November 19, 2010 heralded a new era in the history of one of the founding clubs of the English leagues, Blackburn Rovers. Venkys London Ltd, a newly established subsidiary of Venkys India, a regional poultry giant, completed the purchase of the club from the Walker’s Trust, which had been running the club since the death of Jack Walker. Immediate talk of European football, and bringing in top quality international players followed. You wouldnt begrudge the supporters for beginning to dream. Sam Allardyce was managing the club and having kept Rovers up in his first season, after taking over from Paul Ince, he followed it up with a respectable 10th place finish and a league cup semi-final.
Whilst Allardyce had his detractors in the stands, due to a combination of his history at Bolton, his so-called long-ball football, and presumed negativity and throwing in the towel against the “Big four”, you wouldn’t argue with the relative success Allardyce had at the club with the lack of finances at his disposal and an average looking squad, which continued to see its best players being sold off to help finance the running of the club. This was a strategy that had worked well for the club in the past since the days of Mark Hughes, but it arguably only worked due to stable management off the field as well as entrusting the squad to the hands of a safe manager. What you could be sure with Allardyce was that Rovers rarely ever lost against teams in the bottom half, especially at home.
Cue forward to December 13, 2010 and Sam Allardyce is sacked with the club lying in 13th place and 5 points outside the relegation zone. The owners said it was a decision taken in line with their “wider ambitions and plans for the club”. They also said that they wanted a manager who would instill “good football” and take Rovers to “fourth or fifth in the league”. They hired Steve Kean, one of the coaches in Allardyce’s backroom staff, on temporary basis. Kean had no managerial experience, but was considered to be a respected figure within the coaching community. Whatever people felt about Allardyce, the sacking was a shock at a critical time in the season, which would define whether a club pushes for a top 10 finish or ends the season battling relegation. The owners clearly did not understand what the latter was. Kean took over with a cloud of uncertainty over both his appointment as well as the direction the club were heading. Within a few days Kean was given a contract till the end of the season, after a 1-1 home draw against a poor bottom of the table West Ham, as the owners seemingly continued to search for the man who would take Rovers towards Champions League football.
Kean began to feel more comfortable in his surroundings, especially during press conferences and began talking about attractive football, qualifying for European competition, bringing in young players as well as making the supporters happy, all of which were easy digs at Allardyce. One thing Allardyce had done at the club was making Ewood Park a fortress. Only Chelsea had Arsenal had won during his last half a season in charge. Throughout the previous season Rovers only suffered 3 home defeats to Manchester City, Spurs and Everton. In celebration of a his full-time hiring, Kean led Rovers to their first defeat at home against a bottom half club in almost 18 months when they were blanked 2-0 by Stoke on Boxing Day. On January 4, Rovers Chairwoman, Anuradha Desai spoke of a “2-3 year contract for Kean who is a hard-working man”. This happened on the back of Kean’s infamous monthly trips to Pune for some face-time with the onwers. On January 20, he signed his 2 and a half year deal to end speculation over the management position at the club and seemingly provide stability. His record at the time had been 2 wins, 1 draw and 3 defeats.
Kean took Rovers on a 10-match win-less run from February until the last day of April when Rovers won 1-0 at home to Bolton after finding themselves under massive pressure with the poor league run. Throughout it all, Kean spoke of “more attractive performances”, “positive results”, and bringing in “younger players like Hoilett and Jones”. Granted Rovers rigid style had loosened a little but it would be a hard push to quantify either of those two first claims. The final statement was something that Kean tried to take credit for even though it had been his predecessor who introduced both to the squad. However, it is fair to say that Hoilett’s form took a turn for the better under Kean. Rovers went on to win only one more game until the end of the season, a final day victory at Wolves to seal the club’s fate in the Premier League; however Kean spoke of “nine positive results” which ran towards the end of the season. These included draws against Blackpool and Birmingham at home and West Ham away, and only two wins.
