Blackpool v Birmingham – A Tactical Preview

This game has the hallmarks of being a very close contest, even if Birmingham did have the upper hand in the regular season, drawing at Bloomfield Road 2-2 before winning 3-0 at St Andrews. However, both sides are slightly different teams since that last contest and that provides for some interesting dynamics.

Line Ups

Ian Holloway should have a virtually full strength squad to choose from. In terms of selection decisions the key one appears to be whether to select Barry Ferguson or Keith Southern to partner Angel Martinez as one of the holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. This selection dilemma has crept up on Holloway after Martinez has proved to be a superb midfielder, filled with vibrancy, technique and intelligence. His emergence in the final part of the season has meant that the two former mainstays of the midfield are battling it out for selection. The dilemma is enhanced because both players offer different skillsets, Ferguson holds his position more, whilst Southern is more of a runner and tackler applying almost constant pressure on the man in possession.

Chris Hughton appears to have settled on a back four since Stephen Caldwell’s injury. In addition to this his midfield might see Jordon Mutch support Guirane N’Daw centrally flanked by the superb Chris Burke on the right and Andros Townsend on the left. Up front it’s possible in the away leg he may field Erik Huseklepp to sit slightly deeper than Marlon King who will be at the head of the attack in a 4-4-1-1. The second leg may see Hughton field Adam Rooney alongside King in a more traditional 4-4-2 set up.

Strategy

Holloway’s strategy will remain the same over both legs and is consistent with the attacking approach witnessed in the two other seasons he has managed Blackpool. Blackpool implement their attacking strategy slightly differently this season, there’s less emphasis on controlled possession and slightly more direct, counter attacking style utilising the pace he has on each flank.

Hughton is likely to keep things compact at Bloomfield Road, using long balls to relieve pressure and build attacks. He’s likely to take a reactive approach to the second leg and adjust to suit the match position.

Stuck in the middle

As mentioned earlier the selection issue Ian Holloway has will dictate how his midfield will operate. The central battle has the possibility of being keenly fought. Holloway may field Ferguson for more assurance on the ball looking to hold possession solidly in the middle before moving the ball on to the forwards. If Holloway does this then it’s likely that N’Daw will be used to target one or both of the midfielders in order to win the ball back high up the pitch and unsettle Blackpool’s passing rhythm. However, Holloway may see N’Daw’s application as a threat and use Keith Southern to fight fire with fire so to speak. Both N’Daw and Southern are very similar players and should Southern get the nod, then it’s likely that battle will be very feisty with both managers aiming for their player to win their battles.

Widescreen Action

The wide men from both teams have the ability to change this game with both sets of full backs due for a busy night. In more recent weeks Blackpool’s full backs have started to sit a little deeper and it may be the same in this match. Chris Burke has had an outstanding season with 12 goals and 16 assists from the right wing. Stephen Crainey will need to be alert at all times as Burke likes to cross early and can cut in to cross with his left as much as his right. He is also likely to try to cut inside to shoot as well, so Crainey will need to ensure that he passes on his marking of Burke effectively and the rest of the team are alert to his inside movement. In addition to Burke, should Huseklepp be fielded he’s likely to drift towards the right hand channel where he may combine very effectively with Burke to produce chances for himself or for King. Huseklepp has already scored twice against Blackpool for Portsmouth this season and his movement is superb as featured on this blog earlier on in the season.

On the other hand Blackpool have two very exciting wide forward players. Tom Ince is more of a traditional winger, whereas Matthew Phillips is very much a powerful running forward. Both players are difficult to read on the ball and enjoy one on one duels. The key for Birmingham is not to allow Phillips or Ince to turn and run at their defence and Hughton may ask his side to tightly double mark them to try to nullify their threat. If Birmingham fail to stop Ince and Phillips from running at them then their centre backs will need to be alert and defend astutely on the turn to prevent their goal being exposed.

Role in the hole

As pointed out above Huseklepp could be very dangerous if selected because of his tendency to drift in to the right, however, Blackpool have an equally dangerous threat up front in the form of Stephen Dobbie. Since his return to Blackpool Dobbie has scored 5 goals in a 7 matches and always looks a threat due to his movement and willingness to shoot on sight of the goal. He is exceptionally hard to track as he moves around the field and should N’Daw move high up the field to press, Blackpool may seek to pass beyond him to Dobbie who will expose the space left behind.

Off the bench

The role of the substitutes could be critical with both manager set to have great options available to them. Hughton will have the physical presence of Nikola Zigic to send on to disrupt the Blackpool defence, but more potently he has the young forward Nathan Redmond at his disposal. Redmond may even start the game, but it’s more likely Hughton will use him as an impact player. He’s already scored against Blackpool this season and may well replace Townsend after the hour mark to inject extra pace and trickery in to the proceedings. Or he may be asked to sit in behind Marlon King and run at defenders centrally which is a position he’s currently learning according to his recent interview with BBC West Midlands.

