Of course this isn’t a post about the Oilers, who will sink their season by giving Nikolai Khabibulin at least twenty games so as to further the assessment of his NHL future (any day now, if someone would remind Steve Tambellini that delay is a decision, it’d be great). Rather, it’s about Blackpool FC. I’ve been struck by the conservative expectations that two of the more thoughtful Blackpool bloggers I pay attention to have for the coming season. Chris, who writes Up the Pool and John Kane, who writes Tangerine Dreaming have both indicated that, in general terms, they’d be content with top ten finishes in the 2011-12 season, which kicks off on Friday.
Kane had a piece in the Guardian’s Championship preview this week in which he said the following:
The Blackpool team will be minus two of their key players from last season and it is how Ian Holloway deals with that issue is crucial. The signing of Barry Ferguson is a strong move in the right direction. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Blackpool have an underwhelming start before finding their feet during the winter months, as the team settle and their play becomes more coherent. A strong second half would be encouraging and a position in the top 10 of the Championship would be a good foundation to push for promotion in 2012-13.
I’m not so inclined to think that a top ten finish should be the target for Blackpool or that this should be viewed as a consolidation year. I’ve gone back and assembled some data on how teams have fared in the season following relegation. I think I can support the following proposition – if your goal difference is better than +16, you’ll almost certainly at least be in the playoff – only twice in the last 13 years has a team missed with a better goal difference than that.
A second proposition, based on the data: a +16 goal difference is within Blackpool’s grasp for next season. I’ve prepared a table setting out how goal difference improved for the last thirty teams to be relegated to the Championship. I’ve done this in goals per game – there are 38 games in the Premier League and 46 games in the Championship.
O% and D% are the percentage of GF/G and GA/G in the year following relegation. Finish is where the team finished in the Championship after having been relegated.
As you can see, the norm is for pretty healthy improvements in goals scored and decreases in goals allowed. If Blackpool got the average improvements, they’d be over +20 and looking at a playoff spot. Moreover, relegated teams do pretty well – they’ve taken 8 of the 20 automatic promotion spots in the past ten years, leaving 12 for the other 21 teams in the league over that time. A 26.7% chance of getting automatic promotion if you’re freshly relegated; a 5.7% chance if you aren’t, assuming we know nothing else. They also took 6 playoff spots, leaving just 34 for the other 21 teams over that ten year period.
What the table doesn’t show is how those improvements are achieved. A lot of it, I suspect, is down to the differences in the league that you’re playing in – sort of obvious. What’s more difficult to discern (particularly if you’re closing in on your one year anniversary as a fan of English soccer) is whether or not the talent movement matters. I take it as a bit of a given that teams going down are going to see players depart. On the surface, it looks like Blackpool have lost a lot of goals from the lineup – Adam scored 12, Campbell scored 13 and Vaughan added a pair, for a total of 27 goals, just under half the team’s total. At the same time, seven of Adam’s eight goals were on penalties – the average in the Championship last year was about 88% of penalties scoring. Adam finished at 87.5%. His penalty taking, I suspect, is pretty readily replaced internally. Campbell will be tougher to replace but, again, at least some of his offence is going to be replaced simply by virtue of someone else being in his role.
But Blackpool isn’t the first team to have a couple of players catch the eye of Premier League teams. It seems to me that the norm is going to be that the better players tend to leave relegated teams if they can get a spot in the Premier League. I would expect that this is reflected in the past results that we see.
Flipping through some of the teams, I see this does appear to be the case. There’s been a lot of screaming this summer from Blackpool fans about a lack of investment in the squad but then it doesn’t seem to me that successful teams have necessarily filled their holes with big names from outside the squad in the past. Newcastle, for example, lost both of the top two goalscorers on their relegated 2008-09 side – Michael Owen and Obafeme Martins moved on. They didn’t go out and spend a bunch of money on proven goalscorers though (and there’s been a lot of complaining about the failure to get more of those players in Blackpool). Instead, they got more than half of their goals in their promotion season from Andy Carroll (17) and Peter Lovenkrands (13), who scored 6 goals between them the preceding season.
Aside: the headline above might be my favourite headline ever. It was printed following Newcastle’s win at Arsenal, and a week in which Carroll was accused of having drug fuelled sexual encounters. A fantastic double entendre.
Manchester City in 2001-02 was the same story. Shaun Goater and Darren Huckerby, coming off seasons in which they scored a combined 7 goals, totalled 48. Sunderland in 2006-07 saw Stephen Elliott, Grant Leadbitter and Daryl Murphy go from scoring a combined 3 goals to 22. The Baggies got 24 goals from Graeme Dorrans (13) and Roman Bednar (11) in 2009-10; between them, they had 6 during the relegation campaign.
The point that I’m driving at is that, in more than a few cases of the teams winning automatic promotion, the improvement in goal scoring was driven by guys who had been stars on the team during the preceding season but not been particularly significant goal scorers for that team. To that end, I like what Blackpool’s been doing this year and last, spending money to acquire young guys who aren’t yet proven goal scorers but who look to have some ability. Blackpool’s got a pair of 20 year olds in Gerardo Bruna and Matt Phillips and a 19 year old in Tom Ince, who all look to have some offensive ability. They’ve got another young-ish guy in Billy Clarke, a 24 year old whose had some knee issues.
If you accept that it’s not always going to be obvious who’s going to end up starring and that most teams will see stars depart when they get relegated, I’m not so sure why the consensus is that anything in the top ten would be fantastic for Blackpool. They haven’t gone down in utter disarray, like many other relegated teams who are forced to sell everything and are in the process of replacing the manager. As many as 7 of the 11 who started at Old Trafford might start tomorrow. Their goals for and against last year suggests that they were a pretty good relegated team. There is, I think, a lot to be positive and hopeful about.
I’m figuring that, if nobody emerges as a goal scorer, something in the bottom of the top ten, on the fringes of the playoffs seems the most likely outcome. If, however, a scorer or two emerge, which isn’t predictable but is at least plausible, given the positions at which Blackpool’s young talent is concentrated, something better might develop. All in all, I’m optimistic, which is a nice change from the hopeless march that is the beginning of another Oilers’ season.