HomeZ OLD CATEGORIESBlackburn RoversTalent & Tactics | Accommodating Hoilett

Talent & Tactics | Accommodating Hoilett

Junior Hoilett has made an inspired start to the season, defying Blackburn’s early season form with a string of fine performances, but has Steve Kean found a role for Hoilett that gets the best out of him for the overall good of the team?

Hoilett strikes against Newcastle

It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the league table to see that Blackburn Rovers have made a sluggish start to the new season. Six games in and Rovers are languishing in the bottom three having not finished a round of fixtures higher than 16th despite boasting an exceptional win over, an admittedly beleaguered, Arsenal.

However, although it is often said that the league table does not lie, to a certain extent the table belies Blackburn’s performances to date. Fine margins determine the outcome of Premier League matches and there have been numerous instances where favourable interventions of lady luck could have changed the outcomes of some of Blackburn’s early season encounters.

Two penalty misses and three efforts coming back off the woodwork could – and arguably should – have resulted in victory rather than defeat at home to Everton. Junior Hoilett’s late breakaway at Craven Cottage almost completed a second half smash and grab of all three points but his brave header over the onrushing goalkeeper failed to reach the goal and Mark Schwarzer ensured that all he left with was concussion and a few stitches. Even in the defeat at Newcastle last weekend Martin Olsson’s effort clipped the bar at 2-1 to the hosts which could ultimately have altered the course of the match.

While Arsenal fans may point to their statistical dominance at Ewood Park to suggest that they were at least deserving of a share of the spoils, a slice of luck has been long overdue in Blackburn. Despite Arsenal boasting 69% possession, having over double the number of shots on goal (16 to Blackburn’s 7) and playing twice as many passes (546 with 80% pass completion to Blackburn’s 254 with 71% pass completion) , the spirit and commitment shown by the Rovers players to twice come from behind was rewarded with victory.

The Arsenal game was the first time Blackburn had overturned a half-time deficit in the league since 2009, where a Jason Roberts brace and a Ryan Nelsen goal followed Jamie O’Hara’s first half strike in a 3-1 win against Portsmouth. Fighting spirit in adversity is something that has been lacking of late and makes the Arsenal result all the more pleasing.

What is less pleasing is a look at a comparison between the matches played so far and the corresponding fixtures from last season. Last season saw Rovers collect nine points from the same six fixtures, compared to the four points amassed this season:

Blackburn’s opening six Premier League games in 2011/12 and last season’s corresponding results

Blackburn have yet to pick up a clean sheet in the Premier League, the first time they have failed to do so in the opening six games of a season for eight years, since 2003/04. Interestingly the last time Rovers started a campaign by conceding in their first five outings the sixth game was Mark Hughes’ first game at the helm. Hughes promptly delivered a clean sheet and the three points in a 1-0 win against Portsmouth. How many Blackburn fans would have liked a similar managerial reshuffle prior to the sixth game of this season remains to be seen…

While results have not been as encouraging as they might have been there have been undoubted positives that can be taken from the start of the campaign, the most notable being the rise of Junior Hoilett. After a very promising season last year, Hoilett has really hit the ground running at the start of the season as his statistics suggest.

Hoilett already has three assists to his name this season, treble his tally for the whole of last season in just a quarter of the number of appearances. This has put him in good company in the assists charts as he joins the Manchester quartet of Ashley Young, Samir Nasri, David Silva and Luis Nani in the assists rankings.

Top five by Premier League assists (correct as at 30 September 2011)

Including the percentage of their team’s goals and chances that the five players have created highlights the importance of Hoilett to Blackburn and illustrates why it is paramount that he is tied down to a long term contract as soon as possible. With less than a year remaining on his existing deal the prospect of losing Hoilett in January for nothing has to be avoided at all costs.

Hoilett has also already found the back of the net this season, pulling down a Martin Olsson cross at Newcastle last weekend and firing into the roof of the net from just inside the box. Hoilett has therefore had a direct hand in 50% of Rovers’ goals this season, setting up three and scoring one himself.

This is all the more impressive when considering that Hoilett is not occupying one of the out and out forward berths at Blackburn this season. Rather, he has been used on the right or left hand side of midfield in a 4-4-1-1 formation, albeit a formation that is relatively fluid and transforms into a more attacking 4-2-3-1 when Blackburn are in possession, where he occupies one of the wide positions in the three behind the central striker.

