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