After the Stoke game last month Ian Evatt publicly declared how Blackpool set up to cope with Stoke’s long throws. This brief article will aim to back up Blackpool’s ploy as defined by Evatt. If you didn’t look at the link above, he said:
“Our tactic was to leave Charlie Adam and Luke Varney, who are both pretty good in the air for their size, free to attack the ball. We’d just keep our back four in position and not mark men individually … and it seemed to work”.
Note: For the purposes of doing this a video of the first half of the match was all that could be found.
In the first half Stoke had three long throws delivered by Rory Delap in to the box. All three were unsuccessful. For the duration of the match there were a further 6 long throws and 3 were successful.
As the team take their shape you can see that Gary Taylor Fletcher in front of the front post (pink) and Charlie Adam on the goal line (pink) are the only players assigned marking duties. The defenders (red) are free from marking the opposition, in space and set to defend the second balls, as is David Vaughan (pink) just outside the 6 yard box. The player positions are further illustrated in the diagram below in case the above isn’t clear.
Of the 3 long throws examined for this piece, Taylor-Fletcher won the first and Charlie Adam won the next two. The danger was cleared each time and the defence never came under any pressure. This serves to back up what Evatt said apart from the fact that these examples showed Taylor-Fletcher in the role of Varney.
Defence for the future
Blackpool at times this season have been derided for their lack of defensive quality, however, this shows that more thought and work is being applied to the defensive side of the game and 2 clean sheets in December added to more talk from Holloway about the defensive side of the game has shown that he is always looking to develop. Should the back four continue to develop and the team defend well as a whole then more clean sheets could well be on their way.
Blackpool have spent most of their inaugural Premier League season sticking to a passing game that was at the centre of their promotion from the Championship. It forms a part of the slightly patronising term, ‘a breath of fresh air’ as teams generally ‘shut up shop’ or as Stoke did ‘go direct’. Enough of the vague cliches now and the focus will turn to facts.
The facts about Blackpool this season is that they’ve passed the ball very well, all players (goal keeper inc) are encouraged to pass the ball with the aim of keeping possession. Ian Holloway has openly cited the style of Spain and Barcelona as the target for his ever improving team. In taking this approach Blackpool have attempted 8,507 passes this season completing 75% of all their passes (up to and including Man City away). This is an admirable achievement for a team that prior to the season starting was written off as certain relegation candidates by some of the media. As the plaudits have been heaped on Blackpool for this superb application of the passing game it is something that everyone at Bloomfield Road should be proud of.
What this blog post is going to try to do is to try and second guess what Ian Holloway might be trying to work on with his team as the second half of the season gets under way. Holloway has said that he wants to improve on what he and his team does and with this in mind he’ll be seeking to squeeze more out of his team as the season unfolds.
Whilst Blackpool’s pass completion has been around the 75% mark, some games have been characterised by the Seasiders struggling to close out the game, losing leads and conceding late goals. The games against Blackburn, Fulham, Bolton, Wolves and Villa (and this week Birmingham) spring to mind. Holloway will no doubt be asking himself why this is going on and whilst there are valid and pertinent arguments for pointing the finger at poor defending, there may be a tale within the Blackpool passing stats that might show the way forward.
Let’s illustrate this through reference to pass completion stats from the quarters of games. The best of and the worst of Blackpool’s pass completion are listed in the table below.
It can be seen that Blackpool enjoyed the best pass completion quarters in the game against West Brom, understandably so, given that Blackpool were playing against nine men. Less men to pressure the ball leads to more time on the ball and less misplaced passes. However, some of the other best pass completion quarters are against the sides that are more renowned for passing the football. Two of them took place at the Emirates, however, here lies more about the story of the game. Blackpool were walloped for six and at times, even though Blackpool passed the ball around well, Arsenal were content with them doing that. Also another of the best quarters was away to Chelsea when again Blackpool were swiftly put to the sword and the opposition were content to let Blackpool retain possession. However, the stand out quarter is the one in tenth place as Blackpool played some superb passing football to dominate the first half at Anfield.
A look at the worst quarters starts to give Blackpool some insight in to where things have gone wrong at times this season. The worst quarter of passing that the team has seen occurred at Anfield and in fact the worst three quarters all occurred in away games. However, that gives us no insight in to why pass completion dropped. In fact looking deeper at those instances and placing them in to context allows us to understand what went wrong. Liverpool came out for the second half two down and scored early. They pushed hard for a second and in doing so worked hard to close Blackpool’s players down and forced mistakes. Against Newcastle, Blackpool were again leading and coming out from the break freshly addressed by Chris Hughton they upped their work rate to force more mistakes from Blackpool.
