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.

Follow Tanger_Dreaming on Twitter

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.

Follow Tanger_Dreaming on Twitter

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

Clinical Deficiencies – Everton v Blackpool

Louis Saha gave a masterclass in clinical finishing either side of Blackpool clinically punishing two mistakes made by Everton players. However, it was a double defensive substitution by Ian Holloway that failed to snuff out Everton’s attacks that swung the game back in David Moyes’ favour.

Setting Up

The opening play saw Holloway pitting his 4-3-3 against the 4-1-4-1 of David Moyes, who had Marouane Fellaini in the holding role in a system that had stifled Blackpool earlier in the season at Bloomfield Road. James Beattie started in the front three, alongside Jason Puncheon and DJ Campbell who dropped deep from the centre to receive the ball.

Moyes has watched Blackpool a lot this season and knows he needs to block the space with a holding midfielder and lined up 4-1-4-1 against Holloway's 4-3-3.

In effect there appeared to be three key dynamics that lead to Everton’s win which are discussed below.

Right back to where we started

Prior to this game starting Blackpool had conceded 16 goals in their last 5 games since beating Liverpool. 13 of them have germinated in the right back area as teams appear to have spotted and exploited a real weakness in the Blackpool defence.

This season Everton have been exceptional down their left hand side, so this match had the potent combination of Blackpool’s weakness matching up with Everton’s strength and this was key in this game with all 5 of Everton’s goals coming via this channel.

Taking Everton’s first goal step by step you can see how their defence is drawn out of shape by some simple Everton passing and movement.

Neil Eardley shows Bilyaletdinov plenty of space to turn and run.
David Vaughan has to track the Everton runner who has exploited the space that Eardley leaves behind him.
Eardley does recover his ground, but commits to the challenge and is beaten easily by Bilyaletdinov and the Blackpool defence has conceded 20 yards of space for him to attack.
Blackpool's centre backs are unable to doing anything to stop the cut back cross ball.

Everton focused their passing down their left hand side and completed 60% of their passes in open play down the left hand side.

This blog recently discussed the importance of Blackpool’s full backs in their open sense of adventure, however, it appears that teams understand this to be as much of a weakness too. As the full backs attack they leave space behind and recently it appears the space isn’t being covered effectively. Should Blackpool stay in the Premier League then Holloway will have worked hard with his full backs to sustain their attacking potency whilst ensuring defensive stability.

Keeping it tight till switching it off

Without doubt Everton controlled the space on the pitch very effectively for the most part, however, after going 2-1 up the appeared to push for a third to kill the game off. In doing so they started to lose a little of their shape and Blackpool exploited this very well in transition and capitalised on mistakes.

As a result of Marouane Fellaini sitting in a 4-1-4-1 Blackpool were strangled and even on the rare occasion when Elliot Grandin was able to get goal side of Fellaini, he ended up not being able to find a team-mate.

Here you can see that Grandin has escaped Fellaini in a very rare first half occurrence, but fails to make it pay.

Fellaini closed out Charlie Adam effectively in the first half, even when he was in the deep. Look at the shot below as Fellaini makes up several yards to close Adam down which forces Adam in to an error and leads to Everton’s build up for their first goal.

Fellaini is aware of Adam dropping deep, sensing danger he steps out of position to close Adam down in the space marked by the red dot.
Fellaini has closed out Adam and he hits a wayward pass handing possession to Everton who go on to score.

In fact Charlie Adam was stifled in the first half and had a pass completion of only 48%. As he was gradually afforded more space in the second half it increased to 67%. As further demonstration of how Everton disrupted Blackpool’s passing their completion was 64% in the first half and in the second it was 68%. It is interesting to note that for Blackpool’s period of goal scoring (between 61 and 65) it increased to 78%.

The Chalkboard below shows how Fellaini contested 11 duels and won 10 in the whole match, however, 8 of those were in the first half and he and won 7 of those as he dominated the midfield. As Fellaini stopped being dominant in his duels Blackpool enjoyed their success. Was this just a coincidence?

Fellaini had a great game in the tackle, however, in the second half as the game swung towards Blackpool he failed to win duels. As he started to win them again on the 73 minute mark Everton started to control again.

Concession of the advantage!

At 3-2 Blackpool appeared to have Everton exposed to the counter and it was at this point Holloway tried to change the dynamic, seemingly to shut the game out. In his post match interview he likened his move to the one made against Liverpool to shut out the result. However, the two moves were completely different, against Liverpool his switch came with 5 minutes remaining, whilst he had a full 20 minutes to control here. Also, he went to a 4-1-4-1 against Liverpool whilst against Everton he went to a very unfamiliar looking 5-4-1. In doing so, he conceded his small advantage in favour of asking Everton to try to break them down. Everton did, through a combination of defensive mistakes, dis-organisation and naivety. The shots below show how Blackpool struggled to organise themselves in to a coherent 5 man defence. Firstly, the centre backs are drawn narrow and inside the Everton attackers and secondly in the run up to the Everton fourth goal, as the third centre back (Rob Edwards) is out of position with Neil Eardley behind him.

