Blackpool put in their best performance of the season to outclass the league’s top scorers Portsmouth at Bloomfield Road. The Seasiders restricted Pompey to limited chances in a real tactical battle. Before a fine counter-attacking move was finished off by Keshi Anderson to give Neil Critchley’s side their seventh win in eight games.
When Neil Critchley came to Bloomfield Road this was exactly the sort of football we were wanting to see. A top drawer performance from the first to last whistle from every single player on the pitch. The organisation of the side left Pompey feeding off scraps and were it not for a nervy error in the last minute of added time, I fail to remember a real chance for them to score.
I wanted to start on what was the best display from a Blackpool player this season. Ethan Robson ran that game. He gave us the combativeness and drive in midfield required to break up any opposition build up play before it got anywhere near the attacking third. It was vital that we kept our composure in the central areas, having the intelligence to know when to press and where to position ourselves in order to intercept play. This is a really difficult thing to do when Pompey’s Harness, Curtis and Marquis trio are constantly on the move, yet Robson mastered it.
I mean, look at that tackle rate. He made more than double the tackles of anyone else on the park, he was the key to this display being so composed and organised. His intelligence in the tackle showed experience beyond his years. In a side where lack of experience has been questioned on a few occasions, from myself included, that central midfield performance was the perfect tonic.
His touch match shows the ground that he covered. He was tireless and at times he even covered at right back as we allowed Oli Turton more of a license to push forward. That ability to cover in the half space whilst keeping tabs on Marquis’ movement in between the lines, whilst also stemming balls threading through the middle is a very challenging task to master. It showed just how much of an impact Robson was having that, when Pompey brought on Harrison to go two up top, they both sat tight and narrow on Robson to stop him being an outlet in our build up play. He still managed to get free and continue his domination of the game.
We signed Ethan Robson on a free transfer from Sunderland and I would argue than in a year or two’s time we’ll be looking back on that as one of the best bits of business we’ve had in many a year. Flawless.
Inch-perfect game plan
The game plan from Critchley was perfectly planned and perfectly executed. I know many, including myself, have looked at the link between Colin Calderwood’s arrival and the upturn in results but this was a Neil Critchley masterclass. This is what we brought him to the club for and I am loving eating my words on him week after week.
It was evident from the outset that this was a going to be a game of patience. First and foremost we had to limit Portsmouth’s attacking opportunities. We did that by keeping a narrow bank of two lines of four in defensive phases. What I noticed within that structure, is that our full backs would sit narrow and slightly ahead of the defensive line in order to cover the half spaces. This is where, throughout the season, Ronan Curtis and Marcus Harness have had their joy, they have utilised the space in behind wingers and inside of the full back to create a link up with John Marquis. Turton and Husband sitting in that area meant that any moment from Harness and Curtis was stemmed before they even got on to the ball.
Next, our two centre halves were tasked with being aggressive on Marquis. With our setup meaning that Pompey had to try and hit direct to him, because Curtis and Harness were out the game, it allowed us to sweep up much more easily than we would if he got in behind. If Pompey hit him aerially, we could deal with that, our aerial advantage was something we knew we had long before kick off. And if they hit him into feet, we would press aggressively and get in ahead of Marquis, before driving forward with the ball. When we were aggressive on Marquis, I noticed that the other centre half would cover in behind so that, even in the off eventuality that he would turn the first defender, the other would be there to sweep up.
You could see Marquis’ frustration from very early on when he realised we had his sides’ number marked. Massive credit has to go to referee Josh Smith who noticed the striker’s persistent fouling and didn’t allow it to continue. This left him isolated with no options and, apart from two slight individual mistakes, he didn’t have a sniff.
It was our best defensive display of the season.
From a progressive sense everything started through the middle. Robson constantly winning challenges allowed him that space to drive into before quickly shifting the ball out wide, or to Kenny Dougall who would then feed the ball into Keshi on many occasions. Keshi was everywhere in the space between their midfield and attacking line and that movement enabled us to open up Pompey more and more as the game went on.
Our threat in the wide areas through CJ Hamilton was there to see as always. Sullay Kaikai was quite sporadic however and I must say, his turnovers of possession in dangerous areas probably cost us a few more chances at goal. Having said that we showed a different style of attacking play. We remained patient in our build up, waiting for a Pompey error and exploiting it at will. Our confidence on the ball was key, we knew we were having it our way and, as the game developed, that only grew as gaps started to widen with the away side looking for a goal.
Our goal came from what we know best though. A fast, fluid counter attack that ended with a fine finish from Keshi. And I know I’ve gone on about him enough already but Robson made that goal. His pace in front of CJ in order to give the winger the perfect run at the full back was sublime. It was perfectly weighted. The dummy from Jerry Yates showed his intelligence in the 18 yard box too.
As you can see above (provided by xG_Data) were it not for Dan Ballard’s slight mistake in the last minute of added time, we resorted Portsmouth to an xG rating of 0.3. For context, only Charlton have restricted them to a lower xG rating than us (0.65 in a 2-0 win for Charlton), with MK Dons the only other side to restrict them to a lower rating than 1 (0.99 in a 2-1 win for Portsmouth). Pompey have averaged 1.64xG this season which means we halved their average attacking output.
This was the performance that we really needed to see to give us real optimism that promotion could be on the cards. Our early season limitations in defence look like they are behind us, especially when you consider Luke Garbutt and Jordan Gabriel couldn’t even get into this lineup. Our organisation as a unit pales in comparison to the individualistic approach we saw mere weeks ago. And our attacking outlay is progressing week upon week. We are right in there with a chance. In our last three games we have faced three of the best sides in the division and outplayed each and every one of them. Beat Fleetwood on Saturday and there is no reason why we shouldn’t start to dream!
MOTM: Ethan Robson
xG: Blackpool 1.21 – 0.85 Portsmouth
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