The End… but not goodbye!

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

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

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

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

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

John.

Another fine mess

Paul Ince

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

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

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

Substantial Problem

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

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

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

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

Whittle Away

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

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

Options Open

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

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

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

Loan Chance

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

Moving On

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

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

Appleton’s Task

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

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

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

Q: What is the best defensive combination?

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

Q: What is the best midfield combination?

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

Q: What is the best system to use?

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

Q: Should Kevin Phillips be starting games?

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

Q: How does he whittle his huge squad down?

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

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

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

Moving On

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

From one to another

A new era is upon us……

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

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

Smelly Fish

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

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

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

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

New regime

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping up

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

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

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

Moving On

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

One Door Closes……..

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

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

New Balance

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

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

Hold up

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

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

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

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

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

Getting there

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

About the process

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

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

Tough Nut

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

Another door opens

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

John

Tangerine Dreaming

Blackpool’s Best Eleven

Ian Holloway hasn’t picked a consistent eleven all season. This is a light-hearted look at why that might be the case and why it’s not just a case of picking the best players.

Picking the best team from a squad of players is no easy task. If it was a simple task of listing the best players then that could lead to several complications. If that’s not the best starting point then what might be a good place to begin in a quest to find the ‘best’ starting eleven?

Natural instincts

How about understanding the way the player naturally orients himself on the field of play? This can be a very eye-opening exercise. This takes in to account their approach, mentality and where they thrive on the pitch. Obviously the final team selection takes in to many other facets such as the opponent and game objectives. The diagram below takes (entirely subjectively) a view on where each Blackpool player is naturally drawn to and excels. This gives us our starting point.

This paints an interesting picture and starts to show where Blackpool may be lacking. There are obvious points for debate based on the subjectivity at hand. For example, Ian Evatt generally lines up in the left centre back position and here he has been placed at right centre back. Arguably his one footedness doesn’t help him on the left and his more natural position should be on the right. Neal Eardley is placed much higher up the field than his right back role, mainly because he shows more of the traits of a wide midfielder than an orthodox full back. Even though they are different players both Kevin Phillips and Roman Bednar appear to enjoy the role of centre forward, not that they can’t play together, but they do like to occupy some of the same spaces. Gary Taylor-Fletcher always appears to drop in behind the striker when he starts as a forward and even when given a midfield role he drifts high up the field. Lomano LuaLua has been placed very high up the pitch; this is the area where he looks most comfortable.

Pointless

It might seem a little pointless just dropping the players on to a pitch diagram, however, that arguably gives a starting base to select the best eleven. The next logical step might be to now play fantasy football and just pick the eleven best players giving bias to the 4-3-3 scheme used by Ian Holloway. The diagram below illustrates these subjective picks.

There are reasons for going with certain players here. The centre back positions are a constant source for debate at Blackpool. The selection of Wilson and Evatt is merely a nod to the former being the best covering defender and Evatt the best positional stopper for want of better terminology. Alex Baptiste is kept at right back as he remains the best right back on the books and his positional ability is still a little questionable for the centre positions. In midfield, the trio of Barry Ferguson, Ludovic Sylvestre and Chris Basham get the nod. Basham’s technical ability gives him the edge over Keith Southern. Up front, Taylor-Fletcher as a creative force and goalscorer gets the selection alongside Matthew Phillips and LuaLua. Of course this is all entirely debatable decision-making, but it hopefully it starts to illustrate the difficult task of trying to select a best eleven.

Balancing act

The next consideration is balance, as the diagram above shows how awkward that line up is in reality. The diagram below adds some balance between left and right, attack and defence to give another attempt at the best Blackpool eleven.

The key movers here are John Fleck and Kevin Phillips. Essentially the reasons for their inclusion now is to shift the team to the left a little more hopefully to give them better balance in their point of attack between left, right and centre. John Fleck is an interesting inclusion at this point; arguably he is the most natural left-sided attacking player. Although he has rarely played in his natural role whilst at Blackpool, where he is positioned here is potentially his optimum position. It is where he would excel with his ability to pick a pass and shoot on sight. For the sake of formation this is a kind of 4-3-3 of sorts, but woefully lacking width.

