Bouncing back from recent disappointment, both on and off the pitch, Blackpool ran out worthy winners on Tuesday night at Hillsborough to beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-0. Here are my thoughts on the match…
1. Thompson implements his few changes to great effect
It’s widely known that the team which meekly surrendered to Derby at the weekend was not picked by caretaker manager Steve Thompson. Strong words in his post-match interview made it clear he had his own ideas about the team and would be making changes for the trip to Sheffield. One change was enforced with the fit-again Craig Cathcart replacing the suspended Ian Evatt, while it was no surprise to see Neal Eardley return for Kirk Broadfoot. Eardley has his detractors, and in an ideal world Blackpool would have a better option at right-back, but Broadfoot’s performance at Derby did little to suggest he is anything other than a backward step.
Perhaps the most noteworthy selection was that of Chris Basham in the midfield anchor role. Basham’s inclusion did not come as a complete surprise, but he ensured the midfield had an extra bite and competitiveness to its composition. The trio of Angel Martinez, Ludo Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin were overrun at Derby, but Basham set the tone early at Hillsborough with a strong challenge with only a couple of minutes gone.
Basham’s individual contributions weren’t match-winning in isolation, but every few minutes he would pop up with a positive influence, be it breaking up an attack on the edge of Blackpool’s box, winning a header in midfield or pushing Wednesday back with a well-timed tackle high up the pitch. Over the 90 minutes, it was a complete performance which greatly helped the balance of the side and fulfilled Thompson’s wish from the weekend, where he suggested ‘Pool needed to ‘earn the right to play their football’.
Basham provided this with his tenacity and has the chance to stake a claim for a regular place having never really done so under Ian Holloway. With both Keith Southern and Barry Ferguson departed – and Isiah Osbourne injured – Basham can claim the midfield battler spot as his own. A change in manager does provide opportunities for those previously on the fringes and it is to be hoped others follow Basham’s lead in grabbing a chance with both hands.
2. Pressing transformation
In a clear role reversal from Saturday, Blackpool were able to learn from their mistakes and do to Sheffield Wednesday what Derby had done to them. At Pride Park, Blackpool were forced into errors and struggled to retain possession due to high pressing on the part of the home side. This time around, it was Blackpool who were full of running and energy right from the first whistle.
As already stated, Basham epitomised this tactic, but others also played their part. In particular, Matt Phillips and Tom Ince were asked to fulfill defensive duties in addition to their attacking instincts – both did so ably. Typically it was Taylor-Fletcher who remained forward once the hosts took possession, with Phillips and Ince dropping behind the ball to press. In this shape Blackpool looked solid, cutting out passing options and, more often than not, forcing Wednesday to go long to the lethargic Jay Bothroyd.
In stark contrast, it looked as if Wednesday were paying homage to Blackpool’s tepid performance on the weekend as the Owls gifted the Seasiders far too much time and space on the ball. This group of Blackpool players can hurt sides when permitted and Dave Jones will be disappointed that his side failed to assert pressure on ‘Pool who were allowed time and time again to build from the back. The deep-lying midfield position of José Semedo surely cannot have helped encourage high pressing.
Their off-the-ball workrate can sometimes be questioned, but the French pair of Grandin and Sylvestre can look like world-beaters when given the opportunity to pass and move at their leisure. Recently a lot of teams have exploited this by quickly closing down Blackpool’s flair players. Sheffield Wednesday failed to do this and paid the ultimate price.
3. More rotation from front three and an advancing Grandin
In another slight departure from the work of his former boss in the final stages of his tenure, Thompson also seems to be encouraging more rotation from his front three. It’s something that used to happen regularly under Holloway, but in recent months Ince and Phillips had been playing almost exclusively as inverted wingers. At Derby, Ince and Phillips began the match on their natural wings before returning to an inverted position after around 20 minutes. At Hillsborough, the rotation was more fluid and allowed Ince and Phillips to look at their most dangerous for quite some time. The most common positioning did involve the two wide players being inverted and Taylor-Fletcher through the middle, but more frequent rotation served to cause Wednesday problems. Taylor-Fletcher, who has possibly been the most consistent player this campaign, once again displayed his quick feet and ability to take a battering from a physically imposing centre back.
On top of this, Grandin was able to get involved more and by breaking beyond the forwards he was able to play a part in Blackpool’s opening goal when he got onto the end of an excellent Phillips pass before pulling back for Ince to fire ‘Pool into the lead. Grandin was also involved in a number of other neat interchanges in the final third, but maybe does still have a tendency for turning back on occasion – with confidence these occurences may become rarer.
Another small criticism involves Phillips, who nevertheless had his best game for some time. Like Grandin, Phillips sometimes lacks belief in his own ability and pace, but it’s his off-the-ball movement which can prove the biggest frustration. Phillips failed to provide an outlet for his colleagues on a few occasions and this is an area where he can seek to improve. Despite this, Phillips showed some of his undoubted potential on Tuesday night and will be eager to build on that performance.
4. One step on the road to recovery
Just as the mood was doom and gloom post-Derby, the populist view after this win is that the corner has been turned and the club can begin to look forward once again. The truth is that neither of these two extremes are true. The poor run of form was disconcerting, certainly, and there is good reason to be optimistic after a strong away performance. However, with the club still going through a period of uncertainty, it’s unclear in which direction Blackpool are headed.At the time of writing, the club had yet to appoint Michael Appleton as the new manager and his arrival is likely to shake things up as Appleton brings his own ideas and philosophy to the team. Certain players may suddenly find themselves out of favour, while others could come in from the cold – it’s unrealistic to think that there won’t be some upheaval and as such we are heading into the unknown.
Nonetheless, this was a vital win in putting the brakes on a steady decline that had gone on for almost two months. The players that featured against Sheffield Wednesday do have a lot of quality and amongst them are a couple of genuine match-winning players. A clean sheet also boosts the morale of a defence that had not been able to complete a shutout since beating Ipswich 6-0 back in August. It’s only a start, but the evidence last night pointed to a Holloway-less future that might not be quite as bleak as some were forecasting.