Spurs 1 – 1 Blackpool – White van man

Neither side came in to this game in good form, but both sides put together a lively encounter which either team could have won. The game dynamic changed three times due to the deployment of Rafael van der Vaart with a final twist to the game coming as Blackpool tried to close out the game.

Van der right

Ian Holloway made one change from the Stoke game, dropping Matthew Phillips to the bench to be replaced by Sergei Kornilenko. Harry Redknapp made bold selections in his starting eleven, with Danny Rose coming in at left back so that he could keep Gareth Bale in the more advanced position down the left. Aaron Lennon was dropped to the bench and van der Vaart started on the right flank. The early passages of Spurs’ play tended to gravitate to the right and Younes Kaboul overlapped a number of times as van der Vaart drifted inside. The Dutchman didn’t play as an orthodox winger and seemed to have a free-ish role. However, only once play started to break for Spurs down their left did they genuinely seem to threaten Blackpool. Other than that Spurs appeared to try to catch out Blackpool’s high line with occasional through balls down the middle, but Blackpool anticipated well and they enjoyed little success.

Luka Modric  was at the heart of some good periods of play for Spurs by keeping the ball moving quickly and from flank to flank to avoid the centre where Spurs where outnumbered 3 v 2. As the half went on Blackpool’s midfield pressed hard (mainly through Keith Southern), passed better and tried to break at speed. However, the first touch of the Blackpool forward line, especially Kornilenko was poor and attacks broke down more often than not.

Van der middle

By bringing on Aaron Lennon in the second half  Spurs had fast and direct attacking options on both flanks and this meant that van der Vaart was pushed centrally. He started to go untracked through the middle and found himself in an excellent position only for his touch to let him down under pressure. Spurs found a good rhythm and created seven chances in the first fifteen minutes of the second half compared to the 10 in the whole of the first half. Modric started to break more from midfield as he had van der Vaart dropping back to cover. Modric dominated the game and was outstanding, not only with his passing but consistently found space and took men out of the game with deft flicks and dribbles. Added to this Lennon gave more incision down the right and the balance to Spurs’ attacks was excellent, giving them options and variety which Blackpool had to defend well in order to shut them out.

Playing out alongside this Ian Holloway had sought to resolve his side’s attacking problems by introducing Jason Puncheon at half time for Kornilenko and he appeared to have a better awareness on and off the ball. Added to this his first touch was more reliable and Blackpool’s attacks became more fluid.

Van der left

The injury that Gareth Bale sustained meant that Redknapp decided to move van der Vaart to the left whilst Peter Crouch came on as Spurs moulded back in to their 4-4-2. This appeared to stunt Spurs’ midfield play, there were left with more 2 v 3 situations in the centre as van der Vaart moved wide and he really struggled to assert any quality on the game from that position. Blackpool gained their own foothold in the game, again their midfield were working really hard to close Spurs’ down and trying to break at speed and as their forwards looked more cohesive off the ball and confident on it, they started to carve out more chances.

Parking the van

Once Blackpool had scored, the final part of the game played out with Spurs throwing everything at Blackpool and in doing so the game broke down in to a final scrap van der Vaart wasn’t involved in the game as much now as Spurs’ best chances came from Lennon and Modric creating or from Peter Crouch knock downs. Ian Holloway made a strange substitution in bringing on Craig Cathcart and moving Neil Eardley to right wing in to almost a 4-5-1, but once the Spurs’ goal went in and realising the aerial danger of Peter Crouch, he seemed to try to counter that by bringing James Beattie on for the sole purpose of marking Crouch at pieces and for high balls in to the box.

Moving on

Tottenham controlled a lot of this game and had Blackpool not defended well and broke as purposefully as they did then the pressure may have been too much for them. However, for Harry Redknapp the utilisation of van der Vaart appears to be strange given his quality through the centre of the pitch and keeping him there in this game may have proved to be decisive. At times Blackpool sparked in to life and fizzed the ball in their passing movements once again. Heading in to the Bolton game on Saturday they will hope to sustain the movement from the forwards in the second half in addition to good midfield combinations to push Bolton very hard. Should they do that then they may be within a point from safety come their final game at Old Trafford.

For an excellent review of this match then you must head over to the match review by Zonal Marking here >> Spurs 1 – 1 Blackpool

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Preview – v Spurs @ White Hart Lane

Kick off: 17:30 GMT  Coverage: ESPN in the UK & Fox Sports Channel in the US

Coming in to this match, neither side is in sparkling form, but that might make for an exciting match. Covered live on ESPN and kicking off at 17:30 GMT both managers have key selection and tactical decisions that could make this a high scoring occasion. Here’s a few of those decisions analysed and dissected.

Setting up

The battle could be played out down the right hand side of the above image. Crucial.

Harry’s selection headache

Ian Holloway has a fully fit squad to choose from and on the face of it he may stick with the same eleven as last time out against Stoke. Harry Redknapp is the manager with the key selection decision with his first choice at left back, Benoît Assou-Ekotto injured. Whoever Harry selects in that position will be important as Ian Holloway may try to second guess his choice and make his own selection and tactical decisions based on that. What can Redknapp do?

