One Door Closes……..

As almost everyone will know by now, West Ham beat Blackpool to make it back to the Premier League whilst Blackpool will have another season in the Championship.

The match itself held few surprises. Tactically it was relatively predictable with the majority of the elements cited in the preview playing out, even up to the drifting in at the back post by Ricardo Vaz Te which provide crucial at the end. In terms of analysis of the final the excellent The Seventy Two blog together a comprehensive deconstruction of events and it’s well worth a read. The key notes from the game were clearly the pressing, loose balls, Blackpool’s combination play, and the probing plays West Ham were making with long to medium distances passes to either win aerial duels or expose the space in behind Neal Eardley.

New Balance

Football is a game where balance is critical. Teams must be balanced in various ways and the job of the opposition is largely about throwing your team out of balance in whatever way possible. When games such as this are ‘in balance’ for large periods the game is generally settled by the team who converts the chances that come their way or handle the other critical moments, especially in defence. It is here where Blackpool fell just short. Matthew Phillips in particular will benefit from this experience as he’ll learn to clear his mind under pressure to execute his play with greater precision and quality. The Blackpool defence will add this to their learning as they continue their development in to a side that can defend, and perhaps this, more than the offensive side of things is where the two sides were separated.

In his second post match Sky television interview, Sam Allardyce laid his arm across the ‘inappropriate trophy’ that had just been handed over, he looked proud, tired and content all at the same time. However, it wasn’t the trophy that caught the eye, but the whiteboard in the background. Upon it alongside the names of Barry Ferguson and Stephen Dobbie were the words ‘Clean’ and ‘Sheet’. That was and always is a key priority for a man like Allardyce and even though they never achieved it, it can breed defensive discipline. Add this to the fact that the official man of the match was James Tomkins and you get a sense of where these teams have differed over the season. Tomkins has the qualities of a top defender (regardless of Blackpool’s goal), in that allied to his basic skills of heading and tackling, he has that ability at this level to not being exposed to the sort of last-ditch defending that heaps pressure upon teams. Blackpool on the other hand, has defenders who to the basics well, but perhaps don’t have the all round positional awareness at such a consistent level in order to quell teams in burgeoning moments of flight.

Hold up

In addition to this Blackpool missed the injured Gary Taylor-Fletcher as they failed to effectively engage the West Ham centre backs regularly in order to pull them apart or out of position. Kevin Phillips filled in, but despite his 16 goals this season, he appears to enjoy the latter stages of games when they breakdown giving him plenty of space to feast upon. He is superb at finding space, and his shooting is a sight to behold especially when unexpected and released early. However, the central striking role in this Blackpool set up, requires more than a traditional striker. It requires, part midfielder, wide forward and target man too. All too often when West Ham forced Blackpool to go long from back to front, Phillips failed to win  the ball. This left Blackpool’s midfield to work hard in order to mop up the loose balls that appeared as a result.

The winning goal perhaps perfectly summed up the critical differences between these two teams. Forced to go long from his goal kick Matt Gilks started the chain of events that would lead to him picking the ball out of the back of the net. Here’s the sequence of actions;

  1. Goal kick taken, aerial duel contested, West Ham won, returning the ball high and back in to the Blackpool half.
  2. Another aerial duel was contested, Blackpool won, ball returned to the half way line.
  3. Upon realising the ball was loose Jack Collinson was first to the ball and hit a first time pass to the left side in the path of Kevin Nolan who had started his run moments earlier.
  4. Ian Evatt runs over to cover, but Nolan managed to scuff a cross in to the box.
  5. The cross beats the first man, Neal Eardley.
  6. Alex Baptiste slips, falls over and the ball breaks towards Stephen Crainey and Carlton Cole.
  7. Crainey slips as Carlton Cole uses his strength to reach the ball and poke it to the unmarked Vaz Te.
  8. The rest is history.

Essentially there were four absolutely critical moments that created the final scuffle that Carlton Cole turned in to a goal. Of those four moments, two were ultimately preventable on Blackpool’s behalf and two combined in to one seamless move by a West Ham player who used his speed of thought, technique, positioning and awareness of movement ahead of him.