There are clear issues of balance within this Blackpool squad whilst there are excellent options with the players at hand. It does serve to illustrate why Holloway may be moving away from his trusty 4-3-3. Fielding a midfield three lacks balance due to the lack of left-sided midfielders in the squad. Sylvestre is very right footed and will always gravitate to that side. Fielding two deeper midfielders eases the selection issue for Ian Holloway but still gives his issues with finding the right blend up front with few combinations giving him width, pace and creativity as well as pure finishing ability.

Right on

This is just a very simple look at how to choose a best eleven without even weighing in the other considerable factors. Making these decisions is at the core of the manager’s role and as Ian Holloway has found the right blend in the past, there’s no reason he can’t right now. Blackpool fans everywhere will hope he has asked and answered all the pertinent questions to lead the Tangerines to a strong end of season and back to the Premier League.

What is wrong with Blackpool?

Upon reading interviews with football managers more often than not they reveal elements of what makes a successful team. Before talking about their playing philosophy, they often talk about the importance of creating the right team spirit or the right energy around the team. Essentially this energy is created through having the right conditions around a team and if the energy is focused and positive it can help fuel the players on to great achievements.

Channeling

Ian Holloway is a manager who thrives on the right energy and is sensitive to the slightest changes in it; he understands that and works to keep things vibrant and relevant for his team. It is critical that the team energy is never diminished or diverted. If a manager keeps the energy channeled in to the right areas then his team can work together to improve, should that energy be drained away for any reason then it will be harder to get across his training and game objectives. Any quality manager knows that they are only able to influence the things that they can influence and this centres on the training pitch and on events on the match day. The manager must ensure that the energy on the training pitch is focused, positive and working at the right levels and trust the owner or chairman to ensure that the energy around the other elements of the club remain positive.

This energy is hard to understand at times as people experiences energy in different ways. The most common form experienced is that feeling when you enter a room and you know something isn’t right. This is critical in all aspects of life and absolutely critical in football, if the energy isn’t there, how does a manager get across their point of view, why should a player listen. Yes each player has internal motivation, but essentially the team energy is what fuels every player and gives the team the dynamic. The reason this is so pertinent for Blackpool Football Club right now is essentially the energy around the team has dropped. This article will take a little look at this to try to understand why.

Drained

It has been widely documented that Blackpool’s accounts show substantial reallocation of money from the football club to the owner Owen Oyston. Regardless of what money has gone and where it has gone, the club have been negligent and brought upon themselves unnecessary attention. There has been talk earlier this season from the chairman (Karl Oyston) that the club has learned its lessons from last season, but apparently that’s not the case. The club still remains aloof towards the impact of their actions and how they can knock on to the team, supporters and the energy around the club.

The lessons from the Charlie Adam saga last January haven’t been learned. The club was performing admirably in the Premier League till the club appeared to anger the player, his potential new club and dangle a substantial bag of carrots to the media. Press conferences started to focus less on the positive aspects of the team to the, ‘What’s the situation with Charlie Adam?’. The media generally don’t care about tactical dynamics and unpicking the fine details of the match. They want sleaze to sell their papers to the vacant majority who like bright pictures, loud noises and something to bitch about.

Pee Argh

Public relations as an enterprise is often scorned at, but essentially it’s used to sustain the right energy about a product and in the case of a football club, it can head off rumours and scaremongering. Essentially, Blackpool Football Club could have handled the release of their accounts with some clear communication before the event and failure to do so has left a void which has been filled by the media. Leaving a void can work sometimes; it can create a ‘buzz’, however, in a case such as this it has left a void which can only be filled with rampant negativity. It is this which is critical this time around and replicates the feeling of the Adam saga. The energy is being pulled away from the pitch, Holloway has to field questions about the subject at every turn and that leads to him being pulled in to debates that aren’t really his concern. He loves being on the training pitch, loves being enthusiastic about developing his players. He has genuine love and affection for his players; he is a man who is deeply centred on the things that are true and dear to him.

