Chopping and Changing at Blackpool
Ian Holloway’s introduction of three substitutes in the 64th minute of yesterday’s 3-1 defeat at Reading seemed like a strange tribute to Barry Fry, master of the ‘threeplacement’ in his heyday at Birmingham City. That said, it’s also a sign of one of Blackpool’s major problems this season; a campaign that has, nonetheless, been punctuated with lots of good things.
On paper, this Tangerines squad looks stronger than the one that ascended to the Premier League in 2010, as well as the brave battlers of that 38 game elevated sojourn. That pair of Phillips are at opposite ends of their careers, but both Matt and Kevin can hurt any defence and provide a perpetual threat in advanced positions. Add to that young Tom Ince, procured from Liverpool and one of 2011-12’s great finds, as well as the evergreen Barry Ferguson, an inductee to the Glasgow Rangers hall of fame and the author of 36 games in midfield already.
True, Charlie Adam departed, but ultimately, it’s been a strong response to relegation for the Lancastrians – a club, lest we forget who have spent most of the past thirty years at a level well below this one. An extraordinary five goal thumping of Leeds, a classy win at Cardiff City and a 3-0 beating of Middlesbrough at Bloomfield Road are among the most auspicious results and in terms of flair, several players may be hoping for a spot in the Championship team of the year announced in April. Judicious loan signings such as Callum McManaman and Jonjo Shelvey have also earned vital points – the latter netting the winner in the reverse fixture in December.
But if Brian McDermott has been loathe to tamper with a formula, even when results were not so good, Ian Holloway has been doing his best Claudio Ranieri impression in recent weeks. Yesterday saw four players brought into the team, partly due to injuries including one for new capture Roman Bednář, but partly because of Holloway’s restlessness in distilling the correct blend.
If Matt Gilks has performed capably in goal, it’s clear that it’s at the back that the Tangerines’ main problems lie. 56 goals have been conceded, confirming the reputation for all things cavalier forged in Premier League days and comfortably the worst record in the top six. Indeed, a Coventry City line up mired in the relegation zone have conceded four less – and the manager’s exasperation was patent after both Alex Pearce and Mikele Leigertwood plundered free headers.
Defender Ian Evatt has been ruled out before and many opposing fans would regard him as lumbering – an incredible hulk of a player who has made the most of his limited ability. Still, it was centre half partner Craig Cathcart who arrived too late to challenge the Antiguan and for me, the ex-Manchester United youngster remains an enigma.
I saw Cathcart toil on occasion for a relegated Plymouth Argyle a couple of seasons back and I have a sneaking feeling that he may be one of those players destined to ratchet up a great many football league appearances, only these might well end up being in the bottom two divisions. He has now made 56 starts in tangerine, but I’m not sure I would count on him as a man to take the eleven back into the top flight. Here, Alex Baptiste, a mainstay of the 2009-10 team, featured at right back – Holloway might want to think about restoring him to his more usual station in the centre – while opposite full back Stephen Crainey actually had a good game on the day, generally standing up well to Jimmy Kébé.
Ferguson played furthest forward in a three man central midfield, flanked by Guadeloupe’s Ludovic Sylvestre and Chris Basham. Neither convinced – the latter in particular was wasteful in possession on more than one occasion and both struggled with the industry of Jem Karacan and Leigertwood.
Blackpool’s formation mutated from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 depending on the circumstances, but tended toward the latter, with Lomana Tresor Lua-Lua, one of this season’s success stories, and Gary Taylor-Fletcher forming a double barrelled set of wide men. Flanks were swapped on a regular basis and the Congolese veteran fired in a screamer that briefly threatened Reading’s hegemony. Both can be satisfied with how they did on the day although their tendency to hug the touchlines did leave Kevin Phillips a little isolated in the target man position. The man is a legend of course and yet again showed how much quality he possesses – his ability to help the ball on unfussily while rarely needing an extra touch always creates opportunities.
So the team seemed somewhat spineless – not in attitude, but more because the expansive formation deployed can leave alarming amounts of space down the middle of the pitch. The introduction of Matt Phillips, Stephen Dobbie and Ince did little to offset the imbalance as Reading looked far more compact and organised. The cliché is that Blackpool are one of the most entertaining teams around and those preconceptions were certainly confirmed here. Fans might wish for the return of the more prosaic talents of Keith Southern as well as for the manager to show more trust in the skills of the younger Phillips and Ince if there is going to be a Tangerine return.