Reds To Bloom In Tangerine

When Charlie Adam moved to Liverpool in the summer there were rumours that Jonjo Shelvey would move in the opposite direction and end up in a Tangerine shirt. It happened, but not as early as first anticipated. When the deal went through it wasn’t Shelvey who arrived, but instead Gerardo Bruna and Tom Ince came on permanent deals (although not officially as a part of the Adam deal). Shelvey eventually followed a couple of months later and signed a three month loan deal.

Latin & out again?

Gerardo Bruna has rarely featured for the Tangerines and is on the fringes of the match day squad. Originally recruited to be part of a development squad, he made some intriguing cameos in pre-season, but is yet to make a start in the league. However, since the development squad idea is being questioned by the club, it is now unclear what role he will have at the club.

Bruna describes his best position as a number 10;

“I love to play in the number 10 role and play in between the lines and play the final pass and score some goals”.

“I like to play just behind the striker or in midfield. I like to get on the ball and create for the strikers”.

He is unlikely to find that role at Blackpool due to 4-3-3 being their usual set up. Generally Holloway likes to line up with a holding midfielder flanked by two side midfielders to get forward and support the attack. When Bruna has figured in the team he has been played as a wide forward and he appears to lack the experience in that position to play it effectively. He appears tentative in a forward position, possibly inhibited by the sight of the touchline hemming him in. His performance against Sheffield Wednesday showed that he does like to drift in search of the ball. That tends to back up his own thoughts about his best position and it might be something that Holloway may encourage as it is similar to the way that Gary Taylor-Fletcher plays from a forward position.

He has a little burst of pace, but his frame is fragile and he struggles to sustain enough pace to get away from his man. Plus in the game against Nottingham Forest he came on to the right forward position and that appeared to show that he is very left footed. That isn’t necessarily an issue if a player has a swift change of pace, ease of movement or balance to change direction quickly. However, he appears to be a little short of possessing those qualities.

Whilst being a wide forward may not be his ideal position right now, perhaps it would be something that he could learn. However, Holloway appears to have been less than kind about his application in training. Whilst this could well be viewed as a motivating statement as opposed to one stating the end of his brief career with Blackpool it might be useful to see where he could fit in, should he start to develop his game.

He has an excellent first touch, his passing appears good, although it’s unclear at this stage if he has a full passing range, but it is doubtful he could switch play from flank to flank given a perceived lack of leg strength. He has tricks to beat men in closed spaces and his vision appears good and will comfortably change passing angles and pick out spaces and gaps behind a defence. He also seems to have a latent aggression that has emanated in a few lunges, but that may hint at a playing aggression that could be channelled in to his play.

If he has a future at Blackpool he may need to develop his game and change his aspirations away from his beloved number 10 role. He could be a good inside midfielder on the left given his ability to pass the ball and create. However, the skill set for that particular midfielder also includes, tackling, strength and stamina too. All three of which are key weaknesses and ones that will take time to improve. The questions are: will Holloway allow him to develop at Blackpool or move him on to develop and come back or leave altogether?

No doubting Thomas

Tom Ince has made a much better start to his Blackpool career. His progress is more widely charted than his Argentinian colleague, but it is still useful to examine him in a little more detail. First impressions were of a young player with pace and a trick, but perhaps running too much with his head down, narrowing his field of vision. Taking his place as one of the two wide forwards he appears to have developed with the game time he has had. His first touch is solid, but inconsistent, his passing lacks consistency too. His appreciation of pass weight still seems a little slack and has led to concession of possession at times. However, he has good acceleration and sustains his pace well to beat men. His tricks are a little readable and could do with adding more subtlety and disguise to elevate his one v one play. On the evidence of his strikes against Doncaster he can hit powerful shots and allied to that his delivery from wide free kicks and corners can be useful. He could do with developing more variety to his delivery and perhaps developing his pace of delivery and craft to move the ball with more bias towards the end of its flight.

