Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 5-0 Bristol City

Blackpool racked up their most comprehensive win in over 10 years – the last time ‘Pool had won by five goals or more was back in February 2001 when the Seasiders beat Scunthorpe 6-0 at Bloomfield Road. It was a scoreline that flattered the home team, and a result that signalled the end of the Bristol City manager’s reign – Keith Millen being dismissed within 48 hours of the final whistle. Here are my thoughts on the match:
1. Fortunate first half
At half-time of Saturday’s game, a 5-0 scoreline seemed an unlikely outcome. ‘Pool had looked disjointed for the majority of the first 45 minutes, struggling to cope with the way Bristol City had set up. Keith Millen had sent his side out in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Brett Pitman playing off Nicky Maynard. In a defensive situation, this strategy helped the visitors stifle ‘Pool – straight from Matt Gilks’ goal kicks City were often happy for a Blackpool defender to receive the ball, dropping deep into their own half to crowd out the home team’s attacks.

In contrast, City were causing plenty of problems for the hosts. The most obvious chance they had in the first half was the fine save Brett Pitman forced Matt Gilks into following a neatly worked corner, but Keith Millen’s side were also looking dangerous from open play. Pitman, who passed up the chance to play Premier League football with Blackpool last season to sign on at Ashton Gate, was finding himself in space time and time again.

As the graphic above shows, Pitman was playing between ‘Pool’s lines, not being tracked by Barry Ferguson or Keith Southern or any of the home side’s back four. Bristol City’s two wide players – Albert Adomah and Jamal Campbell-Ryce – also drifted into this area and gave cause for concern. Clearly there was a lack of firm communication, neither the back four or the two holding midfielders took responsibility for picking up players between the lines and there were moments when ‘Pool almost paid the price.

As illustrated below, Blackpool got the benefit of a close offside decision following a well-worked move when City exploited the space given. Pitman found himself with time on the ball and split the ‘Pool defence with a fine through-ball. Adomah got on the end of it and slotted past Gilks, but much to the relief of the home support, the flag went up.

Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s goal separated the sides at the break with a helping hand from Dean Gerken (see point 3), but it’s hard to argue it was a justified lead.

2. The long diagonal is back
With just one victory in the seven matches preceding the encounter with Bristol City, the Seasiders had become a little too predictable in their play. Short, deliberate passing had become easy for sides to combat and the creation of chances had been at a premium. The success ‘Pool enjoyed last season was in no small part down to a nice blend between crisp short passing and an excellent use of the long diagonal. The tactic’s main proponent was the now-departed Charlie Adam, who had a range of passing unrivalled in the current squad.

However, there does now seem to be a shift in the team’s mindset to attempt this high risk pass with more regularity. The first 20 minutes at Portsmouth saw a number of right to left long diagonals which more often than not sadly found the stands rather than a tangerine shirt – a lack of early success with the long diagonal at Fratton Park led to an abandonment of the tactic, but the following game at Coventry saw it brought back with more joy.

Craig Sutherland had a goal unfairly chalked off for offside having got onto the end of a long diagonal before finishing cleverly, and Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s wonder strike was the result of a long diagonal pass from Ian Evatt. Coventry manager Andy Thorn was quoted after the game as saying ‘Pool’s usage of the long diagonal had taken him by surprise – a response that didn’t endear him to a section of his own support who accused him of not doing his homework. In defence of Thorn, the tactic hadn’t been employed regularly so far this season and the Coventry game marked a visible change in focus from Ian Holloway’s players who made great use of the long diagonal during the first half at the Ricoh Arena.

This trend continued on Saturday against Bristol City, with the long diagonal featuring heavily again. It’s a tactic that has its critics, with some ‘Pool fans lamenting its use and insisting ‘Pool would be better keeping possession. However, there’s equally a case to be made that keeping possession is all well and good, but if the short passing doesn’t penetrate the opposition, is it really effective? The long diagonals do sometimes result in a concession of the ball, but used in moderation, it provides a way of keeping the opposition guessing – and with pacy players on the flanks there is always the chance a long diagonal can create a goalscoring opportunity.

3. A bad day for Gerken – worse day for Millen
The pre-match team news from various media outlets speculated on whether David James would retain his place between the sticks, or if Dean Gerken would replace him. It’s been a turbulent start to the season for James – a man no stranger to dropping the odd clanger – but Keith Millen will surely be wondering what might have been had he not selected Gerken.

Firmly in the game in the first half, and possibly even arguably having slightly the better of things, Gerken made a mess of a speculative Jonjo Shelvey shot, spilling the ball right into the path of Taylor-Fletcher who made no mistake from around six yards out. It was shot Gerken should have held, or at the very least been able to direct away from goal, but instead the City keeper handed the initiative to ‘Pool. Not content with his first mistake, Gerken again should also have been able to prevent Blackpool’s second. Shelvey’s audacious free-kick made for a spectacular goal for home fans, but any keeper being beaten at that range is surely at fault.

For Millen, his keeper’s errors then highlighted the weaknesses of his team. The confidence drained from the players in a fashion typical of a side languishing at the bottom and for the first time this season, Blackpool pressed home an advantage. Bristol City lacked a leader on the pitch and heads dropped – from a position of being competitive for over half the match, by the end of the game ‘Pool were rampant and the full-time whistle was a welcome sound for the visiting side.

Under Millen’s stewardship, City have obviously had a hugely disappointing start and after holding onto a player of Nicky Maynard’s calibre their fans would reasonably have expected more. With the pressure already building, a 5-0 defeat was only ever likely to end with one outcome and Millen became the second managerial casualty of the weekend. Whoever replaces him has the foundations of a team to build on – the first half performance showed that much – but a tough season looks inevitable.

4. Shelvey sets the bar high
The closing of the transfer window at the end of August left a significant number of Blackpool fans disappointed. Many felt that the squad was missing two quality players who could make an immediate impact on the starting XI – an attacking midfielder and another forward. The wait for an extra striking option goes on, but the loan acquisition of Jonjo Shelvey is a real coup. Filling the void at the tip of the Seasiders’ midfield, Shelvey looked right at home on his debut.

With Elliot Grandin injured, ‘Pool had been sorely missing a player to link the midfield and attack. Many of the midfielders at the manager’s disposal are more suited to a deeper role, and the one other player in the squad who could fill the role behind the front three – Gerardo Bruna – seems to be some way off breaking into the first team. Shelvey seemed the perfect answer, and expectations following the announcement of his move were high.

Needless to say, a thunderous goal from a free-kick and a couple of assists ensured he did not let anyone down, but repeating that level of performance during his spell could be critical in deciding whether ‘Pool climb the table. Shelvey should provide goals, a willingness to run at the opposition and no shortage of energy based on his first outing. It’s still early days, and Shelvey’s ability to shine at this level will be tested to the full in Blackpool’s next game, away at West Ham.