Month: November 2011

Four Thoughts on… Leicester City 2-0 Blackpool

Tuesday night saw Ian Holloway return to his former club Leicester and leave empty-handed after a 2-0 defeat, much to the enjoyment of the home supporters. Here are my observations on the match:

1. Harsh first half scoreline

Leicester led 1-0 at the break courtesy of Andy King’s goal from a Lloyd Dyer through ball, but ‘Pool had certainly deserved more. With the same starting line-up that had taken to the pitch in the weekend’s 2-2 draw with Birmingham, it was Ian Holloway’s side that sought to dictate the pace of the game and the short sharp passing we have become accustomed to in recent weeks. Having the better of the possession and on the whole looking comfortable, Blackpool had largely restricted the hosts to playing on the counter-attack.

Where Blackpool failed in the first half was with their inability to convert possession to genuine goalscoring chances. A number of players had shots from distance, but there was only one real gilt-edged opportunity to speak of, when Gary Taylor-Fletcher was unable to guide his header past Kasper Schmeichel following an excellent Neal Eardley cross. However, despite seeing less of the ball than the visitors, Leicester were still able to ask questions of the ‘Pool defence, primarily through the use of the ball over the top.

The pace and guile of David Nugent and Jermaine Beckford was always a threat lurking in the shadows and when they did get on the ball they looked dangerous against a high Blackpool line, but it was generally the Seasiders who did most of the running. When a goal did come it was a little against the run of play, but Leicester had earlier forced Matt Gilks into a good save, so the warning signs were there for ‘Pool who should have made their possession count. Still, Holloway will have been frustrated to give his half-time teamtalk to a trailing team.

2. Problems for Evatt and the defence

At the start of the season, the defence looked as if it would be the foundation of the side with no turnover of first team players in this area following relegation from the Premier League. Matt Gilks has backed that statement up with a string of fine performances in goal, particularly in recent weeks, but the back four is starting to appear a little more precarious, through a combination of injury and below-par performances. Craig Cathcart’s injury struck at a bad time, as the former Manchester United man was beginning to recapture his form from the first half of last season. Last night’s injury to Alex Baptiste only compounds the problem.

One man ‘Pool can normally rely on is Ian Evatt, but his displays of late have been a little below his usual standard. Evatt’s positioning could be questioned for both of Birmingham’s goals last weekend, and his role in Leicester’s strikes should be examined too. The first goal came down Evatt’s side, and in the build up to the second he was pulled all over the pitch and could be accused of ball-watching. For some balance though, on neither occasion did the defence receive much help from the midfield, so the blame can’t entirely be placed on Evatt’s shoulders.

Chris Basham came on for the injured Baptiste, and on reflection did fairly well, one panicked moment aside once the game was already lost at 2-0 down. Basham looked good in the air, and particularly in attacking situations looking to get on the end of free-kicks and corners. Whether Holloway sees centre back as Basham’s long-term position is unclear however. Should the injury situation be serious, it may mean a recall for Ashley Eastham as Miguel Llera just gone on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and ‘Pool won’t be able to call him back until 28 days of the loan have elapsed. The only other option would be Matt Hill, but anyone who saw his performance at West Ham would be reluctant to see him return at the heart of the defence. Strengthening in this area in January may now be a priority.

3. Midfield? What Midfield?

Despite a fairly positive first 45 minutes for Blackpool, the second half saw a change of approach from the restart. Taylor-Fletcher began the half in midfield, with Jonjo Shelvey pushing further forward. Soon after, Ludovic Sylvestre was then taken off – fatigue cited as the reason post-match – with Callum McManaman replacing him. This resulted in Shelvey dropping back into midfield alongside Barry Ferguson and Taylor-Fletcher.

This was not an ideal scenario as Shelvey has already been known to struggle positionally in a midfield three and Taylor-Fletcher is also attack-minded. In some ways Holloway had few genuine midfield options, with no Angel Martinez on the bench and Basham already utilised in defence due to Baptiste’s injury. This meant Blackpool’s midfield consisted of too many attackers in an unbalanced second half, the shape of the ‘Pool side crumbling.

Since the Leicester game, Liverpool have recalled Shelvey, which makes the return of Keith Southern all the more important. Tuesday night was the sort of game made for Southern as there was nobody in the Blackpool side in the second half who really looked to take the game to Leicester’s midfield. Holloway looked to have hit on a strong combination with Ferguson, Southern and Sylvestre, and the sooner he can return to this trio the better. Another player to consider is Elliot Grandin, who is nearing a return from injury, and has been a big miss for the Seasiders.

4. Functional Leicester
Nigel Pearson’s return to Leicester has certainly given the club a lift, and over the course of the 90 minutes it’s hard to argue that they were anything other than good value for their 2-0 win. Referring to Leicester as ‘functional’ may seem something of a back-handed compliment, but it is said with good intentions. So many teams in the Championship struggle for any kind of consistency, so the way Pearson looks to have set up his team in such a short space of time is to be commended. Being functional with the quality of players they have should see Leicester be realistic automatic promotion contenders.

