Wingers / Niedrigprozentig

Mark Marshall spent most of Phil Parkinson’s final season at Bradford City – and his first – sitting on the bench. He stands to spend his second season as one of the key players in Stuart McCall’s team.

On arrival at Valley Parade McCall discovered deep in a back cupboard a pair of wingers in Marshall and Paul Anderson in the same way one might knockdown a plasterboard wall in a Weatherspoons and find an ornate fireplace. Two flying wingers – as well as a tidy inside player in Filipe Morais – were idling around the training ground under contract and under used. It would seem that of all the things changed in the New Stuart McCall his love of a wide player is not one of them.

Said McCall on Marshall “He has proved he can play left or right. He’ll put crosses in from either side. We’ve had a bit of interest in him but for me he’s going nowhere. He can play a key part on both sides of the pitch. He likes to get wide and put crosses in and he gets lots of good balls in. And I’ll tell you what, he can finish. I know we haven’t seen it yet but he can do that as well.”

Wiki

Only one of ninety one crosses results in a goal.

That is as counter-intuitive a statement for supporters of English football – especially those of a certain age – to hear but with the plethora of statistical analysis of Premier League and Football League games over the last few season it has become obvious that eight-nine attempts to cross a ball do not result in a goal.

It cuts against the grain for a generation of City fans who grew up watching – loving – Peter Beagrie and Jamie Lawrence and then enjoyed Omar Daley, Kyel Reid and Adam Reach. Watching a winger tear into a full back is one of my favourite things to watch in football. But it is not one of the most effective.

This is attested to in research presented at Harvard and in in FourFourTwo magazine. Teams which cross the ball in open play more than others are significantly practically disadvantaged in scoring goals.

Crossing makes you lose more often. With a 0.01% chance of crossing resulting in a goal it is both inefficient as a way of creating goals and a poor way of retaining meaningful possession in the final third, as cross often results in turning over possession, and thus impairs other excellent ways of creating goals. Given the number of crosses in a game and that given that there are two teams in a given game one can only expect any single team to score from a cross once ever six games.

Once a month you can expect to see a cross result in a goal, and it could be against you.

Crossing, on the whole, does not work. Why did Phil Parkinson bring in two wingers? Why does Stuart McCall like them now? Read on, dear reader…

Tiki

The number of crosses (which is to say those in open play) in a game of English football has been falling for the past ten years. There are many reasons for this but all those reasons are haunted by the notional attachment to the Barcelona style of play known as Tiki-Taka. Tiki-Taka itself is a statistical reduction of the analysis that teams with low possession score fewer goals. Keep the ball away from the opposition and they will not be able to score. It is an inherently defensive tactic and always has been but has always been misunderstood as being based around attacking possession.

The world fell in love with Tiki-Taka because it fell in love with Barcelona and with Lionel Messi and this love blinding managers to some of the system’s drawbacks. First it is very hard to drill players into a Tiki-Taka system and equally hard to integrate new players into it. The authoritative work on this is I Am Zlatan where the iconic Swede all but states that Barcelona should change of they play to suit him because it is impossible for him to play as they do. Secondly it requires a specific possession skill-set in all but two of the eleven outfield players (goalkeeper, and one central defender who is allowed to be a clogger) and by requiring that skillset it diminishes other skills.

Which is to say that to play a possession game approaching Tiki-Taka one filters one’s players on how best they fit the skills needed and necessarily ignores those who have skills which do not fit. This reached an English nadir in Euro 2016 when Iceland’s overran an English midfield of Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. All three selected for the positions for their abilities in possession football rather than their abilities as central midfielders. Let us hope that Sam Allardyce does things differently.

This approach has become common in the Premier League rank and file and at clubs up and down the Football League who hold pretensions. If we take the definitive middle of the Premier League club at the moment – Everton – and look at their line ups towards the end of last season 1, 2, 3 one sees a morass of possession based attacking midfield players: Ross Barkley, James McCarthy, Tom Cleverley and Aaron Lennon.

