Appleton’s Task

This article may have been more appropriate in the first few days of Appleton’s regime, however, there’s still value in establishing a few of the questions that Appleton himself may have posed himself as he starts to tackle his new job. This will effectively place a line in the sand which can be revisited in a couple of months time to try to assess where changes have been made.

Q: Why is Barry Ferguson at Fleetwood? Is he likely to return and why should he return?

Provided Ferguson hasn’t breached club conduct in any way then there’s a potential way back in to the set up for him. He left under the proviso that he was going to Fleetwoodto get games as he wasn’t happy about squad rotation plans. It might be that Appleton can guarantee him games and he may return. Appleton appears to be looking for better defensive shape and at the end of last season Ferguson and Ángel Martínez were very much a solid defensive midfield platform with the latter adding some real dynamism.

Q: What is the best defensive combination?

This was a question that hung over Holloway’s tenure which was never resolved. Ultimately the solution is decided by the defensive strategy, with Appleton looking like he wants Blackpool to sit narrower and a little deeper then he may build around that. Kirk Broadfoot appears to be the preferred first choice right back and whilst he can be a little clumsy he has been surprisingly dynamic going forward initiating goals as well as combining with Tom Ince. At centre back Ian Evatt may be out for sometime so that might make Craig Cathcart and Alex Baptiste first picks in the centre.

Q: What is the best midfield combination?

The supporter held view is that in a midfield three it would be Isaiah Osbourne, Ángel Martínez and Tiago Gomes. It’s likely that given Chris Basham’s suspension that this might be the midfield against Crystal Palace in the next game. However, it remains to be seen if that indeed is the best combination. Getting the combination right in midfield is ultimately the key to Blackpool’s season. Osbourne is a good runner, but in recent weeks has shown an eye for goal and a through ball. However, his first touch is inconsistent and in a tightly packed midfield that’s very limiting. Martínez is an outstanding footballer and it has been surprising for him not to start. His strong substitute appearance at Peterborough should see him start again Palace. Gomes is a lively attacking midfielder, who arguably only needs to add goals to make the position behind the striker his own. Appleton has had a chance to weigh up both Ludovic Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin with only the former looking like he might break in to the midfield trio.

Q: What is the best system to use?

Holloway recruited his players to fit a 4-3-3 scheme and in the main those players remain. Appleton appears to be continuing this approach, however, that may be a product of his inheritance. There is a little more emphasis towards a 4-2-3-1 with four attacking and six defending. His work in the next two transfer windows will give a greater insight in to how he wants his teams to shape up.

Q: Should Kevin Phillips be starting games?

This is more critical than it may appear. Phillips is an anachronism in the modern game and especially so in a 4-3-3. He plays on the line of the defence and does little to seek out combinations with his team mates. He often turns his back on play in order to get in to the box which is highly detrimental to good team play. He arguably hasn’t adapted his game to flourish in Blackpool’s system (even given his goals) and it’s unlikely at such an age that he has time to adapt. Appleton may well start to see him as an option to come off the bench rather than starting with Nathan Delfouneso starting centrally.

Q: How does he whittle his huge squad down?

Appleton has remarked about the size of squad he has inherited and that he wants to work with a squad of between 18-20 players. He is lucky in this respect in that the vast majority of his players are either out of contract in the summer or have options that the club can take up. He may base his decisions around those players that make his initial cut with the rest being assessed in any ‘reserve’ games that are likely to be held between now and the end of the season. It would appear that a few players may already have been taken out of the equation with Neal Eardley being replaced by Broadfoot and not through injury, whilst Elliot Grandin was substituted after 30 minutes of the game against Watford. One fringe player has already left and he tried to get several players out on loan before the deadline.

Q: Who will he bring to the club in January?

This may be dictated by who leaves in January. It would appear that at his rate of progress Tom Ince will need to leave the club. He’s good enough to be playing at a much higher level and it’s hard to see how much more he can learn at the club. Added to that, should Matt Phillips leave too then Appleton will certainly be looking to recruit in the wide forward areas. Outside of that, he will make a decision on loanee Wesley Thomas and perhaps another forward or two may be brought in. January will also be a test of if he believes that there’s enough defensive quality. It would be a gamble not to add any further defensive options given current injuries and general lack of genuine defensive talent at the club. Allied to this, there is a huge dependency on Matt Gilks’ fitness, Mark Halstead lacks playing experience and remains a bench filler. Again, it would be a gamble if no goalkeeper was brought in as back up.

