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 v West Ham – The Tactical Lowdown

On Saturday Blackpool and West Ham go head to head in the Championship play off final at Wembley in what should be a clash of contrasting styles which offers a feast for the spectators, partisans and neutrals alike.

As you are

If you know anything of either Ian Holloway or Sam Allardyce as people you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect from their teams as their teams reflect who they are. Allardyce is a big, imposing man, who as a player was strong in the tackle and committed in the air. Holloway was more technical, buzzing with energy and more gritty and determined than his modest frame suggested. On the other hand, Allardyce is often portrayed in the media as a belligerent ignoramus and Holloway as class clown. However, they are both very studious about the game and they understand their game deeply. Everything about this final suggests that it should be a fascinating battle, with two teams from different ends of the footballing spectrum meet head to head.

Game strategies here won’t be overly occasion specific, in that each manager is likely to stick to what they know. Allardyce appears to have a key rule in his strategy, stop the opposition and then build from that base with well-balanced attacks through direct passing and crosses in to the box. Holloway on the other hand will seek to control possession and escape any pressure exerted by West Ham, build through the team and attack relentlessly for the majority of the game.

Setting up

From a formation perspective Blackpool are expected to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation which offers more balance than their gung-ho 4-3-3 from last season’s Premier League campaign. West Ham on the other hand tend to favour a 4-4-1-1 framework, but in the first hint at the battle about to commence may try to block up Blackpool by switching to a 4-1-4-1.

The use of a 4-1-4-1 means that West Ham and Blackpool will match up relatively neatly across the pitch which essentially means two things. The team that wins the critical individual battles will gain a foothold and the team that utilises the space available will be at an advantage. The ‘battles’ are essentially something that will pan out on the day and non of them are easy to call. The midfield as always will be crucial, with the likes of Mark Noble and Barry Ferguson trying to lead their side by example with good challenges, reclamation of the ball and good use of the ball once in possession. Down the flanks full backs will be fully engaged and arguably the team with the better full backs will enjoy a great advantage.

However, the critical battle may be focused on the formation switch that Allardyce is likely to make. His holding midfielder (in this example James Tomkins) will likely be deployed to pick up Stephen Dobbie. Dobbie will attempt to float between the West Ham midfield and defence hoping to receive the ball to feet and link up with the other three forwards as well as engaging in one v one encounters where he’ll seek to use his dribbling ability to take men out of the game.

Cut out

Knowing where the space is on the football pitch is always critical and although ‘in game’ this is a very dynamic element there is a way of highlighting some theoretical elements from accepting players positions in relation to the space. The diagram below effectively blanks out the spaces covered by the players leaving only the areas that are available.

The most obvious aspect of the diagram above are the spaces beyond the defensive line. How will each manager try to exploit that area?

Firstly, Allardyce is renowned as a long ball exponent, in truth, his sides show greater balance to their play than that, but he will seek to build play around a long ball or two in order to gain a foothold around the final third. Primarily, their main long ball is far from aimless, in fact it is highly structured and very dangerous. Usually the long ball emanates from the centre back (1) after a passage of brief passes along the back line. It’s aimed to the centre forward who will seek to flick on the ball (2) to runners who go beyond the heading player and in behind the defence. Normally this will be someone like Kevin Nolan.

The other element is that his midfield will position (3) to pick up on the loose ball and then build a second phase of attack should the first fail. It is here where the game will be in balance and requires diligent work from Blackpool to firstly win the header and then for Angel Martinez and Ferguson to pick up on the second balls. Alternatively, should Cole win the flick on, then Alex Baptiste will need to pick up the runner most likely to benefit.

(1) The long pass is made. (2) Forward attempts to win header and runners seeks to collect the ball. (3) If the ball drops back central midfielders look to pick up the second ball.

Alternatively, Ian Holloway will look to either feed the ball to the feet of his wide forwards so that they can be isolated against the opposition full backs with the intent to beat their marker and run behind the defence with the ball at their feet. In addition to this, Blackpool’s possession as it progresses higher up the field will allow their midfielders to play the balls in to the channels and in behind the West Ham defence on to well-timed runs from their forward line.

Should either team’s attempts to get in behind the opposition fail then the middle flanks of the pitch may well be the focus for developing plays. Holloway has a reputation for encouraging his full backs to attack, in recent weeks they’ve tended to sit a little deeper, however, he may ask them to step up to combine with their attackers to isolate opposition full backs to break in behind the defensive line. Allardyce also enjoys having two full backs in Matthew Taylor and Guy Demel who can be attacking in their play and he may ask them to push high up the pitch seeking to get in to crossing situations and assist with getting good quality delivery into the penalty area to develop situations.

