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.

What is the golden rule?

Before the recent 2-0 win over Ipswich Ian Holloway stated that he had laid down a golden rule for his centre backs Ian Evatt and Craig Cathcart to follow. This post will take a speculative look at trying to establish what that rule is.

Evatt knows the golden rule now!

Golden rule

What exactly did Holloway state before the Ipswich game that has prompted this post? Here are some of his quotes from the Blackpool Gazette when he had said he studied the goal that was conceded against Crystal Palace in the previous match;

“ I’ve looked at it and come up with something I think is really relevant from a coaching point of view.

“I have explained it and I think it is a golden rule both my centre-halves will have in their brains now.

“I don’t think they’ll ever forget it and I’m hoping it will make it easier for them to be centre-halves.”

Rewind and review

As Holloway came up with this rule after watching the goal that was conceded against Palace, this post will take a look back at that concession and lay down what happened, before coming up with ideas about the ‘golden rule’.

The goal was scored by Glenn Murray running on to a cross ball from the left wing. Murray met the ball at the near post finishing smartly in the small space to Matt Gilks’ right hand side. Here’s a step by step summary;

Step 1 – The ball is played out to Dean Moxey on the left wing. He has Brett Ormerod (marked in red in the picture below) covering him moderately, but he has enough space to swing a foot at the ball to cross it.

Step 2 – As the ball is played Alex Baptiste (blue) is positioned in behind Ormerod, but the ball evades him and enters the box.

Ormerod highlighted as red, Baptiste in blue and Cathcart in the centre in pink.

Step 3 – Ian Evatt (yellow) starts to track the run that Murray has started to make to the front post. Craig Cathcart (pink)  is positioned in behind Baptiste as the ball heads towards the six yard box.

The run that Evatt (yellow) makes to track Murray is highlighted in yellow

Step 4 – Murray finishes neatly as Evatt lunges to make a tackle ending up in a heap near the front post.

Evatt (yellow) did all he could and Cathcart (pink) watches the ball ripple the net.

That was the goal that was, step by step. On the face of it a good run by Murray, but clearly a poor goal for Blackpool to concede. Why poor though? Firstly, Moxey was given too much time to cross, the ball wasn’t cut out by the first man, nor was it cut out at the second time of asking and finally an unsuccessful challenge for the ball before the goal was scored. All in all Blackpool missed four chances to stop the goal. However, what can be learnt here when searching for the golden rule?

Elimination

First and foremost the job that Ormerod did can be discarded as he isn’t a centre back. The same goes for Baptiste as in this game as he lined up at right back. That leaves just Cathcart and Evatt and their roles in the concession. Before the steps to the goal above, both centre backs were reasonably well positioned, Cathcart however, ends up spare as his man drops off him he stands facing the ball on the left and watches the ball being crossed, evading Baptiste and turns and virtually stands to watch the ball roll in behind him and in to the six yard box. Evatt on the other hand realises that Murray is making a run across him and follows the run remaining active all the time. It would be very easy just from this basic review to blame Cathcart for ball watching. However, Holloway is clearly stressing that this rule applies to both centre backs and they should work as a team. So what could this rule be?

Goal-den ruling

The rule could be many things, however, for Holloway to be so forthright it must be something he has had to think about in detail, so right away it surely cannot be, ‘don’t ball watch’. That is too simple and it is an assumed defensive duty of any player. Add to that, ‘ensure your striker doesn’t get his shot away’, or ‘stay on your feet’. It might be, ‘ensure the first man cuts out the cross ball’. However, given that Baptiste was the first man, that can’t apply here.

With the aid of a diagram, let’s consider the shape of the centre backs and their movement during this goal. It is this which will hold the key for the rule.

The positions of Evatt (yellow) and Cathcart (pink) and their movements.

The first observation to make is that Cathcart’s position as the ball is crossed is poor. He isn’t in line with Baptiste, in fact he is in front of him. He is also in front of Evatt. This is of interest as he has effectively removed himself from being able to defend the type of cross which is played. This leads on to the first attempt at defining the golden rule. Could it be; ‘Keep your full back positioned in front or level with you at all times’?