Moving On

Appleton will no doubt be looking for answers to some of these questions between now and the end of January. At that point in time it might be useful to revisit this article and assess the answers should they have become clear by then. If Blackpool have strengthened their position in the league, it would be safe to assume that the answers have been a little more forthcoming than they are right now.

Blackpool 2-2 Watford – Scrappy but fair

Blackpool conceded a two goal advantage before coming from behind yet again this season to secure a third draw in three games since Michael Appleton took over the managerial role at Bloomfield Road.

Setting up

Michael Appleton chose to preserve the 4-3-3 formation from the Ian Holloway era whilst Gianfranco Zola opted for a 3-5-2. Appleton’s biggest selection issue was caused with the injury to Ian Evatt. Kirk Broadfoot came in to the side at right back with Alex Baptiste moving to centre back.

For Watford Matěj Vydra started up front with Troy Deeney supported by Nathaniel Chalobah sat in the centre of midfield with Mark Yeates on the right and Cristian Battocchio on the left, although their positions were fluid. Ikechi Anya & Daniel Pudil operated as wing backs whilst the back three comprised of Fitz Hall being flanked by Tommie Hoban on the left and Joel Ekstrand on the right.

Gameplans

Effectively Watford’s game plan was to sit and counter attack getting eight men behind the ball when out of possession as their 3-5-2 became a 5-3-2. Their counter attacks sought to exploit the flanks with Vydra drifting out wide left looking to combine with support from Pudil. They were happy for Blackpool to control the possession which allowed Blackpool to play a similar game to their time under Ian Holloway. If anything, the main difference was that Blackpool’s full backs stayed a little deeper presumably to ensure that they weren’t exposed to counter attacks. If one attacked, the other hung back a little.

Opening up

The first half was characterised by slow, sloppy play by Blackpool who struggled to do anything with the ball, whilst Watford stung for the first goal with an exceptional counter attack from a Blackpool corner. It appeared a clear plan as the right back Anya positioned himself on the left of the box to use his pace to make a box to box run via space created by Blackpool’s over committal at the set piece. In all it took around twelve seconds for the ball to get from Manuel Almunia’s hands in to the back of the Blackpool goal. The second Watford goal was the product of a defensive error which was seized upon by Deeney, who was arguably in an off-side position.

Game Changer

Apart from Watford’s counter attacking the game was characterised by two key substitutions made by Appleton which eventually lead to Blackpool dominating the second half. Elliot Grandin, didn’t exploit space behind the forwards or show enough for the ball. Appleton took him off after a half hour introducing Tiago Gomes. Tiago offered a little more impetus, playing through balls and joining in with the forwards.

At half time Ludovic Sylvestre made way for Isaiah Osbourne which led to two holding style midfielders with Basham supporting the forwards a little. Sylvestre is excellent in possession and combining with players in the middle third, but at times he fears taking risks in the final third added to the fact that off the ball he rarely attempts to run beyond the forward line to support attacks.

In games where Blackpool become bogged down he is less effective than when he comes on as a substitute with Blackpool trailing. In that scenario he brings a calmness that allows Blackpool to gain a foothold in a game that is in danger of getting away with them. It might be that he is used more in that way over the next few weeks. Osbourne on the other hand was quick to regain possession, put in a few challenges that unsettled the Watford midfield and forced their midfielders to hurry up and eventually waste possession.

These changes for Pool effectively changed the outlook of the game. Both bringing more a more dynamic edge, whilst they impacted on Watford who went deeper and deeper trying to shut out space and see the game out. In fact they possibly got too deep. In the first half they played a reasonably high line and play was condensed, which arguably contributed to the scrappy nature of the game.

Patterns

Watford certainly look a good side. They have some clear patterns of play, that although didn’t contribute too much in that game will certainly cause teams trouble, if they haven’t already. One particularly interesting pattern of play appeared to be determined to stretch the play quickly and throw a team out of balance. Essentially, this consisted of a ball out to the left back (Pudil) who hits a quick diagonal out wide right.  As mentioned earlier the movement of Vydra was also of interest as he drifted wide left and slightly deep looking for combinations out wide. He was hard to track in the first half at times, however, the second half Alex Baptiste appeared to read him much better and realised that he had to engage his physically in order to stunt the attacks.