  • Attacking full back – He can choose to go for Gareth Bale at left back, which gives him an attacking angle from deep, but would need responsibility from elsewhere to cover his forward runs.
  • Regular full back – He could opt for a more defensive choice from a centre back that he has at his disposal such as Sebastien Bassong, William Gallas or Vedran Corluka, which would give his more of a flatter defensive line and less exposed down that flank when Spurs are attacking.

What could Redknapp be thinking?

By playing Bale at left back and advancing it gives his side greater width, however, Blackpool spread their forwards high and wide, so when Bale attacks, Blackpool may well have a player in the space waiting for the counter. Given that aspect, should he pick Bale at left back then he must be confident that either a centre back will cover, or his team can recover their overall shape before Blackpool’s threat emerges.

Bale at left back is a different proposition than Bale in a left wing position and that will be something that Holloway will be aware of and part of him would most probably like to see Bale in a deeper starting position, even if he does advance when Spurs have possession. Should Bale come in at left back then Redknapp’s choice of personnel on his left wing will interesting. The selection of Steven Pienaar would make sense, the fact he cuts inside gives two benefits for Spurs. Firstly, assistance in adding numbers centrally to counter Blackpool’s possible numerical superiority given they will field a 4-3-3. Secondly, he will create the space through his movement inside for Bale to run in to and leave Bale 1 v 1 with Blackpool’s right back (Neil Eardley). Effectively this would be a good strategy for Redknapp to pursue at it achieves two key aims, restrict the time and space afforded to Blackpool’s midfield three and get Bale 1 v 1 at every possible opportunity.

Choose your weapons

Should Redknapp opt for Bale at left back then that would signal his attacking intentions, however, start him on the left wing and he may well be compensating for the threat that Blackpool have as much as using Bale in his strongest position. However, assuming Bale starts at left back and pushes up as then Ian Holloway will relish the opportunities that offers. He will know that there will be left in the wake of Bale’s surges and he may well look to play Spurs on the counter and in doing so his choice of player at right forward may be crucial. In fact Holloway’s forward line is about the only selection doubt he has.

In recent weeks he has opted for the trio of Matthew Phillips, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and DJ Campbell. In selecting Phillips he would be looking to use his pace on the counter to exploit the space on the right hand side. However, that recent forward selection has presented Holloway with his own issues. The trio lack a little balance. It tends to see Campbell start out on the left and Taylor-Fletcher through the middle and it gives the forward line a right-sided bias which hasn’t shown work or even be an obvious ploy. Another aspect that has shown detriment to the fielding of this trio is that both Campbell and Taylor-Flecther like to drop deep and it may be no coincidence that Blackpool’s last two performances have been very inert in the final third. Should Holloway opt for that forward line then he must have very specific instructions for them to avoid the drift to the right and deep. However, that may not be too bad in itself as it would serve two purposes. Firstly, the potential to overload and combine down the right flank. Secondly, to help build counter attacks from the deep with the forwards involved, working the ball up field. Given the second goal that Blackpool scored against Spurs at Bloomfield Road it should give Redknapp a little warning of what Holloway may be looking to do again.

Normality

Finally, on the subject of Spurs’ left side, then should Bale play left wing and a more defensive option comes in, then their will still be space for Blackpool to exploit, but they may exploit it slightly differently. As Bale is advanced the Spurs full back will need to be aware of Blackpool’s midfield, possibly Keith Southern, aiming to run in to that space to set up plays. Or alternatively Blackpool may play long diagonals either over the full back or to head. Should this be the case, then Taylor-Fletcher may take up the wide right position whilst Phillips goes to the left. Blackpool will look to set up play from a Taylor-Fletcher header and advance from there. Should that be the case then Redknapp might look to field his more aerially able defender in that position.

Shape-shifting

In the last match Holloway changed his midfield shape slightly to add a little more of a defensive aspect to his side setting up in a 4-1-2-3 as opposed to the 4-3-3 he is likely to play in this game. Recently Blackpool have deployed a much flatter midfield three with each player sharing responsibilities for attack and defence. This will certainly help Blackpool to gain numerical advantage over Rednapp’s preference for a 4-4-1-1, however, it might need one or more of those midfielders to pay particular attention to Rafael van der Vaart who is likely to play off either Peter Crouch or Roman Pavlyuchenko. Redknapp may spoil that battle altogether if he decides to bring in Jermaine Defoe in a two-man strike force. Should he do that then Blackpool may well enjoy some prolonged periods of possession and Spurs would look to Sandro and Modric to keep their discipline and press sensibly to disrupt the Blackpool midfield. However, should van der Vaart take to the pitch then Holloway may well ask his midfield to shape up more like the 4-1-2-3 from the Bloomfield Road match, with David Vaughan dropping in to a holding role.

So much more

The Spurs left back selection may well have a critical impact on the outcome of the game. Aside from that, Blackpool won’t push their full backs up as far as they would normally do, given Spurs’ strength down the flanks. And this article hasn’t even touched on the potential impact of Aaron Lennon and how Spurs might look to get him in either a foot race or released via a pass and in behind Stephen Crainey. Also missing in this article is the crucial role of Charlie Adam, out of form of late, but will Redknapp plan to stifle him. The way that the match shapes up, he may well get plenty of space to operate in which he would relish and given his recent pep talk with Holloway then he may well form a key part of some strong passing moves in the Blackpool midfield.

