Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Are we now properly good?

"He said what? Rigid and unadventurous? Embo, get on lad. Sullay, pull yer finger out, Demi, just do whatever you like. No, not you Ethan, sit down."

We're just over three quarters of the way through the season and I've written a LOT. At times, it feels as if I've written so much that it's all blurring into one long sentence, some sort of seemingly endless linguistic passing move that finally culminates in Sullay falling over. I'm sure it reads that way too. 

Some months ago, I wrote a piece about how we weren't actually very good at some of the things we needed to be good at if we wanted to go up. This wasn't because I wanted to have a go at Critch. He's a lovable little imp and we all want him to succeed. It was just an attempt at objective analysis - I wanted to put my finger on what precisely it was that we weren't doing.

Since the end of October, we've been hard to beat most of the time, but for a lot of that spell we've not been especially good at winning games, especially against sides who set up quite simply and play in a physical, direct manner. The reason was, in my humble opinion (and borne out by the stats I researched,) a lack of ambition in our attacking play, an over emphasis on ball retention above risk taking. This meant that although we saw a lot of the ball and played football in the right places on the pitch, we didn't take the risks to beat a man, play a killer pass or get a shot off, so keen were we to retain possession. In turn, that led to a lack of goals and lots of draws and narrow defeats. 

Something has changed though (we've got +14 goal difference now!) and having written about our shortcomings in considerable depth not that long ago, it seems fair to look again and try and pinpoint what Critch has got right. I'll freely admit, like any football fan, I sail with the winds (those who don't are weird people) and it barely seems a month ago, I was bemoaning our rigidity and wondering, that whilst he seemed to have cracked 'league 1 style percentage football,' if Critchley really could ever deliver the sort of attacking play we craved. Yes, he could coach shape and discipline, but could he coach us to do something with that? 

The answer seems to be a very firm yes.. 

The remarkable thing about our recent play is the way we've lost player after player and kept going.
Had someone said we'd lose both Madine and CJ at the turn of the year and find ourselves not missing them, you'd think they were mad. Had someone said that our centre back options would be decimated to a point where we're playing the SIXTH choice centre half (who isn't a centre half) and that Jordan Thorniley would play more games than he misses in the run in, you'd be calling for them to be taken away in a white van. Add in the rest of the injuries, and you'd be wondering if the conversation was in fact a feverish nightmare. 

In an odd way, the injuries have maybe helped us.

Firstly, they've forced us to play a relatively settled team. This season has been like Claudio Ranieri's career in a nutshell. At Chelsea and many other moneyed clubs that he managed, he gained a reputation for meddling with the line up, week after week. When he turned up at Leicester, he didn't really have that option so stuck with 'same again lads' and it took him to the title. Critchley had a lot to choose from when everyone was fit and his dilemma was writ large by fans on social media as debate raged about who should be brought in or out the team each week. That's arguably over complicating the task. 

Thrilling reading

That being taken away has made the job of keeping the squad happy a lot easier and has forced us to find a way of playing with the (limited) players available. I think it's also taken a bit of pressure off the players from supporters as it's not really practical to call for them to be dropped if there's no one to replace them. 

That seems a bit like I'm damning Critch with faint praise. I'm not. I think he deserves huge credit for a) honing an effective way to play from limited resources and b) having kept the large majority of squad players on side, so that when they have got their call to play (like Thorniley) or been asked to play out of position (like Husband, Turton, Virtue) we've seen committed players, giving their all. 

Kevin Stewart is an interesting figure in all this. He's undoubtedly a very good player, capable of dominating a central midfield. He has aggression and skill and the physical presence of a player from a higher division. I can't help but wonder if his injury has actually worked to our benefit though. The return of Dougall as the first choice seems to have perked us up and I think the reason is simple.

Dougall is a more attacking defensive midfielder (if that makes sense) than Stewart - he plays on the front foot and often puts his first tackle in high up the pitch. Stewart is more of a deep lying defensive shield and with Dougall in the side, the press is more effective. Jerry starts the press and you can often see Dougall in there, not far behind him. Stewart doesn't play that way and whilst he's probably, in terms of raw attributes, a better player than Dougall, that high press is crucial. This is especially so at the moment as the lack of height in our team means we need possession high up the pitch (as we've got to use pace and precision to score goals as a result.) I think the simplest way to express the difference is that Stewart dominates his zone on the pitch, but Kenny D is basically everywhere. Stewart winning possession deeper makes sense if you can then aim for Madine (from that deeper possession), but when you can't, Kenny is king for me. 

