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I have to admit I’m beginning to miss League One a bit – the lovely familiar teams, the grounds I know and the players I’ve spent many years with. Tranmere Rovers epitomise League One, and they top it currently in a fashion I can only describe as ‘unexpected’. I just wondered what had changed at Prenton Park to bring about this change; when I asked a Tranmere fan on Twitter (and thanks!) he said ‘Ronnie Moore’. I’m sure its not just Ronnie Moore, but am I wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. This is the first of three posts I’ve got scheduled, of similar nature, about teams who are performing differently to the general expectation before the season.

Big Obvious Changes

The first thing I noticed when gathering my numbers together to approach this was that Tranmere are playing a different formation this year to last. Ronnie Moore employs a rigid 4-4-2, whereas Les Parry used to favour one more direct striker being flanked by midfielders (its written as 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, but I’m not convinced that’s bang on, and he always claimed 4-3-3. Not 4-4-2, anyway).

This season’s results have been, pretty much, entirely different to the season before, and the averages in the league tables are vast – this season, they score an average of 2.29 goals per game, compared to 1.07 last year (and 1.02 the year before), whilst conceding 0.29, compared to 1.15 before summer (1.41 in 10/11). Yes, its pretty a small sample size this year, but such a difference even at this stage suggests a different approach – Tranmere aren’t able to bring in a lot of highly paid players, so there must be something deeper at work.

trfc1.jpgThe Subtlety

Games aren’t all about goals and points, though. Sometimes the best performances bring about defeat, and sometimes the worst bring victory, and the rules of normality may well drag Tranmere down a little in future, but we can only work with the numbers we have available and these, I ought to mention, come from the Football League website, rather than any of its media sources (that’s important to note, because the numbers are slightly different from place to place for reasons as yet unknown).

Tranmere are being pretty clinical in front of goal this season – particularly in comparison to last; scoring a goal once every 4.6 shots at goal. This is a vast improvement on last season’s goal every 11.4 shots at goal; and pay attention to the curvy line at the top. They are, comparatively, hitting the target more often, too; over 50% this year, compared to high forties the previous two seasons, but the discrepancy isn’t massive between the three figures, it has just manifested itself to prove so – the percentages are the axis on the right, by the way.

trfc2.jpg

There is a big difference at the other end, though; using the figures I’ve got to hand, Owain Fon Williams has saved 94% of the shots on target he’s faced this season (2 goals in 6 games, that works out at), up from goalkeeping performances of 81% and 74% in previous years. Now, Fôn Williams is a good keeper, but I think we will see that figure drop somewhat as the season goes on – if he can keep it up around 85%, though, on previous season’s form, he’ll only let in around 40 goals.

There’s a nice additional feature to the goals Tranmere have been scoring, too. They are, by and large, in the second half. Of the 16 league goals so far, 11 have been after the break (the two conceded were both very late in their repective halves); its too early to make any assumptions about Rovers’ fitness, but it would make Stevenage and, I presume Preston, when Graham Westley’s methods are enforced, interesting opponents when those games come around. Indeed, it might not mean anything about fitness, and more about resilience – about how sticking to the plans reaps its rewards later than sooner. Tranmere have yet to score before 12 minutes, or in the twenties of minutes, fact fans, so look out for that.

The Speculation

All this leads me to wonder why. I’ve done a lot of reading (and indeed some watching of highlights) and there’s a definite theme to the goals they’ve scored – other than Andy Robinson’s hat-trick, they’ve either being taking advantage of defensive lapses or, more pertinently, surging into the area (both left and right) to put crosses in, with bodies in the box to finish them off. Sounds simple when you read it like that, doesn’t it?

Tranmere players, mind you, have only made 9 assists from the 16 goals so far (some 56%) which is a massive tail-off from last season’s figure of 81.3%; initially, I thought initially, that this was a bad thing, but as I look deeper I don’t think it necessarily is. If Tranmere were rigidly creating goals in the same way, it would be very easy to counter-act them, and to nullify the threat as the season goes on. If you read their official website’s reports of the goals, as much as there’s a fair bit of ‘whipped in cross’, there’s also a fair bit of ‘Andy Robinson free kick’, and an encouraging amount of ‘through ball’; this variety is probably why Tranmere have been so successful so far – certainly, the possession figures aren’t any different to previous years, so I can only assume that, glib as it is, the tweak of formation of Ronnie Moore has been the thing that’s made the most difference.

In creating better chances in different ways, Tranmere have been able to score the goals that have shot them top of League One. Of course, there’s a lot that might catch up with them (squad size, departure of key players in January, suspensions) but the signs are encouraging that when they do begin to regress to the norm, they will still be one of League One’s better sides.

Good luck, Rovers, and keep up the good work.

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