Sunderland Review

Steve Bruce lost Darren Bent to Aston Villa this week and Daniel Welbeck to injury, but arguably it helped to define his team selection and he reaped the benefits. Ian Holloway will be happy with the way the game ended, but will be hoping that injuries picked up don’t affect his side over the coming games.

Setting up

Sunderland made space hard to come by in the middle of the pitch, Malbranque sitting narrow and out of possession Richardson dropped back in to midfield.

From a formation point of view Blackpool set out in their normal 4-3-3, but Sunderland resembled more of a 4-5-1 out of possession with Kieran Richardson breaking from midfield when in possession of the ball to join Asamoah Gyan up front. Out of possession Sunderland were narrow in midfield, little width was used as Steed Malbranque edged in from the left. In losing Darren Bent this week Steve Bruce was forced in to setting up this way, arguably had he had the same squad at his disposal as the last time these two sides met then he’d possibly have gone 4-4-2 and potentially given control of the centre to Blackpool.

The simple way to effectiveness

Sunderland came with a simple and clear game plan;

  1. Crowd the midfield
  2. Press Blackpool high up the pitch
  3. Attack quick and direct when in possession

It is often the simplest plans that draw the most success and Sunderland carried out theirs to perfection. Each player worked hard to hassle Blackpool players in possession of the ball and in particular this served two purposes. To break up Blackpool’s passing rhythm in midfield and to stop Blackpool playing out from the back. As can be seen below, Zenden and Henderson were told to press Blackpool when they were in possession of the ball in the deep. Often this is where Blackpool build their attacks from, not this time, as Adam and other Blackpool players were given little space to work in early on in the game.

Three Sunderland players ensuring that Blackpool couldn't pass it out from the back. This pressure was applied directly after keeper distribution.
Here you can see that Blackpool are suffocated on the edge of their box. Adam has no space to move in to or many passing options.
Adam has the ball, but two on rushing Sunderland players are making sure he can't find any space to make a play.

The work that Sunderland did in closing down the space pushed Blackpool’s normally reliable passing down to a completion rate of 71%. Sunderland did see less of the ball, but as with any possession in football, it is what you do with it that counts, their pass completion came in at 63%.

The strongest survive

Sunderland are an athletic and strong team and certainly some strong challenges affected Blackpool and their plans for the day. A boot to the nose of Neil Eardley meant he was off the pitch when they scored and an injury to Richard Kingson meant a substitution had to be used to bring on Paul Rachubka. Added to this Stephen Crainey went of with what appeared to be a twisted knee. You can see below how Sunderland instinctively attacked the space left by Eardley being off the pitch. If anything Craig Cathcart (20) perhaps should have checked his position as he is very close to Ian Evatt here and has been sucked in to going where the ball is.

Arguably, had Eardley been on the pitch then he'd assume the position indicated by the tangerine line and Richardson wouldn't have had anywhere to run in to.

Shining Lights

This doesn’t detract from the excellent game Sunderland played and in particular Jordan Henderson stood out, assisting in breaking up Blackpool’s midfield winning all 4 of his duels, making two interceptions and spreading the play when he had the ball as well as making intelligent untracked runs in to the wide right position (first half) to deliver some quality crosses. Also Bolo Zenden was excellent in breaking up play in the centre of midfield winning 7 out of 8 of his duels.

Exploitation

Blackpool did get to grips with Sunderland at times in the first half and once their realised that Sunderland were over committing men in the press, they then exploited the space. However, Craig Gordon had a superb game and once the game went 2-0 Sunderland were happy to drop deeper and ride out whatever Blackpool could throw at them in the hope of catching Blackpool on the counter. Below you can see what happened when Blackpool chipped the ball over the Sunderland midfield. It left Charlie Adam with a full 30 yards to run in to exposing their back line. Only good keeping from Craig Gordon stopped this from being 1-1.

All the Sunderland midfield have committed to attack and press in the final third. A simple 'out ball' leaves Adam with a free run to the back line.

Lack of frontal cohesive movement

Blackpool lacked the focal point of DJ Campbell, often the player that will drop deeper and work hard to win ball as well as making intelligent runs. Gary Taylor-Fletcher didn’t offer the same movement and mobility upfront as Campbell, he doesn’t make forward runs or peel off the shoulder of defenders, he likes to drop to receive the ball before giving and going. This meant that Charlie Adam had little to aim for by way of runners in to the channels or in behind the defence.

Matty Phillips offered some dynamic runs from wider positions, but more often than not he failed to beat his man losing 4 out of 5 take ons. Added to this Luke Varney was very static at times and when he did manage to cut in he failed to make a positive contribution, losing all eight of his duels. In the final third Varney came up short with only 3 of his passes being successful in that area and two of those were out wide and went backwards. Blackpool found it hard to penetrate the Sunderland defence when running with the ball. Look at the Chalkboard to show how attacks around the box broke down as Blackpool lost the take on. Virtually the only time they did break the line, they won a penalty.

Blackpool trying to take Sunderland players on a losing 17 times, look how many are in the final third.

Moving On

Ian Holloway will hope that his team learn from this display and find their rhythm early against Manchester United on Tuesday night as a strong performance could help to set up this next stretch of games where Blackpool will hope to nudge closer to safety. He’ll also hope that the injuries sustained today, don’t have any major impact on his squad. Steve Bruce will be happy that he won and won via a simple and effective game plan.

Liverpool Match Review

Blackpool beat a sluggish, negative and stagnant Liverpool at Anfield back in October and with the return of Kenny Dalglish to the Liverpool hot seat, this match could’ve got away from Blackpool as Fernando Torres scored an early opener. It was a credit to Blackpool as they never panicked or broke from their game plan to get back in to the match.

The set up

Blackpool they lined up in their 4-2-3-1 with what could be described as their first choice eleven, although Elliot Grandin did sit a little deeper than usual at times making a flatter three in midfield. Whilst Dalglish picked a team who set up in a similar fashion to Blackpool, but had Glen Johnson in at left back after he was tipped for a midfield start.

For Blackpool Elliot Grandin played slightly deeper than usual whilst Poulsen sat in front of the Liverpool back four.

The effects of the formations made space very tight in the midfield with Raul Meireles playing in the three behind Torres with Lucas and Christian Poulsen holding deeper. If anything this restricted Blackpool, who at times this season have really struggled against teams who sit a midfielder deep and in front of the back four. A consequence of the midfield set up was that Meireles sat very close to Charlie Adam. At times it appeared that he was almost man marking Adam but it was more likely a consequence of positioning than anything else.

For arguments sake Liverpool’s formation at times could be described as a 4-1-4-1 as much as a 4-2-3-1, as Lucas tended to push higher up. As all the midfielders tried to find space they tended to shuffle with Meireles dropping deeper at times, Adam the same, Vaughan stepping up and Lucas the same. The only midfielder who failed to progress from his position was Poulsen, presumably under instruction. This meant that Blackpool could outnumber Lucas and Meireles in the centre as Grandin dropped deeper and Poulsen was out of the game.

