Category: Tactical Insights

Seaside Strategy – Everton Home

The sole change to the Seasiders starting XI was to give Keith Southern his first Premier League start. It was a change I anticipated for the West Brom game, as I blogged about following the defeat at Birmingham. Despite notching up the first home win of the season against the Baggies, Ian Holloway opted to change a winning team to play Southern from the start. It was perhaps unexpected, but nonetheless deserved for a player who down the years has epitomised the team spirit which has proved so successful for ‘Pool. So was it an effective change, or did it restrict Blackpool’s attacking impetus?
The common consensus appears to suggest the latter, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Although ‘Pool took the lead through Neal Eardley’s free-kick, the first half very much belonged to Everton, who arguably would have been disappointed to go into the break on level terms. The Toffees caused ‘Pool countless problems, with former loan man Seamus Coleman one of the main protagonists. On the opposite flank, Leighton Baines showed why he has flirted with the national team, spending most of the half occupying the left wing and looking assured on the ball.
The second half was a vast improvement from the Seasiders’ point of view however, and when Southern was replaced by Phillips, ‘Pool showed their attacking prowess in an end-to-end 45 minutes. With the man in the hole behind the front three – initially Gary Taylor-Fletcher, then Grandin when he entered the proceedings – there were stronger signs of link-up play between midfield and attack, which had perhaps been lacking with last season’s traditional three-man midfield on the pitch.
Analysing Southern’s contribution on a micro-level, I won’t bother with chalkboards of his tackles and interceptions, purely because there were so few of them. Amazingly, for someone who is often thought of as a combative midfielder, Southern failed to make a single tackle during his time on the pitch, and his sole interception came in the first minute of the match. It’s easy to see why Holloway opted to pick Southern as Everton often pack the midfield with bodies, so Southern would have been in there to try and break things up. For some reason though, that never materialised. That’s not to say Southern’s contribution was a complete loss however. Looking at the chalkboard below you can see that Southern did not misplace a single pass in his 62 minutes on the pitch, managing 100% pass accuracy.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

22 passes seems on first glance like a rather low amount, but it compares favourably with Charlie Adam’s 28 successful passes and David Vaughan’s 26, given Southern spent the final third of the game sat watching from the bench. It’s hard to know quite where Southern lies in Holloway’s mind though, and whether he will stick with a 4-3-3 for the forthcoming matches, or whether he will return to the 4-2-1-3 which has been so effective for the Seasiders this campaign. Southern should not be cast aside based on this one performance however. He clearly deserves a run of games at some point, and with talk of resting certain players in the manager’s post-match interview, Southern could feature several more times in the next few weeks.
Away from Southern’s impact, what other conclusions can we draw from the cold numbers? One area highlighted by Zonal Marking and Tangerine Dreaming last week was the significant left-sided imbalance to ‘Pool’s play. Looking at all Blackpool’s passes yesterday, the pattern is one of symmetry rather than the lop-sided chalkboards of recent weeks.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

One has to think that this must have been a deliberate plan from Holloway, as ‘Pool’s left-sided emphasis has surely not gone unnoticed by rival managers. The addition of Keith Southern to the starting line-up is likely one contributing factor in this. Both Adam and Vaughan favour their left foot and perhaps it is no surprise that more use is made of the left flank, but with Southern adding more balance to the midfield, there was more incentive to move the ball both ways.
However, even if Southern does not retain his place, I suspect that we will see more focus down the right in future games. With Taylor-Fletcher’s form wavering, and Matt Phillips’ contributions from the bench continuing to impress, it is surely only a matter of time before the former Wycombe man gets his chance. The direct nature of his game, and the raw pace he possesses make him an ideal outlet down the right to give opposing sides problems down both wings. I’ll be taking a closer look at potential team changes, including a first start for Phillips, in the next day or two.

Seaside Strategy – West Bromwich Albion Home

Well, where do you start with this one? The adverse weather conditions, not to mention the two red cards, made for an unusual game, and one that’s hard to read too much into in terms learning lessons for the rest of the season. Such bizarre circumstances are unlikely to be repeated for quite some time and so judging the Seasiders on this performance probably isn’t fair. However, I would like to take the opportunity to examine how ‘Pool made it hard for themselves, and how they nearly allowed a spirited West Brom side to claim an unlikely point.
After the first sending off, Blackpool seemed to respond well, and at this point there was no sign of the panic that would later ensue. Until the half hour mark ‘Pool did well to keep possession, neatly moving the ball around making West Brom chase the game. During this period, it looked as if the three points were safe and we were all in for a comfortable evening. At one point the Sky Sports statistics showed Blackpool having a 10 minute spell with a massive 81% of the possession. As you can see from the chalkboard below, ‘Pool misplaced only nine passes of the 157 attempted in the opening 30 minutes.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

