Blackpool Head Coach Neil Critchley was correct with his precis of the frustrating goalless draw against Oxford United, that his side would a few weeks ago have a lost the game they dominated but once more failed to find the killer touch.
To consider a draw against the best side Blackpool played last season to be a failure perhaps suggests a wide-of-the-mark sense of entitlement, but viewed through the context of how the game played out against Karl Robinson’s men the three points should have been Critchley’s, but two points dropped almost became none whatsoever without Chris Maxwell’s Banks-esque save in stoppage time from John Mousinho’s textbook downward header.
With the majority of the play and several presentable chances, Blackpool should have had the game wrapped up by half time. A chronic lack of goals is a though a concern, with few opportunities being created from open play that don’t emanate from speedster C J Hamilton, with a continued over-reliance on the former Mansfield Town player and dead-ball situations.
Other than shutouts against Oxford and in the EFL Trophy fixture against Fleetwood Town, a recent run of results that yielded a glut of clean sheets were only decided by a single goal, again supplied by Hamilton’s wing play or from the occasions when Blackpool get it right from a dead-ball opportunity. Time will come, as it could do tonight against league leader’s Hull City, when one goal will not be enough, and a clean sheet is far from guaranteed. Indeed, it will be interesting to see the reaction of Critchley and his players when Blackpool eventually go behind, and whether they have the wherewithal and game-management nous to react positively whilst attempting to keep the back door closed.
Ostensibly picked on Saturday ahead of the surprisingly dropped Jerry Yates, the inclusion of Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn was intended to counter Oxford’s system by gaining control of the centre ground, in theory freeing up Hamilton and fellow winger Sullay Kaikai to supply the ammunition for Gary Madine, and presumably Woodburn and late, Phil Clarkson-like runs from Grant Ward. It didn’t though quite work out that way.
Woodburn, playing against the side who last season borrowed him from Liverpool has been a huge disappointment since arriving at the seaside. It is of course not the player’s fault that he has suffered from some significant injuries during a fledgling career, but the stop-start nature of his time on the field, for whoever he has played, has not brought out the best of the 21-year-old. It is perhaps indicative of his previous injury issues that Woodburn was the only Blackpool player, as far as we know, to be side-lined with novel coronavirus.
Had Yates played instead of Woodburn, or even Keshi Anderson in a deep-lying role, then a subtle but significant alteration to personnel might have decisively tipped the balance in Blackpool’s favour. We will never know. This is in no way a character assassination of Woodburn and he may still come good before his initial loan period comes to an end in January, but I cannot help but feel the player is in the last chance saloon of his Blackpool career, with a future at Anfield also being highly uncertain, and ultimately unlikely.
The return of Matt Virtue’s availability for selection is a boost for the creative element of Blackpool’s central midfield that does otherwise lack goals. It is anticipated that Ethan Robson and star signing Kenny Dougall have the long-range shooting ability to weigh in with occasional goals, but neither are routinely found on the edge of the opponents box, let alone in it. Jordan Williams is probably third choice behind the aforementioned, although his game has never been characterized by goal-scoring exploits. Further forward Grant Ward has the ability to shoot on sight but is unlikely to get the 10-15 goals a season needed to share the burden with Madine, Yates, Kaikai, and Hamilton. This is where the case for Woodburn’s inclusion simply does not stack up, notwithstanding any pressure, imagined or otherwise, that Critchley might feel to pick a player brought in from his own former employer.
After a start to the season that could politely be called stuttering Critchley, with a new helper in Colin Calderwood, generally reverted from a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 – a change that immediately reaped dividends. For those though lamenting the reversion on Saturday to the former system which stopped Blackpool’s winning run in its tracks, it must be remembered that 4-4-2 was securing one-goal victories, and not scorelines that represented comprehensive thrashings of the opposition. There is a fine line in football between victory and defeat but for Critchley’s Blackpool, the margin between winning and a draw, but with a significant chance of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, is cigarette paper thin.
With this in mind I do muse if Blackpool are on the cusp of putting the likes of Hull City to the sword, or are due another chastening defeat similar to the one inflicted by Ipswich Town at Bloomfield Road. Generating alternative routes to goal other than via C J Hamilton, a player who would be lighting up the Premier League if his end product was positive at least seven out of every ten attempts, and dead ball situations are absolutely vital for when the opposition finally cotton on to Blackpool’s hard to beat, but somewhat narrow model of approach.
It is unrealistic to expect that injuries to key personnel will not occur, especially when a couple of months previous Blackpool were without eight first team squad members. How Critchley would go about replacing Kenny Dougall and Gary Madine is far from certain, with any injuries and suspensions sustained in defensive positions hardly offset by Jordan Thorniley and Teddy Howe waiting in the wings. Keshi Anderson arguably has the traits to stand in on a temporary basis for Madine, but securing a third striker, if Yates is classed as an out and out forward, is crucial to giving any chance to ambitions that must rank reaching the play offs as a bare minimum. Max Watters, currently the most prolific striker in England, albeit at League Two Crawley Town, undoubtedly fits the profile of player targeted by Blackpool since Critchley’s arrival, although how the player would acclimatize to the step up in standard is unclear, with the fact that League One Doncaster Rovers only released the player this summer from their development squad due to Covid-related cost cutting.
Tonight’s home fixture against league leaders Hull City will offer some guidance as to how far Blackpool have come in the last six weeks, and whether the Seasiders’ aspirations to be challenging at the top end of the division are credible. Be it by his own volition or dragged kicking and screaming, Critchley has proved he is receptive to change but this must also involve learning from his mistakes, and not staying misguidedly loyal to players by whom his managerial career at Blackpool will ultimately be defined.
There are cautious grounds for optimism, but three games in the next week including visits to Sunderland and Accrington Stanley may well signpost whether finishing in a top six berth in May is realistic, and how much owner Simon Sadler is willing to spend in the forthcoming transfer window.