At times Martin Kelly got forward from right back for Liverpool as did Glen Johnson on the left. Blackpool as usual pushed both full backs up when the times were right, but not in as sustained manner as in other matches this season. Both centre forwards worked hard, Torres in particular moved to close down both centre backs when out of possession and when breaking forward he was peeling off to the right and left to escape the centre backs.

First Hour

The game was very even for the first hour, as above, the space was restricted, mistakes were plenty in terms of conceding possession. Chances (goals apart) weren’t clean-cut. However, both sides were trying to pass the ball from the back, Blackpool moving it quicker on occasion in an attempt to either get Luke Varney winning headers against Martin Kelly or to catch Liverpool’s back four flat-footed.

Passing fad

Liverpool had more of the pass, with a pass total of 517 to Blackpool’s 445 with a completion rate of 73% to Blackpool’s 72%. However, as the game progressed Liverpool’s pass completion dropped off with the last 15 minutes of the game seeing it drop as low as 62% whilst Blackpool’s hit 72%. The chart below shows how, as the match progressed Liverpool’s passing disintegrated.

The pass comp % for both teams has been broken down in to 15 minute segments. You can see how as the match progressed from left to right then Liverpool's passing got worse.

Another observation about Liverpool was that their game against Blackburn Liverpool saw them make 598 passes at a completion rate of 74%, however, their passing lacked balance with 64% of their passes coming down the right. In this game they had much better balance with a 49/51 split between left and right.

Pressing matter

Points that stood out for Liverpool was their pressing of the ball higher up the pitch. This is illustrated in the chalkboard below as Liverpool won 65% of their 17 interceptions in the Blackpool half.

Liverpool pressing high up the pitch intercepting Blackpool's passes in their half.

However, very few occurred in front of the Liverpool area and it was this that exposed Liverpool’s back line. Poulsen was presumably asked to sit, screen and break up Blackpool play that threatened the Liverpool defence. However, all his interceptions occurred in the Blackpool half and none in that key area. It wasn’t as though Blackpool were bypassing that zone either, as you can see from the Chalkboard below. Blackpool consistently took on and beat Liverpool players in front of the back line. Poulsen won only 1 of his 5 tackles and effectively offered little or no cover to his defence. With Poulsen being so inert and positioned away from the heart of the action and Meireles being tied up with Adam, this left Lucas having to do the majority of the midfield work attempting 14 tackles winning 10 of them.

Blackpool taking Liverpool players on and beating them.

Parting to the end

In the 77th minute something occurred which was symptomatic of how Liverpool broke down towards the end of the game. With the ball on the back line and Blackpool pressing higher up the pitch, Poulsen dropped to receive the ball, however, Lucas and Meireles were caught too far up the pitch and any attempt to build from the back failed as the ball dropped back to Daniel Agger, he had little choice but to clear long and concede possession. Quite simply, Liverpool started to lose their shape (tiredness?) and never regained it again.

Here, Poulsen (yellow) is about to receive the ball from Agger (black) both under pressure from Taylor-Fletcher (tangerine) and Vaughan (white). There isn't another Liverpool player in the shot ahead of Poulsen. They opted to go long.

Subbing to stifle

Ian Holloway has at times this season tried to ‘shut up shop’ with mixed results, sometimes conceding late goals. In this game, it could be argued that the substitutions were crucial in this match. For Blackpool the injection of Matthew Phillips’ pace forced Liverpool deep and allowed quick counters for Blackpool. Added to this Ian Holloway brought in two defensive midfield subs in order to close out the game with fresh legs and an emphasis on the tackle. Blackpool’s shape changed to a 4-1-4-1 for the last five minutes whilst Liverpool’s changes made them resemble more of a 4-4-2.

Ian Holloway made defensive subs switching to a 4-1-4-1 for the last 5 mins.

It was the Liverpool subs who saw very little of the game who made the least impact. Jonjo Shelvey and David N’gog made a total of 7 passes (3 misplaced) between them, lost 2 of their 3 tackles and didn’t muster a shot. Whereas Alex Baptiste and Keith Southern got on the ball making 11 passes (1 misplaced), won 2 tackles and 2 clearances to ensure that the game end was controlled by Blackpool.

At the double

It was a high tempo, all action performance from Blackpool again and the fresh legs the Tangerines had will have given them an edge against a Liverpool side that tired as the match progressed. It was even more impressive, given that Holloway managed to stifle the game through good substitutions and that Blackpool got a win against a side playing a four band system, something they’ve struggled with this season. Again, the team keeps developing, at this rate, Premier League survival may be a strong reality.

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Tangerines aren't just for Christmas

As 2011 gets underway, Blackpool FC will be looking forward to more of the same which should see the team achieve what was being touted as impossible back in August. Festive fixtures against Sunderland and Manchester City saw similar performances from a statistical point of view but differing outcomes with a win and a loss. A review of last night’s Birmingham game will follow in the next few days.

Statistical Breakdown

The seasonal games were both away, however, it appears that Blackpool from a pass completion point of view progressed from where they left off against Bolton and Stoke in their previous games. Against Bolton Blackpool’s pass completion faded towards the end of the game (there’s a post coming about this) as a 2-0 lead became 2-2 at the final whistle. However, in both of these games Blackpool attained pass completion rates of 75% (S’land) and 77% (Man C). These are very good figures and in both matches allowed Blackpool to set up enough chances to score as they did twice at the Stadium of Light but never at Eastlands, although Joe Hart did make two good saves to shut them out. In both of those games Blackpool had 9 shots on goals with the greater accuracy coming on New Year’s day leading to the aforementioned Hart saves.

In the tackle Blackpool again performed admirably in both games although against a more aerial based Sunderland they lost the aerial battle, but won the aerial duel against City. However, in the city game there were only 9 aerial duels compared to the 37 against Sunderland. By losing so many headers to Steve Bruce’s outfit this will have been a major contributing factor to Sunderland having enough of the ball to create the 30 chances they had on goal. When it came to interceptions Blackpool made 12 at the SoL and only 7 against City. Given that City out passed Blackpool then this suggests that Blackpool struggled to take the ball off City and this figure needed to be higher against a team who pass the ball so much. For instance, when Man City visited Bloomfield Road earlier in the season Blackpool made 15 interceptions in a game that Blackpool had more than their fair share of the play and might have won the game on another day.

Formational Variations

The formational propositions differed in each game, with Sunderland setting up in a 4-4-2 (albeit with Danny Welbeck cutting inside off the left flank) and Blackpool have enjoyed a lot of success against teams this season who set in up this manner. Even though Elliot Grandin went off injured in that game, Gary Taylor-Fletcher dropped in to the central position and helped Blackpool maintain positional continuity. He stayed central for a lot of the time and 71% of his passes occurred in the central zones, so certainly not playing the same role that Grandin did. However, from the central zone where he can create chances he failed to complete a pass in to the opposition box.

