Category: Statistical Analysis

Rival for Survival – Wigan Athletic

As we enter the final days of the Premier League season, five teams are still fighting relegation to the Championship. Over the course of the next few days I’ll be profiling each of Blackpool’s rivals and explore what we can expect on Sunday. First up, it’s Wigan Athletic.

How they will line-up
Roberto Martinez’s side had to come from two goals down at half time to beat West Ham last week, and having successfully done so one would expect Martinez to change his starting line up to include those who helped turn the match around. Conor Sammon and Victor Moses entered the action at the break against the Hammers, so they may work their way into Wigan’s team at Stoke. Sammon scored his first goal in English football to even the scores at the DW Stadium and will no doubt be itching to get his second.
Then again, it was a make-or-break gamble from the Latics boss, and Martinez may not want to go out all guns blazing from the first whistle against Stoke. Many sides change their team to attempt to counter the Potters’ unique style, and Wigan may look to set up in a way that allows them to deal with the high ball – something they looked vulnerable to in their last outing. Steven Caldwell and Steve Gohouri both offer more in an aerial sense than the defensive incumbents and could be drafted in to deal with the infamous Delap throw-ins.
Key Man
The star man in the Wigan side is undoubtedly Charles N’Zogbia – the Frenchman is top scorer with nine goals, four of those coming in the last three games. N’Zogbia’s future has been uncertain in the last 12 months and he has been linked with a move away from the club on various occasions. He does now appear to have shrugged this off however, and if his recent form is anything to go by he could be the man to fire them to Premier League safety.
Their Opponents – Stoke City 
On the face of it a trip to the Britannia does not seem the most straightforward task, but you could easily argue that Wigan would prefer their fixture to those of their rivals involved in the drop. Stoke have nothing of any significance left to play for, and come into this game on the back of two consecutive defeats, both at the hands of Manchester City. The cup final loss was followed by a midweek game at Eastlands on Tuesday – Wigan will be aiming to capitalise on what could be a fatigued Stoke team thinking about their summer break.
Stoke did make five changes for their second clash with Man City though, and it’s possible that Robert Huth, Jermaine Pennant, Matthew Etherington, Rory Delap and Kenwyne Jones could return for the final game of the season. Huth and Etherington passed late fitness tests to feature in the FA Cup final, and ‘Pool fans will be hoping the rest they had in midweek will see them fit enough to take on Wigan. In goal, Asmir Begovic has been first choice between the sticks for most league games of late, but Thomas Sorenson surprisingly retained his place after the cup final for the match on Tuesday in Manchester. Begovic could return for one last appearance of the season in front of the Stoke faithful.
Encouragingly for the other sides involved in the relegation battle, Stoke boast one of the best home records in the league. The Potters have won 10 of their 18 matches at the Britannia Stadium, losing only four. Last time out at home Stoke beat Arsenal 3-1 and have won four of their last six in front of their own supporters. Stoke have not lost at home in 2011 and Tony Pulis is unlikely to allow his players to slack off.
What’s Wigan’s form like?
According to the form book, Wigan stand a good chance of dragging themselves out of the drop zone. Of all the sides involved, they have the best record with eight points from the last six games, including two wins and two draws. However, this must be tempered somewhat by analysing against whom these victories came. As ‘Pool fans will be all too aware, one of their wins came at Bloomfield Road when Blackpool’s season looked like imploding, while the other came last week against West Ham – a victory that relegated their opponents with a last minute goal. The Latics’ away record isn’t spectacular, but by no means is it the worst in the division – they lie 13th in the away table. They have won three games on the road, but have managed a credible seven draws.
Up the ‘Pool verdict
Currently occupying 19th spot, Wigan have the most work to do on Sunday. Martinez has done well to give his side a chance going into the last day when they looked dead certs for the drop a month or so ago. It’s hard to see the Latics getting all three points though, and even a point may be out of their reach against a Stoke team who will be looking to end on a high note after recent disappointment. I expect a narrow Stoke victory.

