Welcome to the tactical sophistication

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.

We want football, for now

Before the last game at Valley Parade everything seemed good for Peter Taylor and his Bradford City team.

The team had beaten impressive Bury to record back to back wins and Taylor had turned down an offer from Newcastle United. Indeed at half time in the in the Barnet game few would have predicted what the next two and a half games would bring: Nothing at all. Three straight defeats and barely a shot worthy of the name.

As has been perceptively pointed out there has been a shift in attitudes, where we wanted to win at any cost, now we merely want to be entertained. Not on Brazil 1970 level, but perhaps something better than the Bradford Park Avenue 1970 stuff that is being dished up at the moment. Was the Bury game really only a few weeks ago? At times it appears that we have lost all sense of perspective, but then I remember that prior to the heady days of two wins from two games we were hardly steamrollering League Two.

The odds on a chant of ‘we want football’ echoing around Valley Parade on Saturday are undoubtedly shorter than those available for a convincing home win. However, something really has changed. This is not just the usual knee jerk reaction to a defeat, or rather defeats. This is fundamental stuff and I’m not sure Peter Taylor can come back from it. The usual escape route is via couple of victories. Football being the way it is suddenly Peter Taylor would be carried shoulder high down Manningham Lane. But he wouldn’t. A lot more than three football matches have been lost. Stir in faith, hope and even respect. If this is a troubled marriage, then one of the partners has just woken up and shouted ‘I want more than this’.

The ‘more’ not being merely three scrambled points. We want a bit of football; we want to be mildly entertained. If we can’t manage a bit of football then I’m sure we would accept a bit of blood and thunder commitment. Just a bit. We know we cannot suddenly become the Arsenal of League Two overnight – or even the Crewe of the bottom half of League Two. However, during our plunge from the Premier League to League Two the club had, somehow, managed to retain its self-respect. Under the previous manager, whose name I dare not utter, we had hope (however false) and a commitment to playing attacking football (however vain). With our large crowds and pioneering cheap season ticket deals (now being blamed in some quarters as ‘the problem’) we had a sense of vibrancy and purpose. Moral superiority even over the money obsessed game. Now as we grub around with our joyless style of football we are endanger of losing it all.

Fast forward twelve months. City are playing fast attacking passing football. We are surely happy? That’s what we wanted wasn’t it? Rewind to 1983. Jack Tordoff was being shaken by the hand and thanked for saving the club from closure. We were just happy to have a football club. In 1986 he was the man who oversaw the rebuilding of Valley Parade. Before the same decade was out he stopped taking his children to Valley Parade as he didn’t want them to hear chants of ‘resign you c**t’ booming from the Kop.

So remember as we yearn for just a little football that, as in many other aspects of life, once we have it we will always want for a little more. It’s been said frequently that, in the wake of our financial implosion brought on by appalling judgements taken during our Premier League sojourn, our fans do not want City to be a Premier League club again. The Championship is our ultimate goal. I would give it one season in the Championship before eyes were cast to the glittering cash cow of the Premier League.

I moved from ‘just a little football’ to the Premier League in three sentences. There lies the problem. Football, it does that kind of thing to you.

So to Burton Albion’s visit in which Jon McLaughlin is expected to retain his place in goal, Lenny Pidgeley revealing via Twitter that his absence might have been the result of illness not poor form saying “Head feels like babe ruth has put 1 over my canister, slugged my swede out the park 4 a home run!!!”

The back for of Richard Eckersley, Shane Duff, Luke Oliver and Robbie Threllfall seems set in stone for a time with Taylor pointing out after the Aldershot game that the problem is scoring goals, not defending, and so charged with that James Hanson is expected to be partnered with Gareth Evans in a two or Evans and Omar Daley in a three. The midfield has more problems with Lee Bullock out for a month joining Tommy Doherty in the treatment room. Tom Adeyemi, David Syers and Luke O’Brien could make a three although Taylor has said that Michael Flynn may be considered.

Expecting the right time from a stopped clock

“A stopped clock is wrong twice a day”

Or so I said to my brother in regards to one of the blowhards who sits nearby at Valley Parade as he bellowed at Omar Daley after an hour that the winger should “Get working again.”

Six minutes later the 1-0 lead the Bantams had over Barnet was gone and with it went all of the optimism that came in the week when Peter Taylor turned down Newcastle United.

Daley had needed to get working again – he did and came close to an equaliser at 2-1 putting in a good shift all afternoon – but fifteen minutes into the second half the scale of work which he and Gareth Evans on the flanks had to do had not become apparent because for all the six minutes of madness on the pitch it was the fifteen minutes at half time which I believe lost the Bantams the game.

Specifically it was the replacement for the injured Tom Adeyemi with new face Mark Cullen and the repositioning of Gareth Evans onto the flank. It was a mistake. That is if one can call a change that fails “a mistake” on the basis that it has failed. Had it succeeded it would have been a “tactical stroke of genius”. It is reverse equifinity in action.

Aside from breaking up the attacking partnership which was working well when Peter Taylor made the change to put Evans – ostensibly a striker – into a midfield to replace the more central player Ademeyi he changed the dynamic of City’s engine room. Ademeyi’s instinct to bolster the middle was replaced by Evans’ to attack and as a result the midfield dominance was gone.

