Cardiff should have won this game with some considerable ease as Blackpool struggled to get any fluency in possession of the football and weren’t effective enough without it.
Blackpool fielded an unchanged side in their variant of a 4-3-3 with Gary Taylor-Fletcher once again at the tip of the central midfield triangle. The actuality of the shape will be discussed later on. Cardiff dropped Robert Earnshaw, presumably for tactical reasons as Malky Mackay replicated the approach of both Derby and Ipswich by packing the midfield. He has his side man for man in the middle of the pitch setting them up in a rough 4-5-1 formation with Peter Whittingham advancing to support Kenny Millar, who acted as the lone striker.
Again the centre of the pitch was the focus of the battle and Mackay made the right moves. For the third home game running a manager has packed the midfield. Whilst Derby packed the midfield to great effect they were opportunist in seizing their win, Ipswich did well in stifling Blackpool but appeared to have no game plan in possession. However, Cardiff both stifled Blackpool excellently, but were technically much more competent on the ball than the other two teams and were able to structure their attacks with more cohesion.
Why did Cardiff win the centre ground?
Blackpool’s shape on and off the ball was inconsistent at times, on paper they matched up 3 v 3 in the centre, but when Gary Taylor-Fletcher failed to recover his off ball position this left Blackpool outnumbered in the centre. There are certainly questions about Taylor-Fletcher’s effectiveness in a midfield role. He is certainly excellent in the final third for such a role, but in tight games like this he needs to not only recover position but close out the opposition and make tackles. Is Taylor-Fletcher more effective starting deep and drifting up the pitch or starting up and drifting deep? Arguably the latter is the preferred option as it frees him from defensive duties and he is harder to track from the higher starting position, asking questions of the opposition defence and midfield as he sneaks in to space. This has the feeling of last season when Blackpool struggled in the Premier League when losing sight of their flatter midfield three and only recovering it when 3-1 down to Wigan at home. Will Holloway seek to restore the flatter shape for his midfield three or will he persist with one man advancing and Blackpool straying towards a 4-2-4.
Cardiff completely outworked Blackpool in the centre. As soon as a Blackpool player received the ball a Cardiff man went to close him down immediately. They shared the work load well and Peter Whittingham put pressure on Barry Ferguson in the deep and always looked to get goal side of him. On the other hand, Blackpool’s pressing was sporadic at best and at times almost seemed to invite Cardiff to turn and attack them.
Winning the centre ground in a football match doesn’t guarantee a team anything, however, given that Cardiff were so dominant they also performed much better in other aspects. None more so than the work of Whittingham, Craig Conway and Don Cowie. As Kenny Millar performed a lone striking role they worked superbly to get forward to support him, giving him passing options and especially Cowie and Conway getting in to dangerous positions in wide areas. Added to this they were composed on the ball in and around the final third and delivered some very tricky crosses and passes that through a combination of Blackpool defending and Cardiff poor finishing ensured that they inflicted little real damage. Conway in particularly looked very dangerous picking an excellent pass in the deep which split open Blackpool’s dis-organised high defensive line as well as laying on the cross for Cowie’s goal.
An interesting observation about this match was how little Blackpool’s full backs got forward. In a number of games this season, Blackpool’s stepped up their game when Alex Baptiste progressed forward. In this match he rarely got forward, it could be assumed that this was more to the excellent play of Cardiff’s wide men ensuring that they were continually occupied. It’s likely that to be the case rather than Ian Holloway asking them to sit as that was hardly a ploy he tried in the Premier League and certainly not something that would help Blackpool. Matt Hill in addition to staying back also strayed very centrally and seemed uncomfortable in keeping his width and stepping higher up to support the midfield. The moment that Stephen Crainey came on Blackpool looked like holding on to the ball better. He understands the role and how he can influence the game from full back. Helping to support the midfield offering passing options, but also in getting the ball up to the forwards as he did in the lead up to the Blackpool equaliser.
Cardiff have a solid looking Championship team, functional, spirited, flexible, creative and reasonably well-balanced. However, they may need to find someone more clinical to play the lone striker role when they play away from home in order secure more victories. Blackpool on the other hand may not function as poorly as this all season and win a point when defeat seemed likely. Holloway will take encouragement from his substitutions, the real question centres on his ability to deal with teams who come to Bloomfield Road to match up his midfield three. A lot of the time Blackpool will move the ball around better than this and win more games, however it is when the ball stops moving do issues become apparent. He might need to ask his players to solve these situations ‘in game’ with more effectiveness, or he may seek tactical changes to flex their approach.