The second observation to make is the positions of both centre backs after the goal has been scored. Evatt ends up as the right-sided centre back and Cathcart to his left. Their movement crosses over each other and which might mean the golden rule is defined as; ‘Never cross over’. This is a little more complex than the first rule as it involves better communications between the centre backs to pass over the marking duties from one to another. Given this goal was so close to the goal line and at speed, it would be excessive to expect marking to be passed in that situation and entirely reasonable for Evatt to track his man.

This gives us two potential ideas of what the golden rule is, with the first being the most simple and the easiest for them to follow. The second may well be possible, but further from the goal. Effectively that would be zonal marking with neither defender straying too far in to each other’s zone and therefore never-ending up crossing over.

However, the first rule may be more to the point. As it is, it’s overly simplistic and needs to be developed. The key could be that in combination with keeping position in relation to the full back they should also position themselves in relation to the goal when a cross is coming from the wing. So Cathcart by the terms of the first rule should be positioned deeper, however, Holloway may want him more in line with the front post as well to defend that position better. This gives him more time to adjust to the cross and in addition to being deeper he can see the cross coming in to the box with the ball being in front of him. Also, it removes the space that the striker can attack with a run to the front post.

The Rule

In conclusion, the rule will only ever be known within the Blackpool team and management, but surely it must be a rule about positioning and especially in relation to a cross ball. Effectively Cathcart was out of the game in the process of the goal being scored and that rule must ensure that both centre backs are able to defend at any point a cross is made. Yes, ball watching is unforgivable as was the case with Cathcart, but it is his ball watching in relation to his colleagues, the ball and the pitch which is the problem. Every player ball watches, but he must be in the correct position to watch and then act. Therefore, it’s possible that Ian Holloway will have set down the rule of

‘When defending a cross never be in front of your full back and if the cross comes from your side of the pitch stand in line with the front post’.

This would ensure that the centre back sees the ball coming in front of him and can deal with the danger and should an opponent attack the ball, then he will be covering the goal at the front post and it would take something special to make a goal.

That’s that

So in all, it’s not a catchy rule, it’s certainly common sense, but it may also not even be right. Whatever the rule is, it must be about positioning as everything else seems too simple. However, sometimes the simple things are the most effective, but whatever it is Blackpool kept a clean sheet against Ipswich and if more clean sheets start to appear then the golden rule will be worth its weight in gold.

 

If you have your theories about the golden rule then use the comments section below to share them.

 

The long and the short of it

A feature of Blackpool’s football under Ian Holloway has been the quick tap free kick as they start another passing sequence instead of a clogging of a high ball forward deep in to the opposition half. When Craig Cathcart made an error in gifting a quickly taken free kick to Wigan in the run up to their opening goal, not only were Blackpool on their way to a 3-1 defeat, but it encapsulated where Blackpool may have been going wrong of late.

Territorial

When speaking about Cathcart’s error in his column in the Independent on Sunday Ian Holloway made the following statement which has revealed something rather interesting;

‘We had a set-piece in the middle of the pitch and I’m sat in the dugout expecting us to wait till we get our big men forward, then hit a high ball into the box and put our opponents under pressure’.

This seems a rather odd statement from Holloway given his penchant for passing football. It sounds very much like he wants to get the ball in the box and work things out from there, not a very sophisticated approach. Cathcart can be blamed for such a poor pass in gifting Wigan the lead, but at the heart of that he is caught between two minds, two philosophies and one of them just doesn’t resonate with Blackpool. It would appear that Ian Holloway has been working on long ball free kicks as a clear set piece, usually involving Ian Evatt taking up a position in the opposition box whilst Charlie Adam delivers the high free kick.