The 2010/11 season was the 11th successive one for Rovers in the Premier League, during a period where they have finished in the top 6 twice, won a domestic trophy and reached a number of semi-finals too. The season began in the worst fashion with a poor home defeat against Wolves and that was followed up with two further losses. Rovers picked up its first win against Arsenal in late-September but did not use it as a platform as the poor season and results continued. Home losses had now become a regular occurrence at Ewood Park. By December 17, 2011, almost one year to the anniversary of Allardyce’s sacking, Rovers found themselves in 19th place with only 10 points picked up from a possible 48. It was the Bolton fixture last season which sealed Allardyce’s fate. It may well be the same fixture but at Ewood Park in a few days that seals the fate of his successor, although Rovers fans wont hold their breaths on that.
Whilst we have tried to remain objective throughout, it may be pertinent now to present a set of facts and statistics on Kean’s reign at Blackburn Rovers by analyzing the facets and elements that are important when judging any manager’s tenure.
When Kean took over one of the first changes he promised was playing attacking football with two strikers. Allardyce had favored one-striker systems with David Dunn usually favored to play behind the lone target-man. Kean proved to be a man of his word in the early days lining up with two natural strikers on a number of occasions including a game at home to West Brom, during which Niko Kalinic and Roque Santa Cruz both started. However, soon enough as “positive results” failed to materialize Kean reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation which he has stuck with throughout his tenure without exception.
One of the major criticisms of Kean has been a lack of flexibility in his tactics. It does not seem that Rovers ever set up based upon how the opponents play. Kean sets his team up in the same fashion regardless of opposition and regardless of in-match events. He does not react to changes during a match. Very rarely do you see any tactical changes from Rovers under Kean. At best, personnel changes will take place.
In early days, Kean’s side was set out to play a more short-passing game, which was pleasing on the eye but not reaping the results. Backers suggested it needed time. Detractors suggested teams in Rovers position do not have the luxury of time nor the quality of players to pull it off. As time has passed, Kean has begun bringing back more and more elements of Allardyce’s side. However, he has not been successful in optimizing the performances which Allardyce got out of his side.
Only, Stoke City have less of the ball than Blackburn this season. Rovers average less than 42% possession per game. Rovers are 18th in the league when one looks at successful passes, where they stand at only 72%. They also have the second lowest amount of shots per game, averaging 12. Even worse is the fact that Rovers have the least amount of possession at home in the whole of the league at 39%. What is more striking is that no home side in all of Europe’s top leagues of Spain, Italy, Germany, France and England has less of the ball at home than Rovers.
Furthermore, only Stoke plays a higher percentage of long balls to short ones in the Premier League than Rovers. It’s also Stoke that is the only side in the league that averages less short passes per game. Rovers only average 270 passes a game, a shockingly low amount. Whilst, Rovers and Stoke have similar sorts of statistics as each other, one striking difference is the fact that Stoke wins the most aerial duels in the league, while Rovers the 14th highest. By trying to play a direct long-ball style, dependent upon set pieces, Rovers would need to be winning far more 50-50s and aerial challenges. For a side that depends so much on playing without the ball, the off-the-ball defending is even worse. Kean has been unable to get the defense organized from day one and Rovers concede schoolboy goals which could be prevented by closing down especially shots from long range, not giving away cheap fouls in dangerous areas as well as better marking on set pieces, all basics in modern football coaching. No clean sheets all season says it all.
Overall, one gets the sense of imbalance between defence and attack in almost every Rovers line-up with far too many light-weight attack-minded players lining up and arguably only one defensive player, if any, in the front 6. That puts a lot of pressure on the defence, and even though Rovers are averaging more goals than usual, they let in far too many easy goals to even reap the benefits of misusing statistics like Kean had recently when he said “we’re 6th in the league when it comes to scoring goals”. In terms of the type of goal scoring, Rovers score almost 40% of their goals from set pieces. Sam Allardyce who?
Under Steve Kean there has been a huge turnover of players, both in and out of Ewood Park. One of the first things that Kean did when he took over was to gain the support of senior players. That was achieved by signing them all onto longer, more lucrative deals. During his first season, Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica joined on undisclosed amounts, although Rochina cost one-third what the agent brokering the deal made out of the deal. Little detail is available on Formica’s transfer. Kean also signed Roque Santa Cruz and Jermaine Jones on loan deals. The latter was one of the key performers that helped keep Rovers up in the Premier League. More should have been done to sign him this season on a permanent deal as his performances had been priceless. He made a lesser team get better results than it even should have.
