Blackpool’s Core Problem

The Blackpool Five

Good and great football teams have a core set of players who hold the team structure together, it is often referred to as the spine of the team. Throughout their promotion season from the Championship Blackpool had a spine of players who pulled together to make Blackpool a fantastic attacking team and gave them great consistency in the run in which saw them come from nowhere to secure promotion.

When the Premier League season kicked off that spine still remained, however, the supporting figures were either not up to standard, inconsistent, ageing or too new to Ian Holloway’s methods to provide strength in depth. As the season progressed players integrated in to the side and some of the newer players became ‘first choice’ options. However, none of these players served to be a genuine replacement when any of the spine missed games. Did that really matter? Did losing key players have any impact on Blackpool’s results?

Spinal matters

Ian Evatt, Stephen Crainey, David Vaughan, Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell could be defined as being the spine of the Blackpool side. When these five players lined up for Blackpool the whole team appeared to play with much more verve, vigor and assurance. However, what was the record for the games when these players lined up against those matches when they didn’t?

With all the spine present Blackpool gained 27 of their 39 points in 21 games at a rate of 1.29 points per game which should they have stayed together in the side and completed all 38 games, Blackpool would have racked up 49 points. They won 33% of the games they lined up in.

In the other 17 games when that spine was removed either in whole or in part, Blackpool racked up 12 points at a rate of 0.71 points per game which is half a point down on the games when the spine of the team was in place. Blackpool won only 18% of these games.

Stockpiles

This is a crucial set of facts when you consider Blackpool’s fate. They clearly didn’t have either the quality of back up players or the ability or time to integrate them in to the side with restricted playing opportunities or a planned approach to squad rotation. Injuries played a large part in disrupting the spine of the team as well as suspensions. David Vaughan picked up hip injury that kept him out of three games back to back and Stephen Crainey suffered with an ankle ligament injury that kept him out for six games. Then DJ Campbell got sent off against Wolves and missed three matches whilst Charlie Adam’s persistent bookings meant he missed three matches through suspension. What is really important to note is that of that spine it is very likely that on the opening day of the new season Blackpool will only have Ian Evatt left.

What can Blackpool and other teams learn from this experience?

Should Blackpool ever get back to the Premier League then it will be because they again have a solid spine, but they will need to ensure that their spine isn’t compromised and spend time considering how that spine will be best replaced in the case of injury and suspension. Blackpool will hope to recruit potential peripheral players to serve as shadows or to recruit first team players in other positions with the calibre to flex their field position and game approach.

With the break up of the spine as Blackpool move in to the Championship then the true perspective of the task ahead of Holloway is huge, his inherited squad was never completed and developed to his satisfaction. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has to build from the ground up again. To think that this might take two years is a realistic prospect given the club’s approach to recruitment. However, should it take two years then surely prior to any eventual promotion, Ian Holloway will have plans in place to thoroughly develop his squad further to cope with the rigors of a full season in the Premier League.

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Tangerine Dreaming Awards – 2010/11

Just brilliant!

After an amazing season in the Premier League it’s now time to start reflecting on a superb experience. First up are the awards picking out a few points from the season. The awards are entirely subjective and not formed through consultation and aren’t necessarily backed up with facts. However, (where applicable) further end of season articles will serve to cover the whys, wherefores and the greater detail etc.

TD  Blackpool player of the season

  1. David Vaughan
  2. Stephen Crainey
  3. Ian Evatt
The ‘Spotter’s Badge’ for doing your homework

Alex McLeish employed a restrictive diamond formation both home and away against Blackpool and the upshot was the the centre space was virtually eliminated and Blackpool were too slow to react to find space elsewhere
. McLeish was the first manager to clearly spend time thinking about playing Blackpool and it paid off reducing Ian Holloway’s men to two stale performances.
 

Reactionary tactical move of the year by an opposition manager

Mick McCarthy win this one in moving Michael Mancienne to right back to counter the threat of Luke Varney from Blackpool’s long diagonal balls. McCarthy sent his team out at Bloomfield Road with Kevin Foley at right back and Michael Mancienne in a holding midfield role. Blackpool enjoyed early success from that route and McCarthy was quick to change and it was a change that sparked a chain reaction, leading to the game being a close encounter as the match progressed.

