Blackpool are sitting in the Championship relegation zone, are winless in the league and have crashed out of the Carabao Cup. Neil Critchley’s squad has not started 2020/21 as an elite side – although they are playing like it.
In their performances this season, the Seasiders have consistently attacked goal with a structure shared by the world’s best teams (including Klopp’s Liverpool and Southgate’s England). Blackpool, like these sides, attack with a front five.
Why do the best teams play with a front five, and how do they do it?
Top-level managers have begun to understand football according to a division of the pitch into five vertical strips. These are, generally, considered to be: the centre (a 20-yard strip designated by the width of the centre circle), two wings (the outsides of the penalty box) and the two strips between the centre and the wings. This last set of spaces are the “half-spaces” – although you may better know them as the “channels.”
Pep Guardiola, who has used these principles of “positional play” to dominate three of the world’s best leagues, never wants more than two players in the same vertical strip. This means an emphasis on covering the width of the pitch equally. Whether forwards, attacking midfielders, wingers, wing-backs or full-backs, Guardiola’s sides usually position five attackers across the pitch to stretch play. With five attacking players, roughly evenly spaced out, a side playing a back-four will regularly leave one unmarked.
Whereas the football of 10-15 years ago was about packing the midfield with technical passers and playmakers (see Guardiola’s Barcelona), the current trend is about creating numerical overloads in attack against stretched and stressed defenders.
Below are four sides (Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and England) who have all used this system to achieve tremendous success. While they each have their quirks and nuances, the fundamental pattern is the same.
Chelsea: Antonio Conte had significant success at Chelsea using a 3-4-3 system where the wing-backs overlapped to create a front five, and Thomas Tuchel seems to be replicating this with his Chelsea side. Their recent match against Arsenal demonstrated how devastating a front five could be through the simple numerical advantages against a back-four. Marcos Alonso overlapped and forced Cedric to cover him. Kai Havertz is occupying Holding and Lukaku is playing with Pablo Mari. Kieran Tierney must contend with Mason Mount as the right inside-forward, and Arsenal have no spare defenders to pick up Reece James overlapping on the right-hand side. James then creates both goals, feeding a low cross to Lukaku and scoring one himself.
Liverpool: This attacking five is formed through the full-backs overlapping. This allows Mohamed Salah and Said Mane to cut inside and into better goalscoring positions. It also enables their technically adept full-backs to get some of the highest assist numbers in the Premier League. The three midfielders screen and pick up loose balls to maintain pressure up front, but occasionally Fabinho will drop into the CBs to create a 3-2-5.
Manchester City: Whereas Liverpool and Chelsea’s front three drifted inside with defenders overlapping to become the wide players, Guardiola instructs Raheem Sterling and his wide forwards to hug the touchlines, stretching the opposition defence and creating gaps for Kevin De Bruyne and the other “free 8” to exploit either side of the striker or false nine. This was the template for the front five that became Centurions, and it has been the template since. A 3-2-5 is more common with City, who prefer to build from the back and are less concerned with using midfielders to trap the ball up the pitch (like Liverpool are).
England: Gareth Southgate spent much of EURO 2020 playing with a lop-sided front five. Luke Shaw would overlap on the left, combining with Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount. These players are excellent at crossing, cutting inside and shooting – enabling them to often interchange positions and confuse opposition defences. Kane would stay as a central striker, and Saka would be a slightly more reserved option on the right-wing (more commonly used as an outlet ball). In contrast to Luke Shaw, Kyle Walker often tucked-inside to become part of a back-three – using his pace to spoil any potential counter-attacks. Rice and Phillips combined to form a double pivot in the midfield, with Phillips occasionally pushing up to attack the right hand-side. While this team had a lop-sided front five with a left-side bias in build-up, it was still effective enough to get them to the final of a major international tournament.
What on earth does this have to do with Blackpool?
Despite sitting in the Championship’s relegation zone, with no Champions League trophies or international tournaments to their name, Neil Critchley’s Blackpool also attack with a front five. Luke Garbutt regularly overlaps on the left, with Keshi Anderson trying to move inside to positions where he can have a greater impact on the game. Jerry Yates and Shayne Lavery/Tyreece John-Jules lead the line as the two strikers, while Josh Bowler (or CJ Hamilton) provide width on the right.
Like Gareth Southgate’s England, it aims to create overloads on the left-hand side of the pitch and does create a left-sided bias in the build-up of play. While Southgate’s decision to use Walker’s speed in defence was a tactical one, Critchley’s system may be because Blackpool don’t have an attacking (or otherwise!) right-back with the quality of Luke Garbutt.
The average positions of Blackpool against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup (below) show a clear front five. Carey (16) and Lavery (19) combine with John-Jules (28, playing Anderson’s role on the left) to create the middle three forwards. Garbutt (29) provides the width on the left, while CJ Hamilton (22) does the same on the right. Reece James (5) and Cameron Antwi (25) form a midfield of two, while Casey (20), Keogh (26) and Gretarsson (23) are the three in defence. There is a slight bias towards the left of the pitch in attack – with only CJ Hamilton consistently on the right of the centre circle.
An attacking front five can be seen in many of our goals this season – including the first one away at Bristol City. Luke Garbutt picks up the ball at left-back and plays the ball to Keshi Anderson on the outside. Anderson cuts inside while Garbutt overlaps on the outside. Bowler, interestingly, has dragged across the middle of the pitch to join the combinations on the left. Anderson plays a through-ball into him, and Bowler squares it to Lavery and Yates. Lavery scores (with Yates almost there), and all five of our attackers were involved in the build-up.
The attacking shape was also present vs Middlesborough. In this initial chance, which Bowler fires wide, CJ Hamilton turns inside on the left and cuts it back to Josh Bowler (who has drifted to the left again!). Meanwhile, Husband (in the LB role) is overlapping on the left, Lavery is in the middle of the box, and Carey is with the last defender on the far right of the frame.
The shape had more success later in the game. Husband, pressing high, wins the ball back and plays the ball immediately to Lavery (occupying the left-wing). As soon as he is in a position to cross, all three of the other attackers are already in the box. Carey, Anderson and Bowler ready an willing to receive the cut-back. Anderson receives it, flicks it over the keeper and scores a sensational goal.
The final example I’ll share is the first goal scored against Sunderland in our last game. After John-Jules receives the ball on the left wing, he drives inside and cuts the ball back to Lavery for a goal. At the moment of Lavery’s shot, the TV cameras already show Garbutt moving forward to overlap on the left and all 3 of the other attackers (TJJ, Carey, CJ Hamilton) are in the box.
Looking at these goals, the other commonality is how fluid the system is; with players constantly interchanging roles. Lavery and John-Jules are comfortable drifting wide to pick-up balls before cutting inside. Josh Bowler seems to deliberately move inside to the left hand side of the pitch, leaving Carey or Yates as the player furthest to the right of goal. Only the left-back, whether Husband or Garbutt, seems to have a fixed role in the five. Blackpool don’t just seek to outnumber opposition defences, but also confuse them with constant movement and interchange.
After Neil Critchley’s (almost) instant success last season, he was rightly recognised as one of the nations most promising new managers. While our poor luck in recent games has created doubts in the mind of some, it is clear that Critchley is implementing a style of play learnt from working in one of the world’s elite teams. Blackpool play with a high-pressing, slightly left-sided front five where many of the players interchange and drift across the pitch.
It is a style that has led the world’s elite teams to domestic (and international) success. Blackpool fans will be hoping it can help Neil Critchley’s team retain their spot in the Championship.
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