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.

 

Blackburn 2 – 2 Blackpool

As a coach Steve Kean may well have had aspirations to manage at the highest level, perhaps he had ideas of his own that one day he’d weave in to his own team unit, or as has happened, he’d be thrust in to the managerial hot seat, not really understanding what his philosophy was and revert to the team’s default settings as applied by his former boss.

On the day it became too much for Blackpool to withstand for a full match as a 2-0 lead resolved itself to a 2-2 draw. Both sides will be happy with the outcome, especially given the peculiar performances of the referee and one of his assistants. However, as much as Blackburn are repeating their play under Allardyce, Blackpool are failing to covert an advantage in to three points and (according to Opta) have now conceded 20 goals in the last 15 minutes of games this season.

The match up

The movement of Junior Hoilett gave Blackburn added dimension upfront.

During the week Ian Holloway talked about changing his approach, however, going in to this game, he set his team up in the same way as usual, however, there was a more cautious approach off the ball as his 4-2-3-1 shaped in to more of a 4-5-1 getting 10 men behind the ball when defending. Steve Kean had his side mapped out in an approximate 4-3-3. However, out of possession they reverted to a 4-1-4-1 with Steven N’Zonzi holding a deeper position than Brett Emerton and Jermaine Jones, and the wide forwards tucking in deeper than their more advanced position when their side had the ball.

Game plans

Both game plans were uncomplicated and easy to spot. Kean’s game plan appeared to be two fold, firstly, get the ball to Junior Hoillet’s feet allowing him to run at the Blackpool defence. Secondly, to deliver high ball from back to front to gain territorial advantage, aiming to win the ball high up the pitch either on the first, or subsequent attempts. Holloway set his team up to be more solid out of possession to ensure that they were defensively more robust and looked to counter Blackburn quickly through short sharp passing and fast off the ball running.

Back to front

Paul Robinson’s distribution is the main observation from the game. The chalkboard below shows his passes for the game. It’s plainly clear that he (as under Allardyce) is still under instruction to hit the ball long at every attempt. It’s fair to say that he is well drilled and control’s his distance well, rarely did he go to long and after plenty of practice he started to put it just beyond the Blackpool defence, who couldn’t help but drop deeper to try and deal with the ball.

Direct passing of Paul Robinson from back to front.

Testing times

As Blackburn went direct with their aerial bombardment Blackpool had to deal with and try to win their aerial duels. They ended up losing 16 of their 30 aerial duels, however, the key here is that for the first 70 minutes they didn’t lose one in that key area, the penalty box. However, as they either tired, lost concentration, lost organisation or a combination of all three they served to lose 3 duels in the box as Blackburn’s bombardment took its took toll.

The top half of this image shows that while Blackpool lost aerial duels, none occurred in the box. In the last 20 mins as shown in the lower half, they did, 3 times. Tired?

Just for the record

As Blackpool conceded another late goal, the recriminations centred on Kingson and his defence. However, Blackburn knew what they were doing and the ball from Robinson at the death was in the perfect area to cause doubt for Blackpool’s defensive unit.

As an illustration of the problem Blackburn caused Blackpool then look at the image below from earlier in the bombardment. The ball isn’t as deep (as the next example), the defensive line doesn’t drop and Kingson can stay back in case Blackburn win the duel.

The line holds firm, Adam clears.

Then take a look at the image from the lead up to the final goal below.

Crowd and confuse!

The ball is deeper, the defence then drops. Here the communication between the defensive unit is called in to question. It appears that Kingson feels it’s his ball to collect, perhaps he shouts, if so the defence must stop and let him collect; dropping too deep crowds his space. He should win the duel and should there be any contact then the benefit of the doubt would go for Kingson. If Kingson hasn’t called then he has made an error in coming for the ball and should trust his players to do what they had been doing all game. It’s interesting to note with these two examples, is that the person who made the first clearance (Charlie Adam) wasn’t on the pitch when the second example took place.

