Ian Holloway’s Cup Final Football

‘I want my players to never stop attacking and this new system I’ve brought in is wonderful to watch.’ (Aug 2009)

Ian Holloway has a question to answer. It’s not from a journalist hoping to prompt another madcap turn of phrase ( “Rory Delap is like a cake!”), or his sage advice on the state of the game (“Let’s have chimpanzees as referees!”). Instead, the question he faces is can his new system really withstand the examination of the Premier League? Holloway has always maintained his preferred style is a combination of winning and entertaining. But with Blackpool now bottom of the form table, off the back of five straight losses, his conviction is set to be tested until the end of the season.

Outward appearances would suggest Holloway is determined to continue playing the fast, attacking football we have seen over the last eighteen months, no matter the outcome. There is a charm in his defiant attitude that if you play exciting football, exciting things will happen. He has a genuine enthusiasm for the game and the way he wants to see it played. It is reminiscent of the youthful aspiration all football fans share, to play a beautiful game. No one grows up dreaming about hoofing the winning long ball in a Cup Final.

Sir Alex Ferguson is among those who have described Blackpool’s first Premier League season as “a breath of fresh air.” Though they may have been damned by faint praise; Blackpool gave up three goals in the last twenty minutes against United, to lose 3-2. The game also highlighted that the problem with Holloway’s system is in order to constantly attack, the squad has to be physically able to, for the whole game.

The United fixture was Blackpool’s seventh in twenty-five days. Before that they had only played twice in December, due to home games being postponed because of bad weather. Rescheduling of games has also left them with five games in April, including four back-to-back home ties. The last three of those, against Wigan, Newcastle and Stoke, may be crucial to their survival in the Premier League. Unfortunately, their dismal home form is second only to West Ham’s.

Numbers can say whatever you want them to, here are some – Blackpool gained 14 points in their last 13 games and if they can repeat that over their remaining 13 fixtures, they will stay up with 42 points (phew!). The more troubling numbers are the team has only won one of their last nine games, giving up 22 goals in the process (curse you, Numbers!).

Fatigue is stretching the side, particularly in defence. It is telling that last week against Everton, when attempting to see out a 3-2 lead, Holloway opted to bring on two defensive minded players and switch to 5-4-1. They gave up three goals in the space of nine minutes. With that kind of return from his back line, Holloway may rightly draw the conclusion that attack is the best form of defence. Don’t be surprised to see the under-utilized 1-2-7 formation come out this weekend against Aston Villa.

In some ways Holloway has no choice but to continue pushing his team to score one more than the opposition, as resources at the back are limited. Given that, it’s curious he only brought in left-back Salaheddine Sbaï from Nîmes, but also added two forwards and a midfielder in January. Perhaps the other conclusion is that Holloway doesn’t view it as a question of Plan A versus Plan B. He only wants to play Plan A, anything else isn’t of interest.

The upcoming weeks of the season can define how Holloway will be viewed for years to come. A Hull City-esque collapse will label him a court jester character, who dreamt too big. However, if he can remain in the division playing his own brand of fantasy football, he will earn a more serious assessment of his talents and provide a blueprint to other aspiring teams throughout the league. I will be hoping for the latter, on behalf of neutrals and chimpanzees everywhere.


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