Blackpool got off to a perfect start on Saturday with a 2-0 win away at Millwall, which saw Ian Holloway keep his unbeaten opening day record as ‘Pool manager intact. The searing heat made for a punishing afternoon in the sun, but a professional performance meant Blackpool showed their class to take all three points and top the table after the first game for the third consecutive season. Here are my thoughts on the match:
1. Solid foundations keep out Millwall
In the build up to this game, I expressed concern at the possibility of re-jigging the back four in light of the poor performance in the Capital One Cup defeat to Morecambe. Defensive success towards the end of last season had its foundations in consistency, so it was heartening to see Ian Holloway resist the tempation to shake things up. Faith in his defence was amply rewarded as they turned in an excellent display to earn a clean sheet.
Central to Saturday’s solidity was the work done by Ian Evatt. The club’s longest serving player following the departure of Keith Southern, Evatt was a mountain in defence and repelled everything thrown at him. Neither Darius Henderson nor Andy Keogh got much change out of Evatt as the former QPR man cleared cross after cross. Millwall however will be disappointed to have played into Blackpool’s hands, and once it became evident that Evatt was winning everything in the air, they really should have changed tack.
Elsewhere in defence, it was an encouraging display from Neal Eardley, so often the target of criticism from certain quarters. Eardley had the better of Millwall’s Scott Malone (and later Liam Feeney) all afternoon, as well as driving forward down the right at every opportunity. Saturday should give the Welsh defender a much-needed confidence boost. Alex Baptiste and Stephen Crainey also had strong games and kept Millwall very quiet – the home side offering few ideas going forward. Only once did they breach the Seasiders’ back line when Keogh got the benefit of a close offside call – on this occasion Matt Gilks stood tall to make his only real save of the match.
2. Expectation on Ince builds
The weekend could hardly have been more different for Blackpool’s two brightest talents. While Matt Phillips was busy handing in a transfer request on the back of an alleged illegal approach from Southampton, his fellow wide player Tom Ince was establishing himself as Blackpool’s key player. Phillips is not the first player to have his head turned, and nor will he be the last, and the events of the last few days are simply typical of modern football.
Matt Phillips would do well to take heed from the careers of other players who have left Bloomfield Road for supposed greener grass, only to find that things haven’t necessarily worked out the way they had planned. The large sums of money on offer are an obvious draw, but it would appear the Scotland international has been poorly advised – the timing could hardly have been worse.
Meanwhile, Ince was perhaps showing why many Blackpool supporters believe he is the more talented of the two. A constant threat on the ball, he is capable of scoring a lot of goals this season as proven by his brace at The Den. The first was the result of a clever one-two before a placed finish with his weaker right foot; the second displayed his strength to shrug off a challenge before smashing past Maik Taylor with aplomb.
A potential worry for Blackpool fans is that more strong early performances from Ince could catch the eye of Premier League, yet his match-winning value is surely worth more to the Seasiders than any fee ever could be. For his part, Ince looks committed to the cause and seems set to be integral to Blackpool’s season.
3. Gomes and Osbourne show their potential
Matt Phillips’ transfer request threw a spanner in the works of Holloway’s team selection, yet there was still a couple of unexpected choices. Holloway said post-match that Tiago Gomes stepped into the team with Phillips absent, taking his place alongside Barry Ferguson and Isiah Osbourne in midfield. Had Matt Phillips played, it suggests Gary Taylor-Fletcher would have been selected in the midfield link-up role rather than Elliot Grandin as I had predicted in my preview.
It was a bold call for Holloway to leave out Angel Martinez, who proved to be a revelation in the second half of last season, but his decision was justified with both Gomes and Osbourne shining on their league debuts. Gomes showed plenty of promise looking happy to get on the ball and knit things together. It was his clever back-heel in the one-two that set up Ince’s first goal and he was generally tidy, despite being behind some of his teammates in terms of fitness, according to his manager. Depending on how his recovery goes, he may be rested against Leeds with Angel stepping in.
Isiah Osbourne possibly had an even better game than the Portuguese debutant, the former Aston Villa man dispelling any fears some may have had about him joining from the SPL. Osbourne has a rangey style and covers a lot of the pitch, closely resembling the departed Southern in his approach to the game. He was a thorn in Millwall’s side, strong in the tackle, but also able to make short sharp passes in close quarters.
The midfield as a whole had a good game, with the three playing in a rather standard flat 4-3-3 shape, taking it in turns to advance. Where they really excelled was in passing in quick triangles and advancing up the field as a unit. Over time, it’s to be hoped this midfield, plus others waiting in the wings, can continue along these lines and make their opponents chase shadows with the ball doing the work.
4. ‘Pool step off the gas with 15 to go
If I was to have one small gripe from Saturday, it would be that Blackpool perhaps eased off a little too much in the final 15 minutes of the match. Up to that point, the visitors had been in total control and were tiring out the home side by keeping the ball for prolonged periods. However, after grabbing a second goal and with the end of the game in sight, ‘Pool took their foot off the gas and let Millwall seize some of the impetus.
This was further exacerbated by the introduction of Craig Cathcart into a holding midfield role with 10 minutes of the game remaining. ‘Pool began to sit back and at this point, for the first time in the game really, Millwall had a spell when they were on top. Ultimately the hosts never carved out a clear-cut chance in this time, Evatt and Baptiste clearing the numerous crosses into the box, but had the Lions managed to pull one back, Holloway’s side would have had to endure a frantic finale. A more positive approach could have seen Blackpool go on and score a third and a fourth.
Then again, perhaps this is being a little churlish. After all, Blackpool are in for a busy week with two more league games in the coming days and so it was no bad thing to conserve a little energy, especially given the extreme heat of South East London. Overall, it was a thoroughly professional performance and a good platform to build on.