In the second ‘In Conversation’ piece of the season, Chris and John turn their attentions to the transfers concluded during August, the shape it leaves the squad in, and how the team might develop from this point on…
CW: Since our last discussion on how the squad was shaping up, the transfer window has now closed. It therefore seems a good time revisit this topic, and probably best to begin with a quick look at those who have left the club. Three youngsters have all gone out on loan for the season – Jake Caprice to St. Mirren and Hyde taking Louis Almond and Liam Tomsett. One has to wonder why these three were given new one year deals and whether the clubs they have gone to are at a high enough level to develop them if they are ever going to be ready for our first team.
JK: Yeah, that does appear a little odd. I wonder if the offering of contract is from a footballing or financial point of view. You’d imagine that Paul Ince agreed to their contract extension based on (potential) footballing ability. However, it may equally have been to ensure that we can secure a fee for them in some respects. I’d be amazed if it was the latter. As for the level they’re playing at, that’s a valid concern. Any club must take that into consideration when loaning out with a view to assessing progress over the season and making the decision to bring in to the first team, to move on or to loan out to the same or a different level (dependent on progress).
It would appear that Almond and Tomsett are stuck at that ‘loan level’ and not stepping up which would indicate improvement. I’m not sure the level they’ve been loaned out to is getting them ready to step in to a Championship team. If you’re nearly ready then League One seems appropriate and League Two if you still need further development. Anything lower than that should really only be for the raw talent unless there’s some other benefit, perhaps forging a formal relationship with a club. Anyway, I digress, it does hint at a little of the incoherency at the club around player recruitment and development. Although saying that, we’ve seen a few young players popping up on the bench recently. Are they going to be long term fixtures do you think?
CW: It’s a tough one. It was certainly refreshing to see someone like Tom Barkhuizen have an impact by scoring the winner against Reading, but at the same time the manager acknowledged that it’s unlikely he’d have even been on the bench if the club had done its transfer business early. Barkhuizen then obviously started against Watford, but has had to settle for the bench at Bournemouth and the stands at Millwall following new arrivals. Already it seems like he’s down the pecking order through no real fault of his own, and with other players still injured or building up fitness nearing a comeback, his place in the matchday squad looks far from secure unfortunately.
James Caton made an appearance off the bench too, but he’s vulnerable for the same reasons as Barkhuizen while also seemingly having recurring injury problems. Dion Charles and Harrison McGahey were more there to make up the numbers I think, and it was very telling that the injury to Gary MacKenzie in the Reading game saw a reshuffle of positions to avoid throwing the young McGahey on. Moving back to first team matters, the only major departure was that of Matt Phillips. Do we think this was to be expected?
JK: I think so. From a contractual perspective it was wise, he was in the last year of his contract and highly unlikely to sign a new contract. I think we took him as far as he could go, fresh ideas and new surroundings might allow him to develop further. I believe his potential is huge given the right conditions, but those conditions require a lot of intensive support and nurturing that we don’t have the resources to cover. Bringing in Nathan Delfouneso, Nathan Tyson and Marvin Zeegelaar on the face of it leaves us with a decent set of replacements, assuming that’s why they’ve been recruited. If not, then perhaps we may still bring in another wide forward as a direct replacement? Or do you think Ince has his forward positions covered now?
CW: First of all I was disappointed to see Phillips go, but for the reasons you outline, it was probably the right call to make. On his day he could be frightening, but we all know we didn’t see that level consistently enough and as a result the money we got from QPR was probably good value given his contract situation. He still has time on his side and as you say, a fresh start might kick him on another level.
We have obviously brought in a few players who can occupy the wide positions, but I do still feel we lack genuine out-and-out width. Delfouneso obviously played on the left of a front three a fair bit last season, but I’m not sure it really brought the best out of him. Similarly I see Tyson as a player who isn’t necessarily at home hugging the touchline and like the Aston Villa loanee, will often be looking to cut inside. Zeegelaar is a virtual unknown at this stage, not only for us fans but also the management as they signed him on recommendations and scouting videos.
