Practice Makes Perfect

After a spate of concessions from set pieces and corners Ian Holloway hauled his team through extensive defensive practice to iron out the issues. They worked so hard that Ian Holloway was quoted in the Blackpool Gazette as saying;

“But we have practised it this week, and they have all sore foreheads now”

This was in advance of the game against Southampton, a game in which Blackpool kept their first clean sheet in the league for fourteen matches. Holloway talked about getting his players to ‘attack the flight of the ball’ which is a basic skill, but one that Blackpool as a team had lacked in recent games. However, upon watching the Southampton game it was clear that they had worked on a little more than that. Blackpool’s defensive focus was apparent across the pitch and there were around three key elements that stood out from that game. It’s important to bear in mind that these observations may be game specific and may not actually be a sustained approach, but it’s still valid to note them.

The first element that was clear from the first whistle was that Blackpool’s first line of defence was the forward line and the forwards pressed hard and high up the pitch all game long. At times this season Blackpool’s pressing strategy hasn’t been very obvious, not that this always indicates a lack of a plan as it could be that players are interpreting the application of instruction to varying degrees.

The second element that appeared to be deliberate was how often the defensive line remained as a four across the back line. Under Holloway, Blackpool’s full backs have often been aggressively applied, often joining in to midfield and attack. However, here both full backs kept much deeper. Again, this may be match specific and given the lack of width from Southampton in the first half it may have made been unnecessary. However, with the introduction of Steve De Ridder after the break Southampton had much more width and depth on the right. Bob Harris at left back was engaged with his opponent (De Ridder) for large spells in the second half, which will have forced him back anyway, but given that he wasn’t in the habit of getting forward that would have helped his mindset. It would be a bold move to see Blackpool continue this conservative application of full backs, especially against perceived weaker teams who set up to stifle. A full back who steps up in those situations offers another outlet and another point of attack; it’s likely that this may only be a tactic employed for Southampton.

The final element is the corner set up and approach. Analysis of this is pretty basic due to lack of quality footage of games this season. However, the Southampton game saw a change of corner set up from Blackpool. This must have been the large focus of their weeks training given the recent issues in defending corners. It appears that they were working on much more that just attacking the flight of the ball. Teams have plans for attacking corners and defending corners and for the most part this season Blackpool appear to have mainly used man to man marking with a hint of zonal coverage. Again this assertion is from limited footage and recollection, so it’s fair to perhaps doubt the accuracy here. However, the following evidence will be used to back up this assertion.

The picture below is a screen shot of the corner that led to the goal that was conceded against Hull.

What can be seen here is that Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste go man for man in the area which is circled. Tom Ince (red dot) appears to go man for man with Liam Rosenior (blue dot) and Danny Wilson (green dot) is also man for man against his opponent. Stephen Crainey (yellow dot) at the back post appears to be man for man also. Only Keith Southern (tangerine dot) appears to be committed to marking a zone at the front post. This is a typical set up for Blackpool with slight modifications for game specificity i.e. Ince isn’t normally likely to man mark at corners; Rosenior would have been a suitable opponent in this case.

The picture below shows the corner set up for the goal that David Nugent scored for Leicester when they recently drew at Bloomfield Road.

From left to right you can see that Evatt and Southern are man for man in the area that is circled. Alex Baptiste (red dot) and Gary Taylor Fletcher (green dot) also go man to man. Crainey (yellow dot) also appears to be man marking even though his man has dropped behind him. Kevin Phillips (blue dot) is stationed in the zone near the front post to cut out the poorly delivered corner.

Now contrast that set up to the picture below.

This angle gives a great appreciation of the placement of players around the six yard box, but admittedly is doesn’t pick up those that may have been around the edge of the area. This was a corner delivered superbly and actually poorly defended by Blackpool, but this isn’t being used about defensive work per se, rather than to observe the positioning.

To the casual observer you should be able to notice the difference straight away, however, it’s important that this may be game specific and Southampton’s attacking set up may have been compromised by the loss of Rickie Lambert. In the top right you have Tom Ince (red line) picking up the man going for the short corner. On the front post you have Matty Phillips (yellow dot) in the zone to cut out the lowly hit corner. However, you then have four Blackpool players in a staggered line from the top (Keith Southern, green dot) to bottom (Alex Baptiste, blue dot). None of these players are engaged, man for man. They appear to be covering the zones from front to middle to back. This may be game specific, but it appears clear that Ian Evatt (red dot) for instance doesn’t have a duty to pick up a man. He is there to mark the space and ‘attack the flight’ of the ball. This appears to be a key change of set up for Blackpool and what Holloway had drilled in to his team. This does appear to be a clear change indicated by the application of Evatt as he would generally be assigned to pick up the opposition’s key aerial threat man to man. The fact he isn’t here, perhaps backs up the assertion that Blackpool did change their approach.

Given that this corner was poorly defended isn’t the best case to say that the set up works. However, the following games may either see the same familiar set up or changes for opponent dynamic. What can be said is that Blackpool looked a very effective defensive side with a renewed focus on their defensive work and repeats of that clean sheet against Southampton will go a long way to securing their place in the play-offs.