By now everyone knows how this match panned out. Both sides made errors that were punished and West Brom claimed the 3 points. However, what went on from a formation point of view and how did that affect the match as the 90 minutes unfolded?
Roberto Di Matteo uses a 4-1-4-1 which sometimes evolves into a 4-3-3 depending on the progressive approach of Jerome Thomas and Chris Brunt, whereas Ian Holloway favours his variant 4-3-3 that evolves in to a 4-2-3-1 or sometimes a 4-2-1-3.
First Half Hour
Blackpool lead after 30 mins and as you can see above, the defensive line is sitting deep and the team in midfield are bunched close together closing out the space affording to the West Brom midfield. Whilst below you can see how West Brom played marginally higher up the pitch and resembled something more like a flat 4-4-2.
Drawing Level – 40 mins
As West Brom drew level Blackpool’s formation had started to spread wider than before and Taylor-Fletcher (number 12) has dropped back in to midfield. On the other hand West Brom have got marginally more adventurous with Marek Cech (4) pushing higher up. However, in midfield Youssuf Mulumbu (21) has started to move deeper and Chris Brunt has moved inside more, presumably to assist his colleagues in midfield.
Half time deadlock
At half time Blackpool are the more compact of the two team whilst West Brom have their defence playing slightly higher and the whole team almost spread box to box. The compact nature of Blackpool’s formation might be a reflection of the fact that after initially having some joy in the game, they started to soak up some pressure and reverted to using the counter attack to break down West Brom.
On the hour
Blackpool at this point had fallen behind and Matty Phillips (23) had been introduced for Elliot Grandin (14). Given that Grandin was the further player forward when he departed might have been a reason for his withdrawal from the game as well as his fitness level. Perhaps he was instructed to push higher up, but you’d have expected DJ Campbell to have been in his position. Perhaps DJ was dropping too deep at times? Below West Brom are starting to look more consistent as Mulumbu forms a line with his full backs, he sits as the rest of the team progress. Di Matteo has a clear definition of his team, 5 players with defensive duties and 5 with attacking duties which strikes a good balance on the pitch.
Getting back on level terms
By this point Ian Holloway had gone searching for the game and made brave attacking substitutions. David Vaughan (11) started to drop deep to afford the side some cover, Charlie Adam (26) now standing alone in midfield as DJ Campbell (39) and Taylor-Fletcher start to advance forward in search of the goal. Below West Brom are very orderly, which was important in the scheme of things as they haven’t necessarily been drawn in to Ian Holloway’s plan to throw attackers on the pitch to open the game up. Their defensive 5 have barely moved in all the second half.
More of the same as Blackpool advance forward playing their attacking football, however, what is interesting to note between this shot and the opening shot on 31 mins is the defensive line. Check back and notice how Craig Cathcart (20) and Ian Evatt (6) are higher up the pitch. Look at the half time positions and see how Cathcart was on the ‘D’ of the penalty box. Would Cathcart have been caught out by Scharner’s clog had he been sitting deeper as earlier? Below West Brom remain steadfast in defence whilst all around them is attacking chaos. The key here is Mulumbu again, who has maintained his positional discipline since his opening half hour digression.
Closing out and signing off
Yes this was a great game for entertainment, Ian Holloway certainly did everything he could to win this. Blackpool did superbly to get back on level terms, but after making attacking substitutions it is hard to try to alter a teams mentality so late in the game. West Brom kept tight and kept their shape and saw off the best that Blackpool could throw at them and fittingly Peter Odemwingie kept his composure to close out the match.
Blackpool have spent most of their inaugural Premier League season sticking to a passing game that was at the centre of their promotion from the Championship. It forms a part of the slightly patronising term, ‘a breath of fresh air’ as teams generally ‘shut up shop’ or as Stoke did ‘go direct’. Enough of the vague cliches now and the focus will turn to facts.
The facts about Blackpool this season is that they’ve passed the ball very well, all players (goal keeper inc) are encouraged to pass the ball with the aim of keeping possession. Ian Holloway has openly cited the style of Spain and Barcelona as the target for his ever improving team. In taking this approach Blackpool have attempted 8,507 passes this season completing 75% of all their passes (up to and including Man City away). This is an admirable achievement for a team that prior to the season starting was written off as certain relegation candidates by some of the media. As the plaudits have been heaped on Blackpool for this superb application of the passing game it is something that everyone at Bloomfield Road should be proud of.
