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.