It appears that mentally he is strong, resilient and doesn’t appear to lose his composure the closer he gets to the opposition goal. Following on from a point made earlier, he needs to increase his field of vision to appreciate his options earlier which will also help with his decision making. Overall, his development appears to be some way ahead of Bruna. If anything he is assisted by the fact he suits the system that Blackpool play and settles well in to either wide forward position and has even dropped deeper and centrally at times. Although in the latter position he lacks experience. However, there’s no reason why over time he couldn’t develop in to a central role, but all the signs are that he is a potentially dangerous attacking wide player. Where he goes from here will be interesting. He appears ambitious and will want to move on at the earliest opportunity, however, his long-term career may well be best served with a lengthy apprenticeship by the seaside under Ian Holloway.

Under the Shel

Most eagerly anticipated upon his arrival was Shelvey. Physically he looks strong and imposing; standing around six feet tall and well developed muscularly fitting the archetypal model of a young English footballer. He has good pace and his stamina looks strong right to the last minute. There are very few doubts about him physically. However, Shelvey may still be developing mentally, both as an adult and as a footballer. The following quote from him lends an insight in to his mind;

“I didn’t know until I got in at half-time and someone mentioned the sending off. I thought they were playing with 11 … obviously I’m that thick!”

This hints at a lack of intelligent thought on the pitch and is possibly an area of concern and could be retrograde to his development and success back at his parent club. At the level that Liverpool aspires to they need intelligent players off and on the pitch. However, he clearly understands space and exploitation of opportunity and with his physical attributes he can seize moments in games and has already shown his willingness to try to dominate by calling for the ball and attempting to command his team mates. He appears to have a strong drive and winning mentality and perhaps this will override his other mental shortcomings.

His first few appearances for the Tangerines saw him take his place in the midfield and whilst his positional sense is solid, his attacking instincts can see him lose his shape in an orthodox midfield three. He has a good range of passing, but his timing and selection of pass is inconsistent. Also, as with Ince whilst his first touch is good it also lacks consistency. In low pressure games, he could easily dominate, however, should a team sense him ponder they could easily throw him off his stride. During the game against Burnley this happened, and he was soon taken out of the midfield as Holloway switched to a conventional 4-4-2 with Shelvey taking up position wide left. Here he looked like he appreciated facing the play with the ball coming on to him and in behind the defence, as well as trying to isolate his opponent in one v one situations.

As has been seen with the goals he has scored he can shoot with both power and accuracy and he appears to be a natural goal scorer, in fact it could be argued that he has the skill set for a central forward role. He can play with his back to goal, he can use his strength to dominate a centre back, drop deep to receive and create both from deep and further up the pitch. In fact in the last two matches he has been taking up position as one of the wide forwards which has seen Blackpool win twice and Shelvey grab a hat trick against Leeds United. Arguably Blackpool’s midfield has been a more coherent unit without him in there, but it has also left him in a position which appears more natural for him. Finally, his tackling is good enough for midfield, but a real concern is his recklessness in the challenge. Against Burnley, he went in to a challenge without looking and went over the top of the ball and put his opponent in danger and he should have been sent off.

Shelvey is only at Blackpool for two more months, but already he has enjoyed some success (5 goals in 7 games), when he returns to Liverpool it is unlikely that he will be ready for first team action right away and another spell at Bloomfield Road (or another club) would help him develop even more. Whatever happens, Liverpool has a versatile attacking talent, who, should he mature and deepen his understanding of the game could prove to be useful for them in the long term. However, given Liverpool’s aspirations and the distance Shelvey has to develop to reach their level it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was allowed to leave Anfield in the summer.

Tomorrow is another day

What is really interesting here is that these are three attacking players coming through the same academy in the last year or two, yet have progressed at different rates and have different skills and abilities. They may have spent varying times at the academy and been touched by other academies elsewhere, but it does offer an intriguing perspective on academy development and development of young footballers. Where these three players traverse as they climb their personal and professional mountains remains to be seen. Early indications suggest two of these players will play Premier League in the long term whilst one may have to work harder to catch them up.