What this blog post is going to try to do is to try and second guess what Ian Holloway might be trying to work on with his team as the second half of the season gets under way. Holloway has said that he wants to improve on what he and his team does and with this in mind he’ll be seeking to squeeze more out of his team as the season unfolds.
Whilst Blackpool’s pass completion has been around the 75% mark, some games have been characterised by the Seasiders struggling to close out the game, losing leads and conceding late goals. The games against Blackburn, Fulham, Bolton, Wolves and Villa (and this week Birmingham) spring to mind. Holloway will no doubt be asking himself why this is going on and whilst there are valid and pertinent arguments for pointing the finger at poor defending, there may be a tale within the Blackpool passing stats that might show the way forward.
Let’s illustrate this through reference to pass completion stats from the quarters of games. The best of and the worst of Blackpool’s pass completion are listed in the table below.
It can be seen that Blackpool enjoyed the best pass completion quarters in the game against West Brom, understandably so, given that Blackpool were playing against nine men. Less men to pressure the ball leads to more time on the ball and less misplaced passes. However, some of the other best pass completion quarters are against the sides that are more renowned for passing the football. Two of them took place at the Emirates, however, here lies more about the story of the game. Blackpool were walloped for six and at times, even though Blackpool passed the ball around well, Arsenal were content with them doing that. Also another of the best quarters was away to Chelsea when again Blackpool were swiftly put to the sword and the opposition were content to let Blackpool retain possession. However, the stand out quarter is the one in tenth place as Blackpool played some superb passing football to dominate the first half at Anfield.
A look at the worst quarters starts to give Blackpool some insight in to where things have gone wrong at times this season. The worst quarter of passing that the team has seen occurred at Anfield and in fact the worst three quarters all occurred in away games. However, that gives us no insight in to why pass completion dropped. In fact looking deeper at those instances and placing them in to context allows us to understand what went wrong. Liverpool came out for the second half two down and scored early. They pushed hard for a second and in doing so worked hard to close Blackpool’s players down and forced mistakes. Against Newcastle, Blackpool were again leading and coming out from the break freshly addressed by Chris Hughton they upped their work rate to force more mistakes from Blackpool.
However, it is the fourth worst pass completion quarter that gives an insight in to what can go wrong when a team starts to misplace passes. That quarter occurred in the final stages of the game against Bolton, where Bolton applied pressure, Blackpool dropped deeper, clearances became wild, legs tired as did minds and as concentration slipped so did the passes until they conceded a late equaliser. Two of the ten worst quarters occurred in the Blackburn game, where they stifled Blackpool and forced them in to hitting long balls, which played in to their hands. It was also, one of Blackpool’s worst performances and with an overall pass completion of 67% also the worst passing performance of the season.
Quite simply, it appears to show that if Blackpool’s passing breaks down, then so does the team’s performance. When they’ve had their best passing periods, they’ve not conceded a goal. However, in three of the worst periods of passing Blackpool did concede goals.
However, there are tales within a tale here. The Manchester City game is a good example of where Blackpool had a tremendous game on the ball, but served to back up the old saying about having possession is no good if you don’t do anything with it. One of the best pass completion periods came in that game and in fact the pass completion for the first three quarters of that game stood at 78% as Blackpool matched City, however, City introduced David Silva and the game swung away from Blackpool as did their pass completion, which slipped to a woeful 68% and the game was lost.
As 2011 gets under way and as more teams (should) get more insight in to what makes Blackpool tick then Holloway and his team will need to work harder to keep that pass completion up in the high seventies and if they want to close out game instead of losing leads, then they’ll certainly be looking to do that or even get in to the low to mid eighties. That itself is a big task. This blog has made mention of the long diagonal ball that appears to be a signature of this Blackpool team, that doesn’t work every time and may be used more sparingly. However, two recent articles have shed light on how Blackpool may be able to keep the ball, increase that pass completion and perhaps assist in winning more Premier League games.
