Blackpool’s Best Eleven

Ian Holloway hasn’t picked a consistent eleven all season. This is a light-hearted look at why that might be the case and why it’s not just a case of picking the best players.

Picking the best team from a squad of players is no easy task. If it was a simple task of listing the best players then that could lead to several complications. If that’s not the best starting point then what might be a good place to begin in a quest to find the ‘best’ starting eleven?

Natural instincts

How about understanding the way the player naturally orients himself on the field of play? This can be a very eye-opening exercise. This takes in to account their approach, mentality and where they thrive on the pitch. Obviously the final team selection takes in to many other facets such as the opponent and game objectives. The diagram below takes (entirely subjectively) a view on where each Blackpool player is naturally drawn to and excels. This gives us our starting point.

This paints an interesting picture and starts to show where Blackpool may be lacking. There are obvious points for debate based on the subjectivity at hand. For example, Ian Evatt generally lines up in the left centre back position and here he has been placed at right centre back. Arguably his one footedness doesn’t help him on the left and his more natural position should be on the right. Neal Eardley is placed much higher up the field than his right back role, mainly because he shows more of the traits of a wide midfielder than an orthodox full back. Even though they are different players both Kevin Phillips and Roman Bednar appear to enjoy the role of centre forward, not that they can’t play together, but they do like to occupy some of the same spaces. Gary Taylor-Fletcher always appears to drop in behind the striker when he starts as a forward and even when given a midfield role he drifts high up the field. Lomano LuaLua has been placed very high up the pitch; this is the area where he looks most comfortable.

Pointless

It might seem a little pointless just dropping the players on to a pitch diagram, however, that arguably gives a starting base to select the best eleven. The next logical step might be to now play fantasy football and just pick the eleven best players giving bias to the 4-3-3 scheme used by Ian Holloway. The diagram below illustrates these subjective picks.

There are reasons for going with certain players here. The centre back positions are a constant source for debate at Blackpool. The selection of Wilson and Evatt is merely a nod to the former being the best covering defender and Evatt the best positional stopper for want of better terminology. Alex Baptiste is kept at right back as he remains the best right back on the books and his positional ability is still a little questionable for the centre positions. In midfield, the trio of Barry Ferguson, Ludovic Sylvestre and Chris Basham get the nod. Basham’s technical ability gives him the edge over Keith Southern. Up front, Taylor-Fletcher as a creative force and goalscorer gets the selection alongside Matthew Phillips and LuaLua. Of course this is all entirely debatable decision-making, but it hopefully it starts to illustrate the difficult task of trying to select a best eleven.

Balancing act

The next consideration is balance, as the diagram above shows how awkward that line up is in reality. The diagram below adds some balance between left and right, attack and defence to give another attempt at the best Blackpool eleven.

The key movers here are John Fleck and Kevin Phillips. Essentially the reasons for their inclusion now is to shift the team to the left a little more hopefully to give them better balance in their point of attack between left, right and centre. John Fleck is an interesting inclusion at this point; arguably he is the most natural left-sided attacking player. Although he has rarely played in his natural role whilst at Blackpool, where he is positioned here is potentially his optimum position. It is where he would excel with his ability to pick a pass and shoot on sight. For the sake of formation this is a kind of 4-3-3 of sorts, but woefully lacking width.

There are clear issues of balance within this Blackpool squad whilst there are excellent options with the players at hand. It does serve to illustrate why Holloway may be moving away from his trusty 4-3-3. Fielding a midfield three lacks balance due to the lack of left-sided midfielders in the squad. Sylvestre is very right footed and will always gravitate to that side. Fielding two deeper midfielders eases the selection issue for Ian Holloway but still gives his issues with finding the right blend up front with few combinations giving him width, pace and creativity as well as pure finishing ability.

Right on

This is just a very simple look at how to choose a best eleven without even weighing in the other considerable factors. Making these decisions is at the core of the manager’s role and as Ian Holloway has found the right blend in the past, there’s no reason he can’t right now. Blackpool fans everywhere will hope he has asked and answered all the pertinent questions to lead the Tangerines to a strong end of season and back to the Premier League.

Goal Analysis – Space Exploration

Professional football is rather unique in that the higher up the profession you go, the less space you are given to work in. Compare that with a factory worker producing for an employer. They have their space protected and have guaranteed space to work in. An office worker has a desk in which to complete their tasks. As they get better they may progress through the ranks of their profession, perhaps to become a manager with a spacious office at their disposal. They apparently need this space to operate in order to operate at a higher level whilst the workers enjoy their guaranteed, if restricted work space.

Football is different. As you progress through the game, generally you have your space taken away from you. At the very highest levels of the game space is at a premium and generally you have to find your own space or have a system set up to grant you some. Occasionally the opposition may cede some through negligence or by design. However, a general rule in football is that the more you progress in your profession the less space you have and you have to get used to operating in less space. Obviously you are well remunerated for this inconvenience so you’re hardly likely to take this to a union or refer the case to the Health & Safety Executive.

Last season this blog complied a feature on DJ Campbell, charting the goals that he scored in the Championship whilst also looking at how he was settling in to the Premier League. A general observation made at the time was that during his goal scoring period in the Championship it was noticeable how much more space he had to execute his moves and make his decisions. Now Blackpool are back in the Championship it is noticeable how much space there is, especially in the box and final third. In recent weeks there have been a few goals occurring in Blackpool’s matches that highlight this issue of space and alongside this, some excellent play from a wise old professional who knows how to create space.

