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.

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.

Practice Makes Perfect

After a spate of concessions from set pieces and corners Ian Holloway hauled his team through extensive defensive practice to iron out the issues. They worked so hard that Ian Holloway was quoted in the Blackpool Gazette as saying;

“But we have practised it this week, and they have all sore foreheads now”

This was in advance of the game against Southampton, a game in which Blackpool kept their first clean sheet in the league for fourteen matches. Holloway talked about getting his players to ‘attack the flight of the ball’ which is a basic skill, but one that Blackpool as a team had lacked in recent games. However, upon watching the Southampton game it was clear that they had worked on a little more than that. Blackpool’s defensive focus was apparent across the pitch and there were around three key elements that stood out from that game. It’s important to bear in mind that these observations may be game specific and may not actually be a sustained approach, but it’s still valid to note them.

The first element that was clear from the first whistle was that Blackpool’s first line of defence was the forward line and the forwards pressed hard and high up the pitch all game long. At times this season Blackpool’s pressing strategy hasn’t been very obvious, not that this always indicates a lack of a plan as it could be that players are interpreting the application of instruction to varying degrees.

The second element that appeared to be deliberate was how often the defensive line remained as a four across the back line. Under Holloway, Blackpool’s full backs have often been aggressively applied, often joining in to midfield and attack. However, here both full backs kept much deeper. Again, this may be match specific and given the lack of width from Southampton in the first half it may have made been unnecessary. However, with the introduction of Steve De Ridder after the break Southampton had much more width and depth on the right. Bob Harris at left back was engaged with his opponent (De Ridder) for large spells in the second half, which will have forced him back anyway, but given that he wasn’t in the habit of getting forward that would have helped his mindset. It would be a bold move to see Blackpool continue this conservative application of full backs, especially against perceived weaker teams who set up to stifle. A full back who steps up in those situations offers another outlet and another point of attack; it’s likely that this may only be a tactic employed for Southampton.

The final element is the corner set up and approach. Analysis of this is pretty basic due to lack of quality footage of games this season. However, the Southampton game saw a change of corner set up from Blackpool. This must have been the large focus of their weeks training given the recent issues in defending corners. It appears that they were working on much more that just attacking the flight of the ball. Teams have plans for attacking corners and defending corners and for the most part this season Blackpool appear to have mainly used man to man marking with a hint of zonal coverage. Again this assertion is from limited footage and recollection, so it’s fair to perhaps doubt the accuracy here. However, the following evidence will be used to back up this assertion.

The picture below is a screen shot of the corner that led to the goal that was conceded against Hull.

What can be seen here is that Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste go man for man in the area which is circled. Tom Ince (red dot) appears to go man for man with Liam Rosenior (blue dot) and Danny Wilson (green dot) is also man for man against his opponent. Stephen Crainey (yellow dot) at the back post appears to be man for man also. Only Keith Southern (tangerine dot) appears to be committed to marking a zone at the front post. This is a typical set up for Blackpool with slight modifications for game specificity i.e. Ince isn’t normally likely to man mark at corners; Rosenior would have been a suitable opponent in this case.

The picture below shows the corner set up for the goal that David Nugent scored for Leicester when they recently drew at Bloomfield Road.

From left to right you can see that Evatt and Southern are man for man in the area that is circled. Alex Baptiste (red dot) and Gary Taylor Fletcher (green dot) also go man to man. Crainey (yellow dot) also appears to be man marking even though his man has dropped behind him. Kevin Phillips (blue dot) is stationed in the zone near the front post to cut out the poorly delivered corner.

Now contrast that set up to the picture below.

This angle gives a great appreciation of the placement of players around the six yard box, but admittedly is doesn’t pick up those that may have been around the edge of the area. This was a corner delivered superbly and actually poorly defended by Blackpool, but this isn’t being used about defensive work per se, rather than to observe the positioning.

