The End… but not goodbye!

Tangerine Dreaming was started a few years ago on the back of an amazing period in the history of Blackpool Football Club. A series of events collided and created something very special culminating in the club getting to the Premier League. The whole thing was dream like, this blog then set out to chart some of those events hoping to provide insight beyond the headlines.

A brave attempt to get back to the Premier League the season after relegation just fell short and since then the club has embarked on a very odd course of action. Alongside this the dreaming is over and quite frankly the blog has run its course.

Blackpool find themselves in a rather odd situation, last season the chairman admitted that the club was rudderless and there’s little to suggest that things have fundamentally changed. These are turbulent times at the football club, but not akin to many football clubs out there. Money isn’t an issue, the Premier League season didn’t see us over commit on resources. The club is stable, but constrained by a ‘modus operandi’ that is rarely clearly communicated, but appears to be centered on breaking even financially each season allied to ‘measured progress’. These constraints have historically caused issues amongst club staff and fans alike, but nothing has changed nor is it likely to change. With this, reality has bitten hard. Gone are the dreams that the club may exploit immediate opportunities given to them by recent Premier League status. In their place are the practicalities of running a club based on reliable income streams, omitting ‘bonus’ television revenue as the club reverts back to a lower Championship/League One footing. What will come of this remains to be seen. The sceptic would say that Blackpool will drop this coming season or thereafter. The optimist will think that the way the club has been run got us to the Premier League once before, then it can do so again.

What is clear is that whatever happens, this blog won’t be the place for coverage of it. Personally, it has been a fascinating thing to work on between hours and hours of busy work. It has given plenty of scope for indulging a passion. It was never meant to grow as it did, but people liked it and things grew rather nicely. TD has reached unlikely audiences and gained unlikely fans, for the blog appears to be more popular with non-Blackpool fans. Blackpool fans read it obviously, but they are closer to the action and know most of the stuff covered on the blog anyway.

I’d like to thank everyone who has supported the blog over the last few years, giving thoughts and thanks on the way. It’s rare that critics shared their thoughts, but when they did, I appreciated every one of the them, for it’s through criticism you gain insight. Although TD is ending, my writing (about Blackpool FC) will continue elsewhere. That ‘elsewhere’ is currently brewing, so for now, thank you and goodnight.

John.

Another fine mess

Paul Ince

This season Karl Oyston admitted that Blackpool have been rudderless which has seen the club leer from crisis to crisis whilst all along carrying with them a contractual time-bomb.  Whether this is a part of the Oyston strategy is hard to fathom, but it is without doubt somewhat of a mess.

Blackpool currently has a situation where a total of thirty-seven players are in contractual limbo. Twenty-four of these players have contracts where the club can take up an option to extend their contract for a further twelve months. It’s assumed that the power lies with the club here and that the player is powerless to refuse should the club wishes to extend the contract. Obviously each case may have subtleties so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the player has a power to exercise in the process. These in effect should be straightforward yes or no decisions.

The other thirteen players are out of contract completely and this brings in factors outside of the control of the club such as agents shopping around for the best deals. Four of the players are classed as Under 24 players so should they leave then the club would be entitled to some form of compensation.

Substantial Problem

Paul Ince has a potentially substantial task on his hands given that he needs to work on two recruitment fronts, keeping those players he wants and finding new players to bring in. Blackpool’s recruitment process has appeared to be slow over recent seasons with deals being crammed in at the final portion of the transfer window. The reasons for this are subject to a whole debate in itself, but it would appear that lack of realism in the transfer window and an uncompromising stance in negotiations appear to have been the greatest constraints.

How Ince will approach this contractual mess is of great interest as it will ultimately steer his summer recruitment. It’s unclear at this stage whether not he needs to keep players on to fulfill ‘secondary fixtures’, for the purposes of this article it’s assumed he doesn’t. Ince has already stated in the local media that he wants to negotiate with Ludovic Sylvestre and it’s safe to assume, Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Ince seems to be trying to line up the core of his first eleven as the first stage of his process. This makes sense, especially as his approach this season has been centred around a stable first eleven which is one of his key moves away from the approach that Ian Holloway took. Ince has outlined very broad criteria for his players and this can help to understand who he may look to keep on and bring in.

 “People ask what’s Paul Ince’s team all about. Well, it’s a team that wants to play football but also will get their hands dirty.

Essentially, Ince’s players therefore are required to be able to play and work hard. Hard work is such a difficult measure for outsiders, ninety minutes on a Saturday isn’t a measure of someone’s approach to hard work. Therefore, for the purposes of this article that will be very much an unseen factor and can’t really be factored in here, hence what follows is highly subjective and Ince may well take a different view.