Tangerine Talent Timeline

The information in this article is nothing new. If you’ve read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed or it’s predecessor ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell or any number of magazine and newspaper features, blog posts such as this one by 11Tegen11 or most recently on the BBC website. All of these make the point that it can often be the month of your birth that determines your success. At the heart of the theory is a piece of work conducted by Roger Barnsley who first spotted this when referencing an ice hockey team in Canada. It also has its roots in the work of Anders Ericsson who has studied talent for many years.

Developing differences

In very broad terms the theory suggests that players are more likely to be scouted if they are born in the first few months of the selection year. For example, if the recruitment year is September to August as it is in football in England then it’s possible to have one child playing with or against another child who is almost a year older. Child A could be born on the 1st September and Child B is born on the 31st August. Consequently Child A has almost a year more of growth in his bones and would give him a considerable advantage in height, strength etc. The theory suggests that these children are scouted as they can physically dominate their smaller counterparts. They then go on to receive the best coaching and advance their development.

The reason it’s being explored here is mainly by pure chance. No new insight can be given on the matter here, but a new data set can be analysed for similar patterns and shared. That chance came when viewing a website (sorry, I cannot remember the site) that listed all the players that have played for Blackpool. Dates of birth were listed, so an opportunity to test the theory came about. The results of that testing will be shared below.

There are caveats around this data*. Firstly, it is in no way a definitive list. Secondly, no referencing to other data sources has taken place to ensure accuracy. Thirdly, some players had dummy dates attached. Fourthly, a small number of the players were born in the 19th century and perhaps not subject to the same forces as their modern counterparts. Lastly, some of the players are from countries outside of the UK and their recruitment years will vary.

Applying it to ‘Pool

The first sort of data produced the graph below. This show each player’s birth month categorised in a calendar year. For instance, you can see that there are 32 players born in January.

January to December

What should be immediately obvious is the spike that occurs in September. In fact the highest month is September at 39 players and the lowest is July with 17. It seems a relatively compelling illustration of the birth month theory. In order to make it more compelling the data has been re-ordered in to the months of the recruitment year, September to August. You can see the outcome below.

September to August

This perfectly sums up the bias towards the recruitment of players in the early months of the recruitment year as you can see the line tail off over the course  of the year.

Maybe tomorrow

This has been done purely because it was of interest to try this with a new set of data, what won’t be done here is to delve any deeper. The books mentioned earlier provide superb material to keep you thinking and are highly recommended. However, it is of interest about how you can get round such bias. The sooner football clubs can get around this then the more likely children will be brought in to game with more game specific talents, such as speed of thought, vision, creativity and less around the physical attributes that are easier to monitor. For a club like Blackpool this may not necessarily need to be a factor as their youth programme produces relatively few first team players, but if the national game is to step up then this is an area that must be overcome with extensive work and improved scouting skills.

 

*338 players were listed on the site. 9 were removed as they had no date of birth attached, therefore 329 players formed the data used here.

Part Two – The Shape Of Another Journey

Blackpool’s inconsistent start to the season caused consternation and frustration amongst the Blackpool support and presumably staff and players too. However, two wins in their last two games have now left the team in fifth place and looking in better shape than they were two games ago. The majority of what you are about to read was written in the light of a 3-1 defeat to Burnley, however, the analysis here may well be useful when Blackpool hit another rocky patch later in the season as similar issues may be at the heart of any problems.

Gone, gone, gone!

First and foremost the most obvious thing missing from Blackpool this season is Charlie Adam. Added to that, both DJ Campbell and David Vaughan left the club in the summer to stay in the league where they rightly belong. What that means in measurable terms is pretty easy to define; however, it has also meant a great deal of upheaval on the pitch too with new players having to come in to replace them.

Statistically Blackpool lost a significant chunk of their goal scoring output, both Adam and Campbell contributed 25 goals last season which equated to 45% of the total goals that Blackpool scored. In the previous season they scored 27 goals which amounted to 36% of the total.