While Hoilett’s offensive attributes and performances are of undoubted quality, his deployment within a midfield four when out of possession are problematic for Blackburn. In the first six games Rovers have shipped 13 goals, averaging 2.2 goals conceded per game, which compares to an average of just 1.6 goals against throughout last season. As the rest of the Premier League has now discovered Phil Jones is a terrific talent and his absence has been felt but a closer analysis of the goals conceded in recent games outlines a more specific problem.

1. Bobby Zamora – Fulham 1-1 Blackburn Rovers

Starting with the game at Fulham, Bobby Zamora’s equaliser is depicted here:

Black arrows = pass/shot direction; Grey arrows = direction of run with ball; White arrows = Direction of run without ball

Zamora starts the move with a throw-in from the right touchline, where the ball is played back to fullback Stephen Kelly who plays a square ball to Danny Murphy to his left. The ball is then moved on to Zamora who breezes past the challenge of Givet and advances on goal before curling into the far corner before Dann can get across to block his shot at goal.

2. Mikel Arteta – Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal’s move for their second goal saw Mikel Arteta stride through to finish:

Black arrows = pass/shot direction; Grey arrows = direction of run with ball; White arrows = Direction of run without ball

The illustration starts with Gervinho passing the ball back to Bacary Sagna who moves the ball on swiftly to Alex Song. One-touch football sees Arsenal move the ball into the channel for Aaron Ramsey to run on to who squares for the onrushing Arteta to finish first time.

Both goals followed a similar pattern in that they started with balls back to the full back before moving the ball inside and then down the line and both times the goals were scored through moves starting down Blackburn’s left side. In both matches Hoilett filled the left midfield position and although he was not directly at fault for either goal it is perhaps no surprise that this area of the pitch is an area opposition managers are targeting.

Hoilett’s unsuitability to the defensive aspects of the game are apparent from a quick look at his statistics in comparison to Ruben Rochina, himself an offensive midfielder, who occupied the opposite flank at Craven Cottage and against Arsenal.

Hoilett and Rochina Premier League defensive statistics 2011/12

Rochina crowned his first league start of the season with a spectacular strike at Fulham but it is the defensive shift he puts in that deters teams from attacking down his flank and diverts their attention to Hoilett’s half of the pitch. Rochina has completed just two fewer tackles despite getting less than half the playing time of Hoilett so far this season, making a tackle every 17 minutes to Hoilett’s 39 minutes. Topping this off Rochina’s tackle success rate of 92% trumps Hoilett’s 79% success rate. Incredibly Rochina has over doubled Hoilett’s tally of interceptions, completing an interception every 28 minutes while Hoilett manages just the one interception every other game.

These statistics show a willingness to help out defensively that are invaluable to a side like Blackburn who spend large periods of every game without the ball; Blackburn’s average possession this season has been just 42%. Further to Arteta’s goal for Arsenal, Gervinho’s opener in the same game stemmed from Arsenal’s right flank as Sagna moved into space down the right before looking inside for Arteta. A short ball back to the right for Song continued the move before Song cut inside and slid Gervinho into the right hand channel to finish with a strike across goal.

Tactically, overloading Blackburn’s wide areas on Hoilett’s side reaps rewards for the opposition as discussed above and this is a trait that can be exploited by both expansive, attack-minded sides like Arsenal and more cautious teams such as Fulham. Arsenal’s use of Sagna as an offensive full-back put extra pressure on Blackburn’s left side, where Sagna was able to double up with Gervinho and directly advance on the largely exposed Rovers full-back. Similarly, Fulham could take advantage of the area of weakness by running the forwards such as Zamora, into the right-hand channel to join the more natural wide player, Damien Duff.

A couple of graphics illustrate how Fulham targeted Rovers’ left flank, particularly in the first 45 minutes, and the contrasting levels of success Arsenal had when attempting to break through Rovers’ right side in comparison to their attempts to breach the left side.

Graphics from the Fulham and Arsenal games from FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone powered by Opta

The Fulham graphic shows just how many times the Rovers left side was penetrated by Fulham, and had Duff been more accurate with his crossing, Blackburn could have faced a fourth straight defeat to start the season. The Arsenal graphic provides evidence of the effectiveness of the Rovers’ right-hand side as a defensive unit, where seven of the eight blocked shots were made and only one shot was fired from an area of the pitch to the left of the D that was not blocked. Conversely, no shots were blocked coming in from the opposite flank as three shots to the right of the D found the target and Gervinho’s nestled in the bottom corner.

