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.