Category: Tactical Insights

Diagonally Speaking

Blackpool’s use of the long diagonal has been a key tactic during the tenure of Ian Holloway, but until recently has garnered little attention. Pundits and fans alike have firmly pigeon-holed the Seasiders as a passing side, with neat, short passing a main ingredient in the success of Holloway’s team. What has been overlooked is the often direct nature of Blackpool when attacking, but this is anything but traditional long ball football.

How They Line Up

Since taking over at Bloomfield Road, Holloway has strictly relied on variations of the 4-3-3 formation. As a Championship side, Blackpool played a rigid 4-3-3, but this has evolved during 2010/11 into a more fluid 4-2-1-3, Elliot Grandin often being the man to occupy the advanced midfield role. Where Blackpool are almost unique is how they utilise the three forward players. In the majority of 4-3-3 variants, the two wide forwards nearly always drop back when defending to form a solid 4-5-1. Not so at Blackpool.

Following the recent 2-1 home win over Liverpool, Holloway spoke in his post-match interviews about how he believed “width is the future”. The use of long, sweeping diagonal balls out to the two wide front players allows ‘Pool to stretch the play the whole width of the pitch. In doing so the front three retain a much more advanced position than in many other 4-3-3 variants. Before we get into the crux of this article however, we must first examine what constitutes a long diagonal.

What is a Long Diagonal?

There is no black and white rule as to what can be classed as a long diagonal, and each person’s definition could be slightly different. In order to produce this analysis though, it is important to try and be consistent with which passes are counted as long diagonals, and which are not. For the record, I have conducted my analysis using the following criteria:

  • Passes were successful
  • Only passes from open play are included
  • Crosses have not been included
  • Long diagonals from the goalkeeper have not been included

There are two conditions which are not so easy to clarify however – the length of the pass and the angle of the diagonal. Referring to the angle of the pass, I have tried to focus on passes between 280° and 350° for passes to the left flank, and passes between 10° and 80° for passes to the right flank. It is hard to be specific about what length of pass I have used as the cut off mark, as this has been done on a visual basis, but I hope I’ve been consistent.

Types of Diagonal

When these long diagonal passes are made, it occurs to me that they can be broken down into two basic categories, which affect how the passage of play develops. I would label these as contested and uncontested diagonals. Let me explain this in diagram form.

1. Contested Diagonals

In a contested situation, the player on the end of the long diagonal receives the ball in close proximity to a defender. This prevents the attacker running forwards, but what Blackpool do so well in these scenarios, is surround the area with bodies pushing on from elsewhere. As soon as the long diagonal is launched, you will see the full-back, midfielders and central front player migrate towards the ball anticipating the second ball.

2. Uncontested Diagonals

Where Blackpool can be at their most exciting is in situations where the long diagonal is not contested by the opposing team. This is when a ‘Pool player receives the ball unmarked and drives towards goal. It is from these positions that the Seasiders attack with real pace and intent. This is where Holloway’s attacking ethos really shines, as the whole side move forward at once looking to get as many bodies in the box as quick as possible.

How Many?

We have now determined what a long diagonal is, and how Blackpool use them to their advantage, so it’s time we examine the figures – just how many long diagonals do ‘Pool make? In the 21 Premier League games so far this season, Blackpool have made 149 successful long diagonal passes, which works out at just over 7 per match. It might not seem like a particularly high figure when Blackpool can make 300+ successful passes per game, but this is a very specific type of pass which can often be defence-splitting.

The Main Suspects

The long diagonal is a ball Holloway appears to encourage all of his players to attempt, but the table below shows exactly which players make most use of this tactic. Included in this table are all players who have successfully made 5 or more of these passes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Charlie Adam comes out on top, the number of successful long diagonals played by Adam dwarfing that of his teammates. On average Adam makes three successful long diagonals per match, three times the average of Ian Evatt and Dekel Keinan. It can be argued that David Vaughan has at the very least matched Adam’s performance levels this season, if not even eclipsed him slightly according to many Blackpool fans. However, when it comes to mixing up a range of passing, Adam is peerless. When Adam is given space, he will often look up to see if the long diagonal is an option.

When Adam’s audacious passes come off they are worth the entrance fee alone, and I’ve compiled 10 of the best into the following animation. Some of them were so good they can even be appreciated in chalkboard form…if you’re a statistic-obsessed freak like me, that is.

Vaughan’s range of passing tends to be somewhat shorter, as he looks to keep things simple, giving Adam the freedom to be more adventurous. Vaughan is sandwiched in the table by Evatt and his fellow centre-back Craig Cathcart. Evatt has completed the second highest number of long diagonals, averaging exactly one per game. Cathcart looks for this outlet less frequently, but still more often than the ‘Pool full-backs.

Neal Eardley appears to have embraced this tactic more than Stephen Crainey, particularly in recent weeks with two successful long diagonals against both Birmingham and Liverpool. Crainey is much more reluctant to play the long diagonal, averaging roughly only one successful diagonal every three games.

One man who unexpectedly made the above list is Dekel Keinan, who made six successful long diagonal passes, with only six appearances to his name – only Adam and Evatt can match or better his average. Keinan seems destined not to break through at Blackpool though, with a rumoured transfer window move to Cardiff on the cards, but it is a dimension of his game that could have been a useful attribute.

