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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Upon reading interviews with football managers more often than not they reveal elements of what makes a successful team. Before talking about their playing philosophy, they often talk about the importance of creating the right team spirit or the right energy around the team. Essentially this energy is created through having the right conditions around a team and if the energy is focused and positive it can help fuel the players on to great achievements.
Ian Holloway is a manager who thrives on the right energy and is sensitive to the slightest changes in it; he understands that and works to keep things vibrant and relevant for his team. It is critical that the team energy is never diminished or diverted. If a manager keeps the energy channeled in to the right areas then his team can work together to improve, should that energy be drained away for any reason then it will be harder to get across his training and game objectives. Any quality manager knows that they are only able to influence the things that they can influence and this centres on the training pitch and on events on the match day. The manager must ensure that the energy on the training pitch is focused, positive and working at the right levels and trust the owner or chairman to ensure that the energy around the other elements of the club remain positive.
This energy is hard to understand at times as people experiences energy in different ways. The most common form experienced is that feeling when you enter a room and you know something isn’t right. This is critical in all aspects of life and absolutely critical in football, if the energy isn’t there, how does a manager get across their point of view, why should a player listen. Yes each player has internal motivation, but essentially the team energy is what fuels every player and gives the team the dynamic. The reason this is so pertinent for Blackpool Football Club right now is essentially the energy around the team has dropped. This article will take a little look at this to try to understand why.
It has been widely documented that Blackpool’s accounts show substantial reallocation of money from the football club to the owner Owen Oyston. Regardless of what money has gone and where it has gone, the club have been negligent and brought upon themselves unnecessary attention. There has been talk earlier this season from the chairman (Karl Oyston) that the club has learned its lessons from last season, but apparently that’s not the case. The club still remains aloof towards the impact of their actions and how they can knock on to the team, supporters and the energy around the club.
The lessons from the Charlie Adam saga last January haven’t been learned. The club was performing admirably in the Premier League till the club appeared to anger the player, his potential new club and dangle a substantial bag of carrots to the media. Press conferences started to focus less on the positive aspects of the team to the, ‘What’s the situation with Charlie Adam?’. The media generally don’t care about tactical dynamics and unpicking the fine details of the match. They want sleaze to sell their papers to the vacant majority who like bright pictures, loud noises and something to bitch about.
Public relations as an enterprise is often scorned at, but essentially it’s used to sustain the right energy about a product and in the case of a football club, it can head off rumours and scaremongering. Essentially, Blackpool Football Club could have handled the release of their accounts with some clear communication before the event and failure to do so has left a void which has been filled by the media. Leaving a void can work sometimes; it can create a ‘buzz’, however, in a case such as this it has left a void which can only be filled with rampant negativity. It is this which is critical this time around and replicates the feeling of the Adam saga. The energy is being pulled away from the pitch, Holloway has to field questions about the subject at every turn and that leads to him being pulled in to debates that aren’t really his concern. He loves being on the training pitch, loves being enthusiastic about developing his players. He has genuine love and affection for his players; he is a man who is deeply centred on the things that are true and dear to him.
This concept of team energy can be tricky to define, but there are plenty of examples of energy being misaligned or pulled away from the areas that need it the most. The England national team will struggle to win a major championship as the media focus on the wrong elements in order to sell papers and the players aren’t ever given the time with the management to work towards creating the right energy. Blackburn Rovers suffered with their performances at home when their fans were protesting about Steve Kean’s management of the club. Liverpool to extent don’t seem to have fully refocused the energy around their team too after the Suarez case. It’s critical that this energy is channelled on to the pitch and not displaced in to areas where such energy will fizzle out. Blackpool Football Club have done what they have done with the money and legally they can do what they want. Fans won’t like it and it is hard to understand. Communication is so easy to get wrong, but a policy of no communication is unforgivable and gives out the wrong signals. There’s a lot to be said for softening the blow, it might still stun the victim, but the chances of surviving are much greater.
The effects of this energy drain are visible on the pitch at the moment, but it would be remiss to say that the recent results are a solely attributable to that issue alone. All season long there have been concerns about performances, but results have been strong and Blackpool still have a good prospect of getting to the play offs. Essentially there are a few fundamental footballing issues that have underpinned the season and these will now be explored.
