In my recent review of Blackpool’s style of play across the season so far, I took a close look at the expected goals for and against. There were a couple of key trends that have burdened the season, first of all the clear issue we’re all aware of – our creative underlying numbers and which seem to decrease when results are coming and vice versa. Also, we saw that our chance concession has increased significantly since Daniel Gretarsson has been dropped for Dan Ballard. Both are intriguing aspects to look into as on the face of both, we are content, but these trends cannot be overlooked as papering over them is unsustainable over an entire season.
Our last two matches
So lets look into one of the key trends which is the upturn in chance concession in the last few games when Ballard is in the side compared to Gretarsson. I want to see whether this has been a consistent theme for the entire season since both players joined the club. I have analysed the two recent defeats to Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury to find where chances are being conceded and why this is generally combatted when Gretarsson plays.
Looking at the recent defeat to Bristol Rovers, Blackpool conceded 2.5xG, about 1.7 non-penalty xG. On average this season we have conceded 1.11xG, so that is a 0.59 non-penalty xG increase on our seasonal average. Similarly with the Shrewsbury defeat below, we conceded 1.9xG, and even taking into consideration the penalty, we are above our seasonal average.
It is an intriguing quirk so I went back and looked at every individual game that Dan Ballard has started compared to Daniel Gretarsson and found the average xG concession statistics on this. Gretarsson has started seven games and Ballard likewise (including the 3rd minute substitution against Charlton).
On average when Gretarsson has started, Blackpool have conceded 1.06xG, below their overall season average. When Ballard has started, Blackpool have conceded 1.36xG, above the season average. So there is a 0.3xG differential. That may seem marginal on the face of it, but looking back at the data this season, Blackpool have conceded eight goals from shots that had an xG value of 0.3 or below. This points to just how unlucky the Seasiders have been this season on the defensive front, but also it shows the importance of marginal gains.
Something that really sums up the debate is that, in the seven games each has played, the points Blackpool have picked up per game are drastically different.
- PPG with Dan Ballard starting: 1
- PPG with Daniel Gretarsson starting: 2.29
Finding the reason
So as we can see, we are conceding more chances with Ballard in the side compared to Gretarsson but what are the reasons behind that, given Ballard is a brilliant central defender?
The first thing I looked at was the stylistic approach that both players have. From looking at it by eye I notice a fundamental difference in the way both players defend. Gretarsson is much more aggressive in his play, he looks to press players on the edge of the 18 yard box so that a chance is stemmed before they get into a dangerous area. Now it is clear that this style has worked for us this season, albeit it is riskier as, should he not win the ball in that play, the opposition are much more likely to create a more dangerous chance.
Ballard on the other hand is confident in allowing an opposition player space. He will allow a player to come on to him with the ball, trusting his intelligence and anticipation to find the right time to make the tackle. Now again this has its risks. If he doesn’t time the challenge correctly then the opposition are already in a dangerous area to take a shot, however the tackle within itself is less of a risk because it has been more calculated.
Both approaches have their plaudits, but I think one suits our whole system more than the other. Gretarsson’s style of defensive play works better in the system because it compliments how Ekpiteta plays. Ekpiteta is similarly quite aggressive in his play, pressing with a higher line in order to stem attacks before they hit a dangerous area. When both central defenders are on the same page in regards to this then it allows us to hold a higher and more organised line.
On the other hand, when Ballard prefers players coming on to him, this drops him deeper in the defensive line. With Ekpiteta alongside him that means one central defender is pressing out and the other is dropping deeper, it leaves our defensive line more disjointed. Don’t get me wrong, if everything is perfect in each individual battle then it doesn’t affect us whatsoever. However if a tackle is mistimed, or the opposition found their way round the initial press, it leaves us in a much worse position than it would if both defenders approached the game in the same way.
What Ballard’s approach also means is that, when we are naturally dropping deeper as a line with him in the side, our midfielders have to offer more of a defensive effort in between the lines. The perfect example of this approach becoming our downfall as a side is the penalty we conceded against Shrewsbury. Ballard dropped deeper which brought our defensive line deeper and allowed more pressure to build on us. That is fine if we have a team of Dan Ballard’s but Kaikai makes a poorly judged tackle resulting in a penalty. Had our defensive line been five yards higher, which has been consistent theme with Gretarsson and Ekpiteta, Kaikai would have made that tackle in less of a dangerous area. Again it’s about fine margins.
Just to highlight, this is not Dan Ballard’s fault. He trusts in his own ability to make the right tackle in those situations, what he can’t account for is that many of his teammates aren’t at his level. Can Neil Critchley trust his side to sit deeper and allow more pressure on to themselves, I would argue he can’t and in most of the games we have lost this season, that is what has cost us.
On a statistical basis, the difference in approaches shows, with Ballard averages 3x more blocks per game than Gretarsson. This shows that Ballard is happy to defend in more of a last ditch, deeper manner and that his position in the side means that more of these types of challenges are necessary. Although I generally think that style doesn’t suit the rest of our side, it does allow for Ballard to be more dominant aerially with an average of six aerial clearances per game compared to Gretarsson’s three.
What can we take from this?
The fundamental point is that Daniel Gretarsson suits our style of play more than Dan Ballard. I would argue Ballard is the better overall defender purely because he is composed pressing high as well as defending in deep situations. Having said that, I don’t think we have the other defensive options there to compliment how he defends. I wish we did because having a defence that can calmly deal with teams coming on to them in dangerous areas, will more than likely bring us better results on the whole.
The solution for me is that longer term we know Dan Ballard will be at a higher level next season and that Gretarsson is our longer term project, so Gretarsson should take priority. However, I think Ekpiteta could quite easily learn to defend deeper more easily, the issues come when our midfield have to drop deeper. Our midfield on the whole are quite rash when it comes to making challenges and with that, you are best placed having them sit higher up the park where fouls given away are less likely to lead to scoring chances. So Critchley needs to work on our midfield being able to drop deeper and retain composure when the pressure is on us. This will allow Ballard the space to defend in his own manner, without worrying about someone else making a rash decision.
Image: BBC Sport
What are your thoughts on what we should do with Daniel Gretarsson and Dan Ballard? Let us know below.
Enjoying our content? Make sure you check out our latest podcasts too!
Don’t forget to turn on notifications on Twitter and Instagram to see our latest content first. Please help us out by commenting, liking and retweeting our posts to spread the word across the Blackpool fans. Up the mighty Pool.