Spanish Inquisition

There’s nothing wrong in this approach per se, but it doesn’t seem to be right given that Blackpool are on the slide and they’re aiming for the Spanish nirvana of tiki-taka. Early season games were characterised by quickly taken free kicks and sustained periods of possession. As stated on this blog previously Blackpool’s passing has been declining for some time now, many a reason could be behind this, but what if the key here is that they are giving the ball away too cheaply through long free kicks. If that is the case, then answers are needed to the following two questions;

1. Have Blackpool taken more long free kicks over recent weeks?

2. What is the impact of a long free kick on Blackpool’s matches?

Increasingly long

In order to establish if Blackpool are taking more longer free kicks, each free kick they’ve taken this season has been looked at and characterised in to short, long in to the box and other. In doing so the following pattern emerged.

Going long more often as the season progresses.

As you can see the number of long free kicks* that Blackpool have taken over the course of the season has grown and grown. As an observer, the Liverpool game appeared to be the first time that Blackpool consciously halted play prior to the taking of a free kick so that Ian Evatt could take up his position in the box. It may have always been a part of Blackpool’s game plan, but it was the Liverpool game that made it appear more pronounced and the statistics seems to back that up. In fact in the last four games Blackpool have 15 attempted long free kicks, to put that in to perspective it took them twenty-two games to amount that many from the start of the season. To further back up this increased long approach the % of free kicks hit long prior to the Liverpool game averaged out at 8% and has risen to 25% since then.

Transition to extinction

So Blackpool are going long from their free kicks which is not an issue on the face of it as many teams employ this approach. It gives you territorial advantage, a chance to pick up a knock down, a chance to score, a chance to build play in the final third. All of these are valid reasons for doing so, however, there’s something not right about this when it comes to Blackpool. It flies in the face of Holloway’s philosophy of short passing, but tactically it is a decision he has made and clearly now expects. Perhaps it grew from the fact that Blackpool started to score goals from set pieces, more than any other team in the Premier League prior to the Aston Villa game back in February. In fact the winning goal against Liverpool came from a high ball (not a free kick) in to the box which Ian Evatt knocked back for DJ Campbell to score.

What this approach also does is make a poor defence even poorer due to the removal of a key defensive player. A centre back going up for a corner can always be a risk, but cover is always provided. A free kick will mean that Blackpool will almost double the amount of times they need to provide defensive cover. Just a quick glance at the second goal that Sunderland scored at Bloomfield Road gives you the perfect example of where this risk has been punished. Teams in the Premier League spend hours rehearsing what they will do in transition as their defence turns in to attack. Blackpool are poor in their attack to defence transition and this has been exploited time after time by clinical teams this season.

Tapping up

Whilst Ian Holloway might be intending to do the right thing with long free kicks, it may well be weakening his side leaving them exposed to attack and in possession of the ball for less time. If Blackpool continue this long approach then they will be hoping that it helps them win games, at the moment that case seems to be some distance off and in fact Blackpool may well have start to taking short free kicks again to build play and also to give them more defensive assurance. However, should their long free kicks persist then they best be working on getting their shape back quickly as you can be sure that every manager between now and the end of the season will be working very hard to exploit Blackpool in transition passages of play.

*For the purposes of this article a long free kick was defined as a free kick that is taken from the defensive and middle thirds, landing in to the opponents penalty area.

Dissecting the defence

Blackpool’s first season has been characterised by attacking football as the Tangerines have found goals relatively easy to come by. However, it is their defence that regularly comes under scrutiny and more so since their run of five defeats after the Liverpool victory. This post will look at the Blackpool defence and explore as many facets of it as possible in order to establish what is behind Blackpool’s defence and where have things been going wrong?

Facts & Figures

Blackpool have conceded 49 goals at an average of 1.96 per game. It has been well publicised that Blackpool tend to concede late in games and the following table breaks down the time periods in which Blackpool concede goals (up to and including the Everton game).

Notice how Blackpool have conceded 14 goals in the final quarter of games.

The reasons for late concessions can be speculated upon and none more so than in the recent post about the Everton game. In this game Holloway tried to shut down the defence and reverted to a five man defence which back fired mainly through a combination of positive attacking from Everton, but poor defensive organisation. A multitude of other reasons can be examined; however, this would involve a lot of conjecture about fitness levels, quality of the opposition, experience and the like.

