Month: November 2010

Seaside Strategy – Everton Home

The sole change to the Seasiders starting XI was to give Keith Southern his first Premier League start. It was a change I anticipated for the West Brom game, as I blogged about following the defeat at Birmingham. Despite notching up the first home win of the season against the Baggies, Ian Holloway opted to change a winning team to play Southern from the start. It was perhaps unexpected, but nonetheless deserved for a player who down the years has epitomised the team spirit which has proved so successful for ‘Pool. So was it an effective change, or did it restrict Blackpool’s attacking impetus?
The common consensus appears to suggest the latter, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Although ‘Pool took the lead through Neal Eardley’s free-kick, the first half very much belonged to Everton, who arguably would have been disappointed to go into the break on level terms. The Toffees caused ‘Pool countless problems, with former loan man Seamus Coleman one of the main protagonists. On the opposite flank, Leighton Baines showed why he has flirted with the national team, spending most of the half occupying the left wing and looking assured on the ball.
The second half was a vast improvement from the Seasiders’ point of view however, and when Southern was replaced by Phillips, ‘Pool showed their attacking prowess in an end-to-end 45 minutes. With the man in the hole behind the front three – initially Gary Taylor-Fletcher, then Grandin when he entered the proceedings – there were stronger signs of link-up play between midfield and attack, which had perhaps been lacking with last season’s traditional three-man midfield on the pitch.
Analysing Southern’s contribution on a micro-level, I won’t bother with chalkboards of his tackles and interceptions, purely because there were so few of them. Amazingly, for someone who is often thought of as a combative midfielder, Southern failed to make a single tackle during his time on the pitch, and his sole interception came in the first minute of the match. It’s easy to see why Holloway opted to pick Southern as Everton often pack the midfield with bodies, so Southern would have been in there to try and break things up. For some reason though, that never materialised. That’s not to say Southern’s contribution was a complete loss however. Looking at the chalkboard below you can see that Southern did not misplace a single pass in his 62 minutes on the pitch, managing 100% pass accuracy.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

22 passes seems on first glance like a rather low amount, but it compares favourably with Charlie Adam’s 28 successful passes and David Vaughan’s 26, given Southern spent the final third of the game sat watching from the bench. It’s hard to know quite where Southern lies in Holloway’s mind though, and whether he will stick with a 4-3-3 for the forthcoming matches, or whether he will return to the 4-2-1-3 which has been so effective for the Seasiders this campaign. Southern should not be cast aside based on this one performance however. He clearly deserves a run of games at some point, and with talk of resting certain players in the manager’s post-match interview, Southern could feature several more times in the next few weeks.
Away from Southern’s impact, what other conclusions can we draw from the cold numbers? One area highlighted by Zonal Marking and Tangerine Dreaming last week was the significant left-sided imbalance to ‘Pool’s play. Looking at all Blackpool’s passes yesterday, the pattern is one of symmetry rather than the lop-sided chalkboards of recent weeks.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

One has to think that this must have been a deliberate plan from Holloway, as ‘Pool’s left-sided emphasis has surely not gone unnoticed by rival managers. The addition of Keith Southern to the starting line-up is likely one contributing factor in this. Both Adam and Vaughan favour their left foot and perhaps it is no surprise that more use is made of the left flank, but with Southern adding more balance to the midfield, there was more incentive to move the ball both ways.
However, even if Southern does not retain his place, I suspect that we will see more focus down the right in future games. With Taylor-Fletcher’s form wavering, and Matt Phillips’ contributions from the bench continuing to impress, it is surely only a matter of time before the former Wycombe man gets his chance. The direct nature of his game, and the raw pace he possesses make him an ideal outlet down the right to give opposing sides problems down both wings. I’ll be taking a closer look at potential team changes, including a first start for Phillips, in the next day or two.
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A closer look at Elliot Grandin

One of the best things about becoming a Premiership team (in my head anyway) is the amount of data we now have available to review our players. Imagine the articles that could have been written if we’d had this kind of data available in the past. Wonder how John Doolan would have measured up (no jokes about a 44 inch waist please) or how many tackles did Gary Briggs really win (maybe number of legs broken might have been more relevant).