This summer, Kean signed Myles Anderson, son of an agent close to Steve Kean, Serbian international midfielder Radosav Petrovic, David Goodwillie, Brazilian journeyman Bruno Ribeiro, Simon Vukcevic, Yakubu, Scott Dann and Jordan Slew. Anderson was signed “for the future” whilst Ribeiro, 28, and a right back, a problem area for Rovers this season “has not adapted”, according to Kean. Goodwillie, signed from Dundee United, was highly rated in Scotland but after starting a couple of games early in the season has been sitting on the bench for most of it and looks short of the pace or skill to succeed in the league. Dann has had mixed performances this season at center back, whilst Vukcevic has only recently started after an injury to Junior Hoilett. Petrovic has not caught up with the pace of the Premier League and seems too similar to Nzonzi, who is already at the club. Jordan Slew has been more a case of Jordan who? On a brighter note, Rochina and Formica have both played regularly for the club this season. Only Yakubu can be judged a success as of this point.
Looking at the current make-up of the starting line-up, having signed a right back in Ribeiro, Jason Lowe has been playing there in Michel Salgado’s absence. Most recently at home to West Brom, Salgado was said to be injured by Kean, even though he had traveled to Hamburg to play a charity match a few days earlier. Morten Gamst Pedersen has featured in central midfield even though Petrovic was signed for that area. Kean has spoken about signing a goal-scoring striker in January even though he signed 3 strikers in the summer window.
Overall, there has been a poor handling of transfers in and out of the club. Who has signed these players is a valid question. If it has been the manager, then that’s another nail in his performance as manager. If it has not been the manager who has signed them, then that creates a whole array of different questions.
At the end of the day, managers are judged on results. Whether the supporters like him or not, if they win, everyone is happy, unless you are Brazil and then winning isn’t everything. Steve Kean’s league record as Blackburn Rovers manager reads played 37, won 7, drawn 11 and lost 19 matches. He is one short of a 38 game Premier Leaague season, but currently stands at 32 points during those 37 matches and has 0.86 points per game. Even if he picks up a win in his next game, 35 points is a very low total that would result in relegation during most seasons. His record this season is even worse, as a stand-alone one. He has picked up only 0.62 points per game, winning only 19.6% of points available.
Kean’s 2011/12 record is even more striking when put across some of the worst managers to lead teams in the Premier League, including a man who many considered the worst manager they had ever seen at Rovers, Paul Ince. Ince was in charge for 17 matches, ironically, and led his side to 3 wins, 4 draws, 10 defeats with a total of 13 points, giving him 25.5% of points on offer.
The worst managerial record, in terms of percentage of points won against matches managed, in Premier League history falls to Portsmouth’s Tony Adams who had 15 games in charge. He won twice, drew 4 times and lost 9 times, giving him 22.2% of the points on offer, still a higher than Kean has managed this season. Even Avram Grant, relegated twice, with Portsmouth and West Ham, has a better record. He has managed a Premier League side 63 times, won 12 times, drawn 18 and lost 33 times, giving him 28.6% of the points on offer. Those facts ultimately mean that Steve Kean’s stewardship this season makes him the worst manager in Premier League history. Overall, even when coupled with his poor record last season, he is still among the worst managers that have ever led a team at this level.
The half-time team talk is one of the cornerstones of a manager’s role. Endless games are won from losing positions. Endless games are lost from winning ones and a lot hinges on those 15 minutes which a manager has with his players. During Steve Kean’s 37 Premier League ties, the following holds true. In the 2010/11 season, if matches ended at the end of the first half, Rovers would have had 5 wins, 12 draws and only 3 defeats under Kean. They would’ve had 27 points instead of only 22. However, what is more striking is if one only looks at the second half scores, Rovers would’ve had 1 win, 6 draws and 11 losses. Overall, Rovers won only 2 points from losing positions and lost 9 points from winning ones.
In the current campaign, if only first half scores were taken into account, Rovers would’ve had 3 wins, 8 draws and only 3 losses giving them 17 points. If second half scores only stood, then Rovers would’ve had 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats, giving them 12 points. In either scenario, Rovers would have been better off than now. The side has won 5 points from losing positions and lost 10 from winning positions.
