Month: January 2012

Forethoughts on… Blackpool vs. Coventry City

After a disappointing draw with Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup on Saturday, Blackpool return to league action on Tuesday night against Coventry City, who currently sit at the foot of the Championship. Here’s the Up the ‘Pool match preview:

1. The Last Time Out
The two sides shared the spoils back in late September in a lively 2-2 draw under the floodlights at the Ricoh Arena. The first half was almost entirely dominated by the Seasiders, and had a Craig Sutherland goal dubiously ruled offside early on – the young Scot finished neatly after a great pass from Gary Taylor-Fletcher and the goal should have stood. ‘Pool did take the lead shortly thereafter when Taylor-Fletcher got on the end of an Ian Evatt long diagonal to lash past Joe Murphy in the Coventry goal. The rest of the half was host to exhibition football from the visitors, but for all their possession they failed to get a second goal with the home side on the back foot.
After the break, Coventry came out fighting as Blackpool took their foot off the gas. The equaliser for the Sky Blues came in highly controversial circumstances – Evatt, struggling with an injury, twice went down in need of treatment but as Blackpool sought to bring on a substitute when it emerged the Coventry-born defender could no longer continue, the referee Andy Woolmer allowed the home team to take a corner before the change could be made. Somewhat inevitably Blackpool conceded from the corner and from there the momentum was firmly in Coventry’s favour as they added a second goal minutes later – Gary Deegan and Lukas Jutkiewicz the Coventry scorers.

However, in what has become something of a specialty this season, Blackpool rescued a point with a goal in stoppage time courtesy of a Keith Southern header from a Stephen Crainey corner. It was Southern’s only goal of the campaign so far, with the likable midfielder making a welcome comeback against Sheffield Wednesday after a recent cancer scare. The previous encounter also saw Angel Martinez make his debut for Blackpool, but both men are likely miss out this time around with fierce competition in that area of the pitch – Southern required stitches after a clash with David Prutton on Saturday, while Angel will surely make way for Barry Ferguson at the base of the midfield.
2. The Key Stats
  • Blackpool have now scored an average of 1.69 goals in their home games this season, failing to score only 15% of the time at Bloomfield Road
  • Coventry have scored an average of 0.46 goals per away game this season, failing to score in 54% of their away fixtures
  • The most common away result for Coventry this season has been a 1-0 defeat, occuring 31% of the time
  • Blackpool have kept a clean sheet in 46% of their home games this season, conceding an average of 0.69 goals per game at Bloomfield Road
  • Coventry have not won an away game in the Championship this season, losing 77% of their matches on the road
3. The Key Men
Blackpool – Lomana Lua Lua
Despite often being a frustrating player to watch, Lomana Lua Lua’s absence through injury has been a noticeable one, albeit not necessarily reflected in the results. Blackpool have picked up a draw and a win without Lua Lua, but had to come from behind on both occasions against Ipswich and Crystal Palace respectively. The acrobatic Congolese striker has an unpredictable element to his game which can be crucial when teams defend in a well-organised manner. It is expected Lua Lua will return from injury on Tuesday night and his invention could be important.
Coventry City Hermann Hreidarsson