Whittle Away

Alex Baptiste and Kirk Broadfoot stand out from the other players totally out of contract as they’d be considered first team players, however, Ince has yet to openly talk about these two. It’s likely that Baptiste has a move lined up and it’s fair to say that for his footballing development he really needs to be somewhere and would command a healthy wage increase. Broadfoot would arguably be at the heart of the defence next season, however, his spell at Blackpool will have attracted interest and he will have other offers. Ince may well find out very soon how Blackpool do business. However, it’s more realistic to assume Broadfoot will be in Tangerine next season whilst Baptiste will be elsewhere.

Of the other high profile names in that batch, Kevin Phillips will move on or retire, Elliot Grandin will get better offers, whilst Neal Eardley will be released given his utilisation in the first team under Ince isn’t consistent with someone likely to form a part of the first team next year. Of the Under 24 players, Chris Kettings appears a likely choice to stay on and replace Mark Halstead on the bench next season. It’s hard to see how any of the other Under 24 players will remain at the club without a clear pathway to the first team and any noticeable development over the last three seasons. Again this lack of a development pathway could demand an article of it’s own, now isn’t the appropriate time though. Having said that it might be that a player such as Liam Tomsett might be worth keeping in order to monitor their progress.

Options Open

In the other batch of players where the club has an option there are obvious decision which need no discussion, Tom Ince, Matt Phillips, Craig Cathcart, Stephen Crainey, Ian Evatt, Matt Gilks and Barry Ferguson should all be retained. Angel Martinez should be retained as he is a high quality player and would be snapped up quickly should Blackpool release him. He hasn’t figured much under Ince which suggests something isn’t right, but on game evidence, although he can be slow to start matches making early mistakes he adds a balance that Blackpool miss when he is absent. Tiago Gomes has been injured recently but his qualities make him stand out, if his shooting technique matched the rest of his ability then he’d be a devastating player, but then again he wouldn’t have ended up at Blackpool.

Bob Harris is an able back up for Stephen Crainey although with his defensive abilities being marginally better than Crainey he might align more closely with Ince’s defensive strategies. Both Isaiah Osbourne and Chris Basham have figured under Ince, however, both have not excelled consistently and it’s hard to see them forming a key part of the first team. Basham is a solid midfielder, but positionally he appears some way short of a player like Barry Ferguson, so struggles to play a deep midfield position well. Added to this his technique and passing isn’t that of Sylvestre so he never really offers much further up the pitch. Added to the fact he is prone to a rash challenge, it’s hard to see him in a clear role. Osbourne is similar, but doesn’t have Basham’s ability working back towards the goal added to an inconsistent first touch. Should these two players be first team players next year they will have to improve or Blackpool may well face a repeat of this season. Previous success was built upon a very good midfield and at the moment the club is short of at least one quality midfielder assuming Ferguson, Sylvestre and Martinez stay on at the club. Of the other players it would be worth keeping Nathan Eccleston, Banvo Anderson and Jake Caprice who have the potential to affect the first team next season. Finally, it would be courteous to give Craig Sutherland another season at the club to aid his recovery from a serious knee injury and loan him out when he’s fit and see where that takes him.

TD's Suggested Blackpool Squad - 2013/14
TD’s Suggested Blackpool Squad – 2013/14

Loan Chance

Of the two loan players there would be little chance to getting hold of Nathan Delfouneso, even if Villa wanted to sell, would Blackpool pay the fee or meet his wage demands? Unlikely. Gary MacKenzie has certainly done his best in his time at the club, but the move should only be pursued if he shows potential to develop or offers publicly unseen value on the training ground. On game evidence, his defensive ability is some way short of Ian Evatt for instance who despite his recent injury is the best benchmark for defensive quality at the club. MacKenzie gets himself in to some very poor defensive positions, his close marking lacks consistent reaction giving an advantage to opponents. However, he suits more penalty box style reactive defensive work. If Ince has designs on playing ten yards further up the pitch for instance then MacKenzie isn’t  the man. Should he sign then that gives a good clue to the way that Blackpool will set up next season.

Moving On

So where does that leave Blackpool should Paul Ince be thinking along the same lines. It leaves a squad of 22 players which by sheer numbers is enough to start the season with. However, a close look at the balance in the squad suggests further recruits will come in. A back up goalkeeper with a decent level of experience is possibly a nice to have at this stage so it would be understandable to see no movement there. A right back is essential along with a centre back to ensure the defence is covered. A central midfielder would also be essential as would someone to play as an attacking midfielder. Even though there are plenty of forwards available, other than Taylor-Fletcher there really isn’t a first choice central striker, so it may be wise in invest there too.

