What's in a pass – Revisited

Back in January this blog took a look at the passing of Blackpool and the role that it plays in their overall game plan. Then Blackpool were on 25 points and 8 games later they have only mustered up further 4 points. This decline is on the radars of the mainstream media and the following clichés are being warmed up; ‘the honeymoon is over’ and ‘running out of steam’. However, can a focus on Blackpool’s passing help to understand more about why Blackpool have only clocked up 4 points from a possible 21 in their last 8 games?

The decline?

Just for clarity purposes, here is a chart showing how Blackpool’s points per game has progressed throughout the season and as you can see the line tails off towards the end as the most recent run of defeats have taken their toll.

Blackpool's average points since the match against Arsenal in week 2.

Pass Incompletion

In the previous article Blackpool’s passing was picked out as a key strength and at that time they had a pass completion rate higher than Liverpool under Roy Hodgson. However, if we plot the game pass completion rates for each game on a graph, what do we see?

From left to right see how the line gradually tails downwards as Blackpool have completed less and less passes.

As you can see Blackpool’s pass completion has been gradually eroding in recent weeks. In fact for the games prior to their last win Blackpool’s pass completion was 75% and in the last six games it has dropped to 70%.

Player Focus

Recent articles have focused on some individual player performance over the course of the season, most recently with Ian Evatt, Charlie Adam and David Vaughan. Below is a chart showing their pass completion % for the last 6 games set against that of the games before that.

You can see above how Charlie Adam and Ian Evatt's pass completion has dropped in the last 6 games.

You can clearly see that in the games where Blackpool’s pass completion has begun to disintegrate, David Vaughan has been consistently excellent, even pushing up his pass completion above 85%. Whilst Adam has dropped from 71% to 60% and Evatt has gone from 68% to 75%.

This tends to fit in to the fact that Blackpool’s pass completion has started to drop for two key reasons. Team putting players under more pressure by closing them down and that Blackpool’s players are still learning to improve their decision-making at this level i.e. when to pass and what pass to make.

For example, teams seem to really pressure the back line and the keeper now, in order to make it harder for them to play out from the back. This is further backed up when looking at the completion rate for goal kicks. In the last six games it has dropped to 57% from 64% previously. Earlier on in the season goal kicks were often taken short, however, forwards are alert to that threat now and seek to cover the edge of the area making interceptions and forcing passing errors. See the chalkboard below from Blackpool’s most recent game against Aston Villa. Notice how 9 of the 20 interceptions made by Villa were in Blackpool’s own half.

As Villa pressed Blackpool they made 20 interceptions, 9 of them in the Blackpool half.

Pep talk

This week Ian Holloway has talked about how he wants to learn from Josep Guardiola to improve his side. It is possible that he feels he can learn to improve his side’s ball retention by seeing how Barcelona play and that this learning could well be applied to allow his side to pass the ball better under pressure, improving their pass completion and possibly win more games. On average, in the games that Blackpool win, their pass completion is 1% higher than those they lose. Small margins on the surface, but at the top-level of football, small margins might make a big difference especially as Blackpool try to stay in the Premier League.

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Blackpool v Aston Villa Review

This game turned out to be a fair result as both teams had chances to score more than the one goal a piece. Both managers threw very few surprises in to the mix as tactically this was a very plain game.

Equals

Villa more defintion between defence and attack. Blackpool more of a blended approach.

From a formation point of view this was 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1, however, they were applied slightly differently as Gerard Houllier prefers to have his two midfielders sit deeper and hold their positions. On the other hand Ian Holloway likes a balance of defence and attack from his two with David Vaughan more likely to sit and hold. A flex in the Aston Villa side was the movement of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, which sometimes gave them the look of a 4-4-1-1. The latter was deployed out left, but would make runs wide and inside and Young would often move to support Darren Bent in attack. Finally, Kyle Walker was given permission to attack and he did so at speed, however, at times his runs would be on the inside and he ran in to the more congested central areas.

Start up

The first half saw both team have chances, Villa looking to counter and using Stuart Downing to great effect on the right cutting in on to his left. However, the Villa goal was a familiar sight for Blackpool fans as the Blackpool defence was caught out of position whilst the game was in transition. A good link up between Bent and Agbonlahor exploited the vacant right back area after Alex Baptiste had been high up the pitch involved in an attack.

David Vaughan found a lot of space at times, especially if Ashley Young didn’t track back and as Houllier persisted with two deep midfielders Vaughan started to take control of Blackpool’s passing and played some good balls in to the channels, he only misplaced 4 passes from 48. The  Blackpool goal came from what is also becoming a familiar sight for both teams, a goal from a corner. According to Opta before this match Blackpool had scored the most goals from corners in the Premier League, whilst Aston Villa had conceded the most.

Seconds out

The second half saw both teams get in to good attacking positions, however, Blackpool were the team that retained the better possession and created the most chances. Blackpool seemed to hesitate in making decisions in the final third and often looked unsure of what to do and their shooting seemed to reflect that (the goal being the only time they hit the target). After a red card saw Jean Makoun depart Villa switch to a 4-4-1 looking to hit Blackpool on the break, but in truth, both centre back partnerships looked very solid indeed.

Grandin then out

Whilst Blackpool had Elliot Grandin on the pitch they looked more fluid going forward, this in part may have been something to do with his efficiency with the ball, misplacing only one pass before his injury. Jason Puncheon came on to play that role before Andy Reid came on and in to the role on 72 minutes. The chalkboards below show how Grandin performed in the role much better than Puncheon.

Puncheon in the midfield, before being moved wide left.

Stubborn

Gerard Houllier persisted in playing to holding midfielders, however, the chalkboard below showed how only one of them (Reo-Coker) was effective, leaving questions over having Jean Makoun on the field at the same time, where a more attack minded midfielder might have given Villa more options in the final third. You can see how Makoun only won 4 of his 15 duels whilst Reo-Coker won 10 of his 15.

Two holding midfielders really necessary?