Despite being bottom of the table for the majority of the season, Coventry’s defence surprisingly hasn’t been the biggest problem, with the 16th best defensive record in the Championship and five clean sheets to their name. However, the signing of Icelandic veteran Hermann Hreidarsson is a boost to the Sky Blues, especially now that goals could be even harder to come by following the departure of Lukas Jutkiewicz to Middlesbrough. Coventry triumphed 3-1 over the Teeside club in their last outing, with Hreidarsson part of the back four that day having signed only two weeks ago until the end of the season.
Blackpool – Stephen Crainey
Ian Holloway chose to rest his first choice left back on Saturday, with Bob Harris having another opportunity to impress in the FA Cup. Harris did well and was committed in the tackle, but lacked the attacking threat of his fellow Scot. Whereas Crainey will often be found trying to overlap on the left flank, Harris was often found much deeper, appearing a little reluctant to bomb forward and create the necessary width Blackpool’s game often requires. Against a Coventry team likely to be happy with a point, how ‘Pool’s full backs attack may be crucial to the final result.
Coventry City – Alex Nimely
Another recent acquisition, Alex Nimely joined Coventry on loan until the end of the season from Manchester City. Like Hreidarsson, Nimely also made his Sky Blues debut in the 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough and marked the day with a goal having turned out for Tony Mowbray’s side earlier in the season without netting in nine matches on loan. There is a lot of weight on the shoulders of the 20 year old Liberian, with Coventry in desperate need of goals – so far City have the third worst scoring record in the division. Andy Thorn will be hoping Nimely can continue to find the back of the net over the coming months to give his side any hope of avoiding the drop.
4. The Form Guide
  • Blackpool are 6th in the form table based on the last six matches, winning three, drawing two and losing one
  • Coventry are 8th in the form table based on the last six matches, winning three and losing three
  • Blackpool are now unbeaten in their last six league games at Bloomfield Road, having lost only twice at home all season
  • Coventry have lost their last six away games, with their last away point coming in a 1-1 draw at Doncaster Rovers at the end of October
Up The ‘Pool Prediction
Anything less than three points for Blackpool would have to be seen as a below par result, and one need only look at Coventry’s wretched away record to suggest that this is the most likely outcome. Three wins out of their last six matches does show some signs of life for Andy Thorn’s side, but as Blackpool look to kick on and target the play-off positions (or higher), a home win is vital.

Coventry struggle to score goals, and if Blackpool can get a rare first half lead, it could be one way traffic. I’ll go for a 3-0 win for Blackpool.

Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

For a long time on Saturday it looked like Blackpool would be frustrated by a well-organised makeshift Crystal Palace team. Persistence was rewarded in the end however, and the Seasiders extended their unbeaten league run at home to six games with a 2-1 win. Here are my thoughts on the match:

1. Palace with a plan

Throughout much of the game on Saturday, I was heavily reminded of an article I’d read only that morning on The Seventy Two. The article, titled ‘Beaten by an average team’, argues that the headline phrase is an ungracious way to take defeat, just as referring to certain opponents as being ‘a poor side’ comes across as rather bitter. Shouts such as ‘Come on ‘Pool, these are rubbish’ from the Bloomfield Road crowd were almost omnipresent, but in truth did the visitors a massive disservice.
Dougie Freedman made nine changes to his team with more than one eye on their forthcoming League Cup semi-final second leg against Cardiff City, but what his youthful line-up lacked in experience, they made up for in organisation. Palace’s strategy was clear, setting up in a defensive 4-5-1 they would aim to pack the midfield and crowd Blackpool out, with the aim of nicking a goal when the chance arose. 
Had Palace held on, it would have been a triumph for diligence, doggedness and maybe a little bit of luck too. This isn’t to say they deserved the win, but merely acknowledging that Freedman sent his team out with specific instructions which, until the last 10 minutes, they executed very well. The penalty which gave Palace their lead was contentious; whether Barry Ferguson can be said to have deliberately handled the ball is open to interpretation, but the visiting side seized their chance.

Getting the first goal was always going to be crucial for Palace given how they had set up, and after taking the lead they were able to sit deeper still and frustrate the home side. As uncovered in the preview, it’s easy to see how Palace have won so many away games 1-0. Ian Holloway commented post-match how he felt Palace had ‘parked the bus’, but admitted that doing so is a difficult task. Blackpool did eventually break Palace down, but Freedman’s youngsters can be proud of their efforts.

2. Fleck could learn from Grandin
After signing on loan in mid-week, John Fleck was thrown straight into the Blackpool team on Saturday as Ian Holloway tinkered with his formation in midfield once more. After a period of mainly deploying a flattish midfield three, the introduction of Fleck in behind the attacking trio of Matt Phillips, Tom Ince and Gary Taylor-Fletcher saw a return to a 4-2-1-3 formation that has been used on-and-off during the past 18 months.

