“Our tactic was to leave Charlie Adam and Luke Varney, who are both pretty good in the air for their size, free to attack the ball. We’d just keep our back four in position and not mark men individually … and it seemed to work”.
Note: For the purposes of doing this a video of the first half of the match was all that could be found.
In the first half Stoke had three long throws delivered by Rory Delap in to the box. All three were unsuccessful. For the duration of the match there were a further 6 long throws and 3 were successful.
As the team take their shape you can see that Gary Taylor Fletcher in front of the front post (pink) and Charlie Adam on the goal line (pink) are the only players assigned marking duties. The defenders (red) are free from marking the opposition, in space and set to defend the second balls, as is David Vaughan (pink) just outside the 6 yard box. The player positions are further illustrated in the diagram below in case the above isn’t clear.
Of the 3 long throws examined for this piece, Taylor-Fletcher won the first and Charlie Adam won the next two. The danger was cleared each time and the defence never came under any pressure. This serves to back up what Evatt said apart from the fact that these examples showed Taylor-Fletcher in the role of Varney.
Defence for the future
Blackpool at times this season have been derided for their lack of defensive quality, however, this shows that more thought and work is being applied to the defensive side of the game and 2 clean sheets in December added to more talk from Holloway about the defensive side of the game has shown that he is always looking to develop. Should the back four continue to develop and the team defend well as a whole then more clean sheets could well be on their way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.