All in all Blackpool will need to four or five players in order try and survive in the Championship next season. It’s likely that the volume won’t be an issue, however, should the process fail as it has done in the past quality may be a big issue. Should Ince get his preferred targets then Blackpool may well be looking towards a season of comfort with prospects towards the playoffs. The big concern for Ince will be that this situation shouldn’t have evolved, but that is a part of his remit now as he begins what will arguably be the biggest summer of his managerial career.

Tom Ince – The Low-down

Tom Ince (20) signed for Blackpool from Liverpool in the summer of 2011 and in just over a year he has grown with each game he has played and is now one of Blackpool’s key attacking weapons. In his first season he scored 8 goals and made 8 assists in 41 appearances. This season he already has 13 goals, 9 assists in 20 league appearances.

Goal & Assist Analysis

The following two diagrams chart Ince’s goals and assists from this season and the location they occurred in relation to the opposition goal.

Tom Ince - Goals
Tom Ince – Goals 2012/13

From the diagram you can see that only two of his goals have been scored from outside the box, with the majority of the goals being struck from central areas (please note that he has three penalties in his tally). All but one of his goals were scored with his left foot.

Tom Ince - Assists
Tom Ince – Assists 2012/13

What is interesting here is that he tends to start games lined up on the wide right of Blackpool’s forward line, however, 36%  of his goals and assists come from the left hand side. This is partly due to him being left footed, but also potentially down to him being rotated from the right to left in games. It’s perhaps the dynamic of a switch that catches defenders cold and not picking him up as he switches sides as much as it is natural for him to play on the left hand side.

Starting out

Upon joining the club the first impressions of Ince were of a young player with pace and a trick, but often prone to running with his head down, narrowing his field of vision. He takes his place in Blackpool’s 4-3-3 as one of the two wide forwards, normally as an inverted winger on the right. His first touch was initially an issue, but he has clearly worked hard on this and he is only prone to the odd error. His passing lacks a little consistency, both in range and execution however, his game isn’t necessarily based on his passing ability.

Tricky Customer?

He has good acceleration and sustains his pace well to beat men. His tricks can be a little readable and he could do with adding more subtlety and disguise to elevate his one v one play. However, he clearly enjoys to engage his direct opponent in order to beat him. He seeks to drift off the right flank across the edge of the box looking either for short combinations with team mates or to get away early shots, normally curling left to right. On the evidence of his goals he can hit powerful shots as well as placing the ball with control and accuracy. This is allied to reliable delivery from wide free kicks, corners and crossing from open play. He could, however, do with developing more variety to his delivery. Perhaps developing his pace of delivery and craft to move the ball with more bias towards the end of its flight.

It appears that he is mentally strong and doesn’t tend to lose his composure the closer he gets to the opposition goal. Generally speaking he is a team player, willing to track back and support in defence. However, his work back towards his own goal could be sharper and smarter. He could also do with increasing his field of vision to appreciate his options earlier which will also help with his decision-making. In addition to settling in to either wide forward position and has even dropped deeper and centrally at times and realistically he could also be deployed as a very effective attacking left back.

Holding back

One area of his game that had been detrimental to his development and the flow of the team is the upon receiving the ball. He had a habit of turning back away from goal in order to protect the ball from the opponent. On the face of it this isn’t necessarily a bad move, however, it appeared totally instinctive. What made it worse is that he did it even when not being marked, leading to attacks slowing down and removing his vision from his attacking space. This may well be a consequence of being deployed as an inverted winger and not being comfortable letting the ball run across his body onto his weaker right foot. However, this season he has tended to do this less often and in doing so, he is becoming a little more direct in his attacking play and causing even more stress for the opposition.

What now?

He has now represented the England Under 21 squad and he was touted for a move last summer with one club submitting a formal offer for him. However, his father is his mentor and had been working with Ian Holloway to exploit his son’s potential. Now Holloway has moved on, it’s likely that he’ll also leave. Overall, his development is on a rapidly ascending trajectory and arguably he has outgrown this Blackpool side. He needs to be playing in the Premier League to aid his development and if the touted move to Liverpool comes off that may well be excellent for both parties (the player and the buying club), especially given the price that is being mentioned. However, wherever he goes it’s important that he gets game time. Any length of time on a bench will only serve to hold him back.