It was by no means a bad debut from the Rangers player, but as the game wore on his influence waned as he struggled to see much of the ball. In the first half Fleck looked lively on the ball, happy to run towards goal and was unfortunate on one occasion to see his curled effort go narrowly wide. The problem, as it has been in many other games so far this season, is that the balance of the team appeared to suffer because of the formation. Fleck was often trying to operate in the same space as Taylor-Fletcher, just as Taylor-Fletcher has had a tendency to get tangled up with Lomana Lua Lua when playing that role.

Even Jonjo Shelvey failed to excel in the advanced midfield role and only flourished once employed further up the pitch as one of the three forwards. Since Holloway has used this formation, only one man has performed well in that position with any kind of regularity – Elliot Grandin. The unsettled Frenchman has had his critics since arriving at the club, and his display at home against Wigan will always be a black mark against his name for some and at times he could be more adventurous, but Grandin seems to understand that role better than anyone else who has tried to play there.

Fleck could learn from Grandin by seeing that it is sometimes fine to drop deeper, or sit in the middle of the pitch and connect the simple passes as ‘Pool work the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. With a transfer move away from the club for Grandin a distinct possibility, Fleck could find himself in the advanced midfield role on a regular basis. If he can add a more basic element to his game, then he could be an exciting player to watch and help justify the deviation away from a flat midfield three that has been successful since November.

3. Effective substitutions once more
If there has been one criticism of Ian Holloway during his time at Blackpool, it has sometimes been that substitutions have been questionable. However, in consecutive weeks the manager has made bold changes which have rescued four points from losing situations. Cynics may say this means Holloway got it wrong in the first place, but the ability to see where things aren’t working and put that right could be vital in ‘Pool’s promotion bid.

At 1-0 down on Saturday, Holloway opted to make a triple substitution just after the hour mark – Chris Basham, Elliot Grandin and Kevin Phillips replacing Craig Cathcart, Ludo Sylvestre and John Fleck. At first the changes saw Basham go to right back, with Alex Baptiste shifting to centre back, and Taylor-Fletcher dropping into midfield to accommodate Kevin Phillips up front. Yet only five minutes or so later, Holloway shuffled his pack again.

At this point Matt Phillips dropped back to right back, Basham being released into midfield and Taylor-Fletcher back in the forward line. The intention here was to overload Palace on their left by having both Matt Phillips and Tom Ince attacking down that side. As Holloway correctly noted in his post-game interview, Palace were crowding out the home team whenever ‘Pool attacked through the middle, and so some extra width was a good plan. This also had the effect of freeing up Basham and his energy in the middle of the pitch.

Although they came late, both Blackpool goals came from wide positions with the three substitutes heavily involved. As the season has gone on, the competition for places seems to be fiercer than ever and thus the ability to change the game from the bench is another key ingredient in what could be a successful season for ‘Pool.

4. Late goals help gather momentum

Whisper it quietly, but since the turn of the year there does seem to be a sense of gathering momentum. Blackpool have shot up the form table and look to be nicely poised just outside the play-off places as we approach the final months of the season. Scoring late goals has been integral to this progress and are currently separating a mediocre season from a potentially very good one.

Looking at the statistics for when Blackpool score reveals that second half goals are a specialty, with 31 out of 43 league goals scored in the second half, including 14 in the last 15 minutes of matches. That last figure is particularly telling with almost a third of all Blackpool’s goals coming in the last sixth of games – a statistic that should surely convince the regular early-leavers to re-think their decision to make a hasty move for the exits.

When looking at the number of points gained, Blackpool are second only to Leeds United, managing to gain 16 points from converting losing or drawing positions to drawing or winning results respectively. Saturday was the third time ‘Pool have won after being behind, demonstrating a resilience to the side despite time seemingly running away from them. Similar to the match against Doncaster back in October, ‘Pool may have been a little fortunate to collect all three points, but it is results such as these that can define a season.