All about the centre backs

After both goals were scored the game was characterised by Ian Evatt and Richard Dunne dominating the game and helping to snuff out the attacks. See their chalkboards below. Evatt lost only one duel all afternoon, whilst Dunne lost only 2 of 9 and those that he lost were outside of any danger zone.

Big strong centre backs gave the strikers little change.

Moving on

The result was fair for both teams, Houllier might look at changing his approach in making one of his holding midfielders more progressive and the substition of Michael Bradley might offer him that in the coming weeks. Ian Holloway will be happy to move on to the next game with plenty of time to train up his side and get them motivated for the Spurs game on the 22nd February.

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Dissecting the defence

Blackpool’s first season has been characterised by attacking football as the Tangerines have found goals relatively easy to come by. However, it is their defence that regularly comes under scrutiny and more so since their run of five defeats after the Liverpool victory. This post will look at the Blackpool defence and explore as many facets of it as possible in order to establish what is behind Blackpool’s defence and where have things been going wrong?

Facts & Figures

Blackpool have conceded 49 goals at an average of 1.96 per game. It has been well publicised that Blackpool tend to concede late in games and the following table breaks down the time periods in which Blackpool concede goals (up to and including the Everton game).

Notice how Blackpool have conceded 14 goals in the final quarter of games.

The reasons for late concessions can be speculated upon and none more so than in the recent post about the Everton game. In this game Holloway tried to shut down the defence and reverted to a five man defence which back fired mainly through a combination of positive attacking from Everton, but poor defensive organisation. A multitude of other reasons can be examined; however, this would involve a lot of conjecture about fitness levels, quality of the opposition, experience and the like.

Personnel

Blackpool play with a back four  and it would be fair to say that (based on the most appearances) that Blackpool`s first choice back four, from left back to right back would be; Stephen Crainey, Ian Evatt, Craig Cathcart and Neil Eardley. Alex Baptiste covers at right and centre back and David Carney covers the left back spot. Dekel Keinan had been acting as back up for the centre back position before his recent move to Cardiff City. It is also important to understand that Holloway has used Matthew Phillips at right back at times this season, which underlines something about his defensive philosophy as Phillips is primarily a forward. This was covered in December through an extensive focus on the Blackpool full backs. where it was established that Holloway uses his full backs to attack as the best form of defence and by pushing up his full backs he exerts great pressure on the opposition in their own half and the final third of the pitch.

Blackpool haven’t been able to select a consistent defensive line up for many reasons, injuries being the key one. This instability in selection cannot help the overall performance especially from a unit that needs time to gel and build up communications.

Evo-Lution!

Ian Evatt joined Blackpool under Simon Grayson, a traditional ‘big’ English centre-back that wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. Since Holloway took over, Evatt has evolved and progressed in to a centre back that passes accurately, steps out of defence and where possible attempts to trigger attacks. He personifies so much about where Ian Holloway has brought Blackpool. Before his tenure, a ball running towards the touch line and out of play may well have been left to go out for a throw in. Now Evatt will control the ball, roll his foot over it, move with it and distribute it safely as Blackpool build their play with considered passing from the back line. Let’s take a look at Evatt’s statistics this season.

He does his stuff he does!

The stand out figures here are his pass completion of 76%, which is good for a centre back and forms a key part of the passing game that Holloway has brought to Blackpool. Other stand out stats to focus on are his tackle success of 63% and within that his aerial duels win percentage of 61%. What isn’t shown here is the volume of tackles that he has lost this season, in total he has lost 46 duels this season at a rate of 2 per match. Here lies the crux of any defenders work, it not always the tackles you win that help the team, but the consequences of what happens when you lose a duel? Does your opponent punish you or not?

To sum up Ian Evatt’s development under Holloway, look not to the superb performances he has put in this season, but look to the goal he scored against Coventry at Bloomfield Road last season. Solid technique, breaking out from defence, good passing ability and the ability and awareness to curl a shot in to the goal.

Shaping up

The media have criticised Blackpool’s defence at times this season and Ian Holloway stated that he wanted to attack and not defend in the Premier League. However, Blackpool can defend and the following sequence sheds some light on the way they organise their back line when coming under attack. Firstly, a sequence from the Liverpool game, showing attacks from the left, and right. Clearly when you freeze the action you can see that they set themselves very well and in these instances they fended off danger.

As Liverpool advance down their left, note how Blackpool's back line is spaced and cover in a line across the field of play.

What is also key here and is a common when Blackpool is under attack is how David Vaughan (white dots) tracks back to support the right back. This also happened for Everton’s first goal in last weeks match. Likewise as you’ll see below, when the attack comes from the other side, Charlie Adam tracks back to support the left back.

Here Stephen Crainey closes out the space out wide whilst Ian Evatt tracks his runner in to the corner area.

Pick any match and Blackpool’s defensive shape can be impressive, here’s another example to back this up from the Wolves game. As a long ball is hit from deep in the Wolves half, the defence coped perfectly well to see off the danger. Note that the four defenders are relatively evenly spread across the pitch.

This time the attack comes aerially against Wolves in to the Blackpool right back area. Eardley get's positioned in order to make a challenge should be required to.

An observation from a few games this season is that Neil Eardley stands off his man and gives him too much space as can be seen from the Everton game. However, given the examples above, it can’t be ascertained if this is the fault of one person given that above you can see that Ian Evatt covers one runner in behind whilst Adam and Vaughan work hard to track back. When Blackpool fail to defend, it is purely a case of failing to defend as a team or as we will see below, being punished by excellent opposition.

Coping in transition

When looking at Blackpool’s defensive shape, the biggest question hangs over their ability to cope with a side that is counter attacking them. In such transition phases sides either have a basic shape in place at all times to counter that or have plans for getting back in to shape; mainly requiring a lot of energy, pace and discipline in order to recover. However, quick counters and unexpected passes from deep can catch Blackpool out. Look at the following shots below from the Liverpool game. The back line is retreating, no offside trap can be sprung, they are responding to the fact the Torres has crept in behind Stephen Crainey and space has opened up on the left.