To the casual observer you should be able to notice the difference straight away, however, it’s important that this may be game specific and Southampton’s attacking set up may have been compromised by the loss of Rickie Lambert. In the top right you have Tom Ince (red line) picking up the man going for the short corner. On the front post you have Matty Phillips (yellow dot) in the zone to cut out the lowly hit corner. However, you then have four Blackpool players in a staggered line from the top (Keith Southern, green dot) to bottom (Alex Baptiste, blue dot). None of these players are engaged, man for man. They appear to be covering the zones from front to middle to back. This may be game specific, but it appears clear that Ian Evatt (red dot) for instance doesn’t have a duty to pick up a man. He is there to mark the space and ‘attack the flight’ of the ball. This appears to be a key change of set up for Blackpool and what Holloway had drilled in to his team. This does appear to be a clear change indicated by the application of Evatt as he would generally be assigned to pick up the opposition’s key aerial threat man to man. The fact he isn’t here, perhaps backs up the assertion that Blackpool did change their approach.

Given that this corner was poorly defended isn’t the best case to say that the set up works. However, the following games may either see the same familiar set up or changes for opponent dynamic. What can be said is that Blackpool looked a very effective defensive side with a renewed focus on their defensive work and repeats of that clean sheet against Southampton will go a long way to securing their place in the play-offs.

Goal Analysis – Space Exploration

Professional football is rather unique in that the higher up the profession you go, the less space you are given to work in. Compare that with a factory worker producing for an employer. They have their space protected and have guaranteed space to work in. An office worker has a desk in which to complete their tasks. As they get better they may progress through the ranks of their profession, perhaps to become a manager with a spacious office at their disposal. They apparently need this space to operate in order to operate at a higher level whilst the workers enjoy their guaranteed, if restricted work space.

Football is different. As you progress through the game, generally you have your space taken away from you. At the very highest levels of the game space is at a premium and generally you have to find your own space or have a system set up to grant you some. Occasionally the opposition may cede some through negligence or by design. However, a general rule in football is that the more you progress in your profession the less space you have and you have to get used to operating in less space. Obviously you are well remunerated for this inconvenience so you’re hardly likely to take this to a union or refer the case to the Health & Safety Executive.

Last season this blog complied a feature on DJ Campbell, charting the goals that he scored in the Championship whilst also looking at how he was settling in to the Premier League. A general observation made at the time was that during his goal scoring period in the Championship it was noticeable how much more space he had to execute his moves and make his decisions. Now Blackpool are back in the Championship it is noticeable how much space there is, especially in the box and final third. In recent weeks there have been a few goals occurring in Blackpool’s matches that highlight this issue of space and alongside this, some excellent play from a wise old professional who knows how to create space.

Hammered

First and foremost West Ham outclassed Blackpool from start to finish when they met the other week, however, when Gary O’Neil struck the third West Ham goal it stood out because of the time and space he was granted. You can see below how he is on the edge of the area left all alone with Blackpool giving him all the space he needs to choose what to do.

Gary O'Neil is circled above to illustrate the space he was granted by the Blackpool defence.

This struck an uncanny resemblance to when Kevin Phillips struck against Cardiff last month. The Cardiff defence appeared to react slowly and space was granted to Phillips who guided the ball in to the goal with great technique and accuracy. You can see below how Phillips has almost seven if not eight yards of space to work in.

The arrow indicates the movement Phillips made in to the space.

When you’ve operated at the level that Kevin Phillips has for large parts of his career you can’t afford to give him too much space. He maintains his composure and has an acute awareness for where he is in relation to the goal and when to shoot.

Masterful

If a defence isn’t conceding space to be exploited, players need to be aware of how to create space. Leading on from the last example, Kevin Phillips has recently demonstrated why he is a supreme goalscorer, especially at this level. His movement in the box is largely focused on space creation and the goals he scored against Bristol City and West Ham have similar hallmarks. Below you can see how prior to the ball coming in to Phillips he has worked his way between the two Bristol City centre backs.

Compare the picture above to the one below, where against West Ham Phillips does exactly the same.