3. Demba Ba – Newcastle United 1-0 Blackburn Rovers

This illustration depicts the initial build up play that resulted in Newcastle’s opener:

Black arrows = pass/shot direction; Grey arrows = direction of run with ball; White arrows = Direction of run without ball

An unchallenged stroll by Coloccini out of defence culminated with a long diagonal ball into Newcastle’s left wing position for Leon Best to run on to. His cross from the left found Demba Ba who controlled well, spun Scott Dann and fired past Robinson into the far corner of the net.

The first observation is that this goal came down the opposite side to the previous two illustrations. The second is that Hoilett was stationed on that side at St. James’ Park. The third observation is that tactically this goal was a shambles for Blackburn to concede. It only required Gutierrez to drift in off his flank to blow wide open the whole Rovers defensive line up.

Hoilett showed no inclination to track back from his advanced position as Coloccini came forward, simply allowing Gutierrez the freedom to wander unmarked towards the centre of the pitch. This in no way excuses Salgado for following him but he wouldn’t even have contemplated it had Hoilett fallen back into his position on the right of midfield while Rovers were out of possession. As soon as Salgado moved inside the space opened up behind, dragging Samba out of the centre and leaving Dann one-on-one with Ba in the middle.

Newcastle continued to probe down their left as space opened up for them, eventually resulting in the creation of their third goal which effectively killed the game off. Tiote picked up a ball just left of centre, brushed past Hoilett as if he wasn’t there and then proceeded to run into the space in front of him. With no pressure on the ball he picked his pass and delivered a pinpoint cross to the far post for Ba to nod home for his hattrick.

While blame for the goals cannot be landed squarely at Hoilett’s door, that five of the seven goals conceded in the last three games have originated from his area of the pitch should present cause for concern for the Blackburn management team. Hoilett’s presence in the side though is rightly beyond question given his attacking credentials. That he provided a neat lay-off for Rochina’s strike at Fulham, delivered an exquisite through ball for Yakubu to score against Arsenal and then rifled in himself at Newcastle provides more than enough evidence to back up his position as one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Despite exceptional offensive performances Hoilett is fast becoming a tactical conundrum for Steve Kean as sides are beginning to exploit the Canadian’s defensive frailties. Playing him in a wide role leaves the full-back behind exposed and vulnerable without sufficient defensive cover coming from one of the central midfield players. It appears that the way Kean sets Blackburn out is, formationally if nothing else, akin to the Arsenal ‘invincibles’ side of 2003/04.

Kean’s deployment of Hoilett and Rochina on the flanks mirrors Wenger’s use of Pires and Ljungberg, two attacking wide players who operate in a four with two defensive midfield enforcers when out of possession. The key differences though are that Blackburn have neither the playing style nor the personnel to mimic that Arsenal side and a tactical reshuffle appears necessary to accommodate Hoilett in the side.

The obvious solution is to move Hoilett inside to play in the hole behind the main striker and thus shore up the wide areas with a slightly more defensively astute wide midfielder, for instance with Martin Olsson playing on the left of midfield and Rochina continuing on the right. Positioning him centrally though is likely to starve Hoilett of space which would nullify one of his, and by consequence Blackburn’s, greatest strengths; his dribbling. Hoilett’s natural instinct is to run with the ball and he has demonstrated a capacity to do so to great effect this season, completing 37% of Rovers’ total dribbles to date, averaging three successful dribbles per game.

Ironically, having triumphed over them just two weeks ago, Wenger’s latest Arsenal model may present the most fitting solution to Kean’s tactical dilemma. Withdrawing Formica from his advanced role and replacing him with another central midfielder would allow additional defensive cover and create a midfield trio who could rotate defensive responsibilities to stifle attacks down either flank without leaving the central areas unoccupied. This could serve a dual benefit by throwing the defensive shackles from Hoilett completely, giving him free rein to focus on his attacking strengths as a winger in a forward three without any defensive responsibilities.

While Blackburn’s start to the season has been far from fruitful, with a small amount of tactical tinkering and with Hoilett to the fore, a brighter future could be just around the corner.

BRFC fan and football obsessive. Follow me on Twitter at @JWarsop for more of the same, only in 140 characters...
More News



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here