Hammered

First and foremost West Ham outclassed Blackpool from start to finish when they met the other week, however, when Gary O’Neil struck the third West Ham goal it stood out because of the time and space he was granted. You can see below how he is on the edge of the area left all alone with Blackpool giving him all the space he needs to choose what to do.

Gary O'Neil is circled above to illustrate the space he was granted by the Blackpool defence.

This struck an uncanny resemblance to when Kevin Phillips struck against Cardiff last month. The Cardiff defence appeared to react slowly and space was granted to Phillips who guided the ball in to the goal with great technique and accuracy. You can see below how Phillips has almost seven if not eight yards of space to work in.

The arrow indicates the movement Phillips made in to the space.

When you’ve operated at the level that Kevin Phillips has for large parts of his career you can’t afford to give him too much space. He maintains his composure and has an acute awareness for where he is in relation to the goal and when to shoot.

Masterful

If a defence isn’t conceding space to be exploited, players need to be aware of how to create space. Leading on from the last example, Kevin Phillips has recently demonstrated why he is a supreme goalscorer, especially at this level. His movement in the box is largely focused on space creation and the goals he scored against Bristol City and West Ham have similar hallmarks. Below you can see how prior to the ball coming in to Phillips he has worked his way between the two Bristol City centre backs.

Compare the picture above to the one below, where against West Ham Phillips does exactly the same.

Again, he is perfectly positioned, this time in between the full back and centre back. In these cases, if the centre back fails to clear the ball then Phillips has the space he needs to attempt to score. If the delivery is poor, or the ‘keeper intercepts then the chance goes away. Unfortunately for the opposition in these cases, that didn’t happen. The only other way to thwart Phillips is for another defender to react or for Phillips to miss with his shot. Neither happened here and these are two great examples of how an intelligent striker can create space when perhaps it’s not always obvious.

Space to learn

Space is the most critical element in most games of football. Give a footballer space and they can operate, take the space away and only the better footballers will tend to flourish. In the top leagues and competitions, this becomes more and more obvious. If Blackpool end up back in the Premier League next season then some of the younger strikers could learn a lot from watching Kevin Phillips as the rest of the season plays out.

Goal Analysis – Doncaster

After previously unpicking two opposition goals in recent weeks this time the focus turns on to a goal scored by Blackpool.

The final goal in the 3-1 victory over Doncaster had points of interest from both an attacking and defending point of view. The first two goals scored on the night came from Gary Taylor-Fletcher, the first from a brilliant long curved pass over the Doncaster defence from Neal Eardley and the second self-created with quick feet and craft.

Double Phase

The goal was a product of two phases of play. The first phase being an attacking free kick for Blackpool and the second, reclaimed possession from the free kick resulting in the goal. The start of the first phase is pictured below.

Whilst Doncaster do win the header at the free kick they don’t clear the ball to safety and nor does the man on the edge of the box (highlighted) react quick enough to the loose ball. Not in the picture above is the man who is responsible for initiating phase two, Barry Ferguson.

Fergie Time & Again

Ferguson has been fantastic for Blackpool this season, his technique is of a very high standard which makes errors on his first touch very rare. His positional sense is superb and allied with great vision and leadership he is able to organise the team around his position. He is generally first to collect orders from Holloway and distribute them and at attacking set pieces you can see him pointing to his players advising them where to go. Such is his quality of positional work it often escapes notice. It takes a goal such as this to really appreciate his role in the Blackpool team. In attack, he supports the team and provides the back up when attacks either break down or fizzle out.

In the picture above you can see that he was perfectly positioned to pick up on the loose ball and in a split second Ferguson has possession of the ball and without any hassle the ball has started on its path towards the back of the net. It looks simple, but in reality that kind of play is hard to do, you need to be in the right position, you then need the required technique to secure the ball and move it on. Poorer players could have lost possession in such a situation and left their team open to a fast break.

Fab-Trio

The Blackpool goal then lends itself to three more excellent pieces of work.

  1. A brilliant through ball from Kevin Phillips allowing Alex Baptiste to advance.
  2. A hard and accurate shot from Baptiste. He knows he need to either shoot or cross. His run and position isn’t that dissimilar to the goal he scored against Crystal Palace earlier in the season and here he makes the keeper make a save.
  3. Nouha Dicko understands his position well and knows he needs to both make himself available for a cross and in position to poach any loose ball that may rebound. He does the latter superbly well to put the game beyond Doncaster.

Back Baps

Arguably, the key element of those three is the role that Baptiste plays. It has been said on this blog this season that Blackpool look their most potent when Baptiste steps in to attack. The main reasons for this is that at several points this season Blackpool have been stymied and tend to struggle for creative ideas around the final third, often slowing the tempo of the game too much and having poor movement ahead of the ball. In such cases it’s important for midfielders to make runs beyond the ball and if that doesn’t happen then the defence can do the same. In doing so, they can create overloading situations against the opposition defence and in turn get behind the defensive line which can be vital in any football match.

Turn & Face

It is that last sentence that leads to the final point to be made about the goal. It’s is a great example of why an attacking team needs to turn a defensive line around and get them running towards their goal. It pushes them closer to their own goal, but also only very good defenders can recover their awareness of the match situation to deal with the imminent threats. Here, Doncaster have only just turned to face their goal when the shot comes in from Baptiste and they have little time to understand where the Blackpool players are and react before the ball is in the net.

Moving On

You can view this goal and the others from the match against Doncaster over on the BBC website through the link below

Doncaster 1-3 Blackpool

Overall this was a good team goal and a good three points for Blackpool as they move on to an FA Cup clash with Everton. A preview of that game can be found on the link below.

Everton v Blackpool – FA Cup 5th Round – 18th March 2012