Forethoughts on Blackpool vs. Crystal Palace

During the blog’s summer hiatus, as well as taking a much-needed break from writing, I was keeping myself ticking over thinking of new ideas for features. The loss of chalkboard data that accompanied relegation from the Premier League forced my hand when it came to how matches are reviewed – the Seaside Strategy series of posts were consigned to the past.

The replacement template for match reports would become my ‘Four Thoughts on…’ series, in which four key themes are picked out to analyse each game. Until now, the reason for settling on the number four has been a little unclear, with one reader, almost angrily, commenting “Why does it always have to be four thoughts? Why do you never have three thoughts, or five?”.

The answer, dear reader, should now be a little more transparent upon reading the title of this post and the somewhat unsubtle wordplay therein. It was always my intention that I would expand my coverage by both previewing and reviewing as many fixtures as possible, but for a variety of reasons it has taken until now to launch ‘Forethoughts’.

It is hoped this will become a regular feature, and kicking it off is a preview of Saturday’s home fixture against Crystal Palace…

1. The Last Time Out
All the way back in August, the two sides played out a 1-1 draw at a sun-drenched Selhurst Park. In the post-match discussion on this blog, it was believed that Blackpool ‘should have been out of sight by half-time’. A strong first half performance from Ian Holloway’s men lacked a cutting edge to lead by more than Alex Baptiste’s goal, when their display merited more. Guilty parties in the opening 45 minutes were Brett Ormerod and Billy Clarke – the former now on-loan at Rochdale and the latter struggling to claim a place on the bench.

August’s match also saw Ludo Sylvestre make his first appearance of the season, albeit from the bench, and despite a promising performance, Sylvestre failed to break into the side until November – it’s hard to imagine the Frenchman missing from the starting line-up for this weekend’s encounter. Another man who played away at Crystal Palace was Kevin Phillips, who could have sealed all three points that day had he not spurned a relatively easy chance in the second half. Phillips will be aiming for a recall to the team this weekend after his cameo appearance at Ipswich helped earned Blackpool a point after being 2-0 down.

Crystal Palace earned a point in the first meeting between the two sides thanks to a goal from top scorer Glenn Murray. The former Brighton man could have stolen all three points for Palace as he timed his run to perfection moments later, but shot narrowly wide when one-on-one with Matt Gilks. Palace may be low scorers, but back in August demonstrated enough to suggest they can cause Blackpool’s defence problems on the break.

2. The Key Stats

  • 62% of Crystal Palace’s away games this season have seen fewer than 2.5 goals
  • 50% of Blackpool’s home games this season have seen fewer than 2.5 goals
The common belief is that any game involving the Seasiders is sure to yield a decent amount of goals, but the figures above suggest that anyone expecting a glut of goals this weekend may be disappointed.

  • The most common home results for Blackpool this season are 2-1 and 1-0 wins, each occuring 17% of the time
  • The most common away result for Crystal Palace this season is a 1-0 win, occuring 31% of the time

A close game could be on the cards based on the stats above, with the odd goal likely to separate the two sides. Getting the first goal could be crucial for both sides.

  • John Fleck will become the 28th player to make a league appearance for Blackpool this season if he features on Saturday

Fleck arrives on loan from Rangers until the end of the season, but with a lot of competition for places, it’s hard to know where he will fit in to Ian Holloway’s team.

  • Crystal Palace have not drawn a game away from home this season

This curious stat is most likely at the heart of Palace’s strong away record this season, as when they have picked up a result on the road it’s been the maximum three points.

3. The Key Men
Blackpool – Barry Ferguson

The ‘Pool captain has been suspended for the last three games, and despite the midfield doing well in his absence, one would expect the influential Scot to return. Angel Martinez, who has occupied Barry Ferguson’s role at the base of the midfield, is most likely to make way. Ferguson has been quietly effective all season and his experience and resolve in the middle of the park could be crucial against a well-organised Crystal Palace side.