Eardley could have lunged and cut out the cross, Baptiste may have kept his feet and cleared, arguably Barry Ferguson could have anticipated the break of the ball that Collison seized upon. However, none of this happened, these things also happen for a reason. Yes, they brought back memories of Blackpool’s more calamitous moments in defence over the last few seasons, but as well as being a reminder of the past, it hints at what the future may have held. Blackpool’s Premier League campaign was littered with such defensive issues, and regardless of the recent defensive improvements, it’s in times of pressure where humans tend to revert to their old habits especially if the new ones are not fully ingrained.

Getting there

To see Blackpool at Wembley again was a privilege and to experience the flip side of the outcome might be an important experience for the players and supporters. There’s no shame in losing a football match, most teams lose more than they win, in fact football is probably a game of losses and how they are handled and built upon. This may seem a negative way of viewing things, but nevertheless it’s a way of viewing things. Acceptance goes hand in hand with this and whilst it is a noble approach to try to win every game, it needs to be accepted that more often than not, that won’t happen. Sides such as Stoke survive in the Premier League because they accept the games they are likely to lose and target those that they deem that winning is achievable. This isn’t to say that you give up, far from it, but sometimes you have to pick your battles. Again it’s about balance, going ‘hell for leather’ in trying to win each game can be exhausting. Knowing when to attack and when to defend is a fine art that only the best can master. There are signs that this Blackpool team are gradually getting more balance to their play. The earlier parts of the season saw the team losing their shape all too often making them weak and easy to pick off. It was common to see 6 of 7 players committed to attack leaving them exposed in transitions. Blackpool now attack with 5 or even 4 leaving more space for those players to attack and great security when a turnover occurs.

About the process

This is perhaps where Blackpool proves such a fascinating case; this side has quietly developed over the course of the season. The second half was stronger than the first and start next season in the same fashion with a smattering of further progress and automatic promotion may not be far off. It’s this prospect that perhaps offers Blackpool a better platform to jump from and in to the Premier League with a keen eye on keeping their status. The last promotion was a momentous feat, but it clearly caught the club cold and exposed their lack of structures, behaviours and strategy amongst other things. There are signs that the club has learnt from this and plans were being mapped out this time around should promotion have been gained i.e. under soil heating.

This leads to two aspects. Does the club carry out the potential (current) plans anyway? Or park them for the foreseeable with a view to revisiting them under certain conditions? Due to the way that Blackpool FC is operated, the biggest resource that the club has at its disposal is time. It’s unlikely that financial trouble will cripple the club as it has done and will do to other clubs. Therefore it’s far from unreasonable for the club to plan astutely and communicate plans effectively. The latter is critical as fans appreciation of the here and now is more keenly appreciated as they experience ‘stand still’ whilst other clubs buzz around in pursuit of glory.

Tough Nut

Obviously the Championship will have a different dynamic next season the six new teams will add their own levels of complexity. Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton will hope to follow the lead set by Norwich and Southampton in recent seasons and earn back to back promotions. Whilst Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves will bring their dishevelled states, dust themselves down and perhaps one or two of them will settle in to something good. Add this to the other good sides in the division and the Championship will be competitive as ever. Blackpool will require a few tweaks to their playing staff in the summer, but nothing too drastic. Keeping talent may be the biggest issues, but as Alan Pardew (after sending his scouts) warned on Sky after the final, Matt Phillips and Tom Ince perhaps need another season at this level. Wise words indeed and ones, if heeded, could grant Blackpool the explosive force needed to dictate games on a regular basis. In terms of recruitment, failures from January (Jamie Murphy and Michael Jacobs) may well be revisited as well as a follow-up on Ian Holloway’s stated admiration for Jacob Butterfield. However, the latter may well be in vain as Premier League teams appear to be waiting to swoop. The final pieces of the jigsaw may well come in the form of trying to secure last season’s successful loan signings such as Stephen Dobbie.

Another door opens

Whatever happens this summer, Blackpool must operate with an eye on being ready for pre-season. The last two summers have been borderline shambolic in terms of recruitment planning, albeit last season being better than the previous. This would go someway to keeping the balance and energy flowing at the club and hopefully the lessons from the Oyston money ‘scandal’ will have been learned and never faced again. For Tangerine Dreaming, the future is unclear. A summer break is needed as writing on Championship matches to the level desired is difficult due to the lack of useful metrics and the time needed to draw up meaningful articles. Expect a few close season articles in the next few weeks, read, comment and share as you wish. Thank you ever so much to everyone who has done the very same over the course of this season and since the blog started.

