Issue The unsolvable conundrum

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Richard Eckersley, Shane Duff, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Tom Adeyemi, Jon Worthington, David Syers | Gareth Evans, James Hanson, Leon Osborne | Jake Speight, Omar Daley, Michael Flynn

From the moment the first ball was kicked at Shrewsbury back in August, finding the balance is proving an unsolvable conundrum for Bradford City manager Peter Taylor – and it’s badly unhinging the Bantams’ promotion efforts.

Is it best to take a more attacking approach to matches, committing men forward and asking questions of opposition defences – or should City be more conservative-natured and concentrate on becoming difficult to beat? City are so far proving pretty poor in both areas. Goalscoring has been a problem all season, which suggests they need to be more attack-minded, but defensive instability – just three clean sheets on the road all year – is easily exposed when gaps appear at the back.

Having gained little success from a defensive focus at Oxford and Aldershot, Taylor tonight shifted emphasis back onto attacking by lining up Gareth Evans and Leon Osborne in a three-man forward line with James Hanson. And in the first 10 minutes, where City were on top and attacking the opposition penalty area with a frequency not seen in the previous two games combined, all signs pointed to it proving a success. Crewe looked hemmed in, and Evans and Osborne kept switching flanks and finding joy by running at the opposition full backs.

But it was a false sense of security and, once Crewe settled down and got into their stride, the lack of balance in City’s approach was all too easily exposed. Again.

Crewe took the lead from their first meaningful attack on 15 minutes after Bradford-born Clayton Donaldson got free of his marker and tapped home Shaun Miller’s low cross; but it was the home side’s build up play and comfortableness on and off the ball that was already making a significant impact – and would prove the difference on the night. As promising as City looked going forward initially, the lack of balance it caused elsewhere proved their undoing.

When City had the ball Crewe appeared happy to drop back and wait before exerting pressure on the man in possession. Once City’s over-eagerness to forge a chance saw the move break down – usually through playing the ball to someone not in space – Crewe would pounce and suddenly come alive. The front two of Donaldson and Miller were outstanding in reading each others’ runs and, as red shirts piled forwards, City were easily outnumbered. Evans and Osborne failed or were never asked to track back, and so Crewe always had an extra man in space they could work the ball too. They were exceptional at passing the ball around at varying tempos, and City were chasing shadows.

Jon Worthington, signed on loan earlier the day with Lee Bullock ruled out for the season, looked to pull the strings in the middle and produced some excellent passes at times. But the middle three of he, David Syers and Tom Adeyemi were badly out-gunned. Meanwhile full backs Richard Eckersley and Luke O’Brien were doubled up on and struggled to get forwards when City did have the ball. Numerous chances were created and largely spurned by Crewe – though Jon McLaughlin did make one excellent one-on-one save – and a rout looked possible.

Somewhat surprisingly, City did equalise six minutes before half time after Adeyemi rolled a free kick for O’Brien to cross and Syers to knock across the face of goal, leaving Shane Duff to head home his first goal for City. And though it was undeserved, the fact the Bantams were level offered an opportunity to get something from a difficult night – well, for 30 seconds at least.

Crewe kicked off, City roared forwards but then lost the ball. A long clearance down the pitch should have been cut out by Luke Oliver, but instead he seemed to switch off and suddenly the superb Bryon Moore was clear on goal and finished well past McLaughlin.

Crewe were simply too good for City – the best League Two team this writer has seen so far this season – but the obvious frustration in the visitors almost acted as a leveller before half time. Evans was very late in a challenge, prompting a booking from the referee Kevin Wright and obvious anger from Crewe. Seconds later a strong tackle from Worthington resulted in a flare-up that caused Wright to send off Donaldson for apparently head-butting Syers. No longer could Crewe enjoy the advantage of seemingly having a spare man always available  – City had 45 minutes to make their extra man count.

Although it was almost 10 v 10. As the game recommenced following Donaldson’s exit, O’Brien went in strongly in the tackle prompting further outrage from Crewe. Wright, perhaps lost in the moment, mixed up the blonde-haired full back with Evans and issued a second yellow. Uproar followed and, after realising his error, Wright took back the red for Evans and booked O’Brien. On a day where a media pack was expected at Gresty Road in view of female referee Sian Massey having been scheduled to run the line, it was a major embarrassment for the official. “We want our woman back!” was the chant in the away stand.

City looked more purposeful in the second half. Omar Daley and Jake Speight were introduced from the bench, and with a numerical advantage to attempt to maximize Taylor opted for a bold 4-2-4 formation that saw City enjoy more possession and territorial advantage but, crucially, struggle to create meaningful chances. Indeed home keeper Steve Phillips only had to make one notable save, when the utterly-dreadful Speight suddenly had a clear sight of goal but shot tamely. Syers also had a great opportunity one-on-one, but panicked and sliced wide.

Flynn made his grand return from the bench as City pushed more and more players up the pitch, but the threat of the counter attack remained and Moore almost wrapped up the game after forcing a good save from McLaughlin. A half chance for Flynn saw him volley wide, but this was no night for City fairytales. Twice deep in stoppage time Adeyemi, who had a good game otherwise, blew opportunities to set up chances. City huffed and puffed and can’t be criticised for lack of effort. The boos from some away fans at full time were harsh.

But all is clearly far from well and Crewe’s performance was a stark measurement of just how far from promotion challengers City are. The Bantams tried to do the right things in the second half and worked the ball back and forth, but when not in possession too many players lack the intelligence and awareness to make runs and find space to help team mates. The contrast was so notable when Crewe had the ball, as the movement of home players pulled City apart.

Four straight defeats and the gap to the play offs is now larger than it has been all season. With a trip to leaders Chesterfield on Saturday it looks set to get worse before it gets better. Taylor is back to the drawing board of finding a way for City to be more effective offensively and boost the goals for column – without leaving the huge gaps in midfield that Crewe were able to exploit so effectively. But despite raised hopes along the way it is a problem he appears no nearer to solving than he was when Shrewsbury ripped City apart on day one.

Taylor’s future as Bradford City manager beyond May is in major doubt. At best, he is currently wavering on an ever-thinning tightrope – and, as we’ve seen all season, balance does not seem to be his strong point.