Get set!

It would be a huge surprise if this match ends up in a dull stalemate and in fact it should be a fantastic spectacle, Holloway will go for broke hoping that next weeks match against Bolton might give his side the most realistic chance for a final three points and possible safety. Spurs on the other hand may go out with a limited but refreshing brief of ‘relax, play their own game and to express themselves’ all over the pitch. Now that their battle for fourth place is all but over then Spurs may just play without fear and they have some class acts who may well flourish under those conditions.

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An Even Affair – Blackpool 0 – 0 Stoke

A fair result at Bloomfield Road as both teams enjoyed a period of domination, but neither could take the chances handed to them. Stoke had the better of the chances, Blackpool better of the ball, but by the final whilst both teams will see it as a point gained.

Line ups

4-3-3 v 4-4-2

This was a straightforward battle between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 giving Blackpool the numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch. From a tactical point of view the pattern for the first half was set early on, Blackpool passed the ball around in midfield, Stoke looking to pressure Blackpool on the ball. Blackpool looked to get the ball wide and in to the channels, whilst Stoke looked for territorial gains, using Kenwyne Jones’ aerial ability to set up attacking moves.

Scrappy

The first half saw Blackpool dominate the passing game, even though Stoke had the better chances. It is interesting to see how Blackpool’s passing dropped off in the second half as Stoke worked harder to pressurise Blackpool who then struggled to put passes together and started to hit longer passes instead of building play. You can see from the graph below how Blackpool’s players has less passes in the first half compared to the second, as a team they managed 123 less passes.

Every player with the exception of Keith Southern made less passes in the 2nd half.

Having less passes in the second half isn’t a sign of anything really, other than the opposition must be seeing more of the ball, however, Blackpool’s passing quality declined as well in the second half as they failed to find team mates more often, through sloppy play, rushed passes and longer, less controlled passing. You can see below how each player had a lower pass completion in the second half.

Across the team Blackpool's pass completion dropped.

Just as a final illustration of how Blackpool stopped playing out from the back, take a look at Matthew Gilk’s distribution from the first to the second half. In the first period, he made shorter passes, but in to the second he did that only once. If this was a clear change of game plan by Ian Holloway then it was a tweak that failed to show measurable reward.

Getting longer by the minute.

Case for the defence

Stoke countered everything that Blackpool could do in the first half, particularly with hard work and resilience in their defence. You can see below how many more interceptions they had the first half.

Working hard in the first half to stifle Blackpool's dominance.

More importantly, Stoke excelled on the ground when it came to standing up to Blackpool. You can see below how they lost only one tackle on the ground in the first half, well away from danger as they frustrated Blackpool before setting up their stronger second half.

Near perfect in the tackle to stop Blackpool in the first half.

Scrappy

In the second half Stoke worked harder to deny Blackpool time on the ball and when they got the ball they used it well, stretching the play wide, making high balls from back to front and generally forcing Blackpool backwards. You can see how Stoke’s aerial duels changed in nature from one half to the next.

One aerial duel in the Blackpool box in the first half.

The aerial duels Stoke contested in the first half could be considered ‘set ups’ and not direct attacking threats, however, look how in the second half the aerial contest shifts to the Blackpool box as Stoke applied their pressure.

Pushing Blackpool deeper.

Break free

Back in December Charlie Adam was afforded a lot space and created several penetrating passes in to the Stoke box, in this match under much more pressure from the Stoke midfield (particularly Glenn Whelan) he couldn’t get his passing together and he and Blackpool failed to make telling passing in to the heart of the Stoke box. Stoke must take great credit for having such an organised and resilient defensive unit.

Charlie Adam couldn't complete passes in to key areas.

Long gone

Blackpool had a clear plan last time out as a counter measure to the long throws made by Stoke, essentially the back four remained in position whilst Charlie Adam and Luke Varney picked up the aerial threats, leaving the back four in place to deal with the fall out. In this match, that approached remained, but it appeared that Adam dropped in to the back four as Ian Evatt stepped out to man mark Jones. In truth Blackpool handled the threat well, out of 12 long throws, Blackpool won 9.

3 out of 12 long throws were successful

Moving on

Both teams deserve credit for working hard when a stern wind was whipping across and around Bloomfield Road, Blackpool have gone 180 minutes against Stoke without conceding which they will take great heart from, whilst Stoke are working towards their FA cup final. Blackpool head to White Hart Lane and will hope to attack Spurs in order to try to build confidence ahead of their final home game of the season against Bolton. The Bolton match will most probably decide where the Tangerines will be playing their football next season.

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How a 3-5-2 might save Blackpool from relegation?

Wigan Athletic had just gone 3-0 up at Bloomfield Road, only minutes earlier Ian Holloway had made a treble substitution in order to salvage something from the game, with three goals needed Holloway had a rethink. That rethink may just have saved Blackpool’s season, but why?

