As a lifelong supporter of Blackpool Football Club I benefit from not owning tangerine-tinted spectacles, and am able to critique the squad’s performances without resorting to unfounded hyperbole or ignoring what I regard as the reality.
I understand that football in the main a game of opinions and is at times highly subjective, but there are also undoubtedly the facts – even as I see them. Blackpool’s latest victory – to call it as such gives the impression that overcoming the opposition is now a routine occurrence, and to some extent that would be correct – this time at Stadium:MK, a first for the tangerines where concrete cows once roamed the earth, was what I would regard as fortunate, but highly indicative of third tier football.
A pattern has ebbed and flowed during the season of sitting on leads where final third creativity has all but been given over in the name of shutting out the opposition rather than continuing to take the game to them, whilst also relying on lower league opposition footballers doing what they do best/worst – failing in front of goal. Far from being a comfortable shut out against Russell Martin’s MK Dons, Blackpool rode their luck when on at least two occasions it appeared easier for the hosts to score than blaze over the bar, or rattle the underside of it.
I for one do not like this turgid style of picking up scraps from long passes out of central defence, although not necessarily aimless long balls, and hoping on mistakes being made against teams vulnerable against a relatively high press and who for some unknown reason favour playing out from the back. To watch League One teams attempting to extricate themselves out of needlessly difficult positions by perilously passing out from the penalty area has me wincing with incredulity; it is often a big ask and no less baffling to see Premier League sides adopting this approach, so why lower league players are expected to be able to get it right is totally beyond me, quite aside from building from the back in this manner rarely representing a successful route to goal.
Injuries and the novel coronavirus have often denied Head Coach Neil Critchley a full hand from which to choose, but there have been many instances of baffling selections that fail to unleash the side’s still latent attacking potential. As previously written about the problematic left side of a midfield four shows no sign of being resolved. With a preference for inverted wingers Critchley has usually plumped for Sullay Kaikai to complement the fit again C J Hamilton, but the former Crystal Palace man has fluffed his lines to such an extent that one feels he is only selected in the absence of any other realistic options. Notwithstanding the injured squad player Keshi Anderson, the likes of Demetri Mitchell, Bez Lubala, and returned Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn have failed to show that they were the answer to what has become something of a vexed question. If injuries hadn’t drafted left back James Husband into service at centre back, the former Norwich man could have played behind a more advanced Luke Garbutt, the finest crosser and dead ball exponent currently at the club.
It is said that Matty Virtue ‘always has a goal in him’ and seems to be a player favoured by Critchley, who knew the player during their respective days within the Liverpool youth system. I for one do not ‘get’ the fuss made about Virtue, with Tuesday night’s second half showing by Blackpool’s midfield before it was shored up by Kenny Dougall serving as a microcosm to its attacking limitations, and for a time its lack of protection to the back four. Time after time the Seasiders’ midfield was scythed through by one of the division’s lesser lights, with only poor finishing and some dogged last ditch defending preventing the scoreline from showing a more realistic reflection of proceedings.
My four for midfield from whom is available to Critchley would see the outstanding Kevin Stewart retain his position in front of the back four, with Kenny Dougall stationed in a slightly more advanced central position. Although both players’ natural habitat would probably amount to the same area of the pitch, I feel they both strengthen the spine of the side by playing in tandem, with any similarities in style offsetting potential drawbacks. On the left I would play Hamilton in favour of his usual right-sided berth, which would be taken by Grant Ward. With Garbutt at left back there is a greater attacking thrust on port side of the pitch, with Jordan Gabriel representing an alternative offensive option to Ward or if playing instead of Ollie Turton at right back.
For those who only view scorelines and not what lies beneath, there will be little to complain about. Football is a results-based industry, but I cannot shake the feeling that eventually Blackpool are going to get found out by the better sides of the division, for example Sunderland, Oxford, and Peterborough, if more attacking intent isn’t fused into their tactical instructions. Hanging on to leads, especially in the absence of totemic spearhead Gary Madine who does such a fine job of holding up the ball to bring others into play, or hoping to nick a goal from a deflection or defensive error will not keep on reaping disproportionate dividends. I expect too much, perhaps, but the rudiments are there in the squad to entertain AND get results, rather than bore supporters watching at home and it has to be said, the team continually riding their luck.
It is not a popular opinion but I want to see how Blackpool react to going behind in a game, especially against better opposition who admittedly number few in such a poor division. In such circumstances Critchley will then have to rethink, and attempt to wrest away the initiative from sides who know they will be able to sit back and soak up pressure, and potentially exploit a perceived weakness against pinpoint crosses.
The next four games – Fleetwood Town, Burton Albion, Oxford United, and Peterborough – will need to yield at least 8 points for Blackpool to gate-crash the playoffs and have destiny in their own hands, but a full return to action for Madine, Hamilton, and Daniel Gretarsson will be vital if the side can significantly increase its goal difference, whilst keeping the back door firmly locked and bolted.
Can Blackpool reach the playoffs? Undoubtedly, but at the moment it feels as if it would be under false pretences, even when it should be remembered that the league table does not lie after forty six games. Whilst I do not want a further season in League One, another sizable rebuild will be necessary in the summer come what may.
If a pattern of confusing and at times frustrating tactics, selections, and substitutions remains a leitmotif of Critchley’s modus operandi or turns out to be his ultimately successful if albeit circuitous route to getting the club to where owner Simon Sadler requires it to be, he is currently walking a fine line between receiving scorn from some quarters but being unflinchingly trusted by others to get the club back to the Championship.
At this point of the season and a year into the head coach’s tenure, I am still none the wiser as to how the current campaign will top out, if the Critchley experiment will be an eventual success, or is doomed to failure.