A run of four draws in as many home games has seen Blackpool FC fail to make up ground on those currently within the League One play off places, and steal a march on teams currently outside the top six but with similar aspirations to the Seasiders.
Without a hint of bias or trace of arrogance, matches at headquarters against Crewe Alexandra, AFC Wimbledon, Fleetwood Town, and latterly Burton Albion are on paper ones from which Neil Critchley’s side should have prevailed, but a possible haul of twelve points that only garnered a third of that tally never in reality looked likely; if anything, Blackpool were fortunate to come out of the games versus Crewe, Wimbledon, and Burton with any points at all. It will be to these games in the final analysis that will be critically viewed, where Blackpool failed to make the most of home advantage and reel in the likes of Doncaster and Portsmouth before the stagger unwinds once games in hand are finally played.
Having put themselves in prime position for an assault on the top six places, primarily thanks to gritty but effective victories at the Fratton Park, The Valley, and Stadium:MK, four home matches against so-called lesser lights of the division should have seen a return of at least eight points. Is this an example of Blackpool clutching possible defeat from the jaws of victory? With fourteen games still to play it remains too early to say, but it is the manner of the performances and the repeated failings exhibited game in, game out which threaten to derail momentum that has in truth only spluttered into life several times during the season, without ever really convincing that Blackpool have what it takes to mount a concerted charge to the play offs, or even the automatic promotion places.
A lack of creativity in midfield is undoubtedly the squads undoing, with poor recruitment during the January window failing to address the shortfall of striking options. As previously discussed a lack of balance in midfield is reflected by a plethora of left-sided players, but few who can be relied upon when pressed into service to come up with the goods. The performance on Tuesday evening by Sullay Kaikai encapsulated the inconsistent and misfiring nature of the former Crystal Palace man’s second season at Bloomfield Road. A dire first half showing that merited being hooked of at the interval, Kaikai stepped up for at least twenty minutes of the second half but once more drifted back in to his shell, exhibiting the same indifferent decision making and ponderous nature on and off the ball that has so characterized his 2020/21 season.
The arrival of Elliot Embleton shook Blackpool into action, with the Sunderland loanee playing between the lines and gave something extra for Burton’s hardly stretched midfield to think about. It was though Luke Garbutt, the finest crosser and dead ball exponent at the club who found himself in an advanced position; through sheer determination and a radar that puts others in the squad to shame, Blackpool came by a deserved equalizer from the former Ipswich Town and Everton player’s dogged resolution and quality on the ball.
With right-sided talisman C J Hamilton and totemic spearhead Gary Madine both once more absent through injury, Blackpool are continually weakened by the loss to the side of two match winners and crucially, individuals who cannot be replaced from within the squad. Everton loanee Ellis Simms is not a replacement for Madine and was never intended to be, but the 20-year old has in effect been forced into action far more often than Neil Critchley probably intended.
Simms was presumably brought to the club to complement Madine and Jerry Yates, but has found himself as the only conventional number nine at the club who is currently available for selection. By saying this I do not regard Yates as an out and out striker, with the player’s style being somewhere between an inverted winger and and a forward arriving from a deeper-lying central position. A lack of forethought failed to bring in an experienced striker to help Yates and Simms to not only bolster a play-off push, but also offset any injuries or suspensions incurred by Madine. The same can be said for C J Hamilton, with no other option in the squad being able to offer the sort of thrust and forward impetus supplied by the former Mansfield man.
I am unaware as to how the lifting of the salary cap has affected the current campaign, or whether the removal of its restrictive nature will only come into effect from next season. Perhaps Blackpool tried to sign but missed out on the type of players I believe it needs to overcome its current turgid attacking style and stilted creativity, but with a recruitment model of predominantly pursuing younger players that MIGHT come good, before potentially be sold on down the line for a profit once they have lifted the club into its natural habitat, the Championship, it is unlikely that Critchley would have pursued the wily but evergreen Cameron Jerome, Nathan Dyer, or Eoin Doyle. These are though the type of players which have been there and done it, and would provide invaluable nous to the dressing room and be more than able deputies to the likes of Hamilton and Madine.
I for one feel Blackpool are too short in certain areas of the squad to mount a sustained surge to the play offs. Despite a taxing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule I do not regard this as a valid excuse for falling short, and whilst the defence looks in the main to be well-drilled, albeit with an obvious weakness against pinpoint crosses, a lack of creativity and subsequent goals will not enable Blackpool to compete with the more free-scoring Oxford United, Peterborough, and Sunderland.
Where last season I felt Blackpool has the squad capabilities to succeed in what was a very poor division but were stymied by the tactics of then manager Simon Grayson, I do feel this time around that there is not enough quality throughout the players at Critchley’s disposal for the club to be regarded come May as one of the best six in the league. Some recruitment choices in both the summer off season and January window have not worked out, for example the sourcing of Oliver Sarkic, Bez Lubala, and Ethan Robson, Dan Kemp, and Ben Woodburn and the loaning out of Liam Feeney to Tranmere Rovers without an option to recall, coupled with a failure to bring in players capable of replacing Madine and Hamilton when they needed wrapping in cotton wool, or in times of injury. Critchley and the recruitment team cannot be blamed for the poor form of Kaikai, on his day an equally talismanic figure as Madine and Hamilton. It must also be said that the signing of Marvin Ekpiteta, Kevin Stewart, Kenny Dougall, and Hamilton have all been resounding successes.
Last season there was a batch of four games under previous manager Simon Grayson which summed up why the now Fleetwood Town boss seemed content for Blackpool to exist as less than the sum of their parts, but reminded me of how the last four home fixtures during the current campaign have passed by without the needed, and expected, results coming to pass. Although there are differences insomuch that Grayson had in my view the players to get into the play-off spots or better but seemed reluctant to acknowledge the fact, whilst Critchley has the rudiments of a successful squad that is thin in certain areas, each adopted tactics that are at odds with the opposition put before them. For the four recent outings against Crewe, Wimbledon, Fleetwood, and Burton, the equivalent under Grayson were highly-winnable fixtures at Rochdale, Accrington, Bolton, and Tranmere which yielded just four points and two goals, as well as a quartet of dire performances each time in front of a large and expectant travelling support.
Nevertheless, it will not surprise me if Blackpool prevail this weekend at the Kassam Stadium. A pattern of taking the lead often fortuitously before riding their luck against misfiring opposition is perhaps a harsh appraisal of recent away victories which doesn’t give credit to resolute defending, but cannot be relied upon to continually work and does not take into consideration that Blackpool seem to stop taking the game to the opposition once Critchley’s side initially gain the upper hand. How they react to going behind will be the true judge of the side and its credentials, especially against better opposition, but away reverses where the home side have scored first, for example against Ipswich Town and Shrewsbury, have not always jolted the Seasiders into decisive action.
It will be of little use if Blackpool gain positive results at Sunderland, Oxford, and Sincil Bank if these are not complemented by victories against strugglers Rochdale, Swindon and Northampton. Despite recent setbacks Blackpool’s unbeaten run now extends to eight games, but with four of those matches producing frustrating and at times bore draws, there is in the end little to be gained from remaining unbeaten from matches where stalemates are repeatedly not turned into successes.
There is still little evidence to suggest where Blackpool will finish the current season, but I cannot help but feel that the last four homes matches represent missed opportunities and eight points lost, not four gained.