Issue The tweak

As told by Michael Wood

“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.