Crystal Palace – Nathaniel Clyne

Palace may have a difficult job hanging onto Nathaniel Clyne during the January transfer window, with a move to Manchester United being rumoured for the young right-back. For the time being though, he remains at Selhurst Park and Dougie Freedman will be hoping Clyne has recovered from a virus to appear this weekend. At only 20 Clyne has already made over 100 appearances for Palace and has been a big part of the club’s focus on youth.

Blackpool – Kevin Phillips

Last weekend Ian Holloway’s introduction of Elliot Grandin and Kevin Phillips helped rescue a point with the two combining for both Blackpool goals, scoring one apiece. It was a timely reminder of Phillips’ abilities given the injury to Lomana Lua Lua, and is a shot across the bow of those who had begun to write him off. Phillips remains Blackpool’s top scorer this season and has been unfortunate to spend so much time on the bench. Even if Phillips does not replace Lua Lua in the starting XI, Holloway knows that the veteran can be called upon to pop up with a goal if needed.

Crystal Palace – Wilfried Zaha

Another graduate of the Crystal Palace treasured youth system, Wilfried Zaha has committed himself to the club by recently signing a five and a half year contract. A tricky forward, Zaha has been a revelation during the last 18 months racking up 75 professional appearances. The Seventy Two has identified Zaha as often being an ‘out ball’ for Palace, with excellent close control and the ability to hold up the ball. The inclusion of Zaha may force Holloway’s hand when picking his defence – pace at the back could be key for ‘Pool.

4. The Form Guide

  • Blackpool are 8th in the form table based on the last six matches, winning two, drawing three and losing one
  • Crystal Palace are 5th in the form table based on the last six matches, winning three, drawing one and losing two

Both teams come into the weekend’s fixture in good, if not electrifying, form. Crystal Palace just have the edge on ‘Pool, taking 10 points from their last six matches as opposed to nine points for the Seasiders.

  • Blackpool are unbeaten in their last five home games, last losing at Bloomfield Road against Nottingham Forest on 22nd October
  • Crystal Palace have the 7th best away record in the Championship, winning 46% of their away games this season
Saturday is likely to be a stiff test for Blackpool, with Palace possessing an away record Ian Holloway could only dream of. However, Blackpool are the 4th best team on their own ground in the Championship and will start as favourites.
Up The ‘Pool Prediction
One key component not yet mentioned that may be a deciding factor in the outcome of Saturday’s game is the small matter of a League Cup semi-final 2nd leg that awaits Palace just days after this match. With a 1-0 lead to defend at the Cardiff City Stadium in mid-week, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to suspect Palace may have their eye off the ball. The other way of looking at this is that Saturday provides players a chance to stake their claim for a place against Cardiff, but distraction may be a bigger factor.

A relatively low-scoring game is predicted by the stats, and as such I’ll go for a 2-0 win for the Seasiders.

Season Visualiser – December Update

With a new year comes another update to the Season Visualiser. This update will focus on the results and the accuracy of the visualiser during the months of November and December, to see if any patterns can be established as we enter the second half of the season.

As we did with the previous update, let’s start with a look at the results in the last two months, November and December, to see how accurate the visualiser was for individual matches. For those not already aware, the visualiser indicates the potential outcome on a colour-coded scale, 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.

Once again, the visualiser has done a reasonable job of forecasting the outcome of the games played in November. Only the first result of the month – the 5-0 win away at Leeds United – stands out as an anomaly, with the remainder of the fixtures all going more-or-less as anticipated. November had been identified as the most difficult month of the season based on the visualiser’s interpretation of the fixture list, and six points was possibly the best that could be expected if the visualiser is entirely trusted.