The win over Bury had shown what could be done with Lee Bullock holding and Ademeyi and David Syers buzzing around and while the different shape against Barnet – back to the 442 – changed the layout of that it had not altered the effect of those three. City were in control of the first half to the extent that the visitors did not enjoy a shot on target in forty five minutes.

Recall the successful Manchester United midfield of Ryan Giggs wide, Roy Keane battling with Paul Scholes alongside him and David Beckham on the right. Beckham and Giggs were never mirror imagines and the Englishman always played a tighter role, pulled into the middle, added to the centre. A second Giggs on the right – Andrei Kanchelskis perhaps – changed the balance drastically.

In the second half – Adeyemi gone – and the middle two needed the support of one of the two wider players – Daley and Evans – to continue that dominance but both those players were pressing their efforts into attacking. Daley (and Evans) had to work harder because he had to come back into the midfield more as well as continue his forward play.

The tip from a three to the two in the middle and the resulting pushing of four into the attacking unit saw too many players put into the position of waiting for play to happen, rather than making it happen. The players could have worked harder but which City fan would have ever suggested the solution to the problem was to give the already working Omar Daley more work to do?

Robbie Threlfall on to the left with Luke O’Brien moving forward or Tommy Doherty on with David Syers shifting to the right would have continued the more solid midfield and were options available to Taylor. Rather do that though Peter Taylor – the manager who is famed for defending 1-0 leads – seemed to make a change that wanted more goals.

The difference between Taylor’s success and failure was the width of the two posts that City hit – had those chances gone in then no doubt the stuffing would have gone out of Barnet and City’s dominance would not have been questioned – but it did not.

It is an irony that – to me – City’s undoing in the game seemed to be in manager Peter Taylor acting against his instinct to defend the one goal lead. He thought Barnet was there for the taking, City almost took them, but not quite.

Players cannot always shoot straighter, tackle better and pass more accurately but they can always work hard and it is not wrong for supporters and managers to want that on Saturday or any game but as much as anything the Barnet defeat came from the manager and that manager charging some players on the pitch with the responsibility for too many roles. Ending up with a pair of old fashioned wingers on when we needed (at least one) wide midfielder.

The stopped clock is right twice a day. Peter Taylor – like all football managers – is expected to be right all the time. On Saturday – in the final reckoning and from the point of view of the scoreline – he got it wrong.

McCall making the gamble

There was a time when Stuart McCall was talking about leaving Bradford City – but eventually decided to stay – that he was summed by a comment “Always has been a poor man’s Kevin Keegan.”

The comment – a thing by a supporter of another club on someone’s Facebook page – referenced the former Newcastle, Fulham, Manchester City and England manager’s tendency to threaten to exit when things did not go his way although one might look at McCall’s World Cup record and note that if Keegan was as able to poke the ball in in the penalty area in 1982 as Stuart did in 1990 then England would not have been going home from Spain. Stuart McCall is no poor version of anyone.

However if his threat to leave likens him to Keegan somewhat then the connection is fully made by the attitude that his side has shown this season in attacking. Both managers have had the phrase “tactically naive” thrown at them but also the adjectives “exciting” and “thrilling” as four months into the year Stuart McCall’s side seems to set itself the task of out scoring the opposition.

“We have to stop conceding two because we have to score three to win.” said the City manager which recalls Keegan’s adage “I’d rather win 4-3 than 1-0” and both managers – consider Keegan circa ’98 at Newcastle – field teams that defend a man down.

McCall’s side employ a back four with three midfielders working hard in front and two wide strikers staying – on the whole – in forward positions giving a side that defend with seven (Newcastle had a 442 but David Ginola never got back). The merits of this are plentiful – City look very dangerous on the break – but the downside is that when full backs add to wingers and central midfielders in a 442 attacking City unless the likes of Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson are alive enough to follow players back the Bantams are out manned.

It is exciting but it is always going to concede goals and the aim – as Keegan verbalised – is to win 4-3 not 1-0 not that the Magpies tended to do that week in week out but rather – as City did against Chesterfield in the 3-0 win earlier this season – use this attacking slant to get noses ahead early and dispirit the opposition.

McCall’s Bantams circa 2009 have problems with this. Chances and goals can be laboured and teams are left in games despite the Bantams battering. Hereford were beaten 1-0 despite City’s 11 shots on target and the visitors always had a chance of sneaking a draw.

It makes for exciting games but time and time again McCall must hope for a couple of first half goals that take the guts out of the opposition and a dull second half.

The chances of that seem increased by the idea of a return to fitness for Omar Daley – the reserve game at Grimsby on Wednesday may give the Jamaican a first game back although we have tried and failed to pre-empt the winger’s return in the past – and the idea that the player is exactly the sort of player who will turn exciting football in to exciting wins.

The veracity of that claim has yet to be seen but with the Bantams a third of the way into the season and placed just outside the play off zone it seems that in the absence of an entirely unexpected January recruitment spree Daley’s return the gradual improvement that being a team brings to the squad is the only way that the the 12th place Bantams will be higher placed.

The return of Daley seems to be the gamble of the season for Stuart McCall.

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