Moving on

As noted earlier, both teams will be happy with a point from the fixture. Blackburn should be safe in the Premier League, they know what they’re good at, but teams will sting them regularly on the break and they’ll get some beatings before the season is over. Blackpool on the other hand had some great moments on the break, but the main concern remains focused on their defensive unit. If they can keep a clean sheet or two between now and the end of the season then they may well be a part of the elite division next season.

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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Coping with Stoke's Long Throw

After the Stoke game last month Ian Evatt publicly declared how Blackpool set up to cope with Stoke’s long throws. This brief article will aim to back up Blackpool’s ploy as defined by Evatt. If you didn’t look at the link above, he said:

“Our tactic was to leave Charlie Adam and Luke Varney, who are both pretty good in the air for their size, free to attack the ball. We’d just keep our back four in position and not mark men individually … and it seemed to work”.

Note: For the purposes of doing this a video of the first half of the match was all that could be found.

In the first half Stoke had three long throws delivered by Rory Delap in to the box. All three were unsuccessful. For the duration of the match there were a further 6 long throws and 3 were successful.

Video Evidence

The set up before Delap releases the throw. The defenders are marked in red and the others players in pink.

As the team take their shape you can see that Gary Taylor Fletcher in front of the front post (pink) and Charlie Adam on the goal line (pink) are the only players assigned marking duties. The defenders (red) are free from marking the opposition, in space and set to defend the second balls, as is David Vaughan (pink) just outside the 6 yard box. The player positions are further illustrated in the diagram below in case the above isn’t clear.

Above is a simple illustration of the positions taken up in preparation for the Delap long throw.

Of the 3 long throws examined for this piece, Taylor-Fletcher won the first and Charlie Adam won the next two. The danger was cleared each time and the defence never came under any pressure. This serves to back up what Evatt said apart from the fact that these examples showed Taylor-Fletcher in the role of Varney.

Defence for the future

Blackpool at times this season have been derided for their lack of defensive quality, however, this shows that more thought and work is being applied to the defensive side of the game and 2 clean sheets in December added to more talk from Holloway about the defensive side of the game has shown that he is always looking to develop. Should the back four continue to develop and the team defend well as a whole then more clean sheets could well be on their way.

Dimension of adventure – A full back story

This season and last, Blackpool has been lauded for their adventurous approach to playing the beautiful game. The majority of the mainstream media point to the influence Charlie Adam has had on the way that Blackpool play. However, one player doesn’t make a team and Holloway has reshaped the way that Blackpool play and there are facets of that play that help make watching Blackpool a superbly enjoyable experience. For the focus of this article the spot light will shine on the full backs. What role do they play? How have they been playing and where (if any) has adjustment (in role) been made for life in the Premiership?

Personnel

The key protagonists who play the role of full back are currently Stephen Crainey and Neal Eardley, covering left and right respectively. The current back up is Alex John-Baptiste (right) and David Carney (left) with the clubs most loyal player, Danny Coid currently out on loan at Rotherham. It is unlikely that Coid will return to play a major part in our inaugural Premier League season, which is a shame, as injuries have robbed a technically gifted, composed, team player, of what promised to be a successful career. So the aforementioned group of four are the full backs at the club. If anything, Baptiste and Crainey are the most defensive from the four, Baptiste featured in the centre back position in the run to the play offs last season and an injury has curtailed his appearances this season. Crainey has also filled in at centre back, however, normally to cover a red card (See FA Cup 3rd game against Ipswich last year) or as Holloway throws another forward on and shuffles to three at the back (See West Brom earlier in the season). Carney has played on the wing for previous clubs and country and for Blackpool (see Newcastle earlier in the season when he played wide left to help stretch the play towards the end of the game). Neal Eardley is more of a modern full back, who likes to progress forward, possesses a good range of passing and can unleash a well placed shot. When it comes to Neal Eardley it’s important to understand the role that Seamus Coleman played in his development. Coleman arrived last season and shaped that full back role for himself in the run in. His commitment to pushing forward, anticipating passes, combined with an ability to dribble, beat a man and cut inside in to dangerous positions showed everything you’d expect from an attacking full back. Just one look at Coleman’s goal against Scunthorpe last year and you’ll see what he brought to the team. However, this served a dual purpose, firstly in giving Holloway someone who could perfectly play his desired full back role, but secondly it helped to sharpen the focus and desire of Eardley, who last season had been disciplined for behaviour that was unacceptable for Holloway. Two other players were a part of his downfall and they were also swiftly dealt with by Holloway. Judging by Eardley’s attitude this season, he appears to have focused his energy on working hard and putting what he already knew alongside the inspiration given by Coleman to cement his place at right full back after Baptiste’s injury.