Shuffle

Holloway shuffled his players and set them up in a 3-5-2 moving from their usual 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 shape. On the face of this, it might have been an act of desperation, however, on further inspection it appeared to be a shrewd move. By moving Neil Eardley from right back in to the centre of midfield, Blackpool still maintained a three-man central midfield, but the structure changed and it is this change of structure that sparked a recollection in the mind of Ian Holloway. Without knowing it (or perhaps he did know it), he had brought back the midfield set up that served Blackpool so well in the Championship, albeit flanked by two wingers or wing backs (depending on your interpretation). In this case however, that point is irrelevant.

Showing Blackpool shuffling in to a 3-5-2 in front of Wigan's midfield.

For the match against Wigan, Blackpool set up with their midfield three in a triangulated fashion as they’ve done for the majority of the season with the exception of maybe Spurs at home (more 4-1-2-3 then). The tip of the triangle is furthest up the pitch and that player looks to receive the ball in advanced positions before making passes out to the flanks and on occasion in to the channels beyond the opposition defence. This formation on a number of occasions has served Blackpool very well, especially against teams who set up in a standard 4-4-2.

This means that the player (usually Elliot Grandin) will play in behind the opposition central midfield and in front of the defence and few teams, when he has played well, have picked him up effectively. However, against Wigan and in recent weeks, due to either a loss of form, recovery from injury, better opposition or a combination of all three, he has largely been ineffective. In fact Wigan cancelled out Blackpool by inverting their midfield triangle as demonstrated below.

Wigan going man for man in midfield.

You can see in the screen shot below how this played out in reality as Wigan closed down Adam and Vaughan denying them the space or the angle to make the pass to Grandin. Grandin has plenty of space, but Watson is ready to close down once Grandin gets the ball.

Wigan midfield (blue) closing down Vaughan and Adam in the centre. Grandin free and has that space to roam in, however, Watson (blue) is deep and waiting, but it would be difficult form Adam and Vaughan to get through their counterparts.

When Blackpool played Fulham at Craven Cottage Blackpool saw plenty of ball in the centre of the pitch but rarely got the ball through to Grandin because of the hard work put in by Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu. When Grandin saw the ball his touches lacked quality, fluency and sharpness. The Fulham game was a warning that went unheeded. Against Wigan a bland and ineffective first 73 minutes meant a change was needed. When the switch to 3-5-2 was made Grandin had already been withdrawn. Earlier in the game, he again had been poor. Wigan, setting up with a four banded system, filled the space in front of the defence denying the space for Grandin to work in. Wigan effectively cancelled out Blackpool’s shape and worked harder off the ball to press Blackpool and forced them in to making errors.

Flat attack

The 3-5-2 flattened Blackpool’s shape in midfield and they began to control the game, whether this was more down to the game situation of Wigan being three goals to the good is hard to say. However, Neil Eardley looked assured on the ball, gave bite in the tackle and made up for the absence of David Vaughan. Keith Southern worked the right hand side of the three and Charlie Adam the left. All of a sudden Wigan’s formation was out of step and Blackpool could over run Wigan’s more advanced midfielders and make runs from deep that were hard to track. At that moment Ian Holloway had regained the qualities of his Championship midfield. You can see how the Blackpool midfield set up in the 3-5-2 and the runs they were able to make putting stress on Wigan’s deeper midfielder who had to watch and track runs from deep.

Flattened out and breaking out.

Old habits die hard

The Championship midfield was fluid, Adam, Vaughan and Southern rotating position, all getting on the ball at different stages and different positions, covering for each other, making untracked runs from deep, working midfield passing triangles getting the opposition to chase and pulled out of shape. This is essentially what Ian Holloway reverted to against Newcastle, inspired by the shape within the 3-5-2 he pulled his Championship triumvirate back in to the game in his tried and tested 4-3-3.

It’s important to understand why Blackpool had changed their midfield set up for their Premier League campaign as it wasn’t necessarily by design. A pre-season injury to Keith Southern left Ian Holloway with a selection dilemma, Elliot Grandin had been brought in (presumably) as a winger/wide forward, but given Southern’s injury, thrust Grandin in to the role. The thumping of Wigan on the first day of the season would have given Holloway heart and little reason to change and from there on, the selection stuck. Once Southern regained fitness and looked like becoming a starter, he struggled to find his form in the Premier League, possibly due to lack of game time, but more so, perhaps because of the change of midfield shape and the changing of expectations of the midfield role.

Familiar ground

Against Newcastle he seemed more assured in familiar company, as if he knew what to do and where to go, statistically he probably had his best game (winning 6 tackles against his season average of 1.5) and the important aspect is the fact that all three midfielders know when to cover each other. Previously had Southern played with Grandin in the side, if he has pressed high up the pitch and been taken out with a good pass or two, with Grandin also being advanced that Blackpool had two men out of the game. With this system, he knows he can go to the man on the ball as there will be two behind him, and should Adam press high up, then he’ll drop back and cover.

Against Newcastle’s two central midfielders Blackpool bossed them through sheer weight in numbers, but also better use of the ball. However, had the triangulated shape been in practice and Nolan and Tiote may well have shut Grandin out and given Newcastle the advantage. However, it was rare that they could do this with the flatter Blackpool midfield, time and space were restricted and once Blackpool gained possession they had good passing angles and great midfield running that more than once threatened to open Newcastle up.

