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How Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Dino Maamria have transformed Burton Albion

The Boss: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
The Boss: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Paying much attention to the league table two games in is foolish.

Across the last five League One seasons, a team has won the opening two games on 19 occasions: of those 19, the side in question has gone on to finish in the top-half just nine times.

Title-winning 2017/18 Wigan (Paul Cook) and 2020/21 Hull (Grant McCann) might have kicked off their campaigns with back-to-back wins – but so did 2020/21 Wigan (John Sheridan) and 2018/19 Gillingham (Steve Lovell), who went on to finish just a place above the relegation zone.

Burton’s opening two victories should not be taken automatically as a sign that they are ready to emulate the heroics of Shrewsbury, who began with a series of narrow victories in 2017/18 en route to a Play-Off Final defeat to Rotherham.

In fact, it remains more likely that Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s side are keeping themselves clear of the bottom four come April than chasing the Championship dream – but then again, it’s hard to ignore their record in its broader sense.

League One Promotion Odds

Since Hasselbaink and assistant Dino Maamria took charge in January, the Brewers have accrued 50 points from 26 games: their return of 1.92 points per game in that sequence is better than every team remaining in League One.

At the very least, the East Staffordshire outfit are likely to beat the drop far more smoothly than last year, when they suffered from the inexperienced guidance of Jake Buxton.

How have the dream duo done so well so far? Let’s have a look – but with the strong caveat that it’s early days...

Balance in attack

Burton’s plan for chance creation is simple: attack quickly in transition, then look for the quality at the end of it.

The strength of stalwart Lucas Akins and the raw pace of summer recruit Omari Patrick, in the attacking quartet means both forwards command attention from opponents – especially in the left channel.

This, in turn, means more space can be available to two more technical operators - either on the right or in the hole – like Jonny Smith or Joe Powell.

Take the first goal in the 2-1 victory over Ipswich, for example: Tom Leak cut out an opposition attack before Terry Taylor played a diagonal out to the left flank, where Lucas Akins drove forward with typical power.

With Patrick providing a decoy run in the other direction, a chasm appeared centrally for Powell to take a clean strike at goal.

Jacob Maddox started ahead of Powell initially but the former Cheltenham academy graduate was forced off through injury in the first half of the opening day 1-0 victory at Shrewsbury, so the left-footed artist has since been granted opportunities.

Powell is supported by the neat-footed Jonny Smith who, as well as providing agility and skill, is more than capable of taking advantage of Akins and Patrick’s runs by carrying a threat from outside the box.

Getting Smith, a player with long-term Championship potential, on a permanent deal back in January – when the team was rooted to the foot of League One at the time – remains a massive feather in the cap of Hasselbaink but also Maamria, who worked with the Bristol City wide man during his 2019-20 loan spell at Oldham.

Set piece threat

Smith’s corners are excellent and that was proven in Shropshire, when one centre reached the back-post for John Brayford to head home.

Conor Shaughnessy will occupy opponents because of his height at 6’3, likewise fellow centre-back Ryan Leak, who joined following a successful trial in July: the duo are able to deal with any crosses that come into the box with Leak winning 14 aerial duels – only Matthew Pennington of Shrewsbury and Sean Raggett of Portsmouth have won more.

Burton managed to score from a dead ball scenario at Shrewsbury and will enhance their threat when they bring in Michael Mancienne, Michael Bostwick or Aaron Amadi-Holloway.

The Brewers can cause problems for opponents from Thomas Hamer’s long throws, which are not only a weapon with which to cause carnage inside the penalty area, but also help the team up the pitch – if used correctly.

If Burton’s work off the ball is good enough to force clearances into touch, then they are guaranteed to be able to work the ball a third of the way up the pitch because of Hamer’s quality from those scenarios.

Defiant defending

If the basics of defending are described as “meat and potatoes”, then Burton certainly have nailed down the Leak and potatoes.

The Brewers have blocked 12 shots and made 36 clearances this season, the most in League One on both counts.

That could be interpreted unfavourably: they are allowing a high-volume of shots that require last ditch interventions and perhaps, in future, some of the equivalent efforts against them will make their way through the crowd of bodies, either cleanly or via a ricochet.

Spirited defending and a willingness to put bodies on the line is an admirable trait, if not perhaps a reliable blueprint for success.

Then again, these brave blocks and courageous clearances highlight a spirit about Burton and a determination to keep the ball out of the net at all costs.