Personnel

Blackpool play with a back four  and it would be fair to say that (based on the most appearances) that Blackpool`s first choice back four, from left back to right back would be; Stephen Crainey, Ian Evatt, Craig Cathcart and Neil Eardley. Alex Baptiste covers at right and centre back and David Carney covers the left back spot. Dekel Keinan had been acting as back up for the centre back position before his recent move to Cardiff City. It is also important to understand that Holloway has used Matthew Phillips at right back at times this season, which underlines something about his defensive philosophy as Phillips is primarily a forward. This was covered in December through an extensive focus on the Blackpool full backs. where it was established that Holloway uses his full backs to attack as the best form of defence and by pushing up his full backs he exerts great pressure on the opposition in their own half and the final third of the pitch.

Blackpool haven’t been able to select a consistent defensive line up for many reasons, injuries being the key one. This instability in selection cannot help the overall performance especially from a unit that needs time to gel and build up communications.

Evo-Lution!

Ian Evatt joined Blackpool under Simon Grayson, a traditional ‘big’ English centre-back that wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. Since Holloway took over, Evatt has evolved and progressed in to a centre back that passes accurately, steps out of defence and where possible attempts to trigger attacks. He personifies so much about where Ian Holloway has brought Blackpool. Before his tenure, a ball running towards the touch line and out of play may well have been left to go out for a throw in. Now Evatt will control the ball, roll his foot over it, move with it and distribute it safely as Blackpool build their play with considered passing from the back line. Let’s take a look at Evatt’s statistics this season.

He does his stuff he does!

The stand out figures here are his pass completion of 76%, which is good for a centre back and forms a key part of the passing game that Holloway has brought to Blackpool. Other stand out stats to focus on are his tackle success of 63% and within that his aerial duels win percentage of 61%. What isn’t shown here is the volume of tackles that he has lost this season, in total he has lost 46 duels this season at a rate of 2 per match. Here lies the crux of any defenders work, it not always the tackles you win that help the team, but the consequences of what happens when you lose a duel? Does your opponent punish you or not?

To sum up Ian Evatt’s development under Holloway, look not to the superb performances he has put in this season, but look to the goal he scored against Coventry at Bloomfield Road last season. Solid technique, breaking out from defence, good passing ability and the ability and awareness to curl a shot in to the goal.

Shaping up

The media have criticised Blackpool’s defence at times this season and Ian Holloway stated that he wanted to attack and not defend in the Premier League. However, Blackpool can defend and the following sequence sheds some light on the way they organise their back line when coming under attack. Firstly, a sequence from the Liverpool game, showing attacks from the left, and right. Clearly when you freeze the action you can see that they set themselves very well and in these instances they fended off danger.

As Liverpool advance down their left, note how Blackpool's back line is spaced and cover in a line across the field of play.

What is also key here and is a common when Blackpool is under attack is how David Vaughan (white dots) tracks back to support the right back. This also happened for Everton’s first goal in last weeks match. Likewise as you’ll see below, when the attack comes from the other side, Charlie Adam tracks back to support the left back.

Here Stephen Crainey closes out the space out wide whilst Ian Evatt tracks his runner in to the corner area.

Pick any match and Blackpool’s defensive shape can be impressive, here’s another example to back this up from the Wolves game. As a long ball is hit from deep in the Wolves half, the defence coped perfectly well to see off the danger. Note that the four defenders are relatively evenly spread across the pitch.

This time the attack comes aerially against Wolves in to the Blackpool right back area. Eardley get's positioned in order to make a challenge should be required to.

An observation from a few games this season is that Neil Eardley stands off his man and gives him too much space as can be seen from the Everton game. However, given the examples above, it can’t be ascertained if this is the fault of one person given that above you can see that Ian Evatt covers one runner in behind whilst Adam and Vaughan work hard to track back. When Blackpool fail to defend, it is purely a case of failing to defend as a team or as we will see below, being punished by excellent opposition.

