Analysis: Cats and Dogs living Harmony? Examining Blackpool’s centre-backs 

This is the third article in a series looking at Blackpool’s set-up across the pitch. The previous pieces looked at how Blackpool replicate the world’s elite by attacking with five players and use an effective “double pivot” in midfield. In this article, we’ll look at Blackpool’s centre-back partnership through the analogy of household pets.

Are you a dog person or a cat person?

And – I promise this is related – are you a Richard Keogh fan or a Marvin Ekpiteta fan?

With the exception of the recent wide centre-backs seen by Sheffield United / Atalanta, the centre of defence is rarely a place of tactical innovation. It is a position that tends to be more influenced by personnel. However, creating a great duo, though, goes beyond simply putting two talented defenders together. Each individual has a unique defending style and finding that perfect balance of aggressiveness and conservativeness, pressing and containing, is what sets apart the best sides.

While the terminology differs across borders and backgrounds, most people familiar with the game around the world have a general understanding of how a centre-back pairing can be balanced. For example in Italy, the home wonderful football vocabulary and a historical focus on aggressive man-marking combined with an intelligent sweeper, “stoppers” and “liberos” are considered two completely different types of player.

But my favourite is The Athletic writer Michael Cox’s dog-cat analogy. He argues:

“Dogs are impetuous, energetic and desperate for action. They want to get the ball immediately by chasing after it, jumping towards it, scruffily getting it however they possibly can. They’ll hand over the ball and be keen to go again.

Cats are sly, calculating and remain stationary before suddenly pouncing. They get the ball patiently by positioning themselves intelligently and then calmly throwing out a paw. They’ll keep the ball, so they don’t have to bother getting it for a second time.”

Many of the best centre-back partnerships have an obvious dog and an obvious cat. For example, the only centre-back partnership to be voted into the PFA Team of the Year three times together is Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Vidic was the dutiful dog; loyal and brave. Ferdinand was the cool cat; calm and collected. For the past decade in Spain, Sergio Ramos was Real Madrid’s aggressive dog while Raphaël Varane was the patient cat. 

For Blackpool, this analogy might explain the marked improvement of our centre-backs from their woeful start to the season. In the five league games before the first international break, our primary centre-back pairing was Richard Keogh and James Husband who started three games together. One exception was Millwall, where Ekpiteta took Husband’s place due to calf injury and Blackpool were unlucky to not get a point despite going down to 10 men. The other exception was the draw at Bournemouth, where Keogh’s torrid start to the season got him benched; Ekpiteta came in and Husband scored to begin Blackpool’s comeback.

In those first five games, it felt like the two better performances (Milwall and Bournemouth) were the ones where Ekpiteta played – and this trend has continued into the rest of the season. Since the first international break, Keogh and Husband have not started in the centre of defence together. And, as the below shows, the form of both (using WhoScored ratings as an imperfect proxy) has improved substantially since then.

Why? Because we stopped playing two dogs together. 

Richard Keogh and James Husband are both aggressive “dog”  defenders. Richard Keogh loves to step out and close down his man (see clips below). Even on the ball, he will often bravely dribble into midfield and risk being caught in possession because he is so keen to attack. In both situations, Keogh’s partner in the centre of defence needs to drop off and cover the space behind him should he lose the ball. 

Husband, likely due to his training as a natural left-back, is not that partner. He also loves to step out and close down his man even if he might not succeed. He is in the top 25% of Championship centre-backs for number of defensive duels, but is very average at winning them. For the roughly 40% of duels he doesn’t win, there needs to be a man covering the space behind him.

Enter Marvin Ekpiteta; our cool, composed and patient “cat” defender who serves as the last line of defence.  It seems like almost every game, he is running 1 vs.1 with a defender to make a crucial tackle. He sits back and reads-the-game well; sitting in the top 25% of Championship centre-backs for interceptions (adjusted for % of possession).  Husband and Keogh can press up aggressively, knowing they have Ekpiteta behind them ready to mop up. 

The point here isn’t that Ekpiteta is one excellent defender (nor would I even say he is our best),  but playing him improves the form of those around him. As a result, he has patiently crept into a position of being near-undroppable from Neil Critchley’s regularly rotated sides – and the Husband/Keogh partnership has been consigned to history. 

If you enjoyed this, have a listen to our recent chat with the wonderful Ali Maxwell in our most recent podcast (link below). Also watch out for the next part of the series, where we’ll be analysing the centre of Blackpool’s defence!

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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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