The starting 11 – early season thoughts

With 11 matches of the season played, and an international break just gone in which to consider the season so far, the Measured Progress team cast their eye over some of the key themes from the early part of the campaign.

1. Value of league table after 11 matches

It’s fair to say there’s a strange atmosphere around the club at the moment. After the first six games of the season, it was officially our best ever league start. To go from that, to almost an air of negativity five games later is an odd situation. However, there is certainly a section of the Blackpool supporter base keen to counter any such affectations – “What are you moaning about? We’re 6th in the league!” is the common refrain.

We sure are occupying a play-off place, and for a side who had been widely tipped to struggle it’s encouraging to be defying expectations. But is it any more than that? Is league position not even a quarter of the way into a season really enough of an ends to justify the slightly disappointing means? After all, nothing is decided in mid-October and how much can a league position in and of itself at this point really tell you about a team?

Of course, there is one argument that the traditional league table is not even the best way of illustrating how teams are faring. At the end of a season, the traditional league table cannot be argued with, but what about when things are more fluid and changing week to week? An alternative tool is the Cann Table, created by Jenny Cann in 1998, which more neatly displays the points gaps between teams in a league.

By focusing on points rather than positions, it is a less volatile way of looking at a league table, where sometimes teams can jump as many as 10 places in the Championship with one win, so tightly are the teams packed. The graphic below shows the Cann Table at two points in the season so far – after the majority of teams had played six games and now, when most have played 11.

Cann table after majority of teams have played 6 games and 11 games. Number in brackets shows if a team has played a different number of games.
Cann table after majority of teams have played 6 games and 11 games. Number in brackets shows if a team has played a different number of games.

The column on the right is from 15th September, at which point Blackpool topped the league on goal difference ahead of QPR. At this point the top two had a three point gap over fellow pacesetters Nottingham Forest and Leicester, and an additional two point advantage over the chasing pack.

Fast forward that on to the current table, and it’s quite interesting to see that despite no win for the Seasiders in that time, not an awful lot has changed. Five sides have overtaken Blackpool, but only really QPR and Burnley have put any real daylight between the sides. Forest, Leicester and Watford are all still within easy grasp, while ‘Pool maintain a handy four point cushion to the chasing group. The distance to the bottom sides has actually increased – after six matches Blackpool had a 14 point lead over Bolton and Millwall, but now Paul Ince’s men stand 15 points clear of Yeovil and Barnsley.

The importance of getting early points on the board is clear to see, and despite an indifferent run Blackpool have retained an impressive advantage over the majority of the Championship. So at this very moment, ‘Pool look quite nicely placed indeed, not only from a league position point of view, but also in terms of points relative to divisional rivals.

More concerning perhaps is the recent form however… CW.

2. Two blocks of form

There has been a stark contrast in Blackpool’s opening 11 results of the season, which is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to take stock of where the club is right now. Obviously the opening six matches were an unprecedented success, winning five and drawing just one. That said, it can’t be denied that Blackpool had some good fortune contributing to those early victories, the scruffy late goal against Barnsley didn’t seem particularly deserved, while Watford really ought to have put ‘Pool to the sword in the opening 45 minutes at Bloomfield Road.

Most recently Paul Ince’s team have had to endure a run of five matches without a win, but then this also must be balanced out by the fact there was only defeat in that period. Blackpool may not have necessarily looked like winning any of these games, but they have at least proved tough to beat – not a bad quality to have.

Applying the Cann Table method to the last five games however shows that Blackpool are currently in the wrong company form-wise but are far from the only side struggling for points right now – over half of the division have picked up six points or fewer since 15th September.

Points gained since 15th September in Cann table format. (-1) signifies if a team has played four rather than five games in this period.
Points gained since 15th September in Cann table format. (-1) signifies if a team has played four rather than five games in this period.

Yeovil and Barnsley’s recent form only serves to reinforce their status as the Championship’s most-backed sides to succumb to relegation, while other Yorkshire clubs Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday have found the going tough lately. Blackpool’s last opponents Charlton have only picked up two points in the last five games, one of those coming against the Seasiders.

The question to ask from a Blackpool perspective is: just what is the true measure? Are Blackpool a top side who are just in a short rut, or are they are potential relegation struggler who had a rare purple patch to begin the season? As always, the truth is likely to be somewhere in between. A strong start at least given the Seasiders a significant buffer, but equally it is important to start winning again now that the international break is over. CW.

3. Impact of Barry Ferguson

“He’s our captain, he’s vocal, he’s a leader and he’s a very good footballer. The experience he gives us is second to none.”

That was Paul Ince speaking about Barry Ferguson in the Blackpool Gazette this week. He also made reference to the fact that he’s pretty much irreplaceable, like a Ryan Giggs or a Steven Gerrard.