If indeed he is embarking on his final games for Blackpool then it truly has been a pleasure to see such a young talent develop so rapidly and TD can only wish him the best for the future.

Appleton’s Task

This article may have been more appropriate in the first few days of Appleton’s regime, however, there’s still value in establishing a few of the questions that Appleton himself may have posed himself as he starts to tackle his new job. This will effectively place a line in the sand which can be revisited in a couple of months time to try to assess where changes have been made.

Q: Why is Barry Ferguson at Fleetwood? Is he likely to return and why should he return?

Provided Ferguson hasn’t breached club conduct in any way then there’s a potential way back in to the set up for him. He left under the proviso that he was going to Fleetwoodto get games as he wasn’t happy about squad rotation plans. It might be that Appleton can guarantee him games and he may return. Appleton appears to be looking for better defensive shape and at the end of last season Ferguson and Ángel Martínez were very much a solid defensive midfield platform with the latter adding some real dynamism.

Q: What is the best defensive combination?

This was a question that hung over Holloway’s tenure which was never resolved. Ultimately the solution is decided by the defensive strategy, with Appleton looking like he wants Blackpool to sit narrower and a little deeper then he may build around that. Kirk Broadfoot appears to be the preferred first choice right back and whilst he can be a little clumsy he has been surprisingly dynamic going forward initiating goals as well as combining with Tom Ince. At centre back Ian Evatt may be out for sometime so that might make Craig Cathcart and Alex Baptiste first picks in the centre.

Q: What is the best midfield combination?

The supporter held view is that in a midfield three it would be Isaiah Osbourne, Ángel Martínez and Tiago Gomes. It’s likely that given Chris Basham’s suspension that this might be the midfield against Crystal Palace in the next game. However, it remains to be seen if that indeed is the best combination. Getting the combination right in midfield is ultimately the key to Blackpool’s season. Osbourne is a good runner, but in recent weeks has shown an eye for goal and a through ball. However, his first touch is inconsistent and in a tightly packed midfield that’s very limiting. Martínez is an outstanding footballer and it has been surprising for him not to start. His strong substitute appearance at Peterborough should see him start again Palace. Gomes is a lively attacking midfielder, who arguably only needs to add goals to make the position behind the striker his own. Appleton has had a chance to weigh up both Ludovic Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin with only the former looking like he might break in to the midfield trio.

Q: What is the best system to use?

Holloway recruited his players to fit a 4-3-3 scheme and in the main those players remain. Appleton appears to be continuing this approach, however, that may be a product of his inheritance. There is a little more emphasis towards a 4-2-3-1 with four attacking and six defending. His work in the next two transfer windows will give a greater insight in to how he wants his teams to shape up.

Q: Should Kevin Phillips be starting games?

This is more critical than it may appear. Phillips is an anachronism in the modern game and especially so in a 4-3-3. He plays on the line of the defence and does little to seek out combinations with his team mates. He often turns his back on play in order to get in to the box which is highly detrimental to good team play. He arguably hasn’t adapted his game to flourish in Blackpool’s system (even given his goals) and it’s unlikely at such an age that he has time to adapt. Appleton may well start to see him as an option to come off the bench rather than starting with Nathan Delfouneso starting centrally.

Q: How does he whittle his huge squad down?

Appleton has remarked about the size of squad he has inherited and that he wants to work with a squad of between 18-20 players. He is lucky in this respect in that the vast majority of his players are either out of contract in the summer or have options that the club can take up. He may base his decisions around those players that make his initial cut with the rest being assessed in any ‘reserve’ games that are likely to be held between now and the end of the season. It would appear that a few players may already have been taken out of the equation with Neal Eardley being replaced by Broadfoot and not through injury, whilst Elliot Grandin was substituted after 30 minutes of the game against Watford. One fringe player has already left and he tried to get several players out on loan before the deadline.

Q: Who will he bring to the club in January?

This may be dictated by who leaves in January. It would appear that at his rate of progress Tom Ince will need to leave the club. He’s good enough to be playing at a much higher level and it’s hard to see how much more he can learn at the club. Added to that, should Matt Phillips leave too then Appleton will certainly be looking to recruit in the wide forward areas. Outside of that, he will make a decision on loanee Wesley Thomas and perhaps another forward or two may be brought in. January will also be a test of if he believes that there’s enough defensive quality. It would be a gamble not to add any further defensive options given current injuries and general lack of genuine defensive talent at the club. Allied to this, there is a huge dependency on Matt Gilks’ fitness, Mark Halstead lacks playing experience and remains a bench filler. Again, it would be a gamble if no goalkeeper was brought in as back up.