However, with the second red card of the match on the half hour mark following a reckless challenge from Gonzalo Jara, the Seasiders seemed to go to pieces. It was West Brom who finished the half stronger, carving out a couple of good chances on the break in spite of their reduced numbers. Rather than sticking to their usual game, the 11 in tangerine lacked the patience to unlock the Baggies’ defence, often rushing the final ball rather than working the space, tiring Albion out, until a better opportunity presented itself.
Although ‘Pool began the second half with a high tempo, the nerves continued with the failure to double the scoreline, prompting Holloway to make two curious substitutions. Neal Eardley and Craig Cathcart, the latter through a suspected injury, were taken off and replaced by Matt Phillips and David Carney. While obviously designed to go for the goals to kill of the game, this resulted in an unfamiliar back four. From what we’ve seen so far, Phillips is too attack-minded to be a natural full back, with Carney regularly having played midfield too. Stephen Crainey as a makeshift centre back was arguably the oddest change, especially with Dekel Keinan on the bench. Crainey has excelled going forward this season, so I was surprised that Holloway deemed it necessary to throw Carney on at that point rather than allow Crainey to drive forward on the left.
Nevertheless, these changes allowed West Brom to cause problems on the break, which was almost a gamble too far. As one of the only two out and out defenders on the pitch, you’d have expected Ian Evatt to sit and protect, but even in this all-out attack formation, Evatt continued to surge forward, as is his wont. Evatt’s Beckenbauer-esque runs have been a sign of the team’s bravery, but also portray a vulnerability. West Brom showed that even when down to nine men, counter-attacks can be launched in an instant, and with ‘Pool’s back four playing such advanced roles, it gave the Baggies to cause a number of heart-in-mouth moments for the nervous tangerine faithful.
As evidenced by the chalkboard below, Evatt could often be found on the left wing in the second half, which often left you wondering who exactly was doing the defending.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

After getting the second goal, it should have been plain sailing through to the end, and the decision to bring on Dekel Keinan should have restored some normality to the Seasiders’ defence, but still the never-say-die attitude of West Brom continued to cause concern as they did pull one back with five minutes to go. A heart-stopping finale could have seen goals at both ends, but a combination of poor finishing from ‘Pool and some fortunate defending at the other end finally saw the points secured.
Far be it from me to criticise the attacking philosophy Holloway has set out, but this appeared to be one occasion which warranted a little more calm. Unsettled already by playing against nine men, some of the changes made caused more uncertainty in the shape of the side, when a more regular approach would surely have made the two man advantage more effective. For example, giving Phillips a purely attacking role would appeared to have been a better option, rather than compromising his ability with a need to track back.
Ultimately the home win was the important outcome regardless of how it came. ‘Pool have long been overdue an ugly win, and so the good fortune was perhaps deserved this time around. Let’s just hope that’s not the last bit of luck we have for a while, because we certainly used up a lot in one go.

4-2-1-3, 4-3-3 or Something Else?

Last season the 4-3-3 formation employed by Ian Holloway was a revelation. Most teams faced in the Championship lined up in the traditional, if rapidly unfashionable, 4-4-2. While it took some time to get used to, once the players were familiar with the system most opponents struggled to cope with the way in which ‘Pool attacked and the end of season form helped propel the Seasiders into the Premier League.
Despite the success under this system, Holloway opted to tweak the formation and instead play a 4-2-1-3 for the opening game at Wigan, sticking with this formation for every game aside from the failed experiment at Chelsea. This was perhaps forced due to Keith Southern’s injury ruling him out of the first four weeks of the season – it’s hard to imagine that Southern would have been dropped for Elliot Grandin if he had been fit.
Grandin has since dropped out of the side periodically however, with Southern yet to start in the Premier League. With the former Marseille player benched, it has been down to Gary Taylor-Fletcher to occupy the role behind the front three on two occasions, with little success – both games ended in defeat, to Blackburn and Birmingham respectively. Taylor-Fletcher has handled the step up to the top flight very well in my opinion, but has been noticeably less effective when playing in the more withdrawn role.
Below you can see how ‘Pool lined up against Birmingham on Saturday.

