Simon Grayson returned to Blackpool on 6 July 2019, over a decade after leaving the club to drop a division and join Leeds United. At the start of the season Grayson’s return to Bloomfield Road looked like an excellent decision by Simon Sadler. However, after a promising start performances have become rather stodgy and the points are drying up, as a result the fans are beginning to question if it really was the right decision.
There’s no doubting Grayson’s pedigree at this level, he’s gained promotion from League One with four different clubs. His career has seen him manage in the Championship, but never the Premier League. His output suggests his methods work at the League One level and this alone is sound logic behind his appointment. On average it has taken him 495 days from appointment to promotion at those four clubs with Huddersfield (96 days) being the fastest turnaround and Preston the slowest (825 days, shame). This would suggest that it takes him time to get a team playing in a way that gains promotion from League One.
It’s easy to forget that it took Grayson some time to get going at Blackpool the first time around. He took his time to build his team and get momentum, however, eleven years later the fans can justly point to the fact he’s much more experienced this time around and therefore could be getting more out of this team. However, to counter that he has had little chance to bring in his own players. Hypothetically speaking, with another transfer window and more coaching you’d expect to see this team playing better football as we approach early spring. The question Grayson will be focusing on will be, how close to the playoffs will Blackpool be by then in order to mount a challenge for promotion.
To draw comparisons to Grayson’s previous time at the club is a tricky, the club has been through a turbulent time and lacked direction and continuity from the top. Some good recruitment in the mid-2000’s gave him a great pool of talent with added genius of Wes Hoolahan to work with. It’s important to realise how strong that team was, six of the eleven that started Blackpool’s first Premier League game were recruited by and played under Grayson. After viewing the Bolton game on Sky it’s clear that the team lacks the incision of a midfielder like Hoolahan, but Grayson’s challenge might run deeper than that. Last time out he was learning the game and shaping his thoughts about the game. Now he’s experienced more than 650 games as a manager and you’d think that his playing style and philosophy would be clearer to see by now. What is his style?
In numerous interviews Grayson makes it clear that he has learnt from the likes of Martin O’Neill (whom he played under at Leicester City) and other managers he played under. If O’Neill is his base template for playing style then we can deduce that he likes organisation, shape as well as valuing crosses and set plays. What he has also revealed from his time at Sunderland (in an interview with Sky Sports) is that he sees continuity in his back five as being key. Grayson stated;
We were not able to get a consistency of team selection,” he says. “The goalkeepers, for example, we kept chopping and changing them. In an ideal world you want your back five to be the same week in and week out and we were not able to do that.
A brief look at his lineups this season would suggest that he’s struggled with with getting the same back give until recently. Only in the last five league games have Blackpool fielded a back five of Alnwick, Turton, Heneghan, Tilt and Husband. Those games saw Blackpool concede four goals, winning once, drawing three times and losing once. This is a far from an impressive return, but if you dig a little deeper you can see progression over the season especially in the number of shots against the team when we break the season down in to five game segments.
Here you can see that the number of shots the team are conceding on average per match is dropping and if you look at the first five games of the season where the team earned 11 points, they did so against the grain as they were conceding 15 shots a match to 12 in their last five games whilst their attacking output was broadly the same (credit to Whoscored.com for the match data). If defence is where he’s applying his coaching focus then that would shed light on why the attack is not returning impressive outputs either. If he can keep the same back five for another five games and get the shots conceded rate to drop to two or three in the next five games, not only would the results shift in the right direction it might give him satisfaction that he has built his base and then set to work on the attacking side of the game.
This defensive issue was the undoing of him at Leeds too and in the aftermath of his sacking the Guardian pointed to defensive frailties as undermining any progress his team made in attack. In that article Rob Bagchi stated;
“Grayson’s teams have usually created chances – putting them away and stopping them going in at the other end have been the fatal weakness”
Both his time at Leeds and Sunderland may well have left some scar tissue and he knows that failure to get his defence sorted may well undermine this stage of his career.
What we are also seeing is little progression from last season. The website experimental361.com pulls together useful visualisations to show the attacking and defensive prowess of teams. The chart below show how Blackpool were shaping up around the same time last season. We can see very little difference here to this season (Blackpool are in the same quadrant right now), which is a concern. Fans look for progress and this backs up the fact that progress isn’t being seen.
All this however, misses the crux of the issue, that Blackpool are not putting out a team and a style of play that is making the fans happy. That point is important in the post-Oyston world. The fan base now expects more and have experienced some marvellous attacking football in the time since Grayson left. When he left he was on his way up in the game and Blackpool were too, now he rejoins the club, you could say that he’s on his way down in his career, whilst Blackpool are aspiring to climb up the ladder again.
Clearly Simon Grayson is at a crossroads in his career, he turns 50 in December and is in his managerial prime. He’s on record stating that he’s always learning, if he is always learning, that should stand him in good stead. He has a huge opportunity and to capitalise on that, he might want to ask himself the following question. ‘What would I need to do differently in order to turn Blackpool from League One to Premier League in two seasons?’ If he addresses that question he might evolve his style more and look for more innovative ways to make Blackpool an exciting, attractive and successful team over the next two years.
As things stand, should he not evolve his style in all likelihood he may well get Blackpool promoted next season, but he’ll find himself having to manage not only his team but the expectations of a disgruntled fan base who want to see more of an attack minded team.