Liverpool break quickly and the intelligent movement of Torres is too much for Blackpool.

Against Manchester United they were undone twice by balls from Paul Scholes played from deep. This caught them off guard, on one occasion playing a dangerous offside trap against Javier Hernandez who has excellent pace and movement to escape many top quality defences. Anticipation of the pass and covering the runner may have ensured a more composed response to what was an early warning of the Manchester United comeback.

Realising that an unexpected ball in being played from deep, Blackpool try to play offside and the poor organisation causes a chance for Man Utd.
Look how Craig Cathcart loses his spacing from his right back and the two defenders leave space for Man Utd to attack.

Above you can see how the spacing in the defence has been lost as an early pass from deep has been lofted over the defence. Where Hernandez (black) is, is exactly where Cathcart needs to position himself instead of being dragged in to the right back area.

It’s fair to say that in predictable situations Blackpool can and do defend well, the biggest problem they face is the unpredictable and in the Premier League there is so much more of that due to the quality of the opposition. Anticipation of danger goes up a level, reactions, pace of response; all of these become so much more important at this higher level. It may be no coincidence that the five clean sheets have come against three teams who had poor attacks on the day (Wigan, West Ham and Sunderland) and two teams who had one game plan based on direct approaches to target men (Newcastle and Stoke).

Added to this is that unpredictable factor has been heightened by the fact that 4 goals have been conceded whilst the team had a player off for treatment. Defensive positions weren’t covered adequately, caused issues and goals were lost.

Not what you do, it’s what you don’t do

It would be easy to try and show the duels that Blackpool make on a chalkboard, it will show duels being won all over the pitch in the main with many players contributing to that effort. However, a quick look at the chalkboards from the Stoke game (clean sheet) and the Everton game (five goals against) give a little illustration of where defence can go wrong. The chalkboard here is of the duels that Blackpool lost in both games. The key factor here is to note where they are lost. In the Stoke game, only two tackles were lost in the final third, against Everton that number rises to seven.

Note where the tackles are lost in the lower chalkboard as Blackpool's defence concede five goals.

This factor of where you lose your tackles (not necessarily where you win them) can be crucial. Lose too many tackles too close to the goal and the attackers may have to do less in order to score. It also gives you less space and possibly time to recover. Fail in the tackle further from the goal and the danger is further away, simple.

Attack is the best form of defence

As mentioned in the post on Blackpool’s full backs and in other posts, Blackpool build their game on passing and Holloway sees that attacking teams as his best way of defending. As Blackpool have hit five defeats on the trot it is interesting to note that their pass count has dropped as well as completion rate. Quite simply they were keeping the ball better, for longer earlier in the season and now they are not. Teams appear to be working harder now to close down the space and specifically to stop the ‘keeper distributing from the back. In the games since the Liverpool match Blackpool’s average match pass count stands at 441 with a completion of 70%. Prior to that game it stood at 475 with a completion rate of 75%.

Consistency

One factor above centered on the selection of a consistent back line and this hasn’t been helped by injuries to all three goal keepers. Matthew Gilks started the season the first choice playing 12 games, conceding 23 and making 48 saves in the process. Since being injured at half time at West Ham Richard Kingson has come in playing 12, conceding 21 and making 61 saves. Both have performed well, but the latter, recently making mistakes leading to goals against West Brom and West Ham.

Tightening up

Blackpool will concede more goals as this season progresses, but should Blackpool get back to winning ways, it may be due to improvement in ball retention. Defenders make mistakes, they all do, however, Blackpool will be hoping that they aren’t making them in the danger areas and if they do that they either recover from them or they aren’t punished. When the opposition is predictable Blackpool look assured; they’ll be looking to improve and find that assurance when unpredictability strikes.

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You can discuss this article with Blackpool fans over at Vital Blackpool

Blackpool's Number 26

Simon says, 'put your hands on your head if you can land it on a sixpence from 50 yards'.

There’s no doubt that when people refer to Blackpool this season they normally mention Charlie Adam in the same breath. He has adapted to life in the Premier League and made many people sit up and take notice. However, where does Adam fit in the Blackpool FC and just was does he bring to the team?

Tale of the tape

Keeping things brief on this front as the table below will cover most of the key stats, but far and away the first stat to catch the eye is Adam’s passing. Blackpool as a team have a pass completion of 75% and Adam has a lower one than the team coming in at 71%. However, given that Adam is the main set piece taker then the open play pass completion percentage may hold more relevance to his overall play. In open play he finds his team mates 74% of the time against a team average of 78%. Again he comes in lower than the team average, but assuming Holloway has assigned him the role of playmaker then he is likely to mis-place passes as he looks for the killer ball.

What is clear when looking at his stats for the season is how much he contributes elsewhere and this is typical of the player he is and the flexibility that Holloway has instilled in the team. There’s no room in the Blackpool squad for one-dimensional footballers (and arguably no place for them any more in the modern game) and he chips in winning tackles (83) and intercepting opposition moves (41) which are duties normally associated with a more defensive minded midfielder.

Extracted from Guardian chalkboards and Telegraph stats.

When you look at the table above there is one of those numbers that start to show the true worth of Adam to Blackpool this season. That is the key passes totalling 36, the next highest Blackpool player is Gary Taylor-Fletcher with 27 and ranks Adam 13th in the Premier League.  What this does is to back up the assertion that Georgina Turner made in her excellent article about Adam in that, ‘he has set countless Blackpool moves in motion with a well-timed drop of the shoulder and a deft flick of his left foot’.

Positional focus

Now the stats have been laid bare, what about the space that he occupies on the pitch. All those stats occur for a reason and that is they happen within that space and to understand that space can help to understand some of the variation in success that Adam has had this season. By no means has Adam been perfect and with his work rate comes a desire to improve and success. He’d possibly be first to admit that there are times this season where he has failed to break defences down or command more authority in the middle of the pitch.