This concept of team energy can be tricky to define, but there are plenty of examples of energy being misaligned or pulled away from the areas that need it the most. The England national team will struggle to win a major championship as the media focus on the wrong elements in order to sell papers and the players aren’t ever given the time with the management to work towards creating the right energy. Blackburn Rovers suffered with their performances at home when their fans were protesting about Steve Kean’s management of the club. Liverpool to extent don’t seem to have fully refocused the energy around their team too after the Suarez case. It’s critical that this energy is channelled on to the pitch and not displaced in to areas where such energy will fizzle out. Blackpool Football Club have done what they have done with the money and legally they can do what they want. Fans won’t like it and it is hard to understand. Communication is so easy to get wrong, but a policy of no communication is unforgivable and gives out the wrong signals. There’s a lot to be said for softening the blow, it might still stun the victim, but the chances of surviving are much greater.

Fizzled out?

The effects of this energy drain are visible on the pitch at the moment, but it would be remiss to say that the recent results are a solely attributable to that issue alone. All season long there have been concerns about performances, but results have been strong and Blackpool still have a good prospect of getting to the play offs. Essentially there are a few fundamental footballing issues that have underpinned the season and these will now be explored.

Whilst the club haven’t learned the ‘off pitch’ lessons from last season the same can be said for issues on the pitch. Last season early season injuries saw Holloway flex his team shape away from the 4-3-3 to a more aggressive 4-2-1-3 verging on an aggressive 4-2-4. Only after being soundly thrashed at home to Wigan did Holloway appear to remember what was once dear to him and reverted back to the flat 4-3-3 in the final few games and enjoyed some very good performances. However, the very same dilemma still rumbles on. Blackpool have done very much the same this season. Their better performances come when their midfield three remains flat and retain numerical superiority over their opponent. The moment that is conceded is the moment that Blackpool start to struggle. Holloway’s Blackpool have thrived through team cohesion, underpinned by their energy. They work best in combinations, link ups and supporting each other. When they play the more aggressive 4-2-4 the individual comes out more, the team breaks down quicker and the collective spirit looks spent and stretched.

Aggression

The reasons for Holloway making these decisions lie in his approach to management. He appears to reward what works well, which is fundamentally a sound approach, however, there does appear to be little understanding that sometimes things work well because of the conditions being right. His allegiance to the 4-2-4 seems to be borne out of his strong ‘in game’ tactical sense when he sees that a game requires an aggressive move, especially when team match us up in midfield and we grind to a halt. When it works, teams can be decimated and completely over run. However, it is debatable whether or not this approach fits in to a suitable starting strategy against any team. It appears that Holloway doesn’t hit the reset button after each game, which can be a fine approach, but a performance as a substitute doesn’t always translate to being a first team pick in the next game. Some players are more tuned in to being a substitute; some games are more suited to a certain player being a substitute.

This all leads to one of the key issues aside from the formation and tactics, the matter of Holloway knowing what his strongest side is and playing it. At the moment the squad is being rotated and a good performance can be rewarded with a further start and a bad performance almost certainly ends up with a place in the stands. Again there are arguments to both sides here, but it feels like it’s not the approach that suits Blackpool right now. This is a side that is still learning to play with each other. The defensive issues appear to be stemming from lack of teamwork, understanding and communication. All of which develop as players play with each other more often. Holloway will surely be trying to stabilise his selection as a cure of some on field issues and allied to that revisit the playing principles that have brought his side so much success. In fact this last point is absolutely key. Holloway is a man of principles and he has admitted in the past that when he has sacrificed his principles his side suffer as a result. It’s almost like he isn’t being authentic and compensates a little too much for the opposition or as much recently the pitch at Bloomfield Road. Holloway may well reflect on his team’s qualities and get back to those in order to restore the energy on the pitch. As a starting strategy, a 4-3-3 has been proven to work well and the aggressive 4-2-4 is proven to work well when chasing a game.

Splitting Up

In order to demonstrate the flaws when Blackpool start in the aggressive 4-2-4 the recent game against Hull is a good case study. Here Holloway asked his side to be aggressive both on and off the ball and to look to go long to counteract the uneven pitch which he deemed not conducive to the passing football he wants to play. The 4-2-4 worked well in this instance for an hour. The two midfielders (Barry Ferguson & Keith Southern) worked hard to close Hull down, disrupting their rhythm and Blackpool stretched Hull with long balls being quick to win the second balls. The plan failed when Hull re-organised themselves, Blackpool’s midfield two tired and one of them picked up an injury. Suddenly Hull dominated the middle ground, Blackpool were slower to close them down and slower to the second balls and conceded in the last-minute for a 1-1 draw. Although this performance appeared strong for an hour, it was built on poor foundations and it was hard for Holloway to rework his tactics from such an aggressive position.