What does this all mean? Effectively, when it comes to pitting wits against other managers, Kean almost always comes out the loser. A lot also goes back to his inflexible tactics and the lack of changing things as a reaction to what the other side does. Maybe he simply does not know what to do. At the same time, a key element of Rovers season has been dropping back deeper and deeper in second halves especially if in a non-losing position. As that happens, Kean stands motionless on the sideline, seemingly giving his blessing to a suicidal move, which has cost Rovers at least 10 points (statistically).
Press Conferences & Attitude
Some of the press has recently picked up on the fact that Bolton’s Owen Coyle is currently going through form which is even worse than Steve Kean’s Rovers. They’ve begun to wonder why Kean has been getting the bulk of the criticism lately whilst Coyle has been safe, at least in the papers. Coyle hasnt talked a big game during his time at Bolton. He has been humble, kept his head low and taken the criticism on the chin. In fact, he recently said that fans have the right to boo their performances and took responsibility for their predicament, as any manager would and should.
Steve Kean, on the other hand, has only tried to keep one friend during his time as Rovers manager, and that is the Chairwoman, Mrs. Desai. It has kept Kean his job for this long, but its a losing battle for him. He has not tried to be diplomatic with the fans at any time. He has never tried to be realistic with his targets, promising Champions League football within a couple of seasons, European football in the near future, and top 10 football when at the bottom of the table. These assertions infuriate supporters who are watching the side on a weekly basis and can see what the side is capable of and what it is not.
The general media does not follow events at Rovers too closely and is mostly arm-chair followers who comment from time to time, hence some criticism of the fans for being fickle as well as a “good manager does not become a bad one overnight”, famously quipped by Rovers legend, Alan Shearer. The stats disagree with the ludicrous assertion that Kean was ever a good manager.
A manager manages the resources at his disposal and that includes creating a harmonious atmosphere at the stadium, bringing in the right players and ultimately getting the right results. Kean most recently in the aftermath of the West Brom defeat said that “the table will look better if we beat Bolton”. In reality, it will not. Rovers will still be in the relegation zone even if they are closer to getting out, they will be no closer to moving towards the “top 10″ fantasy which Kean has been selling to the owners for a long time. His infamous “only 1% of fans are against me” comment also served to add tension to an already heated situation.
Had Kean taken an approach like Owen Coyle has done off the pitch, chances are Rovers fans would have received him better, although the circumstances over his hiring would have always had a dark cloud over him and this marriage may have been doomed from the start. Nevertheless, if Kean had gotten the results, none of the other things would have mattered and ultimately putting all subjectivity aside, results are what matters and Kean has failed miserably.
What Happens Next?
A majority of Rovers fans have prepared themselves for relegation and financial meltdown as a consequence. The running of the club in terms of the financial side currently has major questions marks over it and that is worrying. But as long as Rovers are in the top flight, then supporters would be able to hope for better days on the financial and management fronts.
Blackburn Rovers end the calendar year with two tough away matches at Liverpool and Manchester United. Money will be on the home sides during those games. That leaves a do or die match at home to struggling Bolton. Anything less than a win would make it impossible for anyone to save the club, considering that Rovers would have to play 6 matches against the “Big 6″ during their last 19 games. That would leave 13 matches of which Rovers would need to win at least 9 of them to survive. That is Champions League form. Win against Bolton and things do not change that much but at least there is more realism to the scenario.
At either rate, Steve Kean should have been already sacked. No logical reason points towards his long stay at the club. There is nothing that supports anything that he is doing is leading the club towards any light. Win, lose or draw against Bolton and Kean has to go. Venkys already take the blame for hiring such an incompetent manager in the first place, but they may somehow buy some reprieve if they choose the right man to succeed him. They must look at facts and not hire a man without the right experience, or winning track record. Football is a simple game. Stats and facts usually don’t lie. Upturn in fortune does not happen baselessly. Kean’s delusion may lead him to actually believe that he feels that “we will go on a long unbeaten run any game now” but there is nothing to even suggest that Rovers will win back to back games let alone go unbeaten.
Note: Only managers with at least 15 matches managed at Premier League levels throughout their career were considered for the statistics provided above