John

Tangerine Dreaming

Blackpool v West Ham – The Tactical Lowdown

On Saturday Blackpool and West Ham go head to head in the Championship play off final at Wembley in what should be a clash of contrasting styles which offers a feast for the spectators, partisans and neutrals alike.

As you are

If you know anything of either Ian Holloway or Sam Allardyce as people you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect from their teams as their teams reflect who they are. Allardyce is a big, imposing man, who as a player was strong in the tackle and committed in the air. Holloway was more technical, buzzing with energy and more gritty and determined than his modest frame suggested. On the other hand, Allardyce is often portrayed in the media as a belligerent ignoramus and Holloway as class clown. However, they are both very studious about the game and they understand their game deeply. Everything about this final suggests that it should be a fascinating battle, with two teams from different ends of the footballing spectrum meet head to head.

Game strategies here won’t be overly occasion specific, in that each manager is likely to stick to what they know. Allardyce appears to have a key rule in his strategy, stop the opposition and then build from that base with well-balanced attacks through direct passing and crosses in to the box. Holloway on the other hand will seek to control possession and escape any pressure exerted by West Ham, build through the team and attack relentlessly for the majority of the game.

Setting up

From a formation perspective Blackpool are expected to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation which offers more balance than their gung-ho 4-3-3 from last season’s Premier League campaign. West Ham on the other hand tend to favour a 4-4-1-1 framework, but in the first hint at the battle about to commence may try to block up Blackpool by switching to a 4-1-4-1.

The use of a 4-1-4-1 means that West Ham and Blackpool will match up relatively neatly across the pitch which essentially means two things. The team that wins the critical individual battles will gain a foothold and the team that utilises the space available will be at an advantage. The ‘battles’ are essentially something that will pan out on the day and non of them are easy to call. The midfield as always will be crucial, with the likes of Mark Noble and Barry Ferguson trying to lead their side by example with good challenges, reclamation of the ball and good use of the ball once in possession. Down the flanks full backs will be fully engaged and arguably the team with the better full backs will enjoy a great advantage.

However, the critical battle may be focused on the formation switch that Allardyce is likely to make. His holding midfielder (in this example James Tomkins) will likely be deployed to pick up Stephen Dobbie. Dobbie will attempt to float between the West Ham midfield and defence hoping to receive the ball to feet and link up with the other three forwards as well as engaging in one v one encounters where he’ll seek to use his dribbling ability to take men out of the game.

Cut out

Knowing where the space is on the football pitch is always critical and although ‘in game’ this is a very dynamic element there is a way of highlighting some theoretical elements from accepting players positions in relation to the space. The diagram below effectively blanks out the spaces covered by the players leaving only the areas that are available.

The most obvious aspect of the diagram above are the spaces beyond the defensive line. How will each manager try to exploit that area?

Firstly, Allardyce is renowned as a long ball exponent, in truth, his sides show greater balance to their play than that, but he will seek to build play around a long ball or two in order to gain a foothold around the final third. Primarily, their main long ball is far from aimless, in fact it is highly structured and very dangerous. Usually the long ball emanates from the centre back (1) after a passage of brief passes along the back line. It’s aimed to the centre forward who will seek to flick on the ball (2) to runners who go beyond the heading player and in behind the defence. Normally this will be someone like Kevin Nolan.

The other element is that his midfield will position (3) to pick up on the loose ball and then build a second phase of attack should the first fail. It is here where the game will be in balance and requires diligent work from Blackpool to firstly win the header and then for Angel Martinez and Ferguson to pick up on the second balls. Alternatively, should Cole win the flick on, then Alex Baptiste will need to pick up the runner most likely to benefit.

(1) The long pass is made. (2) Forward attempts to win header and runners seeks to collect the ball. (3) If the ball drops back central midfielders look to pick up the second ball.