Again, he is perfectly positioned, this time in between the full back and centre back. In these cases, if the centre back fails to clear the ball then Phillips has the space he needs to attempt to score. If the delivery is poor, or the ‘keeper intercepts then the chance goes away. Unfortunately for the opposition in these cases, that didn’t happen. The only other way to thwart Phillips is for another defender to react or for Phillips to miss with his shot. Neither happened here and these are two great examples of how an intelligent striker can create space when perhaps it’s not always obvious.

Space to learn

Space is the most critical element in most games of football. Give a footballer space and they can operate, take the space away and only the better footballers will tend to flourish. In the top leagues and competitions, this becomes more and more obvious. If Blackpool end up back in the Premier League next season then some of the younger strikers could learn a lot from watching Kevin Phillips as the rest of the season plays out.

Goal Analysis – Doncaster

After previously unpicking two opposition goals in recent weeks this time the focus turns on to a goal scored by Blackpool.

The final goal in the 3-1 victory over Doncaster had points of interest from both an attacking and defending point of view. The first two goals scored on the night came from Gary Taylor-Fletcher, the first from a brilliant long curved pass over the Doncaster defence from Neal Eardley and the second self-created with quick feet and craft.

Double Phase

The goal was a product of two phases of play. The first phase being an attacking free kick for Blackpool and the second, reclaimed possession from the free kick resulting in the goal. The start of the first phase is pictured below.

Whilst Doncaster do win the header at the free kick they don’t clear the ball to safety and nor does the man on the edge of the box (highlighted) react quick enough to the loose ball. Not in the picture above is the man who is responsible for initiating phase two, Barry Ferguson.

Fergie Time & Again

Ferguson has been fantastic for Blackpool this season, his technique is of a very high standard which makes errors on his first touch very rare. His positional sense is superb and allied with great vision and leadership he is able to organise the team around his position. He is generally first to collect orders from Holloway and distribute them and at attacking set pieces you can see him pointing to his players advising them where to go. Such is his quality of positional work it often escapes notice. It takes a goal such as this to really appreciate his role in the Blackpool team. In attack, he supports the team and provides the back up when attacks either break down or fizzle out.

In the picture above you can see that he was perfectly positioned to pick up on the loose ball and in a split second Ferguson has possession of the ball and without any hassle the ball has started on its path towards the back of the net. It looks simple, but in reality that kind of play is hard to do, you need to be in the right position, you then need the required technique to secure the ball and move it on. Poorer players could have lost possession in such a situation and left their team open to a fast break.

Fab-Trio

The Blackpool goal then lends itself to three more excellent pieces of work.

  1. A brilliant through ball from Kevin Phillips allowing Alex Baptiste to advance.
  2. A hard and accurate shot from Baptiste. He knows he need to either shoot or cross. His run and position isn’t that dissimilar to the goal he scored against Crystal Palace earlier in the season and here he makes the keeper make a save.
  3. Nouha Dicko understands his position well and knows he needs to both make himself available for a cross and in position to poach any loose ball that may rebound. He does the latter superbly well to put the game beyond Doncaster.

Back Baps

Arguably, the key element of those three is the role that Baptiste plays. It has been said on this blog this season that Blackpool look their most potent when Baptiste steps in to attack. The main reasons for this is that at several points this season Blackpool have been stymied and tend to struggle for creative ideas around the final third, often slowing the tempo of the game too much and having poor movement ahead of the ball. In such cases it’s important for midfielders to make runs beyond the ball and if that doesn’t happen then the defence can do the same. In doing so, they can create overloading situations against the opposition defence and in turn get behind the defensive line which can be vital in any football match.

Turn & Face

It is that last sentence that leads to the final point to be made about the goal. It’s is a great example of why an attacking team needs to turn a defensive line around and get them running towards their goal. It pushes them closer to their own goal, but also only very good defenders can recover their awareness of the match situation to deal with the imminent threats. Here, Doncaster have only just turned to face their goal when the shot comes in from Baptiste and they have little time to understand where the Blackpool players are and react before the ball is in the net.