Tomorrow it’s the turn of Birmingham City to come under the microscope – check back then as the in-depth look at the final day continues. (Now published here)

Season So Far: The Run-In (Part Two)

Six games to go and not surprisingly the relegation picture has changed quite significantly since my first look at the run-in. Four games ago I believed that eight sides were involved in the relegation battle. Of those teams, I was bold enough to condemn both Wigan and West Brom to the drop, being undecided about the third club who may join them in the Championship. While Wigan are very much still involved – indeed they currently sit rock bottom – West Brom, no doubt just to spite me, have confounded all expectations and probably secured safety with half a dozen games still to go.
Another team I’d factored into my original analysis was Fulham but a few decent results, including a win over the Seasiders, has seen them open up a bit of a gap to the bottom three. This leaves six sides who I believe will be battling between themselves to escape relegation. That’s not to say a different side will not plunge into the mix, as anyone from Newcastle (currently 9th) down may still require the odd point here and there to survive, but you’d think it would take a really poor run of results for one of them to sink.
Let’s take a look at the home and away fixtures for those sides who are in most danger at the moment.

Most striking in the above table are the imbalances in symmetry. Namely the game in hand for Birmingham, four home matches for Blackpool and four away fixtures for Wigan. However, before we get on to other sides’ fixtures, we’ll once more focus firstly on the Seasiders.
Home Is Where The Points Are For Blackpool?
It surely goes without saying that if ‘Pool are to survive, they will have to perform at Bloomfield Road. A great deal has been made in the media of Blackpool being a much better away side than at home, but it’s not a view I necessarily buy into. While the Seasiders have picked up slightly more points away from home – 18 as opposed to 15 – the points per game difference in negligible – 1.05 away in comparison to exactly 1 at home. 
In addition, whereas ‘Pool have sometimes capitulated on the road (Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham to name just three), there have been very few home games in which the Seasiders have not competed (only West Ham and Birmingham instantly spring to mind). In fact Blackpool have been very unlucky to only have won four games at Bloomfield Road. When you consider that the remaining home fixtures are also far easier on paper than the daunting trips to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford you can see this so-called superior away record is largely a myth.
The first game up against the Latics is likely to set the tone for the remainder of the run-in. A victory for ‘Pool will raise spirits and build a solid foundation for the home games to come. A draw, or worse still a defeat will only increase the pressure on Ian Holloway’s side. After this follows the visit of a Newcastle side with little to play for, and then home matches with Stoke and Bolton, one of which will definitely have their minds elsewhere on a cup final. One has to think that a minimum of six points will be required from the four home games, if not slightly more. It’s certainly achievable, but you get the feeling the outcome of the Wigan match could be decisive.
The Other Bs
Both Blackburn and Birmingham currently have a three point cushion to the relegation zone, but this is by no means of any comfort to their supporters. For all that has been made of the Seasiders’ poor run of results, Blackburn have fared even worse in the last eight games, failing to win any of those, scoring only nine goals in the process. Two tough home matches against the blue and red halves of Manchester sandwich a local derby against Bolton – hardly the ideal set of fixtures for a team that has scored over two thirds of its points at Ewood Park.
Away from home Blackburn must face a resurgent Everton, followed by two massive six pointers against relegation rivals Wolves and West Ham. It’s hard to see how Blackburn can reverse their downward momentum, but based on their current points tally, four or more points from those last two away games could be enough to save them while condemning the opposition to the Championship.
In contrast, Birmingham will be targeting their games at St Andrews as the ones to rescue their season. Their next home game sees them take on a crisis-stricken Sunderland, while the other two home ties see them pitched up against notoriously bad travellers Wolves and Fulham. Should they fail to capitalise on these home fixtures though, the away games look anything but easy and it’s hard to envisage them getting much return on these four matches.
Bottom Three – Cut Adrift?
The three Ws who currently occupy the relegation places have varying prospects. Bottom side Wigan must play four of their remaining six games away from the DW Stadium, leaving them in an uphill struggle. On the plus side, none of their final set of fixtures come against top six opposition, but ultimately they have the most ground to make up and they realistically have to win at least half of their remaining games to stand a chance – a big ask for a club that has not won back-to-back games all season.
Back-to-back wins for West Ham over Liverpool and Stoke back in late February / early March looked to have buoyed the Hammers, but with only one point from a possible nine, they have been sucked right back into the scrap. The signing of Demba Ba, combined with the return to fitness of Thomas Hitzlsperger reinvigorated Avram Grant’s men, but it was not enough to steer them clear of trouble. The Irons will hope to take advantage of some kind home fixtures, but of their away games only Wigan looks like one from which they could get something.
Last but not least we come to Wolves. Mick McCarthy’s side have rightly won plaudits for the way they have played this season, especially against the top teams, including memorably taking the scalp of the previously unbeaten Manchester United. Failure to convert these performances into results against lower half opposition has left them vulnerable however, and a confidence-sapping 3-0 home defeat to Everton last week has put them in a precarious situation. Wolves’ fixtures, home and away, don’t seem to be that threatening, but these are precisely the games they have found difficult.
Place Your Bets Now
In what has been an unpredictable season, sticking my neck out and guessing who will have the privilege of visiting the Falmer Stadium next season is tricky. I’ve already proved myself wholly incapable of such a task by writing off West Brom who now seem to be safe only four games later. Not one to believe in jinxes though, I will make some loose predictions for the run-in:
  • Wigan will be relegated – Ok, so this is hardly an inventive pick, but as the current bottom side they will surely have too much distance to make up bearing in mind their dearth of home games. A win for the Latics at Bloomfield Road tomorrow though could change everything. Conversely, if they don’t win at Blackpool, it’s tough to see any way back for them.
  • Birmingham will survive – Despite the horrible away games they have to endure, they could take a giant leap towards safety tomorrow against a depleted and out-of-form Sunderland. Two other home games that also look kind on paper, as well as a headstart on the bottom three should see them safe.
  • Blackburn will occupy a relegation spot at some point – I’m not convinced Blackburn will be relegated, but I can see their season hinging on the games at West Ham and Wolves which fall towards the end of the season. They may have to win these games to lift themselves to safety.
  • Molineux will be the scene of last day relegation drama – A final day showdown between Wolves and Blackburn already seems to be an appetising prospect. The chances of both sides being safe before this game are slim, and it is likely one of them will say goodbye to the Premier League at Molineux on 22nd May.
I’m sure these views will change as the weeks go by, but I’m confident that at least three of the above will come true. What about the Seasiders though? With more than a hint of bias, I do genuinely believe that Blackpool will stay up. It may well be heart ruling head, but the upcoming home games give Holloway and his team a superb opportunity to retain Premier League status. That said, defeat to Wigan tomorrow, while not catastrophic, would be worrying. The next month or so is likely to result in an outbreak of insomnia, one suspects.
Not to rob readers who have made it this far of a full-blown prediction, I will suggest a potential bottom three, with the caveats that I hold no ill feeling towards the chosen sides, and that a bias towards Blackpool is no doubt an influencing factor! Here are the three I’m tipping for the drop:
  • Wigan Athletic
  • Blackburn Rovers
  • West Ham United

