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Manager and Player of the Month Awards - September
Bulut, Bell, Burrows 'n' Barry belong in our batch of brilliant b*stards.
Hello! Did Ashley Ward ever win an A.Ward? That’s the sort of thing on my mind around the turn of each month.
You’ll notice that we’ve entered October. And yes, there has been a round of fixtures in midweek. However, the qualifying material for these Awards include only league games played in September and none in October. Some of the Managers below lost a match on Tuesday night—frauds!
Still, it doesn’t change the fact that in September 2023, they were the ones for us. Enjoy!
Erol Bulut - Cardiff City
Our Championship Manager of the Month started it with a defeat. Yet even that 3-2 loss at Ipswich could give Cardiff fans hope.
Away to a team now second in the table, who’ve lost only three of their 39 league games at Portman Road under Kieran McKenna, the Bluebirds had led 2-0 with Aaron Ramsey showing his class. Although Cardiff’s defence was hardly blameless in Ipswich’s comeback, they were the victims of deflections for both Freddie Ladapo goals, following a tremendous strike by Nathan Broadhead. It also marked a first and last appearance for on-loan goalkeeper Runar Alex Runarsson, with Bulut acting swiftly, decisively and possibly out of borrower’s remorse.
Still, having lost that match, and having already dropped points in stoppage time away at Leeds and Leicester, Cardiff’s heads would surely drop as well.
Nope. What followed was a comfortable, commanding and cathartic 2-0 victory over Swansea, after a historic run of four derby defeats under four different managers. Wins against Coventry, Sunderland and Rotherham followed, and suddenly the Bluebirds were in the top six.
What’s Bulut’s secret? The players actually seem happy, for a start. It’s infectious: even the news of Ramsey’s injury prompted fewer “Well, that’s then then”s from fans than it might’ve done, especially as Cardiff then won three on the bounce without their talisman, captain and greatest ever youth product (oh, all right, second after John Toshack).
There’s more to it, though. Despite arriving with a reputation for rigidity, Bulut has encouraged attacking intent. By the end of September, Cardiff were 40% of the way to last season’s goal tally, with the widest array of scorers in the league: 11 different players, with another two in the League Cup. That competition brought some fun experiments, most notably ‘picking no centre-backs’, and this willingness to adapt has leaked into league line-ups. Ramsey could have been replaced more naturally by Callum Robinson or Rubin Colwill in the 4-2-3-1 that Bulut brought in his carry-on luggage from Turkey, but instead the shape was adjusted to 4-1-4-1 with Manolis Siopis – an excellent Bulut-led signing – holding the fort while Ryan Wintle and Joe Ralls attack.
There’s been no stubbornness with personnel, either. This summer, Kion Etete and Ollie Tanner – both 21, both signed in 2022, the latter from the Isthmian League – were expected to leave on loan. Yet Tanner’s hard work in pre-season and Etete’s goals in three League Cup appearances earned them increasing match time and league starts, peaking with Tanner’s excellent strike in the South Wales Derby bringing the young winger his first professional goal.
It took a leap of faith for Bulut to join Cardiff, having managed exclusively in Turkey up to now, and a leap for Cardiff to hire him. Appointments in the Welsh capital have tended towards the direct, don’t-like-it-up-’em school of management, while Bulut’s predecessor, Sabri Lamouchi, was only the club’s second manager from outside the UK and Ireland. They also, amidst a transfer embargo, trusted Bulut’s judgement in signing Siopis and defender Dimitrios Goutas, even though both were 29 and had spent virtually all of their careers in Greece and Turkey. Both have been excellent, while in-situ players such as Wintle and Perry Ng have improved.
Will it last? Perhaps, perhaps not. But Bulut has laid impressive foundations.
Jack Clarke - Sunderland
Sunderland fought hard in the summer to keep Clarke, with Burnley reportedly trying to prise him away from The Stadium of Light. That now looks like a decision which could be the difference between Sunderland challenging for promotion to the top flight or not.