However, it is the fourth worst pass completion quarter that gives an insight in to what can go wrong when a team starts to misplace passes. That quarter occurred in the final stages of the game against Bolton, where Bolton applied pressure, Blackpool dropped deeper, clearances became wild, legs tired as did minds and as concentration slipped so did the passes until they conceded a late equaliser. Two of the ten worst quarters occurred in the Blackburn game, where they stifled Blackpool and forced them in to hitting long balls, which played in to their hands. It was also, one of Blackpool’s worst performances and with an overall pass completion of 67% also the worst passing performance of the season.
Quite simply, it appears to show that if Blackpool’s passing breaks down, then so does the team’s performance. When they’ve had their best passing periods, they’ve not conceded a goal. However, in three of the worst periods of passing Blackpool did concede goals.
However, there are tales within a tale here. The Manchester City game is a good example of where Blackpool had a tremendous game on the ball, but served to back up the old saying about having possession is no good if you don’t do anything with it. One of the best pass completion periods came in that game and in fact the pass completion for the first three quarters of that game stood at 78% as Blackpool matched City, however, City introduced David Silva and the game swung away from Blackpool as did their pass completion, which slipped to a woeful 68% and the game was lost.
As 2011 gets under way and as more teams (should) get more insight in to what makes Blackpool tick then Holloway and his team will need to work harder to keep that pass completion up in the high seventies and if they want to close out game instead of losing leads, then they’ll certainly be looking to do that or even get in to the low to mid eighties. That itself is a big task. This blog has made mention of the long diagonal ball that appears to be a signature of this Blackpool team, that doesn’t work every time and may be used more sparingly. However, two recent articles have shed light on how Blackpool may be able to keep the ball, increase that pass completion and perhaps assist in winning more Premier League games.
In the January issue of World Soccer (no link sorry, you can still buy it I think), Paul Gardner reviews the use of the cross in the modern game, stating that that it no longer becomes an effective tool at the highest level of the game, citing the likes of Barcelona who rarely score their goals from ‘aerial ball delivered in to the penalty area from a wide position, but from no further than 30 yards away’. Blackpool’s season cross completion rate is 20%, which means that a total of 228 crosses have failed to reach a Blackpool player which is an average of 13 misplaced crossed per game equating to 3% of Blackpool’s total passes. Making the right decision when to cross and recycling the ball when we don’t have the right opportunity to cross could really benefit Blackpool, although it would place more emphasis on being more patient in attack and working the ball in between defenders for scoring opportunities.
Shorter the better
Added to this in a recent review of the Ajax team under new manager Frank de Boer, 11tegen11 suggested that Ajax were taking short corners in order to keep hold of the ball instead of putting the ball in to the box where the ball could be conceded to the opposition. Given that Blackpool only succeeds in hitting their men 34% of the time from corners then this might be a strategy for Blackpool as a total of 43 corners have been wasted this season and the impact of that is that Blackpool will inevitably concede valuable possession to opposition. However, as with the Sunderland game, the short corner can be useful in creating chances given that the angle of cross changes and can catch a team out who isn’t paying attention.
All this is purely conjecture and at the heart of any improvement needs to be centred around player technique and it’s safe to say that Holloway will be striving to do this in every training session as well as improving players strength and composure on the ball so that ball is rarely wasted or the opposition manage to wrestle the players off the ball. It will be interesting to see if Blackpool continues along their passing path, if they maintain or even improve their current pass completion then another season in the Premier League beckons. However, become wasteful and fail to learn the lessons of the last quarter of the Bolton game and it might be a different story in 2011.
He is a smashing man. He got his tactics right and did me with his shape.
“I haven’t seen them play the way they did with the diamond. I thought that was very clever because all the space that we normally utilise very well we couldn’t on this occasion because Alex’s formation killed us a little bit.
“I knew they were a good side anyway but I’ve learned an awful lot from the day.”
Those changes are sure to come in the FA Cup match at Southampton, with Holloway’s first choice side likely to rest ahead of the home game with Liverpool next Wednesday. Whether any new signings will take to the field against a possibly Hodgson-less Liverpool remains to be seen. However, with the subs bench against Birmingham not quite as inspiring as one would like, Holloway is likely to be desperate to recruit new players as soon as possible.