Taylor-Fletcher didn't drift like Elliot Grandin does when playing the same role, instead he remained more central.

However, the story over at Eastlands was different as the space on the pitch that Blackpool usually enjoys was closed out by Roberto Mancini’s 4-5-1 bordering on a 4-2-3-1 . All season Blackpool have had less success against teams who play a midfielder (or two) in front of the back four and Nigel de Jong had an outstanding game, making 3 tackles out of 4, misplacing only 2 of his 45 passes and closing out the space in the centre of the pitch. As the game became stretched Blackpool switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-4 to what could only be described as a 4-1-1-4 as Blackpool bypassed midfield play in the last ten minutes to get the ball forward quickly to try and snatch an equaliser. As the season progresses Ian Holloway will need to find ways for his team to break down teams set up with a defensive midfield cover as good as that provided by de Jong.

Shuffling the Midfield Trio

There have been a few discussions on this blog in past couple of months as to what Holloway wants his midfield to do. Over the festive period this has been thrown open again, first with the suspension of Charlie Adam in the game against Sunderland and the subsequent injury to Elliot Grandin in the same game. Therefore the trio used for the main part of the Sunderland game was Vaughan, Sylvestre and Taylor-Fletcher whilst Vaughan and Sylvestre were joined by Adam for the second game. The fact that the first trio oversaw a victory suggests that was better blend, but was there anything within the Chalkboards that suggested a lack of cohesion in the first half against Man City? If it is safe to assume that Sylvestre was filling in for Grandin, then he would assume the position at the head of the midfield trio with Adam and Vaughan sitting behind. However, as discussed above Grandin floats out to the wings which helps to free up the space for Adam to occupy and make passes. What can be seen through the chalkboards is that Sylvestre held a more central position throughout his time on the pitch which could’ve taken away the space that Adam likes to work in and thus lead to a more stunted and broken up first half from Blackpool. In the second half Adam did advance more and this is reflected in him making an extra 4% of his passes in the final third. Although a marginal improvement it still hints at the subbing of Sylvestre lead to Adam getting in to his favoured position more often and given that the match was against a title contender then the team on the whole is going to enjoy less of the ball in advanced positions.

As highlighted in red, Adam managed to get forward a little more after the subbing of Sylvestre.

This leads to the question of whether or not Adam and Sylvestre can operate in the same team and if they can, how will Holloway seek to make that happen given that Sylvestre possesses great quality on the ball as demonstrated in the game at the SoL. What Holloway and Blackpool did learn is that Blackpool can operate successfully without Adam and a look at Sylvestre’s chalkboard from the games shows how impressive he can be on the ball with a pass completion of 80% against Sunderland and 92% against Man City. Added to that, the performance at City showed how he was able to break down City’s normally resolute defensive line as highlighted below.

Sylvestre is safe and creative in possession of the football.

Break on through

The performance against City at Bloomfield Road was characterised on this blog as a performance where Blackpool struggled to break down City’s defence. However, as just mentioned above Sylvestre had some joy with excellent incisive passing and the team in general managed to get through that line more often than they did in the home fixture. This can be interpreted as a sign of progression and development on Blackpool’s behalf as they may be learning to break down the more resolute defences which should help to contribute to getting to safety provided they convert the subsequent chances.

Get him close and he will score!

As discussed on this blog earlier in the season when DJ Campbell was struggling to hit the back of the net, if his team can get the ball to his feet in the area between penalty spot and goal line then he will start scoring. Firstly, the game against Stoke helped to back up this assertion, but the game against Sunderland confirmed it more with his two goals coming from within that range. Whilst against Man City his team couldn’t get him in that close and not only failed to score, but to register a single shot on goal.

Combating Youthful Verve

Matthew Phillips saw more action over the festive period than he probably thought would happen. In both games he enjoyed good success down the right wing with the highlight being the assist for the winner at the SoL. It appeared that both Bruce and Mancini both made substitutions to counter his pace and dribbling ability. With Kieran Richardson’s pace being introduced to counter that of Phillips, whereas Pablo Zabaleta coming on for the more adventurous Aleksandar Kolarov. Both subs made life tough for Phillips; however, it appears that Mancini got the balance right as he sat deeper instead of pushing forward. This meant that instead of Phillips attacking space left by Kolarov he was monitored more watchfully by the resolute Zabaleta who stopped him from getting in behind the defence as he had earlier on as demonstrated below.

The red boxes are arguably where Holloway wants Phillips to operate. While Kolarov was on the pitch Phillips had success, though once Zabaleta came in to the game Phillips struggled and started to drift, even popping up on the left wing.

Take on me!

Just a special mention must go to Carlos Tevez who by repeatedly taking on and beating his man opened up space and by doing so he helps to make some tactics inert, creating his own space and taking players out of the game. Against Blackpool he drifted effortlessly past his man 7 times with 4 coming inside the box and a further two of them on the edge of the box. Little wonder he had so many chances and on another day he may well have had a hat-trick.

Rendering formations temporarily inert as Tevez takes on and creates his own space, constantly giving Blackpool problems.

January Blues

January started off with defeat to the Sky Blues of Manchester and has just been followed with another defeat to the Blues of Birmingham, however, the season is just hitting one of the busiest periods of the calendar and Ian Holloway will know he has strength in depth within his squad and are capable of picking up points anywhere in this league and he’ll be hoping to turn Blackpool’s away form in to this coming sequence of home fixtures as he tries to survive.

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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Spurs – Match Preview

Harry Redknapp divides opinion across the country, but one thing is for sure, he guided his Spurs team in to the Champions League and along with that managed to progress in to the second phase. Yet again another quality side visits Bloomfield Road, however, Ian Holloway will be hoping that his own side will deliver another quality performance to try and upset another side that are ‘bigger and better’.

Tactics

Redknapp has gone on record to say that tactics don’t matter and it’s about the players (apologies for the link as it does go to the gutter aka the Sun newspaper site), but he is more of a tactician than he likes to make out. He will shift and change dependant on circumstance whether pre or in game or due to player availability. If he fails to make any consideration for Blackpool then there is a danger that his side may struggle to beat Blackpool.

Dependant on the fitness of Rafael van der Vaart Spurs will either line up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, the latter favoured should the Dutchman be fit to start. However, even if Jermaine Defoe starts then the latter formation may still be employed as Defoe does has a tendency to drop goal side of any deeper lying midfielders. In Blackpool’s case Defoe may be asked to drop in front of David Vaughan. If so, then that will be interesting as at one point against Stoke last week Kenwyne Jones did exactly the same, putting Vaughan under pressure and lead to concession of possession.

