It was tacitly assumed from our remote vantage points that the sending off of James Husband after 58 seconds would set the tone of last night’s game at Bloomfield Road, as Blackpool took on Charlton Athletic. A backs to the wall rearguard action against presumably emboldened Addicks would surely only be a case of damage limitation, but not for the only time last night or during the fledgling 2020/21 season, the Seasiders contrived to beat themselves rather than being overhauled by superior opposition.
Despite being numerically disadvantaged almost from the get-go Blackpool didn’t even have to weather a Charlton storm that frankly failed to make landfall, with Lee Bowyer’s side failing to make the most of Husband’s dismissal, and the unfortunate Grant Ward being hooked as a consequence. His replacement, Arsenal loanee Dan Ballard, if anything galvanized a back line in which he should have started from the off, a move that would have seen Husband switch to his preferred left back role. Had Head Coach Neil Critchley made this obvious adjustment in the light of Luke Garbutt’s injury at Crewe three days previous, Husband would in all likelihood have remained on the pitch for 90 minutes, and still find himself uppermost in Critchley’s plans. Whilst Husband’s justified red card was in line with his previous two expulsions following what are now characteristically rash challenges, it can be argued that Critchley is at fault for putting him in that position in the first place.
Charlton barely laid a glove on the ‘pool, failing to take advantage of their numerical superiority which wasn’t in the first half bolstered by any greater quality than what Critchley’s struggling tangerines could muster. There is much talk in from the government of levelling up the north, something Charlton defender Ben Purrington decided to assist with when he too saw red, from two identikit fouls on speedster C J Hamilton. The game was at this point very much on, but with half time approaching much would depend on the half time pep talks by Critchley and his counterpart, Lee Bowyer. And so it proved.
A second period, of 10 vs. 10 in sides evenly matched by their mutual mediocrity would surely see greater attacking intent, and provide a snapshot of the tactical flexibility of both managers. It was though Blackpool that provided its expectant supporters with more to worry about, as Charlton began to play as if they had an additional man on the pitch at a point when they didn’t, something they failed to do in the first half. It could though be argued that Blackpool played as if they were a man down, but exceptionally questionable substitutions by Critchley put paid to any notion of his charges snaring only their second three points haul of the season.
Debutant Ben Woodburn arrived on transfer deadline day, keen to resurrect his Liverpool career otherwise pockmarked by serious injury. It was assumed that the 21-year old would be involved in the squad, perhaps initially as an impact substitute rather than being thrust straight into the team. The player was never going to last the whole game and should have been substituted before he cramped up, something Critchley should have foreseen. By this time Blackpool’s only threat on the night Gary Madine had unjustly been taken off and replaced by the misfiring Jerry Yates, leaving Blackpool with absolutely no focal point in the final third once Woodburn had called it a night. A front three of Yates, Hamilton, and the callow Bez Lubala won’t send shock waves through League One, with the predictable Hamilton being all speed but no end product. Yes, he has scored three goals this season but when in positions to cross the ball or find a killer pass, the player looks decidedly fourth-tier. A vastly inferior version of Theo Walcott, I would suggest.
The position of Gary Madine within the side has become a hot topic, but frankly the player’s manful struggles are to no affect if Critchley continues to disrespect the 30-year old by not utilizing his strengths. There is a vast disconnect between Blackpool’s midfield and the players purported to be in final third of the pitch. Madine is subsequently having to drop deep to fight for the ball, which to his credit he has never shirked from doing, but that is not his game, nor is running in behind a defence. Blackpool need to play higher up the pitch, to squeeze the play and press the opposition as was presumably Critchley’s original intention having been schooled in the ways of Jurgen Klopp. As a bare minimum Madine should not be involved until between the 18-yard box and penalty spot, where his physical presence and penchant for shooting on sight would come to the fore. Madine needs wingers who can beat the first man with their crossing, and a fellow striker in the mould of Yates to operate in tandem with the former Cardiff man. Whilst this doesn’t happen Madine will continue to be criticised by those with little or no knowledge of football, using his controversial past and large salary as sticks to beat the player.