In losing these players and those goals it has led to a selection dilemma for Ian Holloway and this is perfectly summed up when considering the fact that he has rarely stuck with the same first eleven. Barry Ferguson has come in and replaced David Vaughan, but perhaps doesn’t have the same energy as Vaughan. Whereas, Kevin Phillips has come in to replace Campbell but even though he has scored he may not link up play as well as his predecessor. However, more crucially Adam’s goals and goal creation are yet to be replaced. Losing players is a part of football and it’s how a manager copes with that which ultimately determines his success. Either you go like for like, recruit then fit or make concessions for replacements.

Shape Shifting

A closer look will now be placed upon the way that Blackpool are setting up on the pitch. For a bit of background, Holloway has deployed a version of a 4-3-3 system for most of his time in charge. Last season the midfield shape varied mainly due to a pre-season injury to Keith Southern before reverting to a flatter midfield shape towards the end of the season. As stated earlier it appears that Charlie Adam hasn’t been replaced and arguably he cannot be replaced for the budget that Blackpool has available. He was the crucial link from deep midfield to attack and to understand why that is affecting Blackpool now, his role and position must be understood in more detail.

The inter-relationship and roles of players on the pitch give formations their dynamic. For example, a 4-3-3 could be seen as a chain of relationships on the pitch that need players to combine. Not just from within one department i.e. the defence, but from more than one. The diagram below will hopefully give a visual representation of the point and to show how the side midfielders (Adam & Southern) relate to the defence and the attack.

Vital linkage

Last season, David Vaughan sat deeper in the midfield than Adam, who occupied the left hand side of the midfield three. His team within a team, aside from the midfield unit was the team of left full back and left forward too. Through this structure he excelled at bringing Stephen Crainey in to the play and building attacks with him and the left forward. This bridged the distance between midfield and attack and when it worked was when Blackpool were at their most devastating.

The balance on the right of midfield was missing for two reasons. Either Elliot Grandin drifted centrally or Keith Southern tended to sit more instead of advancing with his unit. However, as Gary Taylor-Fletcher offered the team creativity from high up on the pitch on the right it helped to make up the balance. So how is this affecting Blackpool this season?

Effectively that link no longer exists, the left footed midfielder has disappeared and with it, that link too. Stephen Crainey appears to get forward less often and Blackpool’s attack often appears slow and predictable. One key point of creation has been removed and a key point of team cohesion too. It will take time to eradicate and Ian Holloway has appeared to struggle to overcome this.

Narrow minded

The impact of losing Adam has caused a knock on effect for the midfield, which has been further hampered by the early season injury to Grandin. The opening game at Hull saw Grandin attack more aggressively than Adam would have and often he failed to track back. If you want an idea of the formation, it was very much a 4-2-1-3. In going for a 4-2-1-3 in the first match Holloway lost a little sight of the flatter midfield three and once Grandin was injured, Taylor-Fletcher was used in the role to varying degrees of success and arguably removed his forward from his most potent position as that of a forward, dropping deep to receive. This has led to Blackpool getting really out of shape and awkward at times and this has made Holloway twist and turn to get his new players in to something that is workable. Allied to Grandin’s forward positioning, Keith Southern has tended to stay deep and even drift centrally making Blackpool’s midfield shape very narrow. The diagram below shows how Blackpool’s links in the 4-3-3 have become stretched.

Really stretching the midfields effectiveness, making them narrow and easy to play against.

Stream of consciousness

This loss of on-field shape has emanated itself in two ways, an unconscious way through players losing their way in a new system and more recently a conscious decision by Holloway to change the shape. What does this mean? Blackpool’s midfield shape had the midfield triangle of players pointing towards the opposition goal instead of the other way round in a conventional 4-3-3 shape. As both of the two players who have dominated in that role (Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher) are naturally attacking and have fewer defensive instincts that someone like Adam. This meant that at times this season they have been caught high up the pitch and any numerical advantage a three-man midfield might have given Blackpool has been lost. You can see this in the diagram below. When attacking, the formation has looked like an aggressive 4-2-4 and even at times a 4-4-2. This happened at times last season leaving Blackpool exposed in midfield and it has started again this season. When Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher are on their games such an application of their skills can be amazing to watch, however, lose the ball and all of a sudden Blackpool are open and ready to be attacked.