Alternatively, Ian Holloway will look to either feed the ball to the feet of his wide forwards so that they can be isolated against the opposition full backs with the intent to beat their marker and run behind the defence with the ball at their feet. In addition to this, Blackpool’s possession as it progresses higher up the field will allow their midfielders to play the balls in to the channels and in behind the West Ham defence on to well-timed runs from their forward line.

Should either team’s attempts to get in behind the opposition fail then the middle flanks of the pitch may well be the focus for developing plays. Holloway has a reputation for encouraging his full backs to attack, in recent weeks they’ve tended to sit a little deeper, however, he may ask them to step up to combine with their attackers to isolate opposition full backs to break in behind the defensive line. Allardyce also enjoys having two full backs in Matthew Taylor and Guy Demel who can be attacking in their play and he may ask them to push high up the pitch seeking to get in to crossing situations and assist with getting good quality delivery into the penalty area to develop situations.

Off the ball

In beating Blackpool 4-0 at Upton Park earlier in the season Allardyce revealed in his BBC post match interview where he thought he could break Blackpool down. Essentially he remarked about two things, exploiting Blackpool’s off the ball shape and getting down the sides of the centre backs. This is very enlightening indeed as it acknowledges Blackpool as being a side who are poor out of possession, but Allardyce would be remiss if he thinks he’s encountering the same Blackpool side. The deployment of two holding midfielders as well as the restraint on the full backs to move forward has not only added greater balance to their side off the ball, but assists with the second element of exposing the sides of the centre backs. Holloway will no doubt be working with his side on his off the ball shape knowing that this is where West Ham are likely to exploit them.

Off the ball West Ham are a treat, they are genuinely fascinating and set up very subtlety to make the most out of positions, as above when the ball goes long, positioning and pressing are key, but it is at set pieces where they come in to their own. Too much emphasis is placed on marking systems and winning the aerial duels at corners and other set pieces and little attention is placed on what is going on elsewhere. In his column the Guardian Secret Footballer (@TSFGuardian) exposed the lengths that Allardyce goes to (as do other managers) exploit these situations.

‘Sam Allardyce studied hundreds of Premier League corners to see where the clearing header, on average, would land. Once he identified a pattern (it’s usually a front-post header that is cleared towards the dugout), he placed a man on the exact spot where the ball generally made its first contact with the pitch’

Jack Collison’s goal against Cardiff in their first leg was a classic example of such positioning, albeit in reverse to the situation outlined above. Holloway will have to ensure that his new-found corner set up places as much emphasis on the happenings outside of the box as it does on the new-ish zonal positioning inside the box.

Crowd Mentality

What is interesting in any game against a side managed by Sam Allardyce is how the crowd unwittingly knows he has executed his game plan. If after twenty minutes of this final the Blackpool fans are saying, ‘but we just aren’t ourselves’, or ‘we’re playing awful’, then he’s achieved objective one. The key for Blackpool is to not be put out of their stride, play to their strengths, if the door to the final third is closed, retreat and try again. Keep the ball moving on the floor, quickly and accurately, move West Ham around the field, make them chase the ball. West Ham offer a more dynamic and proficient version of the Birmingham side they have just beaten with the same approach, here they will need to go further, and excel beyond the standards that they’ve set this season.

Key Players

West Ham possess talent in abundance, but arguably their key men are focused in midfield and attack. In Kevin Nolan they have someone who holds few secrets, he will use his strength to dominate opponents both on the ground and in the air as well as having an ability to read play acutely so that he can time late runs in to the box. Alongside Nolan, Mark Noble will aim to control the game in possession and through his pressing. He adds the energy and subtlety that keeps West Ham ticking over. Blackpool will need to deny him time on the ball and escape his attentions when he is buzzing about the pitch closing out space. The January acquisition of Ricardo Vaz Tê may well be critical here, he has been excellent since joining West Ham. He can often be frustrating with his inconsistency on the ball, but his unpredictability is also a strength. He shoots often, early, from anywhere, with power and occasional stunning accuracy. However, it’s his movement off the ball which could be critical here, he floats and drifts in off the flank to central areas and can creep in at the back post effectively. Of all the players in the West Ham side he has the ability to either change the game or disappear altogether.