Blackpool struggle to space their 3 centre backs allowing themselves to be drawn inside the Everton attackers leaving plenty of space either side of the three.
From another angle Blackpool's defence is totally out of shape as Beckford puts Everton ahead.

As further evidence of how the defensive move didn’t pay off, see the chalkboard below and notice how Blackpool fail to win any duels as Everton pick off three unanswered goals. 

Above, even when Blackpool went defensive, it never paid off, losing 1 tackles in a 10 minute period. Prior and before that they worked hard in the tackle even though they lost 24 of their 53 challenges.

Ding Dong

This was a battle launched firmly on a robust Everton side shutting out Blackpool’s attacking space, before stinging them down their flawed right hand area. However, after handing Blackpool space on the counter Ian Holloway will move on to the next game knowing that his team are still potent, and will hope to find a better way of controlling the game against Aston Villa should he find his team holding the advantage.

Follow Tanger_Dreaming on Twitter

The lost fluency – Blackpool v West Ham

West Ham outworked Blackpool in the central area of the pitch to record a deserved victory as Ian Holloway shuffled his team selection which ultimately appeared to disrupt the fluency that they have found at many stages this season.

Setting up 

4-3-3 v 4-4-2, West Ham’s Obinna being the player who drifted the most from either side.

This was a clear 4-3-3 v 4-4-2 battle and for the first time this season Blackpool were undone by a flat and very plain 4-4-2 with few defining features. There was two clear reasons for this.

1. Mark Noble and Scott Parker worked hard to deny Blackpool’s midfield enough space to operate and when they won the ball they were economical with it. The consequence of this was that Blackpool’s pass completion dropped to 71%. Between Noble and Parker they attempted 100 passes completing 77% compared to Vaughan and Adam who attempted 123 passes completing 69% of them.

2. When David Vaughan and Charlie Adam found space; Andy Reid was struggling early on to understand his role in a new team and was often too static. This appeared to be backed up as Ian Holloway appeared to have a lengthy discussion with him around the 20 minute mark. After about half an hour he was swapped with Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Assuming Reid was told to play a central winger role as defined by Zonal Marking the other month, then by looking at the chalkboard below you can see how Reid stayed in central area more opposed to the way that Grandin drifted to the flanks in the previous game against Man Utd. Added to this Reid misplaced 8 of his 19 passes in open play.

Assuming both Reid and Grandin are assigned the same role then you can see the difference from the opening 30 mins of the last two games. Reid appears to stick in middle as Grandin drifts to the wing.

A final point on Blackpool’s formation, as is becoming normal when chasing a game, Blackpool moved more in to a 4-2-4 as Holloway made his usual aggressive substitutions.

Back line changes

Ian Holloway made his first call of the night by picking a defensive line that had never played together before. David Carney came back from the Asian Cup Final (where he went for a jog instead of marking Tadanari Lee, who scored the winning goal) and in to the left back spot with Alex Baptiste moving in to centre back as Ian Evatt was dropped to the bench. The back line didn’t settle and Holloway brought on Evatt on at the break to replace Craig Cathcart. The impact of these changes saw Carney sit back more than Stephen Crainey would have done, whilst West Ham (as previous clubs have done) appeared to target an apparent weakness in Blackpool’s right back area.

In previous games both Sunderland and Manchester United have opened up Blackpool down their right side, this isn’t to say that it’s the right back who is causing the issue as the right-sided centre back has a duty of cover as well. It appears that there is a lack of cohesion at times down that flank and West Ham were the latest side to benefit. What causes this appears to be three things. Firstly, the right back (Eardley in this case) misses tackles. Secondly the right back loses position and doesn’t recover quick enough. Finally, the centre back not anticipating danger and being able to cover adequately enough.

With Carney not having the sense of adventure that Crainey brings to the team it appeared to reduce Blackpool’s attacking dynamic down the left and Blackpool enjoyed more success from the right flank. You can see from the Chalkboard below where Blackpool lacked some balance in their passing.

Blackpool struggled all game to get in to good positions in the final third. Here you can see how few passes were completed in the final third on the left flank. Possibly Carney lacked the adventure that Crainey brings??

