Rated 'M' For Mature
Deadly Submarine assesses the first quarter of Tranmere's 2019-20 campaign
As Tranmere Rovers prepared for their first League One campaign since 2014, the SWA was thrust into a whirlpool of emotions. Riding high on the elation of consecutive promotions, the early noises about 'three in a row' met the countercurrent of realism at some point over the summer.
Perhaps it was the expected departure of 2018-19 top scorer James Norwood for Ipswich Town? Could it have been the performances over the pre-season schedule? Regardless of their reasoning, with the 2019-20 season appearing on the horizon, most Tranmere fans anticipated a difficult season.
In our own pre-season preview series, Deadly Submarine predicted Tranmere would finish 17th following their return to League One.
With the expulsion from the EFL of Bury FC, said League One return has been reduced to 44 games and as such, the final whistle blown by the erratic referee Craig Hicks signalled not only the end of Rovers' 0-1 home defeat to Shrewsbury Town, but also the quarter-way point of the 2019-20 campaign.
It has not been a happy return to the third tier thus far.
From the first whistle of the 2-3 home defeat to Rochdale on 3rd August 2019, to the aforementioned final whistle of the most recent defeat to Shrewsbury, the reality of League One football has descended upon Prenton Park rather rapidly.
Tranmere's overall league record to date reads P11 W2 D3 L6 F15 A21 PTS9, which sees them placed in 20th position in the table. For comparison, in 2013-14 — a season that the SWA will need no reminding ended in relegation to League Two — Rovers' record after 11 games read P11 W2 D2 L7 F10 A21 PTS8. Expected as it may have been, the eerie similarity to the 2013-14 performance, which left Tranmere in 21st in League One at the same stage, stirs fears of a similar outcome come May 2020.
With the departure of a 32-goal striker, much of the pre-season concern surrounded the ability to score enough goals to be competitive. Those misconceptions have proven unfounded, with Tranmere possessing the 12th-best attack in the division so far after scoring 15 goals. Although this figure was boosted by a 5-goal haul against a Bolton side in disarray, the Super Whites are on course for 60 goals in 44 games, a more than respectable return.
Surprisingly, it is in defence where the real issue lies. With the 20th-best (or 4th-worst) defence in the division, Tranmere have conceded 21 goals so far and are on course to ship 84 goals across 44 games — 5 more than the 79 in 46 games conceded in 2013-14. Clean sheets were a key component of Tranmere's 2018-19 promotion from League Two, keeping 21 in total (including play-offs). This year, they've kept just 1 league clean sheet against an abject Bolton side who have scored just 2 goals all season.
One facet of their promotion success that has followed the Super Whites into the third tier is Prenton Park's reputation as a difficult place for opposition teams to get a result. Indeed, 8 of Tranmere's 9 points have been secured in front of the SWA and they currently sit 15th in the home table.
Away from home, Rovers have struggled and have accrued just 1 point from 5 games on the road, with heavy defeats to Oxford United (3-0) and Ipswich Town (4-1) in their last 2 games particularly disappointing.
Tranmere have spent 487 minutes behind (most in the league), 451 minutes level and just 52 minutes in the lead (2nd-fewest in the league). They are averaging a league-low of just 4.6 minutes in the lead per match, with even Bolton averaging 5.6 minutes per match. Unsurprisingly, Rovers' opposition has taken the lead in 10 of 11 games (91%).