Blackpool on the other hand will look to Ian Evatt to lead by example from the back. He was first class both on the ground and in the air in dominating Marlon King in the previous games and will need to repeat his performances to control the West Ham attack. Added to this Blackpool have a really assured midfielder in front of him, ready to seize on the loose balls. It isn’t the obvious figure of Barry Ferguson, but in fact Angel Martinez. Martinez has excelled since becoming first choice, he is quick to the ball, but more importantly can work in tight spaces in the deep; which helps Blackpool construct from the back in a really assured manner. He can anticipate astutely and if Blackpool do start to dominate this game, then it’ll be because Martinez has found his rhythm early. Added to this he delivers excellently weighted through balls behind the defence. In fact, there’s little weakness to his game, some may say his size is an issue and therefore, Allardyce may to try to bully him with aggression and pressure from Kevin Nolan. Finally, in attack Blackpool have Matthew Phillips. Although both he and Tom Ince have had outstanding seasons it’s Phillips who West Ham are likely to be most wary of, mainly due to his more direct running and powerful frame. If he gets his confidence high early on in the game by winning his first few duels, then that’ll benefit Blackpool greatly. He is such a strong runner with the ball that he can be imposing and although this tricks lack consistency they can at times throw a whole defence out of balance.

Game on

It’s likely that the first twenty minutes of this game will be frantic as West Ham attempt to outwork and outrun Blackpool denying them any time and space on the ball in an attempt to suffocate them in to submission. If Blackpool can handle this then the scene will be set for an end to end battle that will end with the winner claimed a rich prize. One club arguably needs the outcome more than the other and finals can produce dynamics that go beyond tactics, so although West Ham are overwhelming favourites, absolutely anything can happen.

How did Blackpool beat Birmingham?

Blackpool beat Birmingham 3-2 on aggregate after a pulsating game at St Andrews on Wednesday night to reach the Championship playoff final at Wembley for the second time. Blackpool took a two goal lead on the night to extend their aggregate lead from the first leg to 3-0 before Birmingham finished strongly to pull two goals back and kept pushing to the end only to fall just short.

Over the two legs there were a set of factors that could be deemed as being critical in Blackpool’s victory as well as elements that led to Birmingham coming back in to the game. The factors are outlined below and are in no order of priority nor are they exhaustive. This takes in to account both legs as a combined match lasting 180 minutes. The structure of the game was roughly as follows. The first 20 minutes was an even affair before Blackpool dominated for the next  120 minutes, then Birmingham dominated for 30 minutes before a relatively even last 10 minutes.

React & Build

As discussed in the preview Ian Holloway had a key decision to make in the midfield having to choose between the technical and positional qualities of Barry Ferguson or the more dynamic running and physicality of Keith Southern. Holloway opted for the former and without a doubt the composure on the ball of Ferguson in alliance with Angel Martinez was pivotal. Martinez and Ferguson formed a great central midfield unit based firstly on reclaiming possession from loose and ‘second balls’ giving Blackpool vital possession of the football. This was neatly done through keen anticipation, timing and superb positioning. So much so that Chris Hughton made a late change in the first leg to bring Jonathon Spector in to the central midfield area to stem Blackpool’s flow.

The impact of this dynamic was that Blackpool had a solid platform to attack from and supply their wide men. Also, given that Birmingham play a long ball game there was a lot of loose balls to be picked up on and Birmingham were consistently second best to them. In addition to this Blackpool were able to play comfortably from the back through the midfield and on to the attack. Essentially the pattern for large parts of both legs was; Birmingham long ball from the back, Blackpool win the defensive header, Blackpool’s midfield seize on the loose ball and attack.

Degrees of Pressure

What was clearly noticeable was the difference between the two teams in their application off the ball. Blackpool were consistent in pressing high up the pitch for large parts of the game, with a slight drop as Birmingham dominated in the second half of the second leg. Birmingham however, started pressing brightly in the first leg, but dropped after about 20 minutes and Blackpool moved the ball through their midfield effectively. They were then sporadic in their pressing for the rest of the tie. In particular the selection of Spector to start the second leg appeared to place Birmingham at a disadvantage as more often that not he tended to sit off the Blackpool midfield with Jordan Mutch being the lone midfielder who tried to press. As a counterpoint to this the introduction of Guirane N’Daw just before half time in the second leg saw Birmingham pressure Blackpool much more effectively as he stepped out consistently to hassle the Blackpool central midfield. If anything the even finish to the game potentially owed a lot to the fact the N’Daw was virtually added to the attack removing him from the area in which he was operating effectively.