Moving On

You can view this goal and the others from the match against Doncaster over on the BBC website through the link below

Doncaster 1-3 Blackpool

Overall this was a good team goal and a good three points for Blackpool as they move on to an FA Cup clash with Everton. A preview of that game can be found on the link below.

Everton v Blackpool – FA Cup 5th Round – 18th March 2012

Ghosting The Concession

Last week the goal conceded to Cardiff was scrutinised as Blackpool made a succession of errors to let Joe Mason score the opening goal. This week the focus turns to the goal that Erik Huseklepp scored to give Portsmouth the lead at Bloomfield Road.

Two sides to the story

In this analysis the two facets being focused on are the excellent movement of Huseklepp and the defending from Blackpool. To preface the analysis Ian Holloway argued vehemently that the ball should never have been at Blackpool’s end of the pitch due to a poor refereeing decision. Here, however, that element will be ignored. The goal was scored and let’s focus on exactly why.

Chances

Like Cardiff last week the Blackpool defence were given at least two warnings that they never dealt with in the run up to conceding. Firstly, from the throw in, Chris Basham had a challenge that had he won, would have snuffed out the attack. Secondly, after Matt Gilks made his save Blackpool could have reacted quicker to the loose ball to stop Portsmouth regaining possession in the Blackpool box.

Switching off

However, the reaction from Craig Cathcart after the goal was scored suggests he was well aware of his role in the goal. Before going in to detail here it’s critical to note that Cathcart had a fine game and defended most of his situations well including a Bobby Moore style stop to thwart a possible goal scoring opportunity. However, as the goal events were unfolding there is enough to question both Cathcart’s positional awareness, concentration and decision making. The screen shot below shows the position of the Blackpool back four prior to the shot coming in which Matt Gilks saves.

You can see how all four defenders hold a decent position. Cathcart (two red dots above his head) has Huseklepp (two blue dots) in his sights. Cathcart initially goes with Huseklepp’s first run, anticipating that he may pick the ball up. However, Cathcart watches the ball as the shot comes in whilst Huseklepp shuffles his run and ghosts in behind Cathcart. You can see below how Cathcart is unaware of where Huseklepp has gone.

This was the warning for Cathcart. Huseklepp will keep moving and darting around to fool him. Cathcart has decisions to make. Stick to the man and risk being pulled out of position, keep his position or react to the lose ball to snuff out the danger. The picture below shows the situation after the shot has been saved.

As Márkó Futács lines up his shot, Cathcart is aware of that fact but not that Huseklepp is behind him. Cathcart is dealing with the matter in hand, which is all he must feel he can do. However, he must also have a keen appreciation of where Huseklepp has gone.

What follows suggests that he is trying to deal with the matter at hand and has left Huseklepp alone either through a mistake or through passing on marking to a team mate, Barry Ferguson. Ferguson does drop in to cover as Cathcart goes out and this is when three things conspire against Blackpool. Fortune, in that the scuffed shot finds Huseklepp, but also first class movement from the Norweigan to get in-between Ferguson and Cathcart allied to his reaction to the poor shot.

You can see below how Cathcart is left stranded, Ferguson has dropped to cover, but Huseklepp has ghosted in to a great position to seize on the chance. Ferguson cannot react quick enough to block the shot.

Barry Ferguson is highlighted in the tangerine box as he drops in behind Cathcart & Huseklepp.

Premier Striker

In all fairness, Huseklepp made this goal through excellent box play. Constantly moving, making three runs in total, becoming very hard to track. However, Blackpool will know that the situation was solvable and Cathcart will once again add this to his experience in the hope of becoming a top quality centre back.

 

 

A Concession Of Errors

In a new (hopefully permanent) feature on the blog a closer look will be taken at the goals in Blackpool matches with a view to understanding them in greater detail. Usual tactical articles will still come along, but finding the time and resources to make them genuinely worthwhile are much harder this season now Blackpool are playing Championship football.