Moving On

Appleton will no doubt be looking for answers to some of these questions between now and the end of January. At that point in time it might be useful to revisit this article and assess the answers should they have become clear by then. If Blackpool have strengthened their position in the league, it would be safe to assume that the answers have been a little more forthcoming than they are right now.

Blackpool 2-2 Watford – Scrappy but fair

Blackpool conceded a two goal advantage before coming from behind yet again this season to secure a third draw in three games since Michael Appleton took over the managerial role at Bloomfield Road.

Setting up

Michael Appleton chose to preserve the 4-3-3 formation from the Ian Holloway era whilst Gianfranco Zola opted for a 3-5-2. Appleton’s biggest selection issue was caused with the injury to Ian Evatt. Kirk Broadfoot came in to the side at right back with Alex Baptiste moving to centre back.

For Watford Matěj Vydra started up front with Troy Deeney supported by Nathaniel Chalobah sat in the centre of midfield with Mark Yeates on the right and Cristian Battocchio on the left, although their positions were fluid. Ikechi Anya & Daniel Pudil operated as wing backs whilst the back three comprised of Fitz Hall being flanked by Tommie Hoban on the left and Joel Ekstrand on the right.

Gameplans

Effectively Watford’s game plan was to sit and counter attack getting eight men behind the ball when out of possession as their 3-5-2 became a 5-3-2. Their counter attacks sought to exploit the flanks with Vydra drifting out wide left looking to combine with support from Pudil. They were happy for Blackpool to control the possession which allowed Blackpool to play a similar game to their time under Ian Holloway. If anything, the main difference was that Blackpool’s full backs stayed a little deeper presumably to ensure that they weren’t exposed to counter attacks. If one attacked, the other hung back a little.

Opening up

The first half was characterised by slow, sloppy play by Blackpool who struggled to do anything with the ball, whilst Watford stung for the first goal with an exceptional counter attack from a Blackpool corner. It appeared a clear plan as the right back Anya positioned himself on the left of the box to use his pace to make a box to box run via space created by Blackpool’s over committal at the set piece. In all it took around twelve seconds for the ball to get from Manuel Almunia’s hands in to the back of the Blackpool goal. The second Watford goal was the product of a defensive error which was seized upon by Deeney, who was arguably in an off-side position.

Game Changer

Apart from Watford’s counter attacking the game was characterised by two key substitutions made by Appleton which eventually lead to Blackpool dominating the second half. Elliot Grandin, didn’t exploit space behind the forwards or show enough for the ball. Appleton took him off after a half hour introducing Tiago Gomes. Tiago offered a little more impetus, playing through balls and joining in with the forwards.

At half time Ludovic Sylvestre made way for Isaiah Osbourne which led to two holding style midfielders with Basham supporting the forwards a little. Sylvestre is excellent in possession and combining with players in the middle third, but at times he fears taking risks in the final third added to the fact that off the ball he rarely attempts to run beyond the forward line to support attacks.

In games where Blackpool become bogged down he is less effective than when he comes on as a substitute with Blackpool trailing. In that scenario he brings a calmness that allows Blackpool to gain a foothold in a game that is in danger of getting away with them. It might be that he is used more in that way over the next few weeks. Osbourne on the other hand was quick to regain possession, put in a few challenges that unsettled the Watford midfield and forced their midfielders to hurry up and eventually waste possession.

These changes for Pool effectively changed the outlook of the game. Both bringing more a more dynamic edge, whilst they impacted on Watford who went deeper and deeper trying to shut out space and see the game out. In fact they possibly got too deep. In the first half they played a reasonably high line and play was condensed, which arguably contributed to the scrappy nature of the game.

Patterns

Watford certainly look a good side. They have some clear patterns of play, that although didn’t contribute too much in that game will certainly cause teams trouble, if they haven’t already. One particularly interesting pattern of play appeared to be determined to stretch the play quickly and throw a team out of balance. Essentially, this consisted of a ball out to the left back (Pudil) who hits a quick diagonal out wide right.  As mentioned earlier the movement of Vydra was also of interest as he drifted wide left and slightly deep looking for combinations out wide. He was hard to track in the first half at times, however, the second half Alex Baptiste appeared to read him much better and realised that he had to engage his physically in order to stunt the attacks.

