Issue #104 Bradford City’s first day defeat and the honesty applied to it

As told by Michael Wood

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Tony McMahon, Luke Morris | Billy Knott | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Steve Davies, Paul Anderson, Mark Marshall

After watching his Bradford City team lose 4-1 to Swindon Town on the first day of the season Phil Parkinson was in need of the very trait the lack of which defines close season: Intellectual honesty.

The second half collapse which saw the Bantams go from strolling to a comfortable win to strolling a deep defeat was nothing new for Parkinson and seemed to be 2015 in a match for the City manager. It started well and then drifted and as it drifted it went away from the team, and the manager.

And it is the manager Parkinson – rightly praised in the build up to the season – who needs most to find the honesty to look at this performance and sort bad luck from bad judgement, and bad play from bad players.

45 Minutes

The opening goal of City’s season was a near carbon copy of the Andrew Halliday effort at Chelsea. A ball worked down the right and put back to Tony McMahon who held the ball up and played it to Joss Morris who – four minutes into his debut – applied the finish.

It was Morris who was fouled for a penalty which Billy Clarke hit too low but wide enough to beat most keepers but Lawrence Vigouroux is six foot six and pushed the ball away.

Which is where the first dishonesty in the game emerged. The penalty was not a turning point in the match. Accepted had the game been two or three to nil at half time then Swindon Town might have found a rally more difficult but the penalty miss was part of a half long period of pressure where the Robins allowed City to dominate possession happy in themselves to play nice passing football at speed and be blocked off by the Bantams physical size.

City bullied Swindon for forty five minutes and Swindon in turn allowed that to happen. The speedy possession play was ineffectual. Ball comes forward, ball pinged around some strikers, Rory McArdle cleans it out, Swindon look sad.

If one is looking for a turning point in the first half then look no further than Billy Knott’s break on 38 minutes which was abruptly ended by a two footed tackle by Nathan Byrne.

Byrne got the ball but with two feet so the Referee Steve Martin seemed to have mandated a given a free kick for an offence which is only punishable by a red card, and gave a yellow.

Quite apart from the fact that Nathan Byrne was to have a not little impact in the second half this moment formed an idea in the head of Swindon boss Mark Cooper which was to turn the game.

15 Minutes

How knows what is said in a dressing room at half time and how those phrases are manifest in performance. Who knows what. Phil Parkinson will look back at the changes he made as having a cause and effect on the second half collapse, Mark Cooper on the revival. One suspect that Cooper said a phrase like “get amongst them” or “match them physically”.

Cooper and Swindon seemed to recognise that the Referee Mr Martin was no disciplinarian and had a broad definition of what constituted robust play. In the first half Bradford City’s side had dominated play because they were more physical but there was clear space between the edge of Mr Martin’s robust play and City’s first half play that Swindon could occupy.

90 Minutes

The effect was that Swindon applied pressure some of which resulted in free kicks and some of which did not and Bradford City wilted in the face of that in the same way that common at the end of last season against Preston North End or Bristol City.

Parkinson’s half time changed the way that City approached the second half. Playmaker Knott and right midfielder Christopher Routis were detailed with closing down Swindon as they tried to play out of the back line leaving left midfield Morris and central man McMahon as the two in the middle and Billy Clarke and James Hanson falling wide when Knott and Routis were closing down quickly.

The idea was not without merit in that twice City robbed Swindon as they worked the ball out of defence but its massive detriment was how porous it left the City midfield. Swindon moved the ball around well but with City committing Knott and Routis to attacking the ball in the Swindon Town half should Swindon get pasted that line – which they were always going to – they found rather than eight or nine players defending six or seven.

They had the space to play and Byrne – lucky not to leave the field in disgrace – left it with a hat-trick with Jon Obika adding a fourth for good measure. Each goal a celebration of passing and moving, running into space and playing the ball quickly, and enjoying the fact that putting in the sort of challenge that is not the done thing in pre-season they had gone in the space of a half hour from being bullied to doing the bullying.

And at ninety minutes the distressing thing was just how City had let that happen.

Honesty

Returning from Swindon will have given Phil Parkinson time to think over what went wrong and much of the season will depend on what those thoughts were.

