Following the departure of Ian Holloway, it fell to Steve Thompson to assume temporary control of Blackpool for their trip to Pride Park. Derby County fully exploited the disarray the visitors found themselves in to seal a comfortable 4-1 victory.
1. The Thompson way much the same at first glance
Without knowing the details of the preparation, one would have said that Thompson’s tactics and approach differed little from that of his former boss. Only one (enforced) change saw Ludo Sylvestre come in for the injured Isiah Osbourne. Not only did the team and formation remain the same, so did the mistakes with extremely poor defending costing the Seasiders again, as Derby found it easy to unlock Blackpool’s defence. Poor marking, an inability to defend set-pieces and outright stupid errors were present once more.
As it transpired in the post-match interview with Thompson, the team had been picked the day before the match by Holloway, so in that sense it’s difficult to judge at this stage just what ideas the caretaker manager has. What does rankle is that it took until 10.30 on the morning of the match for Thompson to be informed that he would be leading the side. With Holloway given permission to talk to Crystal Palace at 5pm the evening before, the decision should surely have been taken at that point that Holloway would not be fit to take charge of the Derby game regardless. The lack of leadership at the club in a time of crisis is frightening.
One unfamiliar face we did see introduced as a substitute was the previously frozen out Chris Basham. With Keith Southern and Barry Ferguson now departed, space has opened up for a combative midfielder, especially with an injury to Osbourne. If Thompson is eager to put his own stamp on the side, then a start for Basham could be one of his first changes. Basham looked, understandably, a little rusty once he took to the Pride Park pitch, but was unfortunate to fall out of favour despite solid performances last season. It would not be a surprise to see the former Bolton player start at Hillsborough on Tuesday.
2. Opening goal always likely to set the tone
The opening goal is of course always important, but it felt even more significant going into yesterday’s match with the mental strength of Blackpool’s players under scrutiny. Their fortitude looked fine enough when they joined together to applaud the visiting supporters following the obligatory pre-match handshakes.
Thompson seems to be a popular figure at Bloomfield Road and this gesture appeared to indicate the squad were happy to rally round him for the sake of unity and the fans. One suspects that had Blackpool seized the initiative with an early goal, they might have shown their togetherness with a spirited display.
Sadly, such a performance never looked likely and Derby were on top right from the first whistle. Once the first goal went in – with more trademark ball-watching from the ‘Pool defence – heads dropped almost immediately and taking anything from the game looked like an uphill task.
3. Derby comfortably on top
The BBC described the 4-1 scoreline as a ‘heavy defeat’, yet it could have been much worse from a Blackpool perspective. The penalty awarded to the visitors shortly after half-time was a bemusing decision and served to flatter Blackpool. Quite simply, Derby were the better side by some distance and made it look easy.
Thompson concisely outlined the main problem Blackpool encountered in his post-match press conference when he said “Teams respect us but they won’t allow us to play. We’ve got to earn the right to play attacking football.” It was yet another instance where an opposing side knew how to handle ‘Pool, with a high pressing game and plenty of energy forcing Blackpool to concede possession at regular intervals. Thompson was unable to counter this on the day, but at least acknowledges the main issue facing Blackpool on the pitch this season. His challenge is now proving he can overcome teams hassling and harrying Blackpool.
Once Derby won the ball back, they were full of purpose and direct in attacking Blackpool’s weaknesses at the back. The front two of Conor Sammon and Theo Robinson gave the visiting defence endless problems and will perhaps be disappointed not to have added more goals to their season’s tally.
The verdict from many of the travelling supporters was that ‘Derby aren’t even that good’. The past couple of seasons in mid-table mediocrity may point to that, but on the day the home side made Blackpool look wildly inferior. Where Derby had a plan, ‘Pool looked clueless. It was a strong Derby performance and their win was fully deserved.
4. Potential for a long, tough season
It may sound hyperbolic, but Blackpool’s season could very swiftly turn sour. The form of the last two months has been worthy of relegation and the turmoil of the last week threatens to make things even worse. With 14 games played, the Seasiders find themselves closer to the bottom of the table than the top, and if Thompson (or a permanent Holloway-replacement) can’t turn things around soon then a battle at the wrong end of the table could be on the cards.
Short of pressing the panic button, there are a lot of issues with the team and squad to be resolved. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Holloway’s departure might be, it’s clear the playing staff is not in ideal shape, both in the squad’s bloatedness and the strange lack of depth in key areas. The defence is naturally an area where vast improvement is needed – and fast – but with so few adequate options, the club needs to dip into the transfer market to shore up this part of the team.
The January transfer window still seems a world away and inaction is not an option. Thompson is likely to change the team going into the Sheffield Wednesday match, but he may request extra bodies with so little at his disposal of genuine quality. Simon Grayson took over at a similar time of year seven years ago, but only just kept Blackpool up that season. Of course, our situation this time around is nowhere near as dire – and there is undoubted quality within the squad – but even with two thirds of the season remaining, halting a decline is rarely something that can happen overnight.
A win or two will soon put the team back on track, and it would be premature to go into full-on crisis mode just yet, but caution should be heeded. A mistake with the direction of the team in the coming weeks could set the tone for an arduous campaign. Thompson will surely have the backing of the fans and it is to be hoped he can now come to the fore and save further pain.