Following Paul Ince’s sacking, Barry Ferguson took temporary charge of Blackpool as they played out a 1-1 draw with Doncaster Rovers at a rainswept Bloomfield Road. Here are my thoughts on the match…
1. A different set-up
One the biggest criticisms of Paul Ince this season had been his stubborn use of one particular system, namely 4-5-1. However, it’s fair to say that the numbers of the formation itself were not necessarily the issue, rather the specific type of 4-5-1 system utilised. There are attacking 4-5-1s and there are defensive 4-5-1s; Ince’s system was very much the latter, and any expansive thrust was ripped out of the team.
Nonetheless, Ferguson opted for a distinct change in shape, as well as some different personnel. Tom Ince was absent ahead of a loan move away from Bloomfield Road, while Ferguson opted not to select himself. Meanwhile an injury to Neal Bishop kept him out of the matchday squad. While the system was not evidently clear from seeing the starting XI announced, a few minutes of observation made it apparent Ferguson had chosen to go with a 4-1-3-2 formation, as below.
Debuts were handed out to David Perkins and Tony McMahon, while Michael Chopra and Steven Davies were given an opportunity to strike up a partnership for the first time since pre-season, when now-former assistant manager Alex Rae spoke of a potential duo to be developed – yet never followed through on. Overall, it was a significant and bold change and it was interesting to see how individual players adapted.
2. Adapting to the system
With only two days of training in which Ferguson could convey his ideas to the players, some degree of latitude has to be given. Despite this, many players excelled and contributed to an all-round team performance that offered encouraging signs.
One man of whom the system would ask a lot was Perkins, as Blackpool could easily have been in danger of losing the battle in the centre of midfield. However, the former Barnsley player just about pulled it off, with a performance as full of verve as his previous outing at Bloomfield Road this season. With so much responsibility thrust upon his shoulders, it was vital that Perkins was full of running and he did not disappoint, covering the hard yards to press and pester the Doncaster midfield.
Elsewhere, there was some concern when initially seeing the line-up about how much width the team would have, but both full-backs got well forward. It was a pleasant surprise to see full-backs overlapping on a regular basis for the first time this season – both McMahon and Robinson looked to provide support when ‘Pool had possession in the opposing half.
In wide midfield areas, neither Chris Basham or Nathan Eccleston would be many people’s first choices in those roles but both worked hard. Eccleston in particular showed some flashes of why he was once on Liverpool’s books; Eccleston has hardly had much of a look-in since arriving at Blackpool, but he looked positive on the ball at times and created one especially good chance when he got to the byline and teed up a cross for a Basham header just before half-time. It might just be that Eccleston perhaps isn’t the lost cause most Blackpool fans had resigned themselves to.
3. Two up front
A cry for two up front had been the common demand in the latter days of Paul Ince’s reign, although in truth more attacking intent throughout the side was the real wish. Regardless, Ferguson obliged by selecting Davies and Chopra as a strike partnership. Both have had their fair share of abuse so far this season, and even Karl Oyston referred to them in one of his interviews last week, with Paul Ince telling him both were unfit – Oyston put this fault at the manager’s door citing the hotel gym and full-time fitness coach as reasons it could not be excused.
A lack of reserve team football cannot have helped the pair, with behind closed doors friendlies few and far between as of late, but finally both got the chance for some much-needed minutes on the pitch, and to varying extents, demonstrated some potential. Davies had one of his best games for Blackpool, winning a decent number of his aerial duels, which had more impact with players closer to him to pick up the loose ends. Additionally, Davies also looked good on the ground, supplying Chopra with a couple of good chances.
Turning attention to Chopra, it was a mixed afternoon for him. Focusing on the positives, there were at least glimmers of the old Chopra and a couple of instances of his classic on-the-shoulder of the last defender playing style. In previous outings this season, matches have passed Chopra by, so it was at least pleasing to see him getting into his favoured positions. Unfortunately, he does still appear to be lacking the sharpness to finish these chances, but it was nonetheless an improvement.
As substitutions were made, both David Goodwillie and Nathan Tyson got their own chances to impress up front, but neither had long enough to make a really significant impact. Goodwillie suffered from some of the same symptoms as Chopra, in that he found himself in the right positions, but lacked the match-sharpness to take the opportunities presented to him. With the former Dundee United man unable to face his parent club at Ewood Park on Saturday, Goodwillie may get a start ahead of Chopra at Reading tomorrow night as Ferguson shuffles his pack.
4. Sustaining a performance
Anyone who witnessed the match on Saturday will surely agree that despite not holding onto the three points, the overall performance was much better than has been seen for a long time. However, it was not a consistently strong 90 minutes, and the game had its twists and turns. Blackpool were quick out of the blocks with a strong first 25-30 minutes, during which they created a number of good chances and should have taken the lead.
After that, ‘Pool experienced a slight lull, possibly due to tiredness with the amount of energy being expended, before ending the half with an excellent five minute spell before the break when more chances were carved out. It was disappointing then to not have a half-time lead for their endeavour.
The second half was a little less controlled, and much more end-to-end. Blackpool were still looking to get forward, but perhaps became a little nervous that despite playing well, the goal just wasn’t coming. With around 15 minutes to go, the goal did finally go in, even if it was on the scrappy side – loan debutant Andy Halliday poking it over the line. Rather than settle the home side down though, it only served to exacerbate the panic further; Blackpool lacked a steady head to calm things down.
At this point, the absence of Ferguson on the pitch was telling, and the situation called for someone of his experience to put their foot on the ball. Instead, clearances became ever more frantic and desperate and therefore it was no great surprise when Billy Sharp (who else?) equalised to deny Ferguson’s team three points. It was a real punch to the gut to come so close to that elusive win, but in the grand scheme of things, it was the performance we needed to see – a team with positive intent looking to attack.
If Blackpool were in more immediate danger at the bottom end, then the two points dropped would have been harder to take. As it stands, the gap is still healthy enough for now, and with more time on the training ground to work on sustaining a performance over 90 minutes, and more signings to come through the door, the indications from Saturday are that ‘Pool can steer themselves away from a relegation battle. The belief is back.