However, Blackpool managed to confound expectations in the game at Elland Road while picking up respectable points elsewhere to finish with eight points from the month. Along with the victory at Leeds, the hard-earned draw away to Middlesbrough was a particular highlight in a very tough run of matches. The defeat at Leicester was the only match from which the Seasiders took no points, which was by no means a complete surprise considering the money spent at the King Power Stadium lately.

The fixtures during December were a little kinder based on the visualiser’s predictions, with between seven and eight points the anticipated return – ‘Pool achieved in line with that with another return of eight points from five matches, just as they did in November. A win at home to Reading kicked off the month followed by an impressive draw at league leaders Southampton (a game that the Seasiders very nearly won). Both of these results eclipsed what the visualiser had in store for Blackpool, but unfortunately Ian Holloway’s side could only manage a rather disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Watford a week later. 
The final two games of the month went according to the visualiser’s forecast, but with such a terrible record at Oakwell the victory at Barnsley has to be considered a very good one, regardless of how easy the visualiser would have you believe it may be. A comprehensive defeat at St Andrews on New Year’s Eve ruined the prospect of an unbeaten month, but in the circumstances could be justified, especially in light of Birmingham’s strong home record.
At this point it is interesting to revisit the graph which charts the relative difficulty of the fixtures in each month against the actual outcomes of those games. In the October update we could see that the season was somewhat eerily going almost exactly as the visualiser may have predicted, but how have things changed in the last couple of months?

According to the visualiser, Blackpool should have been braced for a significant drop in form in November – and on the back of the depressing 3-1 derby defeat at Burnley few would have been surprised. However, a five star performance at Elland Road saw the Seasiders begin November in style as ‘Pool enjoyed their best month since August picking up an average of 1.6 points per game. 
The graph plateaus in December as this points per game ratio was maintained for second consecutive month. January perhaps offers the best chance to break the 1.6 ppg ratio for any given month this season – an excellent 3-0 win over Middlesbrough has given Holloway’s side the best possible start – and one suspects it could be vital in helping Blackpool stake their claim on a play-off place.
In terms of how the Seasiders are placed to achieve their goal of an instant return to the Premier League, the club are currently behind schedule on the number of points that are likely to be required for a play-off spot. Based on the generally accepted 75 point threshold, Blackpool were three points below target at the end of January, weighted for difficulty of fixtures.

Of course, it could be that the number of points required to secure a play-off place could be lower than 75, as it was in 2009/10 when ‘Pool took 6th spot with just 70 points. However, with even automatic promotion not being ruled out by Holloway and his players, it will be important for a significant upturn in form to try and achieve that ambitious goal. 

For the time being, an 11 point haul from January would be enough to be on course for at least a play-off place – three points already on the board means ‘Pool require another eight from just three remaining games this month. The mathematicians amongst you will realise eight it’s impossible to get exactly eight points from three games, so in order to avoid being behind schedule, Blackpool will need to beat Ipswich, Crystal Palace and Coventry in the next three league matches. It’s by no means inconceivable, but a reduction of the gap from three points off target would make for a satisfactory month as second half of the season gets underway.

Another update to the visualiser will follow early in March when we’ll be looking back at the games in January and February to see how accurate the model has been.

Loan Report – Tom Barkhuizen

The size of Blackpool’s squad this season, combined with the lack of a reserve team and a dearth of behind closed doors friendlies, has resulted in several players going on loan in search of much-needed football. One such player is Tom Barkhuizen, possibly the most-promising youngster on the club’s books. Barkhuizen signed on loan for Hereford United towards the end of August, with his initial spell ending earlier this week.

From the outside looking in, it appears to have been a successful move for Barkhuizen, but as yet no decision seems to have been made about his next step. Hereford fan Bobo from Bulls News (@BullsNewsBlog) is keen to see Barkhuizen remain at Edgar Street for the remainder of the season, and has been kind enough to share his considered thoughts on how the young forward has been getting on away from Bloomfield Road. Over to Bobo…

The signing of Tom Barkhuizen was met with a near-universal ‘who?’ from the Bulls faithful three months ago. Now, he’s the first name on the team sheet for quite a few. Only the resident Blackpool fan on the Bulls Banter forum had heard of him, and he was full of praise. A few days later Barkhuizen had scored within a dozen minutes of his debut in the Johnstones Paint Trophy, and the word spread quickly that he could have something about him.