Lennon is titularly a winger but started his career as a centre-forward at Leeds United before drifting out wide where he can beat players with pace but has no devastating cross to speak of. He is able to hold a ball and play a possession game and so he prospers. And this is not to criticise Lennon just to suggest that the game prizes some abilities he has to an extent where it overlooks ones he does not. Roberto Martinez – Everton manager at the time – would rather not lose possession than deliver a cross that found Lukaku more than one in ninety times.

It is not restricted to managers either. When he was favoured at Valley Parade many a fan’s team sheet was drawn up with a 433 that saw Devante Cole deployed in a wide attacking position despite seemingly never having crossed a ball in his life. Other skills are viewed of as more important.

Kiki

Which is to say that crossing has declined so it works one time in ninety because players selected by managers are not selected for their abilities to cross a ball and so quality suffers. As a result the ability of defences to deal with crosses has suffered from lack of use and a filtering of selection. When teams cross less they do other things and other defensive attributes are needed to play against them. Man-marking is more important than heading away high passes in much of football because there are so few high passes and so much movement into attacking space.

One hates to refer to England 1 Iceland 2 again but watching Chris Smalling play against the Icelanders is watching a player who has never been on a field against a James Hanson trying to work out where to stand against a player who does not want to spin off him.

Likewise strikers spin off defenders, they take up and look for space rather than occupying a defender as once they did. And the strikers who are good at finding space in order to retain possession are the ones who managers are picking. Ibrahimovic is once again the case in point here. His inability to retain possession in the way Tiki-Taka festished it meant that players who previously would have been described as midfielders were picked ahead of him for Barcelona to play as centre forward.

This was no problem for Barcelona and this is not a criticism of their achievements but rather an illustration of the priorities which football has fostered. Being good at attacking the area where there is no space – that is to say where a cross is aimed for in front of the goal and thus a direct path to goal – is less important in football than getting into the areas where there is space because there is no direct path to goal.

Teams are bad at crossing, and bad at defending crosses, and bad at attacking crosses and so there is an opportunity for a team who can cross a ball well to do so. This, one suspects, is why Parkinson experimented with bringing in Anderson and Marshall in the first place and why he abandoned that experiment after a few games last season.

McCall can revive that experiment and there is a scope for an advantage if the rot in defensive abilities is deep enough that League One central defenders are not able to deal with a decently floated ball into the box but statistical trends are against a manager who sets up a team to cross that ball.

Teams that cross forego goals – so the information tells us – and goals are hard to come by.

Transfer / Improvement

If you were to use the words “nothing has happened” in relation to the last two weeks someone might look at you askance.

Prime Minister, Brexit, Iceland, Etc.

If you did said it about Bradford City’s transfer policy you would be able to claim some level of accuracy. The list of transfers in June 2016 grows and the signing club is not Bradford City in any of them.

And that list includes some interesting names too. George Moncur – who joined Championship Barnsley – is the very type of player one might want to see in Stuart McCall’s new Bradford City team. Paul Downing – who joined MK Dons – is reported to have been a target that City missed out on.

No matter. As season ticket sales report to be slower than hoped for there is an idea that were Bradford City to make some impressive signings then bums would go onto seats. This is wishful thinking. While there are players who might sign at League One level who could convert the unconverted they are hard to think of.

If you, dear reader, believe that were we to sign the much lauded Bradley Dack, or Romaine Sawyers of Walsall, or Millwall’s Lee Gregory that the man sitting in his armchair watching Match of the Day will be beating a path to Valley Parade I’d suggest you are engaging in a wilful self-delusion.

There are a number of great targets available for sure but the people who know them are not staying away from Valley Parade for their absence. If you are the sort of person who knows who Mark Beevers is you have probably already got your season ticket sorted out.

If you are waiting for City to sign a big name then I would suggest that there is no name City could sign big enough to stimulate your interest.

