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Can Tony Mowbray lead Blackburn to the Premier League?

Tony Mowbray has got Blackburn firing against the odds
Tony Mowbray has got Blackburn firing against the odds

Expectations were low at Ewood Park.

Blackburn Rovers had lost top goalscorer Adam Armstrong late in the summer, with little of the transfer fee made available to re-invest in the squad.

The structure at the club felt chaotic at best, many felt time for change in the dugout had come and many were fearing a descent for the Lancashire club into relegation trouble.

Not on Tony Mowbray’s watch: the long-serving boss has overseen an excellent start to the campaign, with Rovers accruing 16 points from their first nine games, sitting as high as 6th in the Championship.

How has he done it? 

Here are five factors, followed by a look at how Rovers will need to go forward if they are to match or better their current form between now and the end of the season.

Championship Odds

Brereton Diaz steps up

Losing a striker that scored 29 goals last season would have hurt a lot of teams and the big question was how Blackburn could replace such a prolific striker.

After all, with debts to settle, they were certainly not in a position to spend a sizeable portion of the £15 million on your stereotypical “guaranteed Championship goalscorer”.

Instead, Mowbray has had to look internally and luckily, Ben Brereton – who happens to be half Chilean - had the confidence boost of being called up to play for La Roja at 2021 Copa América.

Brereton – or as he is more recently named, Brereton Diaz, over a social media campaign – made his debut from the bench against Argentina, before scoring his first international goal against Bolivia.

Holding his own on the same stage as Messi, Neymar and Roberto Firmino has given Brereton the lift he needed to fill Armstrong’s void at club level.

The 22-year-old has already scored seven second-tier goals – nobody in the division has scored more at this stage – and carries a constant threat with his running in behind.

Consistent defence

Rovers suffered from an unstable rearguard last season, with Mowbray’s frequent tinkering doing more harm than good, thus putting more onus on the goalkeeping strengths of Thomas Kaminski.

This season, though, there has not been as much pressure on Kaminski, who has started all nine league games – along with three of the back-four.

Ryan Nyambe’s absence at right-back has at times been enforced through injury, with centre-back by trade Hayden Carter proving a solid deputy, if lacking the athletic 22-year-old’s drive and thrust.

On the other side, Harry Pickering – who’s arrival from Crewe was agreed back in January – adds plenty of quality and is just as comfortable making an overlapping run as he is utilizing the inside space and bringing his technical ability to the fore.

Blackburn to win the Championship

Blackburn
WIN PROB: 0%
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Odds correct as of 2021-10-22 11:50 Odds subject to change.

Blackburn to win promotion

Blackburn
WIN PROB: 4%
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The Lenihan and Ayala pairing

The remaining two ever-presents in this Rovers rear-guard, though, are Darragh Lenihan and Daniel Ayala.

Lenihan is a strong, uncompromising centre-back who, due to his experience playing in midfield earlier in his career for Burton, is not afraid of the odd challenge.

Ayala, meanwhile, brings height, positional intelligence, leadership and a wealth of experience, having won promotion previously with Middlesbrough.

The only concern for Mowbray would be Ayala’s injury record, because history suggests the 30-year-old is unlikely to be fit for all of the remaining 37 league games.

Nonetheless, the Blackburn boss could turn to Carter – excellent at centre-back for Burton in the second half of last season – so long as the 21-year-old is not covering at right-back, while the other options would be late August recruit Jan Paul van Hecke when fit and the unproven Tyler Magloire.

Using the academy

On the subject of Magloire, the 22-year-old is one of eight academy graduates to have featured in the league for Blackburn this season.

Nyambe and midfield dynamo Lewis Travis are already well established as first team regulars, but there are some new faces moving further up the conveyor belt.

John Buckley has been a fringe player in the previous two campaigns, managing just five and seven starts without ever massively standing out, but this year he has stepped up a level and made huge contributions in midfield with his shrewd interceptions and smart passing ability.