Then again, perhaps natural width isn’t in the gameplan. Already this season we’ve seen the likes of Chris Basham and Neal Bishop used in the wide midfield areas as the side has been set up to be solid rather than flamboyant – perhaps traditional wingers are a luxury this side isn’t built to accommodate?
JK: Quite possibly, functional players who are adaptable seems to be the current approach. However, it’s hard to say if that’s the desired state or one the management team have had to adapt to given player shortages.
I’d say that this functional approach has a short shelf life, it’s great to be narrow, compact, functional and hard working whilst you are the hunter. If we remain where we are for another five games or so, teams will mirror our approach and we will need something else to keep winning games. Our start to the season has seen us have fewer average shots per game (9 – courtesy of whoscored.com) than anyone else in the rest of the Championship and we aren’t creating as many key passes as other teams in the league either.
Players are working hard and the working brief appears to be centred on not conceding an building from that platform. However, at the moment our balance is heavily weighted towards defence, almost an 8 and 2 mentality away from home and not much more than 7 and 3 at home really. I’d imagine if Zeegelaar starts a couple of the next five games in tandem with Tom Ince and another forward then perhaps we are starting to add in more width and creativity.
Regardless of how we attack, it has been very interesting to see a Blackpool side set up for not losing and now we’ve got a recognised right back in Bradley Orr that is good to see. How do you see Orr fitting in to the set up?
CW: The signing of Orr is obviously long overdue and it was simply unacceptable that it took until the sixth game of the season to have a recognised right-back added to the squad. We were fortunate those who filled in managed to get us by. However, it has been pleasing to witness a level of resilience at the back and Orr should only add to this. It’s been noted that Orr is very much a defender first and foremost, rather than a full-back always looking to go forward. This should reinforce the stability of the back line and hopefully lead to more clean sheets.
It’s probably important not to get too carried away however given we’re only seven games into the league season. Only QPR had conceded fewer goals than our three prior to the Millwall game, but the stats up to that point showed we were possibly a little fortunate not to have conceded more. This graphic covering the opening six fixtures shows we are allowing more shots against us than the Championship average but on average it is taking opponents as many as 23 shots to breach our defence and score, be it through good goalkeeping, poor finishing or restricting the quality of the chances. Conceding three at The New Den was a predictable regression to the mean.
Staying on the defensive theme, a more unusual signing was the Wycombe left-back Charles Dunne who was immediately loaned back to the Chairboys. What did you make of this deal?
JK: I may be wrong, but this is new ground for us. It hints at a considered approach to player development, which contradicts the point made earlier about existing talent. I wonder if we have a recall clause to cover injuries, suspensions or accelerated development? However, it may not be about development at all and just a part of the bargain in getting the deal done. Given that he has a decent length of trial with the club suggests that Ince likes the player and what he might offer. Selling him on at a clear profit in three or four years would resemble a club that is working from a position of knowledge and understanding.
I think that’s what confuses me at times, we appear principled in some areas of our operation, but confused and lacking clear direction in others. That could be a communication issue, but our transfer activity suggested a lack of a clear plan of action. I mean we still have gaps in our squad and it’s nearly October. Perhaps our league position means we have to do less?
CW: There might be an element of that thinking from the club, but then I’m sure Paul Ince is aware of where we’re potentially vulnerable. The most obvious area is the goalkeeping situation. There is no credible alternative to Matt Gilks, but I get the feeling that the club’s view is to worry about this only if ‘Pool’s number one was to pick up an injury, in which case we’d dip into the loan market.
There’s an argument that competition for Gilks would help keep him on his toes, but the fiscally conservative nature of the chairman means he will probably see it as a waste of a wage. Where else would you say we’re short?
JK: I totally agree about competition for Gilks, but I’d imagine it’s an unnecessary expense. Hopefully, Gilks is bulletproof and that risk is never realised. It’s very hard to establish where we are short now. Due to our functional ‘all hands on deck’ approach we are covering gaps well. I still think we need another centre back to give us comfort, but then again we don’t budget for comfort at the club. Bringing in Stephen Dobbie may have plugged the gap in that support striker, creative role. However, I don’t see Dobbie as a creator as such in that he doesn’t deliver a ‘killer pass’. He tends to bring a very direct approach with his dribbles and runs, allied to taking his shots nice and early.