These following four games give good examples of where Adam operates best from Blackpool’s perspective and where the opposition are best to keep him in order to keep him quiet.

Liverpool

In the first game against Liverpool this season, Adam was at the heart of a magnificent performance from Blackpool underpinning some wonderfully positive passing moves. On the day Liverpool were very static in the first half and Blackpool worked between their lines with ease. In midfield Liverpool tended to allow Adam as much space as he wanted. Whether this was ignorance from Roy Hodgson or not isn’t clear, but it happened. As you can see below Adam spread himself far and wide and made it in the Liverpool box at times. He got forward well and found space in the final third in order to operate.

Above Blackpool are attacking right to left.

When Liverpool came to Bloomfield Road the other week it appeared that Liverpool (albeit under new management) still hadn’t come to terms with Adam endeavouring to find space. They coped with him better and as mentioned in the review they did field a similar three-man midfield to Blackpool. However, with Christian Poulsen proving to be rather inert Adam was still able to find space and time to find his passing range. Below you can see that he is still allowed to get in the box and the final third even given the different Liverpool approach.

Above Blackpool attacking from left to right.

The Liverpool matches in isolation may not show the positions where Adam is dangerous, but given he was at the heart of both victories a look at another match set might show where to keep him.

Manchester City

The home game against Man City saw Adam earn rave reviews from Sky Sports pundits (not sure what qualification that is?) but it saw Blackpool go down to a 3-2 defeat. Ultimately the game was highly influenced by the majestic David Silva ghosting around the pitch and cutting deeply through the Blackpool defence with his vision and passing ability. However, it appears that City were all too aware of letting Adam get free and in to space and close to goal. Aware of his passing ability and propensity to shoot on sight you can see below how his heat map is considerably more constricted than that of the Liverpool games. There is little activity in the final third as Man City were content to let Adam have the ball in deeper areas.

Above Blackpool attacking from left to right.

In the return at Eastlands it appeared that Man City had the measure of Adam. Keep him deep and he is less of a threat. However, it is important to note that Roberto Mancini has an emphasis on a holding midfielder and in this match Nigel de Jong was excellent in killing the space that Adam likes to attack and something akin to what Poulsen should have done for Liverpool at Bloomfield. You can see below just how little of the final third Adam was seeing in that match.

Above Blackpool attacking from right to left.

This is most probably nothing new for most people, but hopefully it shows that given space, time and less attention then Adam can advance in to his favourite areas and should that happen then it becomes more likely he’ll hurt teams. In the away match against Stoke he worked between Stoke’s rather static 4-4-2, found space and again was central to all the good things that happened for Blackpool that day. Contrast his heat map below to that from the Man City game above. You can clear see how much more he gets in the final third and on that day was key to the DJ Campbell winning goal.

Above Blackpool attacking from right to left.

It’s pretty clear and logical that the closer teams allow Adam to get to their goal with time on the ball the more threatening he is and given that Blackpool tend to struggle against teams covering the space in front of defence with a holding midfielder suggest that might be the way to stifle him. However, given his passing range from deep and Adam’s desire to develop, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see him adjust his game to become a threat from the deep.

Just to illustrate one final time, look at the chalkboards below, one from the Stoke game and one from the Man City (away) game.

Adam opens up the Stoke defence who lined up in a flat 4-4-2 affording him space. Compare that to the lower one where Man City closed out the space that Adam thrives in.

What’s not in the stats?

Following on from that his passing range is something that cannot be unlocked through the stats above. His range is superb and a look at Up the ‘Pool’s recent article on the long diagonal pass goes someway to illustrate his range of passing. However, added to that range is his speed of thought, passes of long or short-range aren’t ‘eyed’ up or pondered over. They are swiftly clipped with either inside or outside of the boot giving little or no advance warning to the opposition as to where the ball will end up. The downside of this is that his team mates aren’t often able to judge and should he step up to a more high-profile team then perhaps players of a supposed higher standard might read him at the same speed as he makes his mind up.

Added to this there are the unquantifiable aspects of his character that bristle when he takes to the pitch. He has a free spirit on the turf allied to a steely drive and determination that emanates in strong attacking runs or fully committed tackles.

Three is the magic number

On this blog the ideas and theories behind Blackpool’s three-man midfield have been discussed in length and this is crucial to understanding Adam. Adam must be considered in terms of Blackpool and the system that they play, he is surrounded by hard-working and equally excellent players who provide him with the ball and receive his passes and finish off the team moves.

Adam’s performances are facilitated by those around him and none more so that David Vaughan. Before looking deeper at Vaughan a mention needs to go out to the role that Elliot Grandin plays in freeing up space for Adam to attack. Earlier in the season it wasn’t entirely clear what role Holloway wanted him to play, however, as the season has progressed it appears that Grandin has a brief to drift to the flanks, initially looking composed on the ball, but its the space he leaves behind which is key. By drifting to the flanks he leaves a vacancy behind that Adam can fill.

David Vaughan was brought to the club as a left back, left winger before Ian Holloway arrived and when it became clear that Holloway had secured the signing of Adam it appears that Holloway had done his study on the best way to get the most out of Adam. Adam signed on loan in the February of 2009 under Tony Parkes. Adam fizzed and dazzled in fits and starts during his 13 match loan spell, earning a red card on debut for a clash with former Bloomfield favourite Richie Wellens in a match against Doncaster. What this loan spell tended to show is that in a two man midfield Adam could be dominated by hard working opponents, Blackpool won 4 games of that 13 game spell. What Holloway knew was that to get the best of Adam and free him up he had to field him in a three man midfield. It’s a bit chicken and egg whether or not Adam inspired the 4-3-3 or Holloway was going to play that way anyway. The man Holloway appears to have assigned as the man to free Adam up was David Vaughan. Keith Southern was in there, but he is full of energy and bustle and not nearly so composed on the ball. Holloway knew he had to have a passer of the ball in next to Adam in combination with the energy of Southern. The midfield this season have evolved further and become more cultured, but the role of Vaughan has changed as well. He sits more, he breaks the play up, he is both breaker up of opposition play and setter of tempo.

