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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Clinical Deficiencies – Everton v Blackpool

Louis Saha gave a masterclass in clinical finishing either side of Blackpool clinically punishing two mistakes made by Everton players. However, it was a double defensive substitution by Ian Holloway that failed to snuff out Everton’s attacks that swung the game back in David Moyes’ favour.

Setting Up

The opening play saw Holloway pitting his 4-3-3 against the 4-1-4-1 of David Moyes, who had Marouane Fellaini in the holding role in a system that had stifled Blackpool earlier in the season at Bloomfield Road. James Beattie started in the front three, alongside Jason Puncheon and DJ Campbell who dropped deep from the centre to receive the ball.

Moyes has watched Blackpool a lot this season and knows he needs to block the space with a holding midfielder and lined up 4-1-4-1 against Holloway's 4-3-3.

In effect there appeared to be three key dynamics that lead to Everton’s win which are discussed below.

Right back to where we started

Prior to this game starting Blackpool had conceded 16 goals in their last 5 games since beating Liverpool. 13 of them have germinated in the right back area as teams appear to have spotted and exploited a real weakness in the Blackpool defence.

This season Everton have been exceptional down their left hand side, so this match had the potent combination of Blackpool’s weakness matching up with Everton’s strength and this was key in this game with all 5 of Everton’s goals coming via this channel.

Taking Everton’s first goal step by step you can see how their defence is drawn out of shape by some simple Everton passing and movement.

Neil Eardley shows Bilyaletdinov plenty of space to turn and run.
David Vaughan has to track the Everton runner who has exploited the space that Eardley leaves behind him.
Eardley does recover his ground, but commits to the challenge and is beaten easily by Bilyaletdinov and the Blackpool defence has conceded 20 yards of space for him to attack.
Blackpool's centre backs are unable to doing anything to stop the cut back cross ball.

Everton focused their passing down their left hand side and completed 60% of their passes in open play down the left hand side.

This blog recently discussed the importance of Blackpool’s full backs in their open sense of adventure, however, it appears that teams understand this to be as much of a weakness too. As the full backs attack they leave space behind and recently it appears the space isn’t being covered effectively. Should Blackpool stay in the Premier League then Holloway will have worked hard with his full backs to sustain their attacking potency whilst ensuring defensive stability.

Keeping it tight till switching it off

Without doubt Everton controlled the space on the pitch very effectively for the most part, however, after going 2-1 up the appeared to push for a third to kill the game off. In doing so they started to lose a little of their shape and Blackpool exploited this very well in transition and capitalised on mistakes.

As a result of Marouane Fellaini sitting in a 4-1-4-1 Blackpool were strangled and even on the rare occasion when Elliot Grandin was able to get goal side of Fellaini, he ended up not being able to find a team-mate.

Here you can see that Grandin has escaped Fellaini in a very rare first half occurrence, but fails to make it pay.

Fellaini closed out Charlie Adam effectively in the first half, even when he was in the deep. Look at the shot below as Fellaini makes up several yards to close Adam down which forces Adam in to an error and leads to Everton’s build up for their first goal.

Fellaini is aware of Adam dropping deep, sensing danger he steps out of position to close Adam down in the space marked by the red dot.
Fellaini has closed out Adam and he hits a wayward pass handing possession to Everton who go on to score.

In fact Charlie Adam was stifled in the first half and had a pass completion of only 48%. As he was gradually afforded more space in the second half it increased to 67%. As further demonstration of how Everton disrupted Blackpool’s passing their completion was 64% in the first half and in the second it was 68%. It is interesting to note that for Blackpool’s period of goal scoring (between 61 and 65) it increased to 78%.

The Chalkboard below shows how Fellaini contested 11 duels and won 10 in the whole match, however, 8 of those were in the first half and he and won 7 of those as he dominated the midfield. As Fellaini stopped being dominant in his duels Blackpool enjoyed their success. Was this just a coincidence?

Fellaini had a great game in the tackle, however, in the second half as the game swung towards Blackpool he failed to win duels. As he started to win them again on the 73 minute mark Everton started to control again.

Concession of the advantage!

At 3-2 Blackpool appeared to have Everton exposed to the counter and it was at this point Holloway tried to change the dynamic, seemingly to shut the game out. In his post match interview he likened his move to the one made against Liverpool to shut out the result. However, the two moves were completely different, against Liverpool his switch came with 5 minutes remaining, whilst he had a full 20 minutes to control here. Also, he went to a 4-1-4-1 against Liverpool whilst against Everton he went to a very unfamiliar looking 5-4-1. In doing so, he conceded his small advantage in favour of asking Everton to try to break them down. Everton did, through a combination of defensive mistakes, dis-organisation and naivety. The shots below show how Blackpool struggled to organise themselves in to a coherent 5 man defence. Firstly, the centre backs are drawn narrow and inside the Everton attackers and secondly in the run up to the Everton fourth goal, as the third centre back (Rob Edwards) is out of position with Neil Eardley behind him.

Blackpool struggle to space their 3 centre backs allowing themselves to be drawn inside the Everton attackers leaving plenty of space either side of the three.
From another angle Blackpool's defence is totally out of shape as Beckford puts Everton ahead.

As further evidence of how the defensive move didn’t pay off, see the chalkboard below and notice how Blackpool fail to win any duels as Everton pick off three unanswered goals. 

Above, even when Blackpool went defensive, it never paid off, losing 1 tackles in a 10 minute period. Prior and before that they worked hard in the tackle even though they lost 24 of their 53 challenges.

Ding Dong

This was a battle launched firmly on a robust Everton side shutting out Blackpool’s attacking space, before stinging them down their flawed right hand area. However, after handing Blackpool space on the counter Ian Holloway will move on to the next game knowing that his team are still potent, and will hope to find a better way of controlling the game against Aston Villa should he find his team holding the advantage.

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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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