Leicester set up in a 4-4-2 formation, with the full-backs encouraged to push on, and Richie Wellens sitting deep pulling the strings. Wellens’ midfield partner, Andy King, is a player clearly capable of playing in the Premier League and assisted by their wide men, Leicester appear to have a team that know their roles very well – again a considerable feat given the recent managerial change. There’s every chance Leicester can catch the current top two, and a play-off place is surely a given.

Pearson spoke very fairly post-match by saying that Blackpool had had better of first half. When asked how he spoke to his players at half-time, Pearson stated that he just asked for nothing complicated, but to work harder. This, combined with a downturn in the performance levels of Blackpool, was highly effective. It’s not to say that Leicester’s performance was purely based on graft and bereft of quality though, with their class shining through for their second goal, a lovely well-worked move which cut ‘Pool wide open. Leicester could possibly even have scored a few more goals, but some near-misses and Gilks saves limited the score to 2-0.

Four Thoughts on… Middlesbrough 2-2 Blackpool

In a thrilling encounter at the Riverside on Saturday, Blackpool did well to emerge with a point against a strong Middlesbrough side. Boro twice took the lead but goals from Ludovic Sylvestre and Jonjo Shelvey secured an away draw for the Seasiders. Here are my observations on the game.


1.       Emnes and McDonald a handful
Middlesbrough will have been disappointed not to have taken all three points on Saturday, and a large contributing factor in that was the performance of their strikers, Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald. Both have had to endure a tricky spell to start their careers on Teesside, but now seem to be through that stage and look a real threat.
Emnes was the player that had most ‘Pool fans talking after the game, his ability to hold the ball and his directness causing problems for Ian Evatt and Craig Cathcart, with Alex Baptiste also having a decidedly rocky first half struggling to cope with the Middlesbrough forwards. Emnes did have a tendency to go to ground a little too easily, but it’s easy to see why Boro have had a good start to the season on the back of 10 goals from the Dutchman.
For me though, the more impressive of the two was McDonald. Arriving on a hefty-by-Championship-standards pricetag – £3.5m from Celtic – McDonald bagged both goals for the hosts and I was surprised to learn he’d had something of a scoring drought this season up until recently. Despite his relative lack of height, he won more than his fair share of headers, and was perhaps unlucky not to get a hat-trick on the day.
2.       Phillips and Clarke back in the fold
After their successful month long spell on loan at Sheffield United, Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke both featured from the bench at the Riverside. Whether they’d both have made the 16 without the late removal of Lomana Lua Lua from the squad – Ian Holloway left him out after the forward missed a team meeting on the day of the game – is unclear, but given how they performed at Bramall Lane it was just reward for the pair.
Of the two, it was Matt Phillips who demonstrated a more visible impact once he joined the action midway through the second half. Phillips did not only assist Shelvey’s equaliser, but he was also involved in a few similar chances that may have even won all three points for Blackpool at the death. It’s important for Phillips to have confidence back in running with the ball and crossing into dangerous areas. Saturday was a fine example of how to do that, and if he can replicate that form as the season progresses, there’s no doubt he can play a big role for ‘Pool this campaign.
Clarke had fewer minutes on the pitch to impress, but still showed signs that his spell on loan has been productive. Clarke won praise during his loan spell for the creative side of his game playing just off the main striker – the lack of goals more than made up for by the amount of goals he set up. Looking to tap into this, Holloway used Clarke on Saturday in the hole behind the front three. It was noticeable that Clarke often picked up the ball from a rather deep-lying position, and with so much competition for the forward roles, Clarke’s best chance of any kind of regular action may be in this position.
3.       Gilks – in form but note of caution
Matt Gilks won the man of the match award for most onlookers of a Blackpool persuasion, and quite rightly so, as the former Rochdale keeper put in another fine display. There is a case to be made that he is player of the season so far and more performances such as this will only strengthen that view. 
Once again ‘Pool had to rely on their stopper to bail them out of some worrying situations, Gilks making several excellent saves to keep Blackpool in the contest. One save in particular in the first half will be remembered fondly, as Gilks dived low to his right to deny McDonald – comparisons to Gordon Banks vs. Pele weren’t far off the mark at all.
However, for all of the great work Gilks did, if we’re going to be picky then some of his distribution left a little to be desired. His desire to release the ball quickly is certainly to be commended, but sometimes a slight hesitation might be the best idea. Gilks’ quick throw-outs gifted possession to the opposition more than a couple of times, leading to some very dangerous moments indeed. However, that slight blemish aside Gilks is proving a steady foundation, and some minutes for Scotland are surely massively overdue.
4.       Blackpool – below par but a hard-won point
Matt Gilks was not the only Blackpool player to give up possession easily, and it was endemic amongst the men in tangerine throughout the match. Uncharacteristically for ‘Pool, the passing was not nearly as accurate as it could be and it led to some quick counter-attacks and end-to-end football, with Boro too guilty at times, although not nearly as often. 
The way Blackpool failed to hold onto the ball was down in part due to the strong pressing game employed by Tony Mowbray’s men. Middlesbrough sought to restrict the time ‘Pool had on the ball and did this well, particularly in the first half. Blackpool encountered this pressing tactic against Burnley a few weeks ago, but did cope slightly better this time around with a flatter midfield three.
As already mentioned, Boro were the more dominant team over the course of the whole game, but it should not be underestimated what an achievement it was to come from behind twice. Doing so in any away game is an excellent feat, but at a team with such a handy home record the comebacks were even more impressive. In a pre-season contribution to The Seventy Two, I tipped Middlesbrough as a side who “could make a credible challenge for the play-offs”. It’s now clear Boro are genuine promotion candidates and so a point for ‘Pool should be regarded as a fantastic outcome.

