Four Thoughts on… Southampton 2-2 Blackpool

Blackpool drew 2-2 with Southampton on their third televised league outing of the season, making it won one, drawn one and lost one in front of the cameras. Here are my observations from Saturday’s match:
1. Defence narrow, and somewhat shaky
It was always likely to be a tough game for Blackpool’s back four at St Mary’s, coming up against a team who had won all their matches on home turf this season. The return of Rickie Lambert to the starting line-up after injury only served to ramp up the difficulty. The way Southampton sought to exploit Blackpool’s defence can be explained by the diagrams below.

Blackpool had the better of the first 10 minutes, but Southampton did find their feet and in the example below caused issues for the Seasiders. Notice how many white shirts are tightly packed, and Southampton use this to their advantage by passing out wide and delivering a dangerous cross.

Shortly afterwards, Southampton once again forced the Blackpool defence very narrow, creating huge swathes of space on the flanks to be exploited.

Not long after the hosts had taken the lead, Rickie Lambert almost made it 2-0, but for an excellent save from Matt Gilks. The image below shows Ian Evatt charging out of defence a little too rashly, with the Southampton forwards poised to pounce.

The effect of Evatt’s decision to rush to the ball is even more visible in the image below, showing the same situation from a side angle. On this image, you can see how Lambert has peeled off the back of Neal Eardley, with Lallana completely unmarked on the Saints’ left. Evatt’s movement towards the ball has seen the defence shift out of position, with ‘Pool fortunate not to concede a second and be out of the game with just half an hour or so on the clock.

Neal Eardley, who has been a target of a not insignificant section of Blackpool support in his time with the club, had a moment to forget for his part in the opening goal of the afternoon. Gilks played a regulation short ball out to him, but a poor first touch led to Eardley being too easily dispossessed before the ball found its way to Lambert who scored via a Cathcart deflection. It was sloppy play from the right-back, but at the same time one wonders if he received a shout of man-on from his teammates – if he did, he certainly didn’t react to it.

It wasn’t just Evatt and Eardley who had a bad day at the office – neither Cathcart nor Stephen Crainey will be satisfied with their performances either. Crainey struggled for much of the game to handle Morgan Schneiderlin, and for the last minute Lambert goal, Cathcart afforded the former ‘Pool trainee too much space for a player as good in the air as he is. Visiting top of the league, the Blackpool defence wobbled, but thankfully for them, it’s another away game at a top team out of the way.

2. Midfield pivot is back with Basham
Ludo Sylvestre finally broke into Ian Holloway’s team away at Leeds, and after the Millwall game which followed it I commented on how the flatter ‘Pool midfield was based around Barry Ferguson as a pivot point. With Keith Southern’s health concerns, Holloway reverted to using Gary Taylor-Fletcher at the tip of a midfield three in recent weeks, the success of which is up for debate. After the 1-0 win over Reading, I floated the idea of Chris Basham or Angel Martinez being brought in alongside Ferguson and Sylvestre, particularly for away games. Holloway did exactly that and Basham won his first midfield start of the season – his only other start came at right-back away at Brighton.

During his 15 month Blackpool career so far, Basham has suffered with a string of injuries, before being cast in the rather unfortunate role of utility man. On the few occasions Basham has got into the side, it has typically been as cover for an injury or suspension, which has seen the former Bolton man back out of the side when the player he replaced is available. Danny Coid proved over the course of a decade that being a utility man, while handy for the manager, is not always a blessing for the player himself. Coid too was no stranger to the treatment table, and when fit struggled to nail down any particular place for any length of time.

Chris Basham will be hoping he can avoid falling into the same trap, and his performance on Saturday lunchtime was a massive step in the right direction. Presumably brought in to give the Blackpool midfield more solidity, it was unexpected at just how well Basham got forward. Aside from his goal, Basham worked his way into the Southampton box on a number of other occasions and does appear an attacking aerial threat, as commented upon following the 2-0 defeat at Leicester. Until Southern or Elliot Grandin return to full fitness, Basham represents a genuine alternative in midfield, which before the weekend did not seem to be an option the manager was seriously considering.

3. …but doesn’t survive the substitutions.

With ‘Pool leading 2-1, Ian Holloway opted to make some changes in the closing stages of the game. Kevin Phillips joined the action to a chorus of boos from the home supporters, clearly not fondly remembered for his time at Southampton, replacing Callum McManaman. A few minutes later Chris Basham also departed the field for Lomana Lua Lua, which following some criticism has since been explained as the midfielder apparently carrying a knock, as well as Holloway being eager to take him off after his full-blooded challenge on Dan Harding, which on another day may have earned him more than just a yellow card.

At this point, the shape of the side did crumble a little. The first substitution looked like ‘Pool may have switched to a 4-4-2 with Kevin Phillips and Taylor-Fletcher up front, but then the second change saw Taylor-Fletcher drop a bit deeper, with ‘Pool then operating a 4-3-3-cum-4-2-4. Given how the Seasiders had closed out the game against Reading by going to a more compact midfield, it was more than a little surprising that the more defensively-minded Angel was not brought on to replace Basham.

This is not to say that Blackpool were completely overrun in the final 10 minutes or so. Southampton pushing for equaliser, combined with the Blackpool changes in both tactics and personnel, served to stretch the game, with the match turning into an end-to-end affair. Indeed, one could easily argue that the visitors should have killed off the game, spurning good chances on the break with Taylor-Fletcher one notable culprit. However, the puzzling decision to change tactics of how to hold onto a lead from one game to the next invites a few questions, and having done it successfully the previous week, it was disappointing in the end to drop two points with Lambert’s late goal.

4. Southampton good value for their point
The equalising goal was sickeningly late from a Blackpool point of view, but it’s hard to deny that Southampton deserved something for their part in an entertaining game. Once again Blackpool came to rely on Matt Gilks to bail them out of some dangerous situations, and the hosts kept going right until the final whistle, and may have been disappointed themselves not to take all three points, wasting a four-on-two overload just after scoring their late equaliser.

Nigel Adkins has done a sterling job since taking the reins at Southampton and has seemingly fully justified his decision to drop down a division when he swapped Scunthorpe for the south coast last year – the Iron now find themselves struggling at the wrong end of League One, 43 league places below Adkins’ current side. Southampton are a side filled with good footballers all over the pitch, although goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski starting his first league game for two years had a well-publicised afternoon to forget.

Saints may have surrendered some ground to their rivals in recent weeks, but with flexible wide players like Schneiderlin and Adam Lallana and a front two of Lambert and Guly do Prado, they look well placed to cement an automatic promotion place. Their strength at home was visible even when a defeat looked on the cards, and it is the teams that rescue results at the end of games that typically go on to do well.