For the third successive league match under new manager Michael Appleton, Blackpool had to come from behind to earn a draw. Watford took an early two goal advantage but an improved second half meant the hosts took a deserved point. Here are my thoughts on the game…
1. Appleton yet to make many decisions when selecting a starting XI
Often, when a new manager takes charge, he will ring the changes and enjoy an immediate uplift in results. The direct aftermath of appointing Appleton as Ian Holloway’s successor has worked out a little differently. Looking at the starting line-up for each of his first three matches, there have been relatively few changes in comparison to his predecessor. Of the changes Appleton has made, all but one has essentially been enforced.For his debut against Bolton, Appleton opted to stick with the same players who had won in an impressive manner at Sheffield Wednesday, although three changes were made for the next game at Bristol City. Two of those were forced upon the manager due to injuries to Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Matt Phillips. The other change appears to be Appleton’s sole selection decision to date when he dropped Neal Eardley and shifted Alex Baptiste to right back. An injury to Ian Evatt led to one more change for the Watford game – Baptiste returned to centre back and Kirk Broadfoot brought in at full back.
One possible explanation for this is that Appleton is still acquainting himself with his new squad and as such is reluctant to change too much too soon. He has already spoken of the large development squad perhaps being more of a hindrance than a help, with the initial focus on a core group of 18-20 players before he evaluates the fringe players gradually over time. A section of the Blackpool support had grown tired of Holloway’s tinkering and a more consistent approach to team selection is likely to be welcomed.
However, despite the relatively settled line-up, the first win continues to elude Appleton. One area which has remained constant throughout the opening three weeks of Appleton’s reign is the midfield – Chris Basham, Ludo Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin have started all three games together thus far. Having seen how things unfolded in the first half against Watford, Appleton might have wished he’d have freshened things up in this area.
2. …but Appleton reacts quickly when things go awry
Appleton had spoken in his pre-match press conference of the threat posed by Watford in counter-attacking situations. One imagines then that he would have been less than impressed with the way in which his team handled the visitors after conceding possession from their own corner kick. Blackpool failed to get tight enough once Manuel Almunia took possession of the ball, despite what should have been a numerical advantage. An excellent move from the away side meant Blackpool fell behind yet again before even five minutes were on the clock.Blackpool have now conceded the first goal in 13 of 18 league matches (72%) and the picture looked even bleaker when the Hornets doubled their advantage in the 22nd minute. Another common defensive failing undid Blackpool when they were unable to see off a set-piece, which Troy Deeney converted from close range. At this point, Blackpool might have crumbled, but Appleton was bold and sought to change the game before it got away from his side. Grandin was withdrawn and replaced with Tiago Gomes after 29 minutes, a decision which clearly upset the Frenchman who walked straight down the tunnel.
Grandin had not seen much of the ball in the opening half hour, but although not excusing his behaviour upon departing the pitch, he was by no means the worst player in tangerine. That accolade fell to Sylvestre who put in one of his trademark frustrating performances. Sylvestre is something of an enigma in that on his day he can make the team tick, but when it isn’t his day – which can be the case four out of five matches – he allows Blackpool’s midfield to be overrun and concedes possession too readily.
Sylvestre did eventually get the hook and exited stage left at half time, and with Isiah Osbourne joining Gomes in midfield, Blackpool began to look a little more purposeful. The key to turning round the match was an early second half goal and that duly arrived when Broadfoot and Basham helped provide a tap-in for Kevin Phillips. As the momentum switched, Blackpool recovered from their poor first half performance and did find a richly-deserved late equaliser through Osbourne.
Three points still evade Appleton, but an improved second half performance ignited by his bold substitutions helped to allay half-time fears that the season could be heading in a very worrying direction indeed. Given the success of his tactical switches, one might expect a few more changes to his next starting XI as the new manager begins to stamp his own ideas on the club.
3. Appleton’s inverse logic
While obviously not quite as effervescent a character as Holloway, the new man in charge is still able to hold significant attention with his media interviews for different reasons. It’s early days, but Appleton comes across as an astute manager with several insights to be gleaned from each interview so far. However, listening to his post-match interview on Radio Lancashire on Saturday, he did raise a few eyebrows with some of his comments. Alluding to the decision to remove Grandin from the action little over a quarter of the way into the match, Appleton said:
“When you have so many players, you’re almost expecting them to – I wouldn’t say let you down – but not be as resilient week in, week out. When you’ve got a squad of quality rather than quantity, you expect them to perform for you every game.”
This view seems contrary to the accepted logic that players get complacent when they have little competition, but fight harder for their place when their position is always under threat. This more traditional way of thinking would certainly help to explain why Matt Gilks has been below his best this season with no real challenger for the goalkeeper’s jersey.
It’s hard to see where Appleton was coming from with his assertion that certain players – without reading between the lines too much the French pair of Grandin and Sylvestre – have become a little lazy due to excessive competition for places in midfield. In fact, one might argue their complacency could more reasonably derive from their retention of their places despite a disappointing draw at Ashton Gate the previous week.
Regardless, it’s clear the huge size of the squad is proving an irritation already to Appleton, and the failure to move more of the fringe players out on loan before the window closed in only likely to exacerbate this issue. Appleton will be eager to try and shed some of the surplus players in January, but until then will have to deal with the situation as best as he possibly can. When there is such a plentiful supply of midfielders at Appleton’s disposal, there is no need to persevere with under-performing players – Grandin and Sylvestre may have dealt themselves out for quite some time based on their manager’s comments.
4. Home form a cause for concern
Although Blackpool’s overall form hardly makes for pleasant reading, it is the home form that is of particular concern. Since winning the opening three matches at Bloomfield Road, ‘Pool have failed to win any of their last six league matches in front of their own fans taking just four points from a possible 18. It is over two months since the last home victory and with a similar record on the road, Blackpool need to rediscover the winning formula at home if they are to keep in touch with the top end of the table.Comparing results to last season, Blackpool only lost three home games during the 2011/12 season whereas they have already lost two this time around. So far ‘Pool have won just 33% of their league matches at Bloomfield Road compared to 56% last season. In order to rectify this, it’s clear Blackpool need to find a way of scoring the first goal, which they have done in only two of their nine home games to date – both of which they won, incidentally.
The Seasiders welcome Birmingham to Bloomfield Road tomorrow night and another home game in quick succession offers the perfect opportunity to get back on track. A first home victory since 18th September and a first win for Appleton is the target against last season’s play-off semi-final opponents.