Pastures new

Effectively Ian Holloway has made subtle midfield changes to gain better control of the centre from teams who know what to expect from Blackpool. Earlier in the season few teams closed them down and very few paid special attention to Charlie Adam, giving him acres of space to play in. Given the turn of the year, teams have started to focus on Adam and working hard in the centre of midfield to sit narrow and close out the passing angles to Grandin. This effectively strangled Blackpool and in combination with a few games strewn with poor forward movement and defensive errors largely explains why Blackpool have gone so long without getting wins. Given that Stoke and Bolton, two proponents of the 4-4-2 are next up at Bloomfield Road it will be interesting to see how they cope with the change of shape knowing that their two central midfielders will be outnumbered in a slightly different way than they were earlier on in the season.

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Narrow Margins – Blackpool 1 – 1 Newcastle

A much improved Blackpool team worked hard and dominated Newcastle for large parts of the game as the Tangerines gained another Premier League point. An early strike by Peter Lovenkrands was cancelled out by a DJ Campbell flick, but in truth Blackpool had the better chances and would’ve hoped to have converted again to secure the three points.

Line Ups

Newcastle's 4-4-2 with Barton sitting in narrow matching up against Blackpool's 4-3-3.

This match saw Blackpool’s 4-3-3 go up against Newcastle’s 4-4-2, but as will be noted later on, it wasn’t a straight forward 4-4-2. Ian Holloway brought Matthew Phillips in to his attack and David Vaughan returned in to the centre of midfield, whilst Alex Baptiste took over from Craig Cathcart in the centre of defence. Although DJ Campbell started on the left of the attack, as usual the front three interchanged positions throughout the game, Campbell generally being better through the middle. Newcastle brought Kevin Nolan in to the centre of midfield after his suspension. Earlier in the season Blackpool had enjoyed good success against teams playing regular 4-4-2 as Elliot Grandin as the central midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 was able to drift in to the space between the opposition midfield and defence. Here Ian Holloway rolled out his Championship midfield triumvirate who appear to hold a much flatter field position, but subtly rotate attacking and defensive roles. It was a fluidity that perplexed many Championship teams last year and in this match it appeared to spark in to life again.

Modifications

Newcastle on the other hand covered the space in front of their defence that Blackpool like to exploit by getting Cheik Tiote to sit deeper than Kevin Nolan in the centre of midfield. Jonas Gutierrez was told to stretch the width of the pitch on the left-wing, whilst Joey Barton sat much narrower in-field on the right, presumably to deny the space afforded to Blackpool’s midfield in order to help Newcastle control that area of the pitch. In truth this never seemed to work as Barton appeared to be off the pace of the game and was physically dominated at times by Keith Southern and Charlie Adam. This also left plenty of space wide on the left that allowed Stephen Crainey to attack from left back and put in a couple of dangerous crosses and passes in the final third.

Signal left

Newcastle defended deep but in truth Blackpool did dominate the possession in the game. When in possession it appeared that Newcastle either by design or by consequence of their own strength focused their play down their left. Other recent Blackpool opponents have taken the same approach deliberately, as a key perceived weakness of Blackpool is the right back area. You can see below where Newcastle attempted the majority of their duels, notice how many they lost wide left and in the middle and final third.

The string of red dots on the left wing showed that if Newcastle did target that area, then they enjoyed little success.

In fact Newcastle lost the battle of duels only winning 22 out of 62 challenges. This proved pivotal as Blackpool were strong on the ground and in the air winning 16 more challenges to clock up 38 out of 61 successes. This will have been from the fielding of the flatter midfield three in combination with the relentless pressing that Blackpool applied to keep Newcastle under pressure. In recent weeks Blackpool triangulated midfield has been thwarted by stern opposition midfield, but also by poor play by Elliot Grandin. It is vital in the triangular version of Blackpool’s system that the player at the tip of the triangle moves effectively to find space and then is efficient with his distribution to link up with the forward line. When this fails to happen the player becomes isolated and effectively Blackpool become a two-man central midfield.

Re-Vaughan

Having David Vaughan back in the side, not only gave Blackpool more passing stability and reliability, but he came back tackling as tenacious as ever and made surging runs from deep midfield that Newcastle on occasion found difficult to track. Should he remain fit for the last four games then Blackpool will take this relegation battle down to the wire. You can see below how his steady passing was complimented by him winning 6 out of 6 of his duels.

All round midfield performance from David Vaughan.

Back to front

Blackpool’s defence has been inconsistent all season long, however, at the heart of that defence is Ian Evatt, who turned in a solid defensive display yesterday. However, it was his timed runs from defence as well as his passing that really caught the eye. By breaking from the back Newcastle (already struggling against numerical weakness) were overloaded and Evatt drove in to the final third and triggered moves that led to chances for Blackpool. Look at his passing chalkboard below and you can see how he progresses right in to the final third.

Another dimension to Blackpool's play as Ian Evatt steps out of defence.

