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.