However, now we can look at our players performances in greater detail and start to get a better understanding of the peformances each week. To that end I will turn my attention to a different player from time to time to shed some light on what is happening on the pitch.

First up I want to look in detail at Elliot Grandin, the reason behind this as I feel that his inclusion in the side has seen our formation change somewhat from the fluid midfield three we saw last season. I wrote most of this before the West Brom game so I’ve had to make some running adjustments as arguably he had one of his best performances in a tangerine shirt.

If you were to write up what Elliot brings to the side, then you’d say, a good technique, a composed first touch, inventive flicks of the ball, the ability to beat a man with a turn of pace. However, I want to pick through that and see exactly what he has brought to the team.

Upon signing for the club and watching the oligatory YouTube videos that get bandied about I saw him as one of our wide players, potentially filling the void in the squad left by Hameur Bouazza (not a massive void I know). When it came to the first game against Wigan he setttled in to the midfield three, albeit at the head of what now appeared to be a more fixed midfield triangle in a more recognisable 4-2-1-3. This role may normally require a player to be good in possession of the ball, able to deliver incisive passes, beat men, strike dangerous shots and provide linkage between the deeper midfielders and the attacking three.

The tale of the tape

Elliot appears to be very secure in possession of the ball and passes very astutely and appears to be far from wasteful when passing. In his appearances so far (not including the West Brom game) he has a pass completion rate of 87% which is more than respectable. However, in his position it can be argued that it is the quality of the pass delivered which is more important, as it becomes about unlocking a defence as well as retaining possession. How can you measure the former?

Well assists is one way of doing that and this is a part of Grandin’s game that lets him down. His first assist of the season came against West Brom in week 10 which isn’t a very good return for someone so far advanced up the pitch. If we break his passing down further to see if he is assisting Blackpool to break defences down then we need to look at his chalkboards and the direction of pass. It is here where more interesting trends come out.

He rarely passes the ball in to the opposition box, only doing so six times in total this season, two against Wigan in the first game of the season and four against West Brom. None in the games in between. Again not quite the incisive passing you’d expect to see from a player who potentially holds the most important attacking position within the 4-2-1-3.

Grandin’s passes from open play in to the opposition box are circled in red. Excludes Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn games.

If he’s not creating. How is he at providing a direct threat on goal? Prior to the West Brom game he had only had 4 attempts on goal, 2 on target, 1 off target and another blocked. In the West Brom game he had more attempts in one game than his whole season (1 on target, 3 off target and 1 blocked). Added to this he is yet to score in the Premiership. So if he’s not creating and not making the opposition defence aware of his goal scoring prowess – What has he brought to the Blackpool team?

Clearly he is comfortable in possession of the ball and this is vital for the way that Blackpool play in order to keep the ball moving around the pitch. This can buy the team time to ensure that Charlie Adam is positioned to recieve the ball in the areas where Adam can flourish and create the chances for Blackpool to score. This hints that Holloway doesn’t see the playmaker being at the head of the midfield triangle, but a deeper lying player which is Adam. So is Grandin’s role one of ….. keep the ball till the creator arrives to try and break the defence down??

Elliot may not have a set of stats to back up his individual effectiveness, however, sometimes you can’t measure impact within a team till that player is removed. The performance against Birmingham was the first time this season that Blackpool appeared flat and one dimensional and it was one game where Grandin failed to start, Blackburn being the other.

What he does appear to do is play a little too high up the pitch at times potentially occupying the space that DJ Campbell wants to occupy and perhaps a move out to the wing will play more to his strengths whilst freeing up more space for DJ to operate in. Perhaps this begins to explain the issues that DJ has faced in trying to bag goals. Last season the midfield rotated position more and Grandin does appear to hold a slightly higher position on the field so at times it looks like we play in a 4-2-4 formation.

