Month: February 2012

Season Visualiser – February Update

As we enter the final two months of the campaign, it’s time to once more revisit the Season Visualiser to see if it can shed any light on our performance to date and how things might pan out between now and the end of the season.

Last time around we analysed Blackpool’s performance in November and December, with the focus this time shifting to January and February. I’m sure you probably all know the drill by now, but for those living on another planet for most of the season, here’s how the visualiser works: 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.

The visualiser anticipated that January would be the most straightforward month of the season fixture-wise, and so it proved with Blackpool picking up an impressive 10 points out of the 12 on offer. ‘Pool managed three consecutive home victories against Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Coventry and picked up a good point away at Ipswich having been 2-0 behind at one stage. The visualiser suggested 7-8 points would have been a respectable return so to take 10 points was a tremendous achievement and a key factor in why ‘Pool are now firmly in the play-off picture.

February offered a slightly trickier proposition, when again 7-8 points wouldn’t have shamed ‘Pool who again managed a strong 10 point haul. Strangely the Seasiders only won one point from their two home fixtures, but won all three away games – the poor playing surface at Bloomfield Road being cited by some as a possible reason behind this quirk.
Blackpool opened the month with an unexpected win at Cardiff, but followed it up with a disappointing home draw with Portsmouth. If a win can ever be expected anywhere, it’s usually at the bottom teams and Blackpool did get back to winning ways as predicted by the visualiser by taking maximum points at Doncaster. Following this was probably the hardest home fixture of the season and ‘Pool were put to the sword by 10-man West Ham. Once again though Ian Holloway’s side bounced back to win away at Bristol City and complete another strong month.
We’ll now revisit the graph which charts relative difficulty of fixtures and points per game for each calendar month. The black line indicates the visualiser’s predicted trend, with the blue line plotting the actual points per game over the course of the season.

Incredibly the visualiser continues to be fairly accurate with its predictions and the overall trend is spot on, barring one anomaly in the month of November. Blackpool averaged an astonishing 2.5 points per game during the opening month of 2012 and while this went down for February, the Seasiders were still averaging two points per game. If the trend continues in line with the visualiser’s expectations, ‘Pool will collect fewer than two points per game in March, but then improve on that level of performance for the final month of the season.

Looking at the table below you can see that Blackpool are now on course for a play-off spot, based on the generally accepted 75 point threshold for the 6th place. The table below shows progress required at the end of each month to (probably) secure one of three end of season outcomes – survival, play-offs and automatic promotion – marginally weighted depending on the difficulty of fixtures within a given month.

At the end of December Blackpool were three points behind the play-off target, but now find themselves one point ahead. If 75 points is to be enough for a top six finish, then 10 points in both March and April would be enough. However, 20 points from 13 games – 1.54 points per game – hardly seems like great form. A scenario of six wins, two draws and five defeats seems eminently possible from the remaining matches, but that does make you question whether 75 points will be enough given the number of teams so tightly packed in the play-off race. Could it be that a team might need 77 or even 78 to claim 6th spot?
For the complete optimists out there, they may be disappointed if they think Blackpool can still achieve automatic promotion. Such an outcome would necessitate Holloway’s side collecting 30 points out of a possible 39 – an average of 2.31 points per game – and that’s assuming 85 will be enough for a top two finish which also might not be quite sufficient. ‘Pool do have form for stringing a lot of wins together at the end of a season (last year excepted), but it does look a rather big ask from their current position.
The Season Visualiser will be back again before the end of the season, but in what form is as yet unclear. Watch this space…

Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 1-4 West Ham United

It was a bizarre night at Bloomfield Road and sadly for Blackpool it was a match for the visitors to savour as they lost 4-1 in strange circumstances against a strong West Ham side. Here are my observations from the game:

