Four Thoughts on… Blackpool 1-0 Birmingham City

Blackpool took a lead in the first leg of their play-off semi-final with Birmingham City. It was nothing less than the Seasiders deserved following an excellent display at Bloomfield Road, although they may be frustrated that they were unable to make more of their dominance on the day. Here are my observations from the match:

1. Blackpool hit high notes in pairs

It is a symptom of the modern game that too much credit is often attributed to individuals as opposed to the collective. Where Blackpool have done well in recent weeks, and in the game against the Blues, was through great combinations throughout the team with key partnerships developing all over the pitch. No longer are ‘Pool a side that is reliant on a star player, as they have been down the years with Peter Clarke, Wes Hoolahan and Charlie Adam the obvious examples, albeit each to a different extent.

The main selection headache facing Ian Holloway was whether to opt for Barry Ferguson or Keith Southern in the centre of midfield – as detailed here by Tangerine Dreaming. Southern was certainly unlucky to be left out, but Holloway’s choice was vindicated, with Ferguson and Angel Martinez combining well on Friday night to take control of the middle of the pitch. In the short time the two have been playing together, they seem to have achieved a strong understanding of each others’ games.

While they can be seen as similar players – they both normally like to sit deep – a pattern has emerged where Angel takes the lead role in anchoring the midfield with Ferguson given a little more of a free rein than has been asked of him for the majority of the season. However, they never appear to get too far apart and as such are often on hand to interchange quick, short passes that can launch swift counter-attacks for Blackpool.

Elsewhere, Stephen Dobbie and Gary Taylor-Fletcher are working well in attack and caused Birmingham problems with their neat interchanges in between the lines of the Blues’ midfield and defence. The pair were often to be seen picking up the ball deep and with their back to goal, before spinning and laying the ball off to each other inside, or out wide to the pacy Matt Phillips and Tom Ince. Indeed it was a Dobbie turn that provided the assist for the only goal of the game, which was more than a little fortunate given the deflection it took.

Another partnership in the side can be seen between Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste. It is surely no coincidence that Blackpool have managed to keep six clean sheets in their last eight games at a time when Ian Holloway has kept a consistent back line. Baptiste spent much of the season being switched between right back and central defence, but has finally settled at centre back alongside Ian Evatt, who has himself been out of the starting XI altogether in spells.

It should also be noted how well Phillips and Ince are now supporting their respective full-backs, which appears to be an added contributing factor to the overall defensive solidity. With such excellent links forming in duos throughout the team, Holloway will be hoping to field the same side in the one, or two, remaining games this post-season.

2. Blackpool substitutes fail to ignite

As well as Blackpool played in the opening leg on Friday, it has to be said that Holloway’s side lost some of its spark after changes were made. With 75 minutes on the clock, the ‘Pool manager opted to make a double substitution – Kevin Phillips and Nouah Dicko replacing Taylor-Fletcher and Dobbie. It’s plain to see the reasoning behind these changes, as Holloway undoubtedly wanted a second goal to press home his team’s advantage. Dicko has been a revelation in recent weeks, while you can never count out Kevin Phillips.

However, the change in personnel cost ‘Pool their momentum at a crucial time. Chances were few and far between in the closing stages, with Kevin Phillips’ correctly disallowed goal the only notable event in Blackpool’s favour after the substitutions. Far too often the Seasiders had no central threat, with both substitutes taking up positions out wide on a regular basis, whereas before ‘Pool had been able to play through Birmingham using the guile of Taylor-Fletcher and Dobbie.

In terms of attacking options on the bench, Holloway didn’t have much else available, choosing to select back-up goalkeeper Mark Halstead among his five substitutes – Southern and left-back Bob Harris being the other two. It’s not simple to pick out what Holloway could have done differently, but of the forward players the least impressive (although by no means poor) was probably Matt Phillips – perhaps just one change could have been made with Taylor-Fletcher moving out wide and either Dicko or Kevin Phillips operating through the middle.

Then again, it could easily be argued that Dobbie and Taylor-Fletcher were tiring, with the latter especially taking a lot of physical punishment off the Birmingham defence. With a vital second leg only five days later, fresher legs for those two in the away leg might prove key to the overall outcome. Holloway’s decision in trying to win the game more comprehensively with his two changes might not have been successful, but neither was it massively flawed.

3. Birmingham to offer different proposition in return leg

It was a tough evening for the visitors, as they lost to the Seasiders for the first time since 2009, despite having enjoyed the better of recent encounters. It’s clear Birmingham were not at their best, and they will certainly be expecting to perform better in the second leg, although perhaps with more apprehension than they had before the first game if a perusal of supremely confident Blues message boards is to be believed.

That’s not to say Birmingham were completely up against it at Bloomfield Road. Indeed, they did have chances of their own and in the first half weren’t that far off the pace of the home side, with Chris Burke in particular a thorn in the side of Stephen Crainey in the opening stages. Marlon King may also have levelled the match in stoppage time were it not for the woodwork coming to Blackpool’s rescue. So while ‘Pool may have been the better side in the first game, the tie is still very much in the balance.

Chris Hughton would certainly appear to be confident of turning the situation around if his approach to the game is anything to go by. With Blackpool growing stronger as the game wore on, Hughton pre-empted Holloway’s changes by sacrificing Nathan Redmond for the more defensive Jonathan Spector, designed to congest the midfield. It was perhaps this move that forced Holloway’s hand and provides further insight into those changes. Hughton was clearly happy to get away with the 1-0 defeat and avoid further damage away from home.

How Birmingham will approach the second leg is unclear. It is obviously vital they get the first goal of the game, but what this will involve in terms of team selection is unclear. Nikola Zigic is one very glaring option, and it may be that Hughton opts for his giant Serbian forward given how well Evatt and Baptiste handled the Birmingham attacking threat on Friday. Whatever the Blues’ manager decides, ‘Pool will have to overcome a hostile atmosphere, as they did two years ago when they beat Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. That day, ‘Pool conceded an early goal yet still managed to come through in sensational 4-3 win. As thrilling as that was, Holloway would be happy to avoid similar dramatics and instead control the game as they did at Bloomfield Road.

4. Blackpool may regret missed chances

The margin of victory clearly could have been greater, and Blackpool will have a nagging feeling that they may have let Birmingham off the hook a little in the first leg. Ince created two golden opportunities in the second half, but the Seasiders couldn’t take either of them, with Dobbie particularly guilty when missing from around 10 yards out with only the goalkeeper to beat.

If offered before the game, Blackpool would probably have taken any sort of lead in the first leg, especially in light of what happened to Cardiff against West Ham. However, with just a 1-0 lead to protect, the advantage is a slender one. Birmingham have a formidable home record, as ‘Pool discovered themselves earlier this season when succumbing 3-0 on New Years’ Eve, with a red card for Ferguson thrown in.

The odds do lie slightly in Blackpool’s favour, both among the bookmakers and past play-off history, but in each instance only just. Odds naturally vary, but in terms of Championship play-offs since their inception, teams winning their home first leg 1-0 have made the final on five occasions, losing out three times. Hardly statistically significant, but the history books narrowly suggest a Blackpool progression.

It is now known that whoever emerges victorious at St Andrews will face West Ham, which is sure to be a tricky task with the Hammers likely to be favourites regardless of the eventual opponent. Nevertheless, both Blackpool and Birmingham would relish the challenge, and in a matter of days we will know who will be walking out at Wembley on May 19th, and who will be on their summer holidays.