Season Visualiser – October Update

It’s been a while since we last looked at the Season Visualiser – an initial idea to re-visit it every month was probably a little too ambitious – but an update right now uncovers some interesting results. For the sake of simplicity, this post will look at the visualiser’s accuracy to the end of October, and how Blackpool’s season may look like panning out.

To begin, let’s take a look at how successful the visualiser was at predicting the results in the months of September and October. As before, the visualiser indicates the potential outcome from a dark green for a sure-fire win, to a dark red for a likely defeat, without every shade of yellow in between for the harder to call fixtures. Illustrating the actual results, green indicates a Blackpool win, yellow a draw and red a loss.

If results had gone more or less as predicted, ‘Pool would have likely drawn three and won one, taking six points from September. As it happened, the Seasiders won only five points that month, but not necessarily in the predicted games. A win against Ipswich began the month well, but defeat away to Portsmouth, followed up by a disappointing draw at Coventry rounded off a slightly below par performance.

The results in October went much more as anticipated by the visualiser. Victories over Bristol City and Doncaster straddled the somewhat humbling defeat at the Boleyn Ground – anybody using this visualiser as a betting aid would have done fairly well on the back of the first three games of October. A home loss against Nottingham Forest was a little unexpected, but the 3-1 defeat at Burnley could be more easily understood, however poor the performance was on the day.

In the introductory Season Visualiser post, I unveiled how the system could be illustrated month-by-month in graph form. With a few months now under our belt, we can take another glance at the graph to see how accurate it was. Adding a second axis to the graph indicating points per game, we can chart the progress so far.
Astoundingly, the season so far has shaped up almost exactly in line with how the visualiser suggested it might. From averaging 1.6 points per game in August, that dropped to just 1.2 points per game during October. Luckily for ‘Pool, and unfortunately for the visualiser, the predictive element is about to come to an abrupt end. With two back-to-back victories to open November, even defeats in all of the remaining games this month would see the results line plateau at 1.2 points per game. That said, the three upcoming games do look particularly tough and so an upward turn in the points per game line is by no means guaranteed.

Analysing how the Seasiders are getting on in terms of their end of season goals – a play-off place is the realistic target – we can return to the end of month points tally chart. The targets are based on generally accepted averages for various end of season outcomes, but weighted for each month depending on the relative difficulty of the fixtures.

So far, Blackpool have ended each month somewhere between the survival and play-off targets, which up until the end of October was probably a fair assessment of how the season looked like progressing. Ending October four points off the play-off average, over-performing in November was a must in order to avoid falling away prematurely. It is vital that any club hoping to make the play-offs is still within touching distance around the time of the January transfer window, just as Blackpool were two seasons ago.

Two-fifths of the way through November, ‘Pool find themselves on 25 points, five shy of the play-off target. If Ian Holloway’s team can get anywhere near the 30 point mark by the end of November, it will have been a fantastic month for the Seasiders, and with kinder fixtures to follow in December and January especially, promotion aspirations may start to look more likely. I’ll revisit the visualiser again early in the New Year, by which time the season should be more clearly defined.

Loan Report – Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke

In a first for this blog, I’m delighted to feature a guest post discussing the recent loan spell at Sheffield United for Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke. Ian Rands, the editor of A United View on Football, has been kind enough to share his thoughts on how Phillips and Clarke did, how they might carry this form into the Championship with Blackpool, and how the Blades will cope without the pair. I’ll now hand over to Ian…


It is rare for a loan player to come straight into a team and make a significantly positive impact. For two to achieve this was a not inconsiderable boost to a side hitting an inconsistent streak after a promising start to the season. The signings of Billy Clarke and Matty Phillips from the Seasiders were widely welcomed by Blades fans. In a side crying out for more natural width, creativity and pace, Phillips was probably the player generating most excitement. His performances in the Premier League for Blackpool stuck in the memory of many fans

The welcome for Clarke was slightly more muted, but warm all the same. His goal-scoring and potential from his Ipswich days promised much, but a low goals to game ratio in an injury ravaged spell at Bloomfield Road left fans cautiously optimistic. Writing for A United View following their move, this blog’s editor suggested that Phillips was best placed to make an impact in the Steel City derby, the first game of their loan spell. He was right and although Phillips’ impact was brief it did enough to whet the appetite for what we might have to come.

Coming off the bench on 68 minutes, with Wednesday two down, but beginning to control the match, Phillips’ first taste of the action was to pick up the ball on the right wing, just over the halfway line. Knocking it past the Owls’ cumbersome left back, Reda Johnson, Phillips set off after his own knock forward like a whippet, heading to the byline before knocking in a decent cross. Maybe this was the outlet we were looking for to relieve the pressure? Sadly he didn’t see enough of the ball after that and the Blades capitulated in the last 10 minutes to be held 2-2 – an ultimately frustrating debut.