1. West Ham seize early initiative
When the line-ups were announced it looked inevitable that the game would be won and lost in the middle of the pitch. The visitors lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with James Tomkins in the midfield holding role and Nicky Maynard leading the forward line, flanked when attacking by Julien Faubert and Ricardo Vaz Te. Blackpool began with a 4-3-3-cum-4-5-1 formation with John Fleck being used wide left and Lomana Lua Lua through the middle up front – Ian Holloway decided on a central midfield trio of Barry Ferguson, Ludo Sylvestre and Chris Basham.
With so many bodies in central areas, it was West Ham who stamped their authority on the game as they overran ‘Pool from the first whistle. Mark Noble, Jack Collison and the highly impressive James Tomkins showed their class, forcing the home side into a succession of errors as they conceded possession far too easily through a combination of slack passing, poor control and failing to move the ball quickly enough when hounded by the West Ham midfield.
The poor state of the pitch seemed to be weighing on Blackpool minds but West Ham’s attacking players were coping much better with the conditions, as Vaz Te and Faubert looked dangerous with the ball at their feet in wide areas. The warning signs were plentiful in the opening 25 minutes as the Hammers went close on several occasions and the pressure did eventually tell for the opening goal. 
Noble put an excellent free-kick into the right area – the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ between goalkeeper and defence, if you will – and Tomkins powered past his marker to head home, although other West Ham players were, somewhat worryingly for Blackpool, queueing up behind him had he failed to connect. The second goal followed minutes later and with a little over 30 mins on the clock West Ham were in cruise control.
2. Unusual tactical switches and confused approach
On the back of the opening half an hour, Ian Holloway clearly felt compelled to change things with a first half substitution. It’s rare to see a manager resort to a tactical substitution so early in a game, but the change saw Basham make way for Kevin Phillips. Basham certainly wasn’t enjoying the best of evenings (like most of his teammates), and while some may feel the goal for Phillips just before the break justifies the change, it did seem an odd switch to make. The Seasiders were clearly losing the battle in the midfield area, so weakening this further was a curious move.
In fact, the longer the match went on, the more Blackpool seemed to bypass the midfield altogether. Holloway gambled further at half-time and introduced two more players off the bench, with Roman Bednar and Nouah Dicko replacing Sylvestre and the ever-frustrating Lua Lua. Quite whether such a bold move was required having gained an unlikely foothold in the game courtesy of Phillips’ goal is up for debate, and it may have been that just one half-time change could have been preferable. Nonetheless it saw ‘Pool emerge from the break in a quasi-4-2-4 formation – Fleck and Ferguson asked to hold the fort in midfield while those ahead had little defensive responsibility.
One theory here is that Holloway was looking to stretch the game having struggled to find their way through the visiting side in the first half, and that risking an end-to-end game could work in Blackpool’s favour rather than their opposition’s. A glimmer of light did emerge when Rob Green was dismissed after bringing down Bednar outside the area – the referee judging Green to be guilty of a professional foul. However, ‘Pool’s approach to playing against 10 men with an outfield player in goal was woefully inadequate.
With over 35 minutes (plus stoppage time) remaining, Blackpool could have afforded themselves a little more patience, but the response to the sending off was frantic, ill-thought out and unintelligent. Ian Evatt was almost immediately deployed as a centre forward alongside Bednar, as ‘Pool proceeded to play right into West Ham’s hands. Having been reduced to 10 men, Sam Allardyce’s team retreated and Blackpool going long meant they were more than able to cope with the aerial assault. 
It was at this point the lack of midfielders left in the Blackpool team was evident. Leaving so many bodies up front ensured that it was difficult to pass out from the back as the home side repeatedly gave their outnumbered opponents the ball back when going long in an attempt to hit the makeshift forward line. Holloway’s side should have made the ball do the work and make their extra man count using the full width of the pitch, especially with so much time left in the game after the sending off.
Unfortunately it was a fumbled approach though, with players appearing to receive different instructions from the touchline every few minutes. Ian Evatt for example found himself on the left wing at one point, and while West Ham prepared to take the corner that would lead to their third goal, Evatt looked to be told to go back in defence alongside Alex Baptiste and Craig Cathcart, with the plan to push Stephen Crainey on into midfield. This surely played a part in the way Blackpool handled the corner with Evatt only just back into his own area as the ball came in. It seemed that nobody had their calm, thinking head on as the events of the second half unfolded, and as a result ‘Pool were punished for their performance.
3. Poor performances all round for ‘Pool
It goes without saying that on a night as bad as the one Blackpool experienced, few players emerged with any level of credit. Matt Gilks can be absolved of much of the blame, and he was often quick to let some of his colleagues know what he thought of their sloppy play in defence and midfield, and Kevin Phillips kept his head to find an undeserved goal just before half-time. Aside from those two it was an off day for virtually every other Blackpool player and they will no doubt be smarting having tried to build themselves up as genuine automatic promotion contenders.
Cathcart and Evatt, perhaps unsettled by rotation in recent weeks, looked like strangers for most of the game, with one incident in the first half particularly embarrassing for Evatt as he appeared to completely switch off as Cathcart headed the ball in his direction. In midfield Ferguson was well below par and Fleck was anonymous for large periods of the first half, although the Rangers loan man did try to get things going in the final 20 minutes when so many others had almost given up.

In attach Lua Lua continues to do show his ability only in small doses – for every excellent moment there are six or seven occasions where he misplaces a pass without looking up or gets caught in possession. He seems to have acquired a starting berth almost by default and it maybe is time to look at fielding Kevin Phillips from the off in certain league games. It was also a rare quiet day for Matt Phillips, and with all the changes he didn’t see enough of the ball.

Perhaps it was only inevitable that a bad performance was on the cards at some point given the excellent run since the New Year, but too many had their bad day in the same game. In a match that had significant importance in terms of the automatic promotion race it was a slip up ‘Pool probably couldn’t afford. Sights probably now return to the more realistic goal of a top six finish, and bouncing back quickly is vital.

4. Hammers bound for the Premier League
Over the course of two matches this season West Ham have now racked up an aggregate score of 8-1 against Blackpool, and on both showings they have looked every bit worthy of a promotion-winning side. Much has been made of the money spent, both at the beginning of the season and in the January transfer window, but it looks like Allardyce will do the job asked of him and guide the Hammers back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

To have taken seven points from the last three games despite having a man sent off in each shows an ability to get results from difficult situations, and the ease with which they coasted to victory at Bloomfield Road demonstrated a difference in class of the two sides. Not only do West Ham boast a strong defensive unit, they also have a number of quick and skilful attacking players who were threatening on the counter-attack, often exposing Blackpool’s gung-ho approach in the final third of the game.

