In a thrilling encounter at the Riverside on Saturday, Blackpool did well to emerge with a point against a strong Middlesbrough side. Boro twice took the lead but goals from Ludovic Sylvestre and Jonjo Shelvey secured an away draw for the Seasiders. Here are my observations on the game.
1. Emnes and McDonald a handful
Middlesbrough will have been disappointed not to have taken all three points on Saturday, and a large contributing factor in that was the performance of their strikers, Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald. Both have had to endure a tricky spell to start their careers on Teesside, but now seem to be through that stage and look a real threat.
Emnes was the player that had most 'Pool fans talking after the game, his ability to hold the ball and his directness causing problems for Ian Evatt and Craig Cathcart, with Alex Baptiste also having a decidedly rocky first half struggling to cope with the Middlesbrough forwards. Emnes did have a tendency to go to ground a little too easily, but it's easy to see why Boro have had a good start to the season on the back of 10 goals from the Dutchman.
For me though, the more impressive of the two was McDonald. Arriving on a hefty-by-Championship-standards pricetag - £3.5m from Celtic - McDonald bagged both goals for the hosts and I was surprised to learn he'd had something of a scoring drought this season up until recently. Despite his relative lack of height, he won more than his fair share of headers, and was perhaps unlucky not to get a hat-trick on the day.
2. Phillips and Clarke back in the fold
After their successful month long spell on loan at Sheffield United, Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke both featured from the bench at the Riverside. Whether they'd both have made the 16 without the late removal of Lomana Lua Lua from the squad - Ian Holloway left him out after the forward missed a team meeting on the day of the game - is unclear, but given how they performed at Bramall Lane it was just reward for the pair.
Of the two, it was Matt Phillips who demonstrated a more visible impact once he joined the action midway through the second half. Phillips did not only assist Shelvey's equaliser, but he was also involved in a few similar chances that may have even won all three points for Blackpool at the death. It's important for Phillips to have confidence back in running with the ball and crossing into dangerous areas. Saturday was a fine example of how to do that, and if he can replicate that form as the season progresses, there's no doubt he can play a big role for 'Pool this campaign.
Clarke had fewer minutes on the pitch to impress, but still showed signs that his spell on loan has been productive. Clarke won praise during his loan spell for the creative side of his game playing just off the main striker - the lack of goals more than made up for by the amount of goals he set up. Looking to tap into this, Holloway used Clarke on Saturday in the hole behind the front three. It was noticeable that Clarke often picked up the ball from a rather deep-lying position, and with so much competition for the forward roles, Clarke's best chance of any kind of regular action may be in this position.
3. Gilks – in form but note of caution
Matt Gilks won the man of the match award for most onlookers of a Blackpool persuasion, and quite rightly so, as the former Rochdale keeper put in another fine display. There is a case to be made that he is player of the season so far and more performances such as this will only strengthen that view.
Once again 'Pool had to rely on their stopper to bail them out of some worrying situations, Gilks making several excellent saves to keep Blackpool in the contest. One save in particular in the first half will be remembered fondly, as Gilks dived low to his right to deny McDonald - comparisons to Gordon Banks vs. Pele weren't far off the mark at all.
However, for all of the great work Gilks did, if we're going to be picky then some of his distribution left a little to be desired. His desire to release the ball quickly is certainly to be commended, but sometimes a slight hesitation might be the best idea. Gilks' quick throw-outs gifted possession to the opposition more than a couple of times, leading to some very dangerous moments indeed. However, that slight blemish aside Gilks is proving a steady foundation, and some minutes for Scotland are surely massively overdue.
4. Blackpool – below par but a hard-won point
Matt Gilks was not the only Blackpool player to give up possession easily, and it was endemic amongst the men in tangerine throughout the match. Uncharacteristically for 'Pool, the passing was not nearly as accurate as it could be and it led to some quick counter-attacks and end-to-end football, with Boro too guilty at times, although not nearly as often.
The way Blackpool failed to hold onto the ball was down in part due to the strong pressing game employed by Tony Mowbray's men. Middlesbrough sought to restrict the time 'Pool had on the ball and did this well, particularly in the first half. Blackpool encountered this pressing tactic against Burnley a few weeks ago, but did cope slightly better this time around with a flatter midfield three.
As already mentioned, Boro were the more dominant team over the course of the whole game, but it should not be underestimated what an achievement it was to come from behind twice. Doing so in any away game is an excellent feat, but at a team with such a handy home record the comebacks were even more impressive. In a pre-season contribution to The Seventy Two, I tipped Middlesbrough as a side who "could make a credible challenge for the play-offs". It's now clear Boro are genuine promotion candidates and so a point for 'Pool should be regarded as a fantastic outcome.