However, it was the following Tuesday night at Deepdale when the two really made an impact. Phillips scoring two goals and Clarke having a hand in all four in a 4-2 win. I wasn’t there that night, but former Blades goal scoring legend Keith Edwards described Clarke and Chris Porter’s combination play as the best performance from a Blades front two in a long time.

Since then Phillips has gone on to score five league goals in five starts (plus one in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy). Whilst always looking a threat from out wide, he has also found himself in more advanced positions than the strikers at times; the first of his two goals against Exeter City providing a prime example. Not as spectacular or skilful as others he has scored, but on the spot a few yards out to tap in. Having said that, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a player with greater anticipation and sharper predatory instinct than Ched Evans. Interestingly, for a wide player brought in to be the supply line we were so badly lacking, he has provided no assists to teammate’s goals. However his goal scoring has more than made up for it.

If Ian Holloway’s plan was to give Phillips game time and a confidence boost, then by God he got it. Even though there is a noticeable difference in quality between the Championship and League One, I do not see any issue with Phillips continuing his form on his return to ‘Pool. My worry would be that if he doesn’t get a chance relatively quickly, the impetus might be lost. Although Blackpool appear to be having a mixed bag of results, recent back-to-back wins might stifle his opportunities to make a similar impact to that made at United.

Clarke was an interesting player. A return of just one goal as a striker doesn’t do justice to his contribution. With a busy style, he generally played off a main striker, but often drifted deeper or wider to excellent effect. Where Clarke really added to United’s play was by being a link player, the creative spark we were missing in a workmanlike midfield and a front line lacking inventiveness. Four assists tell the story of a player with an eagerness to be on the ball and a great awareness of his teammates. 
At times the positions of Clarke and Phillips were interchangeable and you were as likely to see Clarke out wide and Phillips down the middle. This flexibility caused significant problems for League One defences. Clarke possibly lacked the consistency of Phillips and you sense fitness levels still might be an issue, but you do wonder who can play that role for the Blades when he is gone.

Although some of the recent results have been disappointing, with leads thrown away in the last few minutes of games on three consecutive weekends, that does not belie the contribution from the two Blackpool boys. In fact, with the team’s defensive frailties being regularly exposed, we have needed to score goals and you do wonder how easy they will be to come by with the two main instigators back on the North West coast. Can we have them back please? We will swap you for Stephen Quinn?!  

Tangerine Talent Timeline

The information in this article is nothing new. If you’ve read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed or it’s predecessor ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell or any number of magazine and newspaper features, blog posts such as this one by 11Tegen11 or most recently on the BBC website. All of these make the point that it can often be the month of your birth that determines your success. At the heart of the theory is a piece of work conducted by Roger Barnsley who first spotted this when referencing an ice hockey team in Canada. It also has its roots in the work of Anders Ericsson who has studied talent for many years.

Developing differences

In very broad terms the theory suggests that players are more likely to be scouted if they are born in the first few months of the selection year. For example, if the recruitment year is September to August as it is in football in England then it’s possible to have one child playing with or against another child who is almost a year older. Child A could be born on the 1st September and Child B is born on the 31st August. Consequently Child A has almost a year more of growth in his bones and would give him a considerable advantage in height, strength etc. The theory suggests that these children are scouted as they can physically dominate their smaller counterparts. They then go on to receive the best coaching and advance their development.

The reason it’s being explored here is mainly by pure chance. No new insight can be given on the matter here, but a new data set can be analysed for similar patterns and shared. That chance came when viewing a website (sorry, I cannot remember the site) that listed all the players that have played for Blackpool. Dates of birth were listed, so an opportunity to test the theory came about. The results of that testing will be shared below.

There are caveats around this data*. Firstly, it is in no way a definitive list. Secondly, no referencing to other data sources has taken place to ensure accuracy. Thirdly, some players had dummy dates attached. Fourthly, a small number of the players were born in the 19th century and perhaps not subject to the same forces as their modern counterparts. Lastly, some of the players are from countries outside of the UK and their recruitment years will vary.

Applying it to ‘Pool

The first sort of data produced the graph below. This show each player’s birth month categorised in a calendar year. For instance, you can see that there are 32 players born in January.

January to December

What should be immediately obvious is the spike that occurs in September. In fact the highest month is September at 39 players and the lowest is July with 17. It seems a relatively compelling illustration of the birth month theory. In order to make it more compelling the data has been re-ordered in to the months of the recruitment year, September to August. You can see the outcome below.

September to August

This perfectly sums up the bias towards the recruitment of players in the early months of the recruitment year as you can see the line tail off over the course  of the year.

Maybe tomorrow

This has been done purely because it was of interest to try this with a new set of data, what won’t be done here is to delve any deeper. The books mentioned earlier provide superb material to keep you thinking and are highly recommended. However, it is of interest about how you can get round such bias. The sooner football clubs can get around this then the more likely children will be brought in to game with more game specific talents, such as speed of thought, vision, creativity and less around the physical attributes that are easier to monitor. For a club like Blackpool this may not necessarily need to be a factor as their youth programme produces relatively few first team players, but if the national game is to step up then this is an area that must be overcome with extensive work and improved scouting skills.