So while it is curious that City are a few weeks away from pre-season and have allowed the player pool to be whittled away it is not exactly troubling. New chairman, new owners, new manager, new scouts, new targets. It might be unfortunate than Moncur and Downing have slipped away from City’s grasp but it is hardly surprising.

And it probably beats the alternative which is a scatter signing where you get the best players you can find on paper and nail them into system. If you want to know what scatter signing teams look like you need only cast your mind back to Monday in Nice where a group of very talented players with very expensive price tags were beaten by another group of talented players with much less expensive price tags who had been assembled with a little more care.

Or better still think back to Stuart McCall’s first spell as City manager where players were brought in and shipped out with an indecent frequency causing a team with as brittle a character as one can remember.

Players like Paul McLaren came in and were shipped out and one wonders how much care went into their signings. Three of the best signing in City’s recent: Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, and Stephen Darby; all came with a guarantee of character from assistant boss Steve Parkin.

When signing a player managers want to – need to – know about the character of the individuals they are signing. Skills are obvious – on the whole – but how do you know you are not signing a Jake Speight, or a Leon Osborne?

Take two of McCall’s signings. James Hanson is proved himself as a character and as a player for Bradford City. Steve Williams has proved himself as a barber.

Williams looked like a superbly talented footballer and a classy defender but the two conversation I have had with people who knew Williams said they same thing. He did not have the desire needed to be a footballer. He did not “want it” enough and it showed.

There is a celebrated story of West Yorkshire’s own Frank Worthington – a sublimely talented 1970s footballer – turning up to play for Sir Alf Ramsey’s England wearing leather boots and all over denim.

This was the England team of Bobby Moore and the Shelf Cowboy need not apply. He did not fit in, at all, and which accounted for his few caps in the same way that his move to Liverpool was – according to David Peace’s account and popular folklore – cancelled because his to STDs he picked up in the space of a week.

Shankley, and Ramsey, took one look at Worthington and knew that as good as he was on the field he was not good for the dressing room.

How do you find these things out? How do you get better at recruitment? I’d imagine it has a lot to do with scouting, with knowing the difference between a good footballer and someone who is good at kicking a football, and about having enough contacts to find that information out.

Maybe it can be done ten times in the space of two weeks. Maybe not.

We heard much talk of hoping that Stuart McCall had changed and had learnt as a manager and here it is. It might put a dampener on season ticket sales that City have not brought in ten players in a week (and I would argue that it does not) but it heartens me that no one at Valley Parade is bringing in ten new faces with a week or two preperation.

To me that is the first sign that McCall has changed and, dare one say it, improved.

Club v country as Bradford City and England go head-to-head

Bradford City will not only go toe-to-toe with Shrewsbury Town a week on a Saturday, but the England national team. As the Bantams march out to high ho silver lining at Valley Parade, some 230 miles to the south west England will be lining up for a crucial Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales. No prizes for guessing where the attention of the country’s media will be, but what of City fans?

There are questions to be asked about why City are seemingly happy to allow a home game to take place at the same time as England are in action. But it has been suggested the club had little choice in the matter. Apparently an attempt to switch the game to Sunday was rejected by Shrewsbury because they have a match on the Tuesday; and a compromise to move kick off from 3pm to 1pm on the Saturday fell through because it would have required an overnight stay for the visitors, at City’s expense. So the club will be hoping the lost matchday revenue will be less than the hotel bill would have proved.

Equally they might feel resentful about why England are playing at 3pm on a Saturday at all. Numerous other scheduled fixtures around the country have had to be moved so fans can have the chance to watch both games, and football in this country largely operates on the rule that 3pm Saturday kick offs should never be televised because it will hurt crowds elsewhere. Why would the floating supporter go down and support their local club if there’s a match they can watch from the comfort of their own armchair?

International games might be the exception to the 3pm rule, but it would surely have caused little hardship for England and Wales to have played on Friday night rather than forcing everyone else to change their plans.