Let downs

Arguably the biggest issue in the first half aside from anything previously mentioned was the forced reorganisation at right back for Blackpool. Kirk Broadfoot isn’t a naturally dynamic right back which Blackpool need and his first touch was poor at times which removed the right side of the pitch as a clear attacking threat. This is of particular importance for Blackpool given that the right back needs to build a good understanding with Tom Ince in order to accentuate his ability and help Ince get one on one with the opposition full back. That was even more important in this game given Watford double and even trebled up on Ince to shut him out. However, he grew in to the role and as Appleton asked both full backs to step up in the second half his role was crucial in initiating the moves for both goals.

For Watford the big question for them moving forward will be whether they learn from losing this two goal lead. Zola’s post match comments appear to suggest he thought the game was theirs by half-time. They didn’t need to get so reactive after going two up and to continue to counter. Whilst Blackpool were in their malaise they could have stepped up and tried to dominate possession and could have looked to kill off the game. It would be a surprise to see them take the same approach again, should the event arise. However, this was an away game and it made some sense to sit back, at home they may well have put the game to bed earlier and made the third goal.

Focus on Chalobah

Although he’s hardly an unknown quantity, the 17-year-old Chalobah deserves a special mention. Clichés could rule the day here, but he certainly didn’t play like someone so young. In the first half his positional awareness was exemplary, never getting caught too high up the pitch and placed well to seize upon loose balls. His first touch is lovely and he has the ability to recycle the ball under pressure as well as spreading the play when needed. It was Blackpool storming second half that appeared to overwhelm him till around the 75th minute when a few strong challenges got him annoyed and he appear to channel that anger in to a sharpened focus, playing a couple of lovely medium range passes to add depth to Watford’s play, as well as getting away a long-range shot. Breaking through at Chelsea will be tough, however, provided his growth doesn’t impact on his coordination he may well push for a place in the Chelsea first team moving in to next season. He’s that good.

Moving On

This was a game characterised by a sloppy Blackpool who are clearly learning new things under a new manager, whilst Watford attacked at pace and perhaps should have tried to kill the game off whilst they had a chance. Watford will keep ticking away as they are doing and have an outside chance of making the playoffs, as have Blackpool. Arguably the best of these two teams may not been seen till February or March, between now and then it will be a case of keeping in touch with the playoff pack.

From one to another

A new era is upon us……

The tears have been shed, the breathing has stopped being so shallow, the questions have been answered, yet the memories remain. Remain they will forever, but it’s time for the next chapter in the history of Blackpool Football Club. Whatever happens from here, hindsight is showing that perhaps the departure of Ian Holloway was the right thing at the right time for both parties.

Now the dust has settled it’s a good time to look behind the change to see why it happened and what challenges await Michael Appleton. Speculation had persisted for a few weeks, however, very few thought that the job at Crystal Palace would be the post that saw Holloway depart. Palace sold him a vision and gave him the right indications that they could match his ambitions as well as giving him a contract that was more agreeable with him.

Smelly Fish

Holloway’s interview prior to his final game in charge consisted of his usual monologues, rambles if you like, where he made point after point with his usual mixture of passion, veiled anger, humour and intelligence. However, the enthusiasm wasn’t quite there, the eyes weren’t as bright, but the points he made were insightful and on reflection his departure was never really a shock if you looked deep enough.

“Coaches are like fish — after a while they start to stink.”

In paraphrasing Giovanni Trapattoni Holloway made his point with aplomb showing that he was very aware of the need to change something at the football club. In the monologue leading up to the above quote he talked about how he was worried about not getting in the playoff final this season and being conscious of wanting to move forward. He spoke about fans getting used to his style, substitutions and getting so used to it that they’ll want a different voice. Results had started to dip, the team had stuttered after a wonderful start. His heart had gone out of the job and the comments now coming from players suggest that things hadn’t been right for a while, but more on that later.

After his departure Holloway talked about not having the energy to carry on with the job at Blackpool and that’s not surprising really. His natural energy is infectious, but all too often (football matches aside) that energy was being drained away in dealing with events off the field. The fine for changing his side in the Premier League against Aston Villa and the subsequent resignation offer, the Charlie Adam transfer saga dragging on for months, the loss and subsequent regain of key players who felt their contracts weren’t commensurate with their standing, the director remuneration of £11 million creating headlines for all the wrong reasons, the constant contract refusals of his key transfer targets after bids had been accepted. These aren’t necessarily episodes that are particularly unique to Blackpool, apart from the penultimate one and nor is it a definitive list. It was more the accumulation of these episodes, added to the fact that Holloway was often left to face the media time and again and pick up the pieces. Other more structured clubs would have done this for him, managed it better or deflected in some way. That wasn’t to be the case and all of this drained his energy, his hunger, his passion.