It appears that Holloway acknowledged that the shape was too flimsy with the players he was using and consciously switched the team in to a 4-4-2 after a treble substitution against Doncaster which contributed to a comeback and a 2-1 win. He followed up against Nottingham Forest with a 4-4-2 but with less effect and switched mid game against Burnley to a 4-4-2. This was a sign that Holloway could see his team and how they were naturally forming on the pitch and for him to switch to 4-4-2 must have riled him as he doesn’t like the formation. However, you can see his logic for taking these steps and actively pushing his team towards a change of shape. It doesn’t appear to be a way forward and the recent 5-0 victory over Leeds saw him move back towards his more conventional 4-3-3. The question will be, will he switch back to the more attacking 4-2-1-3 once Grandin is fit again and if he does, will he remember to revert to a flatter midfield three when things are going against his side.

New solutions?

Blackpool are at their best when they string together short passes and vary the tempo and point of attack. However, managers know this now and are actively trying to stop them and this has been key to Blackpool’s inconsistent start. Last season few managers tried to alter their style to combat Blackpool and paid the price with a defeat. This season Blackpool are there to be shot at. Hull did what they could to stop Blackpool in the first game, but Derby were the first team to really jam up the midfield and stop Blackpool playing. It is here that Holloway and his players have been slow to find ‘in game’ solutions to tactical problems being posed. Partly because of the players at his disposal, but partly because this is a new experience for them. They’ve been used to having space to play their game and express themselves, but now they are back in the Championship teams want to throw them off their stride and deny them all the space they can.

The midfield approach of some teams this season has exploited the previously mentioned issue of an aggressively placed midfielder and accentuated the distance between Blackpool’s midfield and attack and contributed to the cutting off of the supply to the forwards.

A narrow midfield four and effectively split Blackpool's 4-3-3 shape

The diagram above highlights how a well-drilled midfield has overcome Blackpool and effectively divided their team. Added to this Blackpool have been slow to react in the game. Both Charlie Adam and David Vaughan have excellent appreciation of tempo and when to start picking up the pace of pace to circulate the ball faster. Blackpool have few midfielders to do this now and any numerical disadvantage they’ve suffered could have been overcome with quicker movement of the ball. It was noticeable in the game against Burnley that in the second half Barry Ferguson pushed harder when in possession to drive the team on and for the first time this season it appears like Blackpool’s midfield had gained a new dynamic. Add in the better ball skills of Ludovic Sylvestre in the game against Leeds and all over a sudden the solutions appear to be more forthcoming.

Let’s play Ludo

In fact, the reintroduction of Sylvestre may well have done more to reinvigorate Blackpool than the emphatic nature of the recent back to back victories. He offers the more natural midfield option, less likely to get caught high up the pitch, comfortable in the deep, he also appreciates game tempo and understand where passes should be directed in the final third. What this has highlighted is that the solutions Blackpool have been looking for aren’t that hard to find and hopefully Holloway will veer away from changes in shape to remembering what has worked well in the past and who he still has at his disposal.

Moving on

So what have we learned in this rather long-winded ramble? That Blackpool have struggled for consistency this season due to losing key players and not knowing how best to replace them. By losing sight of what they do well. By losing their shape that brought them so much success. And finally by not adjusting to sides who are happy to shut them out and take a point.

As highlighted in part one, this is a long season and no doubt Blackpool will go through similar cycles of poor and good form. However, the signs are forming that Holloway is learning that his new team may not be far away from showing their real potential.

Part One – The Start Of Another Journey

After a brief hiatus Tangerine Dreaming returns with a two part look at Blackpool’s start to life back in the Championship. This part will look at the season up to now and place it in a context and part two (coming later in the week) will take a look at the performances on the pitch seeking to understand the reasons behind Blackpool’s inconsistent form.

