Issue Welcome to the tactical sophistication

As told by Michael Wood

Watching City getting men behind the ball defending with numbers rather than quality and leaving the attacking side of the game undermanned it suddenly struck me what this “dour football” of Peter Taylor’s really is.

City lost 2-1 to Port Vale in the glare of a watching TV audience having tried to keep a closed shop most of the game but then after two goals – the second of which was offside – ended up unlucky not to equalise in the dying minutes. It was not pretty stuff either, and ultimately whatever the plan at kick off, that plan did not work.

Having spent much of Friday talking about the principal that how if the job was offered in the summer Taylor’s name would still top the list of potential managers the practice of watching a dour, negative display jarred but the final reckoning City lost to an offside goal and were it not for a great block would have drawn the game. If wishes about Bradford City were snowflakes we would have woken up to a hefty covering Saturday morning, and we did.

However for all the dourness and negativity those two moments – had they fallen differently – would have given City a creditable result (a draw, assuming one of those snowflakes did not melt) and so Taylor would note that his tactical approach – while unsuccessful – was realistic in its chances of getting a result.

Were it not for a mistake by a linesman or a bit of pondering by Lewis Hunt that left John McCombe in to block then The Bantams would have had a draw at promotion chasing Vale. For all the negativity that is evidenced in the game the approach is practical, reasonable and realistic.

But it is dour and watching the game we wanted the players to break the shackles and entertain, going for a win.

We wanted the players in our struggling team to forget the fact that in frustrating and negativity the chances of a draw are there for all to see and to go for broke. We wanted the manager and players to play an attacking game at a promotion chaser, seeing if they could bring back a win.

There is a word to describe that attitude and the word is naive, or at least it was.

In football it is naive to look at away games – especially those against promotion chasers – as the chance to get three points. Away victories are uncommon. Look at any Saturday of results in The Football League and something between two thirds and three quarters of the results will be home wins, then draws will be the next most common, then away victories.

Sir Bobby Robson used to say that a team need wins its home games, draw away and should expect no better than that and will achieve its targets. Two points per game will get any team promoted from any league.

Perhaps Peter Taylor has this in mind. If he does he seems a long way off achieving it but that “long way” was a linesman’s flag away against Port Vale. No matter what you think of the approach or the manager’s approach his understanding that when one goes away from home one frustrates and tries to minimise opportunities knowing a draw is a good return is common thinking in the game, it is the realistic choice.

So we should use the terms that apply consistency, or so I realised when considering “dour football.”

This “dour, negative football” is “tactically sophisticated” as distinct from being “tactically naive”. Likewise the desire to see more “attacking football” – to see players who leave more space as they uncompress the game looking for space to play in – is to want the players to be more “tactically naive.”

This revelation ruined my evening and once again one of my Nan’s oft sage (although always containing the odd swear) turns of phrase came into my head. “Them buggars best be careful a what they wish for, cause they’ll get it.”

I never took to the phrase “tactically naive” because I could never think of the opposite to contrast this naivety with. The fans over the years that use the phrase against managers like Stuart McCall at City and Kevin Keegan at England must have had something in mind as the opposite, but I could not see it. If trying to win every game was to be considered tactically naive what was the opposite? What was tactical sophistication?

Naive has a good half dozen meanings in the OED but in football’s lexicon it seemed to point towards a kind of inability to accept certain pragmatic realities and react to them by changing an initial approach. It was being incapable of flexing tactically to cope with the opposition. A tactically naive manager was one who always ended up getting beaten by some veteran gaffer who saw the benefits of soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter. When Keegan’s Newcastle United lost 1-0 at St James Park to Ferguson’s Manchester United in 1995/96 it was the only time that his team had failed to score in a home game that season The Red Devils having frustrated the attacking flair of the Magpies and caught them with a Cantona sucker punch.

It was the “naivety” of Keegan for all to see supposedly in that his team out played but did not outscore their opponents. That season ended with Keegan’s famed “I’d love it…” speech which was used as proof that the grizzled old Scot had bested his naive foe. That dour football had bested attacking flair, the naivety of an attacking approach had been exposed.

“Sophistication” is probably not the word that springs instantly to mind watching last night’s first half of Bradford City’s football but there it was, for all to see, a sophisticated tactical approach which recognised the realism of the game and set out with a pragmatic plan to get a result.

It is old Arsenal’s 1-0 ways against new Arsenal’s being four up having gone on the road with a plan to play and after half an hour at Newcastle United only to ended up lucky to get a point. Arsene Wenger naive to carry on attacking at four up but wanting his team to play a certain way rather than accept the reality that closing the game down at half time would have meant coasting to a victory.

Knowing what we do about how teams come to Valley Parade with rows of defender and packed midfields and try nick a point, sometimes taking more, and expecting our team to play in a different way simply because it is more enjoyable to watch is laudable but it is the very stuff that was called “tactically naive” this time last year when Peter Taylor joined the club.

“Them buggars best be careful…”

This is the situation we are in. A popular consensus wanted Taylor and his “tactical sophistication” into the club and perhaps there would be more sympathy for the browbeating over how dour it can be to watch if – when watching a manager who wanted to play attacking football – the words “tactically naive” were not allowed to float around unchallenged so often.

“Move on”, or so we are told, but the point of this article is not to wallow in the blanket of snowflake wishes and memories but rather than to state that “move on” too often means forget to the point where as a football club we have become masters of Orwellian doublethink.

Attacking football is naive, and we want an experienced man who can play in a tactically sophisticated way. When we get that we want someone who can bring more flair and make the team more enjoyable to watch. Passion is not important in a manager, then we rage at the dispassionate figure on the sidelines. The manager does not have enough knowledge of the English game, but the next one is too parochial. The manager is too showbiz and interested in talking about his past as England captain, but the next one is too sour and grim.

Least we forget the purpose of constant war in Orwell’s 1984 is to waste the excess of production. This is exactly what City do when changing managers.

The club’s resources go not into improving the team but rather into changing it to suit the new approach – Omar Daley’s exit for Kevin Ellison being a great example of that – and then changing that back again when the mood sees fit to replace manager.

So while City slip to a tenth away defeat of the season – the most of any club in League Two although, worryingly, we have played more games than most – I reflect on how unsuccessful the approach has been but how much that twelve months ago it was presented as the solution.

This is important as we look for another solution.