Category: Tactical Insights

Seaside Strategy – Aston Villa Home

Aston Villa threatened to blow Blackpool away early on in this encounter, but in a game that ebbed and flowed a share of the spoils was probably what both sides deserved. Villa threatened often with their lightning pace on the break, but ‘Pool may be a little disappointed that they were unable to break Villa’s resolve, especially after they were reduced to ten men with the dismissal of Jean Makoun. The Seasiders grew stronger as the game went on, but ultimately never looked like finding the elusive winning goal.

In terms of how the two teams lined up, it was a meeting of minds with the two managers fielding similar 4-2-1-3 systems. After a tough couple of weeks for Neal Eardley, Alex Baptiste was moved to right back with the fit-again Craig Cathcart partnering Ian Evatt in the heart of the ‘Pool defence. Elsewhere Ian Holloway freshened up his attack bringing back Luke Varney and Marlon Harewood in favour of the two new signings Jason Puncheon and James Beattie.
The average formation position diagram below sheds some light on how well the two teams kept to their respective systems.

Blackpool’s average position chart is fairly standard, with perhaps only Luke Varney (16) not quite where you’d expect him to be. Varney’s performance was an improvement on the ones that led to him being rested, but still wasn’t at the level we saw earlier in the season – Holloway would surely like to see him higher up the pitch. Varney will also be disappointed with his header wide shortly after Blackpool’s equaliser. Varney’s average position may be explained partly however by the necessity to help our David Carney (29), who was often caught out of position early on.
The chart above also shows the pressure ‘Pool’s full-backs had to endure, Gabriel Agbonlahor (11) and Stewart Downing (6) pushing right up. With Ashley Young (7) roaming in the hole behind Darren Bent (39, hidden behind Ashley Young on the diagram) the Blackpool defence had their work cut out, but can take heart from how they did adapt to largely nullify this threat in the second half.

For the first 20 minutes though, Blackpool were being cut open, despite the equaliser from Elliot Grandin and Varney’s near miss at the other end. Villa’s main tactic was to get the ball wide to Agbonlahor and Downing (and also Young, occupying the ‘central winger’ role) and attack at pace. The chalkboard below illustrates this point, with Aston Villa’s passes for the first 20 minutes on the top chalkboard, and Blackpool’s passes on the lower chalkboard.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

In contrast to Villa’s use of width on both flanks, ‘Pool appeared to focus solely on the right in the opening stages of the first half, with Carney and Varney seeing very little of the ball.  The Blackpool full-backs Baptiste and Carney both found themselves overrun in this period, with Baptiste out of position for Agbonlahor’s goal. Villa also had more of the possession in this spell, managing 69 successful passes to ‘Pool’s 47. Fortunately ‘Pool did finally settle down and began to assert their influence on the game, but were grateful for a Richard Kingson save from Downing as well as the upright which the former Middlesbrough man shaved with a separate strike from outside the area on 31 minutes.
After the break it was the Seasiders who took hold of proceedings, having the better of the possession and the goalmouth action. Blackpool completed 148 passes to Villa’s 86, but it was in the shots department where the difference was most obvious. As the chalkboard below shows, ‘Pool managed 13 shots in the second half, with only two from the visiting side.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The telling statistic gleaned from the above however, is that Blackpool failed to force Brad Friedel into a save, not managing to find the target with any of their 13 attempts. Very few of these shots can be classified as clear-cut chances however, as the resolute Villa backline restricted ‘Pool to shots from distance and on other occasions put their bodies on the line to block several attempts. Also visible on the chalkboard is the weekly halfway line attempt from Charlie Adam. It has been said many times that “one of these weeks it’ll come off”, but I’m far from convinced. On this effort Adam surrendered a chance to break in a 3-on-3 situation to indulge in his speculative attempt – Holloway appeared less than impressed with his captain.
The red card for Jean Makoun for his two-footed lunge on DJ Campbell once more changed the flow of the game. As already noted by Tangerine Dreaming, this saw Villa revert to a 4-4-1 formation, packing defence and midfield, soaking up the pressure, and using pace to hit on the counter. Blackpool have displayed their inability to shut up shop with eleven men on numerous occasions this season, but this was a shining example of how to do it, even with the numerical disadvantage. The chalkboard below shows Aston Villa’s duels following Makoun’s dismissal.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Villa won 20 of their 32 duels after the 70 minute mark, but significantly won almost every tackle in the defensive quarter of the pitch. James Collins in particular was in imperious form, and breaking down the Villa defence proved too difficult a task for a tiring Blackpool. Despite being down to 10 men Villa could have even stolen all three points, looking dangerous when counter-attacking. Whether Holloway might have had more joy from deploying Beattie towards the end remains to be seen, but a final front three of Campbell, Puncheon and Matt Phillips failed to make the crucial breakthrough.
On the back of five straight defeats, it was important to get something from this game, but it’s hard not to feel like it was an opportunity missed when playing against 10 men for the final 20 minutes. It was however a performance full of spirit and on another day this Blackpool side would have let slip a late goal. Holloway’s side now have over a week to rest ahead of another home game, this time entertaining Spurs. As the last remaining game in hand, anything from this fixture would be a big boost for the rest of the run-in.
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Seaside Strategy – Everton Away