Moving on

Mistakes were all too common for Blackpool in this match, but West Ham showed up like a team who are used to working hard to battle against relegation and duly got their reward along with a mercurial performance from Victor Obinna. Ian Holloway will have a think about his strategy for integrating his new players in to his side and work hard towards an invigorated Blackpool performance to push Everton all the way this Saturday.

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.

Follow Tanger_Dreaming on Twitter

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.

Dimension of adventure – A full back story

This season and last, Blackpool has been lauded for their adventurous approach to playing the beautiful game. The majority of the mainstream media point to the influence Charlie Adam has had on the way that Blackpool play. However, one player doesn’t make a team and Holloway has reshaped the way that Blackpool play and there are facets of that play that help make watching Blackpool a superbly enjoyable experience. For the focus of this article the spot light will shine on the full backs. What role do they play? How have they been playing and where (if any) has adjustment (in role) been made for life in the Premiership?

Personnel

The key protagonists who play the role of full back are currently Stephen Crainey and Neal Eardley, covering left and right respectively. The current back up is Alex John-Baptiste (right) and David Carney (left) with the clubs most loyal player, Danny Coid currently out on loan at Rotherham. It is unlikely that Coid will return to play a major part in our inaugural Premier League season, which is a shame, as injuries have robbed a technically gifted, composed, team player, of what promised to be a successful career. So the aforementioned group of four are the full backs at the club. If anything, Baptiste and Crainey are the most defensive from the four, Baptiste featured in the centre back position in the run to the play offs last season and an injury has curtailed his appearances this season. Crainey has also filled in at centre back, however, normally to cover a red card (See FA Cup 3rd game against Ipswich last year) or as Holloway throws another forward on and shuffles to three at the back (See West Brom earlier in the season). Carney has played on the wing for previous clubs and country and for Blackpool (see Newcastle earlier in the season when he played wide left to help stretch the play towards the end of the game). Neal Eardley is more of a modern full back, who likes to progress forward, possesses a good range of passing and can unleash a well placed shot. When it comes to Neal Eardley it’s important to understand the role that Seamus Coleman played in his development. Coleman arrived last season and shaped that full back role for himself in the run in. His commitment to pushing forward, anticipating passes, combined with an ability to dribble, beat a man and cut inside in to dangerous positions showed everything you’d expect from an attacking full back. Just one look at Coleman’s goal against Scunthorpe last year and you’ll see what he brought to the team. However, this served a dual purpose, firstly in giving Holloway someone who could perfectly play his desired full back role, but secondly it helped to sharpen the focus and desire of Eardley, who last season had been disciplined for behaviour that was unacceptable for Holloway. Two other players were a part of his downfall and they were also swiftly dealt with by Holloway. Judging by Eardley’s attitude this season, he appears to have focused his energy on working hard and putting what he already knew alongside the inspiration given by Coleman to cement his place at right full back after Baptiste’s injury.

Role Playing

It has been discussed on this blog that Holloway has set roles for each of his team members to stick to, which all forms a part of his variant 4-3-3 system and the performance against Villa seemed to underpin that as the team with 10 changes from the previous game still shaped up and performed like a Blackpool side managed by Holloway. However, taking this further on, Holloway has the youth and reserve teams playing the same system as he stamps his signature across all levels. Indeed it is this long sighted approach that leads a lot of Blackpool fans to realise that Holloway is committed to this club in the long-term and vice versa.

In basic terms the standard duty of a full back is;

  • To stop crosses getting in to the box.
  • Tackle your opponent so that they don’t get in behind the defensive line.
  • Clear danger from loose balls or shots.

In addition to this Holloway appears to want his full backs to

  • Retain their width at all times
  • Push up in to midfield when in possession of the ball and further in to attack if the opportunity develops

Let’s run with that last idea as it’s the one that has been most noticeable during Holloway’s reign. It appears that Blackpool use the full backs to apply pressure to team and force them deeper and deeper as Blackpool control possession. Certainly last season and even in to this season, the full backs will advance from their defensive positions for large periods of the game and drop in to what could be described as a midfield five as the team (in attack) morphs in to a pressured 2-5-3. This is crudely illustrated below, but the outline does play out in reality as you can see in the subsequent screen shot from the play off final.

As the full backs push up the midfield resembles a five man midfield and allows Blackpool to assert pressure and width on both sides of the pitch.
Notice how the full backs (red) have pushed right up to form a 5 with the midfield (green).

This is fundamental to Blackpool’s adventurous style of play and is certainly not a new idea, but the sustained forward movement of the full backs helps to occupy the opposition, give Blackpool more passing options and the way they then link up with the attack and midfield adds an extra dimension to the play. The second leg play off semi final saw Crainey link up superbly and he was integral to the second goal at the City Ground, and this is a fine example of how Blackpool’s full backs can step up to midfield, attack and be devastating.