To back up some of Spurs’ formation flexibility Tom Williams did a great summary of how they’ve varied their approach in the Champions league, which shows that Redknapp can be unpredictable. However, should he go for a flat 4-4-2 he will need his players to be on top of their game to overwhelm Blackpool and in part this will go some way to backing up his claim about players counting over tactics. Arsenal have a similar four band line up and his three band system managed to over come them, by going deep and narrow. Not saying Blackpool are in the class of Arsenal here, just that theoretically, as Blackpool have seen already this season, not many teams playing a regular 4-4-2 have enjoyed much success against them. Will Blackpool once again enjoy exploiting the space between the Spurs defence and midfield and it will be interesting to see if Redknapp makes any concession to Holloway and assign a man to track Elliot Grandin.

Formations

If Van der Vaart is fit then Spurs may line up like this, however, if not then Defoe may come in. Redknapp may also opt for the aerial threat of Crouch up front. Blackpool from a formation point of view are unlikely to change even in the absence of Charlie Adam.

Suspension of disbelief

Blackpool’s key selection issue will be around, the man to replace Charlie Adam. There was a huge amount of buzz around Holloway’s team selection against Villa, however, the logic of that performance may well be justified come 5pm on Sunday. Let’s look at who could replace Adam.

First up is the most obvious candidate, Ludovic Sylvestre, acknowledged by some at the club as Blackpool’s best passer of the ball. Holloway, may also choose to bring in Keith Southern as a holding option, which could free up David Vaughan to come in to Charlie’s more advanced role.

Tale of the tape

The Villa game saw Sylvestre make 77 passes with a completion rate of 88% and Southern with 62 at a rate of 79%. In the tackle Sylvestre won 2 out of 2 while Southern won 1 out of 2. Southern came up with 1 interception to Sylvestre’s 2. Just based on performance based around stats then surely Sylvestre (if fit) will get the nod. However, Holloway may take a look at the positional side of this, given that the midfield three this year is staggered, Vaughan sitting deep, followed by a more advanced Charlie Adam then Elliot Grandin. In the Villa game, did anyone take up Charlie’s more advanced position? On the average position diagram Sylvestre held a more central position and as high up as Adam when he came on, whereas Southern was ever so slightly deeper.

Within the pink circle you can see that Sylvestre (19) held the same position line as advanced as Adam (26) and tucked in deeper and behind Adam's marker is that of Southern.

The choice could be determined with reference back to the discussion from the other week around the perfect midfield combination. In that article it was set out that in a midfield three the perfect combination would be a ball winner, a passer and an attacking creator. So when we look at the creativity, neither Southern or Sylvestre made any of the goals, but who made the most passes in to the opposition box. When looking at their Chalkboards you can see that Sylvestre edges that whereas Southern’s intended passes in to the box failed. So it appears that the general feeling of Sylvestre being Adam’s replacement comes out in the final analysis. Should he play then this is his real chance to cement a place in the team. However, should Holloway go with Southern he may be making a concession for the Spurs threat by using him to pick up Van der Vaart. Sylvestre also has the ability to deliver quality set pieces and scored a free kick earlier in the season in the Carling up against MK Dons. However, Holloway is unpredictable, he may also opt for Jason Euell to replace Adam, but there was little in his display against Villa that suggested he’d come in and compliment the midfield.

Sylvestre managed to penetrate the Villa box, however, Southern failed.

Spurs Danger

Spurs will attack down the flanks and given that they will be outnumbered in midfield this may be their best way of creating chances. Aaron Lennon is a very quick right winger who will look to get in behind Stephen Crainey. However, without doubt everyone knows that Gareth Bale poses a great threat to any team he plays against. However, he can be tamed as Everton proved earlier this season. Admittedly the game came after a European night and Blackpool don’t have that factor to benefit them. You can see on the chalkboard below that Bale had a miserable game against Everton not making any of his crosses count and towards the end of the game he was moved to the right wing to escape the attention of Neville. However, Everton were canny and Bale wasn’t shackled by one man only and in fact played Seamus Coleman (a right back) in a right midfield position helped to deny Bale the space he needed. Holloway may ask Gary Taylor-Fletcher to drop slightly deeper to replicate this.

Notice the accumulation of red lines as Bale struggled to connect with his team mates.

Aerially Speaking

Again the aerial question is posed as Spurs have Peter Crouch in their ranks and may start or be used off the bench to great effect. There is some what of a mis-truth around Crouch as some people perceive him to be weak in the air. Zonal Marking did a superb review of his aerial ability in order to break down that myth and clearly when reading it, he will need to be handled with caution should he take the field. However, Blackpool have not lost the aerial battle in their last two games and should not fear his threat if they perform to the best of their ability.

Game on!

Holloway will hope to make the right decision on replacing Adam, it’s something that was going to have to happen at some point this season and win or lose Holloway will have an even better understanding of his squad that can only help the team later on in the season.

Stoke City Report

Blackpool took the three points again from a side who supposedly have better players and made pundits come up with the ‘breath of fresh air’ phrase yet again. In a couple of ten minute spells in either half Blackpool played superb, controlled, passing football, moving Stoke around the pitch and carving out chances. While Stoke played to their strengths from set plays and came very close to breaking the goal line.

Line Ups

Blackpool stuck with the same starting eleven from the Bolton game two weeks ago, whilst Stoke welcomed back Andy Wilkinson and Jermaine Pennant back from injury and took their place on the right hand side of Stoke’s formation with Robert Huth moving back in to his preferred centre position, Jon Walters and Danny Higginbotham dropped to the bench.

Stoke’s shape remained in a rough 4-4-2 throughout the first hour and only once Tuncay was introduced did they have any variation as he dropped in to something more like a midfield three and with the final throw of the dice, Pulis opted to take off a defender for a midfielder and go to a back three. From the Blackpool perspective, the only noticeable change was a subtle one in midfield with David Vaughan sitting deeper in front of the centre backs, presumably to pick up Kenwyne Jones as he withdrew from the front line.

Notice how Vaughan (circled in pink) holds a deeper position, more like a holding midfielder.

Another interesting observation from the average positions above is that DJ Campbell (39), due to his dropping deep to receive the ball, held a deeper average position than Elliot Grandin a member of the recognised midfield unit. This gives Blackpool a platform to attack from and Campbell with generally pass back to Adam or look for little passes or flicks for Grandin to run on to.

Even

The first half was an even affair with chances for both sides, but as mentioned in the preview a moment of magic from Ricardo Fuller could have given Stoke the edge. Prior to that Blackpool dominated possession as Stoke’s midfield appeared to be dropping deeper and deeper. Earlier in the game Stoke worked hard to deny space to Blackpool’s midfield and it worked well as Blackpool started to misplace passes. However, once Stoke backed off Blackpool operated well in the spaces and played between their lines well, got good width and constructed some excellent overlapping passing moves especially down their left flank. Stoke’s main threat came from set pieces, although Blackpool defended poorly at times, failing to pick up men in the box and giving too much time and space for Fuller to hit the bar.