Bulls fans haven’t had a lot to shout about this season, especially at the time of his arrival, but he started to provide some of the bright points to our performances. A willing worker, with pace to scare the average League Two defender, he was regularly deployed wide and allowed to dart into the box whenever it took his fancy. We’ve changed our footballing philosophy since his arrival, from a passing team to a more direct John Beck-esque style since former Preston boss Gary Peters’ ‘Director of Football’ appointment, but it only seems to have allowed the teenager even more free rein to bomb into the box at will chasing down the ever-longer balls pumped forward.

He’s been used primarily as a winger, mainly on the right but has been known to switch sides during games, as we often tended to field one lump of a striker up top and rely on the wingers to come in and feed off his knock-downs. His finishing has been second to none, literally. His record of converting shots to goals beats out any of the top scorers in the division comfortably, making him our clear top scorer despite getting little more than one shot per match on average. His crossing has also been good, but he will often loft dangerous balls into spaces our strikers haven’t had time to get into yet. He probably needs to learn to let his team mates catch him up!

Is he good enough for the Championship? Probably not yet. He’s barely turned 19 and is growing in confidence in every game, but such a leap is probably too far just now. Come the end of the season, at this rate of improvement, he’ll be ready for the step up but another six months learning the game against some of the wily old pros (and the quite obvious underhand tactics to stop him) in League Two will be a much better education than the odd reserve match could manage. He’s probably capable of League One now, but we don’t really want that to happen.

We’re awaiting Ian Holloway’s answer to our request to keep him here, and every Bulls fan hopes the answer is yes.

Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Blackpool began 2012 with a fine 3-0 win over promotion candidates Middlesbrough at a cold Bloomfield Road. Here are my observations from the game:

1. First half promise turns to second half success
Blackpool had slightly the better of the opening 45 minutes, but in some ways the first half display typified their season so far. At various times there were strong indications that ‘Pool had enough about them to force a result in the game, but promise and frustration were both there in equal measure, embodied best in the performance of Lomana Lua Lua. A lively forward line of Tom Ince, Matt Phillips and Lua Lua were causing problems for the visitors, but the final pass or shot were often lacking for the Seasiders to take the lead.
Fortunately for the hosts, the deadlock was broken soon after the restart and from that point on it was a fairly one-sided game, as Middlesbrough struggled to deal with a ‘Pool side with the momentum the goal had given them. As with a lot of Blackpool games this season, one could sense that the first goal, without wanting to sound too obvious, would be a hugely deciding factor. Once Blackpool go behind, they can find it difficult to break down teams who go into their shell, unless they hit back quickly as they did in the first clash with Boro this season.
Upon scoring the first goal however, Blackpool can, and did on Monday, look like a team that will take some stopping. The problem until now has been finding that form on a regular basis. If Ian Holloway can get his team playing in this way more consistently, the path to promotion will not seem quite as daunting.
2. Makeshift midfield make their mark
Going back to the start of this campaign, few would have predicted a midfield to start the new calendar year consisting of Chris Basham, Ludo Sylvestre and Angel Martinez. However, Monday’s performance showed it is a viable option as the three blended well in a return to a flatter midfield unit at the heart of the Blackpool side. Angel acted as the pivot at the base of the midfield, with Basham usually to the right of him and Sylvestre to the left.
It has been a strange first six months in English football for Angel, appearing and then quickly disappearing again at seemingly random intervals during the season. On the evidence of Monday’s game though, Angel could be a reliable player who can be called upon in the absence of Barry Ferguson, and perhaps even push for his place given time. Angel does not look to be a particularly fancy player, but is happy with the ball at his feet and simply move the ball on its way with minimal fuss, even looking to receive the ball from the goalkeeper on occasion.