*338 players were listed on the site. 9 were removed as they had no date of birth attached, therefore 329 players formed the data used here.

Part Two – The Shape Of Another Journey

Blackpool’s inconsistent start to the season caused consternation and frustration amongst the Blackpool support and presumably staff and players too. However, two wins in their last two games have now left the team in fifth place and looking in better shape than they were two games ago. The majority of what you are about to read was written in the light of a 3-1 defeat to Burnley, however, the analysis here may well be useful when Blackpool hit another rocky patch later in the season as similar issues may be at the heart of any problems.

Gone, gone, gone!

First and foremost the most obvious thing missing from Blackpool this season is Charlie Adam. Added to that, both DJ Campbell and David Vaughan left the club in the summer to stay in the league where they rightly belong. What that means in measurable terms is pretty easy to define; however, it has also meant a great deal of upheaval on the pitch too with new players having to come in to replace them.

Statistically Blackpool lost a significant chunk of their goal scoring output, both Adam and Campbell contributed 25 goals last season which equated to 45% of the total goals that Blackpool scored. In the previous season they scored 27 goals which amounted to 36% of the total.

In losing these players and those goals it has led to a selection dilemma for Ian Holloway and this is perfectly summed up when considering the fact that he has rarely stuck with the same first eleven. Barry Ferguson has come in and replaced David Vaughan, but perhaps doesn’t have the same energy as Vaughan. Whereas, Kevin Phillips has come in to replace Campbell but even though he has scored he may not link up play as well as his predecessor. However, more crucially Adam’s goals and goal creation are yet to be replaced. Losing players is a part of football and it’s how a manager copes with that which ultimately determines his success. Either you go like for like, recruit then fit or make concessions for replacements.

Shape Shifting

A closer look will now be placed upon the way that Blackpool are setting up on the pitch. For a bit of background, Holloway has deployed a version of a 4-3-3 system for most of his time in charge. Last season the midfield shape varied mainly due to a pre-season injury to Keith Southern before reverting to a flatter midfield shape towards the end of the season. As stated earlier it appears that Charlie Adam hasn’t been replaced and arguably he cannot be replaced for the budget that Blackpool has available. He was the crucial link from deep midfield to attack and to understand why that is affecting Blackpool now, his role and position must be understood in more detail.

The inter-relationship and roles of players on the pitch give formations their dynamic. For example, a 4-3-3 could be seen as a chain of relationships on the pitch that need players to combine. Not just from within one department i.e. the defence, but from more than one. The diagram below will hopefully give a visual representation of the point and to show how the side midfielders (Adam & Southern) relate to the defence and the attack.

Vital linkage

Last season, David Vaughan sat deeper in the midfield than Adam, who occupied the left hand side of the midfield three. His team within a team, aside from the midfield unit was the team of left full back and left forward too. Through this structure he excelled at bringing Stephen Crainey in to the play and building attacks with him and the left forward. This bridged the distance between midfield and attack and when it worked was when Blackpool were at their most devastating.

The balance on the right of midfield was missing for two reasons. Either Elliot Grandin drifted centrally or Keith Southern tended to sit more instead of advancing with his unit. However, as Gary Taylor-Fletcher offered the team creativity from high up on the pitch on the right it helped to make up the balance. So how is this affecting Blackpool this season?

Effectively that link no longer exists, the left footed midfielder has disappeared and with it, that link too. Stephen Crainey appears to get forward less often and Blackpool’s attack often appears slow and predictable. One key point of creation has been removed and a key point of team cohesion too. It will take time to eradicate and Ian Holloway has appeared to struggle to overcome this.

Narrow minded

The impact of losing Adam has caused a knock on effect for the midfield, which has been further hampered by the early season injury to Grandin. The opening game at Hull saw Grandin attack more aggressively than Adam would have and often he failed to track back. If you want an idea of the formation, it was very much a 4-2-1-3. In going for a 4-2-1-3 in the first match Holloway lost a little sight of the flatter midfield three and once Grandin was injured, Taylor-Fletcher was used in the role to varying degrees of success and arguably removed his forward from his most potent position as that of a forward, dropping deep to receive. This has led to Blackpool getting really out of shape and awkward at times and this has made Holloway twist and turn to get his new players in to something that is workable. Allied to Grandin’s forward positioning, Keith Southern has tended to stay deep and even drift centrally making Blackpool’s midfield shape very narrow. The diagram below shows how Blackpool’s links in the 4-3-3 have become stretched.

Really stretching the midfields effectiveness, making them narrow and easy to play against.