A further nine players have made successful long diagonal passes at some point this season, albeit none have made more than than two. All of these players however are either fringe players or players who occupy a forward role – long diagonals are understandably hit from a deeper position and it cannot be expected for attackers to be making these types of passes on a regular basis.

Angle of Attack

So now we know which players are comfortable with the tactic, but which areas are these diagonals hit towards? The table below tells all.

It has been mentioned before (here on Zonal Marking and here on Tangerine Dreaming) that ‘Pool tend to attack more frequently down the left, and these statistics confirm this – 57% of the long diagonals played are hit towards the left wing. A tendency for Luke Varney to stick out wide more so than Gary Taylor-Fletcher is probably one reason for this, but the players responsible for the long diagonal passes must also be a factor in this.

Neal Eardley’s long diagonals, for instance, will always be aimed towards the left flank, while Adam and Vaughan, both left-footed, prefer to pass in their natural direction. Blackpool’s left-sided bias will surely have been picked up on by opposing teams, and this could be another reason why Luke Varney has been less effective in recent weeks, as discussed in the review of the West Brom match.

Home or Away?

Now we know which players make the diagonals, and into which areas, but does it make a difference whether ‘Pool are home or away?

In some ways the above statistics seem obvious, and in other ways unexpected – Blackpool average nearly nine successful diagonals per home match, dropping to just over six per away game. As the home side it should be natural for ‘Pool to be able to dictate the game, and enforce their own plans on the opposing side. Then again, on a pitch smaller than many other in the Premier League, creating the space for long diagonals is a much harder proposition. In the remaining away games, Holloway will undoubtedly seek to better utilise the space offered on the larger pitches away from home.

Do Diagonals = Success?

In many ways this question should answer whether Holloway’s use of the long diagonal tactic is worthwhile. The following table makes for an intriguing read.

Fascinatingly, the table indicates that the the more long balls played in a match, the less successful ‘Pool are. The Seasiders average 7.6 successful long diagonals in defeats, but only 6.5 in games which they won. However, let’s try to put this in context. On a small sample of 21 results, the difference between the win and loss averages of only 1.1 is negligible. One outlying result also heavily skews the numbers. In the 3-2 home defeat to Manchester City, ‘Pool successfully made an incredible 15 long diagonal passes, in a game they were extremely unlucky to lose. If this figure was taken out, the revised average would be only 6.6, roughly the same as the win average.

Another point that should be taken into consideration here, is that metrics are notoriously hard to link to success in football compared to other sports, despite several people trying down the years. As covered by Jonathan Wilson in his excellent tactics bible Inverting the Pyramid, research carried out in the 1950s by a retired RAF Wing Commander advocated the long ball game, based on flawed statistics, showing that the majority of goals are scored following only three passes.

As a result it was concluded that the ball should be worked from one end of the pitch to the other as soon as possible. Such theories have long been dispelled, and so it is no different here. It would be far too simplistic to reason that if Blackpool could increase the number of their long diagonals, it would directly lead to improved results. Rather it is about the quality of such passes, and in Blackpool’s case, mixing them up with clever short passing to test opponents in various ways.

Conclusions

We have now determined in-depth how exactly ‘Pool use the long diagonal as part of their system, which players use the tactic most often, and how it ties in to success. Taking all of the above into consideration, we can pick out a couple of key observations.

Blackpool’s mixed range of passing will be severely compromised if Charlie Adam leaves

Adam’s value to the team has never been questioned, and he is in all senses of the word a talisman for the team. He is also key to providing a combination of short and long passing that continues to cause problems for Premier League defences.

If Adam does move on, a significant aspect of ‘Pool’s tactical approach will be hampered. His existing under-study in the squad, Ludovic Sylvestre, has completed only two successful long diagonals in his six league appearances. It is unlikely Sylvestre can bring exactly what Adam does to the team, which may mean Holloway has to look to the transfer market for a like-for-like replacement.

Blackpool should look right more often

Given the left sided bias in the Seasiders’ attacks this season, Holloway should encourage his players to be more unpredictable by using the right flank more often. There are signs, however, that this is already beginning to happen. The emergence of Matt Phillips as a genuine option has seen ‘Pool use the right wing to a greater extent. For example, in the game at Eastlands where Phillips was introduced at half-time, six of the seven long diagonals that day were hit towards the right flank. As well as his pace, Phillips’ physical stature and fine first touch provides a better outlet for the long diagonal on this side of the pitch.

Blackpool should take more advantage of the wider pitches away from home

Away from the compact Bloomfield Road, Holloway’s side have been somewhat reluctant to make use of the long diagonal. Attacking on the counter into open spaces, the long diagonal could prove to be a potent weapon. However, the reduced usage of the long diagonal in away games could stem from a lack of freedom, and with less time on the ball it is more difficult to pick out the long diagonal.

Long diagonals are not the be-all and end-all

It is obviously a conscious tactic from Ian Holloway to implement the long diagonal, but success does not hinge on its use. Like any tactic in football, its effectiveness depends on a whole heap of other factors and quantity of long diagonals does not equate directly to points on the board, as the above table proves.