What will happen as the season progresses remains to be seen, however, based on his Sky man of the match performance against West Brom then he is clearly improving in that position so he may well develop in to the role as time goes on. Or as has been mooted, he may gravitate out to the right wing to offer a greater attacking balance that was lacking against West Brom. However, keep delivering balls in to the box against Everton as he did the other night and we may well see the benefits of his role bringing great joy to everyone at Bloomfield Road.

Everton Preview

Everton head to Bloomfield Road more like the side that they are, rather than the team their results at the start of the season suggested. They played well at the start of the season but didn’t get the results, but now they have both. Blackpool on the other hand will hope that their bright start to the season will keep ticking along nicely.

Everton have a number of quality individuals, like Man City who came to Bloomfield Road recently, the difference with Everton is that those individuals are blended nicely in to an effective team. Their formation is a slightly lopsided 4-1-4-1 due to Steven Pienaar cutting in from the left flank. The formation is fluid in midfield, unlike the very static 4-1-4-1 that Blackburn play. The teams may well line up as below. Holloway does like to shuffle his team from time to time, however, this is based on the same line up as the West Brom game.

More left leaning bias for Bloomfield

Looking at Everton’s play this season, they appear to favour the left hand side when attacking, which is funny, ’cause so do Blackpool. Should both teams stick to this pattern then both right backs will have to be playing to the best of their ability.

Neil Eardley has been very solid since coming in to the side winning 13 out of 20 tackles this season, but this could well be his toughest test yet. Everton have Phil Neville in at right back and he is currently enjoying a great start to the season. He worked dillengently to shut out Gareth Bale the other week, so much so that Bale was put on to the right wing to avoid him.

Going against the grain

What could be the key is which team fights their instincts and gets a better balance to their attack as gaps should emerge down the right hand attacking side. Gary Taylor-Fletcher has been there for most of the season and Blackpool will look to him to exploit space should he start. However, the pace of Matthew Phillips might be more suited to getting the most out of such space especially as it appears that Taylor-Fletcher has a tendency to drift. Looking at the eight goals that Everton have conceded this season (second best defensive record in the league after Chelsea) you can see that at least three of them came from moves down the right hand side as you can see below.

Game on!

Everton have a fluid midfield who like to make runs from deep as Johnny Heitinga sits deep to provide defensive cover. Their team is roughly split in to 5 outfield defending players and 5 attacking players. Which is a great division of labour, whereas Holloway tends to favour a blend of 4 defensive to 6 attacking. Everton’s greater balance in this respect may well give them more defensive solidity and make it especially hard for Blackpool to break them down.

What is known is that if Blackpool should breakdown the Everton defence then they need to take their chances, time and space are more limited in the top flight and Blackpool’s strikers are beginning to find that to be the case.

It should be a good tactical match up, plenty of movement, good passing and good use of space (both creation and exploitation of) and the best side should be the one that strikes a greater balance to their attack whilst defending resolutely.

Blackpool v West Brom

West Brom arrived in Blackpool full of confidence and within half an hour, down to nine men, you would have thought that confidence would gradually ebb away. Not so. West Brom were superb all night, patient, disciplined and worked with 9 men better than their hosts with eleven. West Brom will take away great confidence from the performance and have given Roberto Di Matteo plenty to learn from, whilst Blackpool just confirmed what Ian Holloway stated before the game – they need to take their chances.

It wasn’t that Blackpool couldn’t create chances, they could, twenty six of them in total. However, for long periods of the game, they were being out manouvered by the nine men of West Brom who created a decent amount of chances themselves. In the period when the game was down to nine verses eleven West Brom managed to get ten attempts away, of those 2 hit their target and one other found the back of the net. Blackpool only managed one more chance on target in addition to their goals. You can speculate about the reasons behind such a poor conversion rate on a night when the uninitiated may have expected a hatful, but when you start to unpick the chances that Blackpool had the true extent of the story becomes clear.