Leak has been a revelation at centre-back, likewise Conor Shaughnessy, in a position that looked potentially weak when it was revealed that Deji Oshilaja was signed primarily to anchor the midfield as an alternative to Mancienne or Bostwick.

That suggests the Brewers will be a side capable of grinding out a 0-0 draw or a 1-0 win when their attacking game plan does not come to fruition, which may be something to value.

Impeccable work rate

Burton have had on average just 42.1% possession so far this season; on paper the joint-second lowest so far, though the fact Rotherham have the lowest with 42% highlights a negligible difference.

The fact the Brewers have conceded just one goal in two games without much of the ball highlights the excellent work rate from Hasselbaink’s side.

In fact, the East Midlanders managed eight successful tackles in the opposing half against Ipswich, showing a desire to disrupt the rhythm of their foes.

It starts with the work ethic of Omari Patrick – the godson of former Olympic sprinter Lynford Christie – who sets the tone up top for strong pressing displays.

Will Hasselbaink rotate?

Burton’s game plan centres itself around excellent work without the ball and, when it is difficult to afford quality in every position, there is nothing wrong with Burton playing to their strengths.

Nonetheless, this physically demanding style will take a lot out of the first XI, so Hasselbaink will have judgement calls to make.

Should he lean towards the advantages of maintaining a consistent side – tactical familiarity and optimum quality?

Alternatively, should he consider the pluses of rotation – freshness and hunger from those coming in?

That will be a tough balancing act as the season progresses, but there is an argument for the Dutchman to make more efficient use of substitutions.

Hasselbaink had to replace Maddox with Powell in the first half at Shrewsbury due to injury, but his only other switch in Shropshire came as late as the 82nd minute and it was a similar story on week two.

Taylor had to be replaced just before half-time and it was not until the 89th minute that Smith was replaced with Michael Bostwick, who provided an extra defensive aerial presence in the closing moments.

There may be an argument for striker Aaron Amadi-Holloway, who is strong in the air and has an excellent work ethic, to come on around 70 minutes into future matches to re-enforce the press and give Burton an aerial outlet for the latter stages of their games.

Garratt guarantees saves

Garratt fared well for Crewe in League Two in 2018/19 and, despite struggling for games initially, has been a regular pick since Hasselbaink took charge in January 2020.

The 27-year-old is not the best at distribution, perhaps surprisingly for somebody who played 222 league games for Crewe, but he is an excellent shot stopper and has proved that already this season, stopping a Scott Fraser penalty.

John Brayford

At 33, Brayford might not any longer be of use to an expansive, possession-based side looking for full-backs to attack the flank, but he has his uses in this Burton setup.

The former Sheffield United man has blocked three shots, more than any other right-back in League One, while only Tendayi Darikwa has completed more clearances than his six.

The good news for Hasselbaink is that he can manage Brayford’s minutes, too, with plenty of depth in the full-back positions.

This Burton squad has three potential left-backs – all-action Frazer Blake-Tracy, the enigmatic Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and utility man Tom O’Connor – capable of filling in to allow Thomas Hamer to fill in at right-back, where Oshilaja can also do a solid job.

With nine players capable of filling in multiple positions, Burton look well-placed to cope with an injury crisis.

The boot fits

Hasselbaink’s relationship with Burton is a curious one.

The Dutchman could justifiably be called a club legend having led the Brewers to the League Two title in 2014/15, having laid the groundwork for promotion from League One in the following campaign, and having comfortably kept the club in the third tier last term from a situation that may have seemed hopeless in January.

Each of those achievements, for a club with a history in the lower reaches of non-league football, are incredible – even allowing for the brilliant boardroom leadership of Ben Robinson.

The connection between the manager and the club feels close to that of John Coleman and Accrington Stanley, Gareth Ainsworth and Wycombe or, as a more recent example, Michael Duff and Cheltenham.

And yet, the crazy thing is that Hasselbaink has not yet completed a full season in charge of the Brewers, but instead overseen three incredible half-seasons – as well as a good start to 2021-22.

The Dutchman’s brilliance, which Brewers swear by, is doubted severely by QPR and Northampton fans, who were not expecting such a stark turnaround.

Some clubs and manager combinations just click and - whether or not Burton can turn a promising start into an unlikely promotion push - that has been the case at the Pirelli Stadium.

League One Promotion Odds

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Odds correct as of 2021-09-21 15:39 Odds subject to change.
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