Clarke scored six goals (two of them penalties) in September, accounting for 40% of the 15 his side scored in total, as the Black Cats won four of five games to catapult from 18th to 4th in the Championship table.
His four open play goals came from 0.36xG according to Fotmob, so Clarke has shown a phenomenal finishing ability, with the best of them coming last time out against Sheffield Wednesday. He picked up the ball on the left hand-side and drove at the, admittedly non-existent, Owls defence before firing a trademark right-footed shot into the far corner.
It’s not all about goals with Clarke though, with his ball-carrying ability allowing Sunderland to dominate the left-hand flank consistently in games. Nobody completed more successful dribbles in the month than Clarke, and only Kyle Walker-Peters was fouled more often.
He’s fast becoming the hottest property in the Championship and more months like this will mean Sunderland’s resolve is tested again come January.
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Sam Bell - Bristol City
A goal is a goal. But not all goals have an equal value. Given that the team scoring first wins around 70-75% of matches, a goal to make it 1-0 has huge value. No-one needs telling how valuable they are.
The Winner and the Opener: the two most valuable goals in football.
In September, Sam Bell scored three goals. Two of them - against Argyle and Stoke - put Bristol City 1-0 up within the first five minutes. One of them won them a massive game away in Swansea. He’s been rewarded for a cracking month with his second new contract in the space of 12 months.
Many thought that Anis Mehmeti would be the Antoine Semenyo replacement in January. Sam Bell has made the left sided forward role his own. While he doesn’t have the eye-catching 1v1 dribbling ability of those players, he’s shown himself to have an impressive nose for picking up goal scoring positions and finishing chances as demonstrated with his composed, tidy finishing in September.
Crucially, he works hard out of possession, pressing, harrying and generally demonstrating the high-energy style that’s becoming the key trait of this Bristol City side. It’s clear that Nigel Pearson values those traits just as much as the fact that he can score goals at a higher rate than most wide forwards - only Jack Clarke and Jon Rowe have scored more among Championship wide forwards.
Bell is efficient. All seven of his league goals for Bristol City have been first-time finishes. Four have been with his left foot, three with his right foot.
Work hard. Press hard. Run hard. Finish well. Those are good traits for a young attacker.
Enjoying his journey from ‘ball-boy to bagsman’ as per the Bristol City club website, Sam Bell is our Championship Young Player of the Month.
John Mousinho - Portsmouth
As seen last month, we don’t believe that choosing the Manager of the Month award should be as simple as ‘most points = best managerial performance’.
However… sometimes, when it looks like a Manager of the Month, and it smells like a Manager of the Month, then it’s probably a Manager of the Month.
Three tough away fixtures were on Pompey’s September slate. They travelled often and they travelled well: a win from behind at Wigan, a blitz at Barnsley in which Pompey were 3-0 up after 16 minutes and a draw at Derby.
Add in those home wins against Lincoln and Peterborough and you have a month in which a consistent level of performance, mixed with a sky-high level of motivation and confidence, has seen Pompey hit the top.
Portsmouth are now unbeaten in 21 league games, and Mousinho has only lost 4 league games out of 34 as a manager. This speaks to a level of leadership that permeates a club and a dressing room. It manifests itself in focus and quality in difficult situations, whether that is responding to going a goal down, or seeing out a narrow win—both of which have been features of Pompey’s strong month.
Last season showed there was clear room for attacking improvement and a need to develop a side that could rely on others for goals, not just Colby Bishop. So far, so good. Wide players Paddy Lane and Abu Kamara have four goals between them, Regan Poole and Conor Shaughnessy - one of our Perfect Pairs from last week - have four goals between, and the attacking midfielders, Alex Robertson or Christian Saydee, have offered a clear goal threat without yet scoring. All the while, Bishop has six for the season.
One wouldn’t want to rely on set piece goals to win points to the extent that Portsmouth have in the last month. However, the set piece prowess should be seen as a positive, and Portsmouth’s quality from them is no fluke: most set piece shots, highest xG, joint-most set piece goals, per Opta.
