A 2-1 home defeat to Yeovil Town ensured Blackpool remain in the thick of a relegation battle with just six games of the Championship season left to play. Here are my thoughts on the match…
1. “Must not lose” game, set up that way
While a win would have eased relegation worries and almost have secured second tier football for next season, there was a feeling that at the very least it was imperative Blackpool did not lose yesterday. A draw would have been an passable result, maintaining the 10 point gap to the Glovers and nudging ‘Pool a point closer to safety. However, there is a difference between that mentality amongst supporters, and that feeling transmitting to the management.
Clearly Barry Ferguson also believed avoiding defeat was the priority, but in making a conscious choice to field a team to achieve that, once more came across as overly negative in a season littered with uninspiring team selections. The decision to go ultra-defensive away at Premier League-bound Leicester City could be tolerated. A defensive outlook at Loftus Road and up against the free-spending QPR was understandable. Such an approach at home to bottom of the table Yeovil? Pffft.
It was a remarkable option to choose and only made worse when one considers the options that were overlooked. It was not a case of being down to the bare bones and having to patch up the starting XI; there were higher quality materials available, but sadly not utilised from the start. Instead, Ferguson packed the team mainly with players expected to graft and asked David Goodwillie and Apostolos Vellios to make something happen on their own.
If ever there was a line-up designed to be unable to cope with going behind, it was Blackpool’s yesterday but that is indeed what happened when Tony McMahon inexplicably handled in his own area when there seemed no logical reason to do so. James Hayter duly put the visiting side ahead from the resulting penalty and Blackpool looked shellshocked.
2. System swapping
Funnily enough, it was actually ‘Pool who started the better of the two sides and in the opening five minutes kept Yeovil pinned back in their own half with a flurry of corners and pressure. It wasn’t to last though, and once Blackpool’s early impetus had vanished, it prompted the first of a few changes to the set-up of the team.
Blackpool began in a 3-5-2 formation, with Jack Robinson and Chris Basham being asked to fulfill the wing-back roles. The latter in particular is a curious one given Kevin Foley’s loan not being renewed when he would surely have been a more natural fit. One suspects it was not necessarily the case that Ferguson felt “we have enough cover” and more that the club’s over-reliance on the loan system was coming home to roost – only five can feature in the matchday squad and once more Blackpool used their full allocation yesterday.
The initial 3-5-2 shape ensured the forwards were completely isolated and while Goodwillie tried to make things happen where possible, his strike partner Vellios looked completely lost. Quite why he was favoured over Andy Keogh, who has shown some potential in his short time with the Seasiders is rather baffling. The first change of shape saw Blackpool revert to the 4-4-2 diamond system which Ferguson brought in when he took charge of the side back in January.
As far as the clarity of this particular diamond goes though, it was far from flawless. Andy Halliday was asked to play as the pivot in front of the back four, David Perkins and Neal Bishop left and right respectively, with Basham at the tip. The whole diamond ended up being lop-sided with little protection given to Jack Robinson at left-back and Basham lacking anywhere near the required attributes to play as a number 10, including the ability to control a football without it bouncing away five or so yards.
Following a 45 minutes about as poor as one could ever imagine at this level of football, it would have been reasonable to expect at least one half-time change, if not more. Alas, the only change at the interval appeared to be Bishop and Basham switching duties. For all his willing, Bishop’s on-the-ball ability is just as inadequate as his fellow grafter, so it was difficult to see what this would really accomplish. The first (overdue) change when Vellios picked up a knock and was replaced just four minutes into the second half by Keogh, who almost instantly showed more of a presence and a hint of a partnership with Goodwillie.
Indeed, Blackpool’s best move of the afternoon should really have been put away by Keogh after all the hard work had been done – his failure to at least hit the target was disappointing. The overall improvement was hardly significant however, and it felt a long time before further changes were finally made on 65 minutes, which thankfully brought a change of shape with it. Elliot Grandin and Tom Barkhuizen replaced the hapless Bishop and Basham; the formation was a more attacking 4-2-3-1, as below.
This allowed for a slightly more open game as Blackpool chased an equaliser, but when Barkhuizen was dispossessed all too easily on the halfway line – an error he later repeated – Yeovil doubled their lead on 75 minutes sparking an early exodus for a good thousand or more home fans who had clearly seen enough. Some of those departed slowly enough however to perhaps change their mind when Grandin let loose from distance to set up the prospect of a comeback which sadly never materialised.
3. Making the same mistakes
One of the more frustrating aspects of yesterday’s match was the frequency with which Blackpool continued to make the same mistakes over and over, thus struggling to really challenge a functional yet limited Yeovil side. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the distribution from goalkeeper Matt Gilks.
Despite regularly losing aerial duels from Gilks’ long balls, it was a tactic that Blackpool stuck to stubbornly. Only four passes out of 24 (17%) found a tangerine shirt, and of the long balls, only one out of 21 (5%). With Ricardo Fuller again absent through injury and nobody else in the Blackpool side capable of competing in the air in the forward line, it was simply foolish to continue playing into Yeovil’s hands.
Other recurring mistakes included poor movement which consistently forced Blackpool to go backwards towards Gilks, much to the chagrin of the Bloomfield Road crowd. It was regrettable to see the ball go backwards as often as it did, but if nobody makes themselves available for a pass, then it was typically the only option. The problem here was that it once more usually resulted in a Gilks long ball and hence conceding possession.
4. Ferguson’s challenge
Not for the first time this season the latest result has left ‘Pool fans wondering where the club goes from here. Ultimately there is a growing consensus over the root cause of the problems at the football club, even as the man in question continues to seem to spectacularly miss the point with his latest ‘charm offensive’ in the local paper – hardly providing the necessary encouragement to fans to buy season tickets and not turn their backs on the club.
However, the short-term pressing issue is of course on the pitch, and how Blackpool can use these last six games to avoid a catastrophic relegation to the lower tiers of English football. Ferguson has found himself placed in a difficult situation, and so far he is struggling to handle the pressure. There have of course been some positive results, and few would have expected ‘Pool to pick up anything at QPR, but largely both results and performances have been worrying.
Blackpool have now dropped to their lowest league position of the season and it is feasible that they will find themselves just three points above the drop zone once games in hand are played. Ferguson has spoken of a desire to play ugly if it means getting safe and he can then build the side in his more attacking vision from there. Yet the game yesterday was a damning verdict on this strategy.
Ferguson does have some players in his side who are bucking the trend of abjection, and it is crucial he finds a system to bring the best out of these players. Perkins was once more a shining light amid the mediocrity, and both Goodwillie and Keogh showed flashes here and there. The quality of Grandin can no longer be ignored either. Nobody would want a team of 11 Elliot Grandins, but neither is a team of 11 Neal Bishops or Chris Bashams an appealing prospect either.
There needs to be a balance and just as has been the case all season, ‘Pool have not been scoring enough goals. Blackpool probably need to pick up somewhere in the region of four to six points to make themselves safe, but this task will become a lot harder if they are not set up to create and score goals. An unexpected result may yet be Blackpool’s salvation, but on yesterday’s evidence, and the evidence of the last few months, League One is becoming a more real threat.