Stream of consciousness

This loss of on-field shape has emanated itself in two ways, an unconscious way through players losing their way in a new system and more recently a conscious decision by Holloway to change the shape. What does this mean? Blackpool’s midfield shape had the midfield triangle of players pointing towards the opposition goal instead of the other way round in a conventional 4-3-3 shape. As both of the two players who have dominated in that role (Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher) are naturally attacking and have fewer defensive instincts that someone like Adam. This meant that at times this season they have been caught high up the pitch and any numerical advantage a three-man midfield might have given Blackpool has been lost. You can see this in the diagram below. When attacking, the formation has looked like an aggressive 4-2-4 and even at times a 4-4-2. This happened at times last season leaving Blackpool exposed in midfield and it has started again this season. When Grandin and Taylor-Fletcher are on their games such an application of their skills can be amazing to watch, however, lose the ball and all of a sudden Blackpool are open and ready to be attacked.

It appears that Holloway acknowledged that the shape was too flimsy with the players he was using and consciously switched the team in to a 4-4-2 after a treble substitution against Doncaster which contributed to a comeback and a 2-1 win. He followed up against Nottingham Forest with a 4-4-2 but with less effect and switched mid game against Burnley to a 4-4-2. This was a sign that Holloway could see his team and how they were naturally forming on the pitch and for him to switch to 4-4-2 must have riled him as he doesn’t like the formation. However, you can see his logic for taking these steps and actively pushing his team towards a change of shape. It doesn’t appear to be a way forward and the recent 5-0 victory over Leeds saw him move back towards his more conventional 4-3-3. The question will be, will he switch back to the more attacking 4-2-1-3 once Grandin is fit again and if he does, will he remember to revert to a flatter midfield three when things are going against his side.

New solutions?

Blackpool are at their best when they string together short passes and vary the tempo and point of attack. However, managers know this now and are actively trying to stop them and this has been key to Blackpool’s inconsistent start. Last season few managers tried to alter their style to combat Blackpool and paid the price with a defeat. This season Blackpool are there to be shot at. Hull did what they could to stop Blackpool in the first game, but Derby were the first team to really jam up the midfield and stop Blackpool playing. It is here that Holloway and his players have been slow to find ‘in game’ solutions to tactical problems being posed. Partly because of the players at his disposal, but partly because this is a new experience for them. They’ve been used to having space to play their game and express themselves, but now they are back in the Championship teams want to throw them off their stride and deny them all the space they can.

The midfield approach of some teams this season has exploited the previously mentioned issue of an aggressively placed midfielder and accentuated the distance between Blackpool’s midfield and attack and contributed to the cutting off of the supply to the forwards.

A narrow midfield four and effectively split Blackpool's 4-3-3 shape

The diagram above highlights how a well-drilled midfield has overcome Blackpool and effectively divided their team. Added to this Blackpool have been slow to react in the game. Both Charlie Adam and David Vaughan have excellent appreciation of tempo and when to start picking up the pace of pace to circulate the ball faster. Blackpool have few midfielders to do this now and any numerical disadvantage they’ve suffered could have been overcome with quicker movement of the ball. It was noticeable in the game against Burnley that in the second half Barry Ferguson pushed harder when in possession to drive the team on and for the first time this season it appears like Blackpool’s midfield had gained a new dynamic. Add in the better ball skills of Ludovic Sylvestre in the game against Leeds and all over a sudden the solutions appear to be more forthcoming.

Let’s play Ludo

In fact, the reintroduction of Sylvestre may well have done more to reinvigorate Blackpool than the emphatic nature of the recent back to back victories. He offers the more natural midfield option, less likely to get caught high up the pitch, comfortable in the deep, he also appreciates game tempo and understand where passes should be directed in the final third. What this has highlighted is that the solutions Blackpool have been looking for aren’t that hard to find and hopefully Holloway will veer away from changes in shape to remembering what has worked well in the past and who he still has at his disposal.

Moving on

So what have we learned in this rather long-winded ramble? That Blackpool have struggled for consistency this season due to losing key players and not knowing how best to replace them. By losing sight of what they do well. By losing their shape that brought them so much success. And finally by not adjusting to sides who are happy to shut them out and take a point.

As highlighted in part one, this is a long season and no doubt Blackpool will go through similar cycles of poor and good form. However, the signs are forming that Holloway is learning that his new team may not be far away from showing their real potential.

Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 1-0 Millwall

A week after the demoralising 3-1 defeat to Burnley, Blackpool have now racked up back-to-back wins without conceding a goal. Saturday’s 1-0 win over Millwall was not a vintage performance, but strong enough over 90 minutes to overcome a resolute, if unexciting, opponent. Here are my thoughts on the match:

