Forethoughts on the Championship Play-Off Final – Blackpool vs. West Ham United

Blackpool and West Ham United will step out at Wembley on Saturday to play in the hyperbolic richest game in football. Here is your match preview:

1. The Previous Meetings

In the build up to the play-off final, much has been made of West Ham’s superiority over the course of the two league meetings – 4-0 at the Boleyn Ground and 4-1 at Bloomfield Road. The saying goes that results from the league fixtures go out of the window, but it’s interesting to revisit these two matches and see if they will have any relevance on how this Saturday’s match may pan out.

Looking at the Blackpool line-up from the first match back in October, the thing that stands out most is the inclusion of Matt Hill. On the day, Hill’s lack of height at centre back was woefully exposed by John Carew and was a major contributing factor in the emphatic win for West Ham. Hill has not featured for ‘Pool since, yet will likely be making an appearance of his own at Wembley a week later for Sheffield United where he is currently on loan.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that two of ‘Pool’s chief tormentors that day are not in Sam Allardyce’s plans either. Carew, who caused Hill so many problems, has barely featured in 2012 with only four brief substitute appearances this calendar year. Another man who was dangerous that day was Sam Baldock, who also finds himself somewhat out of favour. Strong competition in forward areas, coupled with Allardyce’s penchant for a lone striker has seen Baldock struggle to make the bench for much of the second half of the season. It’s likely none of these two will make the matchday 16 this weekend.

The return fixture on the Fylde coast was a rather bizarre encounter in which the visitors ran out 4-1 winners, despite playing much of the second half with 10 men and Henri Lansbury in goal with Robert Green having received his marching orders. Much of West Ham’s success was owed to Allardyce’s astute game plan – the Hammers lined-up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with James Tomkins as a screen in front of the defence. Tomkins combined well with Noble and Collison in the centre of the pitch to upset Blackpool’s rhythm while at the same time imposing their own game on the hosts.

Where Allardyce’s plan worked so well was in pressing high up the pitch forcing Blackpool’s defence and midfield into a lot of errors. Meanwhile, Ricardo Vaz Te and Julien Faubert were dangerous in wide areas and continued to cause Blackpool a host of problems even after losing Green. At the time I wrote that West Ham were “bound for the Premier League”, although I was expecting automatically – at this point it was difficult to forecast the sensational run Reading would make to clinch the title. However, only Blackpool now stand in the way of that prediction becoming a reality.

2. The Game Plans

The way Ian Holloway will set out his team is unlikely to cause any surprises. Having hit upon a winning formula at the end of the season, it’s almost certain to be a case of same again for Blackpool as they take to the Wembley turf.

After a season of chopping and changing his defence, Ian Holloway eventually decided to stick to a consistent back four ahead of the dependable Matt Gilks for the final weeks of the season and it will be this back line which will play on Saturday. Ahead of them Angel Martinez and Barry Ferguson will form a midfield screen, with Angel sitting a little deeper than Ferguson. The Spaniard will often look to receive the short ball from Gilks, while also breaking things up in midfield.

With Ferguson also solid in the middle of the pitch, it will allow the front four of Blackpool the freedom to attack. Stephen Dobbie will aim to link midfield and attack in the hole using his quick feet and sharp thinking. Tom Ince and Matt Phillips provide pace in abundance from wide areas, with the pair likely to begin the match as inverted wingers – Ince the left-footer on the right, and Phillips the right-footer on the left. As the game goes on, expect these two to switch flanks depending on how much success they’re having and the performance of the full-back behind them.

Gary Taylor-Fletcher will act as Blackpool’s out ball as the only forward player likely to win any aerial duels. However, where he can be at his most effective is in the link-up with Dobbie and the two will look to play neat one-twos in between the lines of West Ham’s midfield and defence. On the bench, Holloway is likely to opt the same five he selected at St Andrew’s – Mark Halstead, Craig Cathcart, Keith Southern, Nouah Dicko and Kevin Phillips – providing ample cover in all areas of the pitch depending on how the match progresses.

