The tweak

“After a 3-0 drubbing at Valley Parade even the most ardent, optimistic Bradford City supporter would have to write off the club’s chances of automatic promotion.” (para)

Losing at home is never a pleasant experience but it becomes more unsettling when it lacks frequency. The 3-0 home defeat to Rochdale is not City’s first reversal at Valley Parade this year but this type of home reversal was more common four or five years ago than it is now.

The opening paragraph – an assessment of the Bantam’s chances following defeat – was ultimately untrue. A paraphrase from about this time of year eleven years ago when City trooped off the field from a game with Queens Park Rangers having been on the wrong end of three goals.

That team – managed by Paul Jewell and featuring current City boss Stuart McCall in midfield – was of course promoted in May the following year and the QPR match remains a curious footnote noted as the final game on the “old kop” at Valley Parade but saw what ultimately became a pivotal change in the Bantams season.

City had gone into that game off the back of an unbelievable 2-1 defeat by Huddersfield in which the Bantams squandered chance after chance and then saw Town switch to a 433 and end the game victorious. For the QPR game the Bantams midfield of Peter Beagrie wide left, McCall and Gareth Whalley in the middle and Robbie Blake on the right wing behind Isaiah Rankin and Lee Mills.

Rankin – who Jim Jefferies described as “Not being able to finish a bowl of cornflakes” – was profligacy personified squandering enough chances to win a month of matches in the two games but at the time no doubt I would have recalled the words of Brain Clough: He got into the positions to miss them.

Jewell did not subscribe to that point of view – or if he did he had gone past a point where he no longer had faith that the chances would find the net – and following that match with QPR the £1.4m striker Rankin’s days were numbered.

City were written off in terms of automatic promotion and there were calls for a revolution in the side just as there is in the wake of the Rochdale defeat – one recalls that one solution was to follow Town into the 433 while another was to add Paul Bolland to the side – but rather than look at drastic solutions Paul Jewell made a tweak.

A tweak to his side that went on to claim promotion. Rankin went out, Blake moved forward and Jamie Lawrence came into midfield. The team held the ball more and spent less time watching a forward’s heels has he sprinted away and the rest truly is history.

Jewell’s choice to resist revolution in the light of defeat turned out to be correct. This was not unique for Jewell – his reaction to a 3-0 defeat in the Premiership to West Ham United was similar – nor is he alone. When Sir Alex Ferguson watched his Manchester United team beaten 4-1 by Liverpool last season – kamikaze defending which links Vidic to Williams and all – his reaction was to do very little in the face of calls to change and sure enough another Premier League title arrived in due course.

McCall looks at his side and had two options for changing: Personnel and Formation.

Looking around the City side there were plenty of players who could have had fingers pointed at them be they the likes of Luke O’Brien and Gareth Evans who after great seasons so far were made to look hapless, the likes of James O’Brien and Steve Williams who are young and struggle for consistency or the James Hanson and Michael Flynns of the side who struggled against a side who impressed.

On the bench wait Peter Thorne, Chris Brandon, Michael Boulding, Matthew Clarke et al. These players were the problem three months ago solved by the younger team who were beaten by Rochdale. One might question if they offer a solution now. Likewise younger replacements like Jon McLaughlin, Rory Boulding, Luke Sharry or Jonathan Bateson could be deployed but in doing so the Bantams would replace like with like and that is certainly no guarantee of massive alterations.

From a formation point of view McCall’s 433 is a relatively new addition to the Bantams arsenal and the City boss played a 442 for the first two years at Valley Parade. Switching from the one to the other did not provide a great return against Accrington Stanley two weeks ago.

The grace of 442 is that it is the most adaptable formation available to a manager having a limitation or two but no weaknesses as 433 has on the flanks which was so exposed by Rochdale. Fluidity between positions, six second counter attacks and flooding areas with possession favoured by Jose’s old Chelsea can be the beating of 442 but how many League Two teams are able to do that?

That said two teams playing 442 make for a much less interesting game and earlier in the season there was a thrill of the Bantams playing such adventurous, attacking football. I have a theory that since Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders English teams veer back to the 442 formation eventually and that sooner or later McCall will bite the bullet and sacrifice a strikers for a midfielder.

Which is perhaps where the tweak is.

Moving to a four in the middle with Scott Neilson next to Michael Flynn/Lee Bullock and a wide midfielder on the left supporting James Hanson and Gareth Evans gives the Bantams a more robust layout and as this article is published in a field in Oldham Omar Daley returns to reserve team action suggesting himself in the wide midfielder role.

Daley’s return in a 433 would see him alongside James Hanson and Gareth Evans which would offer little other than Simon Whaley did in the Grimsby and Rochdale matches – strength one week, weakness the next – but perhaps there is an irony that the opposite of the tweak that was a solution to Jewell’s problems – removing the speedy player up front – could be solution to McCall’s.