To-&-Fro

The second half started with Stoke almost making the breakthrough, but it was Blackpool who actually did and Charlie Adam was again at the heart of the play and as mentioned a few weeks ago, if Blackpool can get the ball to DJ Campbell close to the 6 yard box with the ball at his feet he will generally get his goals. Stoke were guilty of letting Campbell get that close and will be unhappy with that. Blackpool had some great control of the ball for a period before Stoke tried everything to get on level terms and sharp keeping, goal line clearances and the bar ensured that they failed to find the net.

License to probe

Charlie Adam was the focal point of most of Blackpool’s play, he attempted more passes (63) than any other player on the pitch, however, his success rate was low (66%, the team average was 72%), but that is mainly due to the fact he is given the freedom to try the unique which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Stoke allowed him too much space at times and Adam will revel in that as the more time he has, the more time he had to vary his pass direction. Earlier in the season he developed a left leaning bias to his passing that made him readable, however, a look at his chalkboard shows how penetrative his passing was and how much variation in pass direction there was. His ball for the Grandin chance on  39 mins was sublime as was his passing in the lead up to the goal.

The top chalkboard shows the wide variety of pass (even though slight with a left bias), whilst the lower chalkboard shows how he successfully made passes from open play in to the Stoke box.

A Central Winger

An article by Zonal Marking last week introduced a concept called the ‘central winger’ and it appears that this might go some way to explaining what Holloway sees Grandin’s role to be. He certainly isn’t a traditional playmaker and at his previous clubs he has been played on the wing. When looking at his chalkboards then you can see he drifts to the wings and this was central to some of the excellent passing moves that Blackpool constructed in the wide areas. Given that Grandin’s last two performances have been excellent, could it be that he has learned the role that Holloway wants him to play? If so, is this important for opening up space for Adam to move in to and operate?

Grandin's heat map from his passes show his drift to the wing areas with 36% of his passes on wing.

Pass domination

Blackpool dominated in the pass having attempted 112 passes more than Stoke. The danger for Stoke is that they played in to Blackpool’s hands, Blackpool attempted 445 passes with a 73% completion rate. The teams that have stopped Blackpool passing the ball with a fluency have had the most joy against them (Blackburn worked hard to ensure that Blackpool completed only 67% of passes). Give them the ball, time on the ball and Blackpool have proved that they will create chances in the Premier League. Stoke mainly hit long balls from the ‘keeper as Bolton did the other week and had little joy from that approach, however, Stoke know their own game and are happy to play it. With two central midfielders (Combined, Whitehead and Delap attempted 61 passes, added to this 10 of Delap’s passes were his throws, which were largely unsuccessful) passing with such low amounts means that they have to over rely on the wingers to set up play in open passing moves.

Steady Progress

Blackpool move in to the Christmas period with a great 16 games behind them. Christmas looks like it will be a tough period and the time when the tiresome pundits will roll out the ‘injuries and suspensions’ nonsense as the next test for Blackpool. Charlie Adam is suspended for the Spurs game and Blackpool (according to www.physioroom.com) already have 6 players out injured, so we shall see. However, should Blackpool have at least another three points come the end of the first week of January then everyone at Bloomfield Road will be set for a second half of the season that will be as exciting as the first.

Stoke City Preview

As Ian Holloway squares up to his good friend Tony Pulis, he’ll be hoping to give him a good run for his money like Blackpool did on their visit to the Britannia last year in the Carling Cup. Stoke come in to the match on the back of a draw at Wigan last week, while the Blackpool players will be refreshed after having last Saturday off due to the cold weather.

Looking back to look forward

This preview actually starts its life as a review of Blackpool’s last match as there was something about that Bolton performance that resonated with the public perception of the way that Stoke play. This season Bolton have been praised by most of the mainstream media as being an attractive side and that Owen Coyle likes his team to ‘play the right way’, with the ball on the ground. This style of football was nowhere to be seen at the Reebok stadium where a swift boot of the ball seemed the order of the day.

Bolton are still a direct, long ball team based on the first hour of the match and a pain staking trawl through the chalkboards of that match help to back up that point. Now this isn’t strictly scientific or robust, but it was something to cure the itch that developed whilst watching Jussi Jääskeläinen ‘put his foot through’ another upfield punt. With the opportunity to build from the back via the goalkeeper, Bolton failed to take that approach, instead hitting long balls upfield to utlitise the aerial ability of Kevin Davies. In going through, minute by minute of the chalkboards, Bolton hit 55 ‘long balls’ which accounted for 13% of their total attempted passes that day. The majority of them were hit from open play; however, the majority of them were unsuccessful with 55% failing to find their target.

They hit their long ball finish line around the 60 minute mark when they introduced Martin Petrov and Rodrigo Moreno in to the action. Then, this ‘attractive football’ started to appear, they passed the ball around and their long balls died off. Subsequently their pass completion improved (before 60 mins it was 63%, after 60 mins it went up to 77%) and they bagged two goals to snatch an unlikely draw. So Bolton got nothing against Blackpool by playing long, direct football. This has a lot of similarities for the upcoming fixture against Stoke, hence why this has been brought up.

Bolton continually played long balls from the back in the first hour of the game against Blackpool, especially coming from the goalkeeper as you can see here. The lower chalkboard shows a variation in passes from the hour mark, with more going shorter and wider rather than long.

Battle in the air

In the Bolton preview it was mentioned that Blackpool would concede defeat in the air as long as they won the battle on the ground and picked up the second balls. As it turned out Blackpool were excellent in the tackle against Bolton and in the air they edged it winning 23 headers and losing 22. This was a superb return for Blackpool especially as aerial strength isn’t neccessarily a part of their armoury and in fact both Blackpool goals came from headers. This will give Stoke something to ponder as they do like to play the long ball upfield and lob that flat old long throw in to the box. However, Stoke have someone in the shape of Kenwyne Jones who could really threaten Blackpool aerially. A quick look over the last few games shows that Jones wins his aerial battles. Last week against Wigan he won 66% of his aerial battles and earlier in the season against West Brom won 83%. So if Blackpool allow Jones to win his headers then this will set up Stoke’s attacking play, normally high up the field, putting the Blackpool defence under pressure.

Also, a ploy that worked against Wolves, by hitting the long diagonal right to left to expose the aerial frailty of Keith Foley at right back may not be a wise choice given that Luke Varney may have to jump against Robert Huth (even if Andy Wilkinson is fit, Pulis might take this option to counter Blackpool) who is usually good in the air. Just a closing point to note, two of Blackpool’s three goals in the Carling Cup match against Stoke last year came from headers.

