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.