Analysis: The Tactical Tools that beat Fulham

Fulham came into Bloomfield Road as runaway favourites to win the Championship. They were freshly relegated from the Premier League, had spent more than every other team combined and have a young, exciting manager in Marco Silva. Blackpool, newly-promoted, were yet to win a game and sitting within the relegation zone. But Fulham left with no points, as Blackpool’s well-drilled and refreshed side executed a perfect gameplay to secure their first league win.

So how did Blackpool pull of these upset? We have identified a number of key important trends:

  1. In the final third, we pressed and cut passing lanes to force the ball wide and/or long
  2. In our third, we entered a low block in the centre of the pitch – forcing crosses and speculative efforts
  3. In build-up, we dropped extra players into defence to facilitate building from the back
  4. This, in turn, provided cover for our full-backs to be aggressive

1. Forcing Fulham’s CBs to go long or wide

Blackpool came into this match with a clear plan for how they wanted to press Fulham and, as expected from Neil Critchley, it began with the front two. Yates and John-Jules focused on staying on the inside of the two Fulham centre-backs, cutting off the passing to Jean Michaël Seri (#24). Seri was playing as a single defensive midfielder, and without him available as an option, the Fulham centre-backs had to pass the ball between themselves or the full-backs. Any pass to the full-backs would then trigger pressing from Anderson/Bowler to force a turnover. 

Fulham were being funnelled into the wings from the very beginning of their build-up. WhoScored estimates that 75% of their attacks came from the wide-areas. Rather than enjoying space in the centre of the pitch, they entered tight areas constrained by the touchline where losing possession is far more likely.

2. Allowing headers and long-shots

Whenever Fulham did manage to progress the ball, Blackpool’s central midfielders and fullbacks quickly recovered into a low-block.  Fulham dominated the game with 70% possession, and were allowed to probe from the wings or distance. With six to eight bodies patrolling the 18 yard box, Fulham consistently struggled to create any great shots within the penalty area.

A quick look at Infogol’s shot map (pasted below) shows every single one had a very low chance (<10%) of going in. While Blackpool did concede 11 shots, they were all speculative long-range areas or headers from outside the 6 yard box. Fulham’s xG per shot in this game was around 0.07, around half their season average of 0.14.

They were also forced into making 28 crosses, over half their season average of 14. Blackpool didn’t risk their defensive shape by aggressively winning back possession. We were instead content to let Fulham have the ball and leave no openings for them to use it.

3. Extra Bodies in Build-Up

In the second minute of this game, Chris Maxwell stepped far from his line, received the ball and ran forward to be level with Richard Keogh. From this position, playing almost as the 2nd centre-back, he played a long pass and launched a Blackpool attack. While this ball was called offside (spuriously), it is an excellent ability to have in your toolkit. 

Maxwell – our third CB option

Maxwell regularly provides a passing option, but usually from behind the two centre-backs. By advancing this far up the pitch, he allows other players (like Ekpiteta or Gabriel) to push further up and overload Fulham’s midfield. For games against sides of Fulham’s quality, where the away side will often win the 1v1 battles, creating advantages in other areas. is invaluable. By stepping up, Maxwell frees up other players to create numerical advantages elsewhere. 

Maxwell isn’t the only one, and this season has regularly seen Reece James or other central midfielders move into the left-back spot. This time it was the turn of Kevin Stewart, who frequently joined the back line to provide another passing option and navigate the Fulham press.

4. Rampaging Full-Backs

The two individuals who benefitted most from these extra bodies in the build-up were Luke Garbutt and Jordan Gabriel. With cover in the back-line, our attacking-oriented full-backs could drive further up the pitch and terrorise Fulham’s defenders.

Luke Garbutt, in particular, became a statistical monster. He created wo key-passes and six crosses, more than any other Blackpool player. Keshi Anderson and Garbutt combined to create dangerous chances the entire game – as illustrated by the outrageous piece of skill below.

Jordan Gabriel, in contrast, had a slightly quieter game. However, his ability to get on the overlap proved vital for Blackpool’s winner. As usual, Bowler cuts inside and begins running at his men. But Dennis Odoi can’t fully commit to stopping him in case he passes it Gabriel on the overlap. Odoi has to take a slightly wider position to try and cover this possibility. By the time that he realises that Bowler isn’t passing the ball, he is already running past him and into the box. Gabriel, just by being there, creates uncertainty for Odoi and space for us to score.

Conclusion

Blackpool’s victory today was no fluke. It was built on an effective game-plan that forced Fulham into uncomfortable and uninspiring positions, while allowing our own players to aggressively push up the pitch and play to their strengths. From forwards to full-backs, everyone played their part. 

I can’t wait to see what we do next. 

#upthemightypool

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Published by Conor Hamilton

Northerner working in finance. Blackpool FC fan. I write about football with healthy doses of tactics, statistics and data visualizations.

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