The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

Beating Halifax Town by returning to a Phil Parkinson team

The Team

Matt Williams | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Jason Kennedy, Andy Halliday | Filipe Morais, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | Jon Stead | Billy Clarke, Rory McArdle, Matty Dolan

Two years ago Giantkiller. Now giant. Brought down to size. Three minutes and everyone was getting what they wanted.

Bradford City’s trip to Halifax was a defeat waiting to happen and when Lois Maynard ploughed in from close range following a series of corners needlessly conceded defeat seemed to be worryingly unavoidable. It was what the BBC, BT Sport, and a lot of the local media coverage had sharpened pencil for.

The team that conquered Arsenal, have themselves been giant killed.

The overdog role with a depressing ease

A cliche like that proves irresistible even to the subjects of it.

Halifax Town – OK, FC Halifax Town if we must – took the role of the underdog with a lot of the gusto which City took showed in the cup run of 2013. Town made things were difficult for the Bantams. Throw ins were launched long and were hard to head out. Midfielder’s were chased down. Wide men were pushed wider.

The home side made the most of set plays which led to the goal after three minutes and to the general sense that Halifax took their role in a way Phil Parkinson would have been proud of. Parkinson’s City took the overdog role with a depressing ease.

Starting out with a flat four with two in front of them, then a three sitting behind a single front man were disparate and far too easy to play against. Filipe Morais, Billy Knott and Mark Yeates were a line behind Jon Stead but ineffectual and quickly parted, separated, and not difficult to counter. The onus was then put on holding two midfielders Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday but they failed to provide that and both seemed to be guilty of waiting for someone else to make something happen.

There was a moment – following City’s cup keeper Ben Williams’ save from former City defender Steve Williams’ close range header – where another narrative wrote itself. It was about the decline of a manager in Phil Parkinson and how in the future we would talk about how one could tell that things were over for the City boss when he played that Andy Halliday in central midfield in a 4231.

The rapid switching between formations, picking players in ill-suited positions, and lifeless performances or cup exits are the stuff of the last days of a manager’s time at any club. What happened to the Phil Parkinson who used to so love his 442?

It may have been that that thought occurred to Phil Parkinson at the same time as it did to me. His Bradford City team were not playing very poorly – chances were being created – but the story of the season has been sporadically creating chances without patterns in the play.

Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said of Mario Balotelli that is was “not a player, because a player moves as part of a team. He’s just a footballer.”

City had a lot of footballers, just as Arsenal had, but Halifax had a team.

Giantkiller/giantkilled

Perhaps that realisation stung Parkinson.

City had so easily fallen into the giantkiller/giantkilled narrative and responded accordingly. I like to think that the City manager thought that if this game at Halifax was going to be the start of the final days of his time at the club then he would go out on his own terms.

Parkinson of old. Four Four Two and the big man/little man combination of substitute Billy Clarke alongside Stead. Billy Knott – wandering in the first half – was given a place in the midfield engine and the full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith were given the support of wide men in front of them.

Clarke threatened goal within a minute pulling a good save from Matt Glennon and carried on his direct, provocateur play by pulling the Halifax backline wide and creating a hole that Jon Stead appeared in when Morais had played a fine ball forward. Stead walked the ball around the keeper to equalise.

And two minutes later Morais had been found by Clarke and blasted across Glennon to score.

More dangerous, more determined and stronger at the back Parkinson’s team started to look like a Phil Parkinson team. Halifax huffed and puffed but City looked like a solid unit again and for the first time this season – maybe this year – seemed like they would score more goals. Pressure, directness and confidence. I do not know if it is what the boardroom call attacking football but it was Phil Parkinson football.

Reshaping the squad

City go into the second round, and have beaten a second West Yorkshire club of the season, and move on to face Preston North End next week with Parkinson mulling over which way he takes the City squad.

By returning to his favourite formation Parkinson seemed to free his City players from thinking in terms of their personal displays and enable them to focus on a team performance. The English footballer’s DNA is 442 and as soon as Parkinson switched to it the players seemed to switch to inbuilt positional play.

Morais – lost on one flank in the first half and playing the sort of game Sacchi would comment on – was more effective in a right wing role not only because he knew where to go (Note to pedants: his football education is that of the English footballer) but because every other player knew where he would be. When Billy Clarke flicked the ball forward to him for his goal it was in expectation. It is not that Morais found Clarke in a good position for the first goal or that Clarke found Morais for the second it is that both knew where to expect to find each other which will have pointed a way for Parkinson.

All of which questions the shape of the City squad. Next week Phil Parkinson takes his team to Preston and Kyel Reid who’s pace is lacking from the Bantams squad and seems to prevent City returning to 442. Perhaps when the transfer window opens Parkinson needs to find someone who can add the pace if he wants to return to his way of playing.