There is still a good chunk of the season remaining, but of all the teams in the race West Ham are possibly best placed to maintain their position until the end of the campaign. Allardyce may have bad memories of his final season on the Fylde coast, but at this point it’s difficult to imagine a similar collapse might be in store for those at the Boleyn Ground.

Forethoughts on… Blackpool vs. West Ham United

Blackpool welcome West Ham to Bloomfield Road tonight in a top of the table clash which could see ‘Pool move within two points of their rivals with a win. Here’s your match preview:

When the two sides last met back in October Blackpool were soundly beaten by the better team on the day with the Hammers looking every bit the genuine title contenders they continue to be. The loss triggered the start of a mini-crisis which hit a season-low at Turf Moor when ‘Pool succumbed meekly to their Lancashire rivals Burnley in front of the Sky cameras. Since then however, Blackpool have looked a much better side and tonight’s game presents the opportunity to close the gap on West Ham to a mere two points should they be victorious, although Ian Holloway may be wise to look back to the previous encounter for how not to approach the game.
The defeat at the Boleyn Ground was the last time ‘Pool supporters saw Matt Hill and his selection that day still remains one of Holloway’s strangest decisions in his time with the club. Tasked with marking John Carew, a man with a significant height advantage over the diminutive Hill, the former Preston defender was badly exposed in the centre of the ‘Pool defence. That Hill has not been seen since speaks volumes for his performance that day, although it is probably a little harsh on the player as few would envisage him playing anywhere other than his preferred left back role when he signed in the summer. One could argue that Hill was made a scapegoat and it is surprising he has not been allowed to leave the club either on loan or permanently given he has been completely frozen out.
Another key point to note from the first meeting was how difficult ‘Pool found it to break down the opposition. In the first half Blackpool did actually see a lot of the ball, albeit not in areas that ever really hurt the hosts. Barry Ferguson, Keith Southern and Jonjo Shelvey all combined well at times, but struggled to get in behind West Ham with much of the passing being in unthreatening parts of the pitch. Defensively, Blackpool could not contain the Hammers who repeatedly breached ‘Pool’s high defensive line with balls over the top for the pacy Sam Baldock who opened his scoring account with a brace in the match back in October. The 4-0 scoreline was a fair result last time out with Sam Allardyce’s team taking advantage of Blackpool’s below-par performance. Tonight the Seasiders will surely be aiming to exact revenge on their former manager for the heavy defeat and in the process throw the promotion race wide open.
2. How They Play
Whenever Allardyce’s name is mentioned a certain style of football instantly springs to mind. Whether this reputation is entirely fair is a debate for another time and place, but it is fair to say a section of West Ham’s support have not been overly enamoured with the way their side has approached this season, despite currently occupying a top two spot. Countering fans’ complaints about the style of play Allardyce has said this season “I don’t know why some people moan about winning when all this team did before was lose.” It’s a valid point and his West Ham team have been quietly effective at picking up points even when they have not been at their best – a ‘winning style’ is how Allardyce would likely summarise West Ham’s methods.

In terms of formation Allardyce has opted for a traditional 4-4-2 for significant chunks of the season, although West Ham have been known to set up in a 4-5-1 away from home which may well be the case for tonight’s game. The Hammers may be overloaded with the number of strikers on their books, but playing just one up front on the road has shown Allardyce’s reluctance to take many risks, going for functionality over aesthetics.

West Ham will be missing two of their bigger names for their trip to the Fylde coast, with both Kevin Nolan and Matt Taylor out due to suspension. Papa Boupa Diop is also unavailable through a hamstring injury. If Allardyce does choose to play a lone striker, then it is likely to be Carlton Cole, with Ricardo Vaz Te and Julien Faubert providing assistance from wide when West Ham go forward. Abdoulaye Faye or James Tomkins will act as a screen in front of the defence, which Blackpool will have to be at their best to break down. One perceived weakness is the lack of pace possessed by their full-backs, but on a bobbly pitch it will be difficult for ‘Pool’s wide players to run at them, as was the case against Portsmouth just over a week ago.

3. The Key Men
Blackpool – Alex Baptiste

In recent weeks Baptiste, along with Matt Gilks, has been one of the few constants despite a number of changes being made for the cup games. Having assumed the captain’s armband for the 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park at the weekend, it is likely Baptiste will continue his run in the side (injury permitting), although in which position remains to be seen. If Baldock or Nicky Maynard feature heavily, then Baptiste may be required centrally, but it is probably more likely he will be deployed at right back to combat the aerial threat that West Ham can pose. In a ‘Pool side that generally lacks height Baptiste may be required alongside two traditional centre-backs, which means Neal Eardley will once more miss out.