Putting aside what happened last season with Barry Ferguson he is a fine player. Technically sound, tactically astute, positionally aware, leads and communicates key messages from the touchline around the pitch. It’s futile looking at the results of games that he has and hasn’t played as it gives few real conclusions to draw upon. However, as Ince intimates, he’s hard to replace. Blackpool function well when he starts, he mops up loose ball in front of the back four and moves the ball on. The tag of ‘Back Pass Barry’ is used largely by people who fail to understand that there’s value associated with passes that don’t go forward. He does move the ball sideways and backwards, but he’s not in the side to drop the ball in behind the opposition defence.

However, it’s hard to say that we are even getting the best out of him at times. The way that we are setting up lends itself to two runners in the middle of midfield as we are going to create an awful lot of second ball opportunities. Ferguson will be missed for his leadership qualities, but arguably Blackpool’s performance will be sustained by the more energetic Basham and Osbourne. JK.

4. Performances of Tom Ince

Before going any further. If Andros Townsend can play for England then so can Tom Ince. He’s that good. OK, he may be struggling for the form of early last season, but to an extent his start to this season has been interrupted on several fronts. He has become a father, been away at an international tournament, had a suspension, an injury and his father has been surrounded by self-created controversy for a good number of weeks. Not ideal really.

Ince does have a return of 4 goals in 7 starts in addition to 2 assists which is a very decent start to the season. However, given he flourishes when starting games high and wide on the right (before switching to the left), it does appear that his father has him too close to his own goal for his own good. Direct, long ball football doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths. Sitting deep as Blackpool are doing this season, could be useful if the first ball out of defence is short and to his feet (or just in front of them) allowing him to run at teams from deep. However, that isn’t the case and it’s hard to see him getting enough of the ball to impact games, given Blackpool’s share of the possession.

Finally, going back to the original point about Ince, he may only have one chance to play at a World Cup, if he’s going to go to Brazil he needs a move in January as it’s unlikely he’s going to get noticed when players of comparable ability (Townsend, Nathan Redmond and Wilfried Zaha) are ahead of him in the pecking order. JK.

5. Attacking and defensive effectiveness (Experimental 3-6-1)

Readers of one of Measured Progress’s predecessors, Up the ‘Pool, may remember a series of articles around the concept of the season visualiser, which plotted the relative difficulty of fixtures during the course of a league campaign. The mastermind behind this idea was Ben Mayhew, now Head of Data Analysis for the Press Association.

His blog, Experimental 3-6-1, continues to be updated with Football League data, including his increasingly-popular charts displaying attacking and defensive effectiveness. The full explanation of these graphs can be found here, but in short the charts use shot data to display how effective teams are at creating / preventing shots, and the ratio at which these shots lead to a goal.

Attacking effectiveness chart, courtesy of Ben Mayhew at Experimental 3-6-1 -
Attacking effectiveness chart, courtesy of Ben Mayhew at Experimental 3-6-1

The chart illustrating attacking effectiveness (above) finds Blackpool in the bottom left quadrant, which indicates that we have fewer shots per match than the league average, but also require fewer shots in which to score – the term “languidly clinical” is attributed to teams who fall into this category. This tallies with what we’ve seen so far, in that creating chances has been an issue, certainly in recent weeks, but that we have still scored enough goals from those limited chances to get results in games.

Defensive effectiveness chart, courtesy of Ben Mayhew at Experimental 3-6-1
Defensive effectiveness chart, courtesy of Ben Mayhew at Experimental 3-6-1

Turning our attention to the defensive scatter graph, Paul Ince’s team allow a little less than the average number of shots against when compared to the rest of the league and are fractionally above the league average for the number of shots it takes to concede, which suggests either Matt Gilks is in good form, or the opposition are being limited to shots from poor positions. Bear in mind though that QPR’s quite ridiculous defensive record skews the average, so with them taken out Blackpool would be further entrenched in the ‘formidable’ section.

As always with statistical analysis, the numbers don’t tell the whole story with the raw data not taking into account the quality of the shots, only the quantity. Regardless, in Blackpool’s case the graphs sync up with what most have observed visually, in that defensively the team has little to worry about, but in an attacking sense needs to start creating a lot more chances. CW.

Graphs kindly provided by Ben Mayhew of Experimental 3-6-1.

6. Clean sheets and the defence

Sticking with the defence, compliments have to be paid in how solid they have largely been at the start of this season. In fact, a tight defence has been at the foundation of what Paul Ince has based his Blackpool side on since taking charge back in February. In the last 13 games of the season for which he was manager, ‘Pool managed a shutout in five, and have improved on that ratio this season to keep five clean sheets in 11 matches.