While Ian Holloway is unlikely to change his approach to the game, it is unclear whether his counterpart Sam Allardyce will have the same mentality. Allardyce, despite his reputation as a long ball merchant, can be a meticulous and methodical tactician. Working as a pundit for Sky Sports for the 2nd leg of Blackpool’s semi-final against Birmingham, Allardyce was quick to point out the areas in which he felt Chris Hughton was attempting to stifle Blackpool – a strategy that the former ‘Pool manager may opt to pursue himself.

Like ‘Pool, one may expect West Ham to field the same team that served them so well in the two play-off semi-finals against Cardiff. Allardyce has chosen to play a 4-5-1 formation for much of the campaign and this is unlikely to change this weekend. The one potential problem for Allardyce depends on the availability of Jack Collison. The Welsh midfielder has been in fine form lately, but dislocated his shoulder in the second leg of the Hammers’ tie with Cardiff, although is expected to pass a late fitness test to take his place in the starting line-up.

However, if Collison does not make the starting XI, then Allardyce may choose to deploy the 4-1-4-1 that served his side so well at Bloomfield Road back in February, with Tomkins taking up the deep midfield role. This strategy is outlined in detail by the ever-excellent Tangerine Dreaming in his match preview, which is a must-read for anybody intending on watching the game this Saturday. This tactic could be perceived as being somewhat negative – yet by focusing on stopping Blackpool it would have the same effect as concentrating on winning the game themselves.

It will be interesting to see which way Allardyce goes, and Holloway must ensure he is prepared for either eventuality. If Allardyce plumps for the same again, then it may allow Dobbie room in between the lines if one of Nolan, Noble and Collison doesn’t track him, but if Tomkins does feature in midfield then Dobbie will have to find a way to cast off the shackles of his marker. In this scenario, one might expect more inter-changing between Ince, Phillips, Dobbie and Taylor-Fletcher to try and make themselves more difficult to pick up.

It is in the wide areas where this game could be won and lost however. The full-backs on both sides enjoy getting forward, and the winner of the match may be the pair that manage to contain the dangerous attacking wide men they face, while at the same time providing support on the attack. Matt Taylor and Vaz Te down West Ham’s left will be targeting Neal Eardley and the Welshman will have to be on top of his game and may need strong support from Ince in front of him.

3. Championship Play-Off Statistics

In the last 15 years of the play-offs, a few statistics from Championship finals have developed. Here is a selection of those stats:

  • The team finishing in 3rd has won six of the last 15 play-offs
  • The team finishing in 5th has won four of the last 15 play-offs
  • In the last 15 play-off finals, the team scoring first has won 12 times
  • Of the 30 teams involved in the last 15 play-off finals, 10 of those sides failed to score
  • In the last 15 play-off finals, only six of those games were won by more than a one goal advantage
  • Of the 40 goals scored in normal time in the last 15 play-off finals, 19 were scored in the first half and 21 scored in the second half

4. The Verdict

If you were to go off the basis of the last two meetings, the latter of those in particular, you would expect there to be a clear winner in West Ham. It’s important to note though, that the ‘Pool team that played that night in February was a different beast to the one that will confront the Hammers on Saturday. Lomana Lua Lua, Ludo Sylvestre, Chris Basham and John Fleck all started three months ago, yet it is doubtful any of them will even make the 16 on Saturday. That said, there will also be around four notable changes from the West Ham side since the last meeting. All of which makes it difficult to draw too many conclusions from the previous encounter.

In terms of form, both sides have ended the season quite well, although West Ham made more convincing progress in their play-off semi-final, brushing aside Cardiff with remarkable ease. Blackpool did deserve their aggregate win over Birmingham, but did have to weather the storm in the second leg when the tie really should have been out of sight – Holloway’s side always know how to make things interesting.

Despite finishing 11 points ahead of the Seasiders, too much weight can be attributed to this when considering the Hammers’ chances. The play-offs are essentially a new competition, and it’s not unheard of for large points differences to become an irrelevance – one need only look at Luton’s semi-final victory over Wrexham in the Conference this season despite a 17 point handicap. Of more relevance is the way the two teams played at the back-end of the season, and in this respect it suggests a much closer fixture.

I’m going to stop short of predicting a victory for either side – partly to avoid being accused of either bias or pessimism, but more so because I genuinely don’t know what the outcome is likely to be. One team will win, the other will lose, and there will end another exciting season for Blackpool under the stewardship of Ian Holloway.