West Ham – James Tomkins

A product of the West Ham youth system, Tomkins has been an important fixture in the Hammers this season. A versatile player, Tomkins has been utilised at both centre back and as a defensive midfielder in front of the back four. Tomkins was at the centre of transfer speculation in January and linked with £4m moves to Newcastle and QPR, but instead chose commit his future to West Ham by signing a new long-term deal. The Hammers possess one of the meanest defensive records in the Championship and Tomkins is a major part of that.

Blackpool – Barry Ferguson

The reasons behind Ian Holloway’s decision to change his team for cup matches are perfectly valid – utilise the breadth of his large squad, keep players fresh for league matches, etc. – but one man was most certainly missed away at Everton…Barry Ferguson. The former Scotland skipper’s performances have been understated but nonetheless vital as ‘Pool have climbed the table. Ferguson adds a presence and a steel to the midfield that is often only obvious when he doesn’t play. Against a team such as West Ham, the inclusion of Ferguson is a necessity, especially with the pitch in its current condition.

West Ham – Mark Noble

Noble made his 200th senior appearance for his boyhood club last week and marked it by wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of the suspended Nolan. The 24 year old midfielder has been a key component of the West Ham side in recent weeks including a man of the match display in the 2-1 win over fierce rivals Millwall. Noble also has responsibility for corners and penalties, scoring twice from the spot in one match when the Hammers beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 a couple of weeks ago.

4. The Form Guide and Key Stats

  • Blackpool currently sit in 3rd in the Championship form table based on the last six matches, winning four and drawing twice
  • West Ham currently sit in 6th in the Championship form table based on the last six matches, winning four, drawing once and losing once

  • Blackpool are unbeaten in the last eight league matches at Bloomfield Road
  • West Ham have won only one of their last five away league matches

  • West Ham have the best away record in the Championship, having lost only four times on the road

  • West Ham score an average of 1.47 goals away from home, while conceding an average of 1.07
  • 53% of West Ham’s away matches this season have seen fewer than 2.5 goals

  • Blackpool have scored 10 goals after the 85th minute in league matches this season
  • West Ham have conceded seven goals after the 85th minute in league matches this season
    Up The ‘Pool Prediction
    Tonight’s game should be a fascinating encounter which could potentially have a huge impact on the promotion race. Although the outcome won’t settle anything one way or the other, a win for Blackpool would certainly make things interesting while a defeat may make the play-offs a more realistic goal. However it’s likely it will be a tight game and as such I expect it will be difficult to split the sides.

    Prediction: 1-1

    Goal Analysis – Doncaster

    After previously unpicking two opposition goals in recent weeks this time the focus turns on to a goal scored by Blackpool.

    The final goal in the 3-1 victory over Doncaster had points of interest from both an attacking and defending point of view. The first two goals scored on the night came from Gary Taylor-Fletcher, the first from a brilliant long curved pass over the Doncaster defence from Neal Eardley and the second self-created with quick feet and craft.

    Double Phase

    The goal was a product of two phases of play. The first phase being an attacking free kick for Blackpool and the second, reclaimed possession from the free kick resulting in the goal. The start of the first phase is pictured below.

    Whilst Doncaster do win the header at the free kick they don’t clear the ball to safety and nor does the man on the edge of the box (highlighted) react quick enough to the loose ball. Not in the picture above is the man who is responsible for initiating phase two, Barry Ferguson.

    Fergie Time & Again

    Ferguson has been fantastic for Blackpool this season, his technique is of a very high standard which makes errors on his first touch very rare. His positional sense is superb and allied with great vision and leadership he is able to organise the team around his position. He is generally first to collect orders from Holloway and distribute them and at attacking set pieces you can see him pointing to his players advising them where to go. Such is his quality of positional work it often escapes notice. It takes a goal such as this to really appreciate his role in the Blackpool team. In attack, he supports the team and provides the back up when attacks either break down or fizzle out.

    In the picture above you can see that he was perfectly positioned to pick up on the loose ball and in a split second Ferguson has possession of the ball and without any hassle the ball has started on its path towards the back of the net. It looks simple, but in reality that kind of play is hard to do, you need to be in the right position, you then need the required technique to secure the ball and move it on. Poorer players could have lost possession in such a situation and left their team open to a fast break.


    The Blackpool goal then lends itself to three more excellent pieces of work.

    1. A brilliant through ball from Kevin Phillips allowing Alex Baptiste to advance.
    2. A hard and accurate shot from Baptiste. He knows he need to either shoot or cross. His run and position isn’t that dissimilar to the goal he scored against Crystal Palace earlier in the season and here he makes the keeper make a save.
    3. Nouha Dicko understands his position well and knows he needs to both make himself available for a cross and in position to poach any loose ball that may rebound. He does the latter superbly well to put the game beyond Doncaster.

    Back Baps

    Arguably, the key element of those three is the role that Baptiste plays. It has been said on this blog this season that Blackpool look their most potent when Baptiste steps in to attack. The main reasons for this is that at several points this season Blackpool have been stymied and tend to struggle for creative ideas around the final third, often slowing the tempo of the game too much and having poor movement ahead of the ball. In such cases it’s important for midfielders to make runs beyond the ball and if that doesn’t happen then the defence can do the same. In doing so, they can create overloading situations against the opposition defence and in turn get behind the defensive line which can be vital in any football match.

