Key player: Lucas Akins
Arguably the only man who is even more of a Burton institution than Hasselbaink is winger/striker Akins. He has smashed every record in the book for the Staffordshire side, joining in time for back to back promotions and staying to become their record appearance-maker and goalscorer.
He’s traditionally been at the heart of their recent success. He can play either as a wide forward or up front, displaying great versatility. This allows managers to easily integrate him into any formation they might wish to play. Historically, he’s also been an ‘assist king’ almost always topping their charts.
Last season, however, despite Burton’s great run of form, Akins himself registered by far his least productive campaign. He registered zero assists throughout the season and whilst he did get eleven goals, that’s the least he’s got in a season for the Brewers at this level. In a way, he’s the key player because he’s the biggest variable. Is it just a slight decline in creativity or, at 32, is he on the decline?
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Manager: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
Like fish and chips with a sunny day on the Barbican, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is now indelibly linked with Burton Albion FC. An unusual mix, you may have said twenty years ago. The Dutchman was one of the best strikers in the world and the Brewers were languishing in non-league. It is however at Albion where he carved out his managerial niche.
He first came to English management in 2014 where he managed to successfully negotiate their promotion out of League Two. The really impressive spell however, was their start to 15/16. The newly promoted side sat atop the league when JFH was poached by Championship QPR.
His stock fell rather fast with bad spells at both QPR and then Northampton. After a long spell out of management, the time came for Burton to put out an SOS call. Hasselbaink came in on New Year’s Day with minimal expectations. They were rock bottom of the league, way adrift of safety.
He made 7 signings in the January window and turned their fortunes around with a stunning run of promotion form that took the brewers comfortably into lower-mid-table. He’s pretty firmly established as a legend at the Pirelli Stadium.
Rock: Deji Oshilaja
Oshilaja is an astute signing for Burton to improve their weak defence of last season, after only four sides conceded more goals in League One. There’s been lots change from the team that looked certain to be relegated on New Year’s Day, but the defence still needs looking at, and Oshilaja can go some way to improving that.
He’s a leader at the back, an ex-captain of Wimbledon, who is faster than he looks and dominant in the air. He’s not the best defender in the league, but in a compact defence he’ll do his job admirably to help keep the door closed. At the bottom end of the table, clean sheets are worth their weight in gold.
Key departure: Ryan Edwards
Edwards was Burton’s Player of the Season last time out and it’s not hard to see why. As an all round central midfielder, he’ll not be easy to replace. A player of curious dual nationality, the player was born in the city state of Singapore before moving to Australia as a baby. He will doubtless see himself as Australian, not only having represented their youth sides, but actually denouncing his Singaporean citizenship on the date of his 21st birthday to avoid having to do military service.
Whatever you can say about Edwards off the pitch, he was certainly a fighter for Birmingham on it. He could pass well but also tackle hard and whilst he didn’t contribute hugely in the way of goals and assists during his two years at the club, his energy in midfield was crucial in allowing them to win the battles they needed to. He’s now gone back to the pacific to play in the South Korean second tier, despite manager Hasselbaink’s statement that he’d made every effort to keep him at the club. A crucial component in their climb up the table, will they be able to keep the momentum going without him?
Target: Avoid relegation
It’s not yet clear which Burton we will see next season: the side that won two of their first 22 games up to the beginning of January, or the one that won 13 of the next 24 in the second half of the season. Just because they turned things around last season, doesn’t mean that trend will continue this coming season.
Their squad still looks a bit unbalanced and lacking in quality to me – too many squad players but not enough first-team players. Of course it could come together, and Hasselbaink has a superb record at Burton – if not elsewhere – with a 59% win record (three wins in every five games!). But I have doubts, and wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in and around the relegation battle going into the second half of the season.
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