A comprehensive view of Middlesbrough’s upcoming opposition so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
The Tangerines’ are one of the leagues new arrivals following their promotion from League One last season. This is a large step up for the seaside town and it is illustrated in the sides summer transfer business as 13 players arrived in Blackpool with 10 players going in the opposite direction. This large turnover in playing staff can lead to an embedding period wherein the players have to adjust to their new lives, football club and teammates. Whether it is due to this turnover in players or a general struggle for form; Blackpool football club occupies an early relegation spot and they will be targeting a move away from the danger zone before they find themselves sliding back into League One.
Neil Critchley’s men will take added motivation into their upcoming fixture as they have already beaten Middlesbrough in the cup earlier this season. The convincing 3-0 victory had caused a rupture of complaints from the travelling Boro fans but Neil Warnock had fielded a weaker side for the cup game. So he will be confident that, with the right personnel, he will be able to overcome today’s opposition.
Six games into the season and Blackpool sit in 22nd position. While occupying a relegation spot early in the season isn’t an immediate cause for concern Neil Critchley and his backroom staff will recognise the importance of not stagnating in this position and allowing the rest of the league to make strides away from the danger zone. Ideally, the tangerines would prefer to find themselves outside of the relegation zone by the 10 game mark (the point at which the table begins to take form). But remaining within touching distance of the sides that remain in precarious safety has to be the top-most priority.
Blackpool’s 5 points return from 6 games has been built from 1 win, 2 draws and 4 defeats. However, it is the nature of how these points were obtained that is particularly interesting. The sides only win of the season didn’t come from their clash with Coventry or Huddersfield but Fulham. The Thames based side are favourites to win the league this season. Marco Silva’s men sit at the top of the table with an almost perfect record to date. Their only defeat came at the hands of Blackpool. However, their giant-killing success was also shown in a less significant instance as the side managed to hold Bournemouth, who are undefeated to date, to a 2-2 draw. It was their victory over Fulham and their draw against Bournemouth that caused Neil Warnock to dub Blackpool as a team that can beat anyone on their day. However, a more apt description for the current Blackpool side would be giant killers.
Naturally managing to carve points out of the league favourites may be a positive sign in terms of the sides ability to compete with the best in the league but that alone is not enough to establish yourself as a Championship mainstay. Blackpool will have to bring that same fight and underdog mentality, that has served them so well against the bigger teams, into more of their fixtures if they want to call themselves a Championship side next season.
Blackpool may have struggled defensively (see below) but that is not representative of their defensive efforts. On the pitch, the tangerines play a low block and the side that doesn’t shy from a fight with the added physicality of their League One experience augmenting their defensive industry. A few of Blackpool’s players are particularly prominent in this case most of which ply their trade in midfield (e.g. Ryan Wintle, who has made 4.5 tackles and an interception per game so far this season). This is typical of a team that plays a low block. Critchley’s low block has been relatively successful too, despite early defensive struggles, with the side managing the 8th highest number of clearances as they stack the defensive zones with players that can clear the ball from the danger zone. The goalkeeper is currently performing beyond his ability as he has made the 3rd most saves per game despite having little Championship experience during his 12-year career. Maxwell’s impressive save ratio is augmented by the funnelling technique that is typical of a low block (where the defenders encourage shots from a distance that are directed straight at the goalkeeper).
Low blocks are often regarded as anti-football with a primary focus on preventing the opposition from scoring rather than being an agent going forward themselves. However, there are some success stories from teams that deploy a low block with the most similar and arguably most prominent being Dyche’s Burnley (they also deploy a 4-4-2 formation). That Critchley's side has settled on a tactical set-up, and one that has shown some positive signs in the early stages of the season, will be key as a lack of identity can be hugely detrimental to any team let alone one that may have to stave off relegation this season.
Blackpool’s biggest issues have been in front of goal. The tangerines have only scored 5 goals so far this season with the side lacking an apparent goalscorer; the side has failed to covert any of their big chances to date. However, their goalscoring issues don’t start and end with the forwards as Blackpool have severely struggled with chance creation resulting in one of the lowest shots per game of just 2.7 and the side's 5 big chances places them 6th lowest in the league. This is also represented in the individual statistics as the side has only marked 2 assists so far this season with the other 3 goals coming out of individual brilliance. To put it simply, Blackpool will need to improve on their 0.7 goals per game if they want to secure their place in the league with minimum fuss.
