How did Blackpool beat Birmingham?

Blackpool beat Birmingham 3-2 on aggregate after a pulsating game at St Andrews on Wednesday night to reach the Championship playoff final at Wembley for the second time. Blackpool took a two goal lead on the night to extend their aggregate lead from the first leg to 3-0 before Birmingham finished strongly to pull two goals back and kept pushing to the end only to fall just short.

Over the two legs there were a set of factors that could be deemed as being critical in Blackpool’s victory as well as elements that led to Birmingham coming back in to the game. The factors are outlined below and are in no order of priority nor are they exhaustive. This takes in to account both legs as a combined match lasting 180 minutes. The structure of the game was roughly as follows. The first 20 minutes was an even affair before Blackpool dominated for the next  120 minutes, then Birmingham dominated for 30 minutes before a relatively even last 10 minutes.

React & Build

As discussed in the preview Ian Holloway had a key decision to make in the midfield having to choose between the technical and positional qualities of Barry Ferguson or the more dynamic running and physicality of Keith Southern. Holloway opted for the former and without a doubt the composure on the ball of Ferguson in alliance with Angel Martinez was pivotal. Martinez and Ferguson formed a great central midfield unit based firstly on reclaiming possession from loose and ‘second balls’ giving Blackpool vital possession of the football. This was neatly done through keen anticipation, timing and superb positioning. So much so that Chris Hughton made a late change in the first leg to bring Jonathon Spector in to the central midfield area to stem Blackpool’s flow.

The impact of this dynamic was that Blackpool had a solid platform to attack from and supply their wide men. Also, given that Birmingham play a long ball game there was a lot of loose balls to be picked up on and Birmingham were consistently second best to them. In addition to this Blackpool were able to play comfortably from the back through the midfield and on to the attack. Essentially the pattern for large parts of both legs was; Birmingham long ball from the back, Blackpool win the defensive header, Blackpool’s midfield seize on the loose ball and attack.

Degrees of Pressure

What was clearly noticeable was the difference between the two teams in their application off the ball. Blackpool were consistent in pressing high up the pitch for large parts of the game, with a slight drop as Birmingham dominated in the second half of the second leg. Birmingham however, started pressing brightly in the first leg, but dropped after about 20 minutes and Blackpool moved the ball through their midfield effectively. They were then sporadic in their pressing for the rest of the tie. In particular the selection of Spector to start the second leg appeared to place Birmingham at a disadvantage as more often that not he tended to sit off the Blackpool midfield with Jordan Mutch being the lone midfielder who tried to press. As a counterpoint to this the introduction of Guirane N’Daw just before half time in the second leg saw Birmingham pressure Blackpool much more effectively as he stepped out consistently to hassle the Blackpool central midfield. If anything the even finish to the game potentially owed a lot to the fact the N’Daw was virtually added to the attack removing him from the area in which he was operating effectively.

Defending Excellence

One of the critical elements of the tie was the ability of Blackpool to get behind the Birmingham defence and although they did defend well for large periods, they lacked defensive coherency at some critical moments. On the other hand Blackpool appeared to win the large majority of their defensive duels. In particular Ian Evatt dominated his opponent for pretty much the full 180 minutes. In the air he was imperious and on the occasion he was slack on the ground King was unable to convert when it mattered.

Offside

Blackpool have played a high defensive line for large parts of their time under Ian Holloway. In addition to this they also attempt to utilise an offside trap as a method of snuffing out attacks before they fully develop. There are several examples of how Blackpool have got their offside trap wrong over the past few seasons, but with the exception of the Nikola Žigić goal they executed it to perfection here. Not having the stats at hand is an issue, but as an estimate, Birmingham were caught offside around 14 times across both legs with the majority due to Marlon King’s impatience and inability to hold and time his runs. Arguably a well constructed offside trap is the pinnacle of defensive work and should it be executed well it needs intelligent play from the attacking side to neutralise it.

A Right Burke

Chris Burke is no doubt a superb player and can change matches as proved here, the problem for Birmingham is that they lacked balance in their point of attack. Too often than not they tried to channel their attacks through Burke’s right flank. Essentially Blackpool knew if they could cut supply to Burke or handle him in possession then they’d neuter Birmingham to a great degree. In the first leg, Burke saw very little of the ball, when he finally saw the ball in the second leg and was given adequate support to work overloads and overlaps he became a threat. In addition to this Blackpool allowed him to waltz inside far too often. From an attacking point of view Burke was the best player of the second leg. This was further backed up as Birmingham fired in to life it was sparked by a keenly timed pass through to Žigić which was then followed by persistent feeding of Burke down the right hand channel due to the aforementioned better pressure from Birmingham through N’Daw.

Moving on

Blackpool will travel to Wembley to meet West Ham a side who have unpicked Blackpool at will in their two meetings this season. Sam Allardyce will set out to gain an early advantage and then seek to efficiently deconstruct Blackpool through well-timed attacks. However, Blackpool are a different side to when these two last met and on a one-off occasion, with a manager and team that Blackpool possess, absolutely anything could happen. What is safe to say is that Blackpool has another side to be proud of and a season packed full of memories that can be added to the catalogue that has been built up over the past three seasons.

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.