Look at Vaughan’s stats below to see what he contributes to the team.

Extracted from Guardian chalkboards.

What the stats show is that Vaughan averages about 10 passes per game less than Adam, but is more efficient with his passing, achieving 87% with his pass completion. This is measurable against other players who are playing in a slightly withdrawn role i.e. Chelsea’s Jon Obi Mikel has clocked up a pass completion of 89%. Also, he also won 82 tackles at a success rate of 66% which helps to break up opposition play. Vaughan will also retain possession and allow Adam to move in to space. Vaughan is however, more static in movement given his role, but will set the tempo with passes to full back and centre backs before releasing to Adam.

Hopefully what has been illustrated here is that although Adam is getting a lot of column inches David Vaughan is integral to that and he must be viewed in tandem with Adam. He shoots less and holds a lower profile, but teams who ignore Vaughan will leave themselves open to Blackpool dominance in the pass.

Improvements

Ian Holloway recently said that he’s working to ensure that Adam got a move to one of the country’s biggest clubs if he stuck with him for the rest of this season. The reason behind this is that Holloway feels Adam can still improve under him and by looking at his stats you can begin to see where he may look to improve him. First and foremost, his decision making could be refined, instead of looking for the killer ball, the simple lay off might be an option. Given his pass completion is lower than the team’s average and some way below that of Vaughan and other recognised ‘top’ Premier League midfielders (Paul Scholes weighs in with a pass completion of 90% and David Silva 83%) then he may strive to improve his decision making, rather than his passing ability. This would surely have a positive effect on Blackpool retaining possession more often.

Added to this Adam loses more duels when taking on opposition players  and again this might be something that he can work on, either to do so less or improve his ability to get past players. Given that on 28 occasions he loses out then that could be 28 passes to a team mate or any other positive option.

Another statistic that Holloway may try to reduce is the number of shots that Adam has, again choosing the right time to shoot may improve his all round game. At the moment he has had 66 shots at goal, 15 finding their target and 3 hitting the back of the net, from penalties. Again, any improvement here will only serve Blackpool well and assist in them retaining Premier League status for another year.

The King of Bloomfield Road??

It’s very likely that Charlie Adam will leave Bloomfield Road, but he will leave all Blackpool fans with memories to savour and linger for generations to come none more so than ‘that free kick’ at Wembley last May. Provided any future move is conducted with dignity and respect and the club get a respectable transfer fee then it will suit everyone. Adam will get his chance to shine on an even bigger stage and Blackpool will live on and stronger for having Adam grace the turf at Bloomfield.

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Liverpool Match Review

Blackpool beat a sluggish, negative and stagnant Liverpool at Anfield back in October and with the return of Kenny Dalglish to the Liverpool hot seat, this match could’ve got away from Blackpool as Fernando Torres scored an early opener. It was a credit to Blackpool as they never panicked or broke from their game plan to get back in to the match.

The set up

Blackpool they lined up in their 4-2-3-1 with what could be described as their first choice eleven, although Elliot Grandin did sit a little deeper than usual at times making a flatter three in midfield. Whilst Dalglish picked a team who set up in a similar fashion to Blackpool, but had Glen Johnson in at left back after he was tipped for a midfield start.

For Blackpool Elliot Grandin played slightly deeper than usual whilst Poulsen sat in front of the Liverpool back four.

The effects of the formations made space very tight in the midfield with Raul Meireles playing in the three behind Torres with Lucas and Christian Poulsen holding deeper. If anything this restricted Blackpool, who at times this season have really struggled against teams who sit a midfielder deep and in front of the back four. A consequence of the midfield set up was that Meireles sat very close to Charlie Adam. At times it appeared that he was almost man marking Adam but it was more likely a consequence of positioning than anything else.

For arguments sake Liverpool’s formation at times could be described as a 4-1-4-1 as much as a 4-2-3-1, as Lucas tended to push higher up. As all the midfielders tried to find space they tended to shuffle with Meireles dropping deeper at times, Adam the same, Vaughan stepping up and Lucas the same. The only midfielder who failed to progress from his position was Poulsen, presumably under instruction. This meant that Blackpool could outnumber Lucas and Meireles in the centre as Grandin dropped deeper and Poulsen was out of the game.

At times Martin Kelly got forward from right back for Liverpool as did Glen Johnson on the left. Blackpool as usual pushed both full backs up when the times were right, but not in as sustained manner as in other matches this season. Both centre forwards worked hard, Torres in particular moved to close down both centre backs when out of possession and when breaking forward he was peeling off to the right and left to escape the centre backs.

First Hour

The game was very even for the first hour, as above, the space was restricted, mistakes were plenty in terms of conceding possession. Chances (goals apart) weren’t clean-cut. However, both sides were trying to pass the ball from the back, Blackpool moving it quicker on occasion in an attempt to either get Luke Varney winning headers against Martin Kelly or to catch Liverpool’s back four flat-footed.

Passing fad

Liverpool had more of the pass, with a pass total of 517 to Blackpool’s 445 with a completion rate of 73% to Blackpool’s 72%. However, as the game progressed Liverpool’s pass completion dropped off with the last 15 minutes of the game seeing it drop as low as 62% whilst Blackpool’s hit 72%. The chart below shows how, as the match progressed Liverpool’s passing disintegrated.

The pass comp % for both teams has been broken down in to 15 minute segments. You can see how as the match progressed from left to right then Liverpool's passing got worse.

Another observation about Liverpool was that their game against Blackburn Liverpool saw them make 598 passes at a completion rate of 74%, however, their passing lacked balance with 64% of their passes coming down the right. In this game they had much better balance with a 49/51 split between left and right.

Pressing matter

Points that stood out for Liverpool was their pressing of the ball higher up the pitch. This is illustrated in the chalkboard below as Liverpool won 65% of their 17 interceptions in the Blackpool half.

