Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Forest Boffin Manager Awards (Championship)

Perhaps the most unheralded reason for The Championship being so fascinating in 2012/13 has been the cunning and guile of the men in charge: the managers. Forest Boffin would like to take this opportunity to throw a little praise their way for the tactical efforts that have enriched this season in particular.

Malky MacKay, Steve Bruce and Ian Holloway have taken the spoils and will be plying their trade in The Premiership next season, but the volatile nature of The Championship has ensured there are far more success stories than these three. Forest's own Billy Davies has scored the second most amount of points per game (see league table, right), and from watching Forest we all know how good a job other managers have done in tweaking their tactics to make it difficult for supposed 'better teams'. This is why the division has been so unpredictable - managers have done a great job in closing the gap between ability and making up the numbers.

Davies racked up 1.73 points per game, a huge amount which, along with the dismal nature of Forest's performances immediately prior to his arrival, could lead you to assume he was the manager who made the biggest improvement to his new team. However, there are several other managers who made a big impact.

A lot of praise must go to Mick McCarthy. Ipswich were a laughing stock before his arrival (we all remember how horrified many Forest fans were when they beat us 3-1 last November). Pre-McCarthy they picked up 0.54 points per game - the Irishman improved upon this by over a point per game (see left, all charts on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked). His main impact was defensively, where they had a well deserved reputation for giving away cheap goals and crumbling under pressure. He halved their goals conceded tally and taught them how to defend a lead - under McCarthy they collected a massive 2.59 points in games they scored first in, compared with 0.83 points beforehand. Ipswich also got tougher - under McCarthy they fouled more, and got fouled less (an indicator, in The Championship, that your team is doing well, see below). Forest Boffin couldn't see how Ipswich would survive this season, under McCarthy they were a different team - The Tractor Boys would appear too far down the pecking order to make a promotion push next season, but with McCarthy's record at this level, could I be wrong again?

Kudos must also go to David Flitcroft at Barnsley. I did a preview for their recent game against Forest in which I knew it was highly unlikely, even at The City Ground, that Flitcroft's men would get beaten (see here) because they play so well against teams high in the league. He has utilised what is available to him and changed the way they defend, managing to retain Barnsley's Championship status by beating the best. He managed to improve The Tykes' points per game tally by 0.78 PPG and was the 7th best manager overall.

Billy Davies himself totally invigorated Forest, solving a tactical headache in that Forest have no width and propelling them almost into the playoffs. Forest scored more and tightened up at the back - they were the 4th meanest defence during those last few months. He also generated self belief which led to Forest equalising on 70% of the occasions they fell behind, and managing to collect a huge 1.29 points per game after conceding the first goal - the second best in the league, in this regard.

Bu there are many examples of managers displaying tactical shrewdness this season - Forest have been the victim of this constantly, from teams playing higher up the pitch to neutralise O'Driscoll's possession football, to the likes of Blackburn, Derby and Millwall deliberately muscling and bullying Forest out of games, to more recently Paul Ince having Blackpool clog up the area in front of their penalty box. Forest have been scouted very effectively this season and have, at times, struggled to score goals because of this.

Managers tactical styles have tended to be reflected in their teams stats. It is unusual, for instance, to have a balance between attack and defence - if you're bombing forward scoring goals, often you're conceding a lot at the same time. Eddie Howe's team at Burnley scored more than two goals per game but was letting in even more - Sean Dyche totally changed this approach and turned them into the second best defensive team in the division. Surprisingly, Gus Poyet's Brighton conceded the least amount of goals. Cardiff's Championship winning effort was built on clean sheets - this is reflected in his stats in this regard.

Perhaps the most obvious way a manger can effect the way his team is playing is reflected in the disciplinary side of their game. It has already been touched upon in previous Forest Boffin articles how Billy Davies has toughened Forest up - The Reds fouled on average twice more often in every game under Davies which is a significant amount over a season. It is interesting to note that none of the managers who's team fouled the least had any success whatsoever this season (see Fair Play award, right) -  proof that it is essential for your team to be tough in The Championship.

Forest's galvanisation under Davies was in part due to them getting nastier, which was reflected in the amount of fouls they were giving away - an also in the amount of their opponents getting red cards as they reacted to the provocation. It is not enough to play passing, possession football - The Championship has a high octane blend of skill and muscle. If managers can't motivate their team for a fight they won't get the chance to show off their skill (see Wolves). But being dirty isn't enough - there must be the correct blend of robust craftsmanship if you are to succeed, as proven by the dirtiest manager award, unsurprisingly going to Owen Coyle at Bolton. The Trotters are another good example of how a manager can change they style in which they play to improve their results, Dougie Freedman having them rely more on their skill rather than kicking people and turning their season around.

It is also interesting to look at how often teams were themselves fouled, Owen Coyle's Bolton are again top of the crop in this regard. Bolton's 'fouled' statistics dropped sharply when Freedman arrived - perhaps this was because they weren't as rough with their opponents and thus prompting retaliation, however the cynics could be forgiven for wondering if a Coyle had brought a little Premiership "professionalism" down to The Championship with him. Also relegated Blackburn teams occupy the 3rd and 4th most fouled places. Nigel Clough's Derby were the second most fouled team in the division, although this could be put down to the amount of possession they had. None of the other most fouled teams had particularly high possession, they just got more free kicks when they did have the ball.

Indeed Derby had a surprising amount of possession last season, only behind Billy Davies' Forest in this regard. The East Midlands rivals prove one thing - that it's not how much you have the ball but how you use it. Forest fans will remember having watched their team dominate, especially at home, only to struggle breaching an entrenched defence. Steve Bruce had the balance right at Hull, who were deservedly promoted. It is interesting to note that, despite his philosophy of possession, consolidation football, Sean O'Driscoll's teams both struggled to keep the ball - punished for not robust or decisive enough.

Another area in which Billy Davies' Forest excelled was in their fighting spirit, as the Scotsman had his usual galvanising effect on morale. The Garibaldi looked noticeably more confident from the Bolton game onwards, and this is reflected in the fact that after falling behind, instead of crumbling Forest managed to equalise on 70% of occasions. The popular Gary Bowyer had a similar effect at Blackburn. Many teams in the league fell apart when conceding the first goal, but Forest were often able to recover.

But as well as Davies did, it is difficult for an objective fan to say he was the best manager in the division this season - this accolade should probably go to Mick McCarthy, purely on the extent to which he improved Ipswich. Forest Boffin has Billy coming in second in what will surely be a highly debatable topic. You can't ignore Malky MacKay since he won the league after all, however he only comes in third in our Manager of the Year rankings because of the resources available to him. We think David Flitcroft did a brilliant job at Barnsley, and Dougie Freedman has been a breath of fresh air - they come in fourth and fifth respectively.

We've not even talked about the good job one by Steve Bruce at Hull, or the colourful antics of Ian Holloway. There were starring, yet ultimately self-destructive (in different ways) roles from Gus Poyet and Tony Mowbray, chaos at Blackburn and Blackpool, but in our opinion the league has been enriched mostly by those at the foot of the table in their monumental efforts not to be relegated. The Championship has been such an exciting league because those at the bottom were solving problems and making it difficult for the so called better teams - to such an extent that you could never, at any stage, say with any confidence who would win any game. When the likes of Peterborough go on a late run of 10 unbeaten games you know somebody somewhere is doing a hell of a job. If the managers are as good next season as they have been in 2012/13, we're in for another chaotic year.

Thanks for reading, and COYR!

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