The red shaded area outlines where the opposition can intercept Blackpool and split their team leading to Blackpool being dominated by their opponent.

At many other times this season the 4-2-4 has struggled as it can be easily split in to two parts (see diagram above) by a hardworking and diligent opponent. Isolate the midfield two, cut off the supply to the front four and a team can nullify Blackpool. Essentially you can form a wall between the attack and defence and all Blackpool’s coherency drains from the team. The flatter 4-3-3 gives Blackpool a better base to work from; they will generally not lose the midfield and attack at pace from that platform. It is from there that Holloway can make changes to affect the dynamic.

Testing the Faith

Holloway’s faith in the 4-3-3 has been tested by teams who seek to stifle his midfield. This has been a clear problem all season as it results in Blackpool being slowed down in midfield and when they reach the final third they come to a stand still. Without effective movement ahead of the ball and players who are aware of the tempo dropping they become predictable and a side can sit behind the ball knowing that they won’t be pulled apart. Holloway’s solution to this has generally been aggressive treble substitutions; normally adding attacking players to the field of play to try to push the opposition even further back. It is here where the 4-2-4 has worked. Blackpool got even more aggressive than that against Coventry going to an almost 3-2-5 which battered Coventry in to submission. The late comebacks have secured Blackpool several points this season at the same time convincing Holloway that the approach provides a viable starting strategy.

The 4-2-4 is sometimes marked out by some observers as a 4-2-3-1, however, that observation looks and feels misplaced. Mainly because the aggressive attributes of the players draws no distinction in the attacking bands of the formation often leaving them left up the field in a flat line of four. Crucially, whoever plays at the attacking point of the midfield trident doesn’t drop deep enough when Blackpool are out of possession and arguably Blackpool don’t have the right type of players to play such a critical role. Elliot Grandin (now at Nice) played the role to some effect, but even he was too aggressive at times to play a role that requires a great deal of tactical and positional understanding.

It’s fair to say that Holloway is still working with his side, but his decisions have become a little distant from his core footballing principles (short passing, possession, ball retention and attack). The next two or three games will be critical, he may be able to get the aggressive approach to work on a regular basis, but he may also appreciate the qualities that his three-man midfield has brought him in the past. However, he still has a dilemma as the ideal three-man midfield may not be on the books at Blackpool at the moment. The club haven’t replaced the drive, creativity and balance that Charlie Adam provided. The club has excellent holding midfielders, runners and good passers, but arguably that spark is still missing and this might be why Holloway is veering towards the 4-2-4.

Indefensible

Added to this there are still major concerns about Blackpool’s defensive work. The spotlight falls upon the defensive line, but essentially Blackpool’s key defensive concerns lie in their off the ball work. Their pressing is very inconsistent. It is often hard to pinpoint their pressing strategy, it is rare that they get this right and their inconsistent off the ball work puts an awful lot of strain on the defence. The defensive phase starts with the attackers, if they fail to exert the required pressure, the midfield needs to step up and apply their press. In playing a high defensive line the pressing needs to be intense and all too often it drops off, affording the opposition midfield too much time and consequently exposing the defence to easy through balls. It’s hard to blame the back line at these times, but they do still appear uncoordinated and it’s never apparent who is responsible for making the call to step up for offside. On the flip side, the defensive line is wholly responsible for the poor work closer to their goal and as seen recently, from set pieces. As at many times last season the defenders seem slow to react to impending danger and often goals are the result of errors that stack up, such as the goal against Cardiff which was analysed on this site. This is basic stuff, but requires improvement, as mentioned earlier; it’s very possible that the rotation of the defensive unit hasn’t helped them to function effectively.