As 2011 gets underway, Blackpool FC will be looking forward to more of the same which should see the team achieve what was being touted as impossible back in August. Festive fixtures against Sunderland and Manchester City saw similar performances from a statistical point of view but differing outcomes with a win and a loss. A review of last night’s Birmingham game will follow in the next few days.
The seasonal games were both away, however, it appears that Blackpool from a pass completion point of view progressed from where they left off against Bolton and Stoke in their previous games. Against Bolton Blackpool’s pass completion faded towards the end of the game (there’s a post coming about this) as a 2-0 lead became 2-2 at the final whistle. However, in both of these games Blackpool attained pass completion rates of 75% (S’land) and 77% (Man C). These are very good figures and in both matches allowed Blackpool to set up enough chances to score as they did twice at the Stadium of Light but never at Eastlands, although Joe Hart did make two good saves to shut them out. In both of those games Blackpool had 9 shots on goals with the greater accuracy coming on New Year’s day leading to the aforementioned Hart saves.
In the tackle Blackpool again performed admirably in both games although against a more aerial based Sunderland they lost the aerial battle, but won the aerial duel against City. However, in the city game there were only 9 aerial duels compared to the 37 against Sunderland. By losing so many headers to Steve Bruce’s outfit this will have been a major contributing factor to Sunderland having enough of the ball to create the 30 chances they had on goal. When it came to interceptions Blackpool made 12 at the SoL and only 7 against City. Given that City out passed Blackpool then this suggests that Blackpool struggled to take the ball off City and this figure needed to be higher against a team who pass the ball so much. For instance, when Man City visited Bloomfield Road earlier in the season Blackpool made 15 interceptions in a game that Blackpool had more than their fair share of the play and might have won the game on another day.
The formational propositions differed in each game, with Sunderland setting up in a 4-4-2 (albeit with Danny Welbeck cutting inside off the left flank) and Blackpool have enjoyed a lot of success against teams this season who set in up this manner. Even though Elliot Grandin went off injured in that game, Gary Taylor-Fletcher dropped in to the central position and helped Blackpool maintain positional continuity. He stayed central for a lot of the time and 71% of his passes occurred in the central zones, so certainly not playing the same role that Grandin did. However, from the central zone where he can create chances he failed to complete a pass in to the opposition box.
However, the story over at Eastlands was different as the space on the pitch that Blackpool usually enjoys was closed out by Roberto Mancini’s 4-5-1 bordering on a 4-2-3-1 . All season Blackpool have had less success against teams who play a midfielder (or two) in front of the back four and Nigel de Jong had an outstanding game, making 3 tackles out of 4, misplacing only 2 of his 45 passes and closing out the space in the centre of the pitch. As the game became stretched Blackpool switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-4 to what could only be described as a 4-1-1-4 as Blackpool bypassed midfield play in the last ten minutes to get the ball forward quickly to try and snatch an equaliser. As the season progresses Ian Holloway will need to find ways for his team to break down teams set up with a defensive midfield cover as good as that provided by de Jong.
Shuffling the Midfield Trio
There have been a few discussions on this blog in past couple of months as to what Holloway wants his midfield to do. Over the festive period this has been thrown open again, first with the suspension of Charlie Adam in the game against Sunderland and the subsequent injury to Elliot Grandin in the same game. Therefore the trio used for the main part of the Sunderland game was Vaughan, Sylvestre and Taylor-Fletcher whilst Vaughan and Sylvestre were joined by Adam for the second game. The fact that the first trio oversaw a victory suggests that was better blend, but was there anything within the Chalkboards that suggested a lack of cohesion in the first half against Man City? If it is safe to assume that Sylvestre was filling in for Grandin, then he would assume the position at the head of the midfield trio with Adam and Vaughan sitting behind. However, as discussed above Grandin floats out to the wings which helps to free up the space for Adam to occupy and make passes. What can be seen through the chalkboards is that Sylvestre held a more central position throughout his time on the pitch which could’ve taken away the space that Adam likes to work in and thus lead to a more stunted and broken up first half from Blackpool. In the second half Adam did advance more and this is reflected in him making an extra 4% of his passes in the final third. Although a marginal improvement it still hints at the subbing of Sylvestre lead to Adam getting in to his favoured position more often and given that the match was against a title contender then the team on the whole is going to enjoy less of the ball in advanced positions.