    Turn & Face

    It is that last sentence that leads to the final point to be made about the goal. It’s is a great example of why an attacking team needs to turn a defensive line around and get them running towards their goal. It pushes them closer to their own goal, but also only very good defenders can recover their awareness of the match situation to deal with the imminent threats. Here, Doncaster have only just turned to face their goal when the shot comes in from Baptiste and they have little time to understand where the Blackpool players are and react before the ball is in the net.

    Moving On

    You can view this goal and the others from the match against Doncaster over on the BBC website through the link below

    Doncaster 1-3 Blackpool

    Overall this was a good team goal and a good three points for Blackpool as they move on to an FA Cup clash with Everton. A preview of that game can be found on the link below.

    Everton v Blackpool – FA Cup 5th Round – 18th March 2012

    Forethoughts on… Blackpool vs. Portsmouth

    Blackpool will be looking to extend their recent run of good form in front of the Sky television cameras as they welcome troubled Portsmouth to Bloomfield Road. Here’s your match preview:

    1. The Last Meeting
    Blackpool and Portsmouth last met back in September at Fratton Park, in what was their first league meeting for 30 years. That day Pompey ran out 1-0 winners courtesy of a stoppage time goal from Erik Huseklepp. It was a game that Blackpool had easily the better of, but failed to convert their best chances before succumbing to a heartbreaking late goal. The man who took a portion of the blame was Matt Phillips, who spurned two very good opportunities – incredible to think that was fewer than five months ago given his dazzling form lately.

    Tom Ince was the one who impressed on the South Coast making his first league start, appearing comfortable with the ball at his feet and always a threat for the Portsmouth defence. Yet whereas Phillips has gone from strength to strength since returning from his loan spell at Bramall Lane, Ince has gone backwards slightly and could drop out of the side for this weekend with a glut of other attacking options open to Ian Holloway.

    Another curious difference from the last encounter between the two sides was the make up of Blackpool’s substitutes – Mark Halstead, James Hurst, Hill and Daniel Bogdanovic were all on the ‘Pool bench alongside Ludo Sylvestre. Ian Holloway has decided against having a goalkeeper on the bench since the departure of Mark Howard, James Hurst is currently involved in a relegation battle on loan at Chesterfield, Hill hasn’t been seen since his performance at West Ham, while Rochdale opted not to extend the loan of Bogdanovic. The strength of Blackpool’s bench for the return fixture will demonstrate just how far the Seasiders have come since then.

    2. How They Play
    I asked the good people over at When Sol Went Up for their inside knowledge of Portsmouth. Here’s their view:
    Pompey have flitted between 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 all season, although Michael Appleton seems to be playing a 4-4-1-1 of late. By virtue of the tiny squad (the smallest in the league and the second smallest in the Football League), there are not many significant selection dilemmas, other than up front – Portsmouth haven’t scored enough goals this season so are still searching for the best striker combination. Considering the squad issues, Pompey have a number of relatively recognisable options, namely Benjani, Kanu and Dave Kitson – but they are all out of favour at present because Marco Futacs, a young 6ft+ Hungarian has been scoring goals (three goals in six games, a total Kitson has managed in 18 starts).
    The next question is who plays in the supporting role – at present Erik Huseklepp the Norwegian striker (who starred in this comical fruit advert) who has shown flashes of quality, but has been frustratingly inconsistent, currently holds the position. The midfield is fairly steady, and David Norris will return having served a recent suspension. He will play alongside Liam Lawrence and Hayden Mullins who both have significant Premier League experience. The other choice to be made is who to drop for Norris – either Kelvin Etuhu (a former Manchester City trainee who was released following a stint in prison following an assault who signed on a free transfer and seems to be doing OK as a strong midfield presence) or Joel Ward a local lad, 20 yrs old and a utility player who was subject to a transfer deadline day bid from Ipswich Town.
    There are no choices to be made in defence. Greg Halford will play at right back, Jason Pearce and Ricardo Rocha in the middle and Ben Tal Haim at left back. The defence is solid, the midfield experienced and the current strike partnership youthful and willing. As Blackpool fans you will recognise a number, if not most, Portsmouth players, but the squad has very limited depth and at the moment the club is in turmoil with the financial situation coming to a head (£1.6m is needed by 20th February) with the players and staff unpaid last month. The motivation of the players is the greatest concern, along with awful away form – with just two wins on the road all season, Pompey will go into the game as underdogs.
    3. The Key Men
    Blackpool – Matt Phillips
    Phillips Jnr. is the man everybody’s talking about at the moment, and with some justification. His form over the last couple of months has been sensational and he followed up his two goals at Cardiff City with another strike in mid-week against Sheffield Wednesday. With his confidence high, Portsmouth will do well to keep a tight leash on the former Wycombe man. As mentioned by his manager this week, Phillips appears to have learned that he doesn’t need to snatch at chances, with his shooting now a lot more accurate. Matt Phillips should have had at least one goal down at Fratton Park, and he will be eager to carry on atoning for his wastefulness earlier in the season.
    Portsmouth – Marco Futacs (by When Sol Went Up)
    21 year old, 6ft 5, and purchased from Wolfsburg, Futacs looked like a punt that had gone wrong until Appleton gave him his chance. Three goals in six starts is a decent return but it is yet to be seen if this is beginner’s luck or whether he will develop into a quality player. He leads the line well and when you have a player with Liam Lawrence’s quality in terms of delivery, a player with Futacs’ height should always be able to get goals. He shouldn’t be so important – Kitson, Benjani and Kanu should all be able to get goals, but they haven’t managed that this season and now the pressure is on Futacs’ substantial shoulders
    Blackpool – Ludo Sylvestre
    After being rested for the trip to Wales last weekend, Sylvestre returned to the side in the FA Cup and capped a splendid performance with a rare and well-taken goal. Despite this, with competition for places throughout the team so fierce, Sylvestre isn’t a certain starter. However, Ian Holloway has favoured the Frenchman for home games lately when ‘Pool have often set up in an attacking shape, so he could well keep his place. At his best Sylvestre can move the ball quickly and has a penchant for backheels and flicks to frustrate the opposition. With a little more help in midfield if Holloway does opt for a 4-2-1-3 formation, Sylvestre can help Blackpool dominate games.
    Portsmouth – Liam Lawrence (by When Sol Went Up)
    Lawrence started like a steam train at Fratton Park. He was brought to Portsmouth in what might have been deal of the century with the overrated Marc Wilson going to Stoke and Lawrence, Kitson and a couple of million pounds coming to Pompey. However, Kitson has struggled and Lawrence’s form nose-dived at the end of last year – a recurring injury has meant that he has been unable to recover his form. Yet he still has quality, and with Luke Varney injured and Huseklepp even more inconsistent than Lawrence, the team is overreliant on Lawrence in a similar way to Futacs.
    4. The Form Guide
    • Blackpool sit 3rd in the form table based on the last six games with four wins, one draw and one defeat
    • Portsmouth lie 14th in the form table based on the last six games with two wins, one draw and three defeats
    • Blackpool have won their last three home games and are unbeaten in the last seven
    • Portsmouth have the fourth worst away record in the Championship, winning only twice away from Fratton Park

