How do you get more out of 100%? As Bradford City manager Stuart McCall observed his players running themselves into the ground while attempting to get the better of League Two early-pace setters Bournemouth this afternoon, that’s the conundrum which must have occupied his thoughts.
Injury-ravaged to the point a central defender had to play in midfield and a central midfielder was deployed up front, it was difficult to find fault with the level of effort his last men standing devoted to the pursuit of earning three points. Coaxing out a greater level of application and smartness already looks key for effort to be rewarded by success.
For as extreme as the injury list seems at the moment, such circumstances appear more likely to be later repeated than addressed by sizeable team strengthening in January. As the second half began to drift into a pattern of stalemate, a look behind his shoulder at the substitute options offered Stuart few solutions.
The danger of a reduced investment in the playing squad was always going to be a lack of strength in depth. Stuart is left with no choice but to fill his bench with youngsters who may not yet be ready for first team responsibility and are even less likely to be ready to be trusted to deliver a desired level of influence on matches. The worry is those senior players giving 100% will be allowed to get away with dropping a few percentage points, while still keeping their place. Not only does Stuart face the challenge of getting more from 100%, he must ensure 100% remains the minimum.
For the opening 45 minutes at least, City got about the Cherries in a crafty manner which might well have brought greater rewards than Gareth Evans’ cancelling out Brett Pitman’s opener. The visitors were far removed from then-manager Jimmy Quinn’s defensive stranglehold tactics which had paved the way for a 3-1 success at Valley Parade last season, commendably passing the ball around in a confident manner which ran throughout the team. Eddie Howe’s side were comfortably the best team City have entertained this season, but their attempts to play a high defensive line encouraged the Bantams to find success from playing low through balls in behind it, which might have been punished more often but for some tight offside calls.
Michael Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was effective in holding up the ball and working space to thread passes in the path of forward runners, while Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson – playing more as orthodox wingers in the first half – showed a willingness to make runs from deep. Evans wasted the best opportunity when a through ball had been timed exactly right and he charged clear with plenty of time to weigh up his options. His attempt to shift the ball to his preferred left foot saw the angle closed down by Cherries’ keeper Shwan Jalal and the eventual shot was screwed well wide of the far post.
Four minutes later Zesh Rehman – the central defender playing in midfield – helped to gift Bournemouth the lead after his hesitancy in clearing a loose ball allowed Anton Robinson to be played through into space between Steve Williams and the recalled Matt Clarke. With just Eastwood to beat, the former non-league player laid the ball into Pitman’s path for an easy tap in.
There were angry complaints from home supporters, who claimed Pitman had been ahead of Robinson and the ball played forwards, thus making Pitman offside. Both referee and linesman missed any such infringement, and Pitman curiously ran off to gloat at City supporters in the Main Stand.
But if heads dropped, the 100% remained and Evans atoned for his earlier miss three minutes before half time after Lee Bullock’s perfect pass enabled him the time and space to round Jalal and run the ball into an empty net. It remains a troubling statistic that only once this season have City come from behind to win – Rochdale away in the JPT; but since Lincoln triumphed 2-0 at Valley Parade last August, only one side – Crewe – has managed to score first against the Bantams and maintain a lead for the full remainder of the game.
Though City dominated the half’s final minutes they were to enjoy less territorial advantage after the break as Howe re-organised his defence so they held a deeper backline. It was at that point the effects of so many injuries were starkly visible as City struggled to execute a game plan that would lead to meaningful control of the match. James Hanson’s injury had been kept quiet – one suspects the local media are starting to become frustrated by Stuart’s economical sharing of team news this season – and City’s top scorer was especially missed once the space for Evans, Brandon and Neilson to run onto through balls was no longer afforded.
City needed someone who could hold up the ball so other players could get forward and provide options, but despite best efforts this is less Evans’ game and certainly not Flynn’s. Neilson and Brandon were able to pick up the ball out wide, but were too isolated with attempts to dribble forward ineffective. Rehman – the defender playing in midfield – largely stayed deep alongside Bullock and Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was too high up the park to make his trademark surging forward runs.
City went narrower in midfield with Neilson pushed further forwards and Brandon encouraged to roam, but by then Bournemouth had reverted to playing on the break and the pace in their locker compromised how far full backs Luke O’Brien and Jonathan Bateson could support the attack. It meant the best efforts to play through or or over the Cherries defence went largely without reward.
Which is where more than 100% is needed. The craftiness to try different things, switch play more often and attack with more fluency was compromised by tiring minds and legs, and the options to freshen things up were limited. Other than James O’Brien’s curious non-involvement and the welcome sight of a recovering Simon Ramsden, Stuart had three youngsters with five career Football League starts between them as his subs bench.
One of them, Rory Boulding, replaced the injured Evans with five minutes to go and looked lively, but the inevitability of the stalemate had set in long before. Bournemouth had the better second half chances, although but for the occasional slip up both Williams and Clarke defended well. Bullock might have won the game for City in the closing stages after his header from a corner was superbly kept out by Jalal.
The result leaves City exactly where they were before kick off and exactly where they were five weeks ago – four points off the play offs. With another 30 league games to play it’s a reasonable position to be, particularly taking into account the woeful start. But that the last seven league games have returned just one win suggests more is needed in the tank to stay in touch with and ultimately climb amongst the front runners.
The returning injured players will add to what’s in that tank, but getting more than 100% from the players available is the puzzle which must be solved to avoid the busyness of the physio room determining the outcome of the season.