Combining those stats shows that during Ince’s 24 league match reign, Blackpool have prevented their opponents from scoring in 41.7% of games – this rises to 45.5% if you only include this season. Clean sheets in nearly half of the league games so far is clearly impressive. Only QPR have a superior record (eight clean sheets in 10 matches) and only Burnley have equalled Blackpool’s five clean sheets. With QPR and Burnley leading the way in the automatic promotion places, the value of clean sheets is plain to see.

The way Paul Ince has set his side up has obviously helped, with the midfield regularly featuring three or even four defensively-minded players, but some of the individuals within the defence also warrant praise. During the summer, we at Measured Progress were uncertain about the signing of Gary MacKenzie and although we acknowledged his aerial ability and strong tackling, there were some less aesthetically-pleasant parts to his game involving his positioning and ability on the ball. Thus far, these flaws have rarely been exposed with some commanding performances – the set up of the team is allowing MacKenzie to thrive.

Jack Robinson, on loan from Liverpool, is also flourishing. His inexperience still shows at times, for example in conceding a clumsy penalty against Leicester, but he has quickly made the position his own. A long-term injury here however would be problematic given the only cover is Bob Harris who has his own recurring injury problems, as well as failing to impress in his two appearances this season.

Craig Cathcart and Kirk Broadfoot have both performed adeptly at centre back, but their occasional filling in at right back does throw up a question mark over that position. For the early part of the season, it was a necessity given the abject failure in recruiting a single right back, but the loan signing of Bradley Orr has perhaps not worked out as planned. Orr has made just one start so far, in a game where his lack of pace was exposed facing up against Leicester’s Lloyd Dyer.

Broadfoot is an awkward-looking full back, with Cathcart now being tasked with that role in the last outing at Charlton – and one would imagine against Wigan this coming weekend. Neither are ideal however, and if the on-loan Orr isn’t the solution, then the defence which has served Blackpool isn’t perhaps as rosy as it might first seem. Indeed, the makeshift right backs being deployed are surely, at least in part, contributing to a more defensive midfield being selected.

For now, the defence has been Blackpool’s major strength. However, an injury here or a suspension there, could reveal a lack of depth in this area, and is certainly something the club should be monitoring. CW.

7. Goal distribution

Blackpool have scored 13 goals this season, 9 goals short of Watford who are the league’s top scoring team. 6 of the goals have come from open play, 4 from set pieces and 1 a piece from the penalty spot and own goals. The 4 set piece goals rank Blackpool as the joint 7th highest team alongside Burnley and Ipswich.

Those 13 goals have been spread between seven players with Tom Ince leading the way with 4, both Ricardo Fuller and Chris Basham have two each. There’s already a decent spread of goals amongst the team, but there’s the possibility of a dependency on Ince which would leave quite a gap should he depart in January. JK.

8. Passing statistics

Blackpool’s approach to passing is very much centred on being direct, so as a consequence their pass counts and success rates will be lower than previous seasons. There’s little play through the midfield which normally ‘pads’ out pass counts, but normally with reason. However, Blackpool generally mix their ‘keeper distribution up between short and long, but invariably the short pass results in a long punt after two or three passes along the back. 20% of their total passes are hit long compared against the league lowest in Brighton and Watford with 14%.

With a 73.7% pass success rate they rank 17th in the league, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a long ball team. Blackpool do have a little intricacy to their play, but it’s generally around the final third. However, they average only 265 (attempted) short passes per game, which ranks them 21st in the league.

What is interesting is that although Barry Ferguson averages more passes per game (47.9) than any other Blackpool player, Isaiah Osbourne ranks 2nd with 35.4. Not really renowned for his passing game, it starts to explain a little of why Blackpool don’t create a lot of shots on goal. You have to go down to tenth in the list to see Tom Ince on 25.5. Given that he creates more key passes and assists than any other player it seems like the more he has the ball perhaps the more that Blackpool will have chances to score. JK.

9. Incorporating forwards on the bench

The fact that Blackpool recruited Michael Chopra and Steven Davies followed by the management talking about a partnership between them appears incoherent, given that Ricardo Fuller is clearly the first choice striker now. It wouldn’t appear that either of those players have done much wrong, just the signing of Fuller has pushed them out of the frame.

Fuller leads the line in a 4-5-1 and there’s no real indication that Ince will move away from that set up. Davies is a like for like replacement to an extent, whilst Chopra can only really have a future as a substitute, unless injuries come in to play. In theory he’d work well with Stephen Dobbie who’d drop the ball in to his feet and give him rebounds off the ‘keeper to feed off. However, it doesn’t look like Fuller will be dropped at any point soon to give that a try.

Ince has recently complained about a lack of firepower and getting bodies into the box, but it’s hard to see the current playing method allowing the team to do that apart from at set pieces. The recruitment of Dobbie may just change that because of his direct running and linking up with other players in the final third. Bobby Grant will be used wide, as will Nathan Delfouneso and Nathan Tyson. In addition to that it’s unclear where Marvin Zeegelaar will be deployed, but it’s unlikely to be as a central striker. It really looks like three main strikers competing for one spot right now given Dobbie will fill in the deep-lying forward role. JK.