Why couldn’t Blackpool break down nine men?

I want to look at this in a little bit of detail. To do this I shall take up the story from the previous paragraph. Looking at the chances that Blackpool had in the game then the facts are like this….

Goals – 2

On target – 3

Off target – 14

Blocked – 7

Two things can be said here, Blackpool failed to find the target with the chances they had, but West Brom defended superbly to block seven times which is a tremendous defensive effort. But what of those off target attempts? When looking at the chalkboard then it becomes clear that the chances Blackpool were missing weren’t always close encounters, only five of those missed chances came from within the box and only two of the blocks occurred inside the area. This goes along way to show that Blackpool struggled to work the ball in to sufficient enough areas to create genuine goal scoring opportunities. This appeared to stem from a lack of midfield invention and more importantly an over reliance on attacking from the left.  I will cover the issue of left in more detail later on as it was pin pointed by Zonal Marking as one of the traits of the game and I want to look at why that was the case.

A strange situation……

All night long there was a hint of ‘not sure what we do against nine men’ about Blackpool. Blackpool appeared to try and work the ball about, but mistakes came very often and very few successful passes found their way to players in the box. If you look at Charlie Adam’s open play passing performance you can see that he made one successful pass in to the box in the tenth minute that lead to the penalty.

 

Adam's only pass from open play in to the box is circled in red, it lead to the penalty and the first goal.

 

A good few fans leaving the ground felt that Adam was wasteful in possession and looking at his stats for the night then his pass completion was 79% compared to 87% against Man City so that has some credence. However, approx half of his unsuccessful passes came as crosses and this leads on to the next problem that Blackpool had. Poor crossing.

Very cross!

This is something that failed us against Blackburn the other week and again this was problematic. Blackpool hit thirty crosses and only nine hit their target. The crosses were often slow in coming and very predictable due to their prominence in being hit from the left. Often the crosses were hit high, but where is the height in the Blackpool attack to win the headers? Luke Varney won Blackpool’s only header in the box all night.

Great credit must go to West Brom, they played two banks of four when down to nine men and stifled Blackpool’s attacks and constructed good attacking opportunities of their own. They defended well and you can see how many blocks and clearances they made in key areas below.

Left wing softies

The thing that stood out to everyone in the match was Blackpool’s reliance in attacking down the left and I want to understand why this was as Blackpool’s second came from the right. Normally such a bias could be attributed to the fact that there’s more success coming from that area. However, that wasn’t the case. You could point to the fact that Blackpool have two left footed midfielders, so perhaps they favour the left hand side for attacking. Perhaps so, however, that can’t explain it all as you could argue that as a left footed player opens themselves up to a pass then the right becomes a more natural way of hitting the ball.

Attacking down the left might be tactical, perhaps, the opposition have a weak right side, but why would that be the case in almost every match that Blackpool play. The passing pattern against Man City was similar (see the chalkboard below) and as mentioned in the season catch up this was the main area of attack against Liverpool.

The drift……

So perhaps this would suggest that it’s not match specific and something to do with the fabric of the team. When looking at the average positions for last night you can see that Gary Taylor Fletcher held a deeper position in the field of play than Varney (the man on the opposite flank). It seems that Taylor-Fletcher does drift in to a more central and deeper role at times and in doing so, when the team looks to attack, if he’s not in the wide right position and Varney is, then naturally the team will seek to go down the left. However, this may be due to the team’s perception that Varney offers a more direct threat than Taylor-Fletcher and gravitate towards him. This positional drift intentional or not may well be the reason for such a focus on the left and if Blackpool are to progress in the Premier league then they need better balance of attack.

 

Taylor-Fletcher unlined in pink and the pink dot is the suggested area he may well have assumed if he didn't drift deep and to the centre.

 

A win is a win

Blackpool ended the night with another three Premier league points and West Brom emerged with a performance that will stand them in good stead during any future adversity. Blackpool knew before the game that they needed to start to convert their chances and that hasn’t changed, however, they need to start to add more variation and perhaps those chances might just become more convertible.

