Following a series of poor performances and results that matched, a win for Blackpool Football Club against fellow strugglers MK Dons was the absolute minimum demanded of Neil Critchley’s side. Whilst that was achieved, there were no indications in one of the most turgid 90-minutes of ‘action’ seen at Bloomfield Road for some seasons that the tangerines would be able to go toe to toe with any of the sides considered to be League One’s leading lights.
Frankly, this was the worst home performance of the season, which is saying something after the evisceration by Ipswich Town, who themselves have since gone on to damaging back to back away defeats. Critchley must though bear responsibility for this.
Gary Madine has never been prolific and is a player who polarizes opinion due to his goals to games ratio, high salary, not to mention his previous colourful life away from the pitch. The 30-year old does though offer something in the final third which no other player in Blackpool’s squad can, specifically to play with his back to goal and hold up the ball, bringing the more fleet of foot into the game. If though Madine is to be used in this manner it must be higher up the pitch. Being a typical number-9 the player is not rapid and therefore not going to get in behind defences and beat his man with searing pace. The natural territory of Madine is on the edge of the box onward, and not 30-40 yards from goal where his goal threat and effectiveness of holding the ball up, giving it to a wide player and subsequently getting into the box is virtually zero.
Despite being used in previous games by Critchley in this disrespectful manner Madine proved to be Blackpool’s most effective and combative forward exponent, although that isn’t saying a great deal. Dropped for last Saturday’s game through no fault of his own and for a player, Ben Woodburn, who prematurely departed Tuesday’s defeat to Charlton Athletic with an obvious case of cramp redolent in players who haven’t seen much action of late, and especially in those with an as checkered injury record as the Liverpool loanee, Madine can rightly feel aggrieved. It wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility that the player isn’t wanted by Critchley, but as perhaps the highest paid player at the club it would be difficult to find him a new home without a significant pay cut being agreed to.
In what was a fluid formation against MK Dons it could be argued that Madine was jettisoned in favour of the returning Jerry Yates – a goalscorer who doesn’t score goals. Either way, Yates is not a number-9 but remains Critchley’s darling, and offers little to the side in its current configuration. This though has been the problem from the get-go: less that the head coach does not recognize his favoured starting-11 but that he doesn’t use players with specific traits as nature intended.
A classic case of this on Saturday was stationing speedster C J Hamilton on the left side of the pitch, when all his previous appearances and best work have occurred on the right flank. The player was accused of looking disinterested in the first half but so being so obviously one-footed the territory was too alien for the former Mansfield man to wreak havoc amongst the opposition’s back line. Switching to his natural habitat remedied matters, but again, what was Critchley thinking of?
By adding a raft of wide players who can supposedly break at pace and provide the ammunition for a central striker, Critchley now has Bez Lubala, Hamilton, Oliver Sarkic, Daniel Kemp, and Saturday’s goalscorer Sullay Kaikai at his disposal but if Yates is the head coach’s preferred recipient of the theoretic fine work of the aforementioned, he has failed to cotton on to the fact that Yates is himself a wide player who has previously excelled by coming inland from wide areas. By playing a three up top there still needs to be a focal point, or where one of the trio takes their turn to play in more central, advanced position. From his previous employment Critchley obviously favours the contemporary ‘Liverpool way’ but Blackpool’s squad does not offer its own League One equivalent of Firmino-Salah-Mane, a triumvirate now bolstered by Diego Jota.
I do not like the 4-3-3 system favoured by Critchley which relies on heavy pressing and, in my opinion at least, playing higher up the pitch. If though the formation is to be persisted with for it to be successful, or at least more so than it currently is, Madine must be central to plans that don’t involve him dropping back deep to unfairly feed off scraps. The teams picked of late do not though suggest that Critchley is utilizing a game by game horses-for-courses mentality, but trying to shoehorn his favoured players into a starting-11 that might have individual quality, but is otherwise less than the sum of its parts. Even so, despite the pre-season excitement of many fans predicting great things for the current season, it is clear that such emotions were based upon the ripping up of the previous squad to be replaced by one with a complete inability, in its callowness, to hit the ground the running. Again, and it is understandable, many Blackpool fans have had their chains yanked by the arrival of players in such a number, unheard of under the Oyston regime, rather than whether the individuals themselves are the right ones to take the club to the Championship.
It is a football cliche to say winning whilst playing badly is a good sign, but playing badly and scraping a win against one of the teams who this season will struggle to retain their League One status is hardly anything but Pyrrhic. Injuries to Luke Garbutt, Matt Virtue, and Keshi Anderson did not particularly incommode selection for the game, with the fitness of Garbutt and where he is best stationed on the left side of the pitch very much up for debate. Anderson was one of Critchley’s first signings, but it is again arguable if the player would be on the pitch were he not injured, with his performances already tailing off dramatically in what are still the nascent stages of the 2020/21 season. Blackpool would benefit from Virtue’s hard running and craft in a more advanced midfield setting but I am not sure he is the long-term answer, nor how a current protracted spell on the sidelines will affect his abilities. His return will though represent the equivalent of a new signing, albeit something Blackpool have had too many of in the last few months, especially if he is able to increase the the engine room’s potency.
It is against the likes of MK Dons and tonight’s opponents AFC Wimbledon where Blackpool are expected to pick up maximum points but such a level of entitlement stems from a wholesale remodelling of the squad, the perception of being a ‘bigger club’, and an attitude that ‘we are Blackpool’ because of owner Simon Sadler’s reported billions, which leaves the club to be shot at by the so-called also rans of the division. If Critchley initially thought a Liverpool-lite brand of football would be enough to assail all-comers, he will now be acutely aware that that is not the case. As things stand, it is in games against Burton Albion, AFC Wimbledon, and MK Dons that will determine if Blackpool stay up, and not the matches versus Oxford, Portsmouth, Doncaster, and Sunderland which will go a long way to suggest if the Seasiders have the necessary top-six credentials.
Football is a game of opinions and subjectivity, with most fans believing they have the answers to their club’s respective shortcomings. To be allowed a churn of 38 players – 17 incoming, 21 departing – Critchley will be given time to deliver on the pitch but quite how long that will be should be measured against performances and results against those sides Blackpool were expected to be competing with at the top of the table. If though there fails to be a significant improvement against even the raft of teams who Blackpool find themselves in the middle of playing against, and that Jerry Yates continues to be conspicuous by a lack of telling contributions, be that because of being continually played out of position or the harsh reality that he just isn’t good enough for League One, questions will rightly be asked of Critchley, and those above him who have an unknown amount of influence over player acquisition and departures.
The jury is still out.