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?!  

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