McCall though is charged with the same choices as Jewell had at Valley Parade. QPR were better on the day than the Bantams and won the battle, but in the end the Bantams won the war and did so by standing steady behind his tweaked team. Had Jewell panicked and broken up that side would City have been successful?

How to move forward retaining what was good on Tuesday afternoon but learning from the evening. That is McCall’s charge now.

Reacting to the cold, sifting the good from the bad

Defeats are always worse in the cold.

A miserable night and a miserable result for Bradford City going down 3-0 at home to a Rochdale side that – in a League Two context – redefined ebullience.

As the bitter winter drew into Valley Parade the Bantams were beaten by what was probably the best team to come to the stadium in the two and a half years since relegation.

All had started bright enough for Stuart McCall’s side when the early exchanges saw City pinging a cross over that James Hanson turned just wide of the post and the 433 formation that saw James O’Brien return to a midfield alongside Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock and Gareth Evans and new boy Simon Whaley flank Hanson up front seemed to pile pressure onto the side which had ambitions for the top of the division.

Ambitions they would realise by the end of the evening and with no little help from City – Steve Williams’s attempt to clear a ball and his inability to step up after he had given that ball away saw a ball ended up being fired under Simon Eastwood for Dale’s first goal scored by Chris Dagnall.

The visitors played like a team brimful of confidence and as drilled as any who have been to VP for years with every man pressing at City. The full backs added to the wide men to force City’s two wide strikers to come back and be employed as weak midfielders – almost wing backs at times – resulting in a poor first home start for Whaley and Evans’s worst game since he signed for City.

The two wide played stolen away James Hanson cut a lonely and easily policed figure up front while James O’Brien struggled to get a grip in the midfield – the problem with 19 year old players is that they are, by nature, inconstant and hindsight says that McCall would have been better with the more experianced head of Chris Brandon, not that I would have made that decision at 19:45.

Luke O’Brien and Simon Ramsden – who later switched inside to cover (one assumes) an injured Zesh Rehman leaving Jonathan Bateson on the flank – were exposed by Whaley and Evans’s inability to perform both jobs adequately and the ball inside Ramsden ten scattered minutes after the first goal was centred by 39 minute City loanee Chris O’Grady for Dagnall’s second.

The Bantams players got heads up after but the support on the whole rounded on the players with not one player saved a lashing of tongue (and often worse than lashing, but let us concentrate on the main thrust) and a suggestion of their inability. All teams who are not winning at half time are booed of these days, but is there not a distinction to be made between a team playing badly and another team playing well and – if that is a distinction – was it the case on this evening?

Rochdale played as well as any side who have come to Valley Parade in this league have done and showed signs of belief in each other that the Bantams aim towards. One could spend fifteen minutes at half time reviewing every City player to find a problem in his performance but ultimately the main problem the Bantams had tonight was that they were playing against a side that played brilliantly. Swapping out any of the City squad, switching formations, changing personnel: none of those things would have altered that.

Last season’s 3-0 reversal at Spotland saw Paul Arnison hung out to dry for not being able to cope with Will Atkinson who presented a myriad of problems for Simon Ramsden tonight. When does it stop being the fault of our right back that a cross has come over and start being the credit of their left winger? Did right backs up and down the First Division lose their jobs the week after Peter Beagrie ripped them to shreds in 1999?

The build up of understanding between Dale’s pairings – the two at the back, the midfield pair, wide payers, the forwards who caused problems all night with a running off the ball and movement that border on zealous – was honed and the strength of will in the squad was evident and there as an example – no, as something to aim for – to City and to all sides in League Two and beyond. Well drilled, confident teams will always do well, they should always do well.

Rochdale got a third – O’Grady scoring after some more defensive hi-jinx – but any bad luck the Bantams had in the odd run of the ball was made up by two or three great saves which earned him a man of the match award in a match that City could hardly get into. Scott Neilson arrived late and nudged a headed chance at goal but the result was a long time decided at that point.

Ultimately while supporters will no doubt go into a catatonia of debate over the reasons and machinations behind tonight’s result – and while everyone will have a different take on those elements – it will be Stuart McCall’s decision as to sift out what he considers to be issues which can be addressed and those which came around as the result of an excellent performance by the visitors.

I have said many times in the past that the key to dealing with results good and bad is to minimise and move on and that is McCall’s task now. To isolate the problems which can be addressed and to address them, then ignore the others and not let the fact that another team has played well force his thinking away from the idea that the side – the young side – is learning and improving. Tonight was a lesson, and a spanking, but it is something which is learnt from.

The Rochdale fans asked if they could play City every week – considering the one win each of the season then we might take them up on that – but in all likelihood should they maintain that level of performance it would have to be in a division above. The last time Rochdale were promoted The Beatles were number one (with Get Back, which, oh irony, they did) and Keith Hill’s side have managed to escape promotion twice over the last two years.

City on the other hand take stock, sift the good from the bad and move onto Darlington on Saturday. Seasons are made up of cold winter nights like this and how they are reacted too.

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