Off the ball

In beating Blackpool 4-0 at Upton Park earlier in the season Allardyce revealed in his BBC post match interview where he thought he could break Blackpool down. Essentially he remarked about two things, exploiting Blackpool’s off the ball shape and getting down the sides of the centre backs. This is very enlightening indeed as it acknowledges Blackpool as being a side who are poor out of possession, but Allardyce would be remiss if he thinks he’s encountering the same Blackpool side. The deployment of two holding midfielders as well as the restraint on the full backs to move forward has not only added greater balance to their side off the ball, but assists with the second element of exposing the sides of the centre backs. Holloway will no doubt be working with his side on his off the ball shape knowing that this is where West Ham are likely to exploit them.

Off the ball West Ham are a treat, they are genuinely fascinating and set up very subtlety to make the most out of positions, as above when the ball goes long, positioning and pressing are key, but it is at set pieces where they come in to their own. Too much emphasis is placed on marking systems and winning the aerial duels at corners and other set pieces and little attention is placed on what is going on elsewhere. In his column the Guardian Secret Footballer (@TSFGuardian) exposed the lengths that Allardyce goes to (as do other managers) exploit these situations.

‘Sam Allardyce studied hundreds of Premier League corners to see where the clearing header, on average, would land. Once he identified a pattern (it’s usually a front-post header that is cleared towards the dugout), he placed a man on the exact spot where the ball generally made its first contact with the pitch’

Jack Collison’s goal against Cardiff in their first leg was a classic example of such positioning, albeit in reverse to the situation outlined above. Holloway will have to ensure that his new-found corner set up places as much emphasis on the happenings outside of the box as it does on the new-ish zonal positioning inside the box.

Crowd Mentality

What is interesting in any game against a side managed by Sam Allardyce is how the crowd unwittingly knows he has executed his game plan. If after twenty minutes of this final the Blackpool fans are saying, ‘but we just aren’t ourselves’, or ‘we’re playing awful’, then he’s achieved objective one. The key for Blackpool is to not be put out of their stride, play to their strengths, if the door to the final third is closed, retreat and try again. Keep the ball moving on the floor, quickly and accurately, move West Ham around the field, make them chase the ball. West Ham offer a more dynamic and proficient version of the Birmingham side they have just beaten with the same approach, here they will need to go further, and excel beyond the standards that they’ve set this season.

Key Players

West Ham possess talent in abundance, but arguably their key men are focused in midfield and attack. In Kevin Nolan they have someone who holds few secrets, he will use his strength to dominate opponents both on the ground and in the air as well as having an ability to read play acutely so that he can time late runs in to the box. Alongside Nolan, Mark Noble will aim to control the game in possession and through his pressing. He adds the energy and subtlety that keeps West Ham ticking over. Blackpool will need to deny him time on the ball and escape his attentions when he is buzzing about the pitch closing out space. The January acquisition of Ricardo Vaz Tê may well be critical here, he has been excellent since joining West Ham. He can often be frustrating with his inconsistency on the ball, but his unpredictability is also a strength. He shoots often, early, from anywhere, with power and occasional stunning accuracy. However, it’s his movement off the ball which could be critical here, he floats and drifts in off the flank to central areas and can creep in at the back post effectively. Of all the players in the West Ham side he has the ability to either change the game or disappear altogether.

Blackpool on the other hand will look to Ian Evatt to lead by example from the back. He was first class both on the ground and in the air in dominating Marlon King in the previous games and will need to repeat his performances to control the West Ham attack. Added to this Blackpool have a really assured midfielder in front of him, ready to seize on the loose balls. It isn’t the obvious figure of Barry Ferguson, but in fact Angel Martinez. Martinez has excelled since becoming first choice, he is quick to the ball, but more importantly can work in tight spaces in the deep; which helps Blackpool construct from the back in a really assured manner. He can anticipate astutely and if Blackpool do start to dominate this game, then it’ll be because Martinez has found his rhythm early. Added to this he delivers excellently weighted through balls behind the defence. In fact, there’s little weakness to his game, some may say his size is an issue and therefore, Allardyce may to try to bully him with aggression and pressure from Kevin Nolan. Finally, in attack Blackpool have Matthew Phillips. Although both he and Tom Ince have had outstanding seasons it’s Phillips who West Ham are likely to be most wary of, mainly due to his more direct running and powerful frame. If he gets his confidence high early on in the game by winning his first few duels, then that’ll benefit Blackpool greatly. He is such a strong runner with the ball that he can be imposing and although this tricks lack consistency they can at times throw a whole defence out of balance.

Game on

It’s likely that the first twenty minutes of this game will be frantic as West Ham attempt to outwork and outrun Blackpool denying them any time and space on the ball in an attempt to suffocate them in to submission. If Blackpool can handle this then the scene will be set for an end to end battle that will end with the winner claimed a rich prize. One club arguably needs the outcome more than the other and finals can produce dynamics that go beyond tactics, so although West Ham are overwhelming favourites, absolutely anything can happen.