Issue Pre-season ends on a bum note as Jackson’s three-man midfield is outgunned

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Martin Hansen | Andrew Burns, Guy Branston, Lee Bullock, Robbie Threlfall | Michael Flynn, Chris Mitchell, David Syers | Mark Stewart, James Hanson, Ross Hannah | Nialle Rodney, Nahki Wells, Jack Crompton, Scott Brown

A mood of despondency could be felt across Valley Parade’s main stand during the final 12 minutes that followed James Berrett’s clinching goal for Carlisle United. Pre-season results may be meaningless, but a third straight first team friendly defeat is hardly the greatest morale-booster for Bradford City’s new season. A hard week of training aside, all preparations are now completed and – as the final whistle sounded – unsettling concerns over how well this team can perform when it really counts next week were unavoidable.

Just like against Bolton the week before, in the end Carlisle’s greater quality had told following a strong second half performance that left City struggling to get the ball from them. It could easily have been different: before and after the three visitor goals, all the best chances fell to a Bantams side who were continually frustrated by a superb display from United stopper Adam Collin. But despite Jack Compton and Nialle Rodney almost triggering a late rally with well-struck shots magnificently saved, the optimistic mood in the stands and even in the dugout had been firmly punctured.

Indeed Peter Jackson and Colin Cooper – vocal for much of the game – were silent and apparently resigned to defeat well before the end. This game will have offered them plenty to ponder over, with numerous positives that should not be discounted. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all was the limitations triggered from employing a 4-3-3 formation, especially when games really matter.

As Compton and Nahki Wells were brought on as subs with 21 minutes to play, a frustrated Michael Flynn came over to the bench to ask if formation was to be changed because “we’re getting murdered as a three.” The Welshman, David Syers and Chris Mitchell had been deployed as a midfield three, with Mitchell instructed to sit back and protect the back four, but once Carlisle’s 4-4-2 got into their stride the Cumbrians were able to use their extra midfield man to pass the ball through City with far too much comfort.

The familiar problem of 4-3-3 was also evident – the opposition doubling up on the full backs. Andrew Burns was selected at right back and the Development Squad member had a highly impressive game, but on the left side an on-the-way-out the now-staying-at-City Robbie Threlfall was less reliable and easily outnumbered by Carlisle attacking two-on-one. Unlike Luke O’Brien, Threlfall was less willing to go forward and take people on. The result was a City side struggling to get hold of possession and attack with any greater subtly than direct balls down the channels for wide forwards Ross Hannah and Mark Stewart.

Though for a while the formation was working well. Just two minutes into the game, Hannah chased after a forward pass and did brilliantly to turn and hold off a defender, before laying the ball off into Stewart’s path. The Scotsman charged into the area and hit an emphatic shot into the top corner to give City the lead. Stewart had another hugely promising afternoon where his movement and clever running caught the eye. Supplying him with the ball in areas he can hurt the opposition is a must this season.

With James Hanson in the middle of the three-man forward line and maintaining his form from the Bolton game during the first half at least, City were a handful and attacked with regular frequency and purpose. Hanson headed over from yet another brilliant Mitchell corner, while Stewart hit a shot narrowly over the bar. Hannah then had a one-on-one chance but failed to beat Collin, before later hesitating in the area when a loose ball fell his way.

A special word on Hannah, who’s pre-season has been largely anonymous for City and who may have fallen behind Rodney in the striker pecking order. Today was easily his most effective performance and on several occasions he showed decent feet in beating his man, good strength in holding up the ball, while his running down the channels demonstrated an intelligent football brain. Not everything he did came off, but the fact he was mostly doing the right things bodes well for this season.

Rather unexpectedly, Carlisle found an equaliser seconds before the interval through their first meaningful attack. Good build up play left Threlfall up against two men, and the resultant cross was headed home Tom Taiwo with Lee Bullock having lost his man. Despite this mistake, the club’s third-longest serving player performed strongly as centre back and Bullock’s increasing versatility should prove a useful back option over the coming months.

The half time break helped Carlisle more than City, and eight minutes into the second half they had an underserved lead through a magnificent curling shot from Barrett. From then on the League One side assumed control and though the Bantams’ efforts to stem the tide showed spirit they lacked true conviction. Flynn and Syers firing efforts over the bar and a belated switch to 4-4-2 were not enough to suggest a comeback, and soon after Barrett hit another stinging shot that flew past Martin Hansen to complete the scoring.

Hansen’s 90-minute performance in goal showed promise, and there was certainly no blame for any of the goals. He handles crosses well and his kicking impressed, though his lack of shouting will hopefully be improved upon through the confidence of getting to know team mates better. Jon McLaughlin watched the game from the bench and – given he’s not played a minute of pre-season action – it looks as though the on-loan Danish keeper will begin the season City’s number one.

For Jackson, most of the other first game starters will already be pencilled in, though a few areas might cause concern. Defensively City looked reasonably strong, though Guy Branston’s approach of diving in for tackles worries me and at one stage drew the anger of Cooper. The City captain had charged into a tackle that he didn’t need to make, and though he won the ball on this occasion, this manner of defending could easily led to him missing the ball and enabling a striker to run through on goal. His style of going in for the ball straight away may work well if his central defensive partner is primed to cover for any mistakes, but staying on his feet more often would seem advisable.

Where to play Mitchell is also a nagging question. He did okay as defensive midfielder before getting overrun in the second half, and his slight lack of height may make him better suited to right back. His ability with deadballs is a massive weapon for City this season, meaning he needs to start games. Alongside him today Flynn continued his excellent pre-season form, though David Syers is yet to really find his rhythm. Who plays in the centre with Flynn is still questionable.

As is the formation. All pre-season long, Jackson has used 4-4-2 and the change this afternoon was curious given it was the final rehearsal for the season. The manager’s despondent outlook at full time may be caused by how limited it was in success, but even with Compton having signed on loan and looking impressive when he came on as sub, widemen are not the strongest areas of the squad. The unused sub Jamie Green is presumably not going to win a contract, especially now Threlfall is staying.

There’s no need to panic about the upcoming season on the back of a few friendly defeats, but as Aldershot and the campaign’s commencement comes sharply into focus there is a nagging feeling that – as promising as this squad of players looks and as pleasing as they potentially will be to watch – it may not be as ready as we’d ideally like. One can envisage a slow start to the season as players develop, which may not be tolerated by some with patience in short supply.

Perhaps it’s good to rein back expectations now. Unlike a year ago no one seems willing to talk up this season’s prospects. If we believe promotion is a possibility we’re not shouting about it. The quality of the players Jackson has brought in suggest a challenge for the top seven at least is a realistic target, and overall we should be excited rather than apprehensive.

But perhaps the despondency felt in the closing stages this afternoon was an acknowledgement that – while this season can prove much more enjoyable than the last few – there is likely to be a few more bumps on the road ahead yet.