Held up

Even though Newcastle at times struggled to gain a foothold in this game, they did carry a threat going forward when they had the ball. Enrique and Gutierrez were direct with their running and worked hard to get the ball in to the right areas for their forwards. However, it was Ameobi who struggled to find his feet, quite literally early in the game as he inexplicably lost his footing when a scoring opportunity beckoned. Aerially he performed solidly, but when acting as a platform for Newcastle to build attacks on, all too often he failed to link up with a team-mate. You can see how many mis-placed passes there are on his chalkboard below.

Linking the play was a trouble for Ameobi with too many red streaks here leading to plays breaking down.

Moving on

Newcastle seemed content with seeing out the game as the last ten minutes came on the clock, they are safe for another season of Premier League football and that might have showed a little. Moving in to next season they clearly have a stable base on which to build. Cheik Tiote provides a lovely balance for their midfield and Enrique breaks with purpose from the back. However, the holding and link up play up front will need to be much better should Alan Pardew stick with the same system. Ian Holloway on the other hand will be much happier to see his ‘old’ midfield trio find their feet for the first time in a Premier League match and should they progress and dominate other midfields like they did here then maybe Blackpool will defy the odds and stay up.

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The long and the short of it

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.

Territorial

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.

Spanish Inquisition

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?

Increasingly long

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.

Going long more often as the season progresses.

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.

Tapping up

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.

*For the purposes of this article a long free kick was defined as a free kick that is taken from the defensive and middle thirds, landing in to the opponents penalty area.
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Error Prone – Blackpool 1 – 3 Wigan

Wigan took the points as they turned in a composed performance, taking advantage of chances handed to them by Blackpool. Blackpool on the other hand will want to forget this error strewn match as Ian Holloway continues his search for a settled first eleven.

Setting up

Overloading the apparent weakness.

The team selection for Blackpool centred on the return of Matt Gilks in goal and the restoration of Neil Eardley at right back with Elliot Grandin coming in to the midfield. For Blackpool the problem from the Arsenal game remained how to compensate for the loss of David Vaughan. In truth no one really covered his position providing Blackpool with the same gap in their balance that caused them problems against Arsenal i.e. there’s not enough cover for the defence nor disruption of the opposition midfield. Wigan were somewhere between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-5-1, with Steve Gohouri coming in for the suspended Maynor Figueroa. Roberto Martinez asked Ben Watson and James McCarthy to sit deeper than Mohamed Diame who appeared to be asked to play higher up the pitch. Presumably to apply pressure to Charlie Adam in the deep.

Plain speaking

Tactically the game itself was pretty plain from Blackpool’s perspective. Presumably the individual errors took away and coherency from their play and didn’t allow them to execute their game plan. One element that was clearly not apparent, which seemed obvious, was to target the left back Steve Gohouri who may have found an appearance at left back somewhat uncomfortable.

However, it was Martinez who made the most distinctive tactical moves. Firstly, as mentioned above, stationing Diame higher up the pitch to pressurise Charlie Adam and deny him the space that he thrives on. The other tactical element that Martinez appeared to bring to the game was to focus Wigan’s play down their left flank. Blackpool’s right back area is one of concern for Ian Holloway and his constant switching between Eardley and Alex Baptiste shows his doubt about the position. Whilst Wigan didn’t really get a lot of joy down the left, they were confident on passing the ball about in that zone of the pitch, Tom Cleverley, N’Zogbia and Diame all focused their passing and running in to that area and that can be seen in the high concentration of passes on the chalkboard below.

Left, left, left, right, left (repeat to fade)

Back to three

The major piece of tactical intrigue from Ian Holloway came when the game was dead, therefore the value of his change must be tempered by that fact, however, it is well worth noting what he tried. After his triple substitution failed to change the game within his normal framework he pushed Neil Eardley in to central midfield turning Blackpool in to a 3-5-2. Arguably Blackpool’s system has been exposed in recent weeks as the player at the tip of the midfield triangle has either been squeezed out of play by the opposition or the player hasn’t played well. If either of these or both happen then Blackpool’s system becomes more predictable. The shift to a 3-5-3 flattened the midfield three bringing in Eardley who is more competent on the ball in to the area of the pitch that Blackpool had surrendered to Wigan through poor displays from Keith Southern and Charlie Adam. The shift to this system gave Blackpool more control and composure in the centre. Whether this system would work elsewhere isn’t clear, what is clear is that Neil Eardley could well play more games in the centre of midfield and this is something that has been toyed with for a while as Holloway tried him in central midfield during pre-season.

Watson in control

Another point to note is that while Charlie Adam is heading to the PFA Awards he will be left to reflect on a game where he was outplayed by Ben Watson. Watson dominated the centre of the pitch winning all 9 of his duels, passing efficiently and breaking up play with 4 interceptions.

Wigan gained control of the centre through Ben Watson.

All too often since the turn of the year has Charlie Adam been wasteful in possession which could be through his own drop in performance, opposition pressure or lack of cohesion from his team mates taking away the platform which he usually performs well upon. From the chalkboard below the red streaks of failed passes dominate as his pass completion drop to 53%

Keeping it simple

Charlie Adam was wasteful and Ben Watson showed how to retain possession and stringing his side together. However, as individual performances go Tom Cleveley was safe in possession and Charles N’Zogbia showed the direct running and link up play that make him a very dangerous player when he wants to be.

