One thing that has been fairly obvious in the first two months of Blackpool’s season is that Simon Grayson does not yet know his best team and formation. But in last Friday’s 2-1 victory over Lincoln City, Grayson seemed to take a huge step in the right direction.
Abandoning the 3-5-2 that had brought about a decent if not spectacular start to the season, Grayson opted for a 4-3-3 against Lincoln and the changes served to make the Seasiders a much more potent attacking force than they had looked in any of their previous home matches.
With the ever-improving Jordan Thompson pushing forward from midfield along with Matty Virtue and Liam Feeney playing as winger rather than a wing-back; Blackpool unlike in many of their previous outings looked likely to score by means other than a Feeney cross landing on the head of Armand Gnanduillet.
This greater and more varied goal threat was underlined when Sean Scannell smashed a Feeney cutback into the top corner and Thompson nutmegged his way through the Lincoln defence to double ‘Pool’s advantage inside 22 minutes.
Lincoln replied soon afterwards and were always a threat going forward, but so too were Blackpool and had Thompson’s volley from a Gnanduillet knockdown not been saved by the visiting goalkeeper mid-way through the second half, a rather nervy ending for the Seasiders could have been avoided.
Although the match showed there are still definite chinks in the Seasiders’ armour (full-backs Ollie Turton and Stephen Husband, in particular, did not cover themselves in glory from a defensive point of view) the increased attacking potential the 4-3-3 gave the Seasiders suggests it is a system worth persevering with. So who starts in it?
Barring any injuries, the back four of Turton, Heneghan, Tilt and Husband appears to pick itself, while both full-backs appear defensively fallible their ability going forward coupled with a lack of any credible alternatives should see them start more often than not.
Jay Spearing is Pool’s captain and will anchor the midfield all season if fit; Thompson is starting to look increasingly undroppable in front of him and the final midfield spot appears likely to alternate between Virtue and Callum Guy throughout the season.
The real question is who starts in the front three or to put it more accurately, who occupies the final place alongside Feeney and Gnanduillet?
Feeney with a league-high seven assists is the first name on the team sheet and Gnanduillet though not without his flaws, has succeeded where his rivals Ryan Hardie and Joe Nuttall have failed so far this season. Standing six foot four inches, Gnanduillet is the natural target man in the squad and against Lincoln demonstrated his ability to create space for his team mates by occupying the attention of multiple defenders at once.
It is fair to say ‘Pool fans have not yet seen the best of Joe Nuttall, although the ex-Blackburn Rovers man’s game seems to revolve around pace and running in behind defenders rather than hold up play. Having paid a decent sum of money for his services, everyone at Bloomfield Road will be expecting more from Nuttall in the coming months, but for now, it looks as if he will have to force his way into the line-up by making an impact from the bench.
So with Nuttall and Hardie likely to be playing second fiddle to Gnanduillet, who plays on the left of this would-be front three?
Sean Scannell certainly didn’t do his case any harm with a debut goal against Lincoln, but the obvious choice appears to be Sully Kaikai, who despite being anonymous in the defeat to MK Dons, is clearly one of the most talented players in the squad. An opportunity to play as a winger rather than as a number ten where there are more opportunities to isolate opponents could see the former Crystal Palace player flourish as the season progresses.
Then there is the question of Nathan Delfouneso when he returns from injury and this seems the biggest dilemma of all.
Kaikai appears to have the advantage in trickery to play out wide and Delfouneso always seems at his most effective when played through the middle.
‘Pool’s best performances with the 3-5-2 came when Delfouneso played off Gnanduillet so it may be that the easiest path back into Grayson’s starting line-up for the ex-England under 21 international is if the 4-3-3 is abandoned.
There is sure to be much more chopping and changing as the nights grow darker and the games come in there infamously ‘thick and fast’ manner; but after the Lincoln match, it does appear that progress (progress while still occupying the play-off places) is being made.