When Blackpool fans were melting in the heat of Wembley stadium there was something of a mirage forming in front of their eyes. Twice coming from behind to secure a victory and their place in the Premier League seemed surreal. On reflection that season tends to be viewed with great fondness, particularly for that day at Wembley and an incredible performance against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. However, when really breaking that season down it certainly wasn’t plain sailing and provides an interesting context that this season perhaps should be viewed.

Context & perspective

In reaching the play offs Blackpool racked up 70 points, finding the back of the net 74 times, which works out at a points per game average of 1.52 and a goals scored per game average of 1.61.

 

Three blips allowed

You can see on the chart above how Blackpool’s points accumulated over the course of the season. However, note how on three occasions the line went flat as they lost either back to back games or as in one instance, three consecutive games. This serves to demonstrate that over a season teams do have poor periods, but ultimately it’s how you recover from those upsets that determines how a team does by game 46. You can also see the step incline at the end of the season as the team pushed hard for the play-offs.

Heal & grow

Blackpool fans would no doubt like to see their team adjusting to life back in the Championship in a smooth fashion and riding high, it wasn’t like that last time around and with the loss of key players it’s not going to be like that this time around. Yes, the start Blackpool has had might strike the casual observer as odd, perhaps suggesting a hangover from the Premier League. Perhaps that is the case, but Blackpool are being rebuilt and that takes time. In his first season in charge it took Ian Holloway a considerable time to get his team functioning and this time around it may be the case again. Yes, an argument could be put together showing that he shouldn’t be in this position and that the club should have recruited in better time and funded a few more high profile signings. However, that wasn’t the case and Holloway has to play with what he has, adding loans where he can and hoping that he can land his main targets in the January transfer window.

Four changes

Just a quick glance at the teams from Ian Holloway’s first game in charge against QPR in August 2009 to the side who beat Cardiff in the final at Wembley shows how a side can evolve over the course of a Championship season.

 

The side that played Holloway's first game in charge is on the left, set against the play off winning team on the right.

That initial side (on the left above) had the nucleus of the team that ended up being promoted, however, four spots changed throughout the course of the season. Campbell came in to provide goals, Coleman with his attacking drive from full back, Ormerod with his intuitive running and instinctive timing and finally Matt Gilks who made the number one spot his own with his effective communication and shot stopping.

Completing the jigsaw

Blackpool’s last campaign saw the side develop over the course of the season and once the play off team was completed with the signing of Seamus Coleman from Everton the team went on a run over the last nine games of the season to secure their play off spot. Whilst this isn’t an ideal approach it gives hope as the season progresses and after every set back a quick glance across to the last time out will help to ease any worries. In fact before the play off side was completed Blackpool averaged 1.35 points per game and 1.43 goals per game. From the moment Coleman came in the points per game went up to 2.22 and goals per game jumped up to 2.33.

What a difference some loans make

Whilst this doesn’t offer a direct comparison it hopefully shows how a side evolves from beginning to end. This season is different and offers different challenges, but looking at the nucleus this time around Blackpool currently have around four spaces in their first eleven that are waiting to be taken. Those players are out there and may already be in the squad. It’s up to Holloway to find them and blend them; if he does it in a timely manner then Blackpool will be looking up. If not, then he may require a little more patience from the terraces as he looks to the following season for his new team to come to fruition.

Finally, when looking at the first 14 games of this season against the last season in the Championship Blackpool really aren’t much worse off. Last time out they had 23 points on the board, scoring 19 goals. This time out (bolstered by a 5-0 rout of Bristol City) they’ve scored one more goal (20) but have 4 less points.

When is a bad start not a bad start?

Marathon, not a sprint

Monitoring this season against that last Championship season may well be the best tonic for Blackpool supporters as well as the understanding that teams do evolve in this league. The length of season allows for mishaps and loss of form and the availability of loans allow teams to flex their personnel almost on a monthly basis should they wish. The comparisons made here aren’t flawless, but offer some guide, however, it’s always important to be mindful of what happened last season. Nottingham Forest grabbed sixth place with a total of 75 points, so Blackpool may well have to go further than last time they were here in order to get in to the play offs.

Part two of this analysis can be found here – Part Two – The Shape Of Another Journey