I think our gaps are filled in such a way that we will need to take reactive approach due to our dependency on loan players. A recall means we have a gap that would need to be filled with limited time. I guess we will see how that plays out in due course.
CW: Talking about time is a very valid point, and there is certainly a short-termism to the approach. As we get towards January, decisions will have to be made on the loans that expire (Dobbie, Orr, Zeegelaar and Delfouneso) as well as Neal Bishop’s contract. Given the resources at the club’s disposal it is disappointing there hasn’t been more long-term acquisitions, but the club’s modus operandi is realistically unlikely to change too much.
With the loan rules limiting a team to five in the matchday squad, it’s hard to imagine the club doing much more business before January, as doing so would mean leaving out one of the aforementioned four players whose loans expire in the New Year, or Jack Robinson who is on a season long loan. Do you think Paul Ince is happy with his lot for the next few months?
JK: Although he hasn’t made any clear statements in the last few days about being short, it still appears from the outside that there’s little structure to our recruitment, so I’d imagine he’s still looking. However, having so many loan players has a further constraint as some clubs won’t loan the real talent without assurances around appearances which would impact on the other loan players we have.
I’m really not sure where our intentions lie with recruitment. The main noises appear to focus on the character of a player, not on skill sets and technical ability. Our player profile appears to be along the lines of ‘a strong character’ and over six foot tall (seven of Ince’s signings are over that mark – Orr, Mackenzie, Bishop, Dunne, Tyson, Davies and Zeegelaar). The signings of Chopra and Davies had Alex Rae talking about a partnership and then we signed Ricardo Fuller who has since started games instead of those two. It’s odd contradictions like that that confuses me. Holloway had a clear template to work from even if he did hedge his bets at times. It’s perhaps a consequence of Ince’s approach to setting up his teams. It’s hard to pin down his footballing philosophy and I do wonder if he has one, and if he does, just how clear that is.
Physicality, hard work and being good at set pieces isn’t the most forward thinking approach. As much as Tony Pulis was derided at Stoke, his football was much more than lumping a ball up to the big man. Whatever route we are going down then I’d expect to see a little more definition coming in to Ince’s approach in the next 10 games. I wouldn’t say that Ince is ‘winging it’, but there are elements of what is going on at the club that suggests that we can easily lose six games on the bounce as much as win six games on the bounce and that’s not a comment on the league standard either. Good teams, with good principles will succeed in this league regardless of comments about it being closely matched.
CW: I suspect your comments about Holloway having a clearer plan compared to Ince might ruffle a few feathers, although I see where you’re coming from. There has been a lot of talk about character from Ince, and while that is undoubtedly a good attribute for players to have, you’re right to say there is currently less clarity to the actual playing style, whereas Holloway was obviously a strong advocate of following the Spanish model.
‘Functional’ and ‘solid’ probably best describe the style at the moment under Ince, but let’s remember it’s still early days. Holloway may have been more vocal about the style he was aiming for, but it still took time to bear fruit in his first season. If you work on the basis of Ince starting this season with a clean slate, then it might be better to judge his brand of football from Christmas onwards.
Whether the bodies we’ve brought in are in the right areas is still up for debate, but in terms of sheer numbers it’s hard to continue claiming the squad is still wafer thin. The amount of options in forward areas in particular should provide healthy competition, but as you say how these will be combined is unclear, with many of the starting line-ups to this point being crammed with defenders and defensively-minded midfielders.
JK: I suppose that’s the key, see how the season progresses from here. So much has happened so quickly, so much change packaged up with a strong start to the season, yet nothing seems settled or clear yet. I suppose we are where we are and only time will tell if Ince has his plans in place and they’re being executed accordingly. Leicester on Saturday will be a good benchmark. How do we respond to a defeat and against a solid side who are generally competitive in this league season in season out?