This pattern has not abated now the team is in the highest division and is a part of what people reference as a ‘breath of fresh air’. The full backs are still advancing forward and there is little mention at Bloomfield road of full backs retaining their defensive position so Blackpool keep their defensive shape. In fact probably the most defining image of Stephen Crainey’s season has been the cross for Gary Taylor-Fletcher at the Emirates, which demonstrated that home or away Holloway did intend to attack the Premiership.

Highlighted in red above is the movement of Crainey in the final third. The upper example is of a flowing passing move culminating in a cross at the byline from Crainey. The lower example showing Crainey deep in the Arsenal half getting a cross in that was nearly converted by Gary Taylor-Fletcher.

An example of a full back that has a brief to hold his position and not advance forward. No passes in the final third and only 24% of his passes are in the opposition half.

The breakdown

For the purposes of this next analysis, Stephen Crainey is the focus, mainly because he has been a virtual ever-present this season and also because it took an absolute age to graft these stats together, so the thought of doing the same for Eardley and Baptiste was crippling and will be left for a rainy day.

Let’s look at Crainey’s basic stats and see how he’s doing. It would be safe to assume that in the breakdown of his stats any strengths and weaknesses could be spotted. First up, from a passing perspective, Crainey uses the ball wisely and well, racking up an open play pass completion rate of 83% which is higher than the team average of 78%. Added to this he sees a lot of the ball too, in fact in the game against West Brom (admittedly they were down to nine men) Crainey got close to the magic 100 pass mark, racking up 99 at a completion rate of 94%. This is an essential component for any full back, but especially one who advances in to midfield and sometimes attack. Should his pass completion drop then it’s safe to assume he’ll either have given the ball away high up the pitch leaving exploitable space in behind him or in his own half which should only lead to opposition pressure.

In the tackle Crainey had a perfect start to the season taking him 5 games to lose his first duel, however, since then he rarely loses his battles and this is testament to his overall ability to improve. At the start of the season he was considered by some fans to be a potential weakness in the back line. At times he appears to be slow to get up to full running pace and given that he has a remit to attack it was feared he couldn’t cover ground backwards to track wingers runs and teams would be able to get decent ball in to the box from their wide right. At this moment he has a tackle success rate of 60%.

Location, Location, Location

Crainey not only passes the ball well, but where he passes the ball from shows where he holds his field position and helps to add great depth to the understanding of the role he plays. As stated earlier Holloway wants his full backs to stay wide, when looking at the heat maps of Crainey’s passing this wide element to his game is perfectly backed up. In fact 87% of his passes took place in the flank zones. Added to this to back up the pressure aspect of his game, Crainey’s passing heat maps also show that the majority of his passes take place in the opposition half. This helps to back up the attacking nature of the team as a whole, but also of the full back as well. In some games as much as 69% of his passes were made in the opposition half.

However, since the West Ham game a small change was detected in Holloway’s approach and since then it appears that the full back role has been tempered somewhat so that Blackpool aren’t left as vulnerable as they have been at times this season. In fact in his last three games he has spent more of his time in his own half, which hints at a curbing of the attack minded full back. It will be interesting to note it this trends continues to emerge. If so, could Blackpool start conceding less, scoring less and becoming less of a ‘breath of fresh air’.

Note how in the upper chalkboard Crainey made 67% of his passes in the opposition half, whilst in the last game he retreated more making only 38%.

Another dimension

It has been mentioned that the full backs advance to add an extra dimension to the team, however, a by-product of that is also starting to emerge. This was first noted from a post by Zonal Marking on the emergence of the sweeper again in the modern game. If you read that article and notice the diagram of how the full backs pushing up means that the centre backs have to spread and a central midfield player drops to cover, then the same applies to a degree with Blackpool. This goes some way to explain why not many teams have been able to exploit the space left behind by Blackpool’s advancing full backs. On another point, the diagram below backs up this move, as you can see that Evatt and Baptiste spread wide while Crainey and Coleman advance, with Adam dropping in to defence to either pick up the ball from a centre back or act as cover for a quick break.

What you can see here is the defence (red) is split as Crainey (red) at the bottom left of the picture advances and Evatt and Baptiste spread out, leaving Adam underlined in green to drop back to form a back three.

An interesting point to note on this for the future of Blackpool and Charlie Adam is that he is totally comfortable dropping that deep and can only help to add a further dimension to club and player. In fact Adam himself said (in the match day programme for the postponed Manchester United game) that he sees his favourite position as that of a centre back. Perhaps watch out for Adam to feature more and more as a modern-day sweeper, giving assurance and cover to defence whilst adding creativity and link up play in attack.