No bite

The final point to make is that without David Vaughan Blackpool are even weaker in defensive passages of play and struggle to break up the opposition. Wigan were superb in their passing, but also superb in breaking up Blackpool’s play with 19 interceptions. Blackpool’s error will have contributed to this, but Blackpool had no answer to this only being able to make 9 interceptions themselves.

No contest. A fine smattering versus a splutter.

Moving on

Blackpool need to be much better off and on the ball in their final few games working harder to disrupt teams as well as cutting out errors and recovering better from those that they make. Wigan will be happy with three points, but they will have harder tests than this and will need Ben Watson, Charles N’Zogbia and Tom Cleverley to keep building play in the final third order to threaten better teams.

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‘Statting’ the narrative

The tactical elements of this game were covered very succinctly over on Zonal Marking, so this post is a brief look at the passing stats of the game and using them to back up the narrative set down by Zonal Marking.

The Narrative

Blackpool started brightly without ever troubling Arsenal who went on to score two goals before half-time. After half time Blackpool came out fast and worked hard and troubled Arsenal. Blackpool scored, then Arsenal reasserted their dominance scoring a third goal to put the game out of reach.

If you look at the pass completions of both sides and plot them on a graph against the time of the match does this show up?

Blackpool (tangerine) v Arsenal (red)

Yes it does, is the simple answer. You can see for yourself that Arsenal dominate in the pass, completing more passes than Blackpool and at a higher completion rate, then half time comes along and the lines scramble as Arsenal fall apart and Blackpool come back in to the game. Then the pattern is restored.

Vaughan Free

The other observation from the game centres around the lack of David Vaughan in the Blackpool side. This is something that Blackpool will have to cope with again in the game this Saturday and possibly for longer. Keith Southern came in to the side, a more recognised defensive minded midfielder. However, a replacement for David Vaughan he was not. Admittedly, a game against a team like Arsenal isn’t the best comparator, but Blackpool lacked midfield bite in the form of tackles on the ground and the interceptions that Vaughan contributes so effectively.

Wait! The match stats show that Blackpool had 8 interceptions! That’s about par for the course you say (Blackpool have averaged 11 interceptions per game this season). The key here is how many occurred late on the game when the match was dead. Only 2 of those 8 occurred in the key period of the game. Arsenal in comparison intercepted Blackpool steadily throughout the game to record 24 in total. See the chalkboard below.

Of Blackpools 8 match interceptions, 6 of them occurred in the last 7 mins.

Also, looking at the tackle count, the team won 30 and lost 31 tackles, however, Vaughan’s replacement, Southern chipped in with only 1 won tackle (aerial) and Adam and Jason Puncheon who formed the rest of the midfield three chipped in with 2 and 2 respectively. Vaughan on average has won 4 tackles per match this season. A big gap in the Blackpool midfield that needs to be filled when Wigan take to the Bloomfield Road pitch on Saturday.

Finally, if the interceptions and tackles don’t wash, then a quick glance at the first Arsenal goal (and the second to an extent) shows the absence of a midfielder tracking a midfield runner. Vaughan is usually so well positioned and as mentioned in a previous post, will track back to cover runs from the opposition midfield.

Mind the gap

Charlie Adam may well be going to the PFA awards dinner on Sunday, but the man on the treatment table holds the key to Blackpool’s survival in the Premier League. His level of performance has been exceptional, should Ian Holloway be to replace his industry and quality in his starting eleven then maybe the loss of Vaughan will not rock the boat too much. Fail to replace Vaughan and Blackpool will lose him forever (he is out of contract in the summer) as they face the new season in the Championship.

*Credit to Graham MacAree from We Ain’t Got No History for his help on Tableau, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

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Intercepting a chalkboard

This is what happens when you make too many interceptions

There are many aspects of football that fascinate, from wonder goals to the angled pass that opens up a seemingly impenetrable defence, however, very few people would say that the interception is something that stands out in 90 minutes of action. However, the humble interception is something that can be crucial, perfectly timed and treated with care can turn defence in to attack. With the availability of chalkboards, many writers have asserted the importance of interceptions as being a critical factor in the outcome of games. The location and frequency of them being the facets to hold in high regard. Intercept high up the pitch and the assumption is that the opposition is on the back foot and you have less distance to go to the opposition goal, keep on intercepting time after time and the opposition will struggle to get their rhythm going. What a chalkboard doesn’t tell you is the outcome of the interception. An interception that leads to a counter attack or retention of possession may possibly hold more weight than an interception that gives the ball back to the opposition, thus conceding any advantage you have just gained.

Definition

This post attempts to understand the outcome of the interceptions that you can see on the chalkboard below from the recent Fulham v Blackpool game. Why is this even important? It might be entirely erroneous, it might even be disregarded as irrelevant nonsense, however, it might just help to add that little bit of qualitative analysis to a graphic that can often tell a story that may or may not be apparent.

What is important to note is that this may not be the greatest example of how effective the interception is within a game, this is merely an illustration of trying to assign value to interceptions.

The interceptions in question

Video killed the interception

Looking at the video of the match each interception was viewed and assessed for its outcome, did the interceptor allow his team to retain possession and progress or was the ball given back to the opposition. The former was given a positive outcome and the latter, a negative outcome.

