Blackpool began the 2013/14 Championship campaign with an away fixture for the fifth consecutive season. Paul Ince took his side to newly-promoted Doncaster Rovers and claimed all three points to mark a successful start to the season. Here are my thoughts on the match…
1. Surprising selection
Typically the final pre-season game a side plays will give a few clues as to how a manager will set up their team on the opening day of the league season. However, Paul Ince defied convention and despite fielding a 4-4-2 formation against Newcastle, he threw a curveball for the trip to Doncaster. It was back to the tried and trusted 4-3-3 of the past few years, although whether he really had the personnel to go down this route is another matter.
Of course, no formation could hide the lack of a single right back in the squad, and so it fell to Kirk Broadfoot to fill the gap – more on how he fared later. Elsewhere Isaiah Osbourne and Barry Ferguson occupied the base of the midfield, with Angel Martinez being asked to push on and support the attack when on the offensive. It was not a role that particularly suited the Spanish midfielder, although the unfamiliarity of that position probably didn’t help as the game largely passed him by.
A surprising omission was Michael Chopra who had to settle for a place on the bench, perhaps due to a lack of match fitness. That meant a front three of Tom Ince and Bobby Grant out wide supporting Steven Davies in the middle. Of the two new forwards, it was Davies who impressed more while Grant may need to adjust to the step up. What the team selection perhaps demonstrated though is that the manager is willing to be flexible with his systems, and depending on the personnel picked, it may mean a different formation week to week.
2. Defensive concerns
Quite how a professional football team, let alone a Championside club, can begin a new season without a recognised right back beggars belief. There can be absolutely no excuses and it is a situation that must be addressed post-haste. In the meantime, it fell to Broadfoot to try and do a job there and as most ‘Pool fans would have anticipated, the former Rangers man struggled. Doncaster’s David Cotterill was quick to seize the initiative on their left side giving the visitors some worrying moments.
Similarly, the Seasiders also had problems on the other side of the defence. With Bob Harris finally having the opportunity to make the left back berth his own following Stephen Crainey’s departure, he needed to start the season well, particularly given the loan signing of Jack Robinson. It was a chance missed for the young Scot, although one suspects the early booking picked up may have inhibited his performance a little.
Blackpool also had some worrying moments in central areas. Gary MacKenzie’s arrival on loan from MK Dons last season gave rise to a solid partnership with Broadfoot, but with MacKenzie’s partner filling in at full back, Craig Cathcart slotted in. It’s a partnership that needs work if it is to become a regular occurrence, with communication between the two not particularly great. There were a couple of moments throughout the game that resulted in shared glances when Chris Brown found space between the two.
Like most of the Blackpool team, the defence is very much still in the development phase and needs reinforcements to arrive quickly so that they can gel and gain an understanding. Fortunately for ‘Pool, Doncaster were a little underwhelming and so unable to really make the visiting side pay for their vulnerabilities.
3. Ince’s substitutions
Paul Ince’s substitutions in this match were intriguing, as while seemingly defensive, they were ultimately successful. Recognising that Blackpool were under pressure down both flanks, Ince acted to nullify Rovers’ threat. Harris was withdrawn for the on-loan Robinson and Chris Basham replaced Grant. The introduction of Basham meant a re-shuffle to 4-5-1; the former Bolton man offered protection to Broadfoot on the Seasiders’ right.
The timing of the changes could have invited criticism given Doncaster had just levelled through Rob Jones’ header – one might have wondered if Ince’s substitutions suggested he would be happy to escape with a point. However, the changes were effective in halting the home side’s momentum and allowing Blackpool to wrestle back control of the game.
Doncaster failed to sufficiently react to ‘Pool’s changes with the game swinging back in the visitors’ favour. Indeed, before MacKenzie re-established Blackpool’s advantage, the away team really should have led when Tom Ince dragged wide when a goal seemed certain. The third goal added an element of flattery to the scoreline with Ross Turnbull punished for his over-exuberance – surely the first time a goalkeeper has ever come up for a corner on the first day of any season.
4. Early days
As a late convert to baseball, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the past two years consuming some of the excellent writing that sport has to offer. Their seasons are long with 162 regular season games, with one well-known phrase being “you’ll win 54 and lose 54, it’s how you do in the other 54 that matters”. With only 46 games for Blackpool, the maths don’t quite work out the same, but the key message stands – you can’t read too much into the result of one match.
That Blackpool were able to claim all three points without playing too well is good news. What it doesn’t mean is that we’re in for an excellent season because “it’s a sign of a good team when you win without playing well”. Nor does it mean we’re going to struggle because our performance was underwhelming. It’s just too early to tell either way. Perhaps the most notable thing to take from the game is that ‘Pool, as might have been expected, look like a work-in-progress.
Davies showed promising signs and he was alert to react and score his first goal from the club. MacKenzie’s goal demonstrated that Blackpool will be a threat from set-pieces, a quality the club hasn’t possessed for a very long time indeed. But there are improvements to be made too, and how quickly and successfully those are addressed will depend on Blackpool’s transfer market activity.
Paul Ince had few options available to him on the bench, and the absence of a right back is obviously a main concern too. At least four or five arrivals are required before the transfer window closes – the quality of those players that come in could be the difference between a disappointing season and a potentially exciting one.