 
As I wrote on Sunday, Marlon Harewood struggled out on the right, with the side often being overrun when defending. Following two disappointing results, it appears likely that Holloway may now choose to change not only personnel, but the system too. Ian Holloway has come out and said that different players may be given a chance, mentioning Southern and Ludovic Sylvestre among others. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a place in the starting XI for Southern or Sylvestre would mean a different formation, as neither David Vaughan nor Charlie Adam are likely to be dropped.
See the below diagram for how I expect Holloway to set out his side against West Brom.
It seems inevitable that Keith Southern will now get his first Premier League start and I can see him being reunited with his midfield partners from last season, Vaughan and Adam. The extra bite that Southern offers may be what the Seasiders require to be more combative on their own pitch. Elsewhere, following impressive cameos from the subs’ bench, Matt Phillips could well earn his first start. Phillips’ defensive awareness might not be the best just yet, but with Southern tucked in midfield giving the ‘Pool backline more protection, it will give Phillips more licence to do what he does best…attack. With a wealth of attacking options at his disposal, Harewood may have to settle for a place on the bench after his disappointing display at St. Andrews, while Luke Varney’s strong run in the side may come to an end. DJ Campbell is hard to drop, despite his mini goal drought, and Taylor-Fletcher would be the sole aerial outlet in the above scenario.
Then again, Holloway could throw us all a complete curveball. The manager has done it before, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him again. Sylvestre, Chris Basham and David Carney have all been unlucky not to make an impact since their arrival, and with the promise of changes from Holloway, it may be their chance to shine. Similarly, Dekel Keinan was probably unlucky to be dropped after his performance at Anfield. So many options…who’d be a manager?

Seaside Strategy – Birmingham City Away

It only takes a cursory glance of the message boards to see that Ian Holloway has drawn criticism for his team selection, dropping Elliot Grandin for Marlon Harewood. In typical online fashion, the reaction was over the top, but the performance was way below par. In his defence, Holloway wasn’t afraid to admit that he had to take responsibility for the way Blackpool were set up. Birmingham never let the Seasiders settle and choked the space that ‘Pool have become accustomed to having this season.
Even the heavy defeats at Arsenal and Chelsea were not a total loss in performance terms. At the Emirates Blackpool started strongly, and until the sending off / penalty, had matched Arsenal and were unlucky not to be level. At Stamford Bridge ‘Pool did not let their heads drop despite the 4-0 half-time scoreline and delivered a sterling second half performance to walk away from the champions’ backyard with some pride intact. It’s hard to take any positives at all from yesterday’s game at St. Andrews however, in what was arguably the worst performance in over six months.
The decision to employ Harewood on the right of the three-pronged attack is surely one Holloway will be rueing. One gets the feeling that like Ben Burgess last season, if Harewood is to play it should only be at the centre of the attack. Neither players are mobile enough to fulfil the demanding wide role and it is to be hoped it is a lesson learnt for the manager. I feel Harewood will have a lot to offer this season, but if he is misused, he will quickly develop as a target for the ‘boo boys’, for want of a better term. As it is, Harewood’s selection left ‘Pool’s right side exposed, particularly in the first half. The main benefactor was Birmingham’s left-back Liam Ridgewell, as shown by the chalkboard below.

Time and time again Ridgewell found himself in acres of space, and Blackpool made him look like Ashley Cole who terrorised Neal Eardley a few weeks ago. Perhaps the comparison to Cole is going slightly overboard, but Ridgewell was given licence to act almost as a left winger, not helped by Harewood’s inability to track back. ‘Pool’s ultimate downfall came from sloppy defending at set-pieces, but with a better final ball, Ridgewell could have put the Seasiders to the sword in the first half.
Changes are bound to made for the visit of West Brom to Bloomfield Road a week tomorrow, and Harewood is most likely to find himself dropped to the bench, having incredibly completed only four successful passes during his time on the pitch. Another potential casualty is Luke Varney. While appearing to be full of more vigour and energy than Harewood, the on-loan Derby man only managed five successful passes all game, and with plenty of attacking options to choose from, Holloway can afford to be ruthless with his selection against the Baggies. I’d be amazed if Matt Phillips didn’t get his first start in a tangerine shirt. Whatever the starting XI is next week, the performance will hopefully be a vast improvement over the one witnessed yesterday.