Blackpool on the other hand have Kevin Phillips who is likely to start on the bench and come in to the action late on especially if Blackpool are chasing the game. He has scored 16 goals this season in a variety of ways and has such a fine appreciation of space which makes him very hard to track. He is single-minded and will shoot on sight but Birmingham will know all about him given he left the club last season. The other key option that Holloway has is the midfielder Ludovic Sylvestre, who has recently come on during games and settled the team down in midfield and sparked some high quality attacks with his excellent passing.

Game on

This tie may well be tight from start to finish. Blackpool would potentially need at least a goal advantage to take to St Andrews as Birmingham have only conceded 14 times and lost once this season at home. Blackpool do have players who have exceeded expectations before, however, who wins this tie will have to keep excelling to beat either Cardiff or West Ham in order to get back to the Premier League.

TD Championship Team of the Season

In December Tangerine Dreaming announced a team of the first half of the season putting forward a team of players who had played against Blackpool and observed by TD. No Blackpool players were named in their in order to be shed of any potential bias. Players have been picked to fill a 4-3-3 formation for purely arbitrary reasons. Here is the Championship team for the second half of the season.

Goalkeeper

Vito Mannone gets the nod here for his outstanding performance at Bloomfield Road to keep Hull in the game.. Clearly a Premier League ‘keeper (he’s on loan from Arsenal) and given he’s unlikely to play too many games at the Emirates he’d be an excellent signing for any middle to lower Premier league team.

Left Back

George McCartney picked up the nod here for being resolute in defence, but surprisingly strong going forward, willing to get beyond his midfield and showing good initiative in a West Ham team that unpicked Blackpool brilliantly.

Right Back

Lee Peltier sneeks in here in front of Keiran Trippier for his stronger defensive attributes. He matched up superbly to Matthew Phillips physically and technically whilst adding a nice dynamic in attack as Leicester regularly broke Blackpool down 3-3 in a pulsating draw in March.

Centre Backs

There’s an anomaly here and one with some credence. Only one centre back has been named here, and one other isn’t going to be named for the sake of filling up the team. Solid centre backs seem to be the order of the day in the Championship and few have really stood out. This may be partly because the games against Blackpool usually see the Tangerines throw most defences out of kilter consequently skewing the outcome here. However, the finest centre back witnessed by TD in the second half of the season is James Chester of Hull. Not only a solid defender, but very adept at stepping out with the ball in to midfield to offer extra dimension.

Central Midfielder

Liam Lawrence ended the season at Cardiff, but when at Portsmouth he was the central point of a midfield that were structured superbly on the counter and his passing beyond the Blackpool defence sparked a good few chances which test Matthew Gilks.

Inside Midfielders

The Championship has a plethora of central midfield talent, any number of players could have easily made these positions. Here the two slots go to Mark Noble, who is way above the standard of the Championship and arguably is good enough to play at the highest of high levels. His energy is amazing, technically it’s hard to fault him, in fact it would be good to know what his weaknesses are. Injury prone perhaps? The other spot goes to Daniel Drinkwater who formed part of a potent midfield three for Leicester and his passing not only showed good awareness of tempo, but incision was plentiful too. Was it a coincidence that Leicester faded after he was substituted at Bloomfield Road?

Right Forward

Hull seemed to focus a lot of their attacks down their right side and at first Cameron Stewart looked very sharp, however,Hull’s attacking edge gained greater clarity when Joshua King came on. Stronger and more direct than Stewart he rocked Stephen Crainey back several times building up quality pressure before a late Hull equaliser.

Left Forward

Jermaine Beckford showed all his attacking attributes from improvisation, to sharp acceleration added to intelligent running to trouble Blackpool all night long. His first goal againstBlackpoolwas spontaneous and would have beaten any ‘keeper due to his speed of mind and invention.

Central Striker

Erik Huseklepp was first class for Portsmouth at Blackpool and the fact that Birmingham seized him when they could showed that his talents are also valued elsewhere. His movement in the box was instinctively perpetual and showed great technical qualities in holding up the ball and laying it off in well structured counter attacks.

The Ultimate Championship Team

Here’s a team of the season allowing for games that TD has witnessed elsewhere and other footage outside of Blackpool games. There may be dispute about a couple of the team, but TD thinks it’s close to the ultimate Championship team. A team which would match most teams in the Premier League, attack and entertain.

A rock solid ‘keeper and centre back partnership. Two aggressive and highly attacking full backs. Energy and technical quality in the midfield from Karacan and Noble allied to the expceitional creativity provided by Lallana. Up front there’s the central striking threat of Rickie Lambert who’s would be supported and served by the powerful running of Matthew Phillips and the subtle ability and crossing prowess of Chris Burke.

Moving On

Hopefully this gives a slightly different view away from the PFA team of the season which is the most mainstream perspective and throws some light on the talent that exists within this country. There’s some genuine quality who could adapt to the Premier League with relative ease and this doesn’t just apply to the Championship. There are plenty of players from League One and Two who could make the transition. If Premier League clubs want to surrender to the whims of agents rather than being studious and diligent on prospective signings then that’s their loss and the Football League’s gain.

