Four Thoughts on… West Ham United 4-0 Blackpool

The last thing anyone would expect after a 5-0 win is a 4-0 reversal, but a nine goal swing between fixtures (surely one of the biggest in the club’s history?) saw Blackpool return from the capital empty-handed. Here are my observations on Saturday’s match:

1. Mixed first half
In the opening 45 minutes at the Boleyn Ground Blackpool saw plenty of the ball, particularly early on, but were still rather fortunate to be going in only a goal down. It was actually ‘Pool who started the brighter team, with West Ham forced to watch as the visitors barely gave them a kick of the ball in the early exchanges. Tom Ince, making his second league start, was impressing down the left and combining well with Stephen Crainey and Jonjo Shelvey in the first 10 minutes, but unfortunately for the Seasiders they were unable to create clear-cut chance while they were on top. With the Hammers’ first real attack, it was 1-0 against the run of play.
Rocked by conceding, Blackpool’s early dominance faded and the game became a much more even affair. ‘Pool were still having more than their fair share of possession, but the best chances went the way of the hosts. The effectiveness of Tom Ince was severely reduced when he moved over to the right – once again the idea behind inverting the wide players must be questioned. As a tactic to confuse the opposition on an infrequent basis it’s fine, but when a player spends most of the game on their unnatural flank, something does not add up.
Barry Ferguson and Keith Southern had a lot of touches of the ball in the first period, but finding their way past a resolute West Ham defence was proving tricky. The Hammers were happy to stifle Blackpool and wait for the mistake, pouncing quickly to threaten adding a second on a few occasions. Matt Gilks was rather busy in front of the Blackpool fans during the first half, including one excellent save with his feet to keep ‘Pool in the game.
2. Matt Hill ≠ a centre back

The big talking point in the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat was the selection of Matt Hill at centre back. An injury worry for Craig Cathcart saw him miss the game, but eyebrows were raised when it was Hill who came in to replace him. When the teams were announced, the prospect of seeing Hill come up against John Carew was a worrying thought, and so it proved as Hill had a day to forget. It was actually Ian Evatt who lost Carew for the first goal, but Hill had the (rather bizarre) responsibility of marking a player around a foot taller than him for the rest of the game, unsurprisingly never looking comfortable.

Hill was lucky to get away with two heart-in-mouth moments during the first half when he inexplicably dallied on the ball twice presenting the Hammers with two great chances – fortunately for Hill he had Matt Gilks behind him to come to his rescue. Perhaps feeling sorry for him, the referee gave a couple of soft free-kicks Blackpool’s way in the first half – the sheer mismatch in size maybe fooling the officials into thinking Hill was being fouled by Carew when the Norwegian’s challenges were probably fair.

With the number of chances West Ham had in the first half, they were unfortunate not to have a bigger lead, but it was surprising to see Hill re-emerge for the second half when it was clear for all to see he was badly struggling. A simple change would have been to take off Hill for Eardley, shifting Baptiste to centre back – the defence that should have started the game – but alas the first half warnings went unheeded. Matt Hill is enthusiastic, experienced and based on historical evidence, a reasonable footballer at Championship level. However, there is a reason he has rarely been utilised in the centre of defence before joining Blackpool, and let’s hope it’s the last we see of him in that position – up against a big striker, of which there are lots in this league, he does not have the physical stature to adequately complete and it was a total failure of management to primarily play him there, and secondly not withdraw him when the faults were so glaring.

It’s something of a worry that despite signing so many players, with another one arriving today in the form of Callum McManaman, there is an alarming lack of cover in central defence. One injury to either Evatt or Cathcart should surely not mean Matt Hill is next in line. There are of course other players who could have played instead, not just Baptiste who I’ve already mentioned. Chris Basham has been used at centre back both at Bolton and for Blackpool’s reserve / development squad side this season and last, but Basham appears to be far out Holloway’s plans, with a loan move likely. The return of Craig Cathcart against Doncaster will be a big relief.
3. Mad 10 minutes
The start of the second half was the worst 10 minutes imaginable, and Blackpool only had themselves to blame. Some suicidal defending saw the offside trap repeatedly breached – Hill often at the centre of the problems but they were by no means isolated to just him. Evatt and Crainey both failed to step up at the necessary moment on separate occasions, and glances over to the linesman in hope of the flag going up were in vain.
Sam Baldock was lively and it’s surprising it had taken him until this game to get on the scoresheet. A questionable offside decision and a selfish effort from John Carew when he might have passed were the only things that prevented Baldock from taking home the match ball. The ‘Pool defence did not have the pace or organisation to keep up with Baldock, and in combination with the aerial dominance of Carew over Hill, the floodgates opened.
After the fourth goal went in, it did at one moment seem as if the final score was going to be five, six or even seven, but after a few near misses, West Ham did eventually take their foot off the gas and settle for just the four goals. Not that that appeased the visiting side, whose frustration was there for all to see, notably in the case of Alex Baptiste. Not content with a tantrum that saw him demolish the corner flag, Baptiste was lucky that the officials missed a kick out at the prone Papa Boupa Diop – had the referee seen this a red card could easily have been the result.
4. Lomana Lua Lua – more than a novelty act?
Aside from the heroics of Matt Gilks who helped keep the score relatively respectable, the introduction of Lomana Lua Lua provided one glimmer of light for the travelling fans. Looking a little more rotund since he last graced these shores, Lua Lua arrived on the pitch as something of a circus act. A jovial chant which accompanied his every minute on the pitch seemed to spur him on however, and as a result he at least did depart the pitch with some credit to his name.
He is surely not yet fully fit, his size alone indicates this, but he looked to have enough energy about him to suggest there is still some mileage left in him. He was content to run with the ball, take on players and be positive heading towards goal. It was of course all over by the time Lua Lua entered the field – why the substitutions took so long to be made is a question only Ian Holloway can answer – but Lua Lua did give the West Ham defence something to think about.
Whether Blackpool should even be signing the likes of Lua Lua – a player out of contract unable to find a club elsewhere – when there should be huge resources available is an argument for another day. For now though, Lua Lua may well get a chance to prove people he can still do well in this country. I’m not convinced he can last a full game, or even 60-70 minutes, at this point, but with Billy Clarke and Matt Phillips loaned out to Sheffield United, he should get a chance to feature in the coming weeks.