    Up The ‘Pool Prediction

    With the form Blackpool are currently in, one would expect them to continue this run against a Pompey side under the threat of liquidation. As has been the case in many recent home matches, breaking the deadlock will be the tricky part, but taking the lead at Bloomfield Road is surely overdue as the Seasiders start to set their sights higher than just a play-off place.

    Expect Blackpool’s run to continue – 2-0 home win.

    Thanks to When Sol Went Up for their contribution to this piece. You can also follow them on twitter – @wswu.

    Four Thoughts on… Cardiff City 1-3 Blackpool

    Blackpool set down a marker as the promotion race took another twist at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday. The Seasiders ran out 3-1 winners in the Welsh capital to move into fourth place in the Championship. Here are my thoughts on the game:

    1. Young Scots show promise
    Blackpool’s activity on deadline day this January was much more sedate than in recent years, mainly owing to the fact that the club had moved earlier than usual in the window to sign some of their targets. Two of these players – Danny Wilson and John Fleck – both came through the youth system at Rangers and displayed some of their potential against Cardiff.
    Fleck made his second start since joining ‘Pool after a mixed debut against Crystal Palace two weeks ago. In that game Fleck occupied an advanced midfield role in a 4-2-1-3 formation, but struggled to really influence the match, despite a lively start that saw an effort from outside the box fizz just wide of the upright. Against Palace Fleck often found himself a little too high up the pitch which meant that ‘Pool surrendered some of the middle of the pitch. However, against Cardiff Fleck could be found much deeper, and this role seemed to suit him a little better.
    In a goalless first half, it was Blackpool who were the dominant team and the midfield three of Barry Ferguson, Chris Basham and Fleck moved the ball well. Fleck and Basham both looked to get forward at various times, with Fleck unfortunate to see some of his attempted through-balls cut out. Fleck was a little reluctant to shoot and again did fade in the second half, but this could be a fitness issue due to a lack of first-team games at Rangers this season. Still room for improvement then, but Fleck could play his part between now and the end of the season as Ian Holloway will be likely to continue shuffling his pack as the matches come thick and fast.
    Fleck’s former Rangers colleague Wilson had an even better afternoon, giving Holloway a dilemma for his team selection when Ian Evatt returns from suspension in time for the next league outing against Portsmouth. The on-loan Liverpool man has found it difficult to establish himself in the side since joining at the start of January, but his best display in tangerine so far will put his manager in a quandary.
    For the most part, Wilson looked solid on Saturday and was strong in the air. As a natural left-footed player, he also gave the defence some balance whereas ‘Pool are used to playing with two right-footed central defenders. As a result Wilson would occasionally look for the long diagonal from left to right – a feature of Blackpool’s play that is returning in moderation. It could be argued that Wilson is partly culpable for Cardiff’s goal, as illustrated by Tangerine Dreaming, but it was nevertheless a good showing as competition hots up in all areas of the pitch.
    2. Kevin Phillips masterclass
    Kevin Phillips showed all his experience as he once more came off the bench to help turn another game on its head. Phillips now has four goals in the last five matches as Championship sides continue to dread the sight of him warming up on the sidelines. His equalising goal on Saturday was another classic example of why he remains such an effective player in spite of his advancing years. Phillips’ movement following his namesake’s corner was simply exceptional, as the image below illustrates.