Whilst the club haven’t learned the ‘off pitch’ lessons from last season the same can be said for issues on the pitch. Last season early season injuries saw Holloway flex his team shape away from the 4-3-3 to a more aggressive 4-2-1-3 verging on an aggressive 4-2-4. Only after being soundly thrashed at home to Wigan did Holloway appear to remember what was once dear to him and reverted back to the flat 4-3-3 in the final few games and enjoyed some very good performances. However, the very same dilemma still rumbles on. Blackpool have done very much the same this season. Their better performances come when their midfield three remains flat and retain numerical superiority over their opponent. The moment that is conceded is the moment that Blackpool start to struggle. Holloway’s Blackpool have thrived through team cohesion, underpinned by their energy. They work best in combinations, link ups and supporting each other. When they play the more aggressive 4-2-4 the individual comes out more, the team breaks down quicker and the collective spirit looks spent and stretched.
The reasons for Holloway making these decisions lie in his approach to management. He appears to reward what works well, which is fundamentally a sound approach, however, there does appear to be little understanding that sometimes things work well because of the conditions being right. His allegiance to the 4-2-4 seems to be borne out of his strong ‘in game’ tactical sense when he sees that a game requires an aggressive move, especially when team match us up in midfield and we grind to a halt. When it works, teams can be decimated and completely over run. However, it is debatable whether or not this approach fits in to a suitable starting strategy against any team. It appears that Holloway doesn’t hit the reset button after each game, which can be a fine approach, but a performance as a substitute doesn’t always translate to being a first team pick in the next game. Some players are more tuned in to being a substitute; some games are more suited to a certain player being a substitute.
This all leads to one of the key issues aside from the formation and tactics, the matter of Holloway knowing what his strongest side is and playing it. At the moment the squad is being rotated and a good performance can be rewarded with a further start and a bad performance almost certainly ends up with a place in the stands. Again there are arguments to both sides here, but it feels like it’s not the approach that suits Blackpool right now. This is a side that is still learning to play with each other. The defensive issues appear to be stemming from lack of teamwork, understanding and communication. All of which develop as players play with each other more often. Holloway will surely be trying to stabilise his selection as a cure of some on field issues and allied to that revisit the playing principles that have brought his side so much success. In fact this last point is absolutely key. Holloway is a man of principles and he has admitted in the past that when he has sacrificed his principles his side suffer as a result. It’s almost like he isn’t being authentic and compensates a little too much for the opposition or as much recently the pitch at Bloomfield Road. Holloway may well reflect on his team’s qualities and get back to those in order to restore the energy on the pitch. As a starting strategy, a 4-3-3 has been proven to work well and the aggressive 4-2-4 is proven to work well when chasing a game.
In order to demonstrate the flaws when Blackpool start in the aggressive 4-2-4 the recent game against Hull is a good case study. Here Holloway asked his side to be aggressive both on and off the ball and to look to go long to counteract the uneven pitch which he deemed not conducive to the passing football he wants to play. The 4-2-4 worked well in this instance for an hour. The two midfielders (Barry Ferguson & Keith Southern) worked hard to close Hull down, disrupting their rhythm and Blackpool stretched Hull with long balls being quick to win the second balls. The plan failed when Hull re-organised themselves, Blackpool’s midfield two tired and one of them picked up an injury. Suddenly Hull dominated the middle ground, Blackpool were slower to close them down and slower to the second balls and conceded in the last-minute for a 1-1 draw. Although this performance appeared strong for an hour, it was built on poor foundations and it was hard for Holloway to rework his tactics from such an aggressive position.
At many other times this season the 4-2-4 has struggled as it can be easily split in to two parts (see diagram above) by a hardworking and diligent opponent. Isolate the midfield two, cut off the supply to the front four and a team can nullify Blackpool. Essentially you can form a wall between the attack and defence and all Blackpool’s coherency drains from the team. The flatter 4-3-3 gives Blackpool a better base to work from; they will generally not lose the midfield and attack at pace from that platform. It is from there that Holloway can make changes to affect the dynamic.