Seaside Strategy – West Bromwich Albion Home

Well, where do you start with this one? The adverse weather conditions, not to mention the two red cards, made for an unusual game, and one that’s hard to read too much into in terms learning lessons for the rest of the season. Such bizarre circumstances are unlikely to be repeated for quite some time and so judging the Seasiders on this performance probably isn’t fair. However, I would like to take the opportunity to examine how ‘Pool made it hard for themselves, and how they nearly allowed a spirited West Brom side to claim an unlikely point.
After the first sending off, Blackpool seemed to respond well, and at this point there was no sign of the panic that would later ensue. Until the half hour mark ‘Pool did well to keep possession, neatly moving the ball around making West Brom chase the game. During this period, it looked as if the three points were safe and we were all in for a comfortable evening. At one point the Sky Sports statistics showed Blackpool having a 10 minute spell with a massive 81% of the possession. As you can see from the chalkboard below, ‘Pool misplaced only nine passes of the 157 attempted in the opening 30 minutes.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

However, with the second red card of the match on the half hour mark following a reckless challenge from Gonzalo Jara, the Seasiders seemed to go to pieces. It was West Brom who finished the half stronger, carving out a couple of good chances on the break in spite of their reduced numbers. Rather than sticking to their usual game, the 11 in tangerine lacked the patience to unlock the Baggies’ defence, often rushing the final ball rather than working the space, tiring Albion out, until a better opportunity presented itself.
Although ‘Pool began the second half with a high tempo, the nerves continued with the failure to double the scoreline, prompting Holloway to make two curious substitutions. Neal Eardley and Craig Cathcart, the latter through a suspected injury, were taken off and replaced by Matt Phillips and David Carney. While obviously designed to go for the goals to kill of the game, this resulted in an unfamiliar back four. From what we’ve seen so far, Phillips is too attack-minded to be a natural full back, with Carney regularly having played midfield too. Stephen Crainey as a makeshift centre back was arguably the oddest change, especially with Dekel Keinan on the bench. Crainey has excelled going forward this season, so I was surprised that Holloway deemed it necessary to throw Carney on at that point rather than allow Crainey to drive forward on the left.
Nevertheless, these changes allowed West Brom to cause problems on the break, which was almost a gamble too far. As one of the only two out and out defenders on the pitch, you’d have expected Ian Evatt to sit and protect, but even in this all-out attack formation, Evatt continued to surge forward, as is his wont. Evatt’s Beckenbauer-esque runs have been a sign of the team’s bravery, but also portray a vulnerability. West Brom showed that even when down to nine men, counter-attacks can be launched in an instant, and with ‘Pool’s back four playing such advanced roles, it gave the Baggies to cause a number of heart-in-mouth moments for the nervous tangerine faithful.
As evidenced by the chalkboard below, Evatt could often be found on the left wing in the second half, which often left you wondering who exactly was doing the defending.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

After getting the second goal, it should have been plain sailing through to the end, and the decision to bring on Dekel Keinan should have restored some normality to the Seasiders’ defence, but still the never-say-die attitude of West Brom continued to cause concern as they did pull one back with five minutes to go. A heart-stopping finale could have seen goals at both ends, but a combination of poor finishing from ‘Pool and some fortunate defending at the other end finally saw the points secured.
Far be it from me to criticise the attacking philosophy Holloway has set out, but this appeared to be one occasion which warranted a little more calm. Unsettled already by playing against nine men, some of the changes made caused more uncertainty in the shape of the side, when a more regular approach would surely have made the two man advantage more effective. For example, giving Phillips a purely attacking role would appeared to have been a better option, rather than compromising his ability with a need to track back.
Ultimately the home win was the important outcome regardless of how it came. ‘Pool have long been overdue an ugly win, and so the good fortune was perhaps deserved this time around. Let’s just hope that’s not the last bit of luck we have for a while, because we certainly used up a lot in one go.