Daniel Butterworth, on the other hand, is starting to influence games from the bench with his clever use of the ball: in fact, in his combined 62 league minutes on the field, the team has scored three goals and conceded none.

Even forward Tyrhys Dolan, though not technically an academy graduate having signed from neighbours PNE last summer, has come to the fore surprisingly quickly and become a fan’s favourite.

Because Mowbray and the management team have developed these young players so well, Rovers’ limited spending power has become less problematic.

Mixed loan deals

Four of Blackburn’s five signings for the senior squad this season have come in the loan market, so getting at least one or two of them right has been crucial.

Much like Butterworth, Reda Khadra – joining on loan from Brighton – looks the pick of the signings, adding pace and trickery from the bench which has swung a lot of games in Rovers’ direction.

Jan Paul van Hecke, also from Brighton, has found opportunities had to come by due to injury, while Ian Carlo Poveda-Ocampo has displayed more of the questionable application that predates his time at Ewood Park.

Leighton Clarkson, from Liverpool, has shown the technical potential to be an excellent number six – certainly at Championship level if not higher – but needs to work on dealing with the physical side of the game.

How do Blackburn maintain this?

Mowbray’s troops currently have the lowest average possession in the Championship, at 40.7%. That in itself, of course, is not an evil.

Neil Warnock’s Cardiff side won promotion from this level in 2017-18 with similar figures, perhaps Sean Dyche’s Burnley in 2015-16 and Chris Hughton’s 2016-17 Brighton were not far off either.

What all those sides had in common, though, as well as the ability to attack quickly in transition, was a focal point: when opposing sides dropped off, they had somebody to go direct to in Kenneth Zohore, Sam Vokes and Tomer Hemed respectively.

What Blackburn must hope is that Sam Gallagher, having been used predominantly out wide by Mowbray, can be that man.

Gallagher competes for on average 15.7 aerial duels per 90 minutes and wins on average 7.5, which could make the 26-year-old a crucial outlet for the Lancashire outfit.

Whenever they are struggling to open up an opponent, they need merely ask Pickering, Clarkson or Buckley to pick out a diagonal to the former Southampton forward and, if the pass is accurate, he has a 48% chance of winning the duel and getting the team possession in a more advanced area.

Blackburn are in the top six, primarily, because of their stout defending from Lenihan and Ayala, plus excellent counter-attacking play through Joe Rothwell’s ball-carrying ability, Brereton Diaz mobility and finishing as well as the impact of Khadra and others.

There will be times, though, when the breakaways are not viable and that’s where Gallagher holds the key to Mowbray’s hopes of maintaining this unlikely Play-Off challenge.

Championship Promotion Odds

Fulham
WIN PROB: 67%
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AFC Bournemouth
WIN PROB: 64%
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WIN PROB: 64%
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Stoke City
WIN PROB: 20%
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Coventry
WIN PROB: 14%
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Queens Park Rangers
WIN PROB: 13%
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Sheffield United
WIN PROB: 11%
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Middlesbrough
WIN PROB: 8%
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Blackburn
WIN PROB: 4%
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Millwall
WIN PROB: 6%
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Luton
WIN PROB: 6%
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Nottingham Forest
WIN PROB: 6%
1
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Huddersfield
WIN PROB: 4%
1
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Swansea City
WIN PROB: 4%
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Birmingham
WIN PROB: 2%
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Preston
WIN PROB: 2%
1
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Reading
WIN PROB: 2%
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Blackpool
WIN PROB: 2%
1
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Cardiff
WIN PROB: 1%
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Bristol City
WIN PROB: 1%
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Barnsley
WIN PROB: 0%
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Peterborough United
WIN PROB: 0%
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Hull City
WIN PROB: 0%
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Derby
WIN PROB: 0%
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Odds correct as of 2021-10-22 12:24 Odds subject to change.
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