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The use of the long diagonal is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses, particularly if the worst does happen and Charlie Adam moves on this month. Blackpool are an open book when it comes to their attacking instincts, but the way they mix up their play with short and long passes is possibly one reason why the Seasiders haven’t yet been found out in the same way many other promoted teams sometimes are. At this point it would appear Ian Holloway’s best strategy for keeping Blackpool up is to carry on in the same vein, and as part of those tactics, that means the long diagonals ought to continue. Long live the long diagonal!

Seaside Strategy – West Bromwich Albion Away

Blackpool went into this game hot on the heels of Wednesday night’s memorable victory over Liverpool, but could not overcome a West Brom side in a rut of five consecutive defeats. The two promoted sides produced a thoroughly entertaining game of football, which could easily have seen the number of goals run into double figures. It was by no means a masterclass in defending, but the neutrals will certainly have gone away happy. As for the Seasiders, this was a case of costly errors at both ends which ultimately resulted in leaving the Hawthorns empty-handed.

Arguably the main culprit was DJ Campbell, who going into this match had been in sparkling form with five goals in his last five league outings. Crucial chances were missed at the start of both halves, with Campbell also spurning an opportunity for a late equaliser, with the resulting melee in the box going agonisingly wide. The chalkboard below highlights Campbell’s shots during the game.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

It is extremely uncommon for Campbell to squander so many chances inside the 18 yard box. This excellent piece from Tangerine Dreaming showed how all of Campbell’s goals last season in the Championship were scored from inside the area. Until recently, Campbell had not been afforded the luxury of chances from such close range, his first two Premier League goals coming from outside the box – against Newcastle and Aston Villa.
However, Campbell’s rich vein of form had seen him presented with opportunities in his typical scoring areas, many of which he duly grabbed. His goals against Stoke, Sunderland, Birmingham and Liverpool had all been scored from close quarters, and he will be disappointed not to have added to his tally on Saturday.
Could it be, however, that too much pressure had been brought to bear on Campbell? Before the match against Liverpool, the Seasiders had gone four league games with only Campbell getting on the scoresheet. Gary Taylor-Fletcher finally chipped in with an important equaliser and then followed this up with another equaliser at West Brom. The goals appeared to have dried up from Luke Varney though, and his performances too have not quite lived up to the standard he had set. To compare, see the chalkboard below of his passes in the fixtures against the Baggies and their Black Country rivals, Wolves.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Varney did admittedly only play 77 minutes at the Hawthorns, not the full 90 he did against Wolves, but even taking this into account the difference is significant. It is a pattern that is prevalent in many recent ‘Pool fixtures, and one not completely passing Holloway by as evidenced by his decision to substitute him in the last couple of games. Varney only made seven successful passes against West Brom, and only one in the second half before his eventual withdrawal.
When Varney is taken off, it is typically Brett Ormerod who assumes his role on the left of the front three, but it is widely accepted now that Ormerod’s impact is unfortunately not what it once was. If proof were needed that reinforcements are required in the transfer window, this is surely it. This is not to cast Varney aside, but merely highlights that when he is not performing, or needs a rest, there is nobody at the moment who can satisfactorily replace him. The potential arrival of Adam Hammill would provide much needed competition in this area.
I’ve chosen not to focus on the defensive performance, if only for the fact this blog post would be far too long. Needless to say, a few players had an off day, but when the back four have been performing so well all season, the odd poor performance can be excused. Craig Cathcart had barely put a foot wrong all season until Saturday, while Neal Eardley has been a revelation at right back. Knee-jerk reactions to these defensive lapses are unnecessary, and I don’t expect Ian Holloway will react with the same hysteria that some sections of the ‘Pool messageboards have. Blackpool now have a week until the next game, allowing Holloway to rest his players ahead of three consecutive home games. Four or more points from those will see ‘Pool bounce back in style.

Seaside Strategy – Liverpool Home

A fine performance and a victory that very much takes the pressure off after consecutive league defeats. Rearranged from Boxing Day, it was the first of three home games in hand against top teams, although Liverpool’s current state falls somewhat short of the other two, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Nevertheless, any side featuring so many internationals, including one of the world’s top strikers in Fernando Torres, are no mugs. Throw in the added Dalglish factor and it looked a tough game, one that looked tougher still after Torres struck early with a sublime finish. Blackpool came from behind however, for the first time this season, to claim a memorable double.