    Phillips has a knack of being able to anticipate where the ball might drop in such situations and his sixth sense paid dividends yet again. It’s quite incredible to think that despite the reputation he commands, Phillips is still allowed to slip away from his marker and find so much space on his own. When the ball did drop out to him, Phillips displayed his excellent technique by calmly picking out his spot and finishing with aplomb. 
    The deadly finish was in stark contrast to the far simpler attempt which fell to Nouah Dicko, who never looked confident as he raced through one-on-one with David Marshall earlier in the half. Holloway will be hoping Kevin Phillips can teach the on-loan Wigan player a thing or two about composure. The 38 year old has spoken of his desire for more involvement from the start of matches, but there is an argument that he can be more effective as a goal threat in the last third of games, as evidenced by past form. Either way, Phillips is having a major contribution in what is turning out to be a rather successful season.
    3. Late goals continue
    In the review of the Crystal Palace match, I picked out a handful of statistics regarding the number of late goals Blackpool are scoring. Rather than attempting to address this with some early goals, the last two league games have exaggerated these figures further still. Prior to the last two fixtures, just over 72% of the Seasiders’ goals had come in the second half – following five more late goals, this figure has now increased to a round 75%.
    Goals in the last 15 minutes of games now account for almost 40% of all league goals, with ‘Pool now having gained 22 points from losing positions – the most in the Championship. Two more of those late goals were scored by Matt Phillips, who continued his recent brilliant form. Both goals had an element of fortune – the first came after an initial shot was blocked and bounced up nicely while the second was nearly saved by Marshall. Regardless, Matt Phillips is now a genuine goal threat and in the form of his life.
    What is so evident of late is that Blackpool are beginning to regain the attitude that they possessed two seasons ago, when the team didn’t lose belief when going behind. Back then it was common to hear Holloway talk about how going a goal down didn’t affect his side and that they just kept going. There’s an argument to suggest that the class of 2012 even thrive on it, having come back to get results despite conceding the first goal in each of the last five competitive matches. How long that run can continue is unclear, but it is a sign of a top team.
    4. Cardiff not at their best
    Having been unfortunate not to take all three points at Bloomfield Road earlier in the season, Cardiff will be cursing the sight of tangerine (or white, as was somewhat needlessly the case on Saturday) after losing their one goal advantage. However, on this occasion they will accept that they deserved little from the encounter as Blackpool asserted themselves right from kick-off. The hosts spent large chunks of the first half watching Blackpool keep the ball, although without creating many clear-cut opportunities.
    Cardiff seemed to use Dicko’s miss to fire them up however, and shortly afterwards scored through Joe Mason after some good build-up. Rather than kick on from there though, Cardiff failed to react to Blackpool’s substitutions and it was the visiting side who regained the initiative when Kevin Phillips levelled the scores. In the last 10 minutes of the game, Blackpool were able to exploit Cardiff’s high defensive line on numerous occasions and as such it was no surprise when ‘Pool got their 2nd and 3rd goals as the home team crumbled.

    Cardiff will look to write off Saturday’s defeat as just being a bad day – it was after all only their fifth loss of the season, hardly the start of a crisis. Malkay Mackay will be particularly disappointed with the marking on the first goal and the failure to keep a closer eye on Matt Phillips in the closing stages. Cardiff still look set for a top six finish at the least however, and another meeting between these two sides in the play-offs remains a possibility. Based on recent meetings, it would probably not be an encounter Cardiff would relish.

    Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 2-1 Coventry City

    Blackpool left it late once again as they completed a very successful January with their third win of the month against a spirited Coventry City side. Here are my observations from the game:

    1. Lack of first half goals continues to frustrate
    It has been a curious quirk of the season so far that Blackpool have regularly failed to find the back of the net in the first 45 minutes of games. That statistic has been particularly noticeable of late, with ‘Pool having gone behind in each of the last four games (including the FA Cup stalemate with Sheffield Wednesday). On the one hand, it’s a fact that displays an admirable never-say-die attitude of the team having come back to draw two and win two of those four matches, but there has almost been a sense that the Seasiders have needed to go behind to give them a kickstart.
    Focusing solely on league matches for a moment, the figures show an alarming dearth of first half goals. Out of the 45 league goals scored this term, only a staggeringly low 12 have been scored in the opening half of matches – around 27%. Eight of those 12 first half goals have also come from the 30th minute onwards, which means that so far this season Blackpool have scored only four goals ( roughly 9%) in the first third of games. Why ‘Pool are such slow starters is unclear, and as a result the team have had very few comfortable victories this campaign.