Cardiff Take The Lead

Watching the Cardiff goal in the first instance there are at least three points of failure for Blackpool. As much as Joe Mason scored the goal, poor Blackpool defending presented the chance. However, before looking at the points of failure it’s important to note why Blackpool ended up defending so close to the goal.

Goals may be scored in a split second, but quite often there’s a stacking up of incidents leading to the goal. They act as a warning to the defensive team that they need to be aware in order to snuff out danger at the earliest opportunity. In this instance, Cardiff got in between Blackpool lines of defence and midfield catching Blackpool out of shape in defence. Remember, this is in the lead up to the goal.

Crainey (circled) is caught high up the pitch, Cardiff advance.

The picture above shows how Stephen Crainey was caught a little high up the pitch and Danny Wilson was dragged over to deal with the oncoming player leaving far too much space between him and Craig Cathcart. It is here were teams have often picked apart Blackpool. The picture below shows how there’s a clear pass on in behind Cathcart for Kenny Miller. Instead of taking that option Mason spreads the play wide. As he opts to do that Cathcart goes to put pressure on the ball and pulls the whole Blackpool defence out of shape.

The blue arrow indicates the play that could have caught Blackpool out, whilst Cathcart (circled) steps up.

It is at this point where Blackpool are at stress point. They are being turned around and need to regroup their shape and become aware of the positions taken up by their opponents. Alex Baptiste goes to apply pressure to the man on the ball and Chris Basham drops to cover at right back.

Now the errors start to mount up. Arguably they were the result of poor defending, but not helped by being pulled out of shape and having to recover shape whilst being turned to face their goal.

Point of failure 1

Blackpool centre back (circled) getting in front of their men. Note Don Cowie is a spare man at the back post, unmarked.

Both centre backs get themselves in poor positions in front of the men they should mark causing a knock on effect. Cathcart is marking space with Mason taking up position behind him. Wilson monitors Miller but realising he has to go to Mason passes on the marking of Miller to pick up Mason, however, he is unaware that Crainey is outnumbered at the back post. This is a combination of positioning, awareness and organisation not functioning very well as there were three Cardiff players in relation to three Blackpool players.

Point of failure 2

Wilson (circled) moves out to the man in anticipation.

In trying to anticipate the knock down by Don Cowie, Danny Wilson goes forward to the nearest man. Had he held his position he could have cut the ball out easily.

Point of failure 3

Cathcart fails to react.

In thinking that Wilson has the ball covered Cathcart switches off instead on staying goal side of Mason and on his toes ready for the worst case scenario. Mason then steals in front of Cathcart to score.

Diagnosis: Goal

This just highlights how goals can be conceded through not dealing with the matter at hand at the earliest opportunity. Nothing has been said about the excellent work that Cardiff did to score the goal. The ghosting movement of Cowie to sneak around the back. The awareness when crossing the ball to pick out Cowie at the back post and the anticipation of Mason to steal in front of Cathcart.

It gives Blackpool a good few things to think about from a defensive point of view, but will not take anything away from a good three points on their travels as perhaps the dreaming may start once again.

Inviting the Inevitable – Southampton 2-2 Blackpool

Blackpool tried to hold on to a lead donated to them by a freak goalkeeping error, but in the end they invited a strong Southampton team on to them and who duly equalised to rescue a point.

Starting out

Ian Holloway made one change in dropping Lomana LuaLua to the bench and bringing in Chris Basham in to midfield. Whilst Nigel Adkins brought back Rickie Lambert from injury to lead the line and Bartosz Białkowski for the injured Kelvin Davis in goal.

Blackpool set up in their 4-3-3 with Basham adding extra bite and cover in the midfield. Southampton on paper looked like a rough 4-4-2 but with plenty of fluidity about it. Both their wide men cut in, their central midfielders sometimes split and Guly Do Prado dropped off Rickie Lambert to receive the ball in between Blackpool’s midfield and defence.

Strategically speaking

Blackpool appeared to set up to counter when under pressure and to assert themselves on the ball should they win it higher up the pitch. This was initially aided with pressure being applied high up the pitch, trying to throw out Southampton’s passing moves from defence.