Width and mobility

Blackpool may not try and play the long diagonal given the chances of losing the ball in the air, however, they may well look to go wide along the ground and get the ball played in to the channels and down the line in order to get Stoke’s full backs turning around. If that is something that Holloway opts to do then the wide forwards should be Luke Varney and Matthew Phillips and they’ll be asked to swap regularly to add variety to the Blackpool attack. Given this, it will be interesting to see if Pulis goes for Huth at right back or opts for a more mobile defender. Pulis uses the width of the pitch too and the threat of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant is one for Blackpool to be concerned about. They are wingers as opposed to Blackpool’s wide forwards, they will cross regularly and will deliver clinical set piece delivery when called upon. Neal Eardley struggled at times against Matt Jarvis against Wolves and far too often did he allow him to get a cross in. Should this happen again then Cathcart and Evatt will need to be at their best to repel Stoke.

Starting Out

Stoke set up in a 4-4-2, however, their shape does morph a little as Jones withdraws.

Both managers are very likely to stick with the formations they know, Pulis is an operator of the 4-4-2, whilst most people are now well aware that Holloway gets his side set up in a 4-3-3 morphing in to a 4-2-3-1. However, after looking at the average positions from their game against Wigan (in which Pulis noted he tried to be more positive) Stoke morphed in to a kind of 4-2-3-1 with Delap and Whitehead sitting in central midfield, while Walters and Etherington pushed higher up the flanks with Jones withdrawing deeper, something that Jones does favour in his general play anyway. Both managers have selection choices to make, Holloway’s key decision appears to be the position of wide right forward between Matthew Phillips and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, whilst Pulis has doubts about the fitness of Andy Wilkinson and Jermaine Pennant. Added to this Pulis may always opt to start with Sanli Tuncay, although it is likely that he’ll start on the bench.

Coming off the bench like Bolton

Pulis can look to his bench to change his style away from a direct approach, this comes in the shape of Sanli Tuncay, who is comfortable on the ball, creative with it and positive with his running. If he doesn’t start the game, which is likely, then he can be deployed from the bench, as he was to good effect against Man City, assisting Etherington in scoring the equaliser. For Blackpool this has echoes of Bolton the other week, as Tuncay could help to keep the ball on the ground more, especially if Blackpool are able to match Stoke in the air and shut them out. If this proves to be the case Holloway will need to make sure his side adjusts to the change of style better than they did against Bolton.

Game On!

Whatever the outcome on Saturday, Blackpool will be more confident in facing Stoke given their performance against Bolton and fresh given their week off. However, Stoke won’t give them any time and space on the ball and will test them directly and will look to moments of potential magic from Ricardo Fuller to steal the points come 5 o’clock.

*Note: The long ball was defined by me as a ball hit forward, in the air, covering a distance of 30 yards or more. No comparative analysis was done against other teams in order to place Bolton in context and it was motivated by me being disappointed in seeing a media branded, ‘attractive team’, hitting what I perceived to be a high number of long balls. One day I might attempt to place this in to context when I have the time and should I be proved wrong then I shall put my foot through a size 5 and be very sorry.

**Further note: If anyone wants to have a look at the details of the long balls then I’ll stick them on a Google spreadsheet and add the link in here. Just let me know.

Ten ways to stay in the Barclays Premier League

Holloway loves referencing the 'Barclays' bit of the Premier League name!

As Blackpool lined up against Wigan back in August, most fans were left wondering what awaited them in the highest league in the land. Fifteen matches in to the season and most Blackpool fans know what this Premier League is all about and how we fit in to the landscape. Sick and tired of being branded a breath of fresh air, Blackpool are more than this and there are some real reasons behind this success which if keep repeating themselves then come the end of the season the Tangerines will be dreaming about a second season in this league and being suitably patronised by idiots who go on about second season syndrome without ever really defining what that actually means.

The last two games versus Wolves and Bolton have seen two performances that encapsulate everything that Blackpool are about both from a negative and positive stand point. Stick to what they are doing and Ian Holloway will achieve what was once deemed impossible. To keep Blackpool Football Club in the richest league in the world. Here are ten things from Blackpool’s first fifteen games that should they continue will ensure another large party on the promenade.

Keep Attacking!

The approach that Blackpool have taken in attacking every match has been an approach away from the usual one trodden by a promoted team. This has taken many managers by surprise and they’ve appeared to take Ian Holloway’s claim to attack the Premiership with a pinch of salt. So far Blackpool have scored 23 goals, created 223 chances at an average of 15 per game, scoring 10% of them, with a further 19% hitting their target. Sustain this over the next twenty three games (hypothetically speaking) then Blackpool will have bagged 58 goals by the end of the season, 16 more than Burnley last year and a tally that would have been the eighth highest in the whole season.

Good Form-ation!

It works, it’s positive, it covers all corners of the pitch, and it allows Ian Holloway to get the most out of his players. Each player knows his role and those of his team mates, they subsequently know where everyone is during each phase of play and this helps the team build on field relationships. The system has evolved this season away from the flatish 4-3-3 of last season in to a more modern 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3. The opposition are used to a team like Arsenal setting up in this manner, but a newly promoted side – Never!

Opposition Arrogance

Most fans of Blackpool will be more than familiar with the usual, ‘We can’t lose to this lot’ attitude of fellow fans, but it appears that opposition managers aren’t too far from the same mindset. As long as managers send out their teams in a standard flat 4-4-2 then Blackpool will keep picking up points. Look at Owen Coyle last Saturday, he sent his team out without making any concession for Blackpool thinking that his players and his outdated 4-4-2 would ‘have too much’ for little Blackpool. Only around the sixty minute mark after seeing his midfield being outnumbered three to two and constantly being passed through did he start to think he needed to change. Surely after ten minutes as Elliot Grandin received the ball behind a bemused Fabrice Muamba he should have realised and made a change. Thankfully he didn’t and Blackpool ascended in to a lead.

Counter Intelligence

Following on from the last point, the teams who have made decisions to counter us have had the most success. Most notably Birmingham stunted our formation with a canny application of a narrow diamond midfield. Mick McCarthy fielded a five man midfield and Everton and Blackburn both stifled the midfield by playing a holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1. If teams start doing more homework on our play then the season may grind to a halt quickly, people were wondering where Blackpool’s plan B was after defeat to Birmingham, however, right now Holloway can keep plan B till later.

Basic Defending

A look at the last two games goes a long way to show that Blackpool are starting to defend well after previously being very attack minded. The back four works well as a unit and looking at their chalkboards in the last games they won 48 tackles (the highest this year) and even won the aerial battle against a Bolton side who have been so dominant in the air at times this season.

Blackpool cleared their lines superbly against Wolves making 42 successful clearances (the highest this season for Blackpool) at a success rate of 63%, whilst against Bolton they were less successful only clearing their lines 35% of the time. This helps to explain a little of how Blackpool failed to hold on to their lead against Bolton, as the match progressed clearances failed and the opposition were able to regroup and hit back.

Stout defending against Wolves, but less success against Bolton.

