Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Seaside Strategy - Bolton Wanderers Away

A great point, all told, but disappointing not to claim all three points having led 2-0 with just 15 minutes to go. Bolton have proven on many occasions this season that they are not a team to be taken lightly and following their last home outing resulting in a 5-1 demolition of Newcastle, you'd have been hard pressed to find a 'Pool fan unhappy with a draw at the Reebok. However, DJ Campbell's missed chances with the score at 2-0 ended up costing the Seasiders the victory when it looked all but assured.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Seaside Strategy - Wolverhampton Wanderers Home

Blackpool never make things easy - this we know - and so despite what for large parts of the game seemed a straight-forward victory, another late goal caused a panicky end to a match once more. It may not have been the most eye-pleasing of wins, but it was a vital three points over a side against whom 'Pool are directly competing with this season. This result puts the Seasiders nine points ahead of both West Ham and Wolves, a sizeable cushion at this stage of the season. What about the performance though? Where did Ian Holloway's side gets things right, and which areas need to be looked at for improvement?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Seaside Strategy - West Ham United Away

Quite how this game finished 0-0 is hard to comprehend for anyone who witnessed it, but in the end a point each was probably fair. Both teams will argue they could have won it, and Blackpool did have the better chances (plus the wrongly-disallowed Harewood goal) but a share of the spoils away from home anywhere this season has to be a respectable outcome. What do the stats tell us about the game?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Seaside Strategy - Aston Villa Away

With all the hoo-hah about team selection hopefully behind us, I'd like to take a look at how some of the fringe players performed, and whether it's possible for them to oust their teammates on a more regular basis.

Three players who had perhaps been closest to breaking into the starting XI prior to the game at Villa Park were David Carney, Ludovic Sylvestre and Matt Phillips. Did they put in a good enough shift to warrant keeping their places for the game against West Ham tomorrow, or are they likely to be back on the bench in another all-change approach from Ian Holloway?

In order to compare performances, I have used statistics from those who they replaced from the Manchester City game - that match also ending 3-2 being possibly the most suitable comparison.

Looking at Carney first, can he hope to keep Stephen Crainey out of the side? Crainey has drawn criticism for some of his performances this season, most noticeably away at Arsenal, but more often than not he has bounced back with a solid performance, making it hard for Holloway to drop him. Carney was brought in on deadline day as back-up for Crainey, but despite his experience with the Australian national side, has had to bide his time.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

The easiest thing to notice is just how much further up the pitch Crainey plays. Not only that, but Crainey also tries to contribute with assists, providing crosses on a number of occasions, while Carney failed to make one cross all game - his only passes into the Villa box coming from corners. This is fairly surprising, as Carney has played large spells of his career as a midfielder, giving the expectation that he would get forward more often than he did at Villa Park.

What, then, of Ludovic Sylvestre? I've chosen to compare his statistics against those of Charlie Adam. With Adam's future at Blackpool in doubt beyond January, many will be hoping that the former Barcelona trainee can step into his shoes. Sylvestre's performance was one of the highlights against Aston Villa, as he looked composed in possession and moved the ball neatly. He did tire as the game wore on, being visibly slow to track back in the latter stages, but that is only to be expected with so few first team minutes under his belt. What do the stats say about Sylvestre though? Can he hold a torch to Adam?

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Sylvestre made a particularly large number of passes, completing 61 of them successfully. In terms of sheer quantity, few Blackpool players have made quite so many passes in a single game this campaign. What about the quality of these passes though? Where Adam holds the advantage over Sylvestre is the areas in which he sees the ball. Adam's role is slightly higher up the pitch and thus taking up more dangerous positions in an attacking sense. Sylvestre looks to keep the ball ticking over nicely, but whether he offers the same drive as the 'Pool skipper remains to be seen.