Two of the standout performers, as so often is the case, were Charlie Adam and David Vaughan. Adam dictated much of the play and made some notable driving runs, while Vaughan’s composure on the ball was yet again to be admired. Alongside those two in midfield was Elliot Grandin, who returned to the starting line up in place of Matt Phillips, the only change from last week’s league game against Birmingham City. I wrote last week about Blackpool’s surrendering of the midfield, so a fit-again Grandin in the side was a big boost.
As you can see from the above chalkboard, it is Grandin’s usage of the ball that helps keep Blackpool’s attacks ticking over, and was a major factor in an all-round improved performance. In his 62 minutes on the pitch, Grandin failed to misplace any of his 18 passes, an incredible 100% completion rate for anybody struggling with the maths. What the chalkboard does not show, however, are the occasions where Grandin lost the ball by at times overplaying. His tricks and flicks can entertain, and in the 55th minute allowed him to confuse his marker before setting up a shot for Adam which was well parried by Pepe Reina. That said, Ian Holloway will be looking for more consistency, as when things don’t quite come off, the ceding of possession can be dangerous.
As fatigue set in, only natural given his two week lay-off through injury, he was correctly withdrawn from the pitch by Holloway, but the manager will no doubt be encouraged by the return of the young Frenchman. There can be no doubt that when fit a midfield three of Adam, Vaughan and Grandin is the preferred option. Should Grandin fail to recover his fitness in time for the match at West Brom on Saturday, it will be interesting to see if Holloway opts for a flatter midfield three to include Ludovic Sylvestre (or Keith Southern), or once again use Gary Taylor Fletcher in the hole with Matt Phillips on the right.
Picking out one other player for chalkboard analysis, I’d like to take another look at Neal Eardley. In a season where so many players have shone, Eardley has been largely overlooked, but has been a revelation at right-back. That Alex Baptiste has failed to win back his place is testament to the performances from the Wales international. I last analysed Eardley’s contribution in the away draw at Bolton, when I made particular mention of Eardley’s use of the long diagonal, which you can see used to great effect once again on the below chalkboard.
In the next week, I’ll have a special piece on Blackpool’s use of the long diagonal, a feature that was spoken about at length in the post-match analysis by certain broadcasters, as well as by Holloway himself. That piece will highlight Eardley’s preference for the long diagonal, with the Liverpool game last night a prime example. Eardley hit this ball time after time to great success. In addition, his deep cross (a form of long diagonal) in the build-up to DJ Campbell’s winning goal picked out Ian Evatt brilliantly.
Eardley made good use of the ball all night, with an excellent 89% pass completion rate. This stat is even better when you consider that five of Eardley’s six misplaced passes were attempted clearances from ‘Pool’s own corner flag area, a region from which defenders cannot be expected to make pinpoint passes when clearing the danger is the priority. If Eardley continues to perform at such a high level, Baptiste may find he has to wait quite some time for his chance to come again.
As stated at the top of this piece, this was a massive win that relieves the pressure ahead of the journey to the Hawthorns at the weekend. A third league defeat in succession would have caused some angst among ‘Pool fans, with the game against the Baggies crucial. However, the bonus three points against Liverpool mean it isn’t quite the crunch game it could have been. Ian Holloway’s side now have a great chance of getting over the 30 point mark before the end of January, which would be a huge pyschological boost. If this could be achieved next time out, survival will almost be tangible.

Seaside Strategy – Birmingham City Home

If there was any ever doubt about how much tactics, and not just players, truly influence the outcome of a game, last night was a prime example. For the second time this season Birmingham manager Alex McLeish outwitted his opposite number and prevented Blackpool from playing their natural game. What is incredible is that it was all too predictable. So predictable in fact, that it is amazing that Ian Holloway didn’t do things differently.

Going back to the game at St. Andrews in October, Holloway is quoted as saying the following: 
“I have to go away and look at why we lost 2-0, but well done to Alex.
He is a smashing man. He got his tactics right and did me with his shape.

“I haven’t seen them play the way they did with the diamond. I thought that was very clever because all the space that we normally utilise very well we couldn’t on this occasion because Alex’s formation killed us a little bit.

“I knew they were a good side anyway but I’ve learned an awful lot from the day.”

So did he learn? Evidently not. Like the away game, Blackpool lined up with a formation that was almost 4-2-4, with Gary Taylor-Fletcher playing so far forward ‘Pool were overrun in midfield. Tangerine Dreaming’s excellent blog on the away fixture could virtually be reproduced to explain why Blackpool failed to win the midfield battle, with the formation diagram still valid, albeit with a couple of names on the teamsheet slightly different.
Holloway may defend his team selection by pointing out a lack of other options, and in his defence he’d possibly have a point. With Elliot Grandin injured and Ludovic Sylvestre’s match fitness in doubt, the only other out-and-out midfield option would have been Keith Southern. The former Everton trainee has yet to break into the side this season, initially due to injury. However, Holloway’s reluctance to select him when fit could intimate a worry about Southern’s ability to compete at this level – rumours of a January loan move might not be far off the mark after all.
Elsewhere, Matt Phillips finally got the starting place many had been clamouring for, this blog included. It’s fair to say though, that the youngster will have been disappointed not to have replicated his scintillating form shown when coming off the bench. Let’s take a look at his chalkboard:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The clear stats show that Phillips had an off day. Almost half of his passes went astray during his 71 minutes on the pitch as he frequently gave the ball away, often leading to a quick Birmingham counter-attack. Phillips also found Liam Ridgewell to be a tricky opponent, winning only one of his seven challenges. These challenges are classified in the stats as ‘take-ons’, and it was evident how often Phillips appeared to be running straight into his man. At his young age it is not a concern, and he will certainly improve with experience, but this display shows that not much pressure should be placed on his shoulders, and we can’t always expect him to skip past his marker with the ease he showed in the last game out at Eastlands.
A disappointing way to return to Bloomfield Road after 45 days without a home game, but it would be hard to claim the performance deserved anything more than a defeat, in spite of the improved second half showing. Aside from the aforementioned tactical issues, fatigue also seemed to play its part. ‘Pool have played fewer games during the last month than all of their rivals, but three games in a week looked to have taken its toll on certain players, and it was surprising that Holloway has made so few changes in this period after the Aston Villa situation in November.