Liverpool pressing high up the pitch intercepting Blackpool's passes in their half.

However, very few occurred in front of the Liverpool area and it was this that exposed Liverpool’s back line. Poulsen was presumably asked to sit, screen and break up Blackpool play that threatened the Liverpool defence. However, all his interceptions occurred in the Blackpool half and none in that key area. It wasn’t as though Blackpool were bypassing that zone either, as you can see from the Chalkboard below. Blackpool consistently took on and beat Liverpool players in front of the back line. Poulsen won only 1 of his 5 tackles and effectively offered little or no cover to his defence. With Poulsen being so inert and positioned away from the heart of the action and Meireles being tied up with Adam, this left Lucas having to do the majority of the midfield work attempting 14 tackles winning 10 of them.

Blackpool taking Liverpool players on and beating them.

Parting to the end

In the 77th minute something occurred which was symptomatic of how Liverpool broke down towards the end of the game. With the ball on the back line and Blackpool pressing higher up the pitch, Poulsen dropped to receive the ball, however, Lucas and Meireles were caught too far up the pitch and any attempt to build from the back failed as the ball dropped back to Daniel Agger, he had little choice but to clear long and concede possession. Quite simply, Liverpool started to lose their shape (tiredness?) and never regained it again.

Here, Poulsen (yellow) is about to receive the ball from Agger (black) both under pressure from Taylor-Fletcher (tangerine) and Vaughan (white). There isn't another Liverpool player in the shot ahead of Poulsen. They opted to go long.

Subbing to stifle

Ian Holloway has at times this season tried to ‘shut up shop’ with mixed results, sometimes conceding late goals. In this game, it could be argued that the substitutions were crucial in this match. For Blackpool the injection of Matthew Phillips’ pace forced Liverpool deep and allowed quick counters for Blackpool. Added to this Ian Holloway brought in two defensive midfield subs in order to close out the game with fresh legs and an emphasis on the tackle. Blackpool’s shape changed to a 4-1-4-1 for the last five minutes whilst Liverpool’s changes made them resemble more of a 4-4-2.

Ian Holloway made defensive subs switching to a 4-1-4-1 for the last 5 mins.

It was the Liverpool subs who saw very little of the game who made the least impact. Jonjo Shelvey and David N’gog made a total of 7 passes (3 misplaced) between them, lost 2 of their 3 tackles and didn’t muster a shot. Whereas Alex Baptiste and Keith Southern got on the ball making 11 passes (1 misplaced), won 2 tackles and 2 clearances to ensure that the game end was controlled by Blackpool.

At the double

It was a high tempo, all action performance from Blackpool again and the fresh legs the Tangerines had will have given them an edge against a Liverpool side that tired as the match progressed. It was even more impressive, given that Holloway managed to stifle the game through good substitutions and that Blackpool got a win against a side playing a four band system, something they’ve struggled with this season. Again, the team keeps developing, at this rate, Premier League survival may be a strong reality.

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What's in a pass?

Pass this to your fellow man and never, never, surrender it to the opposition!

Blackpool have spent most of their inaugural Premier League season sticking to a passing game that was at the centre of their promotion from the Championship. It forms a part of the slightly patronising term, ‘a breath of fresh air’ as teams generally ‘shut up shop’ or as Stoke did ‘go direct’. Enough of the vague cliches now and the focus will turn to facts.

Factoid!

The facts about Blackpool this season is that they’ve passed the ball very well, all players (goal keeper inc) are encouraged to pass the ball with the aim of keeping possession. Ian Holloway has openly cited the style of Spain and Barcelona as the target for his ever improving team. In taking this approach Blackpool have attempted 8,507 passes this season completing 75% of all their passes (up to and including Man City away). This is an admirable achievement for a team that prior to the season starting was written off as certain relegation candidates by some of the media. As the plaudits have been heaped on Blackpool for this superb application of the passing game it is something that everyone at Bloomfield Road should be proud of.

What this blog post is going to try to do is to try and second guess what Ian Holloway might be trying to work on with his team as the second half of the season gets under way. Holloway has said that he wants to improve on what he and his team does and with this in mind he’ll be seeking to squeeze more out of his team as the season unfolds.

Passing Focus

Whilst Blackpool’s pass completion has been around the 75% mark, some games have been characterised by the Seasiders struggling to close out the game, losing leads and conceding late goals. The games against Blackburn, Fulham, Bolton, Wolves and Villa (and this week Birmingham) spring to mind. Holloway will no doubt be asking himself why this is going on and whilst there are valid and pertinent arguments for pointing the finger at poor defending, there may be a tale within the Blackpool passing stats that might show the way forward.

Let’s illustrate this through reference to pass completion stats from the quarters of games. The best of and the worst of Blackpool’s pass completion are listed in the table below.

You can see where Blackpool have had their best and worst quarters of passing whilst in the Premier League.

It can be seen that Blackpool enjoyed the best pass completion quarters in the game against West Brom, understandably so, given that Blackpool were playing against nine men. Less men to pressure the ball leads to more time on the ball and less misplaced passes. However, some of the other best pass completion quarters are against the sides that are more renowned for passing the football. Two of them took place at the Emirates, however, here lies more about the story of the game. Blackpool were walloped for six and at times, even though Blackpool passed the ball around well, Arsenal were content with them doing that. Also another of the best quarters was away to Chelsea when again Blackpool were swiftly put to the sword and the opposition were content to let Blackpool retain possession. However, the stand out quarter is the one in tenth place as Blackpool played some superb passing football to dominate the first half at Anfield.

A look at the worst quarters starts to give Blackpool some insight in to where things have gone wrong at times this season. The worst quarter of passing that the team has seen occurred at Anfield and in fact the worst three quarters all occurred in away games. However, that gives us no insight in to why pass completion dropped. In fact looking deeper at those instances and placing them in to context allows us to understand what went wrong. Liverpool came out for the second half two down and scored early. They pushed hard for a second and in doing so worked hard to close Blackpool’s players down and forced mistakes. Against Newcastle, Blackpool were again leading and coming out from the break freshly addressed by Chris Hughton they upped their work rate to force more mistakes from Blackpool.