New regime

Now that the change has taken place, Michael Appleton comes in and takes over a good squad but with challenges. The underlying issues of the club culture will remain, but a new face can freshen things up and take an objective view on matters and make new plans. It’s hard to judge Appleton has a manager, coach and tactician given the constraints on his role at Portsmouth so it would be hard to make judgements based on his experience there. However, it’s clear from his first few weeks that he is organised, focused and has clear ideas about what he wants to do.

His starting point has been to pick out Blackpool’s weaknesses and to tackle them. Ian Evatt has already spoken about one of them saying,

“In the last couple of months, we hadn’t really done much training. We had numerous days off – anything from two to five or six at a time”

This fits in well with the idea of the previous manager losing his passion for the challenge and gives an understanding of why Blackpool didn’t seem to have answers in games such as Huddersfield and Charlton at home when their play wasn’t as vibrant as it once was.

Alongside this, Appleton’s first post match interview pretty much summed up where he felt he could influence things. The two key elements from that game he highlighted were the team shape and their fitness levels. This theme has continued almost every time Appleton has faced the press and arguably these two elements go hand in hand. Players need to be very fit to attack aggressively throughout a match and then regain their shape. He will have the data around their fitness levels which will no doubt be backing up his assertions and it doesn’t take a genius to realise that Blackpool games do get stretched in the final quarter.

Shaping up

Under Holloway Blackpool’s balance was arguably an issue as he wanted his team to attack from the first to the last minute, however, the stamina needed to recover their shape after losing the ball wasn’t always there and that’s why games became stretched. Arguably in the Championship this isn’t a bad method as teams are a little less ruthless, however, it was in the Premier League when this was really an issue as teams frequently came from behind to take points off Blackpool in the last quarter of matches. This isn’t a slight on Holloway, Appleton is keen to appreciate that the attacking side of the team is exceptionally potent, his real challenge will be to bring up fitness levels while stopping game becoming too open, whilst not losing any attacking threat.

Over the coming months it would be no surprise to see Blackpool sit a little deeper away from home, rather than trying to dominate possession as they tried to do under Holloway. It’s likely that the extra fitness (if gained) will allow Blackpool to attack and then drop in quickly behind the ball to recover a shape that may see more men behind the ball closing out gaps in the defensive line. Often when Blackpool’s full backs attacked the team would be out of balance with eight players in offensive movements. It’s likely that the full backs will sit a little deeper now and narrower giving the defence a more recognisable back four. There are other tasks ahead of Appleton, mainly housekeeping issues around discipline and cutting the squad size. However, these aren’t huge issues and given that over thirty players are due for some form of contract change come the summer it will certainly be a different club at the start of next season.

Everyone has to change at some point and it can be difficult. The sounds coming out of the club at the moment appear positive, it’s too early to understand if players are ‘on message’ or if they’ve totally bought in to the ideas that Appleton has outlined. Games will be assessed and the results come along. If by Christmas Blackpool are in touch with the play offs then Appleton’s first phase will have passed off smoothly. How he builds on that will be very interesting to see.

Moving On

By no means is this a final assessment of Holloway’s time in charge, over time more detailed analysis will be compiled as will compare and contrast pieces as the Appleton regime takes hold. Holloway was a revelation at Bloomfield Road, he brought success that was never really dreamed of before. He is a high quality manager and he will find success elsewhere and he will never be forgotten for what he achieved. As for Appleton, only time will tell.

TD Focus: Phillips & Ince

Although Blackpool narrowly missed out on winning promotion to the Premier League the signs for next season are promising. This is in large part to the two wide players who excelled last season and the prospect of them staying next season gives hope to Blackpool that they will make an even stronger challenge for promotion. Those two wide men are the focus of this article, looking at their qualities and where they still need to develop.

No Doubting Thomas

Ince (20) joined Blackpool from Liverpool around the same time as Gerardo Bruna and the difference in development between the two could not be further apart. Ince has grown with each game and is now one of Blackpool’s key attacking weapons, whilst Bruna mopes around Bloomfield Road like a man who really doesn’t love the game anymore.

First impressions of Ince 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, normally as an inverted winger on the right, he appears to have developed with the game time he has had. His first touch is solid, but inconsistent, his passing also lacks consistency, both in range and execution.

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 goals (particularly against Doncaster at home) 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 he is mentally strong and doesn’t appear to lose his composure the closer he gets to the opposition goal. He appears to need to increase his field of vision to appreciate his options earlier which will also help with his decision-making. Overall, his development is on an upward trajectory increasing more than any other Blackpool player and if he keep developing at this rate he will outgrow this Blackpool side should they fail to gain promotion next season. He is assisted by the fact Ian Holloway knows how to develop talent and he suits the system that Blackpool play. In addition to settling in to either wide forward position and has even dropped deeper and centrally at times and realistically he could also be deployed as a very effective attacking left back. 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.