Role Playing

It has been discussed on this blog that Holloway has set roles for each of his team members to stick to, which all forms a part of his variant 4-3-3 system and the performance against Villa seemed to underpin that as the team with 10 changes from the previous game still shaped up and performed like a Blackpool side managed by Holloway. However, taking this further on, Holloway has the youth and reserve teams playing the same system as he stamps his signature across all levels. Indeed it is this long sighted approach that leads a lot of Blackpool fans to realise that Holloway is committed to this club in the long-term and vice versa.

In basic terms the standard duty of a full back is;

  • To stop crosses getting in to the box.
  • Tackle your opponent so that they don’t get in behind the defensive line.
  • Clear danger from loose balls or shots.

In addition to this Holloway appears to want his full backs to

  • Retain their width at all times
  • Push up in to midfield when in possession of the ball and further in to attack if the opportunity develops

Let’s run with that last idea as it’s the one that has been most noticeable during Holloway’s reign. It appears that Blackpool use the full backs to apply pressure to team and force them deeper and deeper as Blackpool control possession. Certainly last season and even in to this season, the full backs will advance from their defensive positions for large periods of the game and drop in to what could be described as a midfield five as the team (in attack) morphs in to a pressured 2-5-3. This is crudely illustrated below, but the outline does play out in reality as you can see in the subsequent screen shot from the play off final.

As the full backs push up the midfield resembles a five man midfield and allows Blackpool to assert pressure and width on both sides of the pitch.
Notice how the full backs (red) have pushed right up to form a 5 with the midfield (green).

This is fundamental to Blackpool’s adventurous style of play and is certainly not a new idea, but the sustained forward movement of the full backs helps to occupy the opposition, give Blackpool more passing options and the way they then link up with the attack and midfield adds an extra dimension to the play. The second leg play off semi final saw Crainey link up superbly and he was integral to the second goal at the City Ground, and this is a fine example of how Blackpool’s full backs can step up to midfield, attack and be devastating.

This pattern has not abated now the team is in the highest division and is a part of what people reference as a ‘breath of fresh air’. The full backs are still advancing forward and there is little mention at Bloomfield road of full backs retaining their defensive position so Blackpool keep their defensive shape. In fact probably the most defining image of Stephen Crainey’s season has been the cross for Gary Taylor-Fletcher at the Emirates, which demonstrated that home or away Holloway did intend to attack the Premiership.

Highlighted in red above is the movement of Crainey in the final third. The upper example is of a flowing passing move culminating in a cross at the byline from Crainey. The lower example showing Crainey deep in the Arsenal half getting a cross in that was nearly converted by Gary Taylor-Fletcher.

An example of a full back that has a brief to hold his position and not advance forward. No passes in the final third and only 24% of his passes are in the opposition half.

The breakdown

For the purposes of this next analysis, Stephen Crainey is the focus, mainly because he has been a virtual ever-present this season and also because it took an absolute age to graft these stats together, so the thought of doing the same for Eardley and Baptiste was crippling and will be left for a rainy day.

