Southampton played host to Blackpool at St Mary’s stadium in a game that had threatened to be a total non-event, with both sides making significant changes to their team (Saints made 8 changes, while Blackpool made 9). In the days preceding the encounter Blackpool’s forthright manager Ian Holloway announced to journalists that he would be resting the cream of his squad as the Premier League was his sole priority, while Southampton’s boss Nigel Adkins expressed similar sentiments regarding their chase for promotion from League One.
Fortunately for the 21,000 fans who attended the playing styles employed by Holloway and Adkins, who both encourage their sides to play possession-football based on short passing, lead to an attractive and open game. For Southampton fans at least, the match would turn out to be anything but a non-event.
Blackpool lined up in their trademark 4-3-3, the only changes from their usual approach being in personnel. In Holloway’s version of this shape the midfield ‘3’ stay relatively narrow with the intention of controlling possession in central areas while they look to play incisive through-balls to the 3 forwards. When they lose the ball Blackpool like to win it back as quickly as possible and to achieve this the 3 forward players work hard to pressurise the opposition’s defence into making mistakes.
Adkins abandoned the Saints’ usual 4-4-2 in favour of a 4-4-2 diamond (or 4-3-1-2, if you prefer) with Adam Lallana playing in the hole between the forwards and midfield and Schneiderlin protecting the back 4. It is likely that Adkins chose this shape as a countermeasure against Blackpool’s ability to retain the ball in midfield, creating a congested 3v3+Lallana midfield battle instead of the 3v2 battle that would have occurred had he chosen a flat 4-4-2 shape.
From the kick-off Southampton pressed Blackpool very aggressively high up the pitch and succeeded in disrupting their passing rhythm. The midfield battle for possession of the ball was often frantic but never felt particularly scrappy as both teams utilised players who are relatively comfortable on the ball. Both sides worked hard to craft chances but it was 21-year-old Lallana who created the most problems
The half ended goalless mainly due to the superb efforts of Blackpool keeper Paul Rachubka, who was equal to nearly every task he faced during the first half despite Saints creating the lion’s share of the chances, and the sterling efforts of the Southampton back 4, who succeeded in neutralising the Seasiders’ 3 forwards and coped well with the pressure they came under whilst passing the ball out from the back.
Both sides approached the second half in much the same way as they did the first. Holloway kept faith with his tactics and probably instructed his team to work harder with their movement so that the player with the ball has more options in order to beat Southampton’s aggressive pressing.
At this point the game was balanced on a knife’s-edge. Two minutes into the second half Backpool almost made it 0-1 when full-back Neil Eardley floated in a dangerous cross for Jason Euell, who wasted his free-header. This turned out to be the pivotal moment in the match as Saints took the lead just over a minute later when Lallana played in Lambert, whose effort was blocked by Rachubka, only for Lee Barnard to hammer the ball past two defenders and the goal-line.
Substitutions by both managers changed little in terms of tactics or style and the game continued to be characterised by its tightly-contested midfield battle with Saints making better use of their creativity until Guly settled the match with a wonderful 20-yard shot.
Read on their own the statistics make grim reading for Blackpool supporters, yet the match was much closer than the shots-on-target count would suggest. There were several occasions where the slick passing of the Seasiders almost caught out the Southampton backline while the game was still 1 – 0 and the hard working Brett Ormerod would have been rewarded for his efforts on the wing with an equaliser had it not been for young centre-back Aaron Martin’s clearance off the line.
Southampton fans should be pleased with the victory and the performance to go with it. It is clear that Adkins has worked hard on improving his team’s ability to control space when not in possession and the fitness levels of his squad must be very high for the whole team to maintain high-tempo pressing for 90 minutes against a side 33 places higher in the leagues.
It is likely to be Nigel Adkins himself who is most pleased with the result (and himself). It was his decision to change from Southampton’s usual 4-4-2 formation to a midfield diamond that enabled his side to simultaneously disrupt Blackpool’s rhythmic passing and provide a variety of threats going forward. Southampton finished the game with a slim majority in possession, were threatening whenever they had the ball and succeeded in controlling the space available to the opposition when they didn’t. Adkins’ substitutions were both positive and astute; Guly Do Prado swapped on for Lallana and sealed the victory while Alex Chamberlain almost added a third in extra time.
Blackpool fans shouldn’t be kicking themselves too hard after this encounter. Their priority (rightly) is the league and the weakened side they fielded on Saturday is unlikely to feature often in the premiership. Holloway should be lauded for sticking to his pro-active, attacking principles on an occasion where other managers might have compromised and (had Euell’s scored with his header) could well have been rewarded with a win.
This was by far the most attractive, open and flowing game of football I’ve attended in a long time, so kudos to both teams.
Some Stats (via BBC Sport)
Southampton 51% -49% Blackpool
Shots on target:
Southampton 14-3 Blackpool
Shots off target:
Southampton 9-5 Blackpool
Southampton 11-7 Blackpool
Southampton 11-4 Blackpool