Seaside Strategy – Manchester City Home

Deciding what to take a closer look at this week was no easy task. My first instinct was to analyse Charlie Adam’s masterful performance, which signalled his arrival as a player of true Premier League ability. Adam has rightly drawn plaudits from all quarters, with Sky’s Jamie Redknapp perhaps most vocal in his praise for the former Rangers man. The aim of this blog was always to try and view all things BFC from a different angle, so I’ll refrain from lavishing yet more attention on the ‘Pool skipper.
I was then tempted to pay tribute to the contribution of Adam’s partner in crime, David Vaughan. Vaughan has been exceptional this season and perhaps the stand out player to date. Adam was deservedly man of the match, but Vaughan ran him a close second. His workrate has been key to the way the Seasiders play, starting a large proportion of Blackpool’s attacking moves while also helping out the back four. Once again though, all ‘Pool fans know how well Vaughan is playing, even if the national media aren’t giving the Welshman the praise he deserves.
From a team perspective, the chalkboards show how ‘Pool dominated the game with 349 successful passes to Man City’s 262. Yet, in spite of all the positives Ian Holloway can take from an impressive performance, the cynic would say that there’s only one statistic that really matters. For all the problems the Seasiders caused City, it was a failure in front of goal that was ultimately the difference between the two sides.
Whereas Mancini’s side were ruthless with their chances, ‘Pool’s wastefulness in front of goal meant a third consecutive home game where the performance merited a better result. Of 16 shots only four were on target including the two goals. City also restricted ‘Pool to mainly long-distance shots – 10 of the 16 attempts occurring outside the box. By contrast eight of City’s 13 shots took place inside ‘Pool’s area, with the other five only just outside.
Just to be testing a Man City side assembled on a budget the Seasiders could only dream of is a feat more than anyone could have realistically expected. However, as a manager who is always seeking improvement from his side, it is the final third where Holloway will surely be focusing on in the weeks ahead.

Seaside Strategy – Liverpool Away

In the immediate aftermath of the home defeat to Blackburn Rovers, Ian Holloway was quick to set out his plans for the following week’s game at Anfield – all-out attack. The Seasiders had been criticised in some quarters for the way they approached the away fixtures at Arsenal and Chelsea – Blackpool’s attacking policy was deemed naive rather than brave.
However, with Liverpool at an unprecedented low in recent years, it seemed like there would never be a better time to attack Roy Hodgson’s side. The chalkboard below shows how the opening 20 minutes panned out in terms of the number of passes.
The top chalkboard shows Blackpool’s data, with the lower displaying Liverpool’s passses in the opening 20 minutes.
Amazingly ‘Pool successfully completed more than double the amount of passes than their hosts. What is most evident is the amount of possession Blackpool were allowed in the middle of the pitch and at the back. This shows how Liverpool stood off the Seasiders, allowing Holloway’s men time on the ball and giving the Seasiders the chance to play their natural game.

By controlling the opening exchanges, ‘Pool were able to dictate the match and take the game to the under-pressure home side. Unlike at Chelsea where Kalou’s early goal destroyed Holloway’s gameplan, Liverpool allowed the Seasiders to settle down very quickly, which must have given the team the confidence to go on and put in the performance they managed on the day. In fact, the Blackpool manager may ultimately have been disappointed that the early domination didn’t result in a more convincing half-time lead.

I’ll let it slide this time though, I guess.

Seaside Strategy – Newcastle United Away

In many ways the victory at St James’ Park is the most satisfying result of the season so far. In the same fixture last season Blackpool were soundly beaten 4-1, overawed by the sheer size of the stadium. Barely five months on from that game, a more savvy team of Seasiders put in a sterling performance which thoroughly merited all three points. It was a disciplined effort, and whilst Holloway’s men retained their attacking philosophy, it wasn’t at the expense of their defensive duties.
The opening 45 minutes belonged largely to Blackpool. DJ Campbell should have opened his account early doors when put clean through by Charlie Adam, but Campbell took a poor touch allowing Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper to close him down, and Harper did well to block the follow-up shot from Ormerod. The Magpies did have their chances too, but they came against the run of play as Blackpool took the game to the home side. They were rewarded just before the break with Varney being brought down by a reckless challenge from Alan Smith. Adam went for his usual spot in the bottom left corner, sending Harper the wrong way.
1-0 down at the break, Newcastle were always going to come at Blackpool in the second half. However, what followed was a classic example of rearguard action. Gilks has since taken the majority of the plaudits, and rightly so, but his defence in front of him also held firm and put their bodies on the line time after time.
Blackpool blocked no fewer than eight shots during the match, with six of those taking place in the second period. Dekel Keinan made a solid contribution on his first start in a tangerine shirt, making three crucial blocks, including a clearance off the line.
Newcastle will perhaps count themselves unlucky that despite 22 shots, they couldn’t hit the back of the net. What they found was a goalkeeper in the form of his life and a team that is made of sterner stuff than is often perceived. It’s true that the 4-3-3 formation does somewhat throw caution to the wind, but it is a team crammed full of hard-working players who will defend from the front and give their all for their teammates. It is not a brittle side that will roll over in the Premier League. 
Well, the match away to Arsenal excepted…