I’ll revisit this topic again in early May, when there should be more clarity to the relegation battle. Until then, sleep well and don’t have nightmares…

Season So Far: The Run-In (Part One)

As we approach the so-called business end of the season, it’s time to reflect on the past month and look forward to what the end of the season has in store. In the last periodic review, I questioned whether, as the media were indicating, ‘Pool were on a slippery slope towards danger. Going into February Blackpool were in 12th position on 28 points with a six point gap on the relegation zone. I posited that defeats in both of the ‘six pointers’ against West Ham and Wolves would be the worst case scenario, but whilst this obviously has not helped the Seasiders’ league standing, a win and a draw from the month did at least halt the slide and has ensured ‘Pool still have a cushion of four points on the bottom three.

Rather than look at the remaining 10 games in separate tranches, I’ve decided to view the run-in as a whole. We’re also at that crucial part of the season where other teams’ results can have a significant bearing on Blackpool’s season, so the below chart shows not only ‘Pool’s run-in, but those of their rivals too. The fixtures have been split into home and away and offers the chance to compare the relative difficulty of the sides’ final matches. Which teams to include was up for debate, but I’ve chosen to pick out the current bottom eight sides, up to and including Fulham in 13th. Stoke, Everton and Aston Villa could feasibly be added into the mix, but given their current position and the strength of their respective sqauds, it’s hard to see any of those three making the drop barring a complete catastrophe.