1. The death of the long diagonal?
A staple of the way Blackpool played last season, it seems that the use of the long diagonal has been consigned to the past. A revealing post-match interview with Ian Holloway suggested that it was a tactic that may no longer be used. 
“We’re having to evolve. We can’t hit long diagonals [any more] because we can’t hit them as well as we used to and we’ve got to get support to people quicker and make better angles. This is a clean slate – we’ve got a new team, a new group. We can’t hit them diagonals, they’re too predictable, so let’s work it into people’s feet, let’s support them, let’s get runners off that, let’s try and see if we can outplay a 4-4-2 by having the ball on the floor because we haven’t got any big ones. We’re going to play a certain type of way, we’re going to encourage you to get the ball and pass it and hopefully we’ll look like a Spanish team, and that’s what I want to do because I think some of the football they play is some of the best I’ve ever seen in my life.”
This admission from Holloway is perhaps a little overdue, but is a sign that he has taken a fresh look to his approach this past week which may reap significant benefits. Key in his decision to ditch the long diagonal is likely the personnel at his disposal, both in making the long diagonal and receiving it. Charlie Adam was obviously at the heart of Blackpool’s creative spark last season and it was his quick thinking and ability to hit a pinpoint pass out of nothing that prevented ‘Pool being predictable. 
However, without Adam there has been nobody with the same range of passing and nobody willing to take on that mantle. Nevertheless, up until now it is a tactic Holloway has encouraged his team to continue with, but the job has largely gone to his central defenders, with very little success. Additionally, Blackpool just haven’t had the players up front to win the ball on a regular basis. ‘Pool relied heavily on the aerial prowess of Luke Varney last season but with a relatively short forward line it hasn’t clicked this season. Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s injury has perhaps been the final nail in the coffin for the long diagonal, as he is probably the only remaining player who can win a header.
The last two results indicate that Blackpool can certainly cope without resorting to the long diagonal, but it could be that the Seasiders go from one extreme to another. The long diagonal may have become predictable, but likewise if ‘Pool only ever go short, then teams may begin to pack the midfield to close off the available angles. Indeed, for all the domination of possession against Millwall, the hard-working visitors did largely restrict ‘Pool to shots from distance and didn’t have that many clear cut chances. For now, the long diagonal may be rare, but if Holloway brings in a player with height in the future, we may yet see its return.
2. Ferguson – the midfield pivot
With just one (enforced) change to the team – Neal Eardley came in for the suspended Ian Evatt – Blackpool lined up with the same midfield three that won 5-0 at Leeds. There were doubts over whether Ludo Sylvestre would be sharp enough to start his second game in just four days having hardly featured all season, but Holloway opted to keep things the same from his winning side. Barry Ferguson earned plenty of plaudits for his display at Elland Road, and it was another confident performance from the captain again on Saturday. The midfield now appears to be firmly based around Ferguson, allowing him to show his qualities.
Click image to view animation
As the animation above shows (click image to view), the three man midfield pivots around Ferguson, with Keith Southern and Ludo Sylvestre taking it in turns to push on – much in the same way David Vaughan would often anchor the midfield with Adam and Southern given more of a free reign to go forward. This role allows Ferguson to dictate the play, and by reverting to more of a short passing game he is able to come into his own. There were moments on Saturday when Ferguson could have perhaps kicked on and joined in attacks, but he seems comfortable to sit and control – consecutive clean sheets imply that this isn’t such a bad idea.

3. Rotating forward line
The re-discovered fluidity to Blackpool’s play has also undoubtedly been influenced by a front three that is constantly switching places. Callum McManaman, Lomana Lua Lua and Jonjo Shelvey have combined well and have a good chance of starting three games in a row together when ‘Pool come back from the international break to face Middlesbrough. What the three may lack in height, they more than make up for in their close control. All seemed happy to accept the short pass, hold the ball when necessary and run at the opposition.
Similar to Sylvestre, Holloway may have opted to rest Lua Lua after his exertions on Wednesday and questions remaining over his fitness, but continuity was very much the order of the day in terms of team selection. Lua Lua did noticeably tire and even just after half time he seemed to be struggling, but still showed enough to indicate he could be a shrewd signing. He is guilty at times of trying to do much on his own and should possibly look for a pass more often, but he has evident top level ability and should only improve as he gets his fitness up.
The two loanees are also demonstrating their quality too, and Jonjo Shelvey is now excelling after misfiring in his early games (his debut versus Bristol City excepted). It’s unclear whether Shelvey has the discipline and positional awareness to play in a midfield three, but further forward and relinquished of the responsibility that comes with the deeper role, he can prove what a talented player he is. McManaman is quietly impressing as well and keeping the unlucky Tom Ince out of the side – extending the loans of these two players beyond January, if possible, should be a top priority for the manager.
One note of caution should be aired however, in that the forward line did lack a focal point, particularly in the first half. ‘Pool were getting into good positions, but a host of crosses into dangerous areas were not met. Kevin Phillips does provide a central figure – his goal and volley that hit the post from an Eardley cross are examples of this – but maybe doesn’t offer the flexibility of fulfilling any of the three forward roles. Having a few options to change things is what Holloway will require between now and the end of the season.

4. Defensive solidity
For all the good work Blackpool did in moving the ball around and dictating the play, the two players who probably emerged with the most credit were Alex Baptiste and Craig Cathcart. Up against a Millwall team on the back of three straight wins and plenty of goals (10 in their last three games), the two central defenders were simply immense. Missing the suspended Evatt, it was a big task for Cathcart to mark the physical Darius Henderson, but he came through the challenge with flying colours. Despite his rather lean stature, the former Manchester United man was strong in the tackle and won more than his fair share of headers. Cathcart hardly put a foot wrong all game and was unfortunate not to collect the man of the match award.
Baptiste was exceptional too and proved to be as adept at centre back as he has been at right back. During the first half he also sought to fill the role vacated by Evatt, regularly venturing forward to join attacks, Ferguson or Southern dropping in behind to cover him. Baptiste has a lot of strong traits and this season it would appear he has vastly improved the attacking side of his game, both from right back and now as a centre back.
Holloway will have another selection quandry for the trip to the Riverside in a fortnight in deciding whether Evatt comes straight back into the team, or bides his time on the bench. Eardley’s performance was good, if not outstanding – he still gives the opposition left winger too much space to put in a cross, but at the same time is more than capable of assisting a goal at the other end, as almost shown in the build-up to Phillips striking the post. One suspects Evatt won’t be out of the side for long, but there can be some healthy competition in that area of the pitch too.

