Blackpool ascended to the top of the Championship with their fourth win in five games. A 1-0 victory over Watford ensured Paul Ince’s side continued their unbeaten start to the season. Here are my thoughts on the match…
1. One way Watford traffic…for 45 minutes
The last two games – against promotion favourites Reading and Watford – had been regarded as an acid test for this Blackpool team. Some had predicted it would be the moment the club’s wafer-thin squad would be exposed and come crashing down to Earth. That has not happened, but to come through those two challenges unscathed, Blackpool have had to absorb some significant pressure as well as enjoying a little good fortune.
Last week’s visitors from Berkshire did not dominate the first half to the extent their Hertfordshire rivals did, but Reading had one very good spell before half-time when it appeared that Blackpool may buckle with Jem Karacan hitting the crossbar. The break came at a good time for the hosts.
Similarly, how ‘Pool were able to go into the break level against Watford was a source of some pleasant bemusement. Watford hit the woodwork twice, kept Blackpool largely confined to their own half and of course missed an early penalty – regardless of their view, no Blackpool fan could argue with the referee’s decision to award a penalty for Neal Bishop’s clumsy foul.
What was particularly impressive about Watford in that opening half – aside from the quick passing and even quicker re-taking of possession when they did occasionally lose the ball – was the first touch of their forward and wide players. Time and time again the attacking Watford players were able to receive the ball in tight areas with a great first touch, before looking to distribute or find another maroon shirt.
The old adage of ‘scoring when you’re on top’ is something Watford failed to do, with the second half being a different game. Blackpool definitely pushed up more to deny the away side time on the ball – something that had been a luxury for Watford in the opening 45 minutes. This seemed to unsettle Gianfranco Zola’s team, who never re-discovered their tempo in the second half as ‘Pool claimed another unexpected three points.
2. Ince playing the hand dealt to him very well
The squad is still painfully thin, despite the transfer window closing today, the injuries are racking up on that small squad, and the main transfer activity of the last couple of weeks was to sell one of the club’s most prized assets in Matt Phillips. Despite all of this, Paul Ince has guided his side to the top of the table with four wins and a draw from the opening four matches. Organisation has been a big part of this, but Blackpool are also riding their luck at the moment.
Luck is of course difficult to quantify, but a statistical concept worth bearing in mind is regression to the mean, which essentially involves judging over a longer period of time to get a more accurate view – a position we’ve advocated this season on Measured Progress. It’s possible to enjoy luck over a short period, but luck, through regression to the mean, has less impact over 46 league games. Failure to recruit more players of the required quality will surely mean that regression comes harder and more swiftly than it would if the squad reinforcements we badly need arrive before the transfer window closes this evening.
However, it is entirely possible to divorce the displeasure with the club’s recruitment from the pleasure derived from the excellent results to date. In tough circumstances, the manager is getting points on the board and defying the odds. The number of players available to Ince both last week and this was low – Steven Davies, Craig Cathcart, Isaiah Osbourne, Tom Ince and Gary MacKenzie have been sidelined due to injury for some or all of the last couple of weeks.
It has meant a plugging of the gaps, and players being asked to play in unfamiliar positions. Chris Basham has the label of utility player, but being asked to fill so many different positions in the space of five games is not an easy task. Despite this, he has excelled and for the most part turned in an unfussy composed display at centre back on Saturday. He took up good positions and showed maturity on the ball, often looking for the short easy pass to build from the back.
Bishop didn’t quite have the same assuredness – the penalty conceded being the most obvious example – but a level of discomfort was to be anticipated; Bishop plugged the gap as asked and it’s hard to be churlish when a clean sheet would suggest he did well enough. Blackpool are fighting with every ounce at their disposal to hold back the wave of regression – that is certainly to be commended.
3. 1-0 to the Seasiders
“1-0 to the Arsenal” was a popular refrain during George Graham’s reign at the Gunners, as his side became fabled for their narrow victories. At the moment it’s something Blackpool look like they may be in a position to replicate. Paul Ince’s team have now won all three home matches by this margin, and but for a late Marvin Emnes goal, would have won by this scoreline at Middlesbrough.
Goals, understandably, may not be flowing at the moment but Ince will be delighted with the resilience of his team, earning another clean sheet despite a makeshift defence. The attitude at the moment very much seems to be on not losing games, and by keeping the number of goals conceded to a minimum, wins will naturally flow. Additionally, ‘Pool are showing more than a little ringcraft to their game when they do get an all-important lead.
For years, Blackpool have often found themselves on the end of what one might call gamesmanship, but the signs are there that the club may be starting to dish it out themselves. It means eking out scrappy 1-0 wins, it means knowing how to win a foul and it means knowing how to run the clock down; be it through taking time over a throw in, Matt Gilks going to ground for 10 seconds after catching a simple ball or the old taking the ball into the corner sketch.
Blackpool look like having the ability to become one of those sides other teams will hate playing, and with the resources currently at Paul Ince’s disposal, that’s no bad thing. Is it going to win the club any awards for fair play or popularity among travelling fans? Clearly not. But will it win points against the odds? Quite possibly, yes.
Having not yet trailed in a league game this season, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts when that does happen, as it would require a different dynamic to the side. Without a doubt the arrival of additional creativity would give the manager those options, but in the meantime Ince can be very pleased with the number of shutouts his team are currently achieving against all the odds.
4. Local lad done good
The perils of modern technology conspired against me last week – a house move resulted in almost a fortnight without home internet – but I had planned to write about Tom Barkhuizen in the wake his first Blackpool goal against Reading. If there is one positive from the glacial pace of Blackpool’s recruitment policy, it is that some of the younger players have a platform to show they don’t deserve to be consigned to the development squad of doom. No new signings since the Reading game meant Barkhuizen deservedly took the place of Bobby Grant, who really struggled last week.
Barkhuizen had an excellent loan spell at Hereford in 2011/12, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out for him on loan at Fleetwood last season. Already in two appearances this season he has shown a good deal of pace and a refreshing directness, both of which combined for his maiden goal – although the Reading defence opened up for him, he remained cool and composed to take his chance.
There was no goal for Barkhuizen this week, but perhaps the best compliment one can pay him is that he did not look out of his depth – this accusation could have been thrown at Grant last week. Fitness at Championship level obviously asks more of the body, and so the international break will give him time to work on his conditioning. However, Barkhuizen will be hoping that regardless of any incoming transfer activity, he has persuaded his manager he should not be overlooked.
Replacing Barkhuizen on Saturday was none other than Tom Ince, who unexpectedly shrugged off his injury to claim a spot on the bench. His introduction lifted Blackpool and it was a goal of the highest quality to win the match, with a strong run from the halfway line and a superb touch on the edge of the area to leave the Watford defence standing as he swept the ball past Almunia. One would hope it is not the last we see of Tom Ince in a tangerine shirt.