In the January issue of World Soccer (no link sorry, you can still buy it I think), Paul Gardner reviews the use of the cross in the modern game, stating that that it no longer becomes an effective tool at the highest level of the game, citing the likes of Barcelona who rarely score their goals from ‘aerial ball delivered in to the penalty area from a wide position, but from no further than 30 yards away’. Blackpool’s season cross completion rate is 20%, which means that a total of 228 crosses have failed to reach a Blackpool player which is an average of 13 misplaced crossed per game equating to 3% of Blackpool’s total passes. Making the right decision when to cross and recycling the ball when we don’t have the right opportunity to cross could really benefit Blackpool, although it would place more emphasis on being more patient in attack and working the ball in between defenders for scoring opportunities.
Shorter the better
Added to this in a recent review of the Ajax team under new manager Frank de Boer, 11tegen11 suggested that Ajax were taking short corners in order to keep hold of the ball instead of putting the ball in to the box where the ball could be conceded to the opposition. Given that Blackpool only succeeds in hitting their men 34% of the time from corners then this might be a strategy for Blackpool as a total of 43 corners have been wasted this season and the impact of that is that Blackpool will inevitably concede valuable possession to opposition. However, as with the Sunderland game, the short corner can be useful in creating chances given that the angle of cross changes and can catch a team out who isn’t paying attention.
All this is purely conjecture and at the heart of any improvement needs to be centred around player technique and it’s safe to say that Holloway will be striving to do this in every training session as well as improving players strength and composure on the ball so that ball is rarely wasted or the opposition manage to wrestle the players off the ball. It will be interesting to see if Blackpool continues along their passing path, if they maintain or even improve their current pass completion then another season in the Premier League beckons. However, become wasteful and fail to learn the lessons of the last quarter of the Bolton game and it might be a different story in 2011.
West Brom arrived in Blackpool full of confidence and within half an hour, down to nine men, you would have thought that confidence would gradually ebb away. Not so. West Brom were superb all night, patient, disciplined and worked with 9 men better than their hosts with eleven. West Brom will take away great confidence from the performance and have given Roberto Di Matteo plenty to learn from, whilst Blackpool just confirmed what Ian Holloway stated before the game – they need to take their chances.
It wasn’t that Blackpool couldn’t create chances, they could, twenty six of them in total. However, for long periods of the game, they were being out manouvered by the nine men of West Brom who created a decent amount of chances themselves. In the period when the game was down to nine verses eleven West Brom managed to get ten attempts away, of those 2 hit their target and one other found the back of the net. Blackpool only managed one more chance on target in addition to their goals. You can speculate about the reasons behind such a poor conversion rate on a night when the uninitiated may have expected a hatful, but when you start to unpick the chances that Blackpool had the true extent of the story becomes clear.
Why couldn’t Blackpool break down nine men?
I want to look at this in a little bit of detail. To do this I shall take up the story from the previous paragraph. Looking at the chances that Blackpool had in the game then the facts are like this….
Goals – 2
On target – 3
Off target – 14
Blocked – 7
Two things can be said here, Blackpool failed to find the target with the chances they had, but West Brom defended superbly to block seven times which is a tremendous defensive effort. But what of those off target attempts? When looking at the chalkboard then it becomes clear that the chances Blackpool were missing weren’t always close encounters, only five of those missed chances came from within the box and only two of the blocks occurred inside the area. This goes along way to show that Blackpool struggled to work the ball in to sufficient enough areas to create genuine goal scoring opportunities. This appeared to stem from a lack of midfield invention and more importantly an over reliance on attacking from the left. I will cover the issue of left in more detail later on as it was pin pointed by Zonal Marking as one of the traits of the game and I want to look at why that was the case.
A strange situation……
All night long there was a hint of ‘not sure what we do against nine men’ about Blackpool. Blackpool appeared to try and work the ball about, but mistakes came very often and very few successful passes found their way to players in the box. If you look at Charlie Adam’s open play passing performance you can see that he made one successful pass in to the box in the tenth minute that lead to the penalty.
A good few fans leaving the ground felt that Adam was wasteful in possession and looking at his stats for the night then his pass completion was 79% compared to 87% against Man City so that has some credence. However, approx half of his unsuccessful passes came as crosses and this leads on to the next problem that Blackpool had. Poor crossing.
This is something that failed us against Blackburn the other week and again this was problematic. Blackpool hit thirty crosses and only nine hit their target. The crosses were often slow in coming and very predictable due to their prominence in being hit from the left. Often the crosses were hit high, but where is the height in the Blackpool attack to win the headers? Luke Varney won Blackpool’s only header in the box all night.