Having a clear strategy and executing it is absolutely crucial in football. In this match Nigel Clough came to Blackpool with a clear strategy, his players clearly understood what was expected of them and they carried out the strategy perfectly to record a deserved victory.
Blackpool set up with three up front and three in midfield with Elliot Grandin again pushing quite high up the field. Derby matched Blackpool’s three men in the centre of the pitch, played a lone striker and two wide men who tried to support their striker as best as possible, but asked to sit in behind the ball when they didn’t have the ball.
Derby came with a simple, but very effective defensive strategy to try to stop Blackpool playing and hoping to break at speed to steal something on the break. In possession their wide men made runs to support the striker as did Craig Bryson. When they gained field position towards the Blackpool defensive third their full backs stepped up, in particularly John Brayford from right back.
It’s all in the execution
First and foremost all bar one of Derby’s players appeared to be instructed to sit in behind the ball to form a bank for four players and a bank of five players, filling in the spaces afforded to Blackpool which made it hard for Blackpool to pass through them. However, the roles of two players were pivotal in executing their strategy.
Firstly, Craig Bryson played a slightly more advanced role than the other central midfielders and it appeared that his brief was to apply pressure to Barry Ferguson in the deep to hurry him in to moving the ball and hopefully breaking Blackpool down high up the pitch. He worked tirelessly off the ball and his work rate doubled in possession as he advanced to support the striker when they gained possession.
Secondly, Jamie Ward on the right side of midfield appeared to be asked to sit in behind the ball and most importantly to track the runs of Alex Baptiste to support Kevin Kilbane at left back. In doing this he enabled Derby to control the threat of Baptiste, who in the first two games of the season has been excellent moving forward and had been the catalyst for Blackpool asserting dominance in those games. Not so here as Baptiste had his element of surprise taken from him and although he did ok when advancing, Derby clearly knew what to expect.
Variety is the spice of life
Blackpool gained some good field position for large periods of the game, but couldn’t get the Derby defence to break down or even on the turn with any kind of regularity. This was largely due to the Derby defensive approach, but also the dominant performance of Jason Shackell who was rarely beaten in the air or on the ground. However, Blackpool’s endeavours were hindered quite considerably by their own approach. They failed to turn good possession in to chances and goals for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, as they advanced in the final third their movement of the ball was slow and predictable and rarely saw ball cut in to the channels and behind the defence. Secondly, only on rare occasions did they have players willing to make off the ball runs to get beyond the Derby defensive line.
Throughout the Premier League season very few teams came to Bloomfield Road happy for a draw, however, this season this situation may well become the norm. It will be important that Blackpool add variety to their point of attack and gain a better awareness of when their passing and movement becomes a little one-paced. This needs players with a good sense of tempo and on the evidence of this match alone, Gary Taylor-Fletcher was really the only player to consistently understand that the pace of pass and movement had to be increased. Added to this, Blackpool had few players in this match to create and try through balls behind the defence. Again Taylor-Fletcher is important here, but so was Elliot Grandin, who attempted to cut balls, but appears to fall short when adding the required weight to the pass.
On the evidence of this game alone Blackpool may be short of a creator in midfield and a striker to dominate a defence. Or perhaps they need to work less on passing and movement patterns in training and more towards gaining an appreciation of when to change both game plans and game tempo. Or both? Whatever path they take this game will be important in the context of their season as it marks a clear shift of attitude towards the Tangerines from opposition teams. A failure to find a way forward will seriously harm any chances they have for promotion. Derby on the other hand will be delighted with a perfectly executed game plan and if every game panned out in the same fashion then they’d be a dominant force in the Championship. However, football is rarely that predictable and as the season progresses they’ll hope that such execution remains from game to game as player performance and selection inevitably vary.
The final game of the season and the champions host Blackpool in what could be their last Premier League game. The outcome of this game alone will not necessarily control Blackpool’s destiny unless the Tangerines achieve the impossible and win at Old Trafford.
Given that Sir Alex Ferguson may well rest several of his players in advance of their Champions League final against Barcelona then their line up is a matter of guess-work. However, after the possible line ups have been introduced, this article will focus on some of the theoretical battles that may emerge during the game that may well go a long way to deciding if the Tangerines are still dreaming come the start of the 2011/12 season.