Full forward

If Blackpool move in to 2011 still developing and improving, perhaps an added defensive resilience will be added to the full back area in addition to their positive forward movement, the implications of this may well see Blackpool continue to perform above expectations. Holloway will hope that Crainey will sign a new deal and not leave on a free in the summer, however, should he leave, then Holloway will be looking for an endurance athlete, with a midfielder’s passing ability, attacking anticipation and a superb sense of positioning. Not sure that is available in the UK for the budget Blackpool have, but Holloway will hope that Gary Penrice will have something fitting that bill from Eastern Europe.

Follow Tanger_Dreaming on Twitter

Spurs – Match Preview

Harry Redknapp divides opinion across the country, but one thing is for sure, he guided his Spurs team in to the Champions League and along with that managed to progress in to the second phase. Yet again another quality side visits Bloomfield Road, however, Ian Holloway will be hoping that his own side will deliver another quality performance to try and upset another side that are ‘bigger and better’.

Tactics

Redknapp has gone on record to say that tactics don’t matter and it’s about the players (apologies for the link as it does go to the gutter aka the Sun newspaper site), but he is more of a tactician than he likes to make out. He will shift and change dependant on circumstance whether pre or in game or due to player availability. If he fails to make any consideration for Blackpool then there is a danger that his side may struggle to beat Blackpool.

Dependant on the fitness of Rafael van der Vaart Spurs will either line up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, the latter favoured should the Dutchman be fit to start. However, even if Jermaine Defoe starts then the latter formation may still be employed as Defoe does has a tendency to drop goal side of any deeper lying midfielders. In Blackpool’s case Defoe may be asked to drop in front of David Vaughan. If so, then that will be interesting as at one point against Stoke last week Kenwyne Jones did exactly the same, putting Vaughan under pressure and lead to concession of possession.

To back up some of Spurs’ formation flexibility Tom Williams did a great summary of how they’ve varied their approach in the Champions league, which shows that Redknapp can be unpredictable. However, should he go for a flat 4-4-2 he will need his players to be on top of their game to overwhelm Blackpool and in part this will go some way to backing up his claim about players counting over tactics. Arsenal have a similar four band line up and his three band system managed to over come them, by going deep and narrow. Not saying Blackpool are in the class of Arsenal here, just that theoretically, as Blackpool have seen already this season, not many teams playing a regular 4-4-2 have enjoyed much success against them. Will Blackpool once again enjoy exploiting the space between the Spurs defence and midfield and it will be interesting to see if Redknapp makes any concession to Holloway and assign a man to track Elliot Grandin.

Formations

If Van der Vaart is fit then Spurs may line up like this, however, if not then Defoe may come in. Redknapp may also opt for the aerial threat of Crouch up front. Blackpool from a formation point of view are unlikely to change even in the absence of Charlie Adam.

Suspension of disbelief

Blackpool’s key selection issue will be around, the man to replace Charlie Adam. There was a huge amount of buzz around Holloway’s team selection against Villa, however, the logic of that performance may well be justified come 5pm on Sunday. Let’s look at who could replace Adam.

First up is the most obvious candidate, Ludovic Sylvestre, acknowledged by some at the club as Blackpool’s best passer of the ball. Holloway, may also choose to bring in Keith Southern as a holding option, which could free up David Vaughan to come in to Charlie’s more advanced role.

Tale of the tape

The Villa game saw Sylvestre make 77 passes with a completion rate of 88% and Southern with 62 at a rate of 79%. In the tackle Sylvestre won 2 out of 2 while Southern won 1 out of 2. Southern came up with 1 interception to Sylvestre’s 2. Just based on performance based around stats then surely Sylvestre (if fit) will get the nod. However, Holloway may take a look at the positional side of this, given that the midfield three this year is staggered, Vaughan sitting deep, followed by a more advanced Charlie Adam then Elliot Grandin. In the Villa game, did anyone take up Charlie’s more advanced position? On the average position diagram Sylvestre held a more central position and as high up as Adam when he came on, whereas Southern was ever so slightly deeper.

Within the pink circle you can see that Sylvestre (19) held the same position line as advanced as Adam (26) and tucked in deeper and behind Adam's marker is that of Southern.

The choice could be determined with reference back to the discussion from the other week around the perfect midfield combination. In that article it was set out that in a midfield three the perfect combination would be a ball winner, a passer and an attacking creator. So when we look at the creativity, neither Southern or Sylvestre made any of the goals, but who made the most passes in to the opposition box. When looking at their Chalkboards you can see that Sylvestre edges that whereas Southern’s intended passes in to the box failed. So it appears that the general feeling of Sylvestre being Adam’s replacement comes out in the final analysis. Should he play then this is his real chance to cement a place in the team. However, should Holloway go with Southern he may be making a concession for the Spurs threat by using him to pick up Van der Vaart. Sylvestre also has the ability to deliver quality set pieces and scored a free kick earlier in the season in the Carling up against MK Dons. However, Holloway is unpredictable, he may also opt for Jason Euell to replace Adam, but there was little in his display against Villa that suggested he’d come in and compliment the midfield.