Great credit must go to West Brom, they played two banks of four when down to nine men and stifled Blackpool’s attacks and constructed good attacking opportunities of their own. They defended well and you can see how many blocks and clearances they made in key areas below.
Left wing softies
The thing that stood out to everyone in the match was Blackpool’s reliance in attacking down the left and I want to understand why this was as Blackpool’s second came from the right. Normally such a bias could be attributed to the fact that there’s more success coming from that area. However, that wasn’t the case. You could point to the fact that Blackpool have two left footed midfielders, so perhaps they favour the left hand side for attacking. Perhaps so, however, that can’t explain it all as you could argue that as a left footed player opens themselves up to a pass then the right becomes a more natural way of hitting the ball.
So perhaps this would suggest that it’s not match specific and something to do with the fabric of the team. When looking at the average positions for last night you can see that Gary Taylor Fletcher held a deeper position in the field of play than Varney (the man on the opposite flank). It seems that Taylor-Fletcher does drift in to a more central and deeper role at times and in doing so, when the team looks to attack, if he’s not in the wide right position and Varney is, then naturally the team will seek to go down the left. However, this may be due to the team’s perception that Varney offers a more direct threat than Taylor-Fletcher and gravitate towards him. This positional drift intentional or not may well be the reason for such a focus on the left and if Blackpool are to progress in the Premier league then they need better balance of attack.
A win is a win
Blackpool ended the night with another three Premier league points and West Brom emerged with a performance that will stand them in good stead during any future adversity. Blackpool knew before the game that they needed to start to convert their chances and that hasn’t changed, however, they need to start to add more variation and perhaps those chances might just become more convertible.
At the start of the season, flicking through the fixture list you may well have picked this game out as a chance to pick up some points at home to a fellow promoted side. However, West Brom have started the season superbly and had a couple of well documented performances against Man Utd and Arsenal.
From Blackpool’s perspective, there is a doubt over Charlie Adam’s fitness, but should he be fit then any changes in the team may come in midfield with Keith Southern’s return to fitness potentially pushing him back in to the set up to re-form last seasons successful midfield triumvirate, which Up The ‘Pool’s article suggested the other day. The front three are always up for debate as to which personnel will play there, however, the shape should remain the same.
What should the Seasiders expect when the teams come out on Monday night?
Looking back on West Brom’s previous performance against Fulham (at home bear in mind) it appears that they line up in a 4-1-4-1 (I have seen it described as 4-2-3-1 if Morrison advances and Scharner holds a deeper position), the last team to play that against Blackpool was Blackburn at Bloomfield only a few weeks ago. That game saw our formation being cancelled out in the middle as the spare man between the two lines of four is particularly effective at picking up any midfield runs. Against Blackburn a lot of the Blackpool play came down the flanks and this is something that will probably happen again. However, West Brom playing a 4-1-4-1 is executed in a different fashion from Blackburn so the attacking proposition from the Baggies will be vastly different.
A quick look at the Premier League passing stats shows us that West Brom like to pass the ball, they have averaged 365 passes in the last two games to Pool’s 371. For reference, Stoke average about 200 and Arsenal about 500. They will look to work the ball in to the wide positions where they have the players who can cause the Tangerines some serious trouble.
Defensively there’s nothing complicated with West Brom with a flat-ish four, looking at their average positions, the full backs aren’t overly attacking. This will be crucial as Holloway loves to apply pressure to the wide areas in the hope of creating overlaps. If the full backs hold deeper positions then that should help to counter Blackpool’s wide threat.
Just as Blackpool pose a threat down the flanks, so do West Brom and arguably the team that wins the wide battle will win this game. Chris Brunt has started the season superbly with 4 assists already this season, alongside this Jerome Thomas has chipped in with 2 assists from the flanks. Brunt is capable of excellent set piece delivery and isn’t afraid to shoot from distance.
West Brom have started the season so well, but so have Blackpool. Both teams will be eager to win. Will West Brom feel the pressure of expectation due to that excellent start and will that be a burden that forces their players in to individual errors. One thing is certain, Holloway will send his players out to attack again. The key for Blackpool is the quality of the ball in to the box. Get that right and DJ Campbell will not be too far away from hitting the back of the net.