Southampton appeared to be happy to allow Blackpool the centre ground and go around them and with a mixture of short and long passing. They were aggressive in attack and had plenty of drive from their midfield to run beyond attackers and in behind the defence. They focused their attacks on and around Lambert, using him to set plays up as well as to bully the Blackpool defence and force them deeper.

Swings and roundabouts

The first half swung from Blackpool to Southampton and then back to Blackpool again as both teams enjoyed periods of dominance. In truth, Southampton had the best of the chances in the first half, but their defensive work was unhinged by the mistakes being made by Białkowski in goal. His nerves or even lack of alertness caused gave Blackpool more joy than they perhaps should have had and Southampton’s back line seemed a little thrown off by that. The mistake by Białkowski for the second Blackpool goal seemed to throw the game in to a stunned state before Southampton started to chase the game.

Blackpool at times used the ball very wisely, however, as the game wore on the ball started to come back to them all too often as they lacked a genuine out ball to set up counter attacks or field position. When Blackpool enjoyed their best spells they were usually aided by strong running on and off the ball by Matthew Phillips and Callum McManaman which stretched the play, pushing the Southampton defence back, creating space for Blackpool’s midfielders to step in to and receive the ball.

Southampton looked more fluent when Adam Lallana stepped inside and forward to join the attack. However, to Blackpool’s credit that happened very little, however, when it did, he caused them a lot of problems. The first goal came from Lallana pressure and link up play. What was noticeable about Southampton off the ball was the inconsistency of their pressing. They didn’t seem to press with a consistent intensity or in consistent patterns. If this was intentional then fair enough, however, it would be strange if that was the case. When they stepped up their pressing before the first goal it really appeared to catch Blackpool out who found their space shut out and struggled to work in the tighter spaces.

Bringing it on

Holloway’s team conceded late on in the game, but in truth they invited it. If it was a conscious decision then it was only executed in part. The key in such situations is to do the basics well, blocking, tackling, keeping shape etc, but it’s vital that the pressure can be eased with ‘outballs’ that remain up the field of play for as long as possible. In this case Blackpool struggled to lock down their out balls, either through poor distribution or hold up play. The net effect was that Southampton were in receipt of the ball time and time again, giving Blackpool more and more pressure to handle.

Premier Bound

Southampton are a top Championship side and it showed in this game. Their goalkeeping issues aside (assuming Kelvin Davis isn’t out for too long) they have everything they need to be promoted. Defensively sound, but it’s their attacking options that sets them apart. Admittedly a lot of their plays hang off or come through Rickie Lambert, but they aren’t entirely dependent on him. They have excellent variety to their game. They can pass short and long in all areas, they can build play and have players to thread short balls in the final third, but will go long from front to back to exploit the aerial qualities of Lambert. They vary their player positions to suit themselves, in this game alone there was a lot of position switching within their framework.

As attacking plays go they have some great pre-set moves. As good example of this is the long ball from full back or centre back to the head of Lambert who will flick on to an oncoming wide midfielder cutting in. It’s hard to track the midfield runner and Blackpool struggled at times. When Lambert executes his flick well the opposition defence is turned around in an instant and the goal is exposed.

In this game they also had another element to their attacking play and that was the movement of Guly. He drops off deeper to receive the ball to feet which helps to vary their focus of attack and he can start short passing movements with support from the central midfielders, but also from Lallana who will drift inside to receive.

There may be questions over their dependency on a couple of players, but that is clearly a risk worth taking as they appear so strong in utilising them well. Should Lambert get an injury that keeps him out for a long time then perhaps they may struggle, but with such variety to their game they should cope.

Moving on

Blackpool will be happy with the point, even if they won’t be happy with allowing Southampton to attack them so frequently towards the end. They move in to the festive period with the potential to emerge in January in the play off positions. Nigel Adkins will be happy with the character shown by his team and should have little concern about where his team are heading.