Last, but not least, let's take a look at the star man from Wednesday night's game, Matt Phillips. When he signed from Wycombe in August, I expected he would be a peripheral figure for much of this season - one for the future, if you like. Even his cameo appearances have caught the eye, including his memorable goal against Blackburn, which should have been enough to earn 'Pool a point. A starting place was long overdue, and nobody took their chance more so than Phillips. For many, he was the most exciting player on the pitch, and of the 10 changes, he is possibly the candidate most likely to stay in the side tomorrow at Upton Park.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Comparing his performance to Gary Taylor-Fletcher's against Man City, you can see how Phillips helped give the Seasiders real width. Whereas GTF has a tendency to drift towards the centre of the pitch, Phillips ran at the full-back time and time again. He briefly switched to the left at one point in the first half, but even then he kept wide, rarely coming inside and making the 'Pool attack narrow. Perhaps most impressive was Phillips determination to get to the byline and deliver a cross. He created a number of chances doing this, which with some better finishing from Marlon Harewood, could have resulted in a more positive result. How long Phillips can maintain the high standards he has set himself is uncertain, but he is already establishing himself as a player of real quality.

Looking forward to tomorrow, Holloway has to decide which players come back in, and which ones drop out. I doubt there'll be another 10 changes, but you have to wonder if Carney and Sylvestre have done enough to keep out Crainey and Adam. Only fatigue or injury is likely to prevent Matt Phillips adding to his first Premier League start, and I'm hoping I'll have plenty more to write about the highly-exciting prospect after the game against West Ham.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Just the 10 changes, then

When I wrote before the Aston Villa game that changes were afoot, even I wasn't expecting quite so many of them. Ian Holloway opted to make no fewer than ten changes to the side that took to the field against Everton, and in doing so has drawn the full glare of the media spotlight. In the wake of this story, I think there are some key issues that should be looked at:

  • Was Holloway right to make so many changes?
  • Were the 'Pool fans who travelled short-changed?
  • Did Holloway over-react in the post-match interview?
  • Should the Premier League be getting involved?
  • Is Holloway's quit threat genuine?
  • What does this mean for Saturday?
  • What are the longer-term consequences? 

Let's take a look at these questions one at a time, and try to provide some answers...

Was Holloway right to make so many changes?

This obviously depends on your definition of right. The reasons given by the manager for the overhaul were twofold - the first being to rest players who have played regularly. This season has no doubt been a step up in terms of the standard and pace of the game, so the view that players need to be kept fresh is a worthy one. The second reason given by Holloway was to let some of the fringe players have an opportunity. Fringe players, might I add, that have been selected among Blackpool's 25 man squad submitted to the Premier League. 

By the letter of the law, surely fielding players part of this squad cannot possibly be construed as purposely sending out a weakened team? Then again, you have the ambiguous Premier League rule E.20 - "In every League Match each participating Club shall field a full strength team." In whose opinion? With pre-selected squads of 25, who determines just which players are strong and weak? Some might suggest a rule of limiting changes from game to game, but where would this arbitrary limit be set? A maximum of six changes? Seven? What if injuries and suspensions mean a team has to make more changes than this pre-determined limit?

Holloway has a squad, and he is surely entitled to use it as he sees fit, without outside influence.

Were the 'Pool fans who travelled short-changed?

This is a tricky one. Anyone who was at Villa Park last night cannot argue with the level of performance. First choice team or not, for long spells the men in tangerine matched their more illustrious counterparts, and but for a last minute goal from a set-piece, 'Pool would have come away with a well-earned point. The team sent out did not roll over, and did not do the club a disservice. Fans were given a chance to see potential future starts, such as Matt Phillips and Ludovic Sylvestre, shine on the big stage.

