In his four-season tenure at Blackburn, Mark Hughes guided the club to three top-10 finishes, including 7th place last year, and two appearances in European competition. He compiled an 82-47-59 record in competitive games over that span, and his team conceded over 50 goals only once. It’s fair to say that he turned the fortunes of Blackburn Rovers around after their lean years in the late ’90′s. Hughes accomplished a lot with a small-market club, making his team very competitive without spending a lot of money to do so.
Hughes moved on, earlier this summer, to a better opportunity at Manchester City, where he’ll have a bigger stadium to draw fans and more financial backing from the owner. In his place steps Paul Ince, a standout central midfielder in his playing days at Manchester United, Inter Milan, and Liverpool, among others, as well as England’s first black captain. I did a post on Ince in the days after he was first hired by Blackburn, so I’m not going to rehash all the smaller details, but suffice it to say that he’s been a successful manager at the lower levels with Macclesfield Town and then MK Dons, winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and League Two with the latter last season.
Ince has never managed above League Two and has only two seasons of experience in the head coaching capacity, so he certainly needs to justify this appointment to lead Blackburn. Soccer is soccer anywhere you go, I understand that, but going from League Two directly to the Premiership is a quantum leap up in quality and remember, Ince isn’t exactly working on a large budget.
He came into the job guns-a-blazing, saying he fully intended to keep his best players. While no one is doubting that to be true, money talks, and Ince has already sold star right winger David Bentley to Tottenham for $30 million up front and Brad Friedel, who spent eight seasons at the Lancashire-based club, appearing in 287 league games in the process, to Aston Villa for $4 million.
Along with Roque Santa Cruz, those two were Blackburn’s most valuable players a season ago. They combined to start in 75 of a possible 76 league games between them, with Friedel starting all 38 and conceding 48 goals. Bentley tallied 6 goals and 11 assists in the Premiership, the best numbers of his career. Santa Cruz scored 19 times in 36 starts, an impressive goal-to-game ratio, in his début season for Blackburn but without Bentley’s set pieces and crossing ability from open play, there’s no way the Paraguayan international would’ve been that prodigious.
Ince has brought in two players to replace Bentley and Friedel. Paul Robinson, formerly England’s number one, was acquired from Tottenham for $7 million. How Robinson is worth more than Friedel is beyond me, seeing as the former is so much more error-prone and hesitant in the air. With that said, though, he was still one of the top keepers on the market and Ince had to snap him up. Carlos Villanueva has come to Ewood Park on loan (with an option to make the deal permanent next summer) from Chilean side Audax Italiano and will try to fill the void left by Bentley. Ince tapped into his Old Trafford roots to bring Danny Simpson in, also on loan, who will challenge Steven Reid and Brett Emerton for playing time. Reid is more naturally a central midfielder, but the addition of Johann Vogel late last season has pushed Reid to right back, at least in Blackburn’s summer friendlies. Emerton started 25 games at that position last year, but the 21-year-old Simpson is the only pure right back of the three.
Blackburn is strongest in the back, a trademark of Hughes. There are no standouts amongst the back four; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They’re not spectacular by any means, but they’re efficient, sturdy, and get the job done. Stephen Warnock has crafted a nice career for himself at left back away from Liverpool, where he was unlikely to ever be first-choice. He’s a guy that can get forward and chip in on the attack if needed. At 6’5″, Christopher Samba is an intimidating presence for opposing strikers and can win most every aerial challenge in which he’s involved. His partner in the center of defense is usually the club captain, Ryan Nelsen, although Andre Ooijer can play there too and may to start the season with Nelsen representing New Zealand in the Olympics, with Aaron Mokoena another candidate to fill in. Zurab Khizanishvili is good cover in case of injury to any of the starters.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
CMF: David Dunn (vice-captain)
LMF: Morten Gamst Pedersen
ST: Santa Cruz
Blackburn starts the season with two road games out of three in August — at Everton and West Ham — with a visit from Hull City in between. Two victories in those games would be a successful month for Ince, and it’s important he gets off to a good start.
The Pride of Lancashire then welcome Arsenal, Fulham, and Manchester United to Ewood Park, sandwiched around a trip to Newcastle. That’s a difficult stretch for Ince and his boys, even with those three home games.
After a home game against Middlesbrough on October 25, Blackburn hits the road for four of their next six matches, including tough games at Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and Tottenham, all participants in European competition this season.
It gets considerably easier after that, though, with an eight-game stretch comprising most of December and all of January in which it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Blackburn to take all 24 available points. Why? Well, the road matches aren’t too imposing — at Wigan, Sunderland, Fulham, and Middlesbrough — and the home fixtures aren’t either — Stoke City, Manchester City, Newcastle, and Bolton. I don’t think Blackburn will win all eight games, though I could see a 6-2-0 record there to push Rovers into the thick of things.
They close out the season against West Brom at home, a game that comes after tough assignments at Man City and at Chelsea with Portsmouth coming to town in between.
Bottom Line: For Ince, anything around 10th place would have to be considered an accomplishment in his first season as a manager in England’s top flight. Ince needs to readjust the style and quality of the Premiership after spending the last few years as a player and manager in the lower leagues, where the “hoof-and-chase” kickball approach is often employed. Losing Bentley and Friedel could turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it may lower expectations for the club, which is still going to be very competitive.
We’ll move into the top half of the table tomorrow, so check back in the morning and early afternoon for the previews.