Practice Makes Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now contrast that set up to the picture below.

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

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

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

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.

Goal Analysis – Space Exploration

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

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

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

Hammered

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

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

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

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

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

Masterful

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

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

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

Space to learn

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

Goal Analysis – Doncaster

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

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

Double Phase

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

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

Fergie Time & Again

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

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

Fab-Trio

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

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

Back Baps

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

Turn & Face

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

Moving On

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

Doncaster 1-3 Blackpool

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

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

Ghosting The Concession

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

Two sides to the story

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

Chances

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

Switching off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Premier Striker

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

 

 

A Concession Of Errors

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

Cardiff Take The Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point of failure 1

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

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

Point of failure 2

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

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

Point of failure 3

Cathcart fails to react.

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

Diagnosis: Goal

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

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

January Transfer Window Stocktake

At the start of the season TD took a look at the Blackpool squad and made a few assessments of where Blackpool may look to strengthen and why. Now we are in January it’s time to see how the squad looks and where Ian Holloway may look to recruit.

Foundations

Let’s define the Blackpool squad for the purposes of this article.

It is also important to outline how this squad has been comprised. Rather than list everyone on the books, a few reasonable assumptions have been made to whittle the squad down to what could be described as the first team squad. Those assumptions include deleting Bojan Djordjic from the squad due to the fact he hasn’t been near the subs bench since the Crystal Palace game back in September and it’s unlikely he’ll get a start for the club in a league game. One player in a similar situation to Bojan is Gerardo Bruna, however, he has played in a league game and may yet feature in the second half of the season and has been included, for now.

Another assumption is to remove any players who are on loan to other clubs. Players such as Adam Dodd and Liam Thomsett are at Altringham and unlikely to come back and feature in the squad. Added to this the likes of Daniel Bogdanovic and Brett Ormerod are out on loan at Rochdale and may well not come back to the club given their age and desire to be playing week in week out especially as forwards are in abundance at Bloomfield Road. Also not included are the younger players enjoying good loan spells such as Ashley Eastham and Tom Barkhuizen and players such as Miguel Llera who has just returned from Brentford.

Loans have featured heavily in Blackpool’s incoming player list and the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Callum McManaman have also been discounted here. Both may return, but at the moment their parent clubs want them in and around their first team squads. On the flipside Danny Wilson coming in from Liverpool has been included here as he is set to stay for the second half of the season.

Notable mentions

In the first half of the season two players deserve recognition as they are new additions and have contributed positively to Blackpool’s season. Firstly, there is Mark Howard who has deputised in the absence of Matt Gilks and proved to be a very able ‘keeper. Should Gilks be out for a lengthy period of time then Blackpool appear to have dependable back up in place. Secondly, Lomano LuaLua has come in to the forward line scoring three goals and injecting some vibrancy and unpredictability to Blackpool’s attacking play.

Professional Profiling

The foundation for these squad evaluations has been to assess the age and positional profiles based on some guidelines listed in the original post. Roughly speaking the squad should comprise twenty four players, the current squad numbers twenty three. You can see below how the age of the squad compares against the quotas for each age bracket.

The key observation to make here is with the departures of Ormerod & Bogdanovic the squad seems short in the more experienced bracket and there’s a general imbalance from an age perspective across the squad. However, that may not be too bad given the likes of Stephen Crainey, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Ian Evatt are close to stepping into that bracket. Therefore, recruitment may be focused on the 26 to 30 bracket or otherwise the squad may be a little young moving in to next season and lacking players in their ‘prime’.

Filling Gaps

From a positional point of view things appear much easier to point out.

It appears that the defensive positions are filled up and the forward line is oversubscribed, but the midfield appears a little short. A pre-season article speculated that a left side centre back might be targeted and with the loan of Danny Wilson that gap appears to be filled now. Using the same logic a midfielder may be sought and possibly an attacking one. Essentially it’s a gap that Shelvey was filling and should Liverpool not allow him to return then Holloway will have to look elsewhere. Added to this Holloway may be mindful of the age of any new recruit and might target a player in his prime, however, it’s likely that player will not come cheap and may have to be loaned.

Shut that door

January may well bring some new faces, but it may also bring about some departures. Ian Holloway has already suggested that Premier League teams are looking at some of his players. Who they are hasn’t be openly discussed but it’s no secret that both Matt Gilks and Alex Baptiste are enjoying fine seasons and Matt Phillips’ recent form will have alerted some clubs. If any of those players leave then that it would be remiss of the club not to replace immediately.

Roll on February

What this window brings remains to be seen. Players will be brought in and it’s crucial that those players are additions to fill gaps and bring genuine quality to the squad and that Ian Holloway doesn’t have to search for replacements for key players departing. It’s no secret that Blackpool struggled to recruit the kind of players they wanted last January, however, as with the previous deadline, being in the Championship still allows the club to bring in loan players after the window closes at the end of January. Key last time out in the Championship was the late addition of key loans, it wouldn’t be a shock if it was the same this time, the same outcome would be some achievement.