Brilliance

This has been a very critical diagnostic of Blackpool, but ultimately it has come about from a poor run of form. However, it’s very likely that the team will bring this back around. The negativity surrounding the ‘tax dodge’ will dissipate with a strong performance against Brighton on Saturday. Blackpool are inconsistent, but when they click, this side is arguably more impressive than the one seen in the Premier League last season. Yes that spark in midfield might not be there, but their attacking pace and incisive running from wide areas has taken some good sides apart with relative ease. Barry Ferguson has excellent technical quality and when he gets a foothold in the game he organises, composes and drives the team on from deep. Stephen Crainey is an excellent left back who perfectly understands his role in attack as well as defence. Alex Baptiste at right back can make explosive forward runs and support his strike force superbly well. Matt Gilks has been first class, making some truly jaw dropping saves. Up front Matthew Phillips is developing in to a Premier League forward, who combines raw pace, with powerful and accurate shooting. On the other flank Tom Ince is moving away from his inconsistency to provide a probing threat up front. Regardless of shape and tactics, Holloway has a very good squad with lots of options and all in all this side has a chance to become one of the top six in this league.

Moving on

With ten games to go the season run in starts now. The players and staff have a few days to prepare for the next game whilst fans have a chance to gain some perspective. The owners will no doubt continue as they have done, hopefully next time something potentially explosive starts ticking they’ll work smarter to communicate the dangers so at least the fans can prepare themselves for the bang. Whether or not there should be a bombshell or not is a matter for another time and another place. This time is reserved for replenishing the team’s energy and for fans to rally around their side and support them for the good things that have been brought to Blackpool by Ian Holloway and his team.

Tangerine Dreaming – Championship Best Eleven (So far)

As the Championship season reaches it’s halfway stage, TD takes a quick look over the season so far to select a team of players that have impressed with their performances against Blackpool.

Blackpool players have been excluded and only players that TD witnessed playing against Blackpool are included. Given that TD has been close to being a part time fan in the last month or so then some good players may have missed out. Missing the home games against Watford and Birmingham may have taken away two contenders for the team. Watford’s Scott Loach and Birmingham’s Chris Burke both had strong games by all acounts. However, they don’t appear here for the reasons stated previously.

This is entirely subjective, without foundation in fact or deeper analysis, just the performance that was witnessed by TD. No players are in here due to reputation or achievement in other games. If that had been the case then TD’s favourite Championship player, Adam Lallana would have made the side comfortably. So without any further wiffle and waffle, here’s the side of the season so far.

The Best Eleven

1. Goalkeeper – David Marshall (Cardiff City)

A strong imposing ‘keeper and TD can’t add much more than that. He’s well known and is more than capable of playing at a higher level.

2. Right Back – Kieran Trippier (Burnley on loan from Manchester City)

A willing and energetic full back who will probably never make the grade at his parent club due to their ability to recruit world class players, but would be a decent acquisition for any club from the lower half of the Premier League down to the top rungs of the Championship.

3. Right Centre Back – Danny Collins (Ipswich Town on loan from Stoke City)

A basic defender, but you know what you’re getting from him. Decent pedigree and at the time of his game at Bloomfield Road, his first for Ipswich, he looked like he could bind a very weak Ipswich back line.

4. Left Centre Back – Jason Shackell (Derby County)

Similar to above, Shackell is a solid defender who does the basics well. At Bloomfield Road earlier this season he was the experience alongside the young Mark O’Brien helping to shut out Blackpool.

5. Left Back – Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City)

Not many left backs have caught the eye of TD, but Taylor looked tidy and willing to push on when space appeared in front of him.

6. Central Midfielder – Grant McCann (Peterborough United)

Sat in front of the Peterborough defence and looked very assured on the ball and disciplined off it.

7. Right Side Midfielder – Don Cowie (Cardiff City)

Excellent on the ball, can pick a pass and deliver a ball in to the box. As with his goalkeeping colleague (Marshall), really should be playing in the Premier League.

8. Left Side Midfielder – Craig Bryson (Derby County)

Energy personified and tactically disciplined. Functional rather than spectacular. He was at the heart of Derby’s game plan to stifle and frustrate Blackpool and chipped in with the winning goal too.

9. Central Striker – Rickie Lambert ( Southampton)

An excellent target man who is powerful, aggressive and strikes the ball with excellent technique as well as rising to score with powerful headers.