Testing the Faith
Holloway’s faith in the 4-3-3 has been tested by teams who seek to stifle his midfield. This has been a clear problem all season as it results in Blackpool being slowed down in midfield and when they reach the final third they come to a stand still. Without effective movement ahead of the ball and players who are aware of the tempo dropping they become predictable and a side can sit behind the ball knowing that they won’t be pulled apart. Holloway’s solution to this has generally been aggressive treble substitutions; normally adding attacking players to the field of play to try to push the opposition even further back. It is here where the 4-2-4 has worked. Blackpool got even more aggressive than that against Coventry going to an almost 3-2-5 which battered Coventry in to submission. The late comebacks have secured Blackpool several points this season at the same time convincing Holloway that the approach provides a viable starting strategy.
The 4-2-4 is sometimes marked out by some observers as a 4-2-3-1, however, that observation looks and feels misplaced. Mainly because the aggressive attributes of the players draws no distinction in the attacking bands of the formation often leaving them left up the field in a flat line of four. Crucially, whoever plays at the attacking point of the midfield trident doesn’t drop deep enough when Blackpool are out of possession and arguably Blackpool don’t have the right type of players to play such a critical role. Elliot Grandin (now at Nice) played the role to some effect, but even he was too aggressive at times to play a role that requires a great deal of tactical and positional understanding.
It’s fair to say that Holloway is still working with his side, but his decisions have become a little distant from his core footballing principles (short passing, possession, ball retention and attack). The next two or three games will be critical, he may be able to get the aggressive approach to work on a regular basis, but he may also appreciate the qualities that his three-man midfield has brought him in the past. However, he still has a dilemma as the ideal three-man midfield may not be on the books at Blackpool at the moment. The club haven’t replaced the drive, creativity and balance that Charlie Adam provided. The club has excellent holding midfielders, runners and good passers, but arguably that spark is still missing and this might be why Holloway is veering towards the 4-2-4.
Added to this there are still major concerns about Blackpool’s defensive work. The spotlight falls upon the defensive line, but essentially Blackpool’s key defensive concerns lie in their off the ball work. Their pressing is very inconsistent. It is often hard to pinpoint their pressing strategy, it is rare that they get this right and their inconsistent off the ball work puts an awful lot of strain on the defence. The defensive phase starts with the attackers, if they fail to exert the required pressure, the midfield needs to step up and apply their press. In playing a high defensive line the pressing needs to be intense and all too often it drops off, affording the opposition midfield too much time and consequently exposing the defence to easy through balls. It’s hard to blame the back line at these times, but they do still appear uncoordinated and it’s never apparent who is responsible for making the call to step up for offside. On the flip side, the defensive line is wholly responsible for the poor work closer to their goal and as seen recently, from set pieces. As at many times last season the defenders seem slow to react to impending danger and often goals are the result of errors that stack up, such as the goal against Cardiff which was analysed on this site. This is basic stuff, but requires improvement, as mentioned earlier; it’s very possible that the rotation of the defensive unit hasn’t helped them to function effectively.
This has been a very critical diagnostic of Blackpool, but ultimately it has come about from a poor run of form. However, it’s very likely that the team will bring this back around. The negativity surrounding the ‘tax dodge’ will dissipate with a strong performance against Brighton on Saturday. Blackpool are inconsistent, but when they click, this side is arguably more impressive than the one seen in the Premier League last season. Yes that spark in midfield might not be there, but their attacking pace and incisive running from wide areas has taken some good sides apart with relative ease. Barry Ferguson has excellent technical quality and when he gets a foothold in the game he organises, composes and drives the team on from deep. Stephen Crainey is an excellent left back who perfectly understands his role in attack as well as defence. Alex Baptiste at right back can make explosive forward runs and support his strike force superbly well. Matt Gilks has been first class, making some truly jaw dropping saves. Up front Matthew Phillips is developing in to a Premier League forward, who combines raw pace, with powerful and accurate shooting. On the other flank Tom Ince is moving away from his inconsistency to provide a probing threat up front. Regardless of shape and tactics, Holloway has a very good squad with lots of options and all in all this side has a chance to become one of the top six in this league.
With ten games to go the season run in starts now. The players and staff have a few days to prepare for the next game whilst fans have a chance to gain some perspective. The owners will no doubt continue as they have done, hopefully next time something potentially explosive starts ticking they’ll work smarter to communicate the dangers so at least the fans can prepare themselves for the bang. Whether or not there should be a bombshell or not is a matter for another time and another place. This time is reserved for replenishing the team’s energy and for fans to rally around their side and support them for the good things that have been brought to Blackpool by Ian Holloway and his team.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.