Four years ago starting a new season in the championship would have been viewed by most Blackpool fans as an achievement. A promotion, a brave fight against relegation, those were presumably the reasons for a new season of Championship football. Not this time. Blackpool are approaching the Championship from that most unexpected of angles, as a club on the way down from the Premier League.
Last Friday, Blackpool took their first steps on their new journey as they performed solidly to record a 1-0 win away to former Premier League side Hull City. Another 45 games are to follow in what will be a long season. However, did that first game give any indication of what should be expected from Blackpool this season?
Attack, attack, attack
Last season Blackpool conducted an attacking assault on the Premier League, they were unrelenting, playing attacking football for the majority of the season scoring 55 goals and creating numerous chances. Championship teams need to prepare for more of the same and on the basis of the Hull game Ian Holloway’s side didn’t look at all jaded from their summer clouded by the gloom of relegation. They created ten chances against Hull which was par for the course last season.
Mindset of the opposition
The Hull City manager Nigel Pearson did exactly what so many managers have done before against Blackpool and that is to disregard the way that Blackpool set up. Blackpool's 4-3-3 system demands respect and if a manager sends his team out to play their own game in a flat 4-4-2 then that will give a huge advantage to Blackpool. On Friday night this played out time and time again as Blackpool's three man midfield dominated the two Hull City central midfielders. Should teams start to do this then Blackpool will start to face a very different challenge. Last season no opponent came to the seaside looking for a point, the majority of teams came to play Blackpool and made no concessions, confident that they’d take all three points. Both Liverpool and Spurs will testify to how strong Blackpool can be at home if you leave them alone and Manchester United also came close to being felled too. This season Blackpool will have teams coming to visit who may very well try to stifle Blackpool and be more than happy with going home with a point. Therefore, Blackpool may well need extra patience, extra craft and take nothing for granted from any game.
As much as Blackpool attacked the Premier League their defence broke down all too often
Old dogs, new tricks
Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Alex Baptiste were the two stand out players against Hull and these two players show what is so special about Blackpool's team. Both of these players have been described as journeymen, however, in this context the terms doesn't necessarily carry weight. On the evidence of Friday night they are still growing and developing as footballers. They are so important to Blackpool this season for two reasons.
They provide continuity to the last time Blackpool were in the Championship but more importantly due to their footballing education they are without the rigours of being hothoused at a top club. In some players this can lead to burnout, a feeling that you’ve learnt all there is to learn and in some cases a sense of misplaced entitlement. What Blackpool have is players although well in to their careers, are still fresh and open to new ideas. Taylor-Fletcher and Baptiste continue to flourish and can still progress and develop further, yes they may be that bit older and might not learn as quick, but they are learning and that learning curve will continue, unlike some, they’ve not peaked at 21 and had to spend a career living up to a reputation. Their reputations are still being built and their potential is yet to be reached, they will continue to work hard to get to their potential and who knows, theirs might just peak when they next get an opportunity to make it back to the Premier League.
Lines of confusion
As much as Blackpool attacked the Premier League their defence broke down all too often and it is this aspect where observers should divert their attentions. Ian Holloway has openly admitted that he didn’t have the players at this disposal to defend in the Premier League. However, at this new level of football, he should be looking to improve his team’s defensive record. On the initial impressions of the first game against Hull that doesn't yet appear to be the case. Yes they kept a clean sheet, however, that was more due to the ability of Matt Gilks in goal and the profligacy of Hull’s players. More than once Blackpool's defensive line broke down. Good defences move as a unit, understand each other and cover at times of stress. Blackpool on the other hand position their defensive line high up the pitch, seemingly to squeeze the space available to play football within but also to add an offside trap in to their weaponry. However, as much as the former might be beneficial, the latter becomes disjointed and not very easy to watch if you support Blackpool. Roughly an offside trap is commanded by a player with good vision and anticipation who can sense both the danger and the positions of players around him. On a command he leads out his fellow defenders, quickly and to a line higher up the pitch. When it works the opposition are left stranded, the referee blows his whistle and the advantage is back with Blackpool. If as they did against Hull the other night, that leader calls, steps up, one player complies, one player spends more effort claiming offside and not really getting to where he should be, whilst another fails to realise what he has to go and plays the opposition on side then all hell can let loose. In that example, Alex Baptiste received plaudits for making back the ground he lost to his opponent and executed a near perfect last ditch tackle. However, the tackle should never have taken place. Either the system should be changed to provide a different method of defence in such situations, or everyone moves in perfect harmony. Both require more work whichever Holloway decides to do and should Blackpool dedicate the hours needed to getting their defence right then they may well have a good shot at getting back to Premier League.
Kevin Phillips may well get 15 goals, Taylor-Fletcher and Billy Clarke could well get in to double figures too.
Charlie Adam earned his move to Liverpool and was an integral part of everything that has been good about Blackpool, how they cope without him may well be key to their season. Either someone steps in to fill that void or Holloway changes his system to cope for that loss. David Vaughan also left, however, initially it would seem that Barry Ferguson is more than good enough to ensure his loss is less deeply felt. DJ Campbell left and arguably he will be replaced either by a striker currently at the club or by an incoming one. Kevin Phillips may well get 15 goals, Taylor-Fletcher and Billy Clarke could well get in to double figures too. However, it is the drive, the inspiration the set pieces, the eye for a pass that could be harder to replace. Ludovic Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin are both creative players, but neither are like for like replacements. Gerado Bruna, brought in from Liverpool is again creative, but likes to play in different areas of the pitch. The answer might lie in a different approach. Gary Taylor-Fletcher already possesses that spark of footballing intelligence that Adam possesses and although his skill level may not be the same he can still confuse defences with his sleight of hand. On the evidence of the game against Hull Holloway may well ask both Ferguson and Keith Southern to combine deeper on the pitch with short passes rather than the long diagonal balls that kept defends on their toes and on the turn. Grandin played that little bit further forward, perplexing the Hull midfield and defence as he skipped between them untracked.
It would be a naive person to predict a swift return to the Premier league, first and foremost Ian Holloway will have to find the right blend for his first eleven. Arguably this is not his biggest strength, he has shuffled regularly throughout his reign. Without two (or three) of his mainstays, that task becomes all the more harder. It's likely to take him time and a consequence of that could see Blackpool stutter at the start of the campaign. However, given he appears to have a large squad and plenty of options to choose from he should find his blend before the season reaches halfway. Should that side find their rhythm then a strong second half to the campaign might see them finish strongly. Where that takes them, who knows.
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