Thursday, 20 January 2011

Diagonally Speaking

Blackpool's use of the long diagonal has been a key tactic during the tenure of Ian Holloway, but until recently has garnered little attention. Pundits and fans alike have firmly pigeon-holed the Seasiders as a passing side, with neat, short passing a main ingredient in the success of Holloway's team. What has been overlooked is the often direct nature of Blackpool when attacking, but this is anything but traditional long ball football.

How They Line Up

Since taking over at Bloomfield Road, Holloway has strictly relied on variations of the 4-3-3 formation. As a Championship side, Blackpool played a rigid 4-3-3, but this has evolved during 2010/11 into a more fluid 4-2-1-3, Elliot Grandin often being the man to occupy the advanced midfield role. Where Blackpool are almost unique is how they utilise the three forward players. In the majority of 4-3-3 variants, the two wide forwards nearly always drop back when defending to form a solid 4-5-1. Not so at Blackpool.

Following the recent 2-1 home win over Liverpool, Holloway spoke in his post-match interviews about how he believed "width is the future". The use of long, sweeping diagonal balls out to the two wide front players allows 'Pool to stretch the play the whole width of the pitch. In doing so the front three retain a much more advanced position than in many other 4-3-3 variants. Before we get into the crux of this article however, we must first examine what constitutes a long diagonal.

What is a Long Diagonal?

There is no black and white rule as to what can be classed as a long diagonal, and each person's definition could be slightly different. In order to produce this analysis though, it is important to try and be consistent with which passes are counted as long diagonals, and which are not. For the record, I have conducted my analysis using the following criteria:
  • Passes were successful
  • Only passes from open play are included
  • Crosses have not been included
  • Long diagonals from the goalkeeper have not been included
There are two conditions which are not so easy to clarify however - the length of the pass and the angle of the diagonal. Referring to the angle of the pass, I have tried to focus on passes between 280° and 350° for passes to the left flank, and passes between 10° and 80° for passes to the right flank. It is hard to be specific about what length of pass I have used as the cut off mark, as this has been done on a visual basis, but I hope I've been consistent.

Types of Diagonal

When these long diagonal passes are made, it occurs to me that they can be broken down into two basic categories, which affect how the passage of play develops. I would label these as contested and uncontested diagonals. Let me explain this in diagram form.

1. Contested Diagonals

In a contested situation, the player on the end of the long diagonal receives the ball in close proximity to a defender. This prevents the attacker running forwards, but what Blackpool do so well in these scenarios, is surround the area with bodies pushing on from elsewhere. As soon as the long diagonal is launched, you will see the full-back, midfielders and central front player migrate towards the ball anticipating the second ball.

2. Uncontested Diagonals

Where Blackpool can be at their most exciting is in situations where the long diagonal is not contested by the opposing team. This is when a 'Pool player receives the ball unmarked and drives towards goal. It is from these positions that the Seasiders attack with real pace and intent. This is where Holloway's attacking ethos really shines, as the whole side move forward at once looking to get as many bodies in the box as quick as possible.

How Many?

We have now determined what a long diagonal is, and how Blackpool use them to their advantage, so it's time we examine the figures - just how many long diagonals do 'Pool make? In the 21 Premier League games so far this season, Blackpool have made 149 successful long diagonal passes, which works out at just over 7 per match. It might not seem like a particularly high figure when Blackpool can make 300+ successful passes per game, but this is a very specific type of pass which can often be defence-splitting.

The Main Suspects

The long diagonal is a ball Holloway appears to encourage all of his players to attempt, but the table below shows exactly which players make most use of this tactic. Included in this table are all players who have successfully made 5 or more of these passes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Charlie Adam comes out on top, the number of successful long diagonals played by Adam dwarfing that of his teammates. On average Adam makes three successful long diagonals per match, three times the average of Ian Evatt and Dekel Keinan. It can be argued that David Vaughan has at the very least matched Adam's performance levels this season, if not even eclipsed him slightly according to many Blackpool fans. However, when it comes to mixing up a range of passing, Adam is peerless. When Adam is given space, he will often look up to see if the long diagonal is an option.