Pass Masters

Well not quite, that would be Barcelona who made 684 passes against Real Madrid in the recent ‘el classico’ with a completion rate of 89%. However, Blackpool pass and pass the ball well, no cynical lumping of the ball up the field here. Keep passing like this till the end of the season and teams will be broken down time and again. To put this in perspective, Blackpool average 474 passes per game with a completion rate of 75%. There is room for improvement in the completion rate and Holloway will keep striving for that if he is to head along his desired Spanish route to playing football. The key is the way that Blackpool have started to penetrate in to opposition boxes, look below at the passes that made it in to the Bolton box last Saturday. This inevitably leads to scoring chances, goals and points.

Blackpool managed to pass the ball well in to the danger zone and broke through the defensive line of Bolton.

Diagonal Puzzle

A lot of fans reference this as a long ball, but it is much more sophisticated than that and has been used for years by many top quality teams (most notably Ajax and the Dutch national team) to shift defence in to attack, stretch the play and to set up a ‘move’. Teams are genuinely uncomfortable with such a ball being played and as for Wolves, it caused such concern for Mick McCarthy that he moved Michael Mancienne back to right back to counter the threat. This ball was in use last season and appears at times to be a set move. Next time it is played from left to right up to the right hand foward, check to see if Neil Eardley has moved up and Charlie Adam has moved in towards the ball also. If so, expect Adam to pick up the ball early from the knock down and set up either an overlap for the full back or in behind the defence for the forwards to run on to.

Here you can see the way the Blackpool play a long, left to right diagonal ball as a set attacking move.

Rack ’em up!

Up to now, there’s not been a bad run where points have dried up, only one occasion where back to back losses have been recorded, if that remains the same then that is crucial to keeping the status as a Premier League team. The media love a newly promoted team to hit a rough patch so they can wheel out the cliche machine and churn out more claptrap which can nag away at people’s confidence.

Get DJ with the ball at his feet in the right areas…..

And he will score. He worked so hard at the Reebok and he is so much more effective in the central striker role than he was in the deeper midfield based role. At the rate he’s going he may bag around 8 goals by the end of the season and they’ll all help to keep Pool safe. If his team mates get the ball to his feet in to the area between the goal and the penalty spot he’ll score. All his eleven goals in the Championship last year came in this zone.

DJ Campbell's 11 goals mapped out above, showing approx position ball was struck and direction of going in to the goal

Stay alert at all times

Blackpool are at their most vunerable after they’ve just scored, when they’ve conceded a free kick or in the last few minutes of games. 9 of the 29 goals conceded this season have come in the last quarter of the game.

When Manchester United come to visit on Saturday, should Ian Holloway keep his side performing the way they have up to now then Alex Ferguson will need to pay respect to Blackpool and ensure that he counters the threat Blackpool carry. Blackpool will create chances again on Saturday and if the defensive robustness found recently comes through again then the men in Tangerine may well sneak something from the fixture.

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Bolton Preview

Blackpool head to the Reebok  stadium for the first time, looking to match a Bolton side who are impressing people across the land with their performances over the past few weeks. Most are acknowledging that they aren’t the side of Allardyce or Megson any more and Owen Coyle has them passing the ball around in a more attractive, and on recent results, effective fashion.

Ian Holloway has a couple of choices to make from a selection point of view, namely who will play as the central striker and who will play at the head of the midfield triangle in the 4-2-1-3 or the 4-2-3-1, if the two wide forwards pull back a little. It’s likely that DJ Campbell will play in the central striker role and Elliot Grandin will return in midfield, although Gary Taylor-Fletcher may be an option for a deeper role than he normally plays.

Bolton are likely to come out in a 4-4-2 and will work hard to press Blackpool to put them under pressure. Muamba may have to drop to cover the movement of Grandin.

Bolton appear to line up in a 4-4-2, the full backs don’t push too far forward and Fabrice Muamba will hold a slightly deeper position than his midfield partner Stuart Holden, who will look to break forward to support the attack. On the wings, both Matthew Taylor and Chung-Yong Lee will push forward and will cross early and from deep for the target men in the forward line. Both forwards will drop deep to receive the ball and when out of possession will also drop back to add numbers to midfield to assist in breaking up the opposition play.

As with Wolves last week, this site discussed the theoretical issues of a 4-4-2 coming up against a 4-2-3-1 and again that could pose a problem for Bolton. Last week Wolves took steps to move away from that by setting out in a 4-5-1, however, there’s no precedent to suggest that Coyle will make a shift in formation and that may well play in to Ian Holloway’s hands. Coyle employs a style within his 4-4-2 that will help to level out the formation disadvantage. What is this style?

First of all, he may well have his side passing the ball with panache and style, but he is still fond of having his keeper and defenders skipping out midfield with long balls which will help them counter Blackpool’s potential midfield dominance given that Bolton will be outnumbered in that department by three to two. See the chalkboards below and how Jussi Jääskeläinen made just 3 of his 37 passes short, the rest sent long. On the other hand Richard Kingson went short on 19 of his 51 passes last week against Wolves.

Jussi Jääskeläinen hitting 8% of his passes short so Bolton still go long from the 'keeper, compared to Blackpool's Richard Kingson who plays out short from the back 38% of the time.

Also, out of possession Bolton will work hard to close down the Blackpool team and close out any space, every player has a remit to press the opposition and will not allow Blackpool any time to ponder on the ball. Blackpool will need to find their passing rhythm early and in tight spaces or face a tough battle to assert dominance in midfield. However, should they do this then the midfield two of Holden and Muamba might be easily bypassed leaving Grandin in plenty of space to operate. Given this, then Coyle may ask Muamba to drop deeper than normal to cover that space. However, this again is fraught with problems as it may leave either Adam or Vaughan with plenty of space to operate. Thus igniting the issue of playing 4-4-2 against 4-2-3-1. Coyle will surely start to rely more on the long ball this Saturday to bypass Blackpool’s midfield and Blackpool will face a similar challenge to that which they faced against Newcastle earlier in the season.

Bolton will hope to win the battle of the tackle as they did against Newcastle and Wolves in their last two games, in particular they are hard to dominate aerially (Zat Knight and Gary Cahill are very dominant in the air at the back) and Blackpool will be happy to concede defeat the air, if they pick up on the second balls and use them to construct thoughtful and patient attacks as they did up at Newcastle. Also, look at the following chalkboards and notice that Bolton (against Newcastle) made 21 interceptions and conceded 17 free-kicks in and around the midfield area, this will disrupt even the most fluent of passing teams and allow Bolton to assert themselves on the game. This doesn’t suggest for one minute that Bolton foul tactically in the midfield in order to reset themselves positionally, but the commitment of those fouls in and around such a key area can help to disrupt an attacking team. Bolton will be happy to give away fouls around the half way line and invite the long ball in to the box knowing that they will win most of the headers in that area. Andy Carroll only won half of his headers last week against Bolton’s back line and he is widely noted as being excellent in the air, so DJ Campbell will not be getting his head to too many high balls.