There is still room for improvement. On the Monday Pod, I praised Portsmouth for displaying a consistent, repeatable level of performance, but I don’t yet think we are seeing a level of dominance displayed by last season’s top two, Plymouth and Ipswich. But there is nothing to suggest that they’ve hit their ceiling yet.
Mousinho is down to earth. He speaks openly in the media, explaining his decision-making, and being honest about what comes off, and what doesn’t. He doesn’t moan or make excuses. It’s not hard to imagine a group of players wanting to do well for a manager like that, and it’s no surprise that he has won round a group of fans high on expectation and low on patience.
He was, for some, the cheap option. Now, for many, he’s the messiah. For us, he’s just
Ken League One Manager of the Month.
Marcus McGuane - Oxford United
McGuane had no goals and no assists in September. He didn’t even have a shot. Hell, he only created one chance in the whole month. Why on earth did we choose this guy to win this prestigious and coveted award?
The answer is fairly simple. Football is about goals and assists, but it’s also about a lot more and in McGuane you have the most important player for a side who won three of their four games, and sit second in League One with a game in hand on table-toppers Portsmouth.
The former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder is finally delivering on his promise at Oxford, dominating the midfield both in and out of possession. Liam Manning has given him the freedom to carry the ball, and a regular sight at Oxford is McGuane winning the ball in deep areas, and then driving Oxford up the pitch.
His seven successful dribbles is the most of any Oxford player in September and only eight players in the league have made more. Given his holding midfield role, this shows just how valuable his ball-carrying can be through the heart of the pitch.
He also has the 2nd best pass completion rate in a heat mainly contested between centre-backs, with only Ryan Bennett of Cambridge eclipsing his 92%.
There is a fair argument that McGuane has been the best player in League One this season, with Oxford fans cheering the news that the club have an option on his contract which was thought to expire next summer. He may not get the plaudits due to his lack of goal contributions, but opposition fans left games against Oxford in September cooing over his performances, which is the kind of intangible stuff these awards are all about.
Harrison Burrows - Peterborough United
With a goal and two assists, Harrison Burrows had the most goal contributions of any U21 player in League One in September. That trusty left peg was in fine form: he also created the most key passes of any League One player, split evenly between set pieces and open play. His two assists are split similarly - a beautifully shaped deep cross onto the head of Clarke-Harris against Bolton, an out-swinging corner onto the head of Clarke-Harris against Cheltenham. He put Posh ahead against Cheltenham after a frustrating hour or so waiting for a goal, joining the attack to be the ‘extra man’ at the back post and tapping in.
Despite starting 70 games for Peterborough at age 81, over the last two seasons, it still felt like Burrows was struggling to find a home on the pitch. A left wing-back role seemed perfect on paper, but what if the manager wants to play a back four? Was he strong enough defensively to be a regulation left back? Was he dynamic enough, good enough 1v1, to play as a left winger?
The fact that he spent much of last season playing in a #10 role suggests that a) his managers were also chewing over similar questions but, crucially b) desperate to find a space for him in the side due to the qualities he brings.
Over the summer, things became clearer: Burrows was given the #3 shirt. It was a statement. Peterborough United would play a back four, and Burrows would be the left back. And that’s where he’s started every league game - a key senior player for Darren Ferguson’s side, even wearing the armband on a few occasions.
Burrows does get targeted defensively, and this is an area of his game that needs improving. If he can build on his physicality and defensive awareness, he is a player that could absolutely fly.
At his current level, he is still one of League One’s standout young players, and he takes the gong this month.
Scott Lindsey - Crawley Town
Crawley Town finished September 2nd in League Two, surely one of the most surprising fast starts in the EFL this season. They were meant to be this campaign’s crisis club, favourites for relegation with the bookies and with a fanbase who were trying to force unpopular owners WAGMI United out of the club after a hellish first year in charge.
Despite all this, and having seen some of his best players in Dom Telford, James Tilley and Jack Powell let go, Lindsey has managed to steer Crawley to an unbeaten September in which they won four games, drew away at pre-season title favourites Stockport and scored 16 goals.