So fans are left with a choice next week. To the die-hard supporter it will be an easy one to make – club always comes before country, and Wales is hardly the most exciting of international fixtures. But other fans may find they are tempted to give City a miss – the cheapness of the season tickets means it’s hardly a disaster to not make the odd game – while pay on the day supporters may find the choice between paying £20 for a 4th division game or some pints in the pub to watch England an easy one.

Ultimately I feel sad and cheated. I hate international football normally and couldn’t give a toss about England. And that’s because I was born and lived the first five years of my life in Wales. This is the one fixture I care about seeing, and it’s one I’ve been excitedly talking to friends about and swapping banter since the draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers was made in February 2010.

But even so, to me it’s a no-brainer what to do. Club comes before country always, and so I’ll be watching City at Valley Parade. Perhaps I’ll take a radio to listen to Wales-England too, perhaps I’ll tape the game and turn my mobile off while at Valley Parade to try and avoid the score (though it’s unlikely you can attend a large public gathering of football fans and manage not to hear someone mention the score, and that’s before we even consider the likelihood of the PA announcer letting it slip).

Still it will be a great shame all round. City lose money, the attendance and atmosphere will be worse and fans will be forced to miss one of two games they’d want to see. Perhaps I won’t be the only one hoping England get well-beaten as punishment for the FA failing to look after the lower and non-leagues yet again.

The bus ride to Kent as Bradford City face Gillingham

If there is a place to want to be this weekend it is apparently on the Bradford City team bus that will be taking the players to and from the Priestfield Stadium for the Bantams’ important League Two clash with Gillingham.

Interim manager Peter Jackson has been quick to point out that there are a lot of southern players in the bulging squad he has inherited. He’s not saying there’s a North-South divide, just that no longer will players, who have friends and family close by the Southern excursions that form part of the League Two fixture programme, be allowed to get off the bus early. A statement that has attracted strong approval from some impressed supporters.

With such a strong keenness to get the full time job, it is perhaps understandable that Jackson is keen to differentiate himself from the previous regime and drop not-so subtle hints that he believes the more relaxed stance the last guy took was wrong. However a few media soundbites to curry favour with supporters willing to embrace new reasons for why Peter Taylor was a poor manager deserve to be taken with large a pinch of salt.

For much of this week, every word uttered by Jackson has seemingly been met with strong approval by some supporters – and there is already some clamour to sign him up before he has even taken charge of a game. But the simple, overlooked reality is that every new manager over the years is the recipient of warm approval for what they initially say, and the idea that Jackson forcing the players to eat breakfast together is a meaningful reason towards why he’d be the right man for the job is somewhat over-simplistic.

Just one year ago, Peter Taylor was receiving exactly the same treatment from some supporters. Every public utterance was not only considered over-whelming evidence of his brilliance – it was another opportunity to slate the last guy. So if Jackson feels the need to talk down Taylor’s approach – and he is entitled to do that if he believes it will earn him the job – he should do so knowing full well that, should he succeed in getting a contract, in one or two years time his successor will making similar statements about why his different methods will be more effective  – which will be leapt upon by some as evidence Jackson was a terrible manager.

It’s happened before, countless times.

City Director Roger Owen was last year quick to ensure we all knew that Taylor – unlike his scruffy, ill-disciplined predecessor Stuart McCall – was making the players wear suits on matchdays. ‘Brilliant’ was the general reaction, but it hardly boosted results. David Wetherall was quick to deride the players’ lack of fitness after taking over from Colin Todd in 2007, but his efforts to introduce a high-intense approach coincided with some of the worst performances of the season. Bryan Robson and Todd claimed they would play attractive passing football “unlike the previous manager who preferred direct football”, even though Nicky Law hadn’t actually played in this way.