10. Right Forward – Marvin Emnes ( Middlesbrough)

Very lively if a little easy to read at times (let’s ball come on to him before rolling off the defender), very hard to handle when he is running either on or off the ball. Blackpool’s high defensive line was teetering on the brink of collapse on many an occasion he was involved in the attacking play.

11. Left Forward – Robbie Brady (Hull City on loan from Manchester United)

Tricky, pacey wide man. Double footed and hard to read his movement with the ball. He may well break through at his parent club should he get the chance (next season at the earliest), should he not, then he’d be in demand from a multitude of clubs. Questions currently centre on where he will spend the second half of the season.

Moving On

Some genuine quality in that side and talent that can play at a higher level and also three loan players, showing how important those players are to Championship sides. A lot is made of the gulf in class between Premier League and Championship, but it really isn’t that wide at all and there’s potentially a lot of overlap between the top Championship sides and lower Premier League side.

How many of these players will make the end of season side remains to be seen, with twenty three games to go it’s all to play for.

Tangerine Talent Timeline

The information in this article is nothing new. If you’ve read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed or it’s predecessor ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell or any number of magazine and newspaper features, blog posts such as this one by 11Tegen11 or most recently on the BBC website. All of these make the point that it can often be the month of your birth that determines your success. At the heart of the theory is a piece of work conducted by Roger Barnsley who first spotted this when referencing an ice hockey team in Canada. It also has its roots in the work of Anders Ericsson who has studied talent for many years.

Developing differences

In very broad terms the theory suggests that players are more likely to be scouted if they are born in the first few months of the selection year. For example, if the recruitment year is September to August as it is in football in England then it’s possible to have one child playing with or against another child who is almost a year older. Child A could be born on the 1st September and Child B is born on the 31st August. Consequently Child A has almost a year more of growth in his bones and would give him a considerable advantage in height, strength etc. The theory suggests that these children are scouted as they can physically dominate their smaller counterparts. They then go on to receive the best coaching and advance their development.

The reason it’s being explored here is mainly by pure chance. No new insight can be given on the matter here, but a new data set can be analysed for similar patterns and shared. That chance came when viewing a website (sorry, I cannot remember the site) that listed all the players that have played for Blackpool. Dates of birth were listed, so an opportunity to test the theory came about. The results of that testing will be shared below.

There are caveats around this data*. Firstly, it is in no way a definitive list. Secondly, no referencing to other data sources has taken place to ensure accuracy. Thirdly, some players had dummy dates attached. Fourthly, a small number of the players were born in the 19th century and perhaps not subject to the same forces as their modern counterparts. Lastly, some of the players are from countries outside of the UK and their recruitment years will vary.

Applying it to ‘Pool

The first sort of data produced the graph below. This show each player’s birth month categorised in a calendar year. For instance, you can see that there are 32 players born in January.

January to December

What should be immediately obvious is the spike that occurs in September. In fact the highest month is September at 39 players and the lowest is July with 17. It seems a relatively compelling illustration of the birth month theory. In order to make it more compelling the data has been re-ordered in to the months of the recruitment year, September to August. You can see the outcome below.

September to August

This perfectly sums up the bias towards the recruitment of players in the early months of the recruitment year as you can see the line tail off over the course  of the year.

Maybe tomorrow

This has been done purely because it was of interest to try this with a new set of data, what won’t be done here is to delve any deeper. The books mentioned earlier provide superb material to keep you thinking and are highly recommended. However, it is of interest about how you can get round such bias. The sooner football clubs can get around this then the more likely children will be brought in to game with more game specific talents, such as speed of thought, vision, creativity and less around the physical attributes that are easier to monitor. For a club like Blackpool this may not necessarily need to be a factor as their youth programme produces relatively few first team players, but if the national game is to step up then this is an area that must be overcome with extensive work and improved scouting skills.

 

*338 players were listed on the site. 9 were removed as they had no date of birth attached, therefore 329 players formed the data used here.

Part Two – The Shape Of Another Journey

Blackpool’s inconsistent start to the season caused consternation and frustration amongst the Blackpool support and presumably staff and players too. However, two wins in their last two games have now left the team in fifth place and looking in better shape than they were two games ago. The majority of what you are about to read was written in the light of a 3-1 defeat to Burnley, however, the analysis here may well be useful when Blackpool hit another rocky patch later in the season as similar issues may be at the heart of any problems.