Let’s look at Crainey’s basic stats and see how he’s doing. It would be safe to assume that in the breakdown of his stats any strengths and weaknesses could be spotted. First up, from a passing perspective, Crainey uses the ball wisely and well, racking up an open play pass completion rate of 83% which is higher than the team average of 78%. Added to this he sees a lot of the ball too, in fact in the game against West Brom (admittedly they were down to nine men) Crainey got close to the magic 100 pass mark, racking up 99 at a completion rate of 94%. This is an essential component for any full back, but especially one who advances in to midfield and sometimes attack. Should his pass completion drop then it’s safe to assume he’ll either have given the ball away high up the pitch leaving exploitable space in behind him or in his own half which should only lead to opposition pressure.

In the tackle Crainey had a perfect start to the season taking him 5 games to lose his first duel, however, since then he rarely loses his battles and this is testament to his overall ability to improve. At the start of the season he was considered by some fans to be a potential weakness in the back line. At times he appears to be slow to get up to full running pace and given that he has a remit to attack it was feared he couldn’t cover ground backwards to track wingers runs and teams would be able to get decent ball in to the box from their wide right. At this moment he has a tackle success rate of 60%.

Location, Location, Location

Crainey not only passes the ball well, but where he passes the ball from shows where he holds his field position and helps to add great depth to the understanding of the role he plays. As stated earlier Holloway wants his full backs to stay wide, when looking at the heat maps of Crainey’s passing this wide element to his game is perfectly backed up. In fact 87% of his passes took place in the flank zones. Added to this to back up the pressure aspect of his game, Crainey’s passing heat maps also show that the majority of his passes take place in the opposition half. This helps to back up the attacking nature of the team as a whole, but also of the full back as well. In some games as much as 69% of his passes were made in the opposition half.

However, since the West Ham game a small change was detected in Holloway’s approach and since then it appears that the full back role has been tempered somewhat so that Blackpool aren’t left as vulnerable as they have been at times this season. In fact in his last three games he has spent more of his time in his own half, which hints at a curbing of the attack minded full back. It will be interesting to note it this trends continues to emerge. If so, could Blackpool start conceding less, scoring less and becoming less of a ‘breath of fresh air’.

Note how in the upper chalkboard Crainey made 67% of his passes in the opposition half, whilst in the last game he retreated more making only 38%.

Another dimension

It has been mentioned that the full backs advance to add an extra dimension to the team, however, a by-product of that is also starting to emerge. This was first noted from a post by Zonal Marking on the emergence of the sweeper again in the modern game. If you read that article and notice the diagram of how the full backs pushing up means that the centre backs have to spread and a central midfield player drops to cover, then the same applies to a degree with Blackpool. This goes some way to explain why not many teams have been able to exploit the space left behind by Blackpool’s advancing full backs. On another point, the diagram below backs up this move, as you can see that Evatt and Baptiste spread wide while Crainey and Coleman advance, with Adam dropping in to defence to either pick up the ball from a centre back or act as cover for a quick break.

What you can see here is the defence (red) is split as Crainey (red) at the bottom left of the picture advances and Evatt and Baptiste spread out, leaving Adam underlined in green to drop back to form a back three.

An interesting point to note on this for the future of Blackpool and Charlie Adam is that he is totally comfortable dropping that deep and can only help to add a further dimension to club and player. In fact Adam himself said (in the match day programme for the postponed Manchester United game) that he sees his favourite position as that of a centre back. Perhaps watch out for Adam to feature more and more as a modern-day sweeper, giving assurance and cover to defence whilst adding creativity and link up play in attack.

Full forward

If Blackpool move in to 2011 still developing and improving, perhaps an added defensive resilience will be added to the full back area in addition to their positive forward movement, the implications of this may well see Blackpool continue to perform above expectations. Holloway will hope that Crainey will sign a new deal and not leave on a free in the summer, however, should he leave, then Holloway will be looking for an endurance athlete, with a midfielder’s passing ability, attacking anticipation and a superb sense of positioning. Not sure that is available in the UK for the budget Blackpool have, but Holloway will hope that Gary Penrice will have something fitting that bill from Eastern Europe.

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