Those changes are sure to come in the FA Cup match at Southampton, with Holloway’s first choice side likely to rest ahead of the home game with Liverpool next Wednesday. Whether any new signings will take to the field against a possibly Hodgson-less Liverpool remains to be seen. However, with the subs bench against Birmingham not quite as inspiring as one would like, Holloway is likely to be desperate to recruit new players as soon as possible.

Seaside Strategy – Manchester City Away

So the five game unbeaten streak was brought to an end at Eastlands, but it was a spirited display from Blackpool with yet more of the attacking flair making for an exciting spectacle. On the balance of play over the 90 minutes, City probably just deserved the three points, but their relief at the final whistle was telling – ‘Pool had given them a test. A single deflected goal from Adam Johnson was the difference and while City had chances to extend their lead, most notably from the spot kick which Carlos Tevez hit wide, two fine saves from Joe Hart ensured Blackpool went home pointless.

Ian Holloway was forced into one change from the side that faced Sunderland, with Charlie Adam coming back from suspension to replace the injured Elliot Grandin. This meant a three-man midfield of Adam, Ludovic Sylvestre and David Vaughan – only the second time these three have started a match together, the other being at Arsenal when Sylvestre had to make way for Dekel Keinan following Ian Evatt’s sending off. From a tactics point of view it was interesting to see if this would see a return to a more standard 4-3-3, or if one of the three would occupy Grandin’s slightly more advanced role. To help examine this, let’s take a look at Sylvestre’s chalkboard of passes from Saturday.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

In his 45 minutes on the pitch, Sylvestre only misplaced one of his 25 attempted passes – and that was a corner. His ball retention is excellent and it is easy to see why he had long been a target for Ian Holloway. This does however invite the question of why he was sacrificed for Matt Phillips at half-time. In the opening 20 minutes Sylvestre seemed to be occupying the ‘Grandin role’ and the majority of his passes during this period were in and around the edge of the City box in what was a strong spell of the match for the Seasiders. However, as the first half went on City began to assert their influence, pegging Sylvestre back deeper into his own half. Combined with a perceived lack of match fitness, Holloway may have decided that dropping Gary Taylor-Fletcher back into the hole and adding Phillips’ speed to the forward line was the best way of supporting ‘Pool in an attacking sense, in a bid to find the equaliser.
As the second half wore on, ‘Pool seemed to see more and more of the ball and began taking the game to their much richer opponents. Matt Phillips provided the spark of excitement, skinning Aleksandar Kolarov and then his replacement Pablo Zabaleta with his searing pace. Perhaps the key moment was the withdrawal of David Silva, as pinpointed by Man City blog The Lonesome Death of Roy Carroll. After Silva was substituted, ‘Pool enjoyed far more of the ball, with 126 successful passes to City’s 87, as shown on the chalkboard below.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Although Blackpool had more of the possession in the final half hour, the key difference between the sides was City’s ability to create clear-cut chances, where the Seasiders managed very few passes into dangerous areas, despite all their pressure. Only one successful pass was made to a Blackpool player in the City 18-yard box in the final half hour. Unlike in recent games, ‘Pool failed to find the right ball in the final third and for this reason they failed to score for the first time since their game against West Ham in mid-November.
As an overall team performance, it’s one to be proud of despite the scoreline. Manchester City are a very real challenger at the top of the table this season and to run them as close as we did was a real achievement. Unfortunately, this defeat means Man City are the first side to do the double over ‘Pool, when over the two games Holloway’s men can feel hard done by not to have taken anything off the Eastlands outfit. With the transfer window now open however, Holloway will surely look to add more attacking options to his squad to give an even sharper cutting edge when some of his frontmen do misfire.

Seaside Strategy – Sunderland Away

Much like Steve Bruce commented on in his post-match interview, I too felt from quite an early stage of this match that it was going to be Blackpool’s day. When Richard Kingson fumbled a shot around the post mid-way through the first half, it appeared than even when making defensive mistakes, the ball just was not going to hit the back of the Seasiders’ net. Fortune certainly played its part in ‘Pool’s fifth win of the season, but once more a steely grit about the way the side put their bodies on the line resulted in consecutive clean sheets on the road, and Blackpool’s first back-to-back victories this season.

