Lineups and shape (4-3-3 vs 4-3-3)
Our first half performance was probably our best half under Tony Mowbray, if not one of the best this season. Blackpool used a man-marking system in midfield, and we were constantly able to disorganise and create gaps around and behind their midfield line.
As has been the case in recent games following Ellis Simms’ injury, we were incredibly fluid in possession out of our 4-3-3 shape, with the midfield three especially constantly rotating positions to drag their respective markers about. The intention of this was to open passing lines into Amad, who was tasked with the “False 9” role (which James has gone into more depth about in his article). If Amad was able to pull a defender out of their slot, then this would create gaps for us to exploit behind.
One massive area of success for us in the first half was our left-hand side, where the value of being so flexible in possession could be seen. Our ability to attack through this side was helped through the very aggressive positioning of Aji Alese from his left-back position, where he would take up very advanced and narrow positions. Blackpool’s right winger Lavery was man-man with Alese and had there had to defend very narrow, which meant it was easy for us to progress the ball into Clarke who would receive on the touchline and drive us up the pitch.
When Clarke received, Alese would make underlapping runs to open the space inside the Blackpool full-back for Clarke to drive inside.
We were constantly able to overload this side of the pitch and made it difficult for Patino at the base to know who to pick up, with Embleton often drifting over to that side in a striker role to aid combinations. His strike which hit the top of the crossbar summed up how effectively we targeted Blackpool’s right side.
On the right, Gooch would similarly position himself narrowly, again with the intention of making Yates defend the centre and therefore create 1v1 opportunities out wide for Roberts. Also, if the ball was on the left, Gooch tucking inside would give us protection for any second balls as well as an easy option to recycle out to the other side.
Out of possession, we pressed in a 4-2-3-1 against Blackpool’s midfield triangle. We were able to constantly affect Blackpool’s possession through clever pressure, especially from Clarke who often angled his body to force play centrally (where we would then look to turnover).
What changed in the second half?
One of the main reasons for our drop off in performance from the first half to the second was Blackpool’s more aggressive approach. Whereas in the first half Blackpool looked to sit off in more of a mid/deep block and retreat into their own half, in the second they were far more aggressive with their press, pressing high with the wingers and locking on in central areas.
We massively struggled with this and had difficulty finding our wingers and midfielders in space, unlike in the first half. Our lack of a focal point up top became apparent, as whenever the ball went forward Clarke (who went central after Bennette’s introduction) wasn’t ever able to secure and give us a platform to build off. This again allowed Blackpool to squeeze their line higher.
Blackpool also had far more success playing directly into Madine, which allowed them to build off the second ball. Because of wingers were pressing high initially, if Madine won the first ball then Patino would look to switch out to the wings where our full-back was left 1v1. There were a number of dangerous moments in the first half where Yates and then Corbeanu were isolated against Alese out wide. The below graphics show the difference between the first half (top) and the second half (bottom) in terms of how much higher Blackpool were able to sustain possession, and especially how dangerous the wide areas were.
Most of our own positive moments came during the transition through Roberts and Clarke when Blackpool were out of balance, such as Embleton’s “goal” which the referee somehow didn’t allow us an advantage.
The spaces behind their midfield line were there to exploit, which we were able to do on a couple of occasions through Ba and Pritchard, however we were unable to gain a sufficient foothold in possession to exploit this as regularly as we did in the first half.
It was a game which reflected both the excellent adjustments Mowbray has made since losing both strikers, but also the limitations of having no focal point up front. The first half was as good a performance as you could realistically expect, with lots of rotation in midfield and up top, quick combinations, a constant threat from wide and secure out of possession.
The second half in contrast highlighted our weaknesses from set pieces, our inability to retain the ball when we are forced to play more direct, and also how much we miss Evans’ quality and decision making in the midfield area following his withdrawal.
This Saturday’s game against Swansea might suit us more than the last two due to their possession heavy style, which may allow us to quickly draw their centre-backs out with a dropping forward, before quickly hitting the spaces behind their backline, especially on transition.