Opinion: Michael Appleton – 10 Years On

Michael Appleton is back for a second spell as Blackpool’s head coach, with a remit to “kick-on” and continue Blackpool’s progress in the Championship. But what has he been up to over the last decade, and what should Blackpool fans expect?

Michael Appleton is not popular among Blackpool fans. We know it. He knows it. Simon Sadler knows it. In his first stint at the club, he was our shortest-serving manager ever. Overseeing just 11 games, his team produced two wins, two losses and seven draws. After 65 days, he moved across Lancashire and joined local rivals Blackburn Rovers (who also had significant off-the-pitch issues).

On the pitch, Appleton never looked like he would replicate the success of Ian Holloway. As Chris Walker put it in Measured Progress at the time:

“The number of draws would indicate that he certainly made us harder to beat, but that it was perhaps at the expense of the maverick attacking approach we had become accustomed to under Holloway.”

Chris Walker – Measured Progress – January 2013

This conservatism, and the inevitable comparisons to Holloway at the time, has earned Appleton (maybe unfairly) a reputation in Blackpool as a boring & unexciting manager.

However, nearly 10 years have passed since Appleton’s last game managing Blackpool – with successful spells at both Oxford United and Lincoln City since then. Appleton insists he has learnt a lot – particularly the importance of “proper due-diligence on the owners and the people”

“I just made a poor judgement. I didn’t do proper research on the Oystons, particularly Karl, who to this day is the most difficult man I’ve ever worked with. I could never get hold of him, and he wasn’t willing to have sensible conversations. I found him to be very disrespectful

Michael Appleton – in conversation with FourFourTwo – March 2021

So what should Blackpool fans expect from Appleton 2.0? An initial analysis suggests:

  1. A well-respected manager, with strong connections.
  2. A reputation for developing young players; and securing loans of young talents
  3. Attacking football similar to Neil Critchley’s; with an emphasis on width and individual skill
  4. A less aggressive press, with more focus on team-shape and reducing the quality of opposition chances.

A manager respected by the biggest names in football

When sacked by Blackburn in March 2013, after just 67 day in charge, Appleton was summoned to Manchester United’s Carrington training facilities. He was promptly rollicked by Sir Alex Ferguson for rushing into the wrong job for a second time. Ferguson saw significant potential with Appleton, who had learnt his trade within Manchester United’s academy; just one year ahead of the famous ‘Class of 92’.

Ferguson isn’t the only top figure who has lent their support to Appleton. After his career-ending injury at West Brom, Dan Ashworth (then West Brom’s academy manager) “fought really tooth and nail” to get Appleton a role within the club’s youth setup. Ashworth is now Sporting Director at Newcastle, and widely regarded as one of the best in the country after his success at Brighton & Hove Albion.

At West Brom, Appleton combined the standards he’d learned at United under Ferguson – “not just a professionalism and will to win, but how you win” – with the ideals Ashworth was instilling. To this day, the West Brom academy is a top 15 academy in the country – and developing young players has become a hallmark of any Appleton side.

After his ill-fated stints at Blackpool and Blackburn, Appleton took a sabbatical and spent a year travelling to matches around the country, scouting for Roy Hodgson’s England. Hodgson had been the West Brom manager while Appleton was there, and the two still speak regularly.

Significant success at Oxford United and Lincoln City

In 2014, after his sabbatical, Appleton was hired to lead Oxford United in League Two. In three seasons, he reimagined the culture at the club, doubled the number of matchday fans and achieved promotion and two Wembley finals. Determined to take a “modern approach”, he also implemented “football science on a budget”, with data analysts to sports scientists and psychologists working with players.

After an interlude working as assistant manager for Craig Shakespeare’s Leicester City, Appleton was appointed head coach at Lincoln City. With one of the lowest budgets in the league, Appleton took a side who looked like they were slipping towards the bottom three to a play-off final within a season and a half. Furthermore, he built on his reputation for developing young players, with individuals like Jorge Grant developing from promising talents to one of the best players in League One.

The reputation he’s now earned for developing younger players has won the faith of loan managers and allowed him to bring players from the likes of Arsenal and West Ham to Lincoln City, as well as future superstars like Brennan Johnson (now in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest).

Attacking Football; width, individual skill and intricate (slow) build-up

“I want to play aggressive, forward-thinking football… We just want to be exciting and get people off their seats”

Michael Appleton – Blackpool FC Press Release – June 2022

Superficially, the approach Appleton took at Lincoln City looks similar to Critchley’s at Blackpool. Looking at their most frequent pass locations, both teams often built play using the wings.

Tangerine blocks are zones where more passes were attempted. Navy blocks indicate few passes in this zone.

Like Blackpool’s reliance on the individual skill of Josh Bowler, Lincoln City often leveraged the individual skill of wide players like Anthony Scully to provide an attacking threat. According to Wyscout, only Sunderland and Charlton attempted more 1-vs-1 dribbles and “take-ons” than Lincoln last season1.

One difference we can see is in the scaling. Lincoln City attempted far more passes than Blackpool (almost 80 more per game), and only Ipswich Town and possession-extremists MK Dons attempted more. Furthermore, these were generally positive passes – aiming to take the ball higher-up the pitch.

Like Blackpool, progression could often be a challenge for Lincoln City. Despite having some of the highest passing numbers in the league, the side finished bottom for passes into the final third.

Defensive solidity; minimal pressing and a focus on preventing big chances.

There are also slight variations on how the sides defend. Blackpool often has an initial press, before falling into a low-block – whereas Appleton’s Lincoln did most of their defending in their own half compared to the rest of the league.

Blackpool (left) defend slightly higher than Lincoln City

This low-block meant Lincoln City faced a lot of shots, but these were generally shots with a low probability of scoring (e.g., headers from crosses, long-range shots). This system could be implemented effectively at Blackpool as while Keogh (in particular) may lack the speed to play an aggressive press with a high defensive line, both he and Ekpiteta are adept at heading away opposition crosses and at blocking long-range shots.

Conclusion

A lot can change in 10 years. While Blackpool FC has undergone relegations, promotion ownership changes and a further promotion, Michael Appleton has slowly rebuilt his reputation into a well-connected manager who can get the best from young talent.

As a result, Appleton is now back in a role he ran from nearly 10 years ago – with Simon Sadler and Ben Mansford deciding he now fits their vision for the club. While his Lincoln Side may not always have broken down the opposition, and were more conservative defensively, Appleton is a manager (like Critchley and Rosenior) who tries to play attractive football and develop young players.

Both Appleton and Blackpool have grown significantly; and let’s hope these prove foundations for a successful union, rather than another acrimonious divorce.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Michael Appleton – 10 Years On

  1. Do you have any analysis on the Play Off Final. My feeling was that Appleton was out thought by Critchley. But I wonder if you have the specifics on that, as it may show up some limitations in Appleton tactically.

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