The Manchester United line up is going to be tricky to call and as a result, their shape difficult to fix. The suggestion above sees their shape being a loose 4-4-2 with Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov up front. Quite possibly Darren Fletcher may come in to the centre where his energy would benefit a 4-4-2 against a 4-3-3. Nani may well line up on either flank, but wherever he lines up it can be taken as a given that he will push forward and attack. If Anderson plays then his role may well be pivotal to their approach. Should he sit narrow as above then that will help Man United match up against Blackpool’s midfield three, the teams who’ve done something similar against Blackpool’s 4-3-3 have had the most success this season. Ian Holloway will play the eleven who started the match against Bolton in his usual 4-3-3 with his new-found flatter shape in midfield.
It is possible that both teams will have the same attacking philosophy and the game will be wide open with play stretched across the length and width of the pitch allowing space to open up everywhere. Holloway may ask his full backs to commit to the attack and in addition, his centre backs to step up and launch attacks. In fact Blackpool will go all out for a win in this fixture, Holloway will not be thinking of a cagey opening 20 minutes keeping things tight and building from there. That just doesn’t happen with this Blackpool side. Ferguson might have a loose strategy within this game. An emphasis on attack, yes, but perhaps he might ask the likes of Darren Fletcher to rehearse patterns of movement that might be explored in the Champions League final. He might be happy for Patrice Evra to progress forward for left back and ask his centre backs to cover for him.
This article will now pick out three battles that might prove pivotal in the final breakdown.
Battle down the flanks
Both sides will utilise their wide men to break down each others defences, however, it is the application of Blackpool’s full backs that could be crucial. Under Ian Holloway Blackpool’s full backs have progressed in to attack on many occasions and as Blackpool go on an all out attack in this game then Stephen Crainey and Neil Eardley will progress high up the pitch. This will present a problem for Blackpool as it has done on occasion this season. As you can see below Manchester United might try to work a position for a midfielder to exploit through balls in behind Stephen Crainey to release Nani, who in turn will be in the perfect position to find his forwards in the box.
Holloway will be well aware of this threat and he could counter this basically, by asking his full backs to recover their position quickly and for David Vaughan and Charlie Adam to track back and support from midfield. However, he may well ask his full backs to attack relentlessly so that Ferguson’s wide men are running back to their own goal more often than not. This ploy hangs off Blackpool being able to gain a foothold in the midfield first in order to set up attacking plays which leads on to the next key battle.
Flower of Scotland
As most observers will know, Charlie Adam has had a good season for Blackpool and has created and scored goals all throughout the season. When he has struggled it is because teams deny him the space to work on the ball. Ferguson might field Darren Fletcher in the centre of midfield to close down that space to panic Adam and hurry him up in to making mistakes. Ferguson might do this to assert control in this game, but he might have very specific plans for Fletcher (fitness withstanding) to take in to the Champions League final to counter Barcelona’s fluid midfield.
If this doesn’t prove to be the case and Adam settles in to the game and finds his passing rhythm, he will attempt his long diagonal passes and he will also be a threat with his set piece delivery. However, he will look to break in to the attacking third down the left side. With the support of Stephen Crainey he can build himself in to one of his favoured positions to deliver deft balls over and in between the defence to release DJ Campbell through on goals. You can see this demonstrated below.
This was the position that Blackpool built themselves in to last week against Bolton and Manchester United’s defensive line will have to be alive to this threat and not get caught on their heels like Bolton did last week.
One of the observations of the meeting between these two teams at Bloomfield Road was the intelligent movement of Berbatov. He appeared to work himself in between the right full back and right-sided centre back. At the time of the game Blackpool were suffering when teams attacked their right back area, so it might have been a game specific plan, but more likely it is down to Berbatov’s instinct. This is again something that Blackpool will have to be wary of and as a demonstration of the point, you can see how it might look below.
Berbatov will keep moving and should he peel off the shoulder of a defender in to space, then it will may well be a ball from deep that he latches on to. Blackpool’s defence have struggled to read teams that play clever balls from deep and they will need to be alert to the threat that when that happens, Berbatov will be on the move and will have to be tracked. Paul Scholes will look to put on a passing masterclass and he averages eight long balls per game and it is likely that the Scholes/Berbatov combination could prove lethal.
This will be a tremendous game, Ferguson may well see this as a chance to rehearse some set moves against a team that line up in a 4-3-3, which could be useful for their Champions League aspirations. Blackpool on the other hand will try all game long to keep scoring and win or lose this game, they will not necessarily fall. If Blackpool do fall, then it will be with their heads held high and with a very proud set of supporters who’ve enjoyed a season that they’ve been dreaming about for years.