However, it is the fourth worst pass completion quarter that gives an insight in to what can go wrong when a team starts to misplace passes. That quarter occurred in the final stages of the game against Bolton, where Bolton applied pressure, Blackpool dropped deeper, clearances became wild, legs tired as did minds and as concentration slipped so did the passes until they conceded a late equaliser. Two of the ten worst quarters occurred in the Blackburn game, where they stifled Blackpool and forced them in to hitting long balls, which played in to their hands. It was also, one of Blackpool’s worst performances and with an overall pass completion of 67% also the worst passing performance of the season.

From left to right, the pass completion % has been charted for each 15 minute quarter of the game. As the game progressed, you can see how Blackpool's pass completion dropped in the last Quarter as Bolton applied pressure, Blackpool got tired, sloppy and ended up dropping 2 points.

Quite simply, it appears to show that if Blackpool’s passing breaks down, then so does the team’s performance. When they’ve had their best passing periods, they’ve not conceded a goal. However, in three of the worst periods of passing Blackpool did concede goals.

Telling Stories

However, there are tales within a tale here. The Manchester City game is a good example of where Blackpool had a tremendous game on the ball, but served to back up the old saying about having possession is no good if you don’t do anything with it. One of the best pass completion periods came in that game and in fact the pass completion for the first three quarters of that game stood at 78% as Blackpool matched City, however, City introduced David Silva and the game swung away from Blackpool as did their pass completion, which slipped to a woeful 68% and the game was lost.

Progression

As 2011 gets under way and as more teams (should) get more insight in to what makes Blackpool tick then Holloway and his team will need to work harder to keep that pass completion up in the high seventies and if they want to close out game instead of losing leads, then they’ll certainly be looking to do that or even get in to the low to mid eighties. That itself is a big task. This blog has made mention of the long diagonal ball that appears to be a signature of this Blackpool team, that doesn’t work every time and may be used more sparingly. However, two recent articles have shed light on how Blackpool may be able to keep the ball, increase that pass completion and perhaps assist in winning more Premier League games.

Very Cross

In the January issue of World Soccer (no link sorry, you can still buy it I think), Paul Gardner reviews the use of the cross in the modern game, stating that that it no longer becomes an effective tool at the highest level of the game, citing the likes of Barcelona who rarely score their goals from ‘aerial ball delivered in to the penalty area from a wide position, but from no further than 30 yards away’. Blackpool’s season cross completion rate is 20%, which means that a total of 228 crosses have failed to reach a Blackpool player which is an average of 13 misplaced crossed per game equating to 3% of Blackpool’s total passes. Making the right decision when to cross and recycling the ball when we don’t have the right opportunity to cross could really benefit Blackpool, although it would place more emphasis on being more patient in attack and working the ball in between defenders for scoring opportunities.

Shorter the better

Added to this in a recent review of the Ajax team under new manager Frank de Boer, 11tegen11 suggested that Ajax were taking short corners in order to keep hold of the ball instead of putting the ball in to the box where the ball could be conceded to the opposition. Given that Blackpool only succeeds in hitting their men 34% of the time from corners then this might be a strategy for Blackpool as a total of 43 corners have been wasted this season and the impact of that is that Blackpool will inevitably concede valuable possession to opposition. However, as with the Sunderland game, the short corner can be useful in creating chances given that the angle of cross changes and can catch a team out who isn’t paying attention.

Moving On

All this is purely conjecture and at the heart of any improvement needs to be centred around player technique and it’s safe to say that Holloway will be striving to do this in every training session as well as improving players strength and composure on the ball so that ball is rarely wasted or the opposition manage to wrestle the players off the ball. It will be interesting to see if Blackpool continues along their passing path, if they maintain or even improve their current pass completion then another season in the Premier League beckons. However, become wasteful and fail to learn the lessons of the last quarter of the Bolton game and it might be a different story in 2011.

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Tangerines aren't just for Christmas

As 2011 gets underway, Blackpool FC will be looking forward to more of the same which should see the team achieve what was being touted as impossible back in August. Festive fixtures against Sunderland and Manchester City saw similar performances from a statistical point of view but differing outcomes with a win and a loss. A review of last night’s Birmingham game will follow in the next few days.

Statistical Breakdown

The seasonal games were both away, however, it appears that Blackpool from a pass completion point of view progressed from where they left off against Bolton and Stoke in their previous games. Against Bolton Blackpool’s pass completion faded towards the end of the game (there’s a post coming about this) as a 2-0 lead became 2-2 at the final whistle. However, in both of these games Blackpool attained pass completion rates of 75% (S’land) and 77% (Man C). These are very good figures and in both matches allowed Blackpool to set up enough chances to score as they did twice at the Stadium of Light but never at Eastlands, although Joe Hart did make two good saves to shut them out. In both of those games Blackpool had 9 shots on goals with the greater accuracy coming on New Year’s day leading to the aforementioned Hart saves.

In the tackle Blackpool again performed admirably in both games although against a more aerial based Sunderland they lost the aerial battle, but won the aerial duel against City. However, in the city game there were only 9 aerial duels compared to the 37 against Sunderland. By losing so many headers to Steve Bruce’s outfit this will have been a major contributing factor to Sunderland having enough of the ball to create the 30 chances they had on goal. When it came to interceptions Blackpool made 12 at the SoL and only 7 against City. Given that City out passed Blackpool then this suggests that Blackpool struggled to take the ball off City and this figure needed to be higher against a team who pass the ball so much. For instance, when Man City visited Bloomfield Road earlier in the season Blackpool made 15 interceptions in a game that Blackpool had more than their fair share of the play and might have won the game on another day.