10. Manager communication

One thing that has been missing recently is communication from the manager. Following Paul Ince being sent to the stands at Bournemouth (and the melee that followed in the tunnel), Ince had not spoken in public for around a month until finally emerging earlier this week. It’s clear why this had happened, Ince naturally eager to keep out of the limelight until the FA hearing was out of the way, but it still hasn’t been ideal.

Press commitments have been shared out, with Alex Rae and Steve Thompson taking care of the post-match duties, while players have stepped into the breach for pre-match interviews. However, none of these are really an adequate substitute for hearing directly from the manager, and as a result fans have had little insight into the Ince’s current thought processes.

For instance, what has been the rationale behind the lack of game-time for the many attackers now in the squad? The recent outing at Huddersfield saw a staggering seven attacking players fill up the bench, yet the starting XI was significantly more defensive. A number of fans have been frustrated by a perceived lack of attacking ambition, but would these same people perhaps have been more understanding if Ince had been speaking to the media during this time to explain his selections? It’s certainly plausible.

Now that Ince’s five match stadium ban has been meted out, one might have expected the manager to go further into his shell, yet he broke his silence this week to speak with the club’s official website, giving his thoughts on a variety of topics including the ban itself, Barry Ferguson and tomorrow’s match with Wigan. However, perhaps the most fascinating comments of the whole interview related to the club’s playing style:

“I don’t think we’ve got the players to start being expansive. When you look at our team I don’t think we’ve got that. But the way we play, we seem to enjoy the way we play. We seem to have the personnel to do that. We’ve just got to be hard to beat and with the height and physicality we’ve got a chance of scoring goals”

Fans wishing for a more aesthetically-pleasing style of play will surely be disappointed by this, with the comment relating to enjoying the way the team are playing being particularly hard to stomach. If the results and league position remain strong, Ince will be fine. However, a run of poor results will see an element of pressure start to build. Good results combined with poor performances, and to a lesser extent poor results combined with good performances, can both be tolerated by fans, but poor performances and poor results will invite inevitable criticism.

Ince must continue speaking to the media, and if possible state how he believes he can get the club playing a more attractive style of football, not just that we don’t have the players to do it. Earlier in the season there was talk of BSA holding a Meet the Manager event (members only), but this has gone quiet too. Fans need to hear Ince’s vision explained clearly, because if there is already a little unrest in our current league position, then it’s a worry what might happen if Blackpool start to slide. CW.

11. Still early

In analysing all of the above, one huge caveat remains that it is still relatively early in the season. Chris Walker and John Kane discuss the limitations of judging at this point, and look ahead to the next part of the season…

CW: So, I think it’s clear in all of this that at this point that while on the one hand we’ve made an encouraging start in terms of points and league position, there’s still room for improvement. Additionally, we’ve got to remember that it’s only October. The league’s only just starting to settle down, and Blackpool’s late recruitment in particular makes it hard to predict where we’ll go from here, doesn’t it?

JK: Without a doubt. I still think that this side can easily lose six games as win six games and that isn’t a comment on the league standard. I find it hard to see where we go at this point. The season start may be an exception. We are without the manager and captain for a significant period of time. Getting through that period still in the top 8 would be a good situation. Anything outside of that then the Xmas period will become critical in setting the direction of travel for this team. I still don’t see this team doing much more than it did last season, points wise. What do you think?

CW: I’m really not sure. The points accumulated so far would indicate we should exceed last season’s point tally, but the performances have largely been uninspiring and point to a bottom half team. In terms of the side having the potential to lose six in a row, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far. The team does have an ability to avoid defeat due to a strong defence, but I could foresee a possible long winless run due to the lack of goals in the team right now. In fact, the upcoming run of games (Wigan, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest) present some tough challenges, don’t they?

JK: Very much so. Realistically five points would be a good return from those games. In fact in light of those games, I think we will get a good idea of where we are at. We’ve had strong results against both Watford and Reading at home this season, repeat performances in the next three games might suggest this team really does have something. However, I get the feeling that those were exceptional results. Do you think we are likely to regress to the mean and if so, what is that mean?

CW: The Watford and Reading wins certainly were impressive (and a little fortuitous, the former especially so). However, while I suspect our future momentum might see us regress, 11 games is still too early to say that with any great certainty. Essentially, I’m impressed and pleased with the points on the board, but would still like to see more performance-wise. Once we’ve played another 11, we’ll be nearly at the halfway stage and it’ll be much fairer to judge. By that point, it’s likely that either more strong results will have meant improved performances, or that continued underwhelming performances will have led to a drop in the table.