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

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.

How far with the lesson of Germany reach?

Self flagellation has always been popular in English football and when the national side returned home from a World Cup 4-1.5ing by Germany the press and players had already begun to whip itself in a freeze of internalised loathing showing the defining characteristic of the media approach to the game: That the game is played by England and other sides are the subject of that.

So when England play well – nine out of ten in qualifying – it is because of our abilities and when we lose it is the lack of those which is the problem and credit is never extended to the opposition. Watching Germany ram four past Argentina though could cause cause for a pause. However poor one might feel England were either Argentina (and Australia) were equal to that or – perhaps – there is something worth noticing going on in Joachim Löw’s side.

There has been a consensus that the Germans – who played a central five in the midfield with an average age of just under 23 years old – have stolen a march on the World because of that youth and freshness and there is much to be said for the way that they have blooded their younger players. 25 year old Schweinsteiger is on his second World Cup. So is Wayne Rooney, scratch that idea then.

Much is also made about the formation which Fabio Capello – and Diego Maradona – employed compared to Löw’s Germans and suddenly the word “fourfourtwo” is becoming something of a negative in the English game. One can almost hear now managers up and down the country being charged with the idea that they – like Capello – lack the imagination to play a more exotic tactic and one can expect three months of randomly thrown together formations up and down football.

Freakish results will mark the start of the season as teams who deploy something more “characterful” than the 442 which has fallen from fashion. As Clough said “There is a lot of rubbish talked about tactics by people who would not know how to win a game of Dominoes.”

Not that this will effect Peter Taylor who has signed the players and settled on a 433 at Valley Parade and City can make hay as League Two players are deployed in fanciful ways to little effect. Finding a way of playing and sticking to it is perhaps the most important thing.

On the fourfourtwo one can say that while it may have faults when playing three games every four years in the World Cup in the cut and thrust of two games a week for nine months the simplicity, adaptability and ease of the approach is the reason for its enduring popularity. Week to week football requires not a surgeon’s tool but a Swiss Army Knife, which is what fourfourtwo is.

The German’s 4231 – originally a formation played in Portugal because of the freedom it gives to the kind of attacking midfielder that that nation excels in producing such as Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and his brother Sergio – is nothing especially new.

The lesson of the Germans is not in tactics but in the deployment of players within those formations. The heart of the German side is Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira who play the deep set midfielder role in a revolutionary manner. Popular conception has it that the two in a 4231 should be holding midfielders and ball winners but Löw’s pairing are more box to box players capable of tackling and getting behind the ball for sure but also able to be used as a spring board for attacking play.

For Schweinsteiger and Khedira there is no need to look for a passer after taking the ball – the pair are equipped to play in the three more forward midfielder – increasing the speed of the counter attack and its accuracy. What they loose in not having a Claude Makelele they gain in rapidity of play creating a nod to total football ideology. As Schweinsteiger plays the ball forward so Mesut Özil or Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller can drop back and tackle.

This is a stark contrast to the approach that many – myself included – have to for example the English midfield which agonises over the choice between attacking players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and ball winners like Gareth Barry. The roles are as split as centre forward and full back but not for Löw’s Germans.

There is a plan for sure and positions – this is not total football Dutch style – but the less rigid assignment of player roles gives a fluidity which England, Australia and Argentina have been incapable of living with. The jobs are done in that German engine room but – crucially – the players who do them have the ability and remit to do each other’s tasks.

Even Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano – as fine a pair of specialised players as one could see – looked old fashioned and stolid in comparison and as Schweinsteiger surged to the left touchline and set up a second goal it seemed obviously that if Germany could prevent Messi emulating that then Mascherano simply would not attempt it.

The granularity of positions – especially in the midfield – has become something of a mantra for modern football and one recalls Lee Crooks and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson but struggles to think of them both as “midfielders” rather one as a holder, the other as an attacker. The same could be said about Dean Furman and Nicky Law although perhaps not about Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock.

Indeed whatever lessons are emanating from the German side at the moment Peter Taylor seems to have adopted. His midfield trio next season are Flynn, Bullock and Tommy Doherty and none of them fit easily into the idea of being players only able to – or only ready to – performing a single role.

It remains to be seen what lessons the game as a whole take from World Cup 2010 and if those lessons create a path to success but City seem to be ahead of a curve that is coming and should that bring the same rewards for the Bantams as it has for the previously unfavoured Germans then next season could be a good year indeed.

What type of England team do we want?

One which beats Germany, obviously, but in the last two weeks the England team has been questioned and answered those questions on the field with a good performance that deserved more than the 1-0.

The adjectives directed at England after the win over Slovenia were muted in comparison to those tagged to the team when playing poorly. Most of these can be crossed off against each other with every “Worst. Team. Ever” being the opposite of “World Beaters” and cancelling each other out.

What we are left with though are comments like “overpaid” and “arrogant” of which there is are no counter-balances. After beating Slovenia no one said that the players earned their wages, that they seemed humble, that they were good value for money.

Which paints the picture of the England side we have. It is considered arrogant and over paid but as long as it does not under perform then we tend to be happy enough. Outside of World Cup years – and in the cases of clubs like Manchester United inside them too – no one much cares about the England side on a day to say basis. As long it can harbour optimism while the club sides wend their way on then everyone seems content.