It's hard to shake the feeling that Tranmere are making life difficult for themselves by consistently ceding control of the scoreline, if not necessarily matches, to their opponents.
|Match||Fouls Conceded (Compared To Opposition)||Penalties Conceded||Red Cards|
|Rochdale (H)||11 (-6)||1||1|
|Portsmouth (A)||10 (-7)||0||0|
|Bolton Wanderers (H)||20 (+8)||0||0|
|Bristol Rovers (A)||22 (+5)||1||2|
|Rotherham United (A)||19 (+4)||0||0|
|Gillingham (H)||16 (+10)||0||0|
|Oxford United (A)||17 (+4)||2||0|
|Peterborough United (H)||9 (-3)||0||1*|
|Burton Albion (H)||11 (-2)||1||0|
|Ipswich Town (A)||15 (+6)||0||0|
|Shrewsbury Town (H)||16 (0)||0||1|
|Projected 44-game Total||664||20||20|
|*Red card shown to Tranmere manager Micky Mellon|
As if handing the opposition an advantage in terms of scoreline wasn't bad enough, Rovers are further compounding the issue with indiscipline. The 21 yellow cards amassed is amongst the highest in the league, whilst their tally of 4 red cards is the greatest in the league. The combined record of yellows and reds leaves Tranmere bottom of the League One disciplinary table.
Even manager Micky Mellon has received a dismissal this term, sent to the stands in a 2-2 draw against Peterborough United (17/09/19).
Tranmere are also being punished from silly fouls. They have conceded 5 penalties, which would equate to 20 over a 44-game term, and 166 free kicks, equivalent of 664 over the course of the season. To be fair to Rovers' players, whether those numbers are indicative of their own play or the standard of refereeing is up for serious debate, but opinions on the referees' judgement don't change the fact that those decisions have been, and will likely continue to be, given throughout the season.
These statistics should also be balanced out by looking at how many fouls the opposition have committed against Rovers. Fig1 provides context to the stated numbers and highlights the fact that, in 6 of their 11 matches, Tranmere have conceded more fouls than the opposition, whilst they have conceded fewer in 4 and an identical amount in 1.
Therefore, it is perhaps not so much an issue of the quantity of fouls as it is one of when and where those fouls are committed. Often at dangerous times, more often in dangerous positions, they have failed to win any of the matches in which they have conceded a red card, whilst they have lost 3 of the 4 games when the opposition was awarded a penalty.
Quite clearly, the season to date has not gone well. In his post-match comments about the latest defeat to Shrewsbury, Micky Mellon said the following:
I'm not going to stand here in front of the Tranmere fans and make any excuses
— Micky Mellon, tranmererovers.co.uk, 5th October 2019
That statement becomes more admirable when one considers the selection headaches that have presented themselves on a seemingly weekly basis.
Whilst Mellon has been denied the services of certain squad members due to suspension, it is a horrendous collection of injuries that has severely limited the options available. Tranmere came into pre-season carrying long-term injuries to Mark Ellis and Evan Gumbs and collected further casualties in Ishmael Miller and Jake Caprice during 2019-20 preparations.
As the season has unfolded, Calum Woods, Morgan Ferrier, David Perkins, George Ray and Sid Nelson have joined them in the Prenton Park treatment room. Further to these players, loan recruits Kane Wilson (West Bromwich Albion) and Jacob Maddox (Chelsea) have succumbed to injury and are currently being rehabilitated at their parent clubs. Indeed, the latter is yet to make a single appearance for Rovers since his 8th August season-long loan move from Stamford Bridge.
Subsequently, the makeshift nature of the line-ups representing the Club has unquestionably hindered the squad's attempts to acclimatise to the third tier. Although it would be very dangerous to suggest the current league performance is acceptable, it is entirely understandable given the sheer inconsistency of selection and tactics forced upon the management and coaching staff.
When reviewing Rovers' current record, one can make the claim that the team has lacked quality. One glance at the injury situation would reinforce their lack of numbers. No honest and fair-minded supporter could question the heart, desire and effort of those wearing the white shirt held so dear by the SWA.
The players have shown great character to fight until the end of matches, claiming 6 points — 66% of their total — from losing positions.
Against Rochdale they scored in the 89th and 93rd minutes, albeit failing to snatch a point. At Rotherham United, a 95th-minute equaliser secured a valuable draw. Against Gillingham (2-2) and Peterborough United (2-2), Tranmere clawed back 2-goal disadvantages, whilst Burton Albion (2-1) saw two stoppage-time goals (92' and 95') turn a 0-point haul into a 3-point dividend.
