If there was any ever doubt about how much tactics, and not just players, truly influence the outcome of a game, last night was a prime example. For the second time this season Birmingham manager Alex McLeish outwitted his opposite number and prevented Blackpool from playing their natural game. What is incredible is that it was all too predictable. So predictable in fact, that it is amazing that Ian Holloway didn’t do things differently.
Going back to the game at St. Andrews in October, Holloway is quoted as saying the following:
“I have to go away and look at why we lost 2-0, but well done to Alex. 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.”
So did he learn? Evidently not. Like the away game, Blackpool lined up with a formation that was almost 4-2-4, with Gary Taylor-Fletcher playing so far forward ‘Pool were overrun in midfield. Tangerine Dreaming’s excellent blog on the away fixture could virtually be reproduced to explain why Blackpool failed to win the midfield battle, with the formation diagram still valid, albeit with a couple of names on the teamsheet slightly different.
Holloway may defend his team selection by pointing out a lack of other options, and in his defence he’d possibly have a point. With Elliot Grandin injured and Ludovic Sylvestre’s match fitness in doubt, the only other out-and-out midfield option would have been Keith Southern. The former Everton trainee has yet to break into the side this season, initially due to injury. However, Holloway’s reluctance to select him when fit could intimate a worry about Southern’s ability to compete at this level – rumours of a January loan move might not be far off the mark after all.
Elsewhere, Matt Phillips finally got the starting place many had been clamouring for, this blog included. It’s fair to say though, that the youngster will have been disappointed not to have replicated his scintillating form shown when coming off the bench. Let’s take a look at his chalkboard:
The clear stats show that Phillips had an off day. Almost half of his passes went astray during his 71 minutes on the pitch as he frequently gave the ball away, often leading to a quick Birmingham counter-attack. Phillips also found Liam Ridgewell to be a tricky opponent, winning only one of his seven challenges. These challenges are classified in the stats as ‘take-ons’, and it was evident how often Phillips appeared to be running straight into his man. At his young age it is not a concern, and he will certainly improve with experience, but this display shows that not much pressure should be placed on his shoulders, and we can’t always expect him to skip past his marker with the ease he showed in the last game out at Eastlands.
A disappointing way to return to Bloomfield Road after 45 days without a home game, but it would be hard to claim the performance deserved anything more than a defeat, in spite of the improved second half showing. Aside from the aforementioned tactical issues, fatigue also seemed to play its part. ‘Pool have played fewer games during the last month than all of their rivals, but three games in a week looked to have taken its toll on certain players, and it was surprising that Holloway has made so few changes in this period after the Aston Villa situation in November.
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.
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.
Looking forward to the next batch of fixtures, January will perhaps be an even more challenging month with five more league fixtures still to play as well as an unwanted trip to Southampton in the FA Cup. ‘Pool must play three mid-week matches, and depending on how the cup tie goes, could face an extra two games in January with the potential replay and 4th round tie taken into account. Focusing solely on the Premier League however, as I’m sure Ian Holloway will do, the Seasiders will face, weather permitting, the following opposition:
Birmingham City (h)
West Bromwich Albion (a)
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.
To have 25 points at the turn of the year is beyond all pre-season expectations, but the Premier League has seen collapses before, and Holloway’s side will be eager to maintain their levels and cast aside all comparisons to Burnley and Hull.
So the five game unbeaten streak was brought to an end at Eastlands, but it was a spirited display from Blackpool with yet more of the attacking flair making for an exciting spectacle. On the balance of play over the 90 minutes, City probably just deserved the three points, but their relief at the final whistle was telling – ‘Pool had given them a test. A single deflected goal from Adam Johnson was the difference and while City had chances to extend their lead, most notably from the spot kick which Carlos Tevez hit wide, two fine saves from Joe Hart ensured Blackpool went home pointless.
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.
In his 45 minutes on the pitch, Sylvestre only misplaced one of his 25 attempted passes – and that was a corner. His ball retention is excellent and it is easy to see why he had long been a target for Ian Holloway. This does however invite the question of why he was sacrificed for Matt Phillips at half-time. In the opening 20 minutes Sylvestre seemed to be occupying the ‘Grandin role’ and the majority of his passes during this period were in and around the edge of the City box in what was a strong spell of the match for the Seasiders. However, as the first half went on City began to assert their influence, pegging Sylvestre back deeper into his own half. Combined with a perceived lack of match fitness, Holloway may have decided that dropping Gary Taylor-Fletcher back into the hole and adding Phillips’ speed to the forward line was the best way of supporting ‘Pool in an attacking sense, in a bid to find the equaliser.
As the second half wore on, ‘Pool seemed to see more and more of the ball and began taking the game to their much richer opponents. Matt Phillips provided the spark of excitement, skinning Aleksandar Kolarov and then his replacement Pablo Zabaleta with his searing pace. Perhaps the key moment was the withdrawal of David Silva, as pinpointed by Man City blog The Lonesome Death of Roy Carroll. After Silva was substituted, ‘Pool enjoyed far more of the ball, with 126 successful passes to City’s 87, as shown on the chalkboard below.
Although Blackpool had more of the possession in the final half hour, the key difference between the sides was City’s ability to create clear-cut chances, where the Seasiders managed very few passes into dangerous areas, despite all their pressure. Only one successful pass was made to a Blackpool player in the City 18-yard box in the final half hour. Unlike in recent games, ‘Pool failed to find the right ball in the final third and for this reason they failed to score for the first time since their game against West Ham in mid-November.
As an overall team performance, it’s one to be proud of despite the scoreline. Manchester City are a very real challenger at the top of the table this season and to run them as close as we did was a real achievement. Unfortunately, this defeat means Man City are the first side to do the double over ‘Pool, when over the two games Holloway’s men can feel hard done by not to have taken anything off the Eastlands outfit. With the transfer window now open however, Holloway will surely look to add more attacking options to his squad to give an even sharper cutting edge when some of his frontmen do misfire.