And this need for a new manager to provide tedious reasons for they are different to the last man – in order to earn praise and encourage favourable comparisons to the outgoing guy – isn’t exclusive to City. Witness the always positive welcome new England managers receive. Sven Goran Eriksson supposedly failed at the 2006 World Cup because he let the WAGS stay in the same hotel; under Steve McLaren the squad didn’t eat their meals together. So Fabio Capello was praised for banning the WAGS and for not allowing players to leave the dinner table until the last man had finished, but England’s fortunes failed to improve.

All of this is not supposed to be intended as an attack on Jackson. BfB has been criticised in recent days for not being positive enough on his interim arrival; but, for me at least, it’s more a weariness about this reoccurring situation than anything personal.

The club continues to under-perform, and somehow all the blame for it ends its way solely on the manager’s shoulders, and he is got rid of. Then a huge wave of positivity greets the next man and he is initially praised for nothing more than a couple of nice comments in the press, before in time it all becomes his fault all over again.

Maybe Jackson is the right man; but after so many failed managerial appointments over the last decade, it seems foolish to dive into falling head over heels for him so willingly and so quickly.

Is he right to keep Southern-based players on the team bus all the way back to Bradford? Who knows, but the insinuation that Taylor failed because he made certain allowances for people who have family and friends hundreds of miles away from Bradford is misguided and somewhat trivial. Paul Jewell was known to make similar allowances to his players during the last promotion season, and team spirit wasn’t a problem then. At worst, Taylor stands accused of treating adults like adults.

Let us, for example, imagine the negotiations for signing Tommy Doherty last summer – someone who has previously played all his career in the South. Doherty might not have been keen to move so far North, away from loved ones, so Taylor may have offered a concession that he can go home at weekends after the match, including not travelling back to Bradford after a game in the South. As a result City can sign a talented player who would have proved more effective had an injury not hampered his efforts.

More realistically what Jackson offers the club is someone who will do things different to Taylor. There will be some methods he’d employ that would work better than Taylor’s equivalent approach, but other ideas which won’t. However we come to view Taylor’s time in charge, the facts are his strategy has delivered outstanding success at certain clubs but didn’t work at Valley Parade. That doesn’t mean those methods are wrong, more that we need a manager who’ll be able to flourish in the Bantams’ environment.

Jackson gets his first true outward opportunity to stake a claim for the job with the long trip to Priestfield tomorrow. The Gills have always been strong at home – even last season when they were relegated from League One – and though City have been able to enjoy success in Kent, most notably in the last meeting two years ago, it is the kind of place they often return from pointless. An interesting first test for Jacko.

It seems a waste of time to predict his team, other than to expect a 4-4-2 formation that will include some of the players who clearly impressed him during the reserves 6-2 hiding of Port Vale on Tuesday. So expect Scott Dobie, Gareth Evans and Jake Speight to be knocking on the door to partner James Hanson. In addition Jon Worthington, who played under Jackson at Town, will be hopeful of a recall.

Whoever makes the cut, it’s to be hoped the coach journey doesn’t prove to be the day’s only highlight.

Club v country

As Peter Taylor continues to quietly devise his plans for next season, a huge wave of approval from Bradford City supporters’ greets his every decision.

Impressing when handed a short-term deal last February, the Bantams boss currently enjoys high levels of popularity; and there is growing excitement and belief at what can be achieved next season. At times Taylor is receiving praise when he hasn’t necessarily done anything to deserve it, such is the level of goodwill. Come the big kick off on Saturday 7 August, a sold out City away end will roar on the players at Shrewsbury. The supporters will be right behind the team and management.

A huge contrast to the England national team right now. After a truly dismal 0-0 draw with Algeria on Friday, anger is widespread. The players were booed off the field by England fans in South Africa – and in thousands of pubs and homes up and down England. Wayne Rooney reacted badly, prompting further rage from fans. The country is not united in support of the team, the consequences of failure in the final group game on Wednesday aren’t worth thinking about it.

For us City fans, used to years of failure, it’s a scenario we know all too well. Team under-performs, leading to boos and angry reactions from fans, leading to the never-ending debate about what makes a good supporter and how paying money to watch the team entitles you to express your feelings. It will happen again next season, no matter how good a job Taylor does.