This leads to the question of whether or not Adam and Sylvestre can operate in the same team and if they can, how will Holloway seek to make that happen given that Sylvestre possesses great quality on the ball as demonstrated in the game at the SoL. What Holloway and Blackpool did learn is that Blackpool can operate successfully without Adam and a look at Sylvestre’s chalkboard from the games shows how impressive he can be on the ball with a pass completion of 80% against Sunderland and 92% against Man City. Added to that, the performance at City showed how he was able to break down City’s normally resolute defensive line as highlighted below.
Break on through
The performance against City at Bloomfield Road was characterised on this blog as a performance where Blackpool struggled to break down City’s defence. However, as just mentioned above Sylvestre had some joy with excellent incisive passing and the team in general managed to get through that line more often than they did in the home fixture. This can be interpreted as a sign of progression and development on Blackpool’s behalf as they may be learning to break down the more resolute defences which should help to contribute to getting to safety provided they convert the subsequent chances.
Get him close and he will score!
As discussed on this blog earlier in the season when DJ Campbell was struggling to hit the back of the net, if his team can get the ball to his feet in the area between penalty spot and goal line then he will start scoring. Firstly, the game against Stoke helped to back up this assertion, but the game against Sunderland confirmed it more with his two goals coming from within that range. Whilst against Man City his team couldn’t get him in that close and not only failed to score, but to register a single shot on goal.
Combating Youthful Verve
Matthew Phillips saw more action over the festive period than he probably thought would happen. In both games he enjoyed good success down the right wing with the highlight being the assist for the winner at the SoL. It appeared that both Bruce and Mancini both made substitutions to counter his pace and dribbling ability. With Kieran Richardson’s pace being introduced to counter that of Phillips, whereas Pablo Zabaleta coming on for the more adventurous Aleksandar Kolarov. Both subs made life tough for Phillips; however, it appears that Mancini got the balance right as he sat deeper instead of pushing forward. This meant that instead of Phillips attacking space left by Kolarov he was monitored more watchfully by the resolute Zabaleta who stopped him from getting in behind the defence as he had earlier on as demonstrated below.
Take on me!
Just a special mention must go to Carlos Tevez who by repeatedly taking on and beating his man opened up space and by doing so he helps to make some tactics inert, creating his own space and taking players out of the game. Against Blackpool he drifted effortlessly past his man 7 times with 4 coming inside the box and a further two of them on the edge of the box. Little wonder he had so many chances and on another day he may well have had a hat-trick.
January started off with defeat to the Sky Blues of Manchester and has just been followed with another defeat to the Blues of Birmingham, however, the season is just hitting one of the busiest periods of the calendar and Ian Holloway will know he has strength in depth within his squad and are capable of picking up points anywhere in this league and he’ll be hoping to turn Blackpool’s away form in to this coming sequence of home fixtures as he tries to survive.
- Manchester United (h)
- Stoke City (a)
- Tottenham Hotspur (h)
- Liverpool (h)
- Sunderland (a)
- Manchester City (a)
The best I was possibly expecting was six points, and even that looked difficult. More importantly I was hoping ‘Pool would avoid a confidence-bashing run of defeats. In the end, with all three home games postponed because of the weather it was an incredible effort to win two of the three surviving matches, with ‘Pool nearly taking a share of the spoils at Eastlands.
- Birmingham City (h)
- Liverpool (h)
- West Bromwich Albion (a)
- Sunderland (h)
- Manchester United (h)
On paper it’s probably a more friendly set of fixtures, with four home games among them, but with exhaustion sure to take its toll and squad rotation bound to play a part, expectations need to be realistic. From here on in, a point per game will see Blackpool avoid relegation comfortably, so a conservative target of five points does not seem beyond the team. Fewer than that though will likely see the Seasiders edge closer to the relegation zone.
Ian Holloway was forced into one change from the side that faced Sunderland, with Charlie Adam coming back from suspension to replace the injured Elliot Grandin. This meant a three-man midfield of Adam, Ludovic Sylvestre and David Vaughan – only the second time these three have started a match together, the other being at Arsenal when Sylvestre had to make way for Dekel Keinan following Ian Evatt’s sending off. From a tactics point of view it was interesting to see if this would see a return to a more standard 4-3-3, or if one of the three would occupy Grandin’s slightly more advanced role. To help examine this, let’s take a look at Sylvestre’s chalkboard of passes from Saturday.