When Adam's audacious passes come off they are worth the entrance fee alone, and I've compiled 10 of the best into the following animation. Some of them were so good they can even be appreciated in chalkboard form...if you're a statistic-obsessed freak like me, that is.

Vaughan's range of passing tends to be somewhat shorter, as he looks to keep things simple, giving Adam the freedom to be more adventurous. Vaughan is sandwiched in the table by Evatt and his fellow centre-back Craig Cathcart. Evatt has completed the second highest number of long diagonals, averaging exactly one per game. Cathcart looks for this outlet less frequently, but still more often than the 'Pool full-backs. Neal Eardley appears to have embraced this tactic more than Stephen Crainey, particularly in recent weeks with two successful long diagonals against both Birmingham and Liverpool. Crainey is much more reluctant to play the long diagonal, averaging roughly only one successful diagonal every three games.

One man who unexpectedly made the above list is Dekel Keinan, who made six successful long diagonal passes, with only six appearances to his name - only Adam and Evatt can match or better his average. Keinan seems destined not to break through at Blackpool though, with a rumoured transfer window move to Cardiff on the cards, but it is a dimension of his game that could have been a useful attribute.

A further nine players have made successful long diagonal passes at some point this season, albeit none have made more than than two. All of these players however are either fringe players or players who occupy a forward role - long diagonals are understandably hit from a deeper position and it cannot be expected for attackers to be making these types of passes on a regular basis.

Angle of Attack

So now we know which players are comfortable with the tactic, but which areas are these diagonals hit towards? The table below tells all.

It has been mentioned before (here on Zonal Marking and here on Tangerine Dreaming) that 'Pool tend to attack more frequently down the left, and these statistics confirm this - 57% of the long diagonals played are hit towards the left wing. A tendency for Luke Varney to stick out wide more so than Gary Taylor-Fletcher is probably one reason for this, but the players responsible for the long diagonal passes must also be a factor in this. 

Neal Eardley's long diagonals, for instance, will always be aimed towards the left flank, while Adam and Vaughan, both left-footed, prefer to pass in their natural direction. Blackpool's left-sided bias will surely have been picked up on by opposing teams, and this could be another reason why Luke Varney has been less effective in recent weeks, as discussed in the review of the West Brom match.

Home or Away?

Now we know which players make the diagonals, and into which areas, but does it make a difference whether 'Pool are home or away?

In some ways the above statistics seem obvious, and in other ways unexpected - Blackpool average nearly nine successful diagonals per home match, dropping to just over six per away game. As the home side it should be natural for 'Pool to be able to dictate the game, and enforce their own plans on the opposing side. Then again, on a pitch smaller than many other in the Premier League, creating the space for long diagonals is a much harder proposition. In the remaining away games, Holloway will undoubtedly seek to better utilise the space offered on the larger pitches away from home.

Do Diagonals = Success?

In many ways this question should answer whether Holloway's use of the long diagonal tactic is worthwhile. The following table makes for an intriguing read.

Fascinatingly, the table indicates that the the more long balls played in a match, the less successful 'Pool are. The Seasiders average 7.6 successful long diagonals in defeats, but only 6.5 in games which they won. However, let's try to put this in context. On a small sample of 21 results, the difference between the win and loss averages of only 1.1 is negligible. One outlying result also heavily skews the numbers. In the 3-2 home defeat to Manchester City, 'Pool successfully made an incredible 15 long diagonal passes, in a game they were extremely unlucky to lose. If this figure was taken out, the revised average would be only 6.6, roughly the same as the win average.

Another point that should be taken into consideration here, is that metrics are notoriously hard to link to success in football compared to other sports, despite several people trying down the years. As covered by Jonathan Wilson in his excellent tactics bible Inverting the Pyramid, research carried out in the 1950s by a retired RAF Wing Commander advocated the long ball game, based on flawed statistics, showing that the majority of goals are scored following only three passes. As a result it was concluded that the ball should be worked from one end of the pitch to the other as soon as possible. Such theories have long been dispelled, and so it is no different here. It would be far too simplistic to reason that if Blackpool could increase the number of their long diagonals, it would directly lead to improved results. Rather it is about the quality of such passes, and in Blackpool's case, mixing them up with clever short passing to test opponents in various ways.


