With the amount of left-footed players at Blackpool Football Club’s disposal, it is easy to arrive at one of two conclusions. Firstly, that the correct formula of who should play the various sinistro roles within the team – left -sided centre back, full back, and wide midfield, should be attainable from what on paper appears to be an embarrassment of riches, or secondly, head coach Neil Critchley is insufficiently sold on any of the options available to him. Initially the first scenario seemed the most likely; now, the latter is starkly being betrayed.
Assuming Blackpool adopt a 4-4-2 formation, something not a given during the disappointing early months of their 2020/21 campaign and even now after Critchley has sometimes shuffled the pack mid-game, the enigmatic Sullay Kaikai has generally been regarded, injuries permitted, as the number one choice on the left side of midfield. With theoretical competition from Bez Lubala and Keshi Anderson, Kaikai has flattered to deceive during a stop-start season where he again has promised much, but continually failed to deliver. Often in advantageous positions to shoot or run at his full back, the former Crystal Palace player frequently appears hesitant, outwardly lacking in confidence that can result in poor decision making. These traits are becoming all the more frustrating as Critchley gives the player more and more game time to prove himself, but without the end product his latent talent should be demanding. A pattern of being replaced on or just before the hour mark has recently emerged which will not infuse Kaikai with the necessary confidence, but reflects a level of performance that is often some way below demands and expectations.
Former Crawley Town player Lubala was brought in after a single stellar season in West Sussex following a move from Birmingham City. Despite rumours of Millwall offering half a million pounds for the D.R. Congo national’s services, the player made his way to Bloomfield Road for what in the end was an undisclosed but likely sizeable fee. It is fair to say that the 23-year old has been one of the most disappointing of Neil Critchley’s signings, assuming of course that the head coach has the final say over which players join the Seasiders. It would not be unfair to say that Lubala has looked out of his depth at a higher level, which perhaps comes as a surprise when his outstanding record at Crawley is taken into consideration, and his previous exposure to the Championship whilst at St. Andrews. It was my view that Lubala should have been loaned out in January to get game time and rebuild confidence, but despite staying at Bloomfield Road the player has in recent times failed to make Critchley’s matchday squad. Perhaps too much too soon has been expected of the player, but with the faltering form of Sullay Kaikai all too evident, Lubala was maybe seen by Critchley as his ‘go to’ alternative. That this hasn’t come to pass might explain the head coach having little choice but to persist with Kaikai.
Keshi Anderson is another left-sided alternative at the club, but one I wouldn’t bracket with Kaikai and Lubala simply because he is a less marauding type of of player, but one favouring a narrower midfield role, and who can even play up top should circumstance demand. I always felt prior to the player’s season-ending injury that Anderson was not the answer to the question, representing more an impact substitute who was unlikely to enjoy a productive consecutive run of games. Despite being a valued squad player, there is though no doubt that his credentials do not balance out the centre ground if Blackpool are playing a four, especially if speedster C J Hamilton is occupying a wide-right berth.
It was presumed that former Manchester United starlet Demetri Mitchell was brought to the club to take on the left back role, or at least provide competition to Luke Garbutt and James Husband. It soon became clear in the early but extremely disappointing stages of the season that Mitchell’s defensive qualities predicated on his rapidity were insufficient, especially when the player’s natural terrain is higher up the pitch and where he would often be found, out of position. I had called for Mitchell to be given an extended run at the expense of Kaikai, but all the speed in the world cannot cover up deficiencies in decision making and as evident during Tuesday night’s draw with Crewe Alexandra, poor ball control on what looked to be a flat Bloomfield Road surface.
With a left foot that could open a tin can, Garbutt is another option open to Critchley for the left side of midfield, a position now evidently difficult to fill. Although not fleet of foot in the vein of Lubala and Kaikai, Garbutt’s delivery from dead ball situations and open play amounts to a greater likelihood of crosses reaching their intended destination than failing to beat the first man, a maddening trait of several Blackpool players and that of lower league football in general. The case against stationing Garbutt in midfield as opposed to his usual left back position would suggest he would not balance out a midfield four where C J Hamilton provides such quicksilver prowess on the right-hand side, but I feel this is offset by Garbutt’s laser-guided delivery which should be meat and drink for the likes of Gary Madine.
Where now Garbutt injuries permitting is a shoo in at left back, the options of playing him, Mitchell, Husband, or even homegrown talent Nathan Shaw has presented a headache to Critchley when he has a fully fit squad at his disposal. This though has proved to be a rarity during a season dominated by Covid-19 but also a series of injuries at the heart of Blackpool’s defence, so much so that outcast Jordan Thorniley has in recent weeks been drafted into centre back duties. Another leftie, Thorniley could in theory also operate at left back but his stock in trade appears to be as part of a central two or even a three, something previous manager Simon Grayson presumably brought him to the club to fulfill. Injuries to centre backs Marvin Ekpiteta, Daniel Gretarsson, and Daniel Ballard have at one time or another thrust the square peg of James Husband into alien territory but despite his early season calamities the former Norwich man has lately performed admirably in the centre. Now that he too is sidelined, Blackpool are for the time being restricted to playing Thorniley and Arsenal loanee Ballard in the centre, where under rare but ideal circumstances Ekpiteta and Gretarsson would be first choice. With a likelihood that Thorniley will leave in the summer, as he was free to do so in January before being dragged back from obscurity, and that Ballard will return to his parent club, Blackpool will need to recruit one but preferably two centre backs who can add competition but when called upon not denude the high standards set by Ekpiteta and Icelander Gretarsson.
There has in recent weeks been a marked decrease in attacking thrust from Blackpool, undoubtedly coinciding with Hamilton’s lengthy lay off. Such a loss to the side could have been mitigated by a similar right-sided player being brought into the side for when Hamilton had a dip in form or became injured. Such a scenario was presaged when Kevin Stewart was recruited in January to insulate the side from Kenny Dougall’s need for rest after a succession of all action displays, and his recovery from novel coronavirus. If Blackpool had pursued a reported interest in Morecambe flyer Carlos Mendes Gomes or plumped for the experienced free agent Nathan Dyer, Hamilton’s notable absence would not have highlighted so acutely the side’s deficiencies on the opposite flank. It does baffle me how the club was stocked with so many southpaws, but an over reliance on Hamilton resulted in his position and qualities not being covered.
At this stage in the season Blackpool have no choice but to use what is available to them; free agents such as Dyer and others can in theory be recruited, but I doubt very much now they will be even with 19 games still remaining in regulation. If the return of Daniel Gretarsson is imminent I would like to see the former Aalesund defender play in tandem with Ballard, with James Husband reverting back to full back thus freeing up Luke Garbutt to play further forward. The former Everton man will also have the discipline to track back, something not automatically in the makeup of Kaikai, Lubala, and Mitchell. This hokey cokey of personnel is not something I anticipate that Critchley will adopt but with attacking options only as efficacious as the service provided by Blackpool’s wide players, C J Hamilton cannot be expected to deliver the goods by himself, especially after several months on the sidelines. To use Garbutt’s ability to its optimum, I see little option but to unleash it for more attacking purposes.