One area of his game that can be detrimental to his development and the flow of his team is the upon receiving the ball. He has a habit of turning back away from goal in order to protect the ball from the opponent. On the face of it this isn’t necessarily a bad move, however, it appears totally instinctive. What makes it worse is that he does this even when not being marked, leading to attacks slowing down and removing his vision from the field of play that he is being asked to attack. This may well be a consequence of being deployed as an inverted winger and not being comfortable letting the ball run across his body on to his weaker right foot, however, it’s something that he needs to use with more discretion. In doing so, he will become a little more direct in his attacking play and cause even more stress for the opposition.

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 at least another season by the seaside under Ian Holloway.

Express Yourself

Phillips (21) started the season being touted as ‘one to watch’ in the Championship and in terms of development appeared to be some way ahead of Ince. He ended the season as a player elected in to the Championship team of the season and being capped by Scotland. However, his development hasn’t been as evident as that of Ince, but that may be more to do with the fact that his skill set was in a more advanced state after an excellent schooling at Wycombe as well as a season in the Premier League behind him.

There’s no point in delaying the key observation about Phillips’ main weakness as it has been, and will be, very critical to where his career path leads. If he conquers it, then there really is no limit to where he can be in three years time, fail to do so and he may sparkle in fits and fade more often. Quite simply it appears that Phillips has issues with confidence or belief in himself which affects his game play from time to time. Whilst not being overly dominant at this stage of his career, it is likely to affect him more and more should he fail to develop the mental side to his game. This emanates less so in his tendency to ‘drop his head’, but more so in the way that he tries to force things in order to prove that he can do the almost impossible. He was surprisingly loaned out to Sheffield United earlier in the season after a poor start to the season, when he was being closely monitored by the opposition and not really getting involved in games. The loan spell served to get him in to a quality League One side where he could flourish in games where he was clearly above the level of the opponent he faced. He scored five goals and came back to Blackpool with complete belief in himself that he could do anything. In the ‘afterburn’ of that loan spell he scored a further twelve goals, before settling in to a greater level of consistency in the end of season run in.

If a team lets Phillips impose himself on a game, then he will, however, he is tested to the limits of his belief when those margins are squeezed. Let him turn and give him five or ten yards and he will hurt most defences in any English league. He can score and create from anywhere in the final third. When he starts, he lines up in the wide left forward position and seeks to cut inside to get his shot away. Very few players will beat him for pace, he is also strong and tricky. His step overs can be a little readable and he does have a tendency to sit back on his heels as he does this, which doesn’t give him a dynamic body position in which to drive forward in to a darting run taking away that vital split second needed in to advanced attacking areas where space is tight.

He can be stopped a little too easily when teams get tight to him, stop him from turning and he has little in his skill set to be able to effectively turn and beat a man. Should he be able to develop attacks when under such close attention then this will form a critical part of his next development stage. This needs to be aided by an improvement in his first touch. To the casual observer his touch may not be questioned, however, he has a noticeable flaw under closer scrutiny. In wanting to keep his head up he doesn’t always watch the ball on to his foot, which in itself isn’t a major issue, top players don’t need to watch the ball on to their foot, but they must use their all round sense and technique to keep the ball under control. Quite often the ball will bounce upwards upon Phillips’ first touch leading to him needed a further touch to full control the ball before executing his next move. This is critical when being closely marked, but also when he gets space it can interrupt his flow. Should he polish up this first touch then defences will need to be on full alert as he will be up to full speed earlier, or getting his powerful shot away earlier. Or as seen in the playoff final delivering a defence splitting through ball from the middle third.

Whilst he is generally deployed as the wide left forward, he can play wide right too, as well as right wing and right back. However, his future may well lie in the central striking role. He hardly occupies that central space at the moment, but when he has he has shown that his hold up play is developing. Again the skills his may seek to develop his wide play may also benefit his future as a central striker.

Good things come….

Blackpool may only need to recruit three players this summer, however, that number may flex if a team comes up with the cash to force a sale for either of these young players. At this stage it is unlikely to happen, although dynamics away from Blackpool are hard to control and agents don’t always act with the players best interests in mind. Starting the new season at Blackpool should be the way to go for these two excellent young players. Do so and it’s highly likely that they’ll be playing Premier League football with Blackpool or some other team.

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.