If the recent League One form guide was anything to go by, Blackpool were firmly in the ascendancy after what must be said was an atrocious start to their 2020/21 campaign. A stop-start few weeks precipitated by Covid-related cancellations has though stalled momentum, with some of the issues which brought about such a dire first few months of Neil Critchley’s first full season in charge now threatening to re-emerge.
Drawing blanks in three out of the last four league outings, albeit incongruously punctuated by a 3-2 victory over then leaders Hull City, quite where the goals will come from when Gary Madine, Jerry Yates, and Blackpool’s now injured talisman C J Hamilton fail to find the back of the net has again been brought into question. The aforementioned triumvirate and the perpetually misfiring Sullay Kaikai are all guilty on occasion of missing gilt-edged chances but the fault within Critchley’s Blackpool is that for all their pretty football in front of the opposition, there is an obvious lack of craft to unlock resolute defences. Not enough chances are being created, by dint of the ball not spending sufficient time in the opponents’ 18-yard box.
Devoid of the quality of delivery dispensed by Liam Feeney, now totting up assists during a season-long loan spell with League Two Tranmere Rovers, Blackpool have been reliant on Hamilton’s crosses finding a tangerine shirt; for all the former Mansfield player’s attributes consistent incisive delivery isn’t one of them. If 7 out of every 10 of Hamilton’s crosses were inch perfect, as one would expect from Feeney, the player would now be plying his trade at a higher level.
The only other player in Blackpool’s squad, and therefore not including the nine players out on loan, who can consistently deliver quality crosses into the box is Luke Garbutt, currently playing at left back after a protracted spell on the sidelines. There is therefore a case for the former Everton player to be moved further forward, replacing the mercurial but overwhelmingly disappointing Kaikai and his callow deputy, Bez Lubala. Such a move would though necessitate the reinstatement of James Husband to left back, a move not without risk, or the more attack-minded Demetri Mitchell. If though Critchley is tasked with finding left-sided attacking solutions from within the squad, Garbutt is undoubtedly the best option. Keshi Anderson can play a sinistro-role but is more likely to do so more infield than from the flank.
In light of Hamilton’s perhaps long-term injury it is Blackpool’s right-sided issue which is the most vexed, with few options within the squad to offset the loss of arguably Blackpool’s player of the season to date, although a just case for centre-back Marvin Ekpiteta can be made for midterm accolades. West Ham loanee Daniel Kemp has not had a lot of game time and whilst the 21-year-old has shown some flashes of quality when entering the fray from the bench, as a like for like starter and ersatz replacement for Hamilton, the Sidcup-born player inevitably doesn’t have the same impact. Aside from moving the attack-minded full back Jordan Gabriel into a more advanced role I fail to see how Blackpool can overcome the loss of Hamilton without dipping into the transfer market during the January window. Despite Gabriel’s keenness for venturing forward his at times poor decision making and inconsistent crossing, traits writ large through the third tier of English professional football, will continue to frustrate especially when advantageous positions are not fully taken advantage of.
The players along with Hamilton who are tantamount to being irreplaceable within Blackpool’s squad are Madine, and midfielder Kenny Dougall. During his itinerant and often controversial career Madine has never been prolific, a trait that has continued at the seaside, but nevertheless offers something different in the final third of the pitch whose theoretical loss cannot be compensated for by those within the squad, or out on loan. Madine has on occasion shown to be a useful foil for fellow striker Jerry Yates but this has not been a positive, consistent feature of Blackpool’s season quite simply because Critchley has failed to set the team up to get the best from his two front men. A third striker, an experienced six-yard box finisher in the mould of Cameron Jerome, Eoin Doyle, or Ched Evans is vital to Blackpool’s by no means certain push for the end of season play offs, but Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Kylian Mbappe would have little impact on a side who just do not get the ball into the box on enough occasions, and where Madine is left with little option but to drop deep and fight for a ball he should be receiving further up field.
The all-action Dougall has along with Hamilton and Ekpiteta been one of the obvious success stories from Critchley’s revolution, a churn of personnel which has seen 17 players arrive and 21 depart. Undoubtedly Blackpool’s most influential midfielder the former Barnsley player is though prone through his playing style to pick up bookings, and quite simply cannot sustain an 8 out of 10 or better performance game in, game out. Again, there isn’t cover within the squad of sufficient quality for Dougall to be given a rest, or to allow for suspension and injuries. Ethan Robson has proved to be ordinary, with Jordan Williams not of the standard to be considered as a first-choice combatant in the engine room. The recent return of Matt Virtue after a substantial period on the sidelines is to be welcomed, but the player’s recent brush with novel coronavirus has once more stalled the Liverpudlian’s Blackpool career, and does not represent a like for like alternative for Dougall. Virtue will vie with Grant Ward, Keshi Anderson, and possibly Ben Woodburn(unless as is highly likely that his loan spell is not renewed in January) for a more advanced central midfield role, but I cannot escape the feeling that none of these options are of a standard to propel Blackpool into the Championship, and of course from a positional sense cannot replace Dougall. Finding ‘another Dougall’ will be no easy quest for Critchley and those above him tasked with player recruitment, nor will keeping a theoretical player happy who is in effect brought in to be the Australian’s understudy.
There is therefore much to ponder as a new year beckons, with the jury out as to whether Critchley’s model of developing young players with an eventual view of returning Blackpool to the Championship, the club’s realistic natural habitat, is a work in progress or will amount to nothing but a false dawn. As in common with twelve months previous under the ultimately failed tutelage of Critchley’s predecessor Simon Grayson, there is undoubtedly still a chance to aim for the play offs, perhaps the automatic promotion places, but much will depend on whether owner Simon Sadler is willing to pump more of his own cash into player recruitment during a season when cash flow has been decimated by the pandemic. With the salary cap and numerical restriction on squad size to also consider, Blackpool will need to offload several players, including Jordan Thorniley, Teddy Howe, Oliver Sarkic, with an opportunity to send Bez Lubala out on loan, for financial and physical room to be made available to accommodate any newcomers. Without though an honest appraisal from Critchley as to why his side continually fails to create enough chances to win games that are there for the taking, any change in personnel brought about by Sadler’s munificence will not make the intended difference but instead perpetuate the sentiment that Blackpool continue to be frustratingly less than the sum of their parts.
Come on you ‘pool.