Looking at the game from a stats point of view, Sunderland’s own back room staff had told Steve Bruce just before his interviews with the assembled media how many chances they had spurned, with 30 shots failing to yield a single goal.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Blackpool’s defence repelled a staggering 29 crosses into their box during the 90 minutes at the Stadium of Light, and those crosses that did find a Sunderland player were well dealt with by Kingson or wasted through poor finishing. ‘Pool’s two centre-backs, Ian Evatt and Craig Cathcart, have often had a tough job to do this season due to the attacking nature of Ian Holloway’s tactics, but it’s proved to be a fruitful partnership, with both men performing beyond expectations. 
Evatt is still disproving his lower league tag but is a player that typifies the attitude the Seasiders have. Cathcart meanwhile is a player that Sir Alex Ferguson may regret letting go, and looks a steal at £500,000. I actually thought Cathcart looked a little rusty and for the first time in a tangerine shirt made a couple errors that could have proved costly. In the end though, the rest of his performance more than made up for these and he and Evatt were rewarded with a clean sheet.
For all the praise from pundits about Blackpool being a ‘breath of fresh air’, many critics like to point out that the defence is somewhat leaky. It’s a theory I’ve never particularly bought into, and the stats largely back this up. ‘Pool have now kept five clean sheets (all away from home), a record which only seven teams can better. The heavy defeats against Arsenal and Chelsea can be viewed as anomalous results and when taken out of the equation paint a much brighter picture, with an average of 1.27 goals conceded per game. When you consider ‘Pool have played 11 of their 17 games away from home, it’s not such a bad record after all. Even if you take two clean sheets out of the average to balance things up, it produces an average goals conceded per game of 1.46, again not horrendous with such a skew of away fixtures.
Blackpool continue to surprise everyone but themselves, and with a trip to the City of Manchester Stadium up next, will hope their opponents in Sky Blue will underestimate them once more.

Seaside Strategy – Bolton Wanderers Away

A great point, all told, but disappointing not to claim all three points having led 2-0 with just 15 minutes to go. Bolton have proven on many occasions this season that they are not a team to be taken lightly and following their last home outing resulting in a 5-1 demolition of Newcastle, you’d have been hard pressed to find a ‘Pool fan unhappy with a draw at the Reebok. However, DJ Campbell’s missed chances with the score at 2-0 ended up costing the Seasiders the victory when it looked all but assured.

Moving away from the disappointment of not holding onto the win, it was a performance as good as any so far this campaign. For long spells Blackpool were rampant and only their profligacy in front of goal stopped them putting five or six past the Wanderers. Ian Holloway was rightly delighted with how his side played, but which players in particular should be picked out for individual praise? The excellent Zonal Marking highlighted Elliot Grandin’s corner delivery in his weekly article for the Guardian and this was surprising given Bolton’s perceived aerial strength, but credit must go to the management team for their work on the training ground. Scoring goals from set-pieces has not been a hallmark of Blackpool sides down the years, but if this pattern can be continued it bodes well for maintaining the good goalscoring record the Seasiders possess.
Elsewhere, I’d like to draw attention to the two full-backs, Neal Eardley and Stephen Crainey. After a rocky start to the season, Crainey has emerged as one of ‘Pool’s more consistent performers and against Bolton he put in another solid shift.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The chalkboards above demonstrate how Crainey made key contributions throughout the game. The Scotland international won all of his tackles in ‘Pool’s defensive third with particularly crucial challenges in and around Blackpool’s six yard box. Crainey also made three blocks in the same areas including one goalline clearance as Bolton went in search of the equaliser. I have already highlighted Crainey’s strength in going forward, and when you consider his influence at the back you would anticipate that he has fended off competition from David Carney, for the foreseeable future at least.
Turning attention towards the Seasiders’ current right-back, Neal Eardley has largely gone unnoticed. Stepping in for Alex Baptiste since the former Mansfield defender picked up an injury, Eardley has been ever-present (Villa away excepted) and appears to look more comfortable and confident with each appearance. In spite of this, he rarely seems to merit a mention in most post-match discussions. I have been guilty of this just as much as next man, so I’d like to take the overdue opportunity to look at his last couple of performances against Wolves and Bolton.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Eardley can find himself a little exposed at times due to ‘Pool’s attacking formation, but by and large he has acquitted himself very well. Matt Phillips started against Wolves and he tends to track back less than others, but under the tough examination of playing against Matt Jarvis, Eardley put in a respectable performance under difficult circumstances. With Gary Taylor-Fletcher back in the starting line-up at Bolton offering more protection in a defensive sense, this enabled Eardley to have one of his best games in a tangerine shirt. Eardley supported Blackpool’s attacks on several occasions.
Another aspect of Eardley’s game I’d like to bring up is the long diagonal to the left wing. This looks to be a tactic Holloway likes having employed it both last season and this, and Eardley has at times hit some sensational long passes to Luke Varney and Stephen Crainey. While not always successful, this tactic allows ‘Pool to use the full width of the pitch and has helped make Luke Varney such a dangerous threat.
‘Pool seem to have garnered a reputation for conceding goals, but both Neal Eardley and Stephen Crainey can be pleased with their performances to date this season. The formation employed gives them a lot to do both in a defensive and attacking role, but the pair seem to be adapting well to life in the Premier League. Crainey should be commended for stepping up despite having been written off at this level with former clubs, while Eardley has to be applauded for working his way firmly into Holloway’s plans. Coleman kept the Welshman out of the side last season, Baptiste began this season in the right-back berth and there was also the potential signing of Angel Rangel that fell through. If Holloway had doubts about Eardley, and the aforementioned situations point to this, the former Oldham man must have persuaded the manager that he can be counted upon.