In fact, 80% of Tranmere goals have come in the second half, with the average time of a Rovers goal being the 68th minute. If they can work on their propensity to concede first, and make no mistake they must, such a trait could prove invaluable.
'M' For Mature
Re-establishing as a third-tier club was always going to prove tough just 12 months removed from being in non-League. The season requires a mature response from the SWA, most of whom appear to have grasped the nature of the task at hand.
In taking a mature approach to the season to date, one can find some reasons to be hopeful. Recent performances highlight improvements made since the start of the season; the injury crisis should subside eventually; the team has shown great character in the aforementioned comeback results and, most importantly, Rovers remain 3 points clear of the relegation zone with a game in hand over AFC Wimbledon in 21st.
Thus far, Tranmere have an average home attendance of 7762, the 11th-highest in the division and further indication that the Club belongs in the third tier. It is this growth in interest that should serve as the brightest light at the end of the tunnel for the SWA. Slowly but surely the foundations are being rebuilt for a sustainable third-tier outfit.
It is glaringly apparent that those foundations are not complete, and it is incumbent upon Rovers' fans to stay the course instead of becoming embroiled in short-term, reactionary and destructionist exchanges either in person or online. If the SWA turn on either the players or themselves, history suggests the outcome will not be positive.
Adaptation to League One has proven difficult, arguably more so than anyone could have realistically expected. With the untimely demise of Bury's EFL status and the ongoing issues at Bolton, it could be argued that Tranmere's current plight would have been much worse in a more conforming third-tier season.
Taking the points per game ratios of the 4 clubs relegated to League Two at the end of 2018-19 and adjusting them for a 44-game campaign, they would have finished on: Bradford City (39), Scunthorpe United (44), Walsall (45), Plymouth Argyle (48). Rovers are currently on track for 36 points for the season, fewer than all 4.
Bolton are currently on course to earn 15 points over the course of the season. However, when factoring in a 12-point deduction and any additional sanctions that seem likely to come their way, they may well fail to reach a positive double-figure total for the season. Southend United are currently on course for a 16-point tally after 44 games, whilst AFC Wimbledon are tracking at 22 points for the campaign.
There can be no hiding from Rovers' failings, yet there is also plenty to build upon.
They remain 3 points above the relegation zone regardless of the poor performance to date. Bolton's situation coupled with abject performances from AFC Wimbledon and Southend, both facing off-field problems themselves, has afforded Rovers room to grow into their new surroundings that may not have been forthcoming in any other season. It is imperative to use the opportunity to its fullest — and there are signs that they can do so.
Looking forward, only two sides in the bottom half of the table, Gillingham (17) and Rotherham United (16), have scored more goals than Tranmere. Between them, the bottom 6 clubs have won 4 of their collective previous 36 fixtures; for all of their difficulties, Rovers are not isolated in the struggle to avoid relegation. At some point, one would hope the injury situation will improve and, in conjunction with shrewd January business a la January 2018-19, Micky Mellon will have greater quality and depth to call upon.
On the eve of the season, Deadly Submarine stated the following:
Nonetheless, pre-season results and performances suggest there is a lot to work on at either end of the pitch. The outcome of said work will determine if Rovers return to League Two sooner than they would like…
…Will be fine in the long run but could get off to a bumpy start.
— Deadly Submarine, Countdown To League One 2019-20 — 01 Day, 2nd August 2019
With a quarter of the season completed, there has been no shift in those sentiments. Have Rovers improved since their opening-day defeat to Rochdale? Undoubtedly. Equally, there is much improvement still required if they are to achieve the realistic objective of surviving in the division.
And whilst the season so far has been mature viewing, if the SWA approach the task at hand with maturity, they could reap the rewards from a club that will continue maturing as the season progresses.
Thoughts on the season so far?
Rated 'M' For Mature.