Another thing Critchley deserves credit for is the signing of Elliot Embleton. There was a chorus of 'who?' and then another of 'why?' when we made the decision to take one of Sunderland's infrequently used substitutes as the solution to our attacking impotence. 

Embleton has been key in a number of games for several reasons. The first is that he's sort of a reverse Dougall, in that whilst King Kenny is a waspish figure, buzzing about all over the place putting tackles in, Elliot is a kind of butterfly, fluttering around the pitch and showing for the ball all the time. He's comfortable left, right and centre and with both feet and that gives us so much more fluidity as a side. As Embleton drifts into pockets of space, he opens gaps for players like Sullay and Demi to exploit and encourages them to rotate. Once you start getting Kaikai in the middle, you start to see a far more effective player - his overriding ability is his passing and vision, the dribbling is actually his secondary gift. What also happens, is Demi is able to play with more freedom and less consequences as if he goes haring off on a mad run (which is something we really needed to add to our attacking threat) then Embleton is canny enough to just shuffle across and fill in. 

Embo (l) and Dougs (r)

He's also got his own gifts, not least his ability to spot a pass, his willingness to have a shot and crucially his attitude is excellent. He's a curious blend of workhorse physique and flair player skills and he's content (if told to do so) to spend a game just tracking a man as he did against MK or equally, being the fulcrum of the attack as he has in others. What he gives us, in a strange way, is some of what Madine's presence brought to us (bear with me on this!) - He's a player who is comfortable using the ball in the hinterland between midfield and attack. He, like Madine, takes a burden off other players (and Jerry in particular benefits from that as he doesn't need to hunt deep and is thus in the box more.) Whilst, clearly, he's a he's very different player - having a player with a real brain and awareness in and around the edge of the box is key to us unlocking defences, especially as physically, our fit attacking options are all lithe, fairly slight figures.

I'd go so far to argue, outside of Madine, Embleton is the most 'intelligent' attacking footballer we have in our squad. Sullay and Demi (and CJ) are 'instinct' players. They see their chances in quick flashes (Sullay in particular has an astonishing ability to see a pass in a split second) but Embleton is a deeper thinker. He's a pleasure to watch as a lot of his work is quite subtle - his movement in response to the game situation makes it much harder for teams to come and just park a man on Sullay and therefore nullify us as a creative force. Now, you've also got to watch Embleton and the more players you have to mark tightly, the more space opens up in the rest of the pitch as result. 

It's been an easy criticism of Critchley to point to the number of injuries we've had and cite 'a problem' - but the converse could also be true. We've had a run of games like I can't remember, one after the other after the other with no respite and very little rotation possible but aside from the odd 45 minutes here and there, we've overcome that fatigue. We've played with a verve and purpose that suggests these players are fit and hungry and even in those games where the first half was poor, pulled out a second half to put things right, which suggest not only stamina, but also that the manager is having an influence in the dressing room, during the games, which early in his reign wasn't completely apparent. 

What that seeming growth in authority is down to, I don't know. He's made some decisive decision recently, whether in terms of leaving players out or making switches at half time and maybe he's gained respect for that. Recently, he seems to be much more demanding on the touchline and proactive in his instruction. Maybe that's just confidence gained from being around the division and in the presence of other managers. I don't know if it's just taken time for the squad to adjust to him, or he's adjusted his style from working with young players to one more suited to gnarled pros, for all I know, he's taken a different approach, such as giving players voice at half time. I have, frankly, no idea but the bare truth is - he seems a man with much more impact over what goes on on the pitch.

Half time Tangerines (lovingly sliced by Mikey G)

In my previous piece, I gave a lot of credit to him for his defensive organisation and how he's integrated Calderwood's influence into his plan. I'd go so far now to say, this possibly is the best defensive Blackpool side I've ever seen. It is frankly astonishing that it doesn't seem to matter who plays in what position, we just defend well. Yeah, you can pick out the odd goal here and there (and we're always going to concede sometimes), but by and large, we're unbelievably tight (except if we're playing Ipswich.) This is clearly more than just down to individual players. When you've got Ekpiteta, Ballard and/or The Viking there, it makes some degree of sense. These are classy centre backs with superb physical and/or mental attributes to play the role. When you've got Jimmy Husband looking like Baresi and Turton doing a great job against some big lump about half a foot taller than him, it starts to look like some kind of voodoo magic and frankly, I think that's possibly the best explanation for it.