This shows how Bolton broke up Newcastle's midfield flow with 21 interceptions and conceding 17 free kicks.

Kevin Davies is the Bolton talisman and will seek to pull out wide to make passing plays or flick headers for willing runners. More impressive recently, has been the form of Johan Elmander, who since he has a new contract to win somewhere has suddenly found some superb form. He is both a threat in the air and on the ground and will also seek to take players on, beat them and take them out of the game in order to isolate opposing defenders and create numerical advantage. Look at this chalkboard from Newcastle and seek how many times Elmander took on and beat Newcastle players boosting both his team and their supporters.

Elmander taking on and beating Newcastle players, which takes players out of attacks and opens up space for Bolton.

This could be the start of a very tough period of games for Blackpool and points may well be very hard to come by, this will be a very difficult game against one of the form teams in the league and the favourites for this match. However, Blackpool fear no one and will attack. Something from the game at the Reebok will be a fantastic achievement for the Tangerines.

Wolves Preview

Both sides have been praised for their approaches to playing football this season. Blackpool will attack any team and Wolves for that matter too. Both sides like to pass the ball about and try and work the opposition out of position. This game could though, come down to the decisions that Mick McCarthy has to make.

Formations

If as the Bolton game McCarthy sends out his side in a 4-4-2 then this is how they may line up

With exception of Chelsea away Ian Holloway keeps his formation the same, whilst Mick McCarthy has over the past few weeks shown that he will adapt his formation for his opposition. McCarthy last week opted for a 4-4-2 against Bolton and a 4-5-1 against Arsenal in the previous game. Here’s where a critical decision lies, did McCarthy make the call for a five man midfield based on the perceived quality of opposition or did he do it from a counter formation point of view. For example, did he see the fact that Arsenal line up in a 4-2-3-1 and counter that by trying to crowd the midfield. Should Wolves form in to a 4-4-2 then that will be very interesting as either McCarthy doesn’t neccessarily counter the opposition formation or that he genuinely belives his 4-4-2 will overcome Holloway’s modfied 4-3-3. Theoretically, he would be playing in to the hands of Holloway should he go 4-4-2 as that leaves plenty of space for Blackpool to operate in in between the Wolves defence and midfield. This is illustrated below, as Blackpool triangulate their midfield three, with one player at the head (usually Grandin) which leaves Blackpool able to play through the Wolves midfield and for Grandin to float in to space.

The red box shows the space a 4-4-2 formation may well conceded to Blackpool's 4-3-3

The way to counter that would be to drop a central midfielder to cover, a centre back to step up or for pressure from Wolves’ two central midfielders on Adam and Vaughan in order to win the ball high up the pitch and set up attacks. The other way for a 4-4-2 to succeed against a 4-3-3 is the way that both Newcastle and Sunderland worked against Arsenal and Chelsea respectively. They pressed the opposition all over the pitch to deny them any space and the two forwards dropped deep to ensure all eleven men were goal side of the ball.

If McCarthy brings out his 4-5-1 then that will signal his intent to stifle the Blackpool midfield, who if given space have shown they can dominate teams at this level with metronomic and incisive passing. By packing the midfield with more men, McCarthy will hope to crowd out Blackpool and disrupt their rhythm. However, as with the opening 20 minutes against Arsenal the other week, playing a five man midfield requires an understanding of when to break out to support the forward player. Should the midfield remain static then that isolates the front man and ultimately invites pressure back on to them. Where Wolves got it right against Arsenal (given that they had enough chances to win the game) was that Milijas eventually realised he had to break out from midfield to support attacks and Jarvis and Hunt got forward superbly on the wings. See the image below and how that space that Blackpool had may well evaporate should McCarthy go with a 4-5-1.

With a 4-5-1 Wolves could cover the space normally allowed to Blackpool's midfield when they play against a 4-4-2.

This leads on to the final dynamic, what should happen if McCarthy calls for a 4-3-3 approach and match Blackpool, this could easily happen as he has the players at his disposal to do so. That would be fascinating, it might well see the likes of Adam, Vaughan, Henry, Mancienne (if selected) forced deeper to cover the central attacking midfielder leaving the most critical battle in the wide areas. Wolves could enjoy that factor given the form of Matt Jarvis and the precise delivery from Stephen Hunt. Holloway may well ask his full backs to site deeper should this happen and if so Blackpool will have to be very careful not to get dragged too deep as a unit and invite Wolves to attack them. Holloway would look to his own wide men for the same and given the pace of Varney and (if selected as most fans are crying out for) Matty Phillips then Wolves’ full backs may well be under pressure. Given the injuries that McCarthy has to deal with in defence then his full back choices may be the most critical. He’ll be aware of the pace Blackpool have in wide areas and will need good mobility from his full backs to nullify the threat.

The injuries that McCarthy is contending with may well be critical in this battle. His defensive selections should dictate how his defence plays. If he goes for the likes of Steven Mouyokolo as a centre back then his defence may play a normal to deep line to counter the pace and mobility of Blackpool’s forward line. Likewise Holloway may look at that and think that he needs more physicality against a strong defender and opt for Harewood to start. The problem for McCarthy comes back to the 4-4-2 problem. If he wants his defence to play deeper than normal to cover the pace that Blackpool have then that could open up more space between defence and midfield for Blackpool to exploit. In fact given his defensive options then McCarthy’s formation may be dictated from the back. A less mobile defensive back line that sits deeper might see McCarthy go for the 4-5-1 with one midfielder given the remit to drop in to the space and cover.

That was very heavy on theory, looking back at Wolves’ last two games there are a couple of interesting aspects to be aware of. Arsenal appeared to defend resolutely and of course they had an inspirational performance from Lukas Fabianski to thank, but also they defended Wolves’ crosses superbly. Look below and see the amount of unsuccessful crosses that Wolves’ had. Blackpool will need to do they basics well, cut out the inevitable crosses and clear their back line.

Arsenal defended Wolves' crossing very well. Blackpool will need to do the same to avoid being dominated.

Against Bolton, Wolves, who have a reputation for being tough in the tackle, were out fought in that area by a Bolton team perceived to have ‘gone soft’ under the stewardship of Owen Coyle. Look below at how Wolves were second best all over the park. In fact Gary Cahill and Zat Knight were dominant in the air. Cathcart and Evatt will need to look at emulating that for Blackpool to gain an advantage.

Bolton were dominant in the tackle especially in their own half, this is crucial against Wolves in breaking down their play.

So Blackpool will be hoping to win the battle of the tackle and stop the crosses hitting their targets and that may well go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game. Holloway and McCarthy will both enjoy this match up and this is surely what Holloway imagined his work would be like when he got Blackpool promoted. He will hope to counter the decisions that McCarthy makes in order to bring some more Premiership points to Blackpool’s already impressive tally.

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