An all-action eight goal thriller. Blackpool continue to provide more bang than their buck in the entertainment stakes, but it’s hard not to yearn for a scrappy 1-0 win. ‘Pool slid to their fifth consecutive defeat at Goodison Park and while Ian Holloway’s men continue to rack up the goals, a defence leakier than the Welsh national emblem means survival is starting to look trickier by the week. The Seasiders bounced back from poor first half performance to take a stunning 3-2 lead, only to collapse under the weight of endless Everton pressure.

Blackpool endured a tough opening 45 minutes and were highly fortunate to go in at half-time with the scores level at 1-1. Everton were rightly furious at the decision to blow for a foul on Seamus Coleman just before half-time, seconds before Louis Saha went on to bag what should have been his second goal of the game. Tangerine Dreaming has identified Marouane Fellaini’s impact in stifling ‘Pool’s midfield in the first half, in particular Charlie Adam. 
What else caused the Seasiders to struggle though? The chalkboard below compares the number of successful passes in the first half at Goodison Park against those made in the previous match versus West Ham.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

By all accounts it was hardly a scintillating first half against the Hammers last week, but the number of successful passes still dwarves the figure from Saturday’s game. ‘Pool only completed 114 passes in the opening 45 minutes, a startlingly low figure. A failure to hold onto the ball and make it work for them handed the initiative to the Toffees who exploited Blackpool’s defensive frailties on numerous occasions. 
Nowhere is this issue more pronounced than in an examination of Paul Rachubka’s chalkboard below.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

For many, the return of Rachukba between the sticks was a welcome sight, following a string of error’s from Richard Kingson. However, while none of Everton’s five goals can be directly attributed to Rachubka, Holloway must be concerned with his distribution. The USA born goalkeeper managed to find a tangerine (or white, in this instance) shirt only four times out of 21 attempts  in the first half – a woeful 19% completion rate. Also noticeable is Rachubka’s failure to play the short ball even once. 
A key facet of Holloway’s system has been to play the ball out from the back, but by opting to go long so frequently, ‘Pool gave the ball away cheaply. In the second half Rachubka managed a more respectable 50% pass completion rate, but still opted to go long more often than not. Rachubka may be less accident prone than his Ghanaian counterpart, but unless Holloway can train his number 1 (in squad number terms) to make the angle for the short ball, he may quickly find himself back watching from the sidelines.
Blackpool suffered an early set-back almost immediately after the break, but thereafter enjoyed their best spell of the game. Elliot Grandin and Jason Puncheon began to combine well, with Blackpool’s counter-attacks testing, and overcoming, Everton’s defence. Holloway now has a variety of forward options and Puncheon impressed on his debut, getting into dangerous forward positions and causing problems with his pace.
At 3-2, the momentum was with Blackpool, but the scoreline presented Holloway with a dilemma. So often ‘Pool have forfeited winning positions, with different strategies all failing at various times. Against Man Utd, Holloway sought to continue to attack, throwing on both Matt Phillips and Marlon Harewood. As we all know, that strategy backfired as the team from Salford turned the game on its head with three quick goals. Holloway tried to emulate the win over Everton’s city rivals by packing the defence and midfield, but as Tangerine Dreaming points out, it resulted in handing Everton the advantage – Pool’s defence was at sixes and sevens despite their superior numbers. 
It is a decision easy to criticise in hindsight, and one Holloway must surely regret. Positive changes, or even keeping things as they were could have seen ‘Pool return with at least a share of the points, if not all three, but ultimately defensive lapses have cost the Seasiders again. There are enough positive signs in Blackpool’s attacking ability to retain hope, but the failure to strengthen the defence despite Dekel Keinan’s departure could come back to haunt the Seasiders.