Last throw of the dice award for manager who didn’t really know what to do

Owen Coyle spent the first half of the game against Blackpool at the Reebok seeing his 4-4-2 structure being exposed time after time. He didn’t seem to recognise what was going on until the second half when he decided to send on Martin Petrov, Rodrigo Moreno and Ivan Klasnic. Their passing as a team became better and eventually secured a draw, however, it was really ‘the kitchen sink’ treatment not by design, more through sheer panic. Still, it worked.

Best visiting player to Bloomfield Road

  1. Ryan Giggs – His speed and movement seemed to spark Manchester United in to life when the game was threatening to get away from them. Incisive, quick runs and thoughtful passing saw Blackpool opened up time after time.
  2. David Silva – his technical abilities are supreme, but the fact he ghosted around Bloomfield was a sight to behold. Space exists for Silva to fill. Enough said.
  3. Luka Modric – Just a brilliant footballer and didn’t deserve to be on the losing side at all at Bloomfield Road. Short, consistent passing all game long combined with a sense of when to make a break forward and get beyond the defensive line.

Hypnotic Passing Award

Luka Modric – see above. It was a privilege and pleasure to witness him pass the ball over 180 minutes this season.

The ‘surprised they were not relegated’ award

Bolton’s season was plastered together by two players. A brave statement which won’t be backed up here, but Stuart Holden’s energy held their flat midfield together at times, when he got injured Daniel Sturridge’s opportunism and desire to prove a point picked up some valuable points to keep them afloat.

Inexplicable tactical decision

At 3-2 up away against a good Premier League team may well require some tactical tweaks to contain, or you could try and keep the status quo. Ian Holloway chose to do something that went against his philosophy against Everton and did something that wasn’t thought through or drilled in training. He made two defensive substitutions, turning Blackpool in to a 5-4-1 and chaos ensued with Blackpool losing the match 5-3. 

Stroke of genius award for innovation

Ian Holloway gets this to make up for the previous one. His decision to go to a 3-5-2 when 3-0 down to Wigan led to a much flatter midfield three and convinced him that he had to return to his midfield set up that guided them through the Championship.

‘The Turnaround’ award for team better than their previous attempt at playing Blackpool

When Blackpool romped home 4-0 at the DW Stadium earlier in the season Wigan looked disjointed and had their fragile confidence shattered by poor goalkeeping from Chris Kirkland. Oh, and they didn’t have Charles N’Zogbia. Martinez made a great decision in dropping Kirkland soon after and the re-integration of N’Zogbia, gave them a direct goal threat as well as unpredictability in the final third. When Wigan (complete with the Frenchman and Ali Al-Habsi in goal) came to Bloomfield Road in April they were a different side, dictated the game and looked like a team focused on their game plan and their greater plan of staying in the Premier League.

Award for taking men on with considerable ease

Opposition players are just obstacles for Carlos Tevez to get around. In doing so against Blackpool he just kept taking men out of the game making it very hard to defend against a very strong team.

The Red Mist award for taking man and ball

Gonzalo Jara – When you’ve just seen your side reduced to ten men with a debatable decision, the last thing you should do is take man and ball when the game is stuck in the corner and no danger is apparent. Not Jara, he acted first, thought last and then had a shower.

Pass of the season

Charlie Adam’s first time passing can sometimes be played out of the vision of some Blackpool players. Adam is likely to pass at any moment, over any range and at any pace. Adam’s first time pass away to West Brom was perfectly executed and showed vision and inspiration that becomes hard to defend against but easy to admire.

Blackpool goal of the season

  1. DJ Campbell v Spurs – This goal was a classic counter attack, fast running, clever touches, turning a defence on it’s heels and a composed finish by Campbell all combined with a little good fortune.
  2. Luke Varney v Wolves – Superbly struck volley stunning Wolves and most spectators at Bloomfield.
  3. Charlie Adam v Blackburn – At 1-0 up, Adam clipped a perfect free-kick out of the reach of Paul Robinson to make it 2-0 at Ewood Park.

Opposition goal of the season

David Silva’s turn and shot at Bloomfield Road was a sight to behold. Crafty, cunning, balanced and one of those goals that even the Blackpool players probably wanted to applaud.

Moving on

Those were a few awards to remember just a small collection of memories of Blackpool’s season in the Premier League. Check back here later in the week for a few posts looking back at the season that was.

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Blackpool v Chelsea – Deep & Counter

“We are going to try to keep our defence a little deeper, bring the midfield a little deeper, and then hopefully counter-attack them”. Ian Holloway.

