Barely a handful of games into the 2020/21 season Blackpool Football Club head coach Neil Critchley can surely be under no illusion just how difficult it is to navigate a course out of League One. Not only from a personal perspective of being the 41-year old’s first full season as the main man at a professional club, but also with the added pressure of his side being regarded as the division’s big spenders at a time where parsimony and thrift are bywords for football in the time of Covid-19, and are therefore there to be shot at by supposedly more financially straightened opposition. And then there are the demands imposed by club owner Simon Sadler; these might be tacit or even uncertain in their detail to the fans but will have been starkly laid bare to Critchley.
Frankly, Blackpool have started the season poorly which to date, has yielded two goals, both in last week’s routine victory over Swindon Town, in five games. If the two games at the ‘end’ of last season before the pandemic intervened are included – Critchley was technically at the helm but it is assumed that then assistant David Dunn was the temporary power behind the throne – then a record of one league victory, a bore draw against Fleetwood Town and three defeats against Plymouth Argyle, a since relegated Tranmere Rovers, and Saturday’s reverse against Gillingham does not make for edifying reading. An honourable goalless draw before succumbing on penalties to Championship side Stoke City in the Carabao Cup offered early promise but was followed up by another blank against league newcomers Barrow in the EFL Trophy, albeit with the cracks papered over by on this occasion a comfortable shootout victory.
We are now very much in the territory of Critchley having his own team/squad, and not that of predecessor Simon Grayson or even previous incumbents Terry McPhillips and Gary Bowyer. Whilst it does take time for a whole new roster to meld and the remaining players from previous eras to adjust to a wholly different system and style of play, the ideals fashioned and adhered to by Critchley at Liverpool’s Melwood training complex do not necessarily translate to the otherwise pell mell, hurly burly of third tier professional football. Furthermore, to expect a new intake of players predominantly recruited from League Two to pass their way to promotion and past rugged and wily teams like Gillingham is a big, and unlikely ask.
It has been reported that Blackpool neatly fell into a trap set by the Gillingham manager and astute lower league operator, Steve Evans. Knowing that Blackpool would pass his Kent side to death Evans simply sat back, whilst his team did the same, and watched as Blackpool huffed and puffed whilst passing in front of the Gills, an outfit well-drilled by the verbose Scotsman in the darker arts of gamesmanship, but rarely if ever getting in behind. Why though has this come as a shock? Did Blackpool fail to do their homework or just expect as comparative high rollers that they could just turn up and win? It certainly doesn’t work like that.
A starting eleven unchanged from the previous week’s victory over Swindon Town was not picked along ‘horses for courses’ lines, and should have reflected the differing style of play offered up by the opposition; whilst a lack of fans attending matches has to some degree levelled the playing field when it comes to home advantage, consideration must also still be given to the undoubted psychological lift afforded players turning out in their own back yard. To immediately start on the back foot and as with the previous away league fixture at Home Park, conceding a very early goal set the tone and was once more brought about by an unforced error by a Blackpool player.
Much has been made of the signing of striker Jerry Yates from Rotherham United, but the player has yet to justify the faith, hype, and considerable financial outlay invested in him. Is though this a reflection of Yates’ ability, or the fact that he is not being played to his strengths? At this early stage I would have to say it is the latter. A strict adherence to a 4-3-3 assuming the three up top are nippy, mobile players does not work when the likes of Yates are having to come short for the ball, often with his back to goal. This is not his game, especially without the physical attributes to out-muscle rugged League One defenders. If played as part of a front two(or reluctantly a three) off Gary Madine Yates would potentially have more joy, and only then could fans and critics gain a greater understanding of his abilities and potential to improve. It is though a truism that lower league footballers are unlikely to improve and reach whatever potential has been predicted if they are continually used as square pegs in round holes.
At the moment I believe Blackpool should play a front three of Madine, Sullay Kaikai and C J Hamilton. I am not a fan of a triumvirate of strikers being used as League One level, a system that offers little width to provide ammunition for those in the final third. At the risk of being branded out of touch I prefer a 4-4-2 or even a 3-5-2, although the latter’s flexibility is heavily reliant on the right personnel being available to fulfill what are exacting wing back duties.
The arrival of Luke Garbutt has intrigued many Blackpool supporters, who are questioning where such a relatively high-profile signing will fit into the team. Although left back Demetri Mitchell likes to get forward I would conclude that he plays behind Garbutt, with the former Evertonian playing on the left side of a three or four in midfield.
It is though at centre back where Blackpool’s main problems persist and have not been attended to over the summer. The loss over the last few seasons of Curtis Tilt, Clark Robertson, Ben Heneghan, star loanee Taylor Moore, and even Ryan Edwards has left the squad woefully ill-equipped in perhaps the most important position on the pitch. Relying on the imposing but callow Marvin Ekpiteta, signed from League Two side Leyton Orient, to partner Michael Nottingham has blatantly not worked. Cast aside by Grayson but used to great effect when loaned out to Crewe Alexandra Nottingham is adept at bringing the ball out from defence and finding a pass, but despite his physical attributes is not comfortable at centre back, perhaps betraying his preference to play at right back. I was pleased that Critchley had given Nottingham a chance to shine but by doing so, the head coach was also taking a pragmatic view of utilizing a squad member who would be costly to replace under the terms of the Covid-induced salary cap and squad size restrictions. With Jordan Thorniley, the only other player in the squad considered to be a natural centre back being far short of the standard required by Sadler’s rebooted Blackpool Football Club, it is with a matter of urgency that Critchley must seek alternatives from outside the club who are better than what he already has at his disposal.
Freeing up space in a squad limited to twenty-two exponents is in theory a straightforward task, if takers can be found for Thorniley, midfielder Jamie Devitt, and full back Teddy Howe. At this late stage that may or may not be a big IF. If though Blackpool are to walk the walk and back up laudable words of taking the club into a new post-Oyston era with a humble, more holistic and focused approach to recruitment, retention, and disposal of personnel then faltering result on the pitch will see a theoretically fresh and welcome ethos fall at the first hurdle.
Recruiting experience at the back and perhaps someone to assist Madine in the Armand Gnanduillet/Kyle Vassell role will though go a long way to the club’s lofty objectives being realized, although Neil Critchley will have to develop a level of flexibility to a playing style that at times will need to play higher up the pitch and get the ball back to front far quicker, and in a more expedient manner.
Otherwise, couched in terms described by Marge Simpson that friends are not made with salad, Blackpool will not sweep aside all before them in League One by painting pretty pictures on the pitch. It is not only the personnel at Critchley’s disposal that must demonstrate this, but also the head coach’s ability and desire to instruct his team to put when called for the ball in the mixer, and not let Premier League principals rule his head. Prior to Saturday’s home match with an in form Lincoln City, a big week of transfers and soul searching lies ahead.