Attack vs defence, brawn vs brains, dynamism vs discipline. These are the contrasting styles one has come to expect in a match where the sides are managed by West Ham’s Sam Allardyce or Blackpool’s Ian Holloway. Both manager’s popular reputations have been based on their time in the Premiership. Allardyce’s Bolton side were often derided for their efficient yet brutish football, characterised by the sizeable Kevin Davies, while Holloway’s Blackpool were lauded for their attacking intent but mocked for their defensive naivety. It is unlikely, however, for the play-off final to be a showcase for such contrasting styles. This season both managers have slightly changed in their approach and instead the playoff final should prove to be an exciting game for the neutral and a nerve-racking ordeal for both sets of fans.
Blackpool still remain one of the most thrilling and attractive footballing teams outside of the top flight. Ian Holloway’s side displays an unprecedentedly sophisticated passing game for a side in the Football League. For example, in the home leg of their play off semi-final against Birmingham, Blackpool had a passing accuracy percentage of 79.4% while in the second leg they reached 73.5 %. This is a particularly impressive achievement when one considers that the average for the Champions League is 81.76 % while the Premiership’s is 79.4 %. When it comes to keeping the ball therefore, Blackpool are already of Premiership standard. Holloway has drilled an unfashionable midfield featuring Barry Ferguson, Stephen Dobbie and Angel Martinez into a high-quality passing machine. West Ham’s narrow four-man midfield (the preferred starting line up features no out and out wide men) should help to restrict Blackpool’s dominance of possession yet the headache for Allardyce will be the danger lurking on Blackpool’s wings. Both Thomas Ince and Matt Phillips have exploded onto the Championship scene this season, troubling nearly every defence they come up against. The narrowness of West Ham’s midfield could well leave their defence exposed to the pace and skill of Ince or Phillips.
When it comes to keeping the ball therefore, Blackpool are already of Premiership standard.
As their 5-0 dismissal of Cardiff suggests, however, West Ham are not the ugly combatants of Sam Allardyce’s former sides. Indeed, West Ham finished the season as second top scorers in the league with 81 goals, three above Blackpool’s 79. The aforementioned midfield, likely to feature Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, Gary O’Neill and one of Jack Collison or Henri Lansbury depending on injury, features players who are all forward thinking in their play. Cynical destroyers such as Papa Bouba Diop are no longer a feature of the team. Furthermore, Ricardo Vaz Te is a dynamic striker who thrives off balls on the floor as opposed to punts in the air. To his credit, Allardyce has finally begun to match genuine attacking flair to his undoubted defensive nous. West Ham are still very hard to beat, only losing 8 times all season. West Ham’s joy in front of goal is built upon disciplined organisation that starts with defensive solidity from the back. Allardyce is not doing away with his old methods; he is updating them.
If Blackpool are going to overturn West Ham then they will need to match them in every area of the pitch including defence. This may not be their strongest area, yet it is one they are clearly improving upon. As the brilliant Tangerine Dreaming (a Blackpool tactics blog; perhaps the definition of niche!) points out, Holloway has highlighted Blackpool’s long-running weakness in defending set pieces and has worked tirelessly to eradicate it. The improvement was markedly displayed in Blackpool’s disciplined victory over already promoted Southampton. Holloway will require a repeat performance from his men in the final. If they fail to do so, the pendulum will surely swing in the Hammer’s favour. Much to the chagrin of their fans, Allardyce’s defensive inclinations cost West Ham victories that would have surely promoted them automatically. From February to March West Ham drew five home games in a row, unbeaten but not victorious. The shackles have been thrown off and have led West Ham to the playoff final. Against a technically gifted Blackpool side however, the cautious approach that cost them promotion in the league, could lead them towards it in the playoffs.
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