Formational Variations

The formational propositions differed in each game, with Sunderland setting up in a 4-4-2 (albeit with Danny Welbeck cutting inside off the left flank) and Blackpool have enjoyed a lot of success against teams this season who set in up this manner. Even though Elliot Grandin went off injured in that game, Gary Taylor-Fletcher dropped in to the central position and helped Blackpool maintain positional continuity. He stayed central for a lot of the time and 71% of his passes occurred in the central zones, so certainly not playing the same role that Grandin did. However, from the central zone where he can create chances he failed to complete a pass in to the opposition box.

Taylor-Fletcher didn't drift like Elliot Grandin does when playing the same role, instead he remained more central.

However, the story over at Eastlands was different as the space on the pitch that Blackpool usually enjoys was closed out by Roberto Mancini’s 4-5-1 bordering on a 4-2-3-1 . All season Blackpool have had less success against teams who play a midfielder (or two) in front of the back four and Nigel de Jong had an outstanding game, making 3 tackles out of 4, misplacing only 2 of his 45 passes and closing out the space in the centre of the pitch. As the game became stretched Blackpool switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-4 to what could only be described as a 4-1-1-4 as Blackpool bypassed midfield play in the last ten minutes to get the ball forward quickly to try and snatch an equaliser. As the season progresses Ian Holloway will need to find ways for his team to break down teams set up with a defensive midfield cover as good as that provided by de Jong.

Shuffling the Midfield Trio

There have been a few discussions on this blog in past couple of months as to what Holloway wants his midfield to do. Over the festive period this has been thrown open again, first with the suspension of Charlie Adam in the game against Sunderland and the subsequent injury to Elliot Grandin in the same game. Therefore the trio used for the main part of the Sunderland game was Vaughan, Sylvestre and Taylor-Fletcher whilst Vaughan and Sylvestre were joined by Adam for the second game. The fact that the first trio oversaw a victory suggests that was better blend, but was there anything within the Chalkboards that suggested a lack of cohesion in the first half against Man City? If it is safe to assume that Sylvestre was filling in for Grandin, then he would assume the position at the head of the midfield trio with Adam and Vaughan sitting behind. However, as discussed above Grandin floats out to the wings which helps to free up the space for Adam to occupy and make passes. What can be seen through the chalkboards is that Sylvestre held a more central position throughout his time on the pitch which could’ve taken away the space that Adam likes to work in and thus lead to a more stunted and broken up first half from Blackpool. In the second half Adam did advance more and this is reflected in him making an extra 4% of his passes in the final third. Although a marginal improvement it still hints at the subbing of Sylvestre lead to Adam getting in to his favoured position more often and given that the match was against a title contender then the team on the whole is going to enjoy less of the ball in advanced positions.

As highlighted in red, Adam managed to get forward a little more after the subbing of Sylvestre.

This leads to the question of whether or not Adam and Sylvestre can operate in the same team and if they can, how will Holloway seek to make that happen given that Sylvestre possesses great quality on the ball as demonstrated in the game at the SoL. What Holloway and Blackpool did learn is that Blackpool can operate successfully without Adam and a look at Sylvestre’s chalkboard from the games shows how impressive he can be on the ball with a pass completion of 80% against Sunderland and 92% against Man City. Added to that, the performance at City showed how he was able to break down City’s normally resolute defensive line as highlighted below.

Sylvestre is safe and creative in possession of the football.

Break on through

The performance against City at Bloomfield Road was characterised on this blog as a performance where Blackpool struggled to break down City’s defence. However, as just mentioned above Sylvestre had some joy with excellent incisive passing and the team in general managed to get through that line more often than they did in the home fixture. This can be interpreted as a sign of progression and development on Blackpool’s behalf as they may be learning to break down the more resolute defences which should help to contribute to getting to safety provided they convert the subsequent chances.

Get him close and he will score!

As discussed on this blog earlier in the season when DJ Campbell was struggling to hit the back of the net, if his team can get the ball to his feet in the area between penalty spot and goal line then he will start scoring. Firstly, the game against Stoke helped to back up this assertion, but the game against Sunderland confirmed it more with his two goals coming from within that range. Whilst against Man City his team couldn’t get him in that close and not only failed to score, but to register a single shot on goal.

Combating Youthful Verve

Matthew Phillips saw more action over the festive period than he probably thought would happen. In both games he enjoyed good success down the right wing with the highlight being the assist for the winner at the SoL. It appeared that both Bruce and Mancini both made substitutions to counter his pace and dribbling ability. With Kieran Richardson’s pace being introduced to counter that of Phillips, whereas Pablo Zabaleta coming on for the more adventurous Aleksandar Kolarov. Both subs made life tough for Phillips; however, it appears that Mancini got the balance right as he sat deeper instead of pushing forward. This meant that instead of Phillips attacking space left by Kolarov he was monitored more watchfully by the resolute Zabaleta who stopped him from getting in behind the defence as he had earlier on as demonstrated below.

The red boxes are arguably where Holloway wants Phillips to operate. While Kolarov was on the pitch Phillips had success, though once Zabaleta came in to the game Phillips struggled and started to drift, even popping up on the left wing.

Take on me!

Just a special mention must go to Carlos Tevez who by repeatedly taking on and beating his man opened up space and by doing so he helps to make some tactics inert, creating his own space and taking players out of the game. Against Blackpool he drifted effortlessly past his man 7 times with 4 coming inside the box and a further two of them on the edge of the box. Little wonder he had so many chances and on another day he may well have had a hat-trick.

Rendering formations temporarily inert as Tevez takes on and creates his own space, constantly giving Blackpool problems.

January Blues

January started off with defeat to the Sky Blues of Manchester and has just been followed with another defeat to the Blues of Birmingham, however, the season is just hitting one of the busiest periods of the calendar and Ian Holloway will know he has strength in depth within his squad and are capable of picking up points anywhere in this league and he’ll be hoping to turn Blackpool’s away form in to this coming sequence of home fixtures as he tries to survive.