A feature of Blackpool’s football under Ian Holloway has been the quick tap free kick as they start another passing sequence instead of a clogging of a high ball forward deep in to the opposition half. When Craig Cathcart made an error in gifting a quickly taken free kick to Wigan in the run up to their opening goal, not only were Blackpool on their way to a 3-1 defeat, but it encapsulated where Blackpool may have been going wrong of late.
When speaking about Cathcart’s error in his column in the Independent on Sunday Ian Holloway made the following statement which has revealed something rather interesting;
‘We had a set-piece in the middle of the pitch and I’m sat in the dugout expecting us to wait till we get our big men forward, then hit a high ball into the box and put our opponents under pressure’.
This seems a rather odd statement from Holloway given his penchant for passing football. It sounds very much like he wants to get the ball in the box and work things out from there, not a very sophisticated approach. Cathcart can be blamed for such a poor pass in gifting Wigan the lead, but at the heart of that he is caught between two minds, two philosophies and one of them just doesn’t resonate with Blackpool. It would appear that Ian Holloway has been working on long ball free kicks as a clear set piece, usually involving Ian Evatt taking up a position in the opposition box whilst Charlie Adam delivers the high free kick.
There’s nothing wrong in this approach per se, but it doesn’t seem to be right given that Blackpool are on the slide and they’re aiming for the Spanish nirvana of tiki-taka. Early season games were characterised by quickly taken free kicks and sustained periods of possession. As stated on this blog previously Blackpool’s passing has been declining for some time now, many a reason could be behind this, but what if the key here is that they are giving the ball away too cheaply through long free kicks. If that is the case, then answers are needed to the following two questions;
1. Have Blackpool taken more long free kicks over recent weeks?
2. What is the impact of a long free kick on Blackpool’s matches?
In order to establish if Blackpool are taking more longer free kicks, each free kick they’ve taken this season has been looked at and characterised in to short, long in to the box and other. In doing so the following pattern emerged.
As you can see the number of long free kicks* that Blackpool have taken over the course of the season has grown and grown. As an observer, the Liverpool game appeared to be the first time that Blackpool consciously halted play prior to the taking of a free kick so that Ian Evatt could take up his position in the box. It may have always been a part of Blackpool’s game plan, but it was the Liverpool game that made it appear more pronounced and the statistics seems to back that up. In fact in the last four games Blackpool have 15 attempted long free kicks, to put that in to perspective it took them twenty-two games to amount that many from the start of the season. To further back up this increased long approach the % of free kicks hit long prior to the Liverpool game averaged out at 8% and has risen to 25% since then.
Transition to extinction
So Blackpool are going long from their free kicks which is not an issue on the face of it as many teams employ this approach. It gives you territorial advantage, a chance to pick up a knock down, a chance to score, a chance to build play in the final third. All of these are valid reasons for doing so, however, there’s something not right about this when it comes to Blackpool. It flies in the face of Holloway’s philosophy of short passing, but tactically it is a decision he has made and clearly now expects. Perhaps it grew from the fact that Blackpool started to score goals from set pieces, more than any other team in the Premier League prior to the Aston Villa game back in February. In fact the winning goal against Liverpool came from a high ball (not a free kick) in to the box which Ian Evatt knocked back for DJ Campbell to score.
What this approach also does is make a poor defence even poorer due to the removal of a key defensive player. A centre back going up for a corner can always be a risk, but cover is always provided. A free kick will mean that Blackpool will almost double the amount of times they need to provide defensive cover. Just a quick glance at the second goal that Sunderland scored at Bloomfield Road gives you the perfect example of where this risk has been punished. Teams in the Premier League spend hours rehearsing what they will do in transition as their defence turns in to attack. Blackpool are poor in their attack to defence transition and this has been exploited time after time by clinical teams this season.
Whilst Ian Holloway might be intending to do the right thing with long free kicks, it may well be weakening his side leaving them exposed to attack and in possession of the ball for less time. If Blackpool continue this long approach then they will be hoping that it helps them win games, at the moment that case seems to be some distance off and in fact Blackpool may well have start to taking short free kicks again to build play and also to give them more defensive assurance. However, should their long free kicks persist then they best be working on getting their shape back quickly as you can be sure that every manager between now and the end of the season will be working very hard to exploit Blackpool in transition passages of play.