Seasiders in the spotlight
Focusing on Blackpool initially, the clear advantage over other clubs is the number of home games left. The Seasiders have six matches to play at Bloomfield Road, more home matches than even Birmingham who have two games in hand on the rest. The next two games on home turf (what little of that remains on the Bloomfield Road pitch) are about as tough as they get, but victories against Liverpool and Spurs, as well as the performance in the late collapse against Man Utd, should give Ian Holloway’s side hope of causing an upset.
The four other home fixtures look eminently more winnable however, specifically the three consecutive home games towards the end of April, against Wigan, Newcastle and Stoke. If ‘Pool are to win any of their remaining games, then the home match against the Latics is probably the most likely candidate. Meanwhile, Newcastle and Stoke could have very little to play for other than mid-table obscurity by the time they visit the Fylde Coast, the same also applying for Bolton’s trip to Bloomfield Road in mid-May.
On the road, the best two chances to get some points on the board come first with fixtures at Ewood Park and Craven Cottage. Trips to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford offer little encouragement in terms of away points, although it’s to be hoped that the men in tangerine will have completed the task in hand by that point.
Six-Pointers
Whether ‘six point’ clashes are as valuable as is often made out is a widely debated topic, but if proof were ever needed of their significance, one need only look to the game at Molineux last week. A win for the Seasiders would have created a 10 point gap to Wolves – surely unassailable at this stage of the season – but a 4-0 thrashing saw the Wanderers close to within four points of Blackpool. Of the bottom eight teams, the table below reveals how many times each side has to play a fellow struggler.
Of their 12 games left, Birmingham have five of the bottom eight still to play. At the other end of the spectrum, West Brom, West Ham and Wigan only have two relegation clashes to face each. ‘Pool have three such fixtures, comprising the away ties at Blackburn and Fulham and the Wigan match at home. On paper the theory should be that the higher the number of fixtures against teams at the bottom the better, but this isn’t always the case. Victories are huge in these games, but defeats inflict massive damage. Among the relegation candidates, Birmingham have the best record against bottom half teams, averaging 1.41 points per game – Alex McLeish will therefore be confident of getting out of trouble if they can maintain their record.
In Blackpool’s case, Holloway’s side have a poor record against sides in the bottom half of the table, notching only 13 points from 15 games against bottom half opposition. This is the second worst record in the league – only Wolves fare worse, picking up a measly nine points in 12 games against sides from 11th down, three of those coming last week against ‘Pool.
Adopt a second team!
While there are eight (and potentially more) teams in the relegation battle, other Premier League sides will inevitably have their say when it comes to who ultimately suffers relegation to the Championship. The results of these teams could have a big impact on the final standings at the time of the season when fans form a special bond with teams they wouldn’t ordinarily care about. For Blackpool, two such sides will be Everton and Sunderland, both of whom have six fixtures against teams from the bottom eight. Aside from Blackpool, Everton have to play everyone but West Ham, while Sunderland must play everyone but Blackburn.
Fulham and Blackburn fans will be rooting for Spurs, who have to play the remainder of the bottom eight between now and 22nd May. Bolton and Chelsea will also have a large say in the relegation battle as those two sides each have five games against the relegation strugglers. Of course, Blackpool must concentrate on getting points themselves before relying on others, but other teams are likely to benefit from an extra backing of the tangerine persuasion for the rest of the season.
Favourites for the drop?
With the league proving so unpredictable this season, it’s hard to say who will be relegated come the end of May. However, in carrying out the research for this post, I do feel compelled to make some predictions at least. As the side currently occupying 20th position, it’s hard to see past Wigan, especially given their dearth of home games – only four. Wigan’s away form has actually been  marginally better than their form at the DW Stadium, but aside from their visit to Bloomfield Road they face some tough away fixtures. Roberto Martinez will need a miracle to survive.
The other obvious candidate is West Brom. Their remaining home games all look tricky for one reason or another, and a side that holds the second worst away record in the Premier League will need to perform at the Hawthorns. The decision to replace Roberto Di Matteo with Roy Hodgson was a strange one, and it remains to be seen what impact the former Liverpool boss can make in such a short space of time. Failure to win any of their last three home games against Wigan, West Ham and Wolves could have sealed their fate.
The final relegation place is a little trickier to predict, and could be any one of the other five. Wolves and West Ham are in the relegation zone as things stand, but an upturn in the Hammers’ fortunes and a kind set of fixtures for Mick McCarthy’s side could see both escape. Birmingham too will be hoping to make the most of their run-in and their Carling Cup success could give them extra belief to see them over the line. Blackpool and Blackburn both have downward momentum, while Fulham have been drawn back in – Mark Hughes’ team have not won since 2nd February.
Blackpool’s prospects
Above all, in Blackpool’s battle against relegation, the current gap they have to the drop zone should not be underestimated. It’s true that things haven’t been going ‘Pool’s way of late – poor form and suspensions to Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell have made things tough for the Seasiders – yet in spite of all this, the teams below them have failed to really capitalise. ‘Pool took a disappointing four points out of a possible 15 in February, but their lead was cut by only two points in that period.
In terms of a points target, the traditional 40 point barrier seems a fair one. The teams in the bottom three are averaging at most a point a game, so 40 should be ample, with 39 and perhaps even 38 being enough to secure a second season at this level. April looks to be the key month, and if Blackpool can stay out of the bottom three going into that month, ‘Pool fans have every reason to be hopeful with  those four consecutive home games.