Defending Excellence

One of the critical elements of the tie was the ability of Blackpool to get behind the Birmingham defence and although they did defend well for large periods, they lacked defensive coherency at some critical moments. On the other hand Blackpool appeared to win the large majority of their defensive duels. In particular Ian Evatt dominated his opponent for pretty much the full 180 minutes. In the air he was imperious and on the occasion he was slack on the ground King was unable to convert when it mattered.

Offside

Blackpool have played a high defensive line for large parts of their time under Ian Holloway. In addition to this they also attempt to utilise an offside trap as a method of snuffing out attacks before they fully develop. There are several examples of how Blackpool have got their offside trap wrong over the past few seasons, but with the exception of the Nikola Žigić goal they executed it to perfection here. Not having the stats at hand is an issue, but as an estimate, Birmingham were caught offside around 14 times across both legs with the majority due to Marlon King’s impatience and inability to hold and time his runs. Arguably a well constructed offside trap is the pinnacle of defensive work and should it be executed well it needs intelligent play from the attacking side to neutralise it.

A Right Burke

Chris Burke is no doubt a superb player and can change matches as proved here, the problem for Birmingham is that they lacked balance in their point of attack. Too often than not they tried to channel their attacks through Burke’s right flank. Essentially Blackpool knew if they could cut supply to Burke or handle him in possession then they’d neuter Birmingham to a great degree. In the first leg, Burke saw very little of the ball, when he finally saw the ball in the second leg and was given adequate support to work overloads and overlaps he became a threat. In addition to this Blackpool allowed him to waltz inside far too often. From an attacking point of view Burke was the best player of the second leg. This was further backed up as Birmingham fired in to life it was sparked by a keenly timed pass through to Žigić which was then followed by persistent feeding of Burke down the right hand channel due to the aforementioned better pressure from Birmingham through N’Daw.

Moving on

Blackpool will travel to Wembley to meet West Ham a side who have unpicked Blackpool at will in their two meetings this season. Sam Allardyce will set out to gain an early advantage and then seek to efficiently deconstruct Blackpool through well-timed attacks. However, Blackpool are a different side to when these two last met and on a one-off occasion, with a manager and team that Blackpool possess, absolutely anything could happen. What is safe to say is that Blackpool has another side to be proud of and a season packed full of memories that can be added to the catalogue that has been built up over the past three seasons.

Blackpool v Birmingham – A Tactical Preview

This game has the hallmarks of being a very close contest, even if Birmingham did have the upper hand in the regular season, drawing at Bloomfield Road 2-2 before winning 3-0 at St Andrews. However, both sides are slightly different teams since that last contest and that provides for some interesting dynamics.

Line Ups

Ian Holloway should have a virtually full strength squad to choose from. In terms of selection decisions the key one appears to be whether to select Barry Ferguson or Keith Southern to partner Angel Martinez as one of the holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. This selection dilemma has crept up on Holloway after Martinez has proved to be a superb midfielder, filled with vibrancy, technique and intelligence. His emergence in the final part of the season has meant that the two former mainstays of the midfield are battling it out for selection. The dilemma is enhanced because both players offer different skillsets, Ferguson holds his position more, whilst Southern is more of a runner and tackler applying almost constant pressure on the man in possession.

Chris Hughton appears to have settled on a back four since Stephen Caldwell’s injury. In addition to this his midfield might see Jordon Mutch support Guirane N’Daw centrally flanked by the superb Chris Burke on the right and Andros Townsend on the left. Up front it’s possible in the away leg he may field Erik Huseklepp to sit slightly deeper than Marlon King who will be at the head of the attack in a 4-4-1-1. The second leg may see Hughton field Adam Rooney alongside King in a more traditional 4-4-2 set up.

Strategy

Holloway’s strategy will remain the same over both legs and is consistent with the attacking approach witnessed in the two other seasons he has managed Blackpool. Blackpool implement their attacking strategy slightly differently this season, there’s less emphasis on controlled possession and slightly more direct, counter attacking style utilising the pace he has on each flank.