Let downs

Arguably the biggest issue in the first half aside from anything previously mentioned was the forced reorganisation at right back for Blackpool. Kirk Broadfoot isn’t a naturally dynamic right back which Blackpool need and his first touch was poor at times which removed the right side of the pitch as a clear attacking threat. This is of particular importance for Blackpool given that the right back needs to build a good understanding with Tom Ince in order to accentuate his ability and help Ince get one on one with the opposition full back. That was even more important in this game given Watford double and even trebled up on Ince to shut him out. However, he grew in to the role and as Appleton asked both full backs to step up in the second half his role was crucial in initiating the moves for both goals.

For Watford the big question for them moving forward will be whether they learn from losing this two goal lead. Zola’s post match comments appear to suggest he thought the game was theirs by half-time. They didn’t need to get so reactive after going two up and to continue to counter. Whilst Blackpool were in their malaise they could have stepped up and tried to dominate possession and could have looked to kill off the game. It would be a surprise to see them take the same approach again, should the event arise. However, this was an away game and it made some sense to sit back, at home they may well have put the game to bed earlier and made the third goal.

Focus on Chalobah

Although he’s hardly an unknown quantity, the 17-year-old Chalobah deserves a special mention. Clichés could rule the day here, but he certainly didn’t play like someone so young. In the first half his positional awareness was exemplary, never getting caught too high up the pitch and placed well to seize upon loose balls. His first touch is lovely and he has the ability to recycle the ball under pressure as well as spreading the play when needed. It was Blackpool storming second half that appeared to overwhelm him till around the 75th minute when a few strong challenges got him annoyed and he appear to channel that anger in to a sharpened focus, playing a couple of lovely medium range passes to add depth to Watford’s play, as well as getting away a long-range shot. Breaking through at Chelsea will be tough, however, provided his growth doesn’t impact on his coordination he may well push for a place in the Chelsea first team moving in to next season. He’s that good.

Moving On

This was a game characterised by a sloppy Blackpool who are clearly learning new things under a new manager, whilst Watford attacked at pace and perhaps should have tried to kill the game off whilst they had a chance. Watford will keep ticking away as they are doing and have an outside chance of making the playoffs, as have Blackpool. Arguably the best of these two teams may not been seen till February or March, between now and then it will be a case of keeping in touch with the playoff pack.

From one to another

A new era is upon us……

The tears have been shed, the breathing has stopped being so shallow, the questions have been answered, yet the memories remain. Remain they will forever, but it’s time for the next chapter in the history of Blackpool Football Club. Whatever happens from here, hindsight is showing that perhaps the departure of Ian Holloway was the right thing at the right time for both parties.

Now the dust has settled it’s a good time to look behind the change to see why it happened and what challenges await Michael Appleton. Speculation had persisted for a few weeks, however, very few thought that the job at Crystal Palace would be the post that saw Holloway depart. Palace sold him a vision and gave him the right indications that they could match his ambitions as well as giving him a contract that was more agreeable with him.

Smelly Fish

Holloway’s interview prior to his final game in charge consisted of his usual monologues, rambles if you like, where he made point after point with his usual mixture of passion, veiled anger, humour and intelligence. However, the enthusiasm wasn’t quite there, the eyes weren’t as bright, but the points he made were insightful and on reflection his departure was never really a shock if you looked deep enough.

“Coaches are like fish — after a while they start to stink.”

In paraphrasing Giovanni Trapattoni Holloway made his point with aplomb showing that he was very aware of the need to change something at the football club. In the monologue leading up to the above quote he talked about how he was worried about not getting in the playoff final this season and being conscious of wanting to move forward. He spoke about fans getting used to his style, substitutions and getting so used to it that they’ll want a different voice. Results had started to dip, the team had stuttered after a wonderful start. His heart had gone out of the job and the comments now coming from players suggest that things hadn’t been right for a while, but more on that later.