Before I finish, you’ll notice that the title of this post suggests part one of a series. With plenty more twists and turns to come before the end of season, I’ll likely revisit this topic at least once, with a clearer picture emerging with each passing week. Expect an update sometime in April.

Cornering the Goals Market

Traditionally set-pieces have never been all that productive for Blackpool. Down the years, Blackpool’s free-kicks and corners have normally been wasted, yet other teams always seemed to score against ‘Pool from dead ball situations. You would have to go back to the early ’90s when David Eyres took the corners to remember a time when you thought ‘Pool had a genuine chance of grabbing a goal. Not any longer.

Out of nowhere, Blackpool have established themselves as the Premier League’s most dangerous team from corner kicks. Going into the home game against Aston Villa, Blackpool had the record of scoring the most goals from corners – 10 – while their opponents had the worst record in terms of conceding from corner situations. True to form, ‘Pool scored their 11th goal of the season from a corner, Elliot Grandin chipping in with his first goal in English football with a near post header.

Corners in the Premier League

How exactly do Blackpool’s corner statistics stack up against the rest of the Premier League then? As already stated, ‘Pool are top of the pile, but how close are the other sides to their goal tally from corner kicks?

Blackpool’s 11 goals from corners edges out current Premier League leaders Manchester United by one, but some teams have scored as few as one goal from corner situations. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan will be unhappy of a return of just one goal from corners while if any proof were needed of Bolton’s style changing from the days of Sam Allardyce, this is surely it. In total 109 goals have been scored from corner situations in the top flight, an average of 5.45 per team. Blackpool therefore have managed more than twice the league average, an impressive feat.

Having scored from the most goals from corners, you’d expect the number of corner-kicks taken by ‘Pool to among the highest in the division. The graph below does not illustrate this however.

10 teams have had more corner kicks than the Seasiders, who have averaged five corners per fixture – a total of 130. Arsenal have racked up an incredible 177 corners, which makes their return of only five goals from these situations a somewhat meagre outcome. In contrast, Wigan have won a little over 100 corners, which goes some way to explaining their sole goal from corner scenarios.
If we look at the graph below, we can see, expressed as a percentage, how often teams score from corner kick situations, with Blackpool coming out on top once more.

‘Pool currently score from 8.46% of their corners, when the league average stands at 3.99%. Man Utd are over a full percentage point behind at 7.35%, with Blackburn Rovers the only other side to score from over 7% of their corners. Bolton and Wigan fare poorly again, converting fewer than 1% of their corners.
Blackpool Corner Takers in Focus
Now we have established Blackpool’s superiority at corners, it’s time to see who the key players are for the Seasiders when a corner is won. The following table identifies the nine different corner takers so far this season and their individual stats.
As you can see from the table, Charlie Adam has taken exactly half of Blackpool’s 130 corners, at the most successful conversion rate – 12.31%. David Vaughan’s 27 corners have resulted in just one goal, while Grandin is more successful managing a conversion rate of 11.76%, although both goals scored from his corners came in one match at the Reebok Stadium. Between the three regular midfielders they have taken 84% of Blackpool’s corners – other players have taken a handful without any tangible results.
Short Corners – Wasted?
A common train of thought among ‘a certain breed’ of football fan is that short corners are a waste of time, and that teams would be much better ‘getting the ball in the mixer’. Does this sentiment ring true though? Analysing Blackpool’s use of corners in the table below, this is proven to be a myth.
Blackpool have scored from 12% of their short corners, but from fewer than 8% of their corners hit into the box first time. In recent weeks it has been Charlie Adam’s inswinging corner that has drawn most attention, but the ability to switch things up and from time to time use a short corner could prove fruitful as Blackpool enter the run-in.
Near Post Danger Area
 