Then again, had a more familiar XI started the match, Seasiders' fans could have been rewarded with another away win. Villa, through a number of injuries, were also depleted, and arguably there for the taking. Last night cost me in excess of £50, and it will have cost many even more than that. Personally, I don't regret going and I still feel it was value-for-money in entertainment terms (as much as Premier League football can be good value). However, for financial reasons I am having to miss my first away game of the season at Upton Park on Saturday. Would I have chosen West Ham over Villa if I'd known that Holloway would make 10 changes? Possibly, possibly not. Is it really for me though, to pick and choose my games depending on the chances of my team winning? Absolutely not. Following Blackpool through some truly horrendous times, it would be churlish to now cry off at the first sign of the Premier League dream turning sour.

What's to say, though, that Blackpool would have played better with an unchanged team? In spells, 'Pool played as well as they have done all season, and in Phillips had one of the outstanding performances of the season so far. If some fans feel aggrieved at Holloway's decision, then that is their prerogative, but by and large, I believe most Blackpool supporters understand the reasons, even if they don't necessarily agree with them.

Did Holloway over-react in the post-match interview?

For me, this is possibly the heart of the story. Would the media reaction today have been so pronounced had Holloway not have been so 'wiggy' in his post-match interviews? I doubt it. In some ways, Holloway's reaction has become the story, rather than the changes themselves. Holloway may have felt his fringe players weren't being treated with due respect by post-match interviews, but a little more civility towards them might not have gone amiss. A quiet post-match press conference would have, in all likelihood, kept the issue largely under the radar.

Should the Premier League be getting involved?

This is a no-brainer. With the new rules on 25 men squads, this should be the end of the debate on weakened teams. It is not for the suits to decide what constitutes a full-strength team. The confirmation that the Premier League are looking at this issue is disappointing. By handing Wolves a suspended £25,000 fine for making 10 changes at Old Trafford last season, the authorities put themselves in an awkward predicament.

The precedent set in that case leaves the Premier League with three choices
  1. Follow through on their original decision giving Blackpool a similar punishment
  2. Admit their original decision was a mistake
  3. Judge Blackpool's transgression to be 'less wrong' than Wolves, perhaps giving Holloway a warning, or possibly take no action whatsoever
Going off past form, the second option is unlikely. I rather suspect the Premier League will take the easy way out, taking no action. Holloway has endeared himself to the country, and any sanctions would surely result in a public backlash Scudamore et al will be hoping to avoid. Following the first course of action could potentially have some very serious repercussions.

Is Holloway's quit threat genuine? 

Initially, I thought it probably wasn't. We all say things in the heat of the moment, and Holloway is certainly no different. In his press conference today, Holloway has stood firm on his threat to quit if the club are fined, claiming the team he picks should be down to him alone. It's hard to argue with him on this, and nor would I dare, but it still looks like he is backing himself into a bit of a corner. I don't imagine it's likely the club will be fined, but it cannot be completely ruled out.

If the club are fined, would he keep to his word and resign? This would obviously be disastrous, and I find it hard to believe he would walk away just like that, but it only goes to show just how intense the pressure is on managers at this level. I can't help but feel though that he has brought some of this on himself by being so outspoken post-match yesterday.

What does this mean for Saturday?

With 10 changes last night, there's every chance that nearly all those who were left out could return to the starting line-up, which would surely only magnify the issue and increase the probability of a fine. Again, you have to wonder if Holloway has dug himself into a hole here. Does he ignore all the media scrutiny and just pick the team he wants, or to temper the reaction, does he try and retain some of those who featured last night? 

Realistically, it's hard to imagine more than three or four players keeping their places. Phillips has done himself no harm in retaining his place, while Marlon Harewood might be given the chance to score against another of his former clubs. Injuries at the back to Craig Cathcart and Dekel Keinan could mean Rob Edwards stays at centre back, but beyond that I find it hard to see who else will keep their place. This would mean another eight changes, which is bound to cause another stir, deservedly or not.

What are the longer-term consequences? 

Looking forward to January, yesterday's match will prove very useful in assessing who might be surplus to requirements, and where extra depth might be needed. There are one or two who played last night that could be moved on to make room in the 25 for new blood, and others who will have impressed the manager enough to feature on a more regular basis.