If we had attacked as well as we've defended for the big chunk of the season, (but defended as poorly as we've attacked) I think we'd have been drooling over this side because we're a fan base predisposed to venerate attacking play. Frankly, our defensive work, from Jerry backwards, is simply superb. I said above, I didn't enjoy the MK Dons game, but whilst that is true, the pleasure I took from it (Jerry's goal aside) was the incredibly disciplined positioning, tracking and shape that made the opposition look utterly toothless. That doesn't happen by accident and whilst I'm always naturally in favour of the sort of manager who says 'right lads, just go and play,' the truth is, if we go up, even with Sadler's money, we're not going to be a big fish and we'll need that sort of ability to make to sum of the parts worth more than the whole. 

At the beginning of the year, I like many, wondered about the logic of making Maxwell the captain. Surely we needed someone snarling, pointing and shouting. My doubts seemed to be borne out in the early games. Heads went down when the other team scored and no one seemed to be capable of picking them up. Maxwell would shout from the goal line, but he's a keeper and after all, no one listens to keepers as they often rant and rave all game and are a bit odd. 

Somehow, quietly and calmly, Maxwell has grown into this role to a point where I can't really imagine anyone else doing it. He's a talker as a keeper and maybe he deserves some credit for the defensive solidity in the way he organises constantly. He seems to be a measured thinker and a serious minded lad when he speaks in public and I think, by making him skipper, Critchley has given him a real license to command his defence which, in retrospect, looks like a genius decision, so well marshalled are they and so comfortably does Maxwell interlink with the rest of the team. I think what Critchley spotted, is that he's a serious professional, who would listen to his ideas with an open mind and now, we're seeing that on the pitch. When he was out for a few games, Sam Walker came in and made some great stops but we lost that easy play around the edge of our box and it was weird to see a goalkeeper booting it into touch. We take Maxwell for granted, but next game, watch the opposing keeper and compare their use of the ball to his. 

Finally, I think the area I've been most impressed with is the one I felt most doubt about - It's well documented that we started the year with a knock off copy of the Liverpool tactics and it didn't, by and large, work very well at all. We then put ourselves straight with a bit of old fashioned 442 and I thought, well 'at least he's got some pragmatism alongside the idealism' but doubts lingered about whether he was tactically astute enough to make the quality of the squad pay on the pitch against cannier, wilier, more experienced heads. 

Several times in recent weeks, I've looked at what he's done, whether in picking the team or making in game subs and thought 'what are you doing Critch?' only to be proven wrong. We've also shown a hitherto unseen flexibility turning out 442, but with the wingers coming inside and full backs getting forward, something a bit like a 4-1-1-3-1 with a rotating 3 and most importantly, a sense that we're setting up, not to stop the opposition, but to get at them and try to win games. I think, as the team has grown in confidence, so has Critchley and watching the shift from ineffective rigidity, to moderately effective solidity, to a team of genuine quality who can play in several different ways has at times, been frustrating, but seen overall, it's been a real slow burning pleasure... (at least in retrospect!) 

What of the rest of the year? We've obviously got to hold our nerve and it helps a lot that Critchley seems the calm type. The biggest challenge is, I think, going to be reintegrating players as they return to fitness. The likes of Madine, Stewart, Marvin are too good to leave out all together, but how they slot in and when will be a test of what we've learned about when to stick and when to twist. I am the biggest Gary Goals fan on earth, but I'm tempted to say his role is, for the moment, (if we ever do see him again) as an impact sub when we need to change a game. That's something I never thought I'd say and I might be blinded by recent success, but we've stumbled on a fluidity and spirit and I'm loathe to see it disrupted to accommodate anyone just because they're fit. Actually, fuck it, get the goal machine up front, he's a football god... 

It's going to be nerve wracking, it's going to be nail biting but our trajectory has been a firmly upward one for some time and there's no logical reason to think it's going to suddenly fall apart. We're clearly a team and that's always what you need. Some sides have better individuals, but we've got a unit and that is down to the twinkly eyed impish man in the massive coat. I can imagine him deciding to go and potter round a garden centre this afternoon. Taking a break from it all, quietly ruminating on his next masterclass. Going for a sunday morning jog, looking like just another unremarkable fella, breath steaming in the cool morning light, cogs turning in his mind as he calmly, inscrutably, thoughtfully plots his next masterclass.  

In Critch we trust. 


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