This included a 3-2 win at Grimsby where they came back from 2-0 down to win it thanks to an injury time Danilo Orsi goal in a display that shows the belief Lindsey has managed to instil in his side, which one could say about the whole month given that they lost their last game in August 6-0 to Swindon.
Over-performance on prior expectation is a good way to measure managerial performance, and in Crawley we have a side doing that with little discernible reason beyond an exceptional effort from Scott Lindsey.
Liam Kelly - Crawley Town
Crawley had a great month, played brilliant attacking football, and midfielder Liam Kelly was the orchestrator. With three assists and a goal, he made a strong goal contribution, but to focus solely on that would be to overlook his importance.
Kelly made the second most total passes of any central midfielder in League Two in September, fulfilling the role of midfield metronome brilliantly. But Kelly isn’t a middle third operator that’s content to just build up play and then leave the rest up to his teammates - he also made most final third passes and most passes into the box of any of League Two central midfielder, helping Scott Lindsey’s team unlock defences.
In Crawley’s most difficult moment of the month, 2-0 down to Grimsby, Kelly stepped up. His goal may have been a fluke, but check out the off-ball movement in the build-up. Three minutes after shanking that left footed cross into the top corner, he made a similar same move, shimmied past a defender and hung it up for Ronan Darcy to volley home.
His technique is Championship level, no doubt. He’s a sprayer. Give him time and space on the ball and he can put it wherever you want. He’s a conductor. He has an understanding of when to recycle and play safe, when to play forward. And when he does that, he does so with quality well above the level.
There’s no getting away from it: he’s very short, one of the shortest outfielders in the EFL. That’s a real disadvantage in a physical sport, and it’s the only reason he is playing in League Two. It’s a beauty and a quirk of our sport that it’s possible to have a player with this level of technical ability AND “Football IQ” playing in the fourth tier, but that’s where Kelly finds himself.
Some managers would steadfastly refuse to play someone of his size in the Midfield Battleground. But the best managers have an ability to build systems that highlight the strengths of their players, and hides their weaknesses. Scott Lindsey has doing exactly that and is reaping the rewards.
Louie Barry - Stockport
It’s hard to believe Louie Barry is only 20 years old (and will still be 20 at the season’s end). Watching him duck inside from the left and effortlessly stroke the ball into the right inside netting each week, it’s even harder to believe he’s still being loaned to clubs in League Two.
Goals in seven consecutive league games tell only part of the story. Stockport’s attack is a team effort, and Tanto Olaofe has been fantastic alongside Barry even before you consider the quality of Paddy Madden, Nick Powell and Will Collar in support. Barry has added individual sparkle to a cohesive unit. His assist for Collar’s winner against Wimbledon, for example, came from a move that was started by Ryan Croasdale and featured slick build-up play from Ethan Pye, Antoni Sarcevic and Barry himself, before the Villa loanee beat his man and delivered a pinpoint low cross for Collar to put away.
But obviously the goals matter. The man, or boy, is a constant menace. His five September strikes all found the same corner of the goal – the last four, virtually the same square of net – but with such precision that no goalkeeper could stop them (although Accrington’s Jon McCracken should probably have guessed where he’d put the penalty). Barry’s seven goals have come from nine shots on target. With most League Two players that might seem unsustainable; with Barry, it’s a testament to his finishing, backed up by his xGOT figures.
In each of the past two seasons, he’s been recalled from a League One loan and sent to League Two, but it may be the other way around in 2023/24. In a way, we hope not. After five loan moves in two and a half seasons (Ipswich, Swindon, MK Dons, Salford and Stockport), which followed a disrupting period as a youth player that took him from West Bromwich Albion to Barcelona and then back to the West Midlands, it’d be good to see him given a whole campaign at one club, supplying that same finish, hitting that same square of netting. Again: he’s only 20.
Agree with our picks? Disagree? Let us know, and as ever… go well!