Sylvestre managed to penetrate the Villa box, however, Southern failed.

Spurs Danger

Spurs will attack down the flanks and given that they will be outnumbered in midfield this may be their best way of creating chances. Aaron Lennon is a very quick right winger who will look to get in behind Stephen Crainey. However, without doubt everyone knows that Gareth Bale poses a great threat to any team he plays against. However, he can be tamed as Everton proved earlier this season. Admittedly the game came after a European night and Blackpool don’t have that factor to benefit them. You can see on the chalkboard below that Bale had a miserable game against Everton not making any of his crosses count and towards the end of the game he was moved to the right wing to escape the attention of Neville. However, Everton were canny and Bale wasn’t shackled by one man only and in fact played Seamus Coleman (a right back) in a right midfield position helped to deny Bale the space he needed. Holloway may ask Gary Taylor-Fletcher to drop slightly deeper to replicate this.

Notice the accumulation of red lines as Bale struggled to connect with his team mates.

Aerially Speaking

Again the aerial question is posed as Spurs have Peter Crouch in their ranks and may start or be used off the bench to great effect. There is some what of a mis-truth around Crouch as some people perceive him to be weak in the air. Zonal Marking did a superb review of his aerial ability in order to break down that myth and clearly when reading it, he will need to be handled with caution should he take the field. However, Blackpool have not lost the aerial battle in their last two games and should not fear his threat if they perform to the best of their ability.

Game on!

Holloway will hope to make the right decision on replacing Adam, it’s something that was going to have to happen at some point this season and win or lose Holloway will have an even better understanding of his squad that can only help the team later on in the season.

Stoke City Report

Blackpool took the three points again from a side who supposedly have better players and made pundits come up with the ‘breath of fresh air’ phrase yet again. In a couple of ten minute spells in either half Blackpool played superb, controlled, passing football, moving Stoke around the pitch and carving out chances. While Stoke played to their strengths from set plays and came very close to breaking the goal line.

Line Ups

Blackpool stuck with the same starting eleven from the Bolton game two weeks ago, whilst Stoke welcomed back Andy Wilkinson and Jermaine Pennant back from injury and took their place on the right hand side of Stoke’s formation with Robert Huth moving back in to his preferred centre position, Jon Walters and Danny Higginbotham dropped to the bench.

Stoke’s shape remained in a rough 4-4-2 throughout the first hour and only once Tuncay was introduced did they have any variation as he dropped in to something more like a midfield three and with the final throw of the dice, Pulis opted to take off a defender for a midfielder and go to a back three. From the Blackpool perspective, the only noticeable change was a subtle one in midfield with David Vaughan sitting deeper in front of the centre backs, presumably to pick up Kenwyne Jones as he withdrew from the front line.

Notice how Vaughan (circled in pink) holds a deeper position, more like a holding midfielder.

Another interesting observation from the average positions above is that DJ Campbell (39), due to his dropping deep to receive the ball, held a deeper average position than Elliot Grandin a member of the recognised midfield unit. This gives Blackpool a platform to attack from and Campbell with generally pass back to Adam or look for little passes or flicks for Grandin to run on to.

Even

The first half was an even affair with chances for both sides, but as mentioned in the preview a moment of magic from Ricardo Fuller could have given Stoke the edge. Prior to that Blackpool dominated possession as Stoke’s midfield appeared to be dropping deeper and deeper. Earlier in the game Stoke worked hard to deny space to Blackpool’s midfield and it worked well as Blackpool started to misplace passes. However, once Stoke backed off Blackpool operated well in the spaces and played between their lines well, got good width and constructed some excellent overlapping passing moves especially down their left flank. Stoke’s main threat came from set pieces, although Blackpool defended poorly at times, failing to pick up men in the box and giving too much time and space for Fuller to hit the bar.

To-&-Fro

The second half started with Stoke almost making the breakthrough, but it was Blackpool who actually did and Charlie Adam was again at the heart of the play and as mentioned a few weeks ago, if Blackpool can get the ball to DJ Campbell close to the 6 yard box with the ball at his feet he will generally get his goals. Stoke were guilty of letting Campbell get that close and will be unhappy with that. Blackpool had some great control of the ball for a period before Stoke tried everything to get on level terms and sharp keeping, goal line clearances and the bar ensured that they failed to find the net.