Unfortunately, Blackpool has also struggled defensively this season conceding 11 goals in 6 matches and conceding at least one goal in all but one game. A large proportion of this struggle is born out of Blackpool’s inferiority as Critchley is forced to adopt a defensive stance against the vast majority of the sides in the league which can if pressure is sustained, lead to the side conceding goals. If Blackpool can develop a method to alleviate pressure for stretches of a game then they will fair considerably better defensively.
Top Goalscorer: Shayne Lavery (2)
Most Assists: Josh Bowler, Kevin Stewart (1)
Most Yellow Cards: Callum Connelly, Luke Garbutt (2)
Most Red Cards: Callum Connelly (1)
One To Watch: Josh Bowler
A free transfer from Everton’s U23’s Josh Bowler arrived at Blackpool as a relatively unknown force. His only taste of professional football came during a loan spell with Hull City. The tigers were relatively content with the player during his stay at the club utilising his abilities on 31 occasions. However, he remained behind Kamil Grosicki and Jarrod Bowen in the pecking order relying on substitute appearances to get first-team minutes. He has been given a considerably more important role at Blackpool and he has played a role in each league fixture to date. He has also added a goal and assist to the early tally charts.
Bowler revealed during his interview following his transfer to the club that he would “try to be exciting”. His primary focus is to create opportunities and he often takes a direct route to get there and so Middlesbrough’s fullbacks will have to be precautious and proactive in stubbing out his attempts to create opportunities.
Josh Bowler has started his Blackpool career well with an assist and a goal in 7 games. A solid early return for a newly-promoted side.
Hot Prospect: Shayne Lavery
Blackpool’s lack of individual quality is arguably most prominent within the forward line. Gary Madine is the most recognisable name among the sides strikers as the target man enjoyed stints at clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff City. However, at 31 years old, the experienced striker is entering the latter stages of his career and his recent return from injury means that it may take some time for the player to get back up to speed.
Instead, Critchley has turned to 22-year-old Shayne Lavery. The Northern Ireland player is currently the club's top goalscorer with 2 goals. While he has been involved in every game of the Championship season so far, only three of those involvements were from kick-off with Critchley instead opting to use the striker from the bench. This means that the striker has dispatched a goal every 158 minutes of football. To put this into perspective, Britt Assombalonga’s most prolific goalscoring season saw him find the back of the net every 199 minutes. This goalscoring rate is not sustainable for the 22-year-old but it is an impressive start from a player whose first introduction to Championship football came just over a month ago after joining the club from Linfield in Northern Ireland.
Manager: Neil Critchley
The current Blackpool manager has a history of developing young players as he has spent a large proportion of his career coaching at the youth level. His involvement with Liverpool, coaching between the under-19s and under-23s within a 6-year stint before performing an assistant coach role for the first team between December 2019 and March 2020 shows that one of the biggest clubs in the world respects his coaching abilities, particularly in youth development. However, he would bring his time at Liverpool to an end in March 2020 opting to take the main job at Blackpool where he has since remained.
Interestingly, despite his primary focus at Liverpool, Critchley prefers to rely on players within the prime of their career (25-29) and young players that are arguably at the latter stages of their development (Shayne Lavery and Josh Bowler). In fact, only one of his first-team players is 20 or under (Tyreece John-Jules). This initially appears like an unusual precedent for a manager with a strong history developing young players but it highlights his belief in a natural development that players should go through before entertaining thoughts of a first-team spot. The criteria of which is largely physical and mental as Critchley considers 20 as the ‘soft’ barrier between youth and men’s football.
Critchley’s managerial methods have already bared fruit for Blackpool with the manager leading the side into the Championship. Now he will look to prove himself at the next stage of the football pyramid by keeping the side up.
Predictions: Middlesbrough 2-0 Blackpool
The gap in individual quality between the two sides could make the difference here as both sides play a strongly drilled system. However, it could also devolve into a heavily tactical and slow affair.