Arguably the most dangerous area for Blackpool’s corners has been the near post area. Be they short or long, eight of the Seasiders’ goals from corners have come from those aimed at the near post. The animation below highlight five of those instances.
One danger here is that ‘Pool are becoming over-reliant on dominating the near post from their corners. Other teams are sure to be picking this up, so it may require a different, or at least varied approach going forward. With the signings of James Beattie and Sergei Kornilenko, the aerial threat the Seasiders pose should be greater than it was previously. Rather than winning the ball at the near post, ‘Pool may have more ability to win contested headers at the far post – something that may be worth working on in training.

Conclusions

Taking all of this information into account, there are a few key points to consider.

  • Even the Premier League has its weaknesses
    • The oft-touted ‘best league in the world’ likes to paint the image of superiority over its European rivals, yet even at this top level, so many teams fall down to the simple corner. What makes this even more incredible is that Blackpool are hardly built to succeed in this area. Holloway’s team is largely founded with an emphasis on slick passing, not the hustle-and-bustle of physicality of other more agricultural Premier League sides. Despite this, ‘Pool have been able to exploit teams defensively from corner kicks to notch up 11 goals in this manner, proving that some of these teams aren’t quite as perfect as is made out.
  • Corners allow Charlie Adam to demonstrate his value
    • Adam has won plaudits from many pundits outside Blackpool for his performances this season, but those closer to the club will acknowledge some disappointment at his lack of goals, in particular goals from open play – his first coming in February at Goodison Park. From corner kicks however, he has contributed towards eight goals, with one memorable direct strike against West Ham. In the aftermath of the 3-2 home defeat to Man Utd, Sir Alex Ferguson famously claimed Adam’s corners alone are worth £10m – and if Adam can provide more assists from this area in the coming weeks to help keep Blackpool up, it would be hard to argue with him.
  • It might be wise to make more use of the short corner
    • A higher success rate from short corners would appear to encourage taking them more often. However, short corners are often a cause of circumstance – slack marking for instance – and may not be appropriate in all cases. When the opposing team is alert and doubles up on the short corners, an opportunity to get the ball into the box can be lost when going down this route. Nevertheless, it is food for thought and may persuade Blackpool to look for short corner opportunities more regularly.
  • Corners could be the key to survival
    • OK, so this is a bold claim. 11 goals is not insignificant though, and represents over 28% of all the Seasiders’ goals this season. If Blackpool had only scored from a league average five or six corners, then the current goal difference advantage would be wiped out, as well as taking off crucial points. If ‘Pool can continue their good form from corners, combined with the goals coming from open play, avoiding the drop will be a lot more realistic.

Whether Blackpool’s success from corner kicks will continue is as yet unclear. If nothing else though, it should spark a sense of excitement when a corner is won. Going back to the start of this article, I cited David Eyres as a deadly corner taker. In my formative days following Blackpool, an early memory is being sat in the West Stand with Eyres standing over a corner. Such was the expectation that something might happen, fans in the seats would stamp their feet, shaking the old wooden stands to their core. An old tradition, but one that should perhaps return when Charlie Adam steps up to swing his trusty left boot from the corner spot.

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Acknowledgement: 
Sincere thanks must go to the helpful team at Sidan Media, who run the scientific predictions site KickOff.co.uk. Sidan provided much of the data used in this article and without their help this post would have been nowhere near as comprehensive. Follow them on Twitter at @kickoffcouk.

    Season So Far – Slippery Slope?

    As we enter February on the back of the worst run of the season, the games become ever more crucial for Blackpool. In the last mini-review on 3rd January I’d surmised that we were ahead of the game in terms of the number of points on the board and felt that even as few as five points would be a good return from the rest of the January fixtures against Birmingham, Liverpool, West Brom, Sunderland and Man Utd. After all, with four of those matches at home, five points would be the minimum the Seasiders would chalk up, right? Wrong.