A couple of misplaced passes early on from Sylvestre aside, the midfield three worked the ball well, often in neat triangles. Often the aim was to work the ball out to the wide players, but they were just as happy to play between the lines when Lua Lua dropped a little deeper in search of the ball. Defensively, the three also gave Middlesbrough little time on the ball and hunted in packs to win the ball back, allowing ‘Pool to then counter-attack, which they did particularly well in the second half.

A strong man of the match contender, it was an especially good performance from Basham. Since starting the game at Southampton, he has had a strong case to get a run in the side and this latest outing only solidifies the argument. In the absence of Keith Southern, Basham is a not too dissimilar replacement and a highly able one at that. Tenacious in the middle of the pitch, Basham has many excellent attributes and the match against Middlesbrough showed that his inclusion in midfield does not necessarily mean ‘Pool are set up in a defensive manner as he covered significant ground. With Southern still to return, and Ferguson banned for a further two games, it would now be surprising to see any other midfield combination take the field in the next league match at Ipswich.
3. An off day for Middlesbrough
Back in November when the two sides met at the Riverside, Middlesbrough were a much more impressive team than the one we saw on Monday. That day it was a front two of Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald that proved a real handful for ‘Pool, but with that partnership split up the visiting side did not pose nearly the same threat. A hamstring injury to Emnes in December has meant the Dutchman is still to regain full fitness and as such a place on the bench was the best Tony Mowbray could offer him – much to the relief of the Blackpool defence.
Exactly what formation Middlesbrough employed is up for debate – Ian Holloway and the Boro official site’s match report both agreed they had set up in a 3-5-2, but this was far from clear on the day. The tactical brains over at Tangerine Dreaming posted a photo of how they pictured the visitors’ line-up, but whatever system they did use, they were second best in most areas of the pitch. All three Blackpool forwards did well in picking the ball up in deep areas and running at the Boro defence. As the space opened up for ‘Pool in the second half, Middlesbrough virtually crumbled and could not handle the pace and directness of the home side.

Again though, it wasn’t necessarily all one-way traffic and Middlesbrough still did show glimpses of their ability in the first half with a few moments of concern for ‘Pool, but largely it is a game they will sooner forget. On the back of a congested festive period Blackpool cannot be the easiest of teams to play and the result merely served to highlight that it is still all to play for at the top of the Championship as we enter the second half of the season. Both sides will have upward ambitions, and you wouldn’t bet against one or even both being in the mix-up come May.

4. Festive joy for Howard and Phillips
The Christmas period saw the surprise debut of Mark Howard at Barnsley following an injury to Matt Gilks, and it is an opportunity that the former Aberdeen and St Mirren keeper has grabbed with both hands. Coming in out of the blue, Howard has shown none of the nerves one might reasonably expect under the circumstances, turning in some calm and confident performances. Howard enjoyed a fine debut at Oakwell and was able to notch his first clean sheet against Middlesbrough which should serve to give him a further boost.

Not a great deal was asked of Howard on Monday, but what he had to do he did well, and in one crucial moment was able to force Scott McDonald wide when it seemed a goal was almost inevitable. It’s still only early days of course, but his initial performances have been far beyond the expectations anyone could have had of him. A deal until the summer at least is now surely a priority with his short-term contract at the club almost at an end. Howard is clearly a capable understudy for Gilks and could even be a factor in influencing the former Rochdale man’s high performance levels.

Another player who has enjoyed a superb Christmas is Matt Phillips. Having opened his account for the season with a hat-trick at Barnsley, it was encouraging to see him follow that up with his first home goal of the season against Middlesbrough. Phillips is an uncomplicated player and by keeping things simple and maximising the most out of his raw pace he is able to terrorise Championship defenders. The confidence is now clearly flowing and it is to be hoped that the goals continue to come, as they did in abundance during his loan spell at Sheffield United.