Macclesfield Town in League Two last term. Milton Keynes Dons replaced the vastly experienced Paul Tisdale with a rookie manager in Russell Martin, whilst Rochdale's Brian Barry-Murphy has just eight months' management experience to his name. AFC Wimbledon's Glyn Hodges, an experienced Under-23 coach with caretaker spells at Barnsley in the early 2000s, has been in his first permanent senior management role for a little over three months.

Could it be argued Mellon has made mistakes this term? Yes, of course.

However, is there anyone else better suited to helping Tranmere survive as a League One football club within their current resources and parameters? It is highly, highly unlikely anyone else could get more from the resources available.

Attendances

The final reason for optimism is the most important; the SWA.

Tranmere are averaging 6753 fans per home game, which is thirteenth in League One. Whilst the players may be struggling to adapt to League One life, Rovers' support has highlighted just why the Club is considered by many to be a natural top-half League One outfit. Last season, a successful promotion challenge saw Tranmere average 6552 per home match.

Therefore, in the face of a significant increase in match prices and a relegation scrap, to have increased the attendances is a testament to the support of the Rovers faithful.

Likewise, the atmosphere. Imagine this season five years ago; the atmosphere at games would have been terrible. Now, the crowd understands the positive impact they can have on the team's performance and perhaps has a newfound appreciation for even being in League One at all given the recent exploits in non-League. Whatever the reason, one can't imagine any other club whose players had results such as Tranmere's this term would have been given as easy a ride as the Rovers players have enjoyed thus far.

The SWA cannot be faulted in this regard and long may it continue.

Conclusion

Before a ball was kicked, most SWA expected the season to be difficult. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise how poor results have been to date. In a plethora of areas, Tranmere have been severely lacking, from defending, to set-plays, to starting games poorly and even style of play (or lack thereof).

Notwithstanding, it is imperative not to panic, as this season was always going to be tough. The fact that MK Dons (twenty-first) and Lincoln City (seventeenth) are also struggling, despite finishing six and twelve points respectively ahead of Rovers in League Two, and having weeks of extra preparation time due to Tranmere's participation in the play-offs, indicates a sizeable gap in quality between the fourth and third tiers.

Unquestionably, there has been an improvement in performances, especially at home. However, this is yet to bear fruit in the results. There is talent in the squad, but it desperately needs support to afford Micky Mellon options, especially in an aging midfield.

For this to happen, there needs to be an honest reflection on the recruitment process and recognition that many of the 'gamble' signings from the summer simply haven't paid off. When survival almost certainly rests on getting the January business correct, there can't be a repeat of the summer.

Tranmere also need to find a way to start games more proactively, as they have won 100% matches in which they've scored first with an aggregate score of 10-1, but have only scored first on four occasions. It's important to give themselves a better chance of winning games, as opposed to consistently chasing.

If they can address these issues, there is every reason to believe they can be successful in the quest for survival come May.

And ultimately, survival is the only realistic ambition this season. It always was.

MMSWA.

On the final day of 2019, it is important to say thank you for your incredible support throughout the last twelve months. It has been a pleasure covering Rovers' rise through League Two, another Wembley promotion and the return to League One.

If the next decade is as eventful as this, the SWA are in for another rollercoaster of a journey.

Deadly Submarine will be there every step of the way.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2020,

Matthew.