Four Thoughts on… Portsmouth 1-0 Blackpool

Blackpool suffered their second defeat of the season, and their first on the road, as they went down 1-0 away at Portsmouth to a heart-breaking 94th minute Erik Huseklepp strike. Here are my thoughts on how the game panned out:

 

1. Tale of two wingers
Ian Holloway made three changes for the trip to Fratton Park, one of which was fairly easily anticipated – Stephen Crainey replaced Matt Hill at left-back, a change that should perhaps have been made one game earlier against Cardiff. Two more unexpected changes though came in the form of Tom Ince and Matt Phillips, who started in place of Brett Ormerod and Billy Clarke who were both left out of the matchday squad altogether. It was a day of contrasting fortunes for the two wide men – Ince showed his ability and has made a case for earning a run in the side, while it was a day to forget for Matt Phillips whose start to the season has been disappointing.
An interesting point to note is how Holloway had set up his wingers, with the wide men playing in an inverted position for much of the game. In some instances, switching wingers to their unnatural flanks can be a clever ploy to confuse and deceive the opposition, but playing on their natural side was very much the exception rather than the rule at the weekend, including a full 25 minute spell at the start of the game with Matt Phillips on the left, and Ince on the right. Where Ince looked comfortable with the ball at his feet, regardless which side of the pitch he found himself on, the story with Matt Phillips was slightly different.
Once again Matt Phillips looked a shadow of the player he promised to be in stages last season, lacking any sort of confidence – the poor England U20 World Cup campaign seemingly still affecting him. There is a case to be made that the former Wycombe man is at his best when running with the ball from deep, and that this is much more difficult for him on the left when he always has to be thinking about checking back at some point. Conversely, his best work did come from the left, but in an off-the-ball capacity making a run for his two clear chances. Upon collecting the ball however, he looked comfortable in neither situation, when a player at this level should be converting at least one of those two chances.
It’s hard to know where Holloway goes with Matt Phillips at the moment. To get the best out of him he surely needs to play him on the right in his natural position, but it’s currently hard to justify giving Matt Phillips an extended run in the side in the hope that it may play him into form. As for Ince, it was a first league start filled with promise. Pacy, confident and with no shortage of skill, Ince looked everything Phillips isn’t just now. An end product wasn’t visible on Saturday – a three-on-two situation in the second half saw Ince fail to take advantage of the superior numbers and lose the ball – but he looked as likely as any Blackpool player to make the breakthrough. Right now, Tom Ince appears to be ‘Pool’s best option on the left of a front three, and I’m sure we’ll see more of him in the coming weeks.
2. Sylvestre pushing for a start
With Matt Phillips struggling to make an impact, he was withdrawn on 54 minutes for Ludo Sylvestre, which brought with it a change in shape from a 4-2-1-3 (verging on 4-2-4) to a more rigid 4-3-3. Gary Taylor-Fletcher moved into the forward line and Sylvestre had another opportunity to stake a claim for a starting place. Sylvestre had a strong pre-season, but had to wait until the 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace to make his first appearance of the league season – he got another 15 minutes in the home win over Ipswich but had to watch all of the Cardiff game from the bench.
Ludo Sylvestre has a case to be aggrieved at his lack of action thus far, but will his performance at Fratton Park have convinced his manager to start the next match at Coventry? There’s no simple answer unfortunately, despite a largely impressive performance at Fratton Park. Sylvestre is definitely a nice player to watch – he likes to move the ball quickly and simply, almost always retaining possession for his side. His introduction resulted in some neat passing triangles in midfield which had Portsmouth chasing shadows, and looked to help launch attacks.
But, and there is a but, adding Sylvestre into the mix created a gap between the midfield and the attack. None of Ferguson, Southern or Sylvestre particularly like to run with the ball and in the final half hour on Saturday, you were just as likely to see the full-backs Baptiste or Crainey supporting a ‘Pool attack as you were one of the midfield three. Individually, Sylvestre absolutely deserves an opportunity to break into the starting 11, but if Ferguson and Southern remain, as is likely, can Sylvestre be accommodated too? Will a midfield of those three players create the chances, the through-balls, the driving runs? I’m not so sure.
