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.

Head over to the Vital Blackpool Forum to discuss this article with other fans.

The Perfect Combination?

A review by Zonal Marking of the Manchester derby didn’t do much to heighten the enjoyment of a truly awful spectacle, however, it did inspire this article about Blackpool’s midfield. The review touched on the idea of the ideal combination of a midfield three, both examples on that night were far from ideal and were cited as being behind the drab stalemate. The ideal combinations offered by the article included the breakdown that a team playing three in midfield should have a ball winner, a passer and an attacking creator. Instantly the Championship midfield trio of Southern, Adam and Vaughan sprung to mind, that had everything last season; balance, grit, energy, precision, vision and creativity to name a few characteristics. This season two of that trio are still playing exceptionally, but due to injury the ball winner was unavailable and Elliot Grandin came in to become a part of the midfield. Grandin has many qualities and has excited the Blackpool fans with his performances so far. He of the three though is the one that Holloway tends to sacrifice when he feels changes are needed. Does this mean that Grandin isn’t offering the midfield balance that Holloway is looking for or is his role something else entirely.

Ian Holloway appears to have set roles for each player to perform within his system and this allows him to make changes such as the 10 he made against Villa, without changing the shape or style of the team. Each of the three must have a set role, and as Holloway has openly cited Spain as an influence on how he wants his team to play then maybe he’s looking for Blackpool to have their own Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta or as defined above a ball winner, a passer and an attacking creator. If this is the case how does Blackpool’s midfield measure up against that ideal combination.

Last Saturday the midfield trio lined up against West Ham, in the tackle David Vaughan won all of five of his challenges, Charlie Adam won two and Grandin none. Given that Vaughan tends to sit deeper than the other two and won the most tackles then on the day he was the ball winner.

Looking at the number and accuracy of passes should give an idea of who the passer in the team is. Grandin was only on the pitch till the 59th minute so the passes were only counted till then. Vaughan completed thirty out of thirty four passes, Adam twenty five from thirty one and Grandin sixteen from twenty. Vaughan comes out on top here as the passer and looking back on previous games, he tends to rack up the most passes out of the trio in the games that have been played this season. You can see the differences in Vaughan and Grandin’s pasing below. Vaughan’s passes covering box to box and generally much deeper than Grandin.

Finally, who stood out as the attacking creator? This is the most obvious selection, Adam gets involved in most of the plays that Blackpool have, he is the nearest thing there is to a playmaker in the midfield. There were no goals against West Ham which would have given a better indication of the ‘attacking creator’ based on assists, however, when looking at the goal scoring chances from open play then Adam was involved in five chances, Vaughan five and Grandin one. This backs up the assertion that Adam makes plays, but Vaughan is his equal. Over the season though Adam has created the most goals for the Tangerines and again that should see him fit in as the playmaker and it’s fair to say that Holloway does give him license to try the extra ball that carries a higher risk, such as the diagonal pass with the outside of his left foot that Campbell pounced on to score at St James’. You can see below a couple of passes that Adam has made this season to contribute to goals (Adam is circled in red).

What does this say about Blackpool’s midfield or even Blackpool’s tactics for that matter? Well first and foremost it shows just how important David Vaughan is to the midfield unit. He is a true all rounder and almost the midfield lynch-pin, Adam gets the plaudits and the media glare but Vaughan is equally as important. It shows that if Holloway has an approach to his midfield three similar to that as described above then there is a lack of balance with Vaughan seemingly playing two roles and Grandin none. It could indicate that this season Holloway has moved away from a midfield three and sees his midfield as Vaughan and Adam with Grandin as a forward, a second striker perhaps filling in behind Campbell. The match against Wolves should go some way to understanding where Blackpool’s midfield is right now, should Grandin drop to the bench to replaced by Southern or Sylvestre then perhaps Holloway is aiming for the ideal combination in midfield.

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West Ham Preview

Looking at the way that both defences have been broken down so many times this season then it might make for an open game. Both sides will be going out for the win and that approach will make sure that space is easy to come by. The manager who gets his team to exploit that space most effectively will see his team dominate the game.

Formations

Blackpool will likely return to a more familiar first eleven, however, Ian Holloway may consider some of the stand out players from the Villa game such as Ludo Sylvestre. He was efficient with his passing against Villa and adds a little extra dimension when taking set pieces.