The manager could look at the players and conclude that they were lacking. It would be true to say that the depth of the collapse of the second half showed the same signs of weak character which were obvious at the end of last season but that explains the depth of the defeat but not the direction. How did things go to defeat at all after the first half? This requires an honest answer, or a series of them.

The Routis/Knott closing down was a tactical mistake from Parkinson.

It solved a not especially urgent problem – that Swindon could bring the ball out – by creating a far more pressing problem of Swindon being able to find space to pass the ball around in the City half which was the cause of the defeat.

The decision to leave Gary Liddle on the bench – one Parkinson said before the game was down to the form of other players – was also a mistake.

The main crux of criticism directed at Liddle is that he is a more defensive midfielder and offers little going forward but this is to vilify a man for his virtues. City needed Liddle to stand up in the midfield and stop Swindon Town playing and whatever the abilities of Tony McMahon he did not do that.

In fact McMahon spent the second half closing down Swindon players who had just played the ball away and if Morris was near him he was doing the same thing but Morris was more often caught between two players with options and failed to take either.

Routis had too far to travel between his hunter role beyond the forwards and his midfield duties which he did well in the first half when no pressure was applied and Knott spent much of his time cast as a Bradford City Frank Lampard watching play happening thirty yards away from him and waiting for the ball back.

The application of honest to Billy Knott is that he needs to be able to play a box-to-box midfield role or all his abilities in the attacking positions are all for nothing. I think he has that capability but I think that if leaving him on the half way line when play is happening in the City is because Phil Parkinson does not feel Knott can play central midfield then he would be best not having Knott in the squad.

As it was Knott was isolated and away from the game which badly needed a player who would try take control of the midfield and – as with the defeats of last season – rather than that it got Christopher Routis.

That Morris always had more to do than McMahon was because of a grimly sobering reality that Mark Cooper’s half time team talk seemed to have told Swindon that they should attack City down the right to avoid Rory McArdle and target Nathan Clarke who was slower than the attacking players, and more lumbering than the attacking players, and without Andrew Davies’ judgement that allowed him to suffer those deficiencies.

If Nathan Clarke is to be a first choice central defender for City then Parkinson needs to find a way of fielding a midfield that offers him more protection against the ball being dribbled and played at him at speed. This would mean looking at a holding midfielder (or two) sitting ahead of the defence to break up that kind of play which again points to Gary Liddle’s afternoon on the bench as a thing of mystery.

Which is not to say that McMahon is not able to play the position he did today just that he did not do it effectively today. If City were to play Swindon every week then I’d be urging Parkinson to field a Double Six of McMahon and Liddle with three in front and a back four behind to compress play leaving Hanson up front alone but City will not play Swindon or Swindon like teams every week. Few teams try to play possession football at pace in League One and next week we may be talking about how it is a lack of creativity, not the inability to stop creative teams, which is the problem at hand.

Part of the rigour of intellectual honesty on Parkinson’s park though also comes in recognising what has gone well on an afternoon that ended badly. He has a Bradford City team which is brittle but – when on top of games – is dominant. James Hanson’s play is both target man and works well in support and Hanson works hard suggesting that if the supply to Hanson is good then City will prosper.

There is a worry about how infrequently Billy Clarke gets into dangerous positions but B. Clarke is an intelligent player and should supply increase then he will adapt his game appropriately, or he will stand down.

Parkinson also needs to look at Ben Williams in the harsh light of Football League reality.

Williams is an unremarkable goalkeeper and one of whom it will always be said that he did not have a chance, or that the defenders should have protected him, or that looking at goalkeepers for concessions misses the reason for concessions but I struggle to recall a time which I had so little expectation that a goalkeeper might – occasionally – stop a shot from going into the goal.

Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson made cameo appearances and Steve Davies came on and looked like he wanted to plant the same kind of “robust” challenges which the home team had done. City ended the game with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield and the kind of result which one would expect from a team with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield.

Which is both a criticism of the character of the players in the second half and one of the management in not foreseeing that repeating the same mistakes will get the same results. Central midfield is the heart of a team and City’s team were heartless in more ways than one.