Seaside Strategy – West Ham United Home

It had been billed in some quarters as a ‘must-win’ game, and while not quite that crucial, the home defeat to West Ham last night is a major set-back. With four straight defeats, three of those at Bloomfield Road, ‘Pool now find themselves unerringly close to the bottom three. A win would have seen the Seasiders go 10 points clear of West Ham, instead of the four point gap that now exists. It’s nothing to be ashamed of necessarily – after all some pundits would have had you believe ‘Pool would have been all but relegated by this point – but from what appeared to be building up to a comfortable mid-table finish, Ian Holloway’s men are now in a relegation fight.
There are a number of reasons for last night’s defeat, but an absence of luck probably isn’t one of them. Questionable team selection, poor individual performances and sloppy mistakes resulted in a first half as bad as any witnessed on the Fylde coast this season. Holloway made two changes from the team that tested Manchester United to the limit last week, the casualties being Elliot Grandin and Ian Evatt. David Carney and new signing Andy Reid were the beneficiaries, but the decision to drop Evatt, thus unsettling the defence, seemed to spectacularly backfire. 
The return of Carney was to be expected, with Alex Baptiste the square peg in a round hole at left-back when the side from Old Trafford were the visitors. Evatt however has been a lynchpin of ‘Pool’s backline, and aside from being caught out at the Emirates has excelled despite the step-up to the Premier League. Rumours of off-field antics could explain Evatt being dropped, but it meant a defensive unit that looked like strangers. In addition to Reid not quite being a like-for-like replacement for Elliot Grandin (as highlighted by Tangerine Dreaming), Blackpool were unbalanced.
The diagrams below show the average positions of the Blackpool and West Ham players and display a stark contrast.

Where the Hammers set-up offers clarity, ostensibly a rigid 4-4-2, the average positions of the Blackpool players helps identify why the Seasiders struggled to match their opponents from East London. Neal Eardley (5) is horribly exposed, and would explain why Victor Obinna (33) gave him such a hard time. Eardley typically relies on support from Gary Taylor-Fletcher (12, hidden behind 44, Beattie) and the absent Grandin. On Wednesday night Taylor-Fletcher was often found drifting inside, while Reid (43) as a left-footer did not give the former Oldham right-back adequate protection.
The average position map also shows a severe lack of width to Blackpool’s attacking play. Luke Varney (16), whose form has worryingly nosedived in recent weeks (highlighted in my West Brom review), failed to get into his usual positions out wide high up the pitch with Carney (29) playing just as high up as his sound-alike teammate. Equally Taylor-Fletcher did not provide any sort of width on the right, nullifying ‘Pool’s usage of those famous long diagonals.
Referring again to Tangerine Dreaming, the Guardian chalkboard of Blackpool’s passes from open play highlight the lack of width to the Seasiders’ performance, with Tangerine Dreaming citing Carney’s lack of adventure in getting forward as another explanation. In terms of the formation and the roles of players filling in for regular members of the team, Holloway has some work to do on the training ground.
Despite the poor first half performance, ‘Pool did not throw in the towel and sought to take the game to West Ham after the break. Attacking changes were made on hour mark in the form of Marlon Harewood and a debut for James Beattie, replacing the tiring Reid and disappointing Varney. This naturally resulted in a more basic gameplan – Blackpool being more direct with big targetmen to aim for. In terms of sheer numbers, this saw ‘Pool have 12 shots to West Ham’s two, as shown by the diagram below.

Despite the quantity of shots, in terms of clear-cut chances ‘Pool had very few, rarely testing Rob Green in the West Ham goal. The closest the Seasiders came was Eardley’s free-kick, other chances being speculative shots from distance or goalmouth scrambles. For all Blackpool’s pressure, they lacked the creativity in the final third to break down a resolute West Ham defence. To witness just how well the Hammers defended, one need only look at the number of second half clearances made by Avram Grant’s side.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

An incredible 26 successful clearances were made in the final 45 minutes, with a further 13 attempted. West Ham don’t do anything spectacular in terms of tactics, but Grant clearly had them well-drilled, which when combined with superb individual performances from the likes of Obinna, made them very effective. The Hammers were good value for their three points and few Blackpool fans would have gone home feeling hard done to.
Blackpool move onto Goodison Park on Saturday and Holloway will be eager to halt the slide. This result however is sure to give him a selection headache against Everton, and I for one wouldn’t care to predict what the starting line-up will be on Saturday. Changes do need to be made however, Varney and Richard Kingson two names that instantly spring to mind. Kingson’s errors are beginning to add up and are proving costly. As for Varney, he is vulnerable with the increase in attacking options at Holloway’s disposal. Another game coming around so quickly is possibly the best thing, as it shouldn’t allow the negativity following this defeat to linger. A positive result there would quickly dispel the nervousness that is beginning to creep in.

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.