Seaside Strategy – Wolverhampton Wanderers Home

Blackpool never make things easy – this we know – and so despite what for large parts of the game seemed a straight-forward victory, another late goal caused a panicky end to a match once more. It may not have been the most eye-pleasing of wins, but it was a vital three points over a side against whom ‘Pool are directly competing with this season. This result puts the Seasiders nine points ahead of both West Ham and Wolves, a sizeable cushion at this stage of the season. What about the performance though? Where did Ian Holloway’s side gets things right, and which areas need to be looked at for improvement?
With all the excitement we’ve had at Bloomfield Road so far this season, the first 45 minutes on Saturday was something of a letdown. It could easily be forgotten, given ‘Pool were 2-0 up and seemingly in command of the game, but of the two teams it was the visitors who saw more of the ball in the opening half. Luke Varney’s wonder strike should have given Blackpool the impetus to push on and stamp their authority on the game, but for most of the half it was one way traffic in favour of Wolves. The following chalkboard shows just how busy ‘Pool’s defence was.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Over the course of the 90 minutes, the Seasiders made an astonishing 42 successful clearances – the highest they’ve achieved all season. The game at Newcastle was a classic example of a rearguard action, but on Saturday the ‘Pool defence was tested more frequently than at St James’ Park. Ian Evatt and Craig Cathcart put in great performances once again, and were able to restrict Wolves to few clear-cut chances, despite their pressure. Of course while it’s easy to cite good defending, it’s also important to mention how Wolves clearly lacked the cutting edge to break down Blackpool. Richard Kingson had little to do, if anything, in the first half, but did make two good saves as Wolves looked slightly more dangerous after the break. Conceding the consolation goal was disappointing, and will frustrate the ‘Pool defence who had worked so hard to keep their opponents out – Kevin Doyle’s goal actually coming when Ian Evatt was sent from the pitch after receiving treatment, a rule that surely has to be looked at.
Why did ‘Pool struggle to get to grips with Wolves then? Mick McCarthy’s side are in an awful run of results, yet despite taking an early lead the Seasiders were outplayed for long spells. Looking at the team picked by Holloway, my instinct is to look at the inclusion of DJ Campbell in the hole ahead of Charlie Adam and David Vaughan and just behind the front three. Elliot Grandin and Gary Taylor-Fletcher have played this role this season with varying degrees of success, but how does DJ compare?

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The above chalkboard compares Campbell’s performance on Saturday against Grandin’s versus West Ham. I’ve opted to show only the first 59 minutes, as Grandin was then replaced by Matt Phillips at Upton Park. Campbell had little influence at Bloomfield Road, completing only nine successful passes in the first hour of the game, with no impact at all being made in the final third of the pitch. By contrast Grandin looked to have a far bigger role last week, yet this didn’t appear to be enough to satisfy Holloway, who took him off and replaced him with Phillips. This reinforces the view that Campbell is a favourite of Holloway and perhaps ‘undroppable’ – ignoring the unusual selection at Villa Park. Campbell’s presence in the side allowed Wolves to take control of the midfield, and this will perhaps persuade Holloway to bring back Grandin, or tweak his formation slightly to include Ludo Sylvestre or Keith Southern.
Regardless of the performance though, the three points are worth their weight in gold. ‘Pool go into a tricky run of fixtures from now until the end of the calendar year, where points could be at a premium. Holloway will be hoping his defence can continue to perform at their current high level, but has plenty to think about with his more attacking options.

Seaside Strategy – West Ham United Away

Quite how this game finished 0-0 is hard to comprehend for anyone who witnessed it, but in the end a point each was probably fair. Both teams will argue they could have won it, and Blackpool did have the better chances (plus the wrongly-disallowed Harewood goal) but a share of the spoils away from home anywhere this season has to be a respectable outcome. What do the stats tell us about the game?

I decided to do something a little different this week, and take a look at how some of ‘Pool’s attacks developed at the weekend, using the match action tool on ESPN Soccernet. In possibly the most exciting 0-0 draw Blackpool will be involved in for years to come, one aspect of the game was just how end-to-end it was, both teams attacking with pace, taking it in turns to have their go. I’ve hand picked three chances during the game.

Grandin chance – 7th minute (click for large version)
The first example I’ve picked out was Elliot Grandin’s missed chance after seven minutes of the game. Neal Eardley starts off the move at right back, but it’s worth noting how the midfield three of Grandin, Charlie Adam and David Vaughan move up the pitch together at the heart of this attack. Ian Holloway stated in his post-match interviews that the reason Ludovic Sylvestre has yet to break into the team is down to how well those three have gelled, and the above diagram is testament to this. While Grandin has shown flashes of brilliances since signing, some have questioned his end product. In this instance he has done well to get in a forward positions but not for the first time his finishing let him down, making only minimal contact with his head, glancing it well wide. The 11 pass move deserved better, but was a sign of things to come for ‘Pool breaking quickly.
Eardley chance – 33rd minute (click for large version)
This chance involved one fewer pass – 10 overall – and had the ball dropped to a striker rather than Neal Eardley, the deadlock could have been broken. It does help highlight the improvement in Eardley’s game this season however. His long diagonal to the left is one pass in his playbook that he often favours, and the pass early in this move to Crainey is indicative of this. Eardley is also learning to get forward to support Blackpool’s attacks, and he’ll hope to add to his goal against Everton as more opportunities will surely come his way. See also how DJ Campbell was involved in the link up play, not only on this chance on two occasions, but also during Grandin’s early chance. Campbell had few chances himself, but still contributed elsewhere.
Taylor-Fletcher chance 74th minute (click for large version)

The glaring miss from Gary Taylor-Fletcher comprised only three passes in the build up, but came at a time when both teams were stretched going for the win. As the space opened up, the chances became ever more regular. With more gaps to exploit, it became possible to break forward within a matter of seconds, as was the case for GTF’s glorious chance. David Vaughan, as he often does, broke up an opposition attack before neatly starting a ‘Pool attack. Matt Phillips, on at this point for Grandin, popped up on the left hand side and calmly clipped in an inviting cross and…well, we all know the rest.