Hughton is likely to keep things compact at Bloomfield Road, using long balls to relieve pressure and build attacks. He’s likely to take a reactive approach to the second leg and adjust to suit the match position.

Stuck in the middle

As mentioned earlier the selection issue Ian Holloway has will dictate how his midfield will operate. The central battle has the possibility of being keenly fought. Holloway may field Ferguson for more assurance on the ball looking to hold possession solidly in the middle before moving the ball on to the forwards. If Holloway does this then it’s likely that N’Daw will be used to target one or both of the midfielders in order to win the ball back high up the pitch and unsettle Blackpool’s passing rhythm. However, Holloway may see N’Daw’s application as a threat and use Keith Southern to fight fire with fire so to speak. Both N’Daw and Southern are very similar players and should Southern get the nod, then it’s likely that battle will be very feisty with both managers aiming for their player to win their battles.

Widescreen Action

The wide men from both teams have the ability to change this game with both sets of full backs due for a busy night. In more recent weeks Blackpool’s full backs have started to sit a little deeper and it may be the same in this match. Chris Burke has had an outstanding season with 12 goals and 16 assists from the right wing. Stephen Crainey will need to be alert at all times as Burke likes to cross early and can cut in to cross with his left as much as his right. He is also likely to try to cut inside to shoot as well, so Crainey will need to ensure that he passes on his marking of Burke effectively and the rest of the team are alert to his inside movement. In addition to Burke, should Huseklepp be fielded he’s likely to drift towards the right hand channel where he may combine very effectively with Burke to produce chances for himself or for King. Huseklepp has already scored twice against Blackpool for Portsmouth this season and his movement is superb as featured on this blog earlier on in the season.

On the other hand Blackpool have two very exciting wide forward players. Tom Ince is more of a traditional winger, whereas Matthew Phillips is very much a powerful running forward. Both players are difficult to read on the ball and enjoy one on one duels. The key for Birmingham is not to allow Phillips or Ince to turn and run at their defence and Hughton may ask his side to tightly double mark them to try to nullify their threat. If Birmingham fail to stop Ince and Phillips from running at them then their centre backs will need to be alert and defend astutely on the turn to prevent their goal being exposed.

Role in the hole

As pointed out above Huseklepp could be very dangerous if selected because of his tendency to drift in to the right, however, Blackpool have an equally dangerous threat up front in the form of Stephen Dobbie. Since his return to Blackpool Dobbie has scored 5 goals in a 7 matches and always looks a threat due to his movement and willingness to shoot on sight of the goal. He is exceptionally hard to track as he moves around the field and should N’Daw move high up the field to press, Blackpool may seek to pass beyond him to Dobbie who will expose the space left behind.

Off the bench

The role of the substitutes could be critical with both manager set to have great options available to them. Hughton will have the physical presence of Nikola Zigic to send on to disrupt the Blackpool defence, but more potently he has the young forward Nathan Redmond at his disposal. Redmond may even start the game, but it’s more likely Hughton will use him as an impact player. He’s already scored against Blackpool this season and may well replace Townsend after the hour mark to inject extra pace and trickery in to the proceedings. Or he may be asked to sit in behind Marlon King and run at defenders centrally which is a position he’s currently learning according to his recent interview with BBC West Midlands.

Blackpool on the other hand have Kevin Phillips who is likely to start on the bench and come in to the action late on especially if Blackpool are chasing the game. He has scored 16 goals this season in a variety of ways and has such a fine appreciation of space which makes him very hard to track. He is single-minded and will shoot on sight but Birmingham will know all about him given he left the club last season. The other key option that Holloway has is the midfielder Ludovic Sylvestre, who has recently come on during games and settled the team down in midfield and sparked some high quality attacks with his excellent passing.

Game on

This tie may well be tight from start to finish. Blackpool would potentially need at least a goal advantage to take to St Andrews as Birmingham have only conceded 14 times and lost once this season at home. Blackpool do have players who have exceeded expectations before, however, who wins this tie will have to keep excelling to beat either Cardiff or West Ham in order to get back to the Premier League.