Check out previews from a Manchester United perspective over on;
“We are going to try to keep our defence a little deeper, bring the midfield a little deeper, and then hopefully counter-attack them”. Ian Holloway.
Ian Holloway had made no secret of his plan prior to the game and for the most part it worked well, however, individual errors in defence and poor movement from his forwards ensured that chances created weren’t clear cut as Chelsea controlled large parts of the match and deserved their comfortable win.
Blackpool had a selection dilemma ahead of the game with Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell both suspended. Holloway chose an unfamiliar line-up with David Carney, Jason Puncheon and Andy Reid slotting in to the midfield and Stephen Crainey coming in at left back. With the ball Blackpool shaped up in a 4-2-3-1, however, out of possession the team sat deep and the forwards dropped back leaving James Beattie as a lone forward and Blackpool shaped in to a 4-5-1. It was Holloway’s intention to sit deep and try to hit Chelsea on the counter, the selection of David Carney on the left wing hinted at giving extra defensive protection down that flank. As a part of this defensive approach Keith Southern and David Vaughan both sat deep out of possession, but with the ball both broke forward with David Vaughan often becoming the spare man in midfield and more advanced than Southern.
Chelsea set up in a 4-4-2 but they applied it with very aggressive positioning so it was different to a regular 4-4-2, however, this may have been due to the fact that Blackpool were happy to let Chelsea have the ball and invited them on to them. Chelsea’s midfield four sat very narrow with Ramires on the right and Zhirkov on the left tucking in tight and the width was provided by both full backs pushing up high in to midfield making almost a six in midfield. As Chelsea advanced in to the attacking third it appeared as if Michael Essien’s brief was to drop deep to cover defence. However, Chelsea in the pass were very one paced and they lacked any dynamism which wasn’t helped by Torres and Drogba being very static and flat up front. The introduction of Solomon Kalou injected the right amount of movement and change in pace of pass to provide the difference between the two teams.
Chelsea enjoyed good spells of sustained possession, however, rarely threatened to open Blackpool up, it was poor marking from a corner that notched their first goal. After that Blackpool enjoyed their best period of the game with both Southern and Vaughan finding their rhythm in the pass and in breaking up the opposition. However, Blackpool were very static in their forward movement and James Beattie struggled to ascertain any dominance in the air which could have given them a platform to build on winning 3 of his 7 duels.
The second half again saw Chelsea control the possession for large parts, but it was the enforced substitution of Salomon Kalou for Didier Drogba which changed the game. Kalou dropped deeper, made direct forward runs, gave short passes and moved which essentially lead to much more dynamism in attack from Chelsea which caused Blackpool’s defence to be pulled out of position leaving them exposed to error.
Blackpool’s late flurry came from a double substitution which saw Holloway revert to three forwards giving a more varied point of attack which really started to cause Chelsea problems. Stephen Crainey also started to step up in to attack as Blackpool finished this game as they start and play most.
Applying the press
A key observation of both teams is how they differed in the pressing of their opponents. Blackpool normally press all over the pitch and their defending starts with the forwards. In this match they let Chelsea have the ball and only pressed hard when Chelsea advanced to within 35 yards of the goal. Whilst Chelsea pressed from the front, almost hunting in packs to expose Blackpool’s players on the ball and a perfect example of this came in the build up to the penalty. Both Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov pressed Jason Puncheon, forcing the error in possession.
When Blackpool found their rhythm after the opening goal they started to break up Chelsea, all but 2 of their 8 interceptions came in the 25 mins up to half time. Apart from that Blackpool let Chelsea dominate on the ball. You can see the difference in the two teams pressing in the Chalkboards below.
Nine to go!
It should be clear to most observers of the Premier League that Blackpool have a first eleven that is worthy of staying in this league, however, the real question marks hang over their strength in depth. Ian Holloway will be pleased with some performances in this match, particularly from Jason Puncheon who appears to listen to his manager and adapt to game situations. Blackpool will be near full strength for the away trip to Blackburn later in the month and should provide a stern test for their Lancashire rivals. Chelsea on the other hand are a side who can and will beat anyone on their day and may still have a large influence on how this Premier League turns out by game week 38.
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.
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;
Crowd the midfield
Press Blackpool high up the pitch
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.