But though I sometimes despair at the way fellow City fans moan and heap over-the-top criticism on players and management, it’s a different type of anger to the public mood towards the England team. And even if England get it right on Wednesday and go onto lift the World Cup, you suspect it won’t quite prompt the level of joy we might imagine it would.

Whatever the merits of Rooney’s outburst, he had a point when he spoke about the loyalty of England supporters. This is not an attack on any fan or even a question of patriotism, but more how we really feel about those who wear three lions on their shirt. Quite simply, we don’t really like this English team. We don’t look upon them as national heroes in the way we did of Terry Butcher, Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce. We don’t believe they feel the same way as us.

As almost every man, woman and dog has uttered since full time on Friday, England players are overpaid. At the best of times we don’t like that, but in the midst of economic turmoil and ahead of a week where we all might learn some bad news when the new coalition Government reveals its emergency budget, we especially hate players for it. Throw in some less than heroic behaviour from the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Rooney and Steven Gerrard, and we don’t exactly have the England team we’d aspire to cheer on.

Which means the mood towards the players can be lukewarm at best, and when it goes wrong we throw our anger about them being overpaid and badly-behaved back in their faces. They are guilty of crimes we cannot really ever forgive them for. We’d all love Ashley Cole to score the winner against Spain in the World Cup Final, but few will be calling for a statue of Cole to be erected, or ever feel warmth towards him that a generation continue to hold towards Geoff Hurst.

So no, we’re generally not loyal supporters – but with good reason. And while the reaction to England’s draw with Algeria is comparable to when City were defeated by Accrington last February, the fact we supporters responded by travelling in numbers to league leaders Rochdale three days later and passionately cheered on those same players who let us down says much about the difference between club and country.

Taylor is currently being praised for the urgent manner he has gone about getting next season’s squad ready, but when you look at it more closely he has so far only brought in two players who didn’t pull on a Bradford City shirt last season. What he has done is re-sign the bulk of last season’s team – that’s the team which led the club to a lowest league finish since the 70’s – and we couldn’t be happier.

However disappointing last season was, watching the team when it was on form was hugely enjoyable. Whatever criticisms you want to continue throwing at Stuart McCall, he got his signings right last summer and City were only lacking two or three players and a heap more luck then they were granted during December and January. Who can forget the standing ovation the players received after losing at home to Crewe? They exasperated us at times, but a meaningful affinity was built between the team and supporters. How can we ever cheer the ‘overpaid’ Emile Heskey in the same manner we do James Hanson?

And we’re no different to other clubs. Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United supporters will be disappointed with their team’s overall performance last season, but in defeat they did not turn around and start hammering the players for being overpaid. Steven Gerrard did not have a good season for Liverpool, but his wage packet was never an issue to Reds supporters in the way his under-performance for England on Friday was to the country. They generally stayed behind the bulk of their players.

Which shows the difference in loyalty for your club and loyalty for your country. I admit I’m not really an England supporter and to me international football is usually a pain because it means Match of the Day won’t be on, or a welcome respite during the summer when the gap between City seasons seems so long. But even for passionate England fans, what exactly have been the highlights over the last few years? Euro 96 was fantastic, the Beckham-inspired 2-2 draw with Greece and 5-1 demolition of Germany in ’01 superb. After that I’m struggling. Certainly nothing to match the feelings of joy we experienced during the high points of City’s very disappointing 2009/10 season, or any other.

So as I read comments from England fans demanding Rooney be dropped to teach him a lesson – or worse, from some, that he dies – I feel prouder to be a Bradford City supporter and know what really matters. We City supporters have our arguments and the booing and moaning at games can get me and others down, but at the end of the day we all deeply care for the same cause and when it does go right it means so much more than anything our national team can ever do for us.

Bradford City win promotion next season or England to lift the World Cup? I know where my loyalty lies.

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