We have now determined in-depth how exactly 'Pool use the long diagonal as part of their system, which players use the tactic most often, and how it ties in to success. Taking all of the above into consideration, we can pick out a couple of key observations.
  • Blackpool's mixed range of passing will be severely compromised if Charlie Adam leaves
    • Adam's value to the team has never been questioned, and he is in all senses of the word a talisman for the team. He is also key to providing a combination of short and long passing that continues to cause problems for Premier League defences. If Adam does move on, a significant aspect of 'Pool's tactical approach will be hampered. His existing under-study in the squad, Ludovic Sylvestre, has completed only two successful long diagonals in his six league appearances. It is unlikely Sylvestre can bring exactly what Adam does to the team, which may mean Holloway has to look to the transfer market for a like-for-like replacement.
  • Blackpool should look right more often 
    • Given the left sided bias in the Seasiders' attacks this season, Holloway should encourage his players to be more unpredictable by using the right flank more often. There are signs, however, that this is already beginning to happen. The emergence of Matt Phillips as a genuine option has seen 'Pool use the right wing to a greater extent. For example, in the game at Eastlands where Phillips was introduced at half-time, six of the seven long diagonals that day were hit towards the right flank. As well as his pace, Phillips' physical stature and fine first touch provides a better outlet for the long diagonal on this side of the pitch.
  • Blackpool should take more advantage of the wider pitches away from home
    • Away from the compact Bloomfield Road, Holloway's side have been somewhat reluctant to make use of the long diagonal. Attacking on the counter into open spaces, the long diagonal could prove to be a potent weapon. However, the reduced usage of the long diagonal in away games could stem from a lack of freedom, and with less time on the ball it is more difficult to pick out the long diagonal.
  • Long diagonals are not the be-all and end-all
    • It is obviously a conscious tactic from Ian Holloway to implement the long diagonal, but success does not hinge on its use. Like any tactic in football, its effectiveness depends on a whole heap of other factors and quantity of long diagonals does not equate directly to points on the board, as the above table proves.
The use of the long diagonal is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses, particularly if the worst does happen and Charlie Adam moves on this month. Blackpool are an open book when it comes to their attacking instincts, but the way they mix up their play with short and long passes is possibly one reason why the Seasiders haven't yet been found out in the same way many other promoted teams sometimes are. At this point it would appear Ian Holloway's best strategy for keeping Blackpool up is to carry on in the same vein, and as part of those tactics, that means the long diagonals ought to continue. Long live the long diagonal!


    1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading that. Must've taken you a while to get all those stats together.

    2. I think that Blackpool's long diagonal ball is overdone. Long passing is inclined to be less accurate that shorter passing, and can be a recipe for giving the ball to the opposition. Long high passes to smallish players is not recommended. Also, long passing is not recommended on windy days.

    3. Have to disagree with the last comment by Anonymous. Having the long diagonal pass as part of the teams attacking ethos simply means that defending sides have to be very wary of it. Thus it opens up space for a three man central midfield to pass their way through the opposition when ever they get the chance. In truth the key is not the long diagonal pass itself but the whole range of passing used by the central players. Black pool have used this range of passing to great effect. Opposing teams reall don't know if they are playing a short passing compact team or a long passing team.

      Great article.

    4. A really interesting piece. Thanks for posting - switching play from side to side/long diagonals are hugely effective (if done well). Louis van Gaal has spoken about this before.

      It's particularly useful against pressing - if players are being pressed by numerous opposing players it is obvious there is space elsewhere on the pitch. A long diagonal/switching play is a good way to combat this or hit opposition weaknesses.


    5. Regarding the "more long diagonal passes in losses" finding, could it be that they are more prone to try this tactic when behind?

    6. This is fantastic. I wish I'd discovered your page earlier. I hope you will do tactical analysis for other teams in the future. I like reading your stuff. Since Blackpool are now in the Championship, we in the States won't be getting their games televised.

    7. Thanks for your kind words.

      I'm a Blackpool fan, so will mainly be sticking to all things 'Pool, albeit without a lot of the stats that are provided for teams in the Premier League. Hopefully we can bounce back at the first attempt.

      As for other sides, I do have a few plans, but if I do anything this detailed for another team, it'll likely be for a German side.