    Disappointing home defeats to Birmingham and Sunderland were unexpected, and while the double over Liverpool was completed, narrow losses at the Hawthorns and against the champions-elect have seen ‘Pool walk away empty-handed from five of the last six games. All of these defeats were only by the one goal, some consolation in the form of the side’s goal difference, but it’s a run Ian Holloway and his team will be looking to arrest before the situation starts to look bleak.
    Who’s up next then for the Seasiders? Let’s examine the next batch of fixtures for the month of February:
    • West Ham United (h)
    • Everton (a)
    • Aston Villa (h)
    • Tottenham Hotspur (h)
    • Wolverhampton Wanderers (a)
    The two games that bookend this month are without a doubt the obvious ‘six-pointers’ and victory in these games would probably be a satisfactory return. This would take Blackpool onto 34 points by the end of February, while at the same time helping to deny their rivals catching up. West Ham’s activity in the transfer market could give them a lift, while Wolves will be expecting nothing less than three points when they entertain ‘Pool at Molineux. Failure to win at least one of these two games would be a concern, while two defeats does not bear thinking about.
    The trip to Goodison Park is unlikely to be easy, with the Toffees’ form sure to pick up at some point you would imagine. Aston Villa, with the help of Darren Bent, look to have improved in recent weeks and following the war of words between Holloway and Gerard Houllier, that could be a hard-fought encounter. The mid-week visit of Spurs is perhaps the hardest of the lot,  and any points taken from this match must be considered a bonus.
    I’ve said on so many occasions this season that a certain run of fixtures could be season-defining, and each time the statement feels truer. Halting the decline is a must, and one would hope that the reinforcements added by Holloway will help ‘Pool achieve this. Blackpool have yet to go more than three games without a win all season, something only Man City and Arsenal can match or better, but that record is in danger when the Hammers come to Bloomfield Road this evening. Preserving this record would go a long way to reaching an acceptable points tally by the end of the month, and in turn survival.

    Ahead of the Game

    Back on the 1st December, I questioned whether the upcoming six games would prove to be the defining part of the season. ‘Pool faced a particularly tough run of fixtures:
    • Manchester United (h)
    • Stoke City (a)
    • Tottenham Hotspur (h)
    • Liverpool (h)
    • Sunderland (a)
    • Manchester City (a)

    The best I was possibly expecting was six points, and even that looked difficult. More importantly I was hoping ‘Pool would avoid a confidence-bashing run of defeats. In the end, with all three home games postponed because of the weather it was an incredible effort to win two of the three surviving matches, with ‘Pool nearly taking a share of the spoils at Eastlands.

    Looking forward to the next batch of fixtures, January will perhaps be an even more challenging month with five more league fixtures still to play as well as an unwanted trip to Southampton in the FA Cup. ‘Pool must play three mid-week matches, and depending on how the cup tie goes, could face an extra two games in January with the potential replay and 4th round tie taken into account. Focusing solely on the Premier League however, as I’m sure Ian Holloway will do, the Seasiders will face, weather permitting, the following opposition:
    • Birmingham City (h)
    • Liverpool (h)
    • West Bromwich Albion (a)
    • Sunderland (h)
    • Manchester United (h)

    On paper it’s probably a more friendly set of fixtures, with four home games among them, but with exhaustion sure to take its toll and squad rotation bound to play a part, expectations need to be realistic. From here on in, a point per game will see Blackpool avoid relegation comfortably, so a conservative target of five points does not seem beyond the team. Fewer than that though will likely see the Seasiders edge closer to the relegation zone.

    To have 25 points at the turn of the year is beyond all pre-season expectations, but the Premier League has seen collapses before, and Holloway’s side will be eager to maintain their levels and cast aside all comparisons to Burnley and Hull.

    The Defining Part of the Season?