Charlton’s influence on the game grew as time ebbed way but there was little to suggest that anything other than a 0-0 stalemate was on the cards. The truisms of not scoring, shooting, or even creating chances coming back to haunt a team do not always play out in the lower leagues, but sooner or later a lack of guile and creativity will punish a team whose defence cannot be relied upon to not press the self-destruct button. When Chuks Aneke headed in with ten minutes remaining it neither came as a shock nor was it expected, but seemed more irrelevant to the narrative of whether the Critchley experiment has already crashed and burned.
By recruiting 17 players but showing the door to 21, albeit with 8 of those on loan but will in most cases never play again in tangerine, Blackpool have gone too far too soon to become the antithesis of the brand of football favoured by Critchley’s predecessor, Simon Grayson. Although on the right page of how to get promoted to the Championship Grayson’s approach was at the archaic extreme end, and one where those with the ability to cut loose were trapped in second gear. Turgid and pedestrian performances at Rochdale, Accrington, Bolton, and Tranmere yielded four points when a minimum return of ten was realistic, and only two goals. It is these snapshots that will be remembered most from Grayson’s disastrous second coming to the seaside, but the club’s current policy of staffing Blackpool’s squad with players bracketed as ‘up and coming’ and harbouring ‘potential’ will not get the club back to the Championship, its natural habitat. Furthermore, notwithstanding the fact that tippy tappy sideways football fused with an intermittent adherence to the ‘gegenpress‘ will not get the club promoted, the players charged with carrying out Critchley’s demands are not yet ready to do so, and in some cases may never be.
Whether Critchley has an aversion to experienced players, old dogs who cannot be taught anything new, is only something the man himself can answer. It was though apparent as the game wore on last night that Charlton’s older heads Daren Pratley, Ben Watson, Omar Bogle, Andrew Shinnie, and even Aneke possessed the necessary nous and game-management missing in Blackpool’s line up. The influence and experience of Jay Spearing and Liam Feeney is tangibly lacking on and off the pitch, and whilst calls for a Nigel Pearson-type figure is understandable, this clutch of players as a collective is not under-performing, but playing at a standard of football which it isn’t yet ready for.
It remains to be seen if Critchley can bring out from many of the new signings what is presumed to be within them, but it is also moot if should the current vein of form be continued that the head coach will be given time to remedy matters. Who though has signed these players? How often will ‘the player has been on our radar for some time’ line be trotted out? Was club owner Simon Sadler influenced by a Liverpool-supporting member of his entourage to recruit Critchley, in some misguided notion that League One can be assailed by playing in the image of Klopp? How many of the new intake are overseen by the same agent/management group? Plenty of questions and more besides, but few answers.
The next four games represent realistic chances for maximum points in each, but aside from the likes of Sunderland, Doncaster, Ipswich, and perhaps Oxford United the same should be said about the overwhelming majority of Blackpool’s League One opposition. We cannot though just say that because a fair few quid has been spent on the squad, that the club’s owner is perhaps a multi-billionaire and that ‘we are Blackpool’ so that the likes of MK Dons, Burton Albion, AFC Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic should automatically be put to the sword: it doesn’t work that way. If though Blackpool are going to be fighting at the wrong end of League One it is from teams such as these that points must be secured.
There is no doubt that barring a change of philosophy from Critchley that Blackpool are already in relegation trouble. Only seven games into the season Simon Sadler, not someone I presume has the wool easily pulled over his eyes, will have to take a harsh look at the work of the club’s respective Heads of Technical Scouting and Recruitment, Jonathan Gibson and Tommy Johnson, as well as that of Critchley and CEO Ben Mansford. The structural concept amounting to layers of expertise which furnish Critchley and Sadler with the best possible outcomes is in itself an approach any club seeking to progress would pursue and in Blackpool’s case, build from the bottom up in the post-Oyston era, but one wonders if too many cooks are keeping warm their individual sinecures without full accountability for subsequent results. One assumes and hopes not, and that Sadler rightly demands that the paper-trail from the spending of his hard-earned money is fully kosher.
Football is a results-based industry, but if Critchley has been handed a bum deal by those sourcing his players, it is further up the chain of command where fault must be found, and full accountability admitted. From trying to structure the club in a progressive fashion, there is a sense that opacity within the chain of command is not giving Blackpool’s supporters a correct impression of whose remit is responsible for the poor results and an attack bereft of ideas.
The future can still be bright, as after all it is tangerine, but one suspects it is going to require a circuitous route and some ruthless decision making to guide the club into a promised land of refulgent splendour.