West Ham have a slightly asymmetrical feel to it as Piquionne favours the right flank as well as the right winger.

Looking at West Ham’s last game then they lined up in a rough, slightly staggered 4-4-2 or perhaps even a 4-4-1-1. The key difference to this formation appears to be the role that Piquionne plays. He can either play as an out and out forward, or slightly deeper, with a bias towards the right side. This can be seen in the average positions from their last game below. Note the red circle, it highlights the bias towards the right with Dyer underlined in green higher up the pitch than the recognised attacker Piquionne underlined in pink.

The red circle highlights the bias towards the right wing with little balance on the left.

From the way that the two teams will set up then we can see that space in front of the defences is key once again. If Avram Grant selects Boa Morte then that hints at more progression in to attack, as the alternative Radoslav Kovac is likely to sit and contain the play more. Boa Morte may well be assigned to exploit that space and pass balls in to the box. If that proves to be the case then a Blackpool midfielder will need to drop to cover that space. For that reason and given his performance against Villa then Sylvestre may well be asked to carry out this role. As for West Ham, Scott Parker will drop in to that space as Blackpool enjoy breaking from midfield in to there. From a formation point of view, at times against Villa and again towards the end of the Everton game Blackpool’s front three dropped to a one almost and shaped the team in to a 4-2-3-1.

Hammers Heartbeat

Most people will know that Scott Parker is the West Ham heartbeat, you can see here that his passing is efficient and he holds together West Ham’s midfield and helps to set an attacking tempo. Added to that he isn’t afraid to shoot from midfield, which Blackpool must be fully aware of. However, if Blackpool can throw off Parker’s passing then it’s likely that West Ham will struggle to get a foothold in the game. It looked like West Brom did a good job of that as below you can see his passing performance against them, set off against a near flawless performance from the other week against Birmingham. Also note how much further his passes are from the opposition box.

Parker misplaced only one pass all game against Birmingham and got in to positions near their box. Note how more passes where misplaced against West Brom and that he isn't getting as near to their box.

Right Wing Hammering

Looking back at the performance against West Brom, then West Ham favoured the right wing for attacks, which is partly explained by the role that Piquionne plays, but also partly by the return to fitness of Kieron Dyer who’ll look to get forward regularly if selected.

West Ham favouring the right wing for attacks against West Brom

This will be an interesting aspect of the game, should West Ham stick to this biased approach and it’ll need Stephen Crainey being alert as well as Ian Evatt to cover should West Ham isolate Crainey in a two versus one situation. This bias may have been a ploy to attack perceived weaknesses of West Brom’s left side. They certainly had a much better attacking balance against Birmingham, but in their home game against Newcastle then the right wing again became the favoured route.

Fluency

West Ham have a tradition for playing good passing football and look to construct moves rather than the more direct approach employed by Stoke. Looking at the pass counts for each match West Ham have a decent number of passes each match (approx 300) and they complete 80% of them. However, the key to this passing as with any team is making the passes count. Generally, Scott Parker will see most of the ball in the middle of the pitch, but the penetration needs to come from somewhere else as well. Perhaps this is why West Ham have struggled this year. In their formation you’d expect that to come from some like Boa Morte, however, based on the West Brom game, it doesn’t appear to be the case. Piquionne appeared to be that person, but given he moves towards the flank he cannot be as dangerous as often as someone who hold the more central role.

Who is getting the ball in to the box apart from Scott Parker. Boa Morte in 54 mins didn't, but Piquionne from the right had more success.

Game on!

Both sides will look for a win here, West Ham need one and Blackpool will always look for one. Given the defences that will line up then there may well be plenty of goals. The focus will be on Ian Holloway selection, but should Blackpool win then the focus will turn to the manner of that victory and go some way to vindicating his midweek team selection.

Aston Villa Preview

Blackpool go to Villa Park after collecting an excellent point against Everton, while the hosts will come in to the game on the back of two draws. Villa are under new management and there are signs that Gerard Houllier is beginning to stamp his mark on this team. They are a little short on personnel cause of injuries in key central areas and this may well force Houllier to adapt his style somewhat.