License to probe

Charlie Adam was the focal point of most of Blackpool’s play, he attempted more passes (63) than any other player on the pitch, however, his success rate was low (66%, the team average was 72%), but that is mainly due to the fact he is given the freedom to try the unique which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Stoke allowed him too much space at times and Adam will revel in that as the more time he has, the more time he had to vary his pass direction. Earlier in the season he developed a left leaning bias to his passing that made him readable, however, a look at his chalkboard shows how penetrative his passing was and how much variation in pass direction there was. His ball for the Grandin chance on  39 mins was sublime as was his passing in the lead up to the goal.

The top chalkboard shows the wide variety of pass (even though slight with a left bias), whilst the lower chalkboard shows how he successfully made passes from open play in to the Stoke box.

A Central Winger

An article by Zonal Marking last week introduced a concept called the ‘central winger’ and it appears that this might go some way to explaining what Holloway sees Grandin’s role to be. He certainly isn’t a traditional playmaker and at his previous clubs he has been played on the wing. When looking at his chalkboards then you can see he drifts to the wings and this was central to some of the excellent passing moves that Blackpool constructed in the wide areas. Given that Grandin’s last two performances have been excellent, could it be that he has learned the role that Holloway wants him to play? If so, is this important for opening up space for Adam to move in to and operate?

Grandin's heat map from his passes show his drift to the wing areas with 36% of his passes on wing.

Pass domination

Blackpool dominated in the pass having attempted 112 passes more than Stoke. The danger for Stoke is that they played in to Blackpool’s hands, Blackpool attempted 445 passes with a 73% completion rate. The teams that have stopped Blackpool passing the ball with a fluency have had the most joy against them (Blackburn worked hard to ensure that Blackpool completed only 67% of passes). Give them the ball, time on the ball and Blackpool have proved that they will create chances in the Premier League. Stoke mainly hit long balls from the ‘keeper as Bolton did the other week and had little joy from that approach, however, Stoke know their own game and are happy to play it. With two central midfielders (Combined, Whitehead and Delap attempted 61 passes, added to this 10 of Delap’s passes were his throws, which were largely unsuccessful) passing with such low amounts means that they have to over rely on the wingers to set up play in open passing moves.

Steady Progress

Blackpool move in to the Christmas period with a great 16 games behind them. Christmas looks like it will be a tough period and the time when the tiresome pundits will roll out the ‘injuries and suspensions’ nonsense as the next test for Blackpool. Charlie Adam is suspended for the Spurs game and Blackpool (according to www.physioroom.com) already have 6 players out injured, so we shall see. However, should Blackpool have at least another three points come the end of the first week of January then everyone at Bloomfield Road will be set for a second half of the season that will be as exciting as the first.

Stoke City Preview

As Ian Holloway squares up to his good friend Tony Pulis, he’ll be hoping to give him a good run for his money like Blackpool did on their visit to the Britannia last year in the Carling Cup. Stoke come in to the match on the back of a draw at Wigan last week, while the Blackpool players will be refreshed after having last Saturday off due to the cold weather.

Looking back to look forward

This preview actually starts its life as a review of Blackpool’s last match as there was something about that Bolton performance that resonated with the public perception of the way that Stoke play. This season Bolton have been praised by most of the mainstream media as being an attractive side and that Owen Coyle likes his team to ‘play the right way’, with the ball on the ground. This style of football was nowhere to be seen at the Reebok stadium where a swift boot of the ball seemed the order of the day.

Bolton are still a direct, long ball team based on the first hour of the match and a pain staking trawl through the chalkboards of that match help to back up that point. Now this isn’t strictly scientific or robust, but it was something to cure the itch that developed whilst watching Jussi Jääskeläinen ‘put his foot through’ another upfield punt. With the opportunity to build from the back via the goalkeeper, Bolton failed to take that approach, instead hitting long balls upfield to utlitise the aerial ability of Kevin Davies. In going through, minute by minute of the chalkboards, Bolton hit 55 ‘long balls’ which accounted for 13% of their total attempted passes that day. The majority of them were hit from open play; however, the majority of them were unsuccessful with 55% failing to find their target.

They hit their long ball finish line around the 60 minute mark when they introduced Martin Petrov and Rodrigo Moreno in to the action. Then, this ‘attractive football’ started to appear, they passed the ball around and their long balls died off. Subsequently their pass completion improved (before 60 mins it was 63%, after 60 mins it went up to 77%) and they bagged two goals to snatch an unlikely draw. So Bolton got nothing against Blackpool by playing long, direct football. This has a lot of similarities for the upcoming fixture against Stoke, hence why this has been brought up.