Gone, gone, gone!

First and foremost the most obvious thing missing from Blackpool this season is Charlie Adam. Added to that, both DJ Campbell and David Vaughan left the club in the summer to stay in the league where they rightly belong. What that means in measurable terms is pretty easy to define; however, it has also meant a great deal of upheaval on the pitch too with new players having to come in to replace them.

Statistically Blackpool lost a significant chunk of their goal scoring output, both Adam and Campbell contributed 25 goals last season which equated to 45% of the total goals that Blackpool scored. In the previous season they scored 27 goals which amounted to 36% of the total.

In losing these players and those goals it has led to a selection dilemma for Ian Holloway and this is perfectly summed up when considering the fact that he has rarely stuck with the same first eleven. Barry Ferguson has come in and replaced David Vaughan, but perhaps doesn’t have the same energy as Vaughan. Whereas, Kevin Phillips has come in to replace Campbell but even though he has scored he may not link up play as well as his predecessor. However, more crucially Adam’s goals and goal creation are yet to be replaced. Losing players is a part of football and it’s how a manager copes with that which ultimately determines his success. Either you go like for like, recruit then fit or make concessions for replacements.

Shape Shifting

A closer look will now be placed upon the way that Blackpool are setting up on the pitch. For a bit of background, Holloway has deployed a version of a 4-3-3 system for most of his time in charge. Last season the midfield shape varied mainly due to a pre-season injury to Keith Southern before reverting to a flatter midfield shape towards the end of the season. As stated earlier it appears that Charlie Adam hasn’t been replaced and arguably he cannot be replaced for the budget that Blackpool has available. He was the crucial link from deep midfield to attack and to understand why that is affecting Blackpool now, his role and position must be understood in more detail.

The inter-relationship and roles of players on the pitch give formations their dynamic. For example, a 4-3-3 could be seen as a chain of relationships on the pitch that need players to combine. Not just from within one department i.e. the defence, but from more than one. The diagram below will hopefully give a visual representation of the point and to show how the side midfielders (Adam & Southern) relate to the defence and the attack.

Vital linkage

Last season, David Vaughan sat deeper in the midfield than Adam, who occupied the left hand side of the midfield three. His team within a team, aside from the midfield unit was the team of left full back and left forward too. Through this structure he excelled at bringing Stephen Crainey in to the play and building attacks with him and the left forward. This bridged the distance between midfield and attack and when it worked was when Blackpool were at their most devastating.

The balance on the right of midfield was missing for two reasons. Either Elliot Grandin drifted centrally or Keith Southern tended to sit more instead of advancing with his unit. However, as Gary Taylor-Fletcher offered the team creativity from high up on the pitch on the right it helped to make up the balance. So how is this affecting Blackpool this season?

Effectively that link no longer exists, the left footed midfielder has disappeared and with it, that link too. Stephen Crainey appears to get forward less often and Blackpool’s attack often appears slow and predictable. One key point of creation has been removed and a key point of team cohesion too. It will take time to eradicate and Ian Holloway has appeared to struggle to overcome this.

Narrow minded

The impact of losing Adam has caused a knock on effect for the midfield, which has been further hampered by the early season injury to Grandin. The opening game at Hull saw Grandin attack more aggressively than Adam would have and often he failed to track back. If you want an idea of the formation, it was very much a 4-2-1-3. In going for a 4-2-1-3 in the first match Holloway lost a little sight of the flatter midfield three and once Grandin was injured, Taylor-Fletcher was used in the role to varying degrees of success and arguably removed his forward from his most potent position as that of a forward, dropping deep to receive. This has led to Blackpool getting really out of shape and awkward at times and this has made Holloway twist and turn to get his new players in to something that is workable. Allied to Grandin’s forward positioning, Keith Southern has tended to stay deep and even drift centrally making Blackpool’s midfield shape very narrow. The diagram below shows how Blackpool’s links in the 4-3-3 have become stretched.

Really stretching the midfields effectiveness, making them narrow and easy to play against.