    On Tuesday night, Blackpool did have chances to take a first half lead as they enjoyed the majority of the ball in the opening 45 minutes. However, the inability to be ahead at half-time was mainly due to some poor decision-making from the front three. At different times Tom Ince, Matt Phillips and Lomana Lua Lua all found themselves in good positions, but took the wrong choice when it came to finding the right final pass or right time to shoot.

    Manager and players have recently asked the fans to be more patient, but it might be a case of the forwards sometimes taking their own advice – if only they would put their head up in and around the box the path to goal may become clearer. There is a sense that an early goal for the Seasiders would allow them to brush teams aside, but that first goal continues to elude Blackpool for the time being.

    2. Ferguson and Sylvestre struggle as a duo
    It has been a regular bone of contention on this blog about using Gary Taylor-Fletcher in the advanced midfield role, so much so that people are as fed up as reading about it as I am writing about it. However, it was the tactic Ian Holloway chose to employ once more against Coventry. It does seem clear that this role does not bring the best out of Taylor-Fletcher, but a side-effect is that it also seems to be having an influence on the performances of Barry Ferguson and Ludo Syvlestre.

    Both of the two midfielders came in for criticism from supporters post-match – Ferguson was accused of only ever passing backwards and sideways, while Sylvestre struggled to find his creative rhythm and gave the ball away more often than usual. One must wonder though whether these two players are better suited to a more traditional three man midfield, which opens up extra passing options and would allow Blackpool to try and pass through sides in neat triangles, as had been witnessed in games when ‘Pool had operated with a flatter midfield three.

    The unlucky man in all of this would appear to be Chris Basham, who has done well since coming into the side as a midfielder. Viewed by some as a defensive option, he actually fills the role of a box-to-box midfielder when he plays, and in some instances can drive the side forward, as well as providing an aerial presence from both goal-kicks and at set-pieces, both attacking and defending. It may be that Basham is reinstated for away games when the pursuit of an ‘attacking’ 4-2-1-3 isn’t a crucial in Holloway’s eyes, but the home fans may see more of Ferguson and Sylvestre with an extra body alongside them, rather than way ahead of them.
    3. Hoofball – the art of winning an ugly game
    “We don’t have a Plan B” has been a familiar cry when results haven’t gone well this season, but Blackpool may finally have found a way of winning matches that is in stark contrast to the usual style of play. Of course, winning matches late on has become something of a routine this season, but it has typically been through dogged persistence and pressure which has caused opposing sides to crumble, with the odd tactical curveball thrown by Ian Holloway. The assault that Coventry caved in against was something not seen at Bloomfield Road for quite some time.

    Following on from the Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday games, ‘Pool once more found themselves chasing the game late on. The substitutions midway through the second half saw Blackpool initially go to a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Alex Baptiste the screen in front of a back three of Ian Evatt, Craig Cathcart and Stephen Crainey. Ince and Matt Phillips adopted traditional winger roles with John Fleck partnering Ferguson in central midfield, while Taylor-Fletcher was joined up front by Kevin Phillips.

    However, after 10 minutes without success, Evatt joined the attack as the formation became rather more difficult to fathom. Evatt looked unsurprisingly cumbersome as a forward, but was having some success in winning flick-ons for Kevin Phillips and definitely helped unsettle the Sky Blues’ defence. Witnessing the panic caused, Holloway then added new signing Roman Bednar to the mix as ‘Pool threw the kitchen sink at the visiting side.

    At last Blackpool began to grind Coventry down and a disallowed goal for Kevin Phillips was a sign of things to come as first Phillips equalised following good, calm work from Bednar, then in the dying moments of stoppage time Taylor-Fletcher came up with an unlikely winner. It may not be a traditionally attractive way of playing, but the acquisition of Bednar gives Blackpool the flexibility of switching things up when teams set up to frustrate them. Ian Holloway must surely now look at his squad and feel he has a wide range of options to win ‘Pool the necessary games to contend for promotion – using the right options, at the right time will be decisive.

    4. Coventry in strife
    A final thought is reserved for the visiting Coventry City side, and it must have seemed like a long journey home for their players and supporters on Tuesday night. The Sky Blues had a game plan and defended well, just as Palace and Wednesday had before them. Like those sides, they also managed to get a goal against the run of play, but once they had their lead continued to defend valiantly, even having the odd chance themselves to extend their advantage on the counter-attack.

    However, as Holloway brought on his substitutes, there must have been some envious glances from Andy Thorn in the opposing dugout. Thorn, who can only dream of the resources at Holloway’s disposal, ultimately was helpless as his brave side could not hold out. It was a classic example of ‘bottom of the league syndrome’, with luck frequently eluding those teams involved in relegation battles.

    There’s no doubt Thorn’s side will battle all the way in their bid to avoid the drop, and if they can keep up their recent home form then they may still have a chance of retaining Championship status. However, results like the one on Tuesday when they probably deserved more are a real kick in the teeth and they must pick themselves up quickly. As the winning goal went in, several Coventry players, understandably, looked thoroughly demoralised.

    It was however a performance they should be able to take positives from and their defence is something they can build success around. Coventry are not leaking goals and in Alex Nimely they have a young player who looks a handful. The lack of finances at the club may prove their undoing in the end, but they do not look to be going down without a fight.