    Time for another periodic overview of the season so far. Towards the end of October, I wrote an article about how Blackpool’s season was panning out after the first eight league games. The mood at that time was not quite as buoyant as it had after the first four games, but the consensus was that ‘Pool were performing above expectations (admittedly not too hard).
    Examining the next seven matches (Birmingham until Bolton) I had identified this as a crucial period in the season. Compared with the opening fixtures, many of these should have been seen winnable, and so it was vital that points were picked up in this period. I surmised that reaching 20 points or more would be a great return, and survival would look more than achievable. While not quite reaching that target, ‘Pool fell only one point short and if they can replicate this points tally over the 38 games, a mid-table finish is on the cards.
    In truth though, each batch of fixtures is crucial, and no side can afford to hit a prolonged bad run of form, which in some ways makes the upcoming games even more significant. All of the next six matches see Blackpool take on top half sides – a daunting proposition. As Tangerine Dreaming rightly point out, it is vital that ‘Pool continue to “rack up the points” on a regular basis – a rocky spell will dent confidence and have the media turning up the pressure on Ian Holloway and his squad. Despite the tough opposition coming up in the next few weeks, it will be important for the Seasiders to pick up unexpected results.
    The three home games are about as difficult as they come and even a much-weakened Liverpool team should be respected, albeit not feared. Burnley showed last season that it is possible to take points off the top sides at home, but just one victory from these three would have to be considered a decent tally – any more than that would be a welcome surprise. On the road the fixtures are just as tricky starting with a challenging trip to the Britannia against Stoke. Like the Potters, Sunderland are a good home side and despite some fairly uninspiring displays, the sheer amount of talent at Mancini’s disposal makes the journey to Eastlands one of the hardest away days of the campaign.
    What would be a decent points return from these games then? So far Holloway’s side have kept ahead of the rough point-a-game safety target of 38 points (although it may require as many as 40 this season), but even six points from the upcoming six fixtures looks a big ask. Even as few as four points wouldn’t be disastrous, but what is probably more important from a morale standpoint is avoiding losing more than two consecutive games. What Blackpool have done particularly well thus far is earning points on a regular basis. While back-to-back victories have until now eluded the Seasiders, Blackpool have only lost two consecutive games on one occasion back in September with defeats to Chelsea and Blackburn.
    I think it’s inevitable that a slide from the current 11th position will take place over the course of the next six games, but if Blackpool can stay out of the bottom three following these matches, then confidence in the camp should remain high. Then again, the January transfer window could impact things yet further. Insert your favourite rollercoaster cliché here.

    Eight Down, 30 To Go

    Just over a month ago, I wrote a post posing the question of whether Blackpool fans were getting carried away with the start to the season. At that point in time ‘Pool were occupying 4th place in the league, with two wins and a draw to their name following the opening four fixtures. The only defeat, while a heavy one, came away at Arsenal – hardly a disgrace. I suggested that the next four games would perhaps be more challenging, and that we could draw more accurate conclusions following these games. 
    Featuring three of the big name clubs (whether Liverpool deserve that accolade is an argument for another time) I thought that if the Seasiders could rack up more than four points from these fixtures, the euphoria could be justified. As it happens, ‘Pool only picked up three points. It’s still a respectable haul and save for the late, late goal conceded against Blackburn, and some dubious refereeing decisions on Sunday, that tally could have been a few points higher.
    Eight games in then, and 10 points on the board. Even the most optimistic of Blackpool fans would surely have settled for that at the start of the season, especially when you consider there have only been three home games, and the away games have included trips to Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. In fact, some of the so-called experts in the national media were of the opinion that ‘Pool would struggle to reach double figures all season. Derby County’s record looks set to remain for at least another year.
    Looking forward, what do the next batch of games hold in store for the Seasiders? We are now going into a period of seven games that could be key to ‘Pool’s season. Away trips to Birmingham, Aston Villa, West Ham and Bolton aren’t the most daunting the Premier League has to offer, while Ian Holloway will be eager to start picking up points at Bloomfield Road with the visits of West Brom, Everton and Wolves next in line. Doubling the current points total after these games appears to be a realistic target, whereby 20 points from the opening 15 games would see Blackpool well on the way to survival.
    After 15 games the home / away imbalance will remain in place, with the Seasiders still only having played 6 matches on the Fylde Coast. The number of points picked up at home so far has been the major disappointment, even if performances have warranted more. If ‘Pool can get to 20 points, or dare I say more, after playing 9 of the first 15 away from home, you’d have to start to believe that another miracle season is upon us.