More significantly though, is wondering how costly dropped points tonight could be. As already mentioned, picking a more familiar starting XI might not have necessarily effected a more positive result, but if 'Pool are relegated by a narrow margin at the end of the season, critics may well point to last night's team selection and wonder 'what if?'.


The outcome at Upton Park on Saturday will be instrumental to how last night's decision will be viewed. Three points on Saturday with a rejuvenated and fresh group of players will look like inspired management, especially when one considers how close 'Pool were to a draw last night. However, back-to-back defeats will inevitably lead to more searching questions about the decision to rest key players. Holloway has denied the changes were made with the trip to West Ham in mind, but from the outside looking in, a win over a team also battling against the drop is a more valuable one.

One point I must stress, and one that Holloway sought to achieve in his press conference today, is to note how well the replacements played. I've often thought more attention should be paid to the football itself, rather than the circus which surrounds it. That a Blackpool team with 10 changes was still able to compete at this level is a hugely encouraging sign for the rest of the season, when changes may be forced due to injuries and suspension, rather than fatigue.

I'll be doing a full analysis of the Villa match in the next 24 hours or so, when the focus will be firmly on the pitch.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Changes Afoot

As 'Pool prepare for their second of three games, in what our German friends would call an englische Woche, Ian Holloway has indicated that he may rest certain players for the trip to Villa Park, as he seeks to give some of his new players their first real chance to shine. But just how many changes can we expect?

The most obvious example of Holloway's willingness to make major changes to his side came in last season's home game against Sheffield United, where he made no fewer than seven. Ian Evatt, Charlie Adam, David Vaughan, Keith Southern, Hameur Bouazza and Billy Clarke all dropped to the bench, despite being automatic picks at the time. After a goalless opening 45 minutes, Adam and Vaughan were unleashed at half-time helping the Seasiders to a 3-0 victory.

Who, then, is vulnerable from the starting XI against Everton? Resting the goalkeeper would seem unnecessary, so I'd expect Matt Gilks to keep his place. Neal Eardley too looks hard to displace with Alex Baptiste still a couple of weeks away from fitness - it's unlikely Danny Coid would be thrown in. An injury to Craig Cathcart looks set to rule him out, while at left back David Carney may finally get the nod over Stephen Crainey.

The rest of the team isn't quite as easy to predict, the midfield especially. Holloway has shown in the past he's not afraid to rest his star men, but leaving out Vaughan and Adam for the same game would surely be a high-risk strategy. A few injury niggles to Adam in recent weeks though may mean that he is the more likely of the two to be rested. With Keith Southern not yet fully match fit, it is doubtful he will add to the 62 minutes he managed against Everton.

Up front Taylor-Fletcher is the man I would expect to be most at risk. GTF has stepped up to Premier League level surprisingly well, although his form has tailed off in the past few games, with time out of the side possibly the best thing for him. Luke Varney nearly missed the match against the Toffees, while DJ Campbell's goal drought could put his place in jeopardy.

With all this in mind, this is one potential team Holloway could send out to face Aston Villa.

Dekel Keinan is the obvious replacement for Cathcart, and with Carney featuring with more regularity from the bench, I suspect he may get his first start. Ludovic Sylvestre could come in if Adam is rested, with Elliot Grandin regaining his place behind the front three. Matt Phillips could not do any more to earn a place on the teamsheet and Marlon Harewood could be given the chance to score against his former employers. The remaining attacking place is anyone's guess, but at the moment it seems like Campbell is somewhat undroppable.

I'm not for a minute suggesting this is the team I would pick. A severely weakened Villa side is seemingly there for the taking, but Holloway's intentions to rotate his squad have been made quite explicit. It could be all mind games, but I'd expect the unexpected when the teams are announced tomorrow evening.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

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.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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.