Bolton continually played long balls from the back in the first hour of the game against Blackpool, especially coming from the goalkeeper as you can see here. The lower chalkboard shows a variation in passes from the hour mark, with more going shorter and wider rather than long.

Battle in the air

In the Bolton preview it was mentioned that Blackpool would concede defeat in the air as long as they won the battle on the ground and picked up the second balls. As it turned out Blackpool were excellent in the tackle against Bolton and in the air they edged it winning 23 headers and losing 22. This was a superb return for Blackpool especially as aerial strength isn’t neccessarily a part of their armoury and in fact both Blackpool goals came from headers. This will give Stoke something to ponder as they do like to play the long ball upfield and lob that flat old long throw in to the box. However, Stoke have someone in the shape of Kenwyne Jones who could really threaten Blackpool aerially. A quick look over the last few games shows that Jones wins his aerial battles. Last week against Wigan he won 66% of his aerial battles and earlier in the season against West Brom won 83%. So if Blackpool allow Jones to win his headers then this will set up Stoke’s attacking play, normally high up the field, putting the Blackpool defence under pressure.

Also, a ploy that worked against Wolves, by hitting the long diagonal right to left to expose the aerial frailty of Keith Foley at right back may not be a wise choice given that Luke Varney may have to jump against Robert Huth (even if Andy Wilkinson is fit, Pulis might take this option to counter Blackpool) who is usually good in the air. Just a closing point to note, two of Blackpool’s three goals in the Carling Cup match against Stoke last year came from headers.

Width and mobility

Blackpool may not try and play the long diagonal given the chances of losing the ball in the air, however, they may well look to go wide along the ground and get the ball played in to the channels and down the line in order to get Stoke’s full backs turning around. If that is something that Holloway opts to do then the wide forwards should be Luke Varney and Matthew Phillips and they’ll be asked to swap regularly to add variety to the Blackpool attack. Given this, it will be interesting to see if Pulis goes for Huth at right back or opts for a more mobile defender. Pulis uses the width of the pitch too and the threat of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant is one for Blackpool to be concerned about. They are wingers as opposed to Blackpool’s wide forwards, they will cross regularly and will deliver clinical set piece delivery when called upon. Neal Eardley struggled at times against Matt Jarvis against Wolves and far too often did he allow him to get a cross in. Should this happen again then Cathcart and Evatt will need to be at their best to repel Stoke.

Starting Out

Stoke set up in a 4-4-2, however, their shape does morph a little as Jones withdraws.

Both managers are very likely to stick with the formations they know, Pulis is an operator of the 4-4-2, whilst most people are now well aware that Holloway gets his side set up in a 4-3-3 morphing in to a 4-2-3-1. However, after looking at the average positions from their game against Wigan (in which Pulis noted he tried to be more positive) Stoke morphed in to a kind of 4-2-3-1 with Delap and Whitehead sitting in central midfield, while Walters and Etherington pushed higher up the flanks with Jones withdrawing deeper, something that Jones does favour in his general play anyway. Both managers have selection choices to make, Holloway’s key decision appears to be the position of wide right forward between Matthew Phillips and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, whilst Pulis has doubts about the fitness of Andy Wilkinson and Jermaine Pennant. Added to this Pulis may always opt to start with Sanli Tuncay, although it is likely that he’ll start on the bench.

Coming off the bench like Bolton

Pulis can look to his bench to change his style away from a direct approach, this comes in the shape of Sanli Tuncay, who is comfortable on the ball, creative with it and positive with his running. If he doesn’t start the game, which is likely, then he can be deployed from the bench, as he was to good effect against Man City, assisting Etherington in scoring the equaliser. For Blackpool this has echoes of Bolton the other week, as Tuncay could help to keep the ball on the ground more, especially if Blackpool are able to match Stoke in the air and shut them out. If this proves to be the case Holloway will need to make sure his side adjusts to the change of style better than they did against Bolton.

Game On!

Whatever the outcome on Saturday, Blackpool will be more confident in facing Stoke given their performance against Bolton and fresh given their week off. However, Stoke won’t give them any time and space on the ball and will test them directly and will look to moments of potential magic from Ricardo Fuller to steal the points come 5 o’clock.

*Note: The long ball was defined by me as a ball hit forward, in the air, covering a distance of 30 yards or more. No comparative analysis was done against other teams in order to place Bolton in context and it was motivated by me being disappointed in seeing a media branded, ‘attractive team’, hitting what I perceived to be a high number of long balls. One day I might attempt to place this in to context when I have the time and should I be proved wrong then I shall put my foot through a size 5 and be very sorry.

**Further note: If anyone wants to have a look at the details of the long balls then I’ll stick them on a Google spreadsheet and add the link in here. Just let me know.