Stream of consciousness

This loss of on-field shape has emanated itself in two ways, an unconscious way through players losing their way in a new system and more recently a conscious decision by Holloway to change the shape. What does this mean? Blackpool’s midfield shape had the midfield triangle of players pointing towards the opposition goal instead of the other way round in a conventional 4-3-3 shape. As both of the two players who have dominated in that role (Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher) are naturally attacking and have fewer defensive instincts that someone like Adam. This meant that at times this season they have been caught high up the pitch and any numerical advantage a three-man midfield might have given Blackpool has been lost. You can see this in the diagram below. When attacking, the formation has looked like an aggressive 4-2-4 and even at times a 4-4-2. This happened at times last season leaving Blackpool exposed in midfield and it has started again this season. When Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher are on their games such an application of their skills can be amazing to watch, however, lose the ball and all of a sudden Blackpool are open and ready to be attacked.

It appears that Holloway acknowledged that the shape was too flimsy with the players he was using and consciously switched the team in to a 4-4-2 after a treble substitution against Doncaster which contributed to a comeback and a 2-1 win. He followed up against Nottingham Forest with a 4-4-2 but with less effect and switched mid game against Burnley to a 4-4-2. This was a sign that Holloway could see his team and how they were naturally forming on the pitch and for him to switch to 4-4-2 must have riled him as he doesn’t like the formation. However, you can see his logic for taking these steps and actively pushing his team towards a change of shape. It doesn’t appear to be a way forward and the recent 5-0 victory over Leeds saw him move back towards his more conventional 4-3-3. The question will be, will he switch back to the more attacking 4-2-1-3 once Grandin is fit again and if he does, will he remember to revert to a flatter midfield three when things are going against his side.

New solutions?

Blackpool are at their best when they string together short passes and vary the tempo and point of attack. However, managers know this now and are actively trying to stop them and this has been key to Blackpool’s inconsistent start. Last season few managers tried to alter their style to combat Blackpool and paid the price with a defeat. This season Blackpool are there to be shot at. Hull did what they could to stop Blackpool in the first game, but Derby were the first team to really jam up the midfield and stop Blackpool playing. It is here that Holloway and his players have been slow to find ‘in game’ solutions to tactical problems being posed. Partly because of the players at his disposal, but partly because this is a new experience for them. They’ve been used to having space to play their game and express themselves, but now they are back in the Championship teams want to throw them off their stride and deny them all the space they can.

The midfield approach of some teams this season has exploited the previously mentioned issue of an aggressively placed midfielder and accentuated the distance between Blackpool’s midfield and attack and contributed to the cutting off of the supply to the forwards.

A narrow midfield four and effectively split Blackpool's 4-3-3 shape

The diagram above highlights how a well-drilled midfield has overcome Blackpool and effectively divided their team. Added to this Blackpool have been slow to react in the game. Both Charlie Adam and David Vaughan have excellent appreciation of tempo and when to start picking up the pace of pace to circulate the ball faster. Blackpool have few midfielders to do this now and any numerical disadvantage they’ve suffered could have been overcome with quicker movement of the ball. It was noticeable in the game against Burnley that in the second half Barry Ferguson pushed harder when in possession to drive the team on and for the first time this season it appears like Blackpool’s midfield had gained a new dynamic. Add in the better ball skills of Ludovic Sylvestre in the game against Leeds and all over a sudden the solutions appear to be more forthcoming.

Let’s play Ludo

In fact, the reintroduction of Sylvestre may well have done more to reinvigorate Blackpool than the emphatic nature of the recent back to back victories. He offers the more natural midfield option, less likely to get caught high up the pitch, comfortable in the deep, he also appreciates game tempo and understand where passes should be directed in the final third. What this has highlighted is that the solutions Blackpool have been looking for aren’t that hard to find and hopefully Holloway will veer away from changes in shape to remembering what has worked well in the past and who he still has at his disposal.

Moving on

So what have we learned in this rather long-winded ramble? That Blackpool have struggled for consistency this season due to losing key players and not knowing how best to replace them. By losing sight of what they do well. By losing their shape that brought them so much success. And finally by not adjusting to sides who are happy to shut them out and take a point.

As highlighted in part one, this is a long season and no doubt Blackpool will go through similar cycles of poor and good form. However, the signs are forming that Holloway is learning that his new team may not be far away from showing their real potential.