All the above diagrams do nothing to dispel the theory that Blackpool favour attacking down the left – Marlon Harewood’s sitter also came from the left, created by Luke Varney who received a long ball from Charlie Adam. The first two diagrams will certainly please Ian Holloway – they both demonstrate a willingness to progress up the pitch with a mix of short and long passes – and there were plenty of other examples of this I could have called upon. From the other side of things though, West Ham also carved out a number of opportunities where they quickly broke from their own box to have a shooting chance mere seconds later.

Next week I’ll hopefully be back to the more familiar Guardian Chalkboards when analysing the crucial match at home to Wolves. As Tangerine Dreaming mentioned in their match review, the game at the Boleyn Ground was a difficult one to analyse from the stats, given the frantic end-to-end nature of the match. I’m hoping I can fall back on the chalkboards next week for a more traditional review of ‘Pool’s tactics.

Seaside Strategy – Aston Villa Away

With all the hoo-hah about team selection hopefully behind us, I’d like to take a look at how some of the fringe players performed, and whether it’s possible for them to oust their teammates on a more regular basis.
Three players who had perhaps been closest to breaking into the starting XI prior to the game at Villa Park were David Carney, Ludovic Sylvestre and Matt Phillips. Did they put in a good enough shift to warrant keeping their places for the game against West Ham tomorrow, or are they likely to be back on the bench in another all-change approach from Ian Holloway?
In order to compare performances, I have used statistics from those who they replaced from the Manchester City game – that match also ending 3-2 being possibly the most suitable comparison.
Looking at Carney first, can he hope to keep Stephen Crainey out of the side? Crainey has drawn criticism for some of his performances this season, most noticeably away at Arsenal, but more often than not he has bounced back with a solid performance, making it hard for Holloway to drop him. Carney was brought in on deadline day as back-up for Crainey, but despite his experience with the Australian national side, has had to bide his time.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The easiest thing to notice is just how much further up the pitch Crainey plays. Not only that, but Crainey also tries to contribute with assists, providing crosses on a number of occasions, while Carney failed to make one cross all game – his only passes into the Villa box coming from corners. This is fairly surprising, as Carney has played large spells of his career as a midfielder, giving the expectation that he would get forward more often than he did at Villa Park.
What, then, of Ludovic Sylvestre? I’ve chosen to compare his statistics against those of Charlie Adam. With Adam’s future at Blackpool in doubt beyond January, many will be hoping that the former Barcelona trainee can step into his shoes. Sylvestre’s performance was one of the highlights against Aston Villa, as he looked composed in possession and moved the ball neatly. He did tire as the game wore on, being visibly slow to track back in the latter stages, but that is only to be expected with so few first team minutes under his belt. What do the stats say about Sylvestre though? Can he hold a torch to Adam?

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Sylvestre made a particularly large number of passes, completing 61 of them successfully. In terms of sheer quantity, few Blackpool players have made quite so many passes in a single game this campaign. What about the quality of these passes though? Where Adam holds the advantage over Sylvestre is the areas in which he sees the ball. Adam’s role is slightly higher up the pitch and thus taking up more dangerous positions in an attacking sense. Sylvestre looks to keep the ball ticking over nicely, but whether he offers the same drive as the ‘Pool skipper remains to be seen.
Last, but not least, let’s take a look at the star man from Wednesday night’s game, Matt Phillips. When he signed from Wycombe in August, I expected he would be a peripheral figure for much of this season – one for the future, if you like. Even his cameo appearances have caught the eye, including his memorable goal against Blackburn, which should have been enough to earn ‘Pool a point. A starting place was long overdue, and nobody took their chance more so than Phillips. For many, he was the most exciting player on the pitch, and of the 10 changes, he is possibly the candidate most likely to stay in the side tomorrow at Upton Park.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Comparing his performance to Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s against Man City, you can see how Phillips helped give the Seasiders real width. Whereas GTF has a tendency to drift towards the centre of the pitch, Phillips ran at the full-back time and time again. He briefly switched to the left at one point in the first half, but even then he kept wide, rarely coming inside and making the ‘Pool attack narrow. Perhaps most impressive was Phillips determination to get to the byline and deliver a cross. He created a number of chances doing this, which with some better finishing from Marlon Harewood, could have resulted in a more positive result. How long Phillips can maintain the high standards he has set himself is uncertain, but he is already establishing himself as a player of real quality.
Looking forward to tomorrow, Holloway has to decide which players come back in, and which ones drop out. I doubt there’ll be another 10 changes, but you have to wonder if Carney and Sylvestre have done enough to keep out Crainey and Adam. Only fatigue or injury is likely to prevent Matt Phillips adding to his first Premier League start, and I’m hoping I’ll have plenty more to write about the highly-exciting prospect after the game against West Ham.