Because after avoiding the obvious narrative at Halifax Town Parkinson will probably be afforded the chance to reshape the squad once more.

The first time Bradford City reconsider being the overdog as Halifax Town look for a giantkilling

Of the 79 other balls in the FA Cup First Round draw, few would have been as warmly met as the ball that signified a potential trip to FC Halifax Town – after comprehensively vanquishing Chorley in a replay – for the Bradford City supporter and, indeed, the wider TV audience: but there is more than geographical proximity that adds import to this fixture. This is the first time since the cup run of 2013 that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are forced to bring the mirror to themselves and see what gazes back at them.

First, dear reader, let me make no apologies for referring comprehensively to “that season” – any article anyone at all could write about Bradford City in 2014 and beyond has the potential to lazily fall back on using that cup run as reference: but in this case, I feel it is truly the first time introspection has a real reason to be made.

The diversion of cup competition while City are in poor league form a welcome one for Bantam fan, player and manager alike: it is fair to say that in the forest of League One trees, not many are being pulled up by anyone in a claret and amber shirt this term. Nor, to stretch the metaphor to the point of abuse, are they lost in the woods.

The team remain resolutely mid-table, overall neither excelling nor failing, and this in itself is cause for the mist of doom and gloom to become increasingly lower. The natives are restless, and they demand satisfaction.

With the FC Halifax Town game, the opportunity is rife – Sunday’s opponents are two divisions beneath in the pyramid: their team is partially made up of players who never made the grade at ours – and would never get in our current side, and add to that, the cameras will be watching as our bumper crowd shifts a further 20 minutes down the A58 (or A647 if you like your air thinner and your weather more extreme). Foregone conclusion: rub your hands together and wander off into the sunset.

At the risk of pointing out the clearly obvious: apart from the slight distance between our ground and The Shay, this is what Arsenal and Aston Villa both thought – and Watford and Wigan must have both thought it was even more of a relatively closed-door formality.

We are no longer the independent coffee shop outselling the Starbucks next door: in this particular dynamic, it is us who is the Tesco looking to flatten a third-generation cornershop. No neutrals will be looking to cheer us on from their sofa – our Cinderella story is very much over.

The great cup run of 2012/13 was built on standing against adversity, on steel, on being greater than the sum of our parts, and on steadfast terrace support. On Sunday, the likelihood of any of these things being present is slender: even if the fans do sell out the allocation – which, at the time of writing, is not being projected – what is the atmosphere amongst fans going to be? It is not, “We are here through thick and thin and Oh my we’ve done it”, it is, “If we do not score within the opening five minutes we will make our ire known”.

Only three players, and the manager, remain present from the team that started Capital One Cup Final – the same number of ex-City men in the opposing squad. It is going to be as much, if not more so, of a challenge of their mental strength as it is for newer cohort members. They have tasted success because they had belief in themselves as a unit against the odds: how can Phil Parkinson, who told Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and Andrew Davies in the dressing rooms of Vicarage Road, the DW Stadium, Valley Parade, Villa Park and ultimately, Wembley, that if they galvanise and believe in themselves as a unit, they can accomplish great things – and then principally delivered on that promise – now turn around and make those same players believe that others who are now in the equivalent position cannot easily do the same?

As much as these three and the rest of the team will utterly embrace the diversion from the frustrations of the league campaign; will they be as excited, as invigorated, as out-and-out ready for the proposition of facing FC Halifax Town as the players of FC Halifax Town will be of facing Bradford City? The three players who have been rejected at Valley Parade will have, no doubt, watched the 2013 Cup Final and thought, “I could have had that moment” and whereas the stage on Sunday is very different, their motivation will be clear.

19 years ago was the last time Bradford City faced non-league opposition against a then- relatively-unknown Burton Albion and only the rear-end of Gary Robson could save our blushes, awkwardly bundling in with a part of the body few have ever scored a goal with, much less a midfielder who would usually have struggled to tell you the general area of the goalmouth, to sneak a 4-3 win. I have no doubt that the team of 1995/96 did not conceive they were going to be so closely-ran – in May that year, they were celebrating promotion to the Championship-equivalent at the Old Wembley.

Two years prior to that, Old Halifax Town of the Conference were beating Championship-equivalent West Brom in a televised match in the First round of the FA Cup, and I likewise have no doubt that that team of 1993/94 did not conceive that such a thing was possible, no matter how hard they believed.

Of course, the Bradford City of 2014/15 are not the Bradford City of 2012/13 or even 1995/96 any more than the FC Halifax Town of 2014/15 are the Halifax Town FC of 1993/94, and on Sunday none of these histories should matter. Whether the squad of 2014/15 use the parallels of 2012/13 as a curse, or a warning, remains to be seen.

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