Securing back to back wins for any football club would normally be a cause to rejoice, building confidence within the squad and management team. Blackpool can though in reality gain little kudos from narrowly beating Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion, two teams likely among League One’s also-rans come May.
Equally, there were few pointers from either performance that suggested that Neil Critchley’s side have what it takes to mix it with the sides expected to take up residence at the top end of the table. With a raft of difficult league games appearing on the horizon it is with the only other fixture Blackpool have played this season against significantly stronger opposition, Ipswich Town, that uneasily comes to mind. From the get-go the Seasiders were torn apart by Paul Lambert’s side, whose players of superior quality made short work of capitalizing on Blackpool’s tactical naivety and the impression of not only being all at sea, but considerably out of their depth.
There are those who say I am far too critical, and fail to consider that Critchley has all but ripped up last season’s squad, a total churn of 38 players. There are also 8 players currently not at the head coach’s disposal, with Oliver Sarkic, Jordan Williams, Keshi Anderson, Luke Garbutt, and Matty Virtue all injured, Liverpool-loanee Ben Woodburn self-isolating from a positive Covid-19 test, and both Daniel Ballard and Ethan Robson suspended after receiving red cards during last week’s defeat at AFC Wimbledon. Whilst always beneficial to have a full squad at the head coach’s disposal, only Garbutt, Ballard, Woodburn, and perhaps Virtue could be considered automatic choices for the starting XI.
Firstly, the turnover of players which has shaped Blackpool’s squad into what it is must be considered. Brought in from Liverpool and undoubtedly highly influenced by Jurgen Klopp’s adherence to gegenpress and using a 4-3-3 formation Critchley has in the main adopted a similar approach, albeit with personnel of vastly inferior quality to Sadio Mane, Diego Jota, and Mo Salah. Swiftly dispensing with the past has in effect jettisoned Liam Feeney out of the club, the 2019/20 player of the season and assist king, who aided Armand Gnanduillet to be more than the sum of his parts. There has been some deviation in recent matches to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system, but formations are rendered redundant if the players given their respective responsibilities within them do not dovetail with their colleagues, or are in the first place of insufficient quality.
This is where Critchley’s coaching credentials are meant to kick in. Bringing in players who are seen as ‘up and coming’ and potentially the next big things in no way suggests they are approaching being the finished article. Frequently sourced from League Two, Blackpool’s permanent signings over the summer and since the beginning of the current season are expected to hit the ground running to take the club to the Championship, widely regarded by the supporters, and owner Simon Sadler as the club’s natural habitat. In though amongst the hurly burly, pell mell of League One there is literally little room for tippy tappy, walking-the-ball-into-the-net type of football, something which Critchley will now be more than aware of. The crux of the matter is, in my opinion, too many personnel changes have been instigated in too short a period of time, resulting in the mass-arrival of a new squad expected to step up, unrealistically or otherwise, whilst such a number of arrivals has heightened expectations within Blackpool’s fanbase until recently reared on the slim pickings ‘supplied’ by the Oyston regime.
An influx of players in such numbers can create in the minds of many football supporters an impression that improvement will be immediate. Bulk buying in football has never correlated to instant success, with specious accusations of Blackpool attempting to buy the league title arising from observers assuming a newly assembled squad equates to a team of ringers being drafted in. No; quite simply, Critchley or those above him have acquired a group of players it is believed will be able to buy into the coach’s ideals, are at an age and stage of the professional development where young dogs can be taught new tricks, to a point where Sadler’s financial investment will receive a return should several players come good, all the while replicating an albeit Liverpool-lite visual feast for supporters.
It has though not quite worked out that way thus far. The standard of play has at times been appalling, with a lack of coherency and cogency to proceedings. At times there appears to be a disconnect between the defence and the two banks of three ahead of the back four, often when in advanced positions the final pass or cross rarely finding its man. Liam Feeney, anyone?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the landscape of professional football for all teams to a varying degree, but a salary cap and limit of 22 senior(aged over 21) players has at the same time given Critchley less wriggle room but also a reason to dispense with the services of whom he regards as yesterday’s men, in particular those amongst the highest paid at the club. With 8 players out on loan it is anticipated that Blackpool have assisted with the salaries of some of them, such as Jamie Devitt’s more to Newport County, who they’ve otherwise been unable to remove from the wage bill. Whilst it can be argued that few if any of the players out on loan have a future at Blackpool, that does not remove my unease that the club have gone back a season on the pitch by once more starting from ground zero.
On Tuesday night Blackpool took on a youthful Wigan Athletic decimated by the club’s recent financial meltdown, which precipitated an unjust relegation to League One and a mass exodus of the squad’s finer exponents. Aside from goalkeeper Jamie Jones and striker Joe Garner the Latics put out a team of young players who experienced manager John Sheridan will hope can learn on the job, and subsequently prevent successive relegations. It was though at times this cobbled together side who posed the biggest threat, with only a lack of cutting-edge preventing Wigan from exploiting Blackpool’s at times shaky defence.
Chances though came and went; all of which barring Jones’ flying save from a Gary Madine header on six minutes should have been capitalized upon. From the one angle those watching at home must view the action it was unclear if Jones’ save was spectacular or one for the cameras, but C J Hamilton inexplicably blazing over an open goal and one, perhaps two second half shots by Madine should have added to Sullay Kaikai’s strike which seemed to go through, rather than past Jones.
If wins breed confidence then it won’t be the next two games, away to Eastbourne Borough in the F. A. Cup, and back at headquarters next Wednesday against Leeds United’s Under-21’s in the EFL Trophy, where an obvious uptick in vibrancy and elan will be evident from what is now a record of three wins in four games, albeit against extremely limited opposition.
The six points accrued against Burton and Wigan have in effect granted Critchley a stay of execution, but far greater challenges await his nascent coaching career in elite football, and the callow side being squeezed into his preferred mould. The rudiments are there for Blackpool to enjoy a competitive, if not ultimately successful season should promotion be the criterion of what success constitutes, but expectations are too high and represent the euphoria attached to a wholesale change in personnel, rather than the stellar talents that reside within the squad.
In Colin Calderwood Blackpool now have a ready-made replacement should the Critchley experiment not be able to step up to the plate in terms of improved performances and an ability to measure up against League One’s stronger exponents. It is moot as to whether Critchley requested the help of someone like Calderwood or had the former Tottenham player thrust upon him but should it be needed, there is now an obvious route to a smooth transition, something America would at this moment be glad of, should a change of direction be needed in the dugout. Forthcoming fixtures against Peterborough, Portsmouth, Doncaster, and Fleetwood will go a long way to determine Blackpool’s short to medium term direction, but the club can ill afford further upheaval to such a degree that it begins to suffer reputational damage.