Ian Holloway had made no secret of his plan prior to the game and for the most part it worked well, however, individual errors in defence and poor movement from his forwards ensured that chances created weren’t clear cut as Chelsea controlled large parts of the match and deserved their comfortable win.

Setting Up

Blackpool had a selection dilemma ahead of the game with Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell both suspended. Holloway chose an unfamiliar line-up with David Carney, Jason Puncheon and Andy Reid slotting in to the midfield and Stephen Crainey coming in at left back. With the ball Blackpool shaped up in a 4-2-3-1, however, out of possession the team sat deep and the forwards dropped back leaving James Beattie as a lone forward and Blackpool shaped in to a 4-5-1. It was Holloway’s intention to sit deep and try to hit Chelsea on the counter, the selection of David Carney on the left wing hinted at giving extra defensive protection down that flank. As a part of this defensive approach Keith Southern and David Vaughan both sat deep out of possession, but with the ball both broke forward with David Vaughan often becoming the spare man in midfield and more advanced than Southern.

Chelsea set up in a 4-4-2 but they applied it with very aggressive positioning so it was different to a regular 4-4-2, however, this may have been due to the fact that Blackpool were happy to let Chelsea have the ball and invited them on to them. Chelsea’s midfield four sat very narrow with Ramires on the right and Zhirkov on the left tucking in tight and the width was provided by both full backs pushing up high in to midfield making almost a six in midfield. As Chelsea advanced in to the attacking third it appeared as if Michael Essien’s brief was to drop deep to cover defence. However, Chelsea in the pass were very one paced and they lacked any dynamism which wasn’t helped by Torres and Drogba being very static and flat up front. The introduction of Solomon Kalou injected the right amount of movement and change in pace of pass to provide the difference between the two teams.

On the left Blackpool sit deep and Chelsea's 4-4-2 takes up an aggressive position. On the right, how Blackpool would normally set up when defending.

First half

Chelsea enjoyed good spells of sustained possession, however, rarely threatened to open Blackpool up, it was poor marking from a corner that notched their first goal. After that Blackpool enjoyed their best period of the game with both Southern and Vaughan finding their rhythm in the pass and in breaking up the opposition. However, Blackpool were very static in their forward movement and James Beattie struggled to ascertain any dominance in the air which could have given them a platform to build on winning 3 of his 7 duels.

Second half

The second half again saw Chelsea control the possession for large parts, but it was the enforced substitution of Salomon Kalou for Didier Drogba which changed the game. Kalou dropped deeper, made direct forward runs, gave short passes and moved which essentially lead to much more dynamism in attack from Chelsea which caused Blackpool’s defence to be pulled out of position leaving them exposed to error.

Kalou came on and was safe in possession and penetrating completing 17 passes in his 35 mins on the pitch. Drogba had 9 successful passes in the previous 55 mins.

Blackpool’s late flurry came from a double substitution which saw Holloway revert to three forwards giving a more varied point of attack which really started to cause Chelsea problems. Stephen Crainey also started to step up in to attack as Blackpool finished this game as they start and play most.

Applying the press

A key observation of both teams is how they differed in the pressing of their opponents. Blackpool normally press all over the pitch and their defending starts with the forwards. In this match they let Chelsea have the ball and only pressed hard when Chelsea advanced to within 35 yards of the goal. Whilst Chelsea pressed from the front, almost hunting in packs to expose Blackpool’s players on the ball and a perfect example of this came in the build up to the penalty. Both Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov pressed Jason Puncheon, forcing the error in possession.

When Blackpool found their rhythm after the opening goal they started to break up Chelsea, all but 2 of their 8 interceptions came in the 25 mins up to half time. Apart from that Blackpool let Chelsea dominate on the ball. You can see the difference in the two teams pressing in the Chalkboards below.

 

 

On top Blackpool pressed only when Chelsea came close and that is where they intercepted. However, on the bottom Chelsea pressed all over with great success.

 

Nine to go!

It should be clear to most observers of the Premier League that Blackpool have a first eleven that is worthy of staying in this league, however, the real question marks hang over their strength in depth. Ian Holloway will be pleased with some performances in this match, particularly from Jason Puncheon who appears to listen to his manager and adapt to game situations. Blackpool will be near full strength for the away trip to Blackburn later in the month and should provide a stern test for their Lancashire rivals. Chelsea on the other hand are a side who can and will beat anyone on their day and may still have a large influence on how this Premier League turns out by game week 38.

Have a read of a Chelsea fan perspective on www.weaintgotnohistory.com: Here

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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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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