Several decades have passed since the last time Blackpool played top flight football, dating back to the wonder years when players like Ray Charnley, Jimmy Armfield, Alan Ball and Stanley Matthews graced Bloomfield Road.
Yet given the unlikely nature of the Tangerines’ promotion, achieved during a season they began as many people’s favourites for relegation to League One, it was no surprise to see them almost unanimously written off this season. The majority of pundits have dismissed Blackpool, expecting them to endure one solitary Premier League campaign before heading meekly back down to the Championship.
But if Blackpool do go down this season, it will be on their own terms. In three Premier League games so far, Blackpool have shown enough to suggest they will put up a good fight, and manager Ian Holloway has shown a commitment to attractive football that should be applauded no matter how his team fare over the course of the campaign.
Although early days in the Premier League 2010/2011, from the three games played we can already gage roughly how teams will line up and their respective styles of play. Holloway himself has already expressed the philosophy he expects Blackpool to adopt this year, in a column for The Independent:
“When I came back into the game after a year out I wanted to produce a type of football that was good to watch, and every week – no matter what the score has been – I have tried to focus on that. I remember losing 4-1 at Crystal Palace in the Championship last season but I wasn’t too down because we played much better than the scoreline suggested. To me that was all that mattered.”
“So I am going to try and be like that in the Premier League, and whatever people say will be what they are paid to say.”
This is a viewpoint Holloway again expressed after the recent 2-2 draw against Fulham.
“Our second goal was absolutely fantastic. I was jumping around because I want them to play football and pass it and move it, and that was a fantastic goal by anybody’s standard.”
Watching him frantically punch the air in glee after the second goal scored by Luke Varney, you know these were not just empty words from the Blackpool manager. And why would they be? His team had just scored a wonderful goal – a lovely, flowing, one and two-touch move featuring nine passes from defence to attack, carving Fulham open before Varney applied the fitting final coup de grâce.
Under Holloway, Blackpool will look to play entertaining football despite their vastly inferior budget and desperate wage bill limitations.
On the evidence of the first three games, signs are that Holloway will stand by his daring philosophy no matter the results. And encouragingly for him, Blackpool fans and neutrals wanting to see entertaining football, there are also positive signs that it could reap rewards both aesthetically and in Blackpool’s quest for survival.
So far, Blackpool have employed a 4-3-3 formation with Elliot Grandin, Marlon Harewood and Brett Ormerod in attack and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, David Vaughan and Charlie Adam supporting from midfield. Vaughan sits deeper, with Adam ahead of him spraying passes around in a playmaker role, while Taylor-Fletcher has licence to get forward and does so regularly.
(Positions: 21. Gilks, 3. Crainey, 6. Evatt, 20. Cathcart, 15. Baptiste, 11. Vaughan, 26. Adam, 12. Taylor-Fletcher, 10. Ormerod, 14. Grandin, 9. Harewood. 17, 18 and 19 are subs Basham, Euell and Sylvestre on for Ormerod, Harewood and Taylor-Fletcher).
Holloway has tweaked the system when appropriate – at Arsenal for example when he swapped Ormerod for an extra midfielder, Ludovic Sylvestre, and played Taylor-Fletcher in the three-pronged attack. The trio upfront also varies depending on availability, with Varney making his debut in place of Harewood against Fulham.
Blackpool’s attacking principles however are evident. 4-3-3 often nearly becomes a 4-2-1-3 given the way Taylor-Fletcher roams forward, with Vaughan sitting and Adam, a very astute passer of the ball supplying the front men. Such a set-up has been identified by tactics guru Jonathan Wilson as the future of football.
Behind the midfield, full-backs Alex Baptiste and Stephen Crainey look to hug the touchline for Blackpool, providing width and supporting the attack where possible. Crainey was fundamental to Blackpool’s gameplan against Fulham, roaming forward regularly, while Baptiste got himself on the scoresheet against Wigan.
(Positions: 21. Gilks, 15. Baptiste, 20. Cathcart, 6. Evatt, 3. Crainey, 11. Vaughan, 26. Adam, 12. Taylor-Fletcher, 14. Grandin, 10. Ormerod, 16. Varney. 5 & 27 – Eardley and Demontagnac were substitutes according to ESPN).
Note how high up the pitch Blackpool’s defence are, and how far forward Crainey was, occupying a starting position as virtually a left winger. Indeed overall, Crainey spent more time against Fulham in the opposition’s half than his own.
Baptiste meanwhile spent as much time in Fulham’s final third as he did in any defensive section of the field. Only against Arsenal were Crainey and Baptiste more narrow, hemmed in by the superior quality of the opposition. Down to ten men for a large period, Blackpool sat deeper and narrow for the majority of that 6-0 defeat.
To attack or defend – a question of principle?
Blackpool’s commitment to passing under Holloway is exemplified by their passing statistics. After 2 games the team had completed 654 successful passes, the 7th highest tally in the Premier League. Behind Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Everton and Wigan Athletic but ahead of the likes of Liverpool, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur.
The Tangerines also possessed the 4th highest shot accuracy with 58%, behind only Chelsea, Newcastle United and Spurs. How these stats hold up as the season progresses remains to be seen.
Is this style of play too idealistic for a newly-promoted team like Blackpool? Should Holloway be more pragmatic, more defensive and less adventurous? Perhaps. Blackpool’s mixed bag of results so far – a 4-0 win, a 6-0 defeat and a 2-2 draw – will likely continue if they maintain this system, as bigger teams like Arsenal with superior playing personnel can peel the Tangerines easily if played at their own game. Their attacking nature also inevitably leaves vulnerabilities at the back.
Saying that, wouldn’t it be boring if Blackpool became another run-of-the-mill, everyone back, defend for your life outfit? You could argue there are enough of those around, and Holloway’s daring tactics make for a refreshing change. I applaud Holloway’s desire to produce good football, even if some might call it naive.
At 5-0 down at the Emirates Stadium, Blackpool fans were in full voice. Despite having ten men, their team had had a go at Arsenal, even if it ended in grim defeat.
Either way, Ian Holloway’s commitment to enterprising football, with three forwards and an emphasis on pass-and-move and fluidity in possession, means Blackpool are going to be one of the more exciting teams to watch in the Premier League this season. Results from their opening three games suggest likewise.
After all, it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees, no?
(photo via imfeelinggood on Flickr)