Since the injury to Elliot Grandin, the final midfield spot has been filled by Gary Taylor-Fletcher who has filled the role with varying success. On Saturday Taylor-Fletcher showed glimpses of how he can be effective at the tip of the midfield three, notably in his through ball for Matt Phillips in the first half and some mazy runs at the Portsmouth defence when other options were non-existent. However he should not be the long-term man for this position and it is up to Holloway to decide if Sylvestre can take on such a role, or if he needs to recruit another player if Elliot Grandin continues to suffer from injury problems.
3. Defensive strength
It seems strange to be talking about the defence in the wake of a loss, but on the whole it was another solid performance from a goalkeeper and back four who becoming one of the tightest units in the Championship. The result may tell of a 1-0 win to Portsmouth, but in truth the battle between the ‘Pool defence and Pompey attack was one in which that the visitors had the better. A couple of lapses aside, including the goal on the back of a rare Ian Evatt mistake, ‘Pool don’t currently look like shipping too many goals.
What the team might be lacking in attacking conviction, it is making up for in its defensive solidity. Earlier in the season ‘Pool were still looking frail because of their high defensive line, but only three goals against in the last four games suggests Holloway may have been addressing this issue on the training ground. If anywhere, it was set-pieces where the Seasiders looked vulnerable against Portsmouth, long throw-ins especially. A first half throw-in resulted in a free-header for Joel Ward going narrowly wide, and of course the last-gasp winner for the home side came from a similar situation.
Despite this, Holloway will be happy to have shed the image from last term as a side that leaks goals. Currently only two sides in the division have conceded fewer goals – Middlesbrough and Derby County. Teams winning promotion are typically built on a sound defensive base, and if Holloway can fine-tune his creative options, the club could be set for a successful season.
4. Unbalanced substitutes bench
When ‘Pool failed to take their chances despite dominating long spells of the match, one wonders what thoughts would have been going through Ian Holloway’s mind when he turned to look at his bench. As already discussed, one change he made early in the second half was to bring on Ludo Sylvestre, but who else did he have available? Mark Halstead, Matt Hill, James Hurst and Daniel Bogdanovic were the other options for the manager to turn to – a vast departure from the days when Holloway would often reserve five of his seven substitutes places for attackers. 
Injury concerns over his two goalkeepers during the week likely forced Holloway’s hand in including Halstead on the bench, and it wasn’t a surprise to see deadline day signing Bogdanovic among the substitutes either. However, the reasoning behind having both Hill and Hurst in the squad is a little baffling. The arrival of young James Hurst at Bloomfield Road appeared an odd decision anyway with so many other right-backs at the club, but Holloway is obviously keen to include him. So keen in fact, that Hurst was utilised to fill in as part of the front three, again often from an inverted position on the left instead of his natural right side.
As the game wore on, with Blackpool unable to find the goal their performance had merited, ‘Pool had little on the bench to effectively change the game and move up another gear. It is common opinion that the team is lacking an extra attacking option or two, but even without a new signing, it’s surprising that one of Clarke or Ormerod, or even Craig Sutherland or Gerardo Bruna weren’t available to change the game. It’s almost as if the bench had been selected with the intention of going more defensive after taking a lead, as opposed to having something different to find a winning goal if needed.
If this is not the case, then the decision to employ only one forward on the bench suggests a lack of faith in the existing attacking options and so makes the addition of new faces all the more urgent, to ensure that ‘Pool don’t keep dropping points in games they enjoy the better of. The Guardian’s match report contained a line which sums up the current situation rather neatly, and it is on that I shall bring this piece to an end:
Ian Holloway’s side’s failure to turn that dominance into goals goes some way to explaining why the Tangerines’ nascent attempt to bounce back into the Premier League at the first attempt has been solid rather than spectacular.
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