After his departure Holloway talked about not having the energy to carry on with the job at Blackpool and that’s not surprising really. His natural energy is infectious, but all too often (football matches aside) that energy was being drained away in dealing with events off the field. The fine for changing his side in the Premier League against Aston Villa and the subsequent resignation offer, the Charlie Adam transfer saga dragging on for months, the loss and subsequent regain of key players who felt their contracts weren’t commensurate with their standing, the director remuneration of £11 million creating headlines for all the wrong reasons, the constant contract refusals of his key transfer targets after bids had been accepted. These aren’t necessarily episodes that are particularly unique to Blackpool, apart from the penultimate one and nor is it a definitive list. It was more the accumulation of these episodes, added to the fact that Holloway was often left to face the media time and again and pick up the pieces. Other more structured clubs would have done this for him, managed it better or deflected in some way. That wasn’t to be the case and all of this drained his energy, his hunger, his passion.

New regime

Now that the change has taken place, Michael Appleton comes in and takes over a good squad but with challenges. The underlying issues of the club culture will remain, but a new face can freshen things up and take an objective view on matters and make new plans. It’s hard to judge Appleton has a manager, coach and tactician given the constraints on his role at Portsmouth so it would be hard to make judgements based on his experience there. However, it’s clear from his first few weeks that he is organised, focused and has clear ideas about what he wants to do.

His starting point has been to pick out Blackpool’s weaknesses and to tackle them. Ian Evatt has already spoken about one of them saying,

“In the last couple of months, we hadn’t really done much training. We had numerous days off – anything from two to five or six at a time”

This fits in well with the idea of the previous manager losing his passion for the challenge and gives an understanding of why Blackpool didn’t seem to have answers in games such as Huddersfield and Charlton at home when their play wasn’t as vibrant as it once was.

Alongside this, Appleton’s first post match interview pretty much summed up where he felt he could influence things. The two key elements from that game he highlighted were the team shape and their fitness levels. This theme has continued almost every time Appleton has faced the press and arguably these two elements go hand in hand. Players need to be very fit to attack aggressively throughout a match and then regain their shape. He will have the data around their fitness levels which will no doubt be backing up his assertions and it doesn’t take a genius to realise that Blackpool games do get stretched in the final quarter.

Shaping up

Under Holloway Blackpool’s balance was arguably an issue as he wanted his team to attack from the first to the last minute, however, the stamina needed to recover their shape after losing the ball wasn’t always there and that’s why games became stretched. Arguably in the Championship this isn’t a bad method as teams are a little less ruthless, however, it was in the Premier League when this was really an issue as teams frequently came from behind to take points off Blackpool in the last quarter of matches. This isn’t a slight on Holloway, Appleton is keen to appreciate that the attacking side of the team is exceptionally potent, his real challenge will be to bring up fitness levels while stopping game becoming too open, whilst not losing any attacking threat.

Over the coming months it would be no surprise to see Blackpool sit a little deeper away from home, rather than trying to dominate possession as they tried to do under Holloway. It’s likely that the extra fitness (if gained) will allow Blackpool to attack and then drop in quickly behind the ball to recover a shape that may see more men behind the ball closing out gaps in the defensive line. Often when Blackpool’s full backs attacked the team would be out of balance with eight players in offensive movements. It’s likely that the full backs will sit a little deeper now and narrower giving the defence a more recognisable back four. There are other tasks ahead of Appleton, mainly housekeeping issues around discipline and cutting the squad size. However, these aren’t huge issues and given that over thirty players are due for some form of contract change come the summer it will certainly be a different club at the start of next season.

Everyone has to change at some point and it can be difficult. The sounds coming out of the club at the moment appear positive, it’s too early to understand if players are ‘on message’ or if they’ve totally bought in to the ideas that Appleton has outlined. Games will be assessed and the results come along. If by Christmas Blackpool are in touch with the play offs then Appleton’s first phase will have passed off smoothly. How he builds on that will be very interesting to see.

Moving On

By no means is this a final assessment of Holloway’s time in charge, over time more detailed analysis will be compiled as will compare and contrast pieces as the Appleton regime takes hold. Holloway was a revelation at Bloomfield Road, he brought success that was never really dreamed of before. He is a high quality manager and he will find success elsewhere and he will never be forgotten for what he achieved. As for Appleton, only time will tell.