Blackpool 0-1 AFC Bournemouth – Four Thoughts

It’s now 18 games without a win for Blackpool as they fell to another defeat at home to Bournemouth. Here are my thoughts on the match…

1. Strong words from Ferguson…but strong actions?

Following the 4-0 hammering at Watford, Barry Ferguson came out with some powerful statements about what he expected from his players, and where they were falling short. The interim manager said that the “players had let themselves down” at Vicarage Road and then during the week we heard more from Ferguson about private talks held with the players:

“That wasn’t the boys who I know and who I work with every day, so I wanted answers and I got them. We spoke man to man and that’s us sorted. I’m fine now. It just wasn’t Blackpool on Saturday in terms of character and feeling sorry for themselves. I won’t accept it again.”

Ahem. Well, that didn’t quite have the desired effect, did it? Furthermore, one might have expected more than two changes to the line-up given Ferguson’s scathing words for his former-teammates. It was a thoroughly disappointing team selection and the outcome could be easily predicted when the line-ups were announced. One argument might be that he wanted to give players a chance to redeem themselves, but many of that team have had too many chances already, and ‘Pool had nothing to lose by trying something different.

It seems clear that Ferguson has the respect of the club’s supporters and many appreciate he has been placed into a very difficult situation, especially for someone with his managerial inexperience, but it’s still hard to fathom some of his decision-making. Let’s be clear, this whole sorry mess is not Ferguson’s fault, but as much as we would like him to make a success of this opportunity, it just does not look like happening.

Ferguson’s post-match interview was similarly forlorn and paints the picture of a man who does not know where to turn:

“As weeks go on, the pressure is getting bigger and bigger, can they handle the pressure? I don’t know. They will need to start showing me they can, and that’s a worry for me.”

So what can Ferguson do? And where exactly are Blackpool lacking at the moment? If the interim manager is willing to roll the dice, there are a few changes that could be made, and with the problems as bad as they are, could things really get any worse?

2. No creativity, no width, no…anything

One of Ferguson’s first choices once he assumed control of first team matters was to change the shape of the team. Gone was the negative 4-5-1 of Paul Ince’s tenure…“hallelujah!” we all cried. In its place was a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, and at least in the opening game of his reign against Doncaster, the initial signs were good. There was more attacking intent, the full-backs were getting over the halfway line and it looked like ‘Pool were actually trying to win a game.

Alas, the hope that game brought was something of a false dawn and ever since, the diamond formation has looked less and less convincing. Saturday saw Chris Basham and David Perkins take up the wide positions in midfield, and as hard-working and committed as those two players are, they are not and never will be natural wide men. Neither has the genuine on-the-ball quality required to beat a man, or stretch their full-back and both looked a little lost, tucking in too often and failing to provide any width.

At the tip of the diamond, Stephen Dobbie continues to struggle. It has not been a good season for the on-loan Crystal Palace player and one wonders how many chances he will get before someone else is given a chance. In his defence though, Dobbie has had little to work with and it’s rare players get close enough to him for the intricate passing triangles he favours around the edge of the opposing box.

A switch to two up-front was broadly welcomed too, but it does not seem to have greatly altered Blackpool’s ability to score, and if anything has merely meant we are sacrificing the midfield battle even more. Keeping Ricardo Fuller on for the full 90 minutes when the post-half time cone warm-up seemed to sap any remaining energy in his legs was odd, with Andy Keogh perhaps the more likely of the pair to make something happen.

Steve Davies’ introduction did provide a bit of a spark, although the fact a keenly contested drop-ball he was involved in was possibly the highlight of the second half says it all. Even more strange then, that the resulting free-kick from Davies’ brave run was given to Dobbie for him to hit at an onrushing Bournemouth player rather than allowing free-kick specialist Davies to have a pop. Just one more curious decision in a day full of them.

3. Lack of leadership

When the final whistle eventually put the home supporters out of their misery, it was a case of the usual dropped heads with few departing the field with any credit. Certainly, there does not appear to be a leader among them. Stopping short of a full-on character assasination, one must wonder how it can be that Gary MacKenzie has been handed the captain’s armband with Ferguson confined to the technical area.

Well-suited to Paul Ince’s defend deep strategy he may have been, but as the season has gone on, MacKenzie has looked more and more exposed as a footballer. His dithering and lack of effort in attempting to prevent Watford’s third goal last week ought to have seen the ex-MK Dons defender left out in place of Craig Cathcart, but MacKenzie was given another chance to prove himself, which he duly squandered. Clumsy on the ball and his concentration absent, MacKenzie is not the leader this team requires.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the on-field leadership was demonstrated in the second half when Kevin Foley sustained a game-ending injury. With the right-back off the field receiving treatment, nobody thought it prudent to fill in, or ask someone else to fill in. Faris Haroun, on at this point for Basham, should have dropped back, yet the position was left unoccupied for several minutes before Cathcart was finally brought on and one Bournemouth attack down Blackpool’s right almost led to a doubling of the visitors’ lead.

The problem is, if MacKenzie is not the leader this team needs, then who is? Ferguson is apparently carrying an injury even if he wanted to play, so that rules him out. Is Kirk Broadfoot showing any more leadership abilities than MacKenzie? Not really, no. Matt Gilks? He looks more resigned to our fate than almost any other player. Basham or Cathcart? No, they’re probably both a bit too timid.

And therein lies the problem. In seasons gone by, there would have been a whole host of candidates to lead Blackpool, but gradually those faces have departed, with a reduction in quality. And for all the talk of the club seeking ‘the right characters’, we now have a dressing room of strangers, the majority of whom will be gone in a couple of months anyway. Who are the players that will take it upon themselves to turn this situation around? Slim pickings, sadly.

4. Drastic changes required

Some of those who were present at Watford have tried to dress up Saturday’s performance as an improvement, but even if that is the case, there was very little sign of Blackpool troubling Lee Camp’s goal. Bournemouth did not present a particularly tough challenge, but then they didn’t have to. ‘Pool caused the visitors no problems, and once the Cherries took the lead the game was effectively over.

Quite what the approach is now is unclear. While Ferguson may feel he’s had some backing in the loan market, January was still a disaster as far as the transfer market goes. Several players have come in, but few have made any real impression. ‘Pool also got rid of their only wide player in Tom Ince, failing to bring in any width aside from Andy Halliday, who now finds himself looking uncertain at left-back deputising for the ever-suspended Jack Robinson.

Can Eric Black have an influence behind the scenes in time for Tuesday’s match, or do his two working days – even having to write that feels ridiculous – fall towards the end of the week? Such an appointment is another bizarre move and it will be interesting if Black can have any real impact on a part-time basis with the club in freefall so close to the end of the season. One thing is certain though, and sending out the same (or similar) team in the same formation against Millwall is asking for a draw at best, but more likely a defeat given Ian Holloway’s suprise victory at high-fliers Derby. Tuesday is as close to ‘must-win’ as it gets, but praise be to anyone brave (or stupid) enough to predict that outcome.

Ferguson has to do something then. Drop some under-performing players, change the shape and maybe even give some of the promising youth players a go. Let’s face it, can they really do any worse? Times are truly desperate, and if this isn’t already rock bottom, we should perish the thought at how bad it can really get.