Functionalism seems the most fitting label when reflecting on the way Phil Parkinson has lined up Bradford City in the last three games, at least.
Functionalism is a theory that design (in this case tactics and team selection) should be determined by its practicality rather than by aesthetic considerations. Like buying a supermarket brand of baked beans because money is a little tight, aside from the slip up to Hereford, the Bantams have accomplished their objectives in a largely efficient manner. The style will have to come later.
A run of disappointing results had intensified the need to start winning at all costs, and so for now at least the attractive manner of passing football that had featured in the Bristol Rovers and Port Vale games has been shelved by Parkinson. That’s not to say City under Parkinson have become as dour as they were a year earlier under Peter Taylor, but there are certainly similarities in the more organised nature of the way City have played.
As the saying goes, you need to learn to walk before you can run. City couldn’t afford to carry on playing well but losing points, so for now we are watching a different approach that is proving more effective in grinding out results and slowly tightening up a defence which has been far too leaky.
Expect more of the same at in-form Macclesfield tonight. City have only managed to pick up three points on the road this season, and haven’t won in the league away from home since James Hanson’s first half header at Moss Rose six months ago did much to preserve the Bantam’s league status. Parkinson apparently adopted a more defensive approach in the last away match at Hereford but didn’t get the sufficient levels of performance from his players; but it seems plausible he will prioritise not getting beaten this evening over playing in the open way at Port Vale a month ago, which was highly unfortunate to go unrewarded.
Should the slow and steady improvement be continued, it will be interesting to observe when Parkinson begins to give his attacking players more of a free reign to show their flair. Perhaps he has looked back on his early games in charge and concluded he tried to implement that passing, expansive style of play too soon.
As much as we can say recent tactics are more in the thinking of Taylor’s ethos, the former City manager had his team playing in that manner from day one and made no attempt to disguise such intentions. Parkinson, you feel, is different. Complaints about the style of football he played in previous jobs are well-known, but you don’t get to be a scout at a club with the philosophy of Arsenal – like Parkinson was when out of work last season – by being anti-football.
The need to earn wins and push City away from the relegation worries is hugely important, but that doesn’t mean Parkinson has found a formula that he will stick to for the rest of the season.
So we watch recent performances with raised spirits by the results, a few tiny doubts about the approach taken but optimism that what the more stylish football glimpsed previously will be continued when the time is right and with better personnel (e.g. a more solid defensive platform from which to play attacking football). Right now, functionalism is the key. One hopes we’ll have fun this season too.
Macclesfield offer a much stronger test than City’s last three opponents. Without being disrespectful, there is a theory that clubs of the Silkmen’s type – that is to say clubs with low resources compared to others – tend to start seasons well, but fade away when injuries and suspensions become too testing for a small squad. Nevertheless with three wins from four and only one home loss to date, it is not the greatest of timing for City to face them.
A win for City tonight though and we’ll have our own three from four, and the mood around the club will improve dramatically. A defeat and – with tough games to come against Swindon and third-placed Cheltenham – doom and gloom will weigh heavily.
Matt Duke keeps goal despite a constant soundtrack of supporters demanding he is dropped for Jon McLaughlin (odd that, seen as at the end of last season McLaughlin was getting slated). For me, the relationship between supporter and goalkeeper is about trust and, at the moment, Duke struggles to hold ours. As such, every time a goal goes in we instantly question whether he should have saved it. When a goalkeeper has earned our trust, we don’t do that unless they make a notable mistake.
Duke was blamed by some supporters for Michael Jacobs’ thunderbolt strike for Northampton – which seems ridiculous. Equally I can’t understand why Hereford’s goals were labelled his fault the week earlier. He is getting slowly better, and we need to stick with him.
In the defence, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall sit either side of Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip. It was an encouraging home debut from the Dutch defender, who looked better when he didn’t have to think compared to a few occasions when he had time to assess his options. Perhaps he is the opposite of Steve Williams. Two of the midfield four pick themselves, with Ritchie Jones and Kyel Reid both producing superb second half displays on Saturday.
Who will play alongside them is where the controversy will centre on, if the game is lost (because Parkinson has already seemingly past the honeymoon and has been attracting some strong criticism from some supporters, so they will need some ammunition). While Adam Reed did okay on Saturday, Michael Flynn is playing far too well not to be recalled on his return from suspension. However, Reed may keep his place in the centre and Jones moved wide right.
If Parkinson does this all hell will break loose, because it means the promising Michael Bryan will have been dropped. Yet the functionalism theory dictates that playing with two out and out wingers away from home is a more risky strategy, and Parkinson does not seem shy of making such a tough call in picking Jones as a wide midfielder to give City a stronger central midfield. Personally I thought Bryan did well in flashes on Saturday, but some of the praise he received seemed a little over the top.
Up front Craig Fagan and James Hanson will continue, with Parkinson a big fan of the pair developing a partnership that showed initial promise on Saturday and at Burton a few weeks back.
There are plenty of other people waiting in the wings, but the likes of Jamie Devitt, Chris Mitchell and the injured Ross Hannah may have to wait patiently until the pressure on the team lessens to the point style can be prioritised again. Rarely has a Bradford City season being about the squad of players, rather than the first 11, in the way that this one is shaping up to be.