Part One – The Start Of Another Journey

After a brief hiatus Tangerine Dreaming returns with a two part look at Blackpool’s start to life back in the Championship. This part will look at the season up to now and place it in a context and part two (coming later in the week) will take a look at the performances on the pitch seeking to understand the reasons behind Blackpool’s inconsistent form.

When Blackpool fans were melting in the heat of Wembley stadium there was something of a mirage forming in front of their eyes. Twice coming from behind to secure a victory and their place in the Premier League seemed surreal. On reflection that season tends to be viewed with great fondness, particularly for that day at Wembley and an incredible performance against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. However, when really breaking that season down it certainly wasn’t plain sailing and provides an interesting context that this season perhaps should be viewed.

Context & perspective

In reaching the play offs Blackpool racked up 70 points, finding the back of the net 74 times, which works out at a points per game average of 1.52 and a goals scored per game average of 1.61.


Three blips allowed

You can see on the chart above how Blackpool’s points accumulated over the course of the season. However, note how on three occasions the line went flat as they lost either back to back games or as in one instance, three consecutive games. This serves to demonstrate that over a season teams do have poor periods, but ultimately it’s how you recover from those upsets that determines how a team does by game 46. You can also see the step incline at the end of the season as the team pushed hard for the play-offs.

Heal & grow

Blackpool fans would no doubt like to see their team adjusting to life back in the Championship in a smooth fashion and riding high, it wasn’t like that last time around and with the loss of key players it’s not going to be like that this time around. Yes, the start Blackpool has had might strike the casual observer as odd, perhaps suggesting a hangover from the Premier League. Perhaps that is the case, but Blackpool are being rebuilt and that takes time. In his first season in charge it took Ian Holloway a considerable time to get his team functioning and this time around it may be the case again. Yes, an argument could be put together showing that he shouldn’t be in this position and that the club should have recruited in better time and funded a few more high profile signings. However, that wasn’t the case and Holloway has to play with what he has, adding loans where he can and hoping that he can land his main targets in the January transfer window.

Four changes

Just a quick glance at the teams from Ian Holloway’s first game in charge against QPR in August 2009 to the side who beat Cardiff in the final at Wembley shows how a side can evolve over the course of a Championship season.


The side that played Holloway's first game in charge is on the left, set against the play off winning team on the right.

That initial side (on the left above) had the nucleus of the team that ended up being promoted, however, four spots changed throughout the course of the season. Campbell came in to provide goals, Coleman with his attacking drive from full back, Ormerod with his intuitive running and instinctive timing and finally Matt Gilks who made the number one spot his own with his effective communication and shot stopping.

Completing the jigsaw

Blackpool’s last campaign saw the side develop over the course of the season and once the play off team was completed with the signing of Seamus Coleman from Everton the team went on a run over the last nine games of the season to secure their play off spot. Whilst this isn’t an ideal approach it gives hope as the season progresses and after every set back a quick glance across to the last time out will help to ease any worries. In fact before the play off side was completed Blackpool averaged 1.35 points per game and 1.43 goals per game. From the moment Coleman came in the points per game went up to 2.22 and goals per game jumped up to 2.33.

What a difference some loans make

Whilst this doesn’t offer a direct comparison it hopefully shows how a side evolves from beginning to end. This season is different and offers different challenges, but looking at the nucleus this time around Blackpool currently have around four spaces in their first eleven that are waiting to be taken. Those players are out there and may already be in the squad. It’s up to Holloway to find them and blend them; if he does it in a timely manner then Blackpool will be looking up. If not, then he may require a little more patience from the terraces as he looks to the following season for his new team to come to fruition.

Finally, when looking at the first 14 games of this season against the last season in the Championship Blackpool really aren’t much worse off. Last time out they had 23 points on the board, scoring 19 goals. This time out (bolstered by a 5-0 rout of Bristol City) they’ve scored one more goal (20) but have 4 less points.

When is a bad start not a bad start?

Marathon, not a sprint

Monitoring this season against that last Championship season may well be the best tonic for Blackpool supporters as well as the understanding that teams do evolve in this league. The length of season allows for mishaps and loss of form and the availability of loans allow teams to flex their personnel almost on a monthly basis should they wish. The comparisons made here aren’t flawless, but offer some guide, however, it’s always important to be mindful of what happened last season. Nottingham Forest grabbed sixth place with a total of 75 points, so Blackpool may well have to go further than last time they were here in order to get in to the play offs.

Part two of this analysis can be found here – Part Two – The Shape Of Another Journey