Location, location, location

What can be see immediately is that Fulham had more interceptions than Blackpool. You can see that they enjoyed one in the attacking third, but the majority occurred in the middle third and had 6 more in that third than Blackpool could muster. This was one factor cited in the match review which served to back up Fulham’s control of the central ground. Was that a hasty comment? An interception is what it is and they will have certainly disrupted Blackpool’s flow in the middle third, however, only 4 of those 10 had a positive outcome for Fulham. However, on the flip side, 6 of them were turned back over to Blackpool.

In the context of this game, those positive outcomes might be very important, however, outside of this game you would assume that the better a team and the better they perform then you might expect to see that ratio increase as defence turns to attack or possession once gained, becomes harder to surrender. What you can see below is the positive or negative outcomes assigned for each interceptions.

In the context of this match you could say that Blackpool’s inability to turn their interceptions to their advantage may well have an impact on their attempts to gain a foothold in the game. The majority of their interceptions were in the defensive third, so even though the chalkboard says they made an interception it really had less value than it might seem. In fact all 10 of their interceptions ended up back in the possession of Fulham without them gaining any advantage at all.

Making sense of it all

This might have proved nothing and been a waste of time, however, hopefully it sparks some interest and appreciation of the dimensions that chalkboards portray, but also of the nature of the interception within the game. The transistion phase is something mooted quite often in relation to football, the interception is one aspect of this and perhaps a team that uses the interceptions wisely may well enjoy more success. Obviously this example cannot prove that, but perhaps with the right inclination and time then this approach could be used across a wider sample involving teams of differing quality by someone with more intelligence. Whatever happens, Blackpool were wasteful when they intercepted in this game and lost the chance to catch Fulham out of position and gain an advantage.

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Statuesque – Fulham 3 – 0 Blackpool

Bobby Zamora showed Blackpool’s forwards how to be incisive and decisive as Fulham controlled the key areas of the pitch and the game to record a deserved victory. For all the possession that Blackpool had, their forwards were too static, reducing their attacking options.

Setting Up

Arguably the initiative was handed to Mark Hughes through Ian Holloway’s team selection. The key decision seemed to centre on the inclusion of James Beattie in order to add extra height against a Fulham side whom he thought possessed great height and aerial ability. This was a strange move as Holloway normally tends to veer towards the positive selection based on his team’s strengths instead of countering the opposition.

Fulham set up in a standard 4-4-2 but their work within that framework closed out any space Blackpool might have normally found against a 4-4-2.

Controlling the middle

Fulham controlled the space in midfield superbly to gain control of the game. Their midfield four sat narrow and applied pressure to the Blackpool midfield to disrupt their flow. You can see from the picture below how the midfield sat narrow out of possession with Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy closing the space in the centre and Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff moving in off their wings.

Fulham sat narrow off the ball in midfield bringing in their wingers to support their two central midfielders.

Etuhu had a particularly good game working hard in the tackle especially in the first half. In total he made 9 tackles winning 7 of them with 5 of those coming in the first half.

Stuck in the mud

The picture above serves to illustrate the second key point of the game, the static nature of the Blackpool’s statuesque forwards. Arguably the key points of Blackpool’s game are good possession of the ball, linking up with effervescent movement up front, leading to excellent passing opportunities and subsequently chances at goal. The picture above shows the three Blackpool forwards all but stood still, two of them out of the game and the one offering to receive the pass is doing so whilst strolling away from the goal.

Arguably Blackpool’s forwards only made two runs of great note and they both led to chances. Both runs were usual fayre for Blackpool but such a rarity in this game that they deserve to be picked out as illustrations of  good movement. Firstly, Brett Ormerod runs across the pitch in behind the defence, before curving his run as he reads the pass from Craig Cathcart. You can see his run tracked below.

Ormerod making a rare insightful run.

The second run was made by James Beattie, presumably fresh from half-time instructions from his manager to make runs in to space instead of standing still. Here he pulls off in to the right wing before heading down the line and then inside the box to narrowly miss the target.

Resembling the Jacko statue outside Craven Cottage Beattie rarely moved intelligently, when he did he nearly scored.

Great movement, but two examples in a game which Blackpool comprehensively dominated in the passing game is a poor return. Of Blackpool’s passes, 56% of the successful passes were in the middle third and 27% in the defensive third leaving only 17% of total completed passes in the final third. A whopping 442 passes were in the defensive and middle thirds and Fulham was more than happy in letting them dominate.

Got to be starting something? Yes. But not creating or finishing.

Combination

A combination of good possession and lack of  options in attack was all too familiar in this game. The chalkboard below was the story of Blackpool’s afternoon. You can see that a nice passing move commences in the 5th minute along the back line, in to midfield before a hopeful punt up field from Stephen Crainey conceded possession.

Pass and move. Tiki-taka. Boof-hoof!

Home straight

Blackpool now have four home games on the spin and these games will most probably decide their Premier League fate. Holloway came back from Spain this week full of ideas and in time it will be seen whether he has learned anything from that experience. However, he will now be focusing on ensuring that his statues from Craven Cottage don’t pop up again next week at Bloomfield Road against Arsenal.

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