Review – Blackpool 2-2 West Brom (3-2 Pens)

An inspired performance from Neil Critchley’s men earned Blackpool their first victory against top flight opposition in the FA Cup since 1976. The Seasiders took the lead late in the first half after a dangerous ball across the face of goal from Bez Lubala was touched home by Jerry Yates. An equaliser from Semi Ajayi levelled matters for the Baggies before a fine counter attacking move saw Gary Madine fire home to retake the lead. Ollie Turton handled on the edge of the box to allow Matheus Pereira a penalty-spot equaliser, before Chris Maxwell’s shootout heroics sent the Tangerines into Round Four.

This was the performance we were looking for. It was a chance for our players to show their creative abilities ahead of a January window that could define where Blackpool finish in the league. Vitally, the squad fundamentally showcased that they are capable of plugging the gaps we thought were in the side when it matters.

The centre half pairing

After my piece in the week about the strengths and weaknesses of both Dan Ballard and Daniel Gretarsson it was great to see them pair up together for the first time this season. And as expected they didn’t really put a foot wrong. Ballard played on his favourable right hand side for the first time and looked more assured than ever both on and off the ball.

As you can see above, they solidified us against a direct West Brom approach, particularly in the first hour of the game before the Baggies switched up their approach. Ten clearances a piece allowed us to combat general attacking play quite easily, enabling our midfield to get on the ball a lot more than in recent weeks.

Hopefully, the enforced substitution of Gretarsson in particular is nothing to be too concerned about. However Ekpiteta quickly slotting in and growing accustom to the game in the latter stages gave me confidence that our central defence is now the strongest part of our team.

Grant Ward

This was easily his best performance in a Blackpool shirt. He was the catalyst to our joy in a creative sense and our ability to retain possession when we took recovery breaks from our pressing play. Ward has an energy in midfield that is unmatched by anyone in the side, add that with his intelligence to be in the right place at the right time in between the lines and you have a good partner for Kenny Dougall

As you can see above, that intelligence in play was evident from Ward. Joint top of the interception chart, alongside the Iceman, he swept up a lot of balls in behind the midfield line particularly from Conor Gallagher. More importantly, he created a platform for Dougall to be freed up, efficiently playing the ball to the Aussie who in turn became our hub of creativity. Dougall has been bogged down in recent weeks, having to provide more defensive cover than he would like and it meant his creative play suffered, with the team seeing the downsides as a result.

Notwithstanding his defensive efforts, Ward apparently didn’t think that was enough as he made the most key passes on the field with four. He was instrumental in our counter attacking play that brought us so much joy in the final third. I questioned his persistent showing of drifting in and out of games, being quiet for portions when we needed a consistent performance earlier in the season, but in recent weeks he has been pivotal in making things tick over in the midfield. For me, he is one of the first names on the team sheet right now and it leaves a real fight for places if we remain in the 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 structure that has served us well, given Matty Virtue’s fine cameo.

Yorke and Cole

Jerry Yates and Gary Madine’s partnership grew even stronger in this game, if that were even possible. Their mutual understanding of each other’s play provides a real platform for Blackpool to build on. In our poorer performances this season I think the isolation of one of our forwards, tending to be Madine, has left the side low on confidence when it comes to creative output. Whereas, seeing the two interchanging and making good use of the ball when it matters, inspires the rest of the side. It always builds confidence knowing you have attacking outlets that will make good use of your creative play.

As usual, Madine showcased his aerial presence, even against probably his toughest test this season in Semi Ajayi, providing five offensive aerials. His hold up play was superb and his instinctive finish for the second goal, after a great interchange with Yates, showcased his all round ability. To see how nimble and technical his play is now compared to under Simon Grayson is quite staggering. He is a new player.

Yates showcased his typical hard-working self, as his heatmap shows he was everywhere on the park. This is what makes the 4-4-2 work so well and why it wouldn’t be as effective if Yates wasn’t playing. He negates the need for a number ten to sit in the hole and provide the link between our deeper central midfield pairing and the striker. Basically, he plays two positions in one within this setup and without him we would tend to look quite disjointed and isolated in spells.

Other honourable mentions

There are too many names to mention in this victory but I thought I would highlight those who caught the eye.

I have championed Bez Lubala since his impressive performances in the EFL cup and, especially after Kaikai’s downturn in form, it was great to see him impress in the first time for an important game. He provided something different down the left hand side and allowed us to be much less one dimensional than we usually are within our wide play. Something he has learned quite quickly in his development since joining is his ability to mix up his approach and to know when is the right time to take on an opponent. As you can see above, he had the most successful dribbles on the park, providing weight to his improvement in decision making. I would like to see him get a run in the side as a spell on the sidelines could well reinvigorate a low on confidence Sullay Kaikai.

James Husband is someone who garnered a lot of criticism in the early part of the season. He had developed a label of being unreliable and, being someone who many saw as the captain in the outfield, that sort of tag as an experienced player is never going to end well. Since then, he has improved significantly. He has learned when to drop a yard to stop being caught in behind, there is no shame about being smart in this sense. His creativity has grown and he continues to provide an outlet at wing back. As we saw in Grant Ward’s key passes table, Husband provided three key passes, the second most in the side.

And finally we come to Chris Maxwell. I always like to look back at my initial reaction to us bringing him in. He was brought in by Grayson, I imagine because of his Preston connection during his time there, but Maxwell had performed poorly in the build up to his move. His loan spell at Hibernian saw him, as the graphic above shows, cement himself as one of the worst in the league in terms of his shots saved metric. He hadn’t exactly enamoured himself with the Deepdale faithful either.

Yet, he has proved to be our most consistent performer and someone that has slotted in perfectly to the system and style of play Critchley has sought to implement. His sweeper keeper attributes are perfect and his shot stopping ability and confidence at set pieces sees him as one of the most well-rounded keepers in League One. To come back from COVID and become the penalty shootout hero is a fantastic achievement, although I wasn’t in the slightest surprised.

Final Thoughts

Before the game I felt this was the perfect chance for a cup upset and that is how it turned out. What I have taken away from this the most though is that maybe we aren’t as in desperate need for creative incomings as we thought. No doubt in terms of depth that is something we could benefit from, but in this system, when the likes of Ward and Yates are on song, this Blackpool side shows the fluidity and composure in the final third that brings you success. All we need now is a bit of consistency.

XG: Blackpool 1.84 – 2.06 West Brom

Image: EMCI Hub

Stats Provided by: Modern Fitba Footy Stats & Who Scored

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