Coping in transition

When looking at Blackpool’s defensive shape, the biggest question hangs over their ability to cope with a side that is counter attacking them. In such transition phases sides either have a basic shape in place at all times to counter that or have plans for getting back in to shape; mainly requiring a lot of energy, pace and discipline in order to recover. However, quick counters and unexpected passes from deep can catch Blackpool out. Look at the following shots below from the Liverpool game. The back line is retreating, no offside trap can be sprung, they are responding to the fact the Torres has crept in behind Stephen Crainey and space has opened up on the left.

Liverpool break quickly and the intelligent movement of Torres is too much for Blackpool.

Against Manchester United they were undone twice by balls from Paul Scholes played from deep. This caught them off guard, on one occasion playing a dangerous offside trap against Javier Hernandez who has excellent pace and movement to escape many top quality defences. Anticipation of the pass and covering the runner may have ensured a more composed response to what was an early warning of the Manchester United comeback.

Realising that an unexpected ball in being played from deep, Blackpool try to play offside and the poor organisation causes a chance for Man Utd.
Look how Craig Cathcart loses his spacing from his right back and the two defenders leave space for Man Utd to attack.

Above you can see how the spacing in the defence has been lost as an early pass from deep has been lofted over the defence. Where Hernandez (black) is, is exactly where Cathcart needs to position himself instead of being dragged in to the right back area.

It’s fair to say that in predictable situations Blackpool can and do defend well, the biggest problem they face is the unpredictable and in the Premier League there is so much more of that due to the quality of the opposition. Anticipation of danger goes up a level, reactions, pace of response; all of these become so much more important at this higher level. It may be no coincidence that the five clean sheets have come against three teams who had poor attacks on the day (Wigan, West Ham and Sunderland) and two teams who had one game plan based on direct approaches to target men (Newcastle and Stoke).

Added to this is that unpredictable factor has been heightened by the fact that 4 goals have been conceded whilst the team had a player off for treatment. Defensive positions weren’t covered adequately, caused issues and goals were lost.

Not what you do, it’s what you don’t do

It would be easy to try and show the duels that Blackpool make on a chalkboard, it will show duels being won all over the pitch in the main with many players contributing to that effort. However, a quick look at the chalkboards from the Stoke game (clean sheet) and the Everton game (five goals against) give a little illustration of where defence can go wrong. The chalkboard here is of the duels that Blackpool lost in both games. The key factor here is to note where they are lost. In the Stoke game, only two tackles were lost in the final third, against Everton that number rises to seven.

Note where the tackles are lost in the lower chalkboard as Blackpool's defence concede five goals.

This factor of where you lose your tackles (not necessarily where you win them) can be crucial. Lose too many tackles too close to the goal and the attackers may have to do less in order to score. It also gives you less space and possibly time to recover. Fail in the tackle further from the goal and the danger is further away, simple.

Attack is the best form of defence

As mentioned in the post on Blackpool’s full backs and in other posts, Blackpool build their game on passing and Holloway sees that attacking teams as his best way of defending. As Blackpool have hit five defeats on the trot it is interesting to note that their pass count has dropped as well as completion rate. Quite simply they were keeping the ball better, for longer earlier in the season and now they are not. Teams appear to be working harder now to close down the space and specifically to stop the ‘keeper distributing from the back. In the games since the Liverpool match Blackpool’s average match pass count stands at 441 with a completion of 70%. Prior to that game it stood at 475 with a completion rate of 75%.

Consistency

One factor above centered on the selection of a consistent back line and this hasn’t been helped by injuries to all three goal keepers. Matthew Gilks started the season the first choice playing 12 games, conceding 23 and making 48 saves in the process. Since being injured at half time at West Ham Richard Kingson has come in playing 12, conceding 21 and making 61 saves. Both have performed well, but the latter, recently making mistakes leading to goals against West Brom and West Ham.

Tightening up

Blackpool will concede more goals as this season progresses, but should Blackpool get back to winning ways, it may be due to improvement in ball retention. Defenders make mistakes, they all do, however, Blackpool will be hoping that they aren’t making them in the danger areas and if they do that they either recover from them or they aren’t punished. When the opposition is predictable Blackpool look assured; they’ll be looking to improve and find that assurance when unpredictability strikes.

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