Formations

It’s normally safe to say that Holloway will stick with his 4-3-3 which was more representative of those numbers on Saturday against Everton as opposed to the 4-2-1-3 that has been emerging in this campaign. However, this may may alter slightly given Holloway’s intimation that he may rest players. It will be hard to call the team for Blackpool, however, the same can be said of Villa given the injuries they have. Houllier tends to favour a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, the teams may well line up like this (note that the Blackpool team is based on nothing but gut instinct).

Taking a look at Villa’s previous home game versus Birmingham City then these were the average positions, roughly outlining their 4-2-3-1 approach.

This formation (defence in red, midfield in green and attack in pink) does bear a little resemblance to that which Blackpool have been playing this season.

What to expect?

On the face of it, both sides may line up very similar in formation, but the way that the formation is executed may differ somewhat. Blackpool like to push the full backs up high when in possession of the ball in order to strangle the territory in the final third whilst Houllier likes his full backs to sit more and leave a more defined line of four even when in possession. However, at Fulham over the weekend, Luke Young pushed up to add width and support in attack at times. Villa when they have either John Carew or Emile Heskey fit, can play with greater flexibility moving forward as they have focal points in the air and on the ground. However, given both those strikers are injured then they will need to adapt their approach due to their replacements (Nathan Delfouneso is a probable starter) not overtly being an aerial threat. Both sides utilise wide men to create width and in the case of Villa to deliver excellent crosses for conversion in the box. As has been noted already, Blackpool do like to get crosses in the box, however, they must be early crosses and to feet. However, should Harewood start then cross variation might be better given his height advantage over that which Campbell offers.

Given the injuries that Villa have, then predicting their style based on previous performances becomes tricky and that in itself presents Blackpool with a problem. Beware of the wounded animal as you don’t know how they’ll react. In their midfield Houllier will possibly be choosing from Ciaran Clark or Stephen Ireland (his other option of Steve Sidwell is apparently not fit either) to fill in for Reo-Coker. Whichever, starts will show Houllier’s hand, Clark should be more defensive and Ireland more progressive and attacking. However, what is clear is that should they line up like above then the space in front of the defence is crucial and the team that reduces that space or likewise exploits it should see the best outcomes. Villa may well ask Ciaran Clark to drop in to that space, whilst Holloway may expect his midfielders to rotate that duty or opt for Southern or Sylvestre to drop deeper to cover the threat of Ashley Young. Below you can see the role that Clark played against Fulham at the weekend, passing from deep and tackling to break up the play in the midfield area.

Defensive Strength

Defensively, Villa have a reputation for being miserly, resilient and strong. Brad Friedel is an excellent keeper and the defensive line is superbly lead by Richard Dunne, they’ve conceded 14 goals this season but note that 6 were in one game. They’ve only conceded two in their last four games (five since Houllier took charge against Wolves) and will be another stubborn defence for Blackpool to break down similar to Everton at the weekend.

Opportunity

Keeping the ball and then winning it when you don’t have it are key elements to any game. One thing to note from the game against Fulham is Friedel kicking long and it resulting in Aston Villa losing possession. Perhaps he is still kicking long as that is what they’ve done with a tall target man, however, Blackpool may wish to exploit this and ensure that they win as many of Friedel’s long balls as possible given that Villa’s aerial threat may have gone. However, don’t be surprised to see Friedel distributing along the ground come the match time.

The circled headers are the ones won by Fulham in the area you might expect Heskey or Carew to win them. Given they are both injured then Fulham were very successful in this area.

Better the devil you know

Barry Bannan will be familiar to all Blackpool fans, he has made a breakthrough at Villa this season and seems to be finding his confidence in the Premiership. Looking at this performance at Fulham at the weekend against one from earlier in the season you can almost see his confidence through his passing. Note the range of his passing and the assist in white for Mark Albrighton to score. Also note the variation in direction making him unpredictable and hard to read, which is a critical factor unlocking a defence. Finally, look at his balls in to the box. One to the left, one to the right and one through the middle just to keep everyone on their toes. Should be great to see him go up against Charlie Adam should Adam get a start.

Game on!

This could be one open game for both teams, however, given Houllier’s taste for defensive stability then perhaps he may set out to stifle the space that Blackpool like to play in, which is now becoming quite common for Blackpool to be faced with. However, should he give more freedom to attack to his midfielders then we should see plenty of action in and around both boxes. Ian Holloway will love this tactical battle and I suspect will have a couple of tricks up his sleeve to vary Blackpool’s style given a potential change of personnel.