Content but not happy. John Terry’s life over the last year has not be plain sailing either in or away from football. His tabloid exposure earlier cast him low and he had the England captaincy taken from him but he won the league and cup double with Chelsea and his rehabilitation was enhanced as he dove headlong for a face-tackle to put England into the second round.

While John Terry was putting his head in the way of the ball Wayne Bridge was at home counting his money. Not hard to see why Terry is coming back to the national heart, if not being held close.

Alas though the nation seems set to keep England away from its heart – the place where Cheryl and not Ashley Cole is, the place where Gary Lineker was and Wayne Rooney might hope to be – and continue with the adjectives.

Arrogant, over-paid, under-performing. The England side hold the same position in our culture that Gladiators held in Ancient Rome. They were cheered and lauded whilst being loathed and looked down upon. We are invited to look at laugh at Mr and Mrs Rooney and the gaucheness of their lifestyle but he is expected to perform for our delight and be a target for our anger.

Perhaps then – as Fabio Capello takes his team to play the Germans and hyperbole awaits regardless of the result – it is worth considering what kind of England team the national heart would want to see.

Firstly there is the count of being arrogant which would be easily solved by the FA adopting a behavioural code which would cover anything considered to be “unbecoming of an England player”. This code would be as changeable as the charge of “bringing the game into disrepute” but in essence a group of men in a room at the FA would pass judgement on the play and lives of the England squad.

So John Terry would be out – conduct unbecoming of an England player – and most probably Rooney would be too as a result of his fiery temper in Manchester United games. Frank Lampard left his wife for a younger woman and would no doubt also be guilty of conduct unbecoming of an England player should there be a sense of moral outrage and perhaps too so would Ashley Cole for his reported womanising.

A moral stand to render the squad of humble – or at least strike of those who are not – and as a result the quality of the side would suffer but the national heart would have a team it could invite round to tea.

Ridding England of the idea that the players are overpaid is tougher but not impossible. If we take the idea that £30,000 is a reasonable wage for a man on the street who is doing well and multiple that figure by four for the lifespan of a footballer then the FA simply make a decision that no player who earns more than £120,000 a year – £2,300 a week – can be picked for the England squad.

Pretty much all of the senior Premiership and the Championship players would be ruled out of representing for the Three Lions and to be honest a few of the clubs at the top of League One would probably pay more than that but probably half the way down the third tier of English football one would find no shortage of people who fancied paying for England – provided they behaved – and would be immune to the idea that they are over-paid.

One could add to that a good few young players from the top two divisions too and one would have an England side which – along with the behaviour rules – would be well behaved and paid what would be considered a fair wage and thus be immune to those criticisms. They would probably also be immune to World Cup qualification too with the majority of sides in Europe taking their players from the leagues we would ignore.

Nevertheless there would be a kind of glory in watching the honourable side battling to finish above Wales or Northern Ireland – who would provide good examples of the quality of squad we would have – and as a bonus the FA could offer centralised contracts which would allow them to loan these players to clubs and take them back for lengthier England meet ups.

The team would be unrecognisable but it would be free from the criticism of being paid too much, being too arrogant or under-performing although that would be largely because it would not be expected to perform nor would it have the capabilities to. Most games would have the feel of the third round of the FA Cup and any point would be hard won. Performances could be good, better than the sum of the parts, but it is highly unlikely the side would even get to a play-off for the World Cup.

Victory is the key – victory in qualifying, in friendlies, in the World Cup – and the accusation of under-performing will continue should these victories not be frequent. The English play Germany on Sunday and punditry has it that after that we will play Argentina and then Brazil which represent the only three teams in the World the English side are allowed to lose to, and only in the case of penalties with the Germans.

Everyone else England must beat or be under-performing so high are expectations although meeting those expectations. The glorious exit or – perhaps – the victory and we answer the question “What type of England team do we want?” saying “This one, for all the faults.”

Capello contemplates his choice of headlines

If the world laughed at the New York Post’s headline of USA Win 1-1 then one wonders what it will make of the booing, the dressing room invasions and the paraphrasing of Churchill that has come following England’s failure to beat Algeria?

Perhaps it was Wayne Rooney’s questioning of the booing as not being loyal support which has seen the morning newspapers give the nation’s side an easier ride than perhaps expected. A collective breath taken by editors who realise that having spent the best part of two months talking about how committed to the English cause they are Rooney is right to say that turning on the team at this stage is no definition of loyal support.

The agitator-in-chief The Sun opted for a photograph of a few of the players with the the phrase “Never in the field of World Cup conflict has so little been offered to so many” and there is – for once – some merit in the statement. England’s players stand accused of offering little, of performing poorly, of not achieving and while the counter to that – that the support was not up to much either – might be true the inter-relationship between the one and the other mitigates neither.

The French – who lost rather than drew and have not the luxury of a fate in their own hands as England do – woke up to the quote as headline too “Va te faire enculer sale fils de pute” in L’Equipe over a photograph of Raymond Domenech being talked to by Nicolas Anelka which translated includes some of the words that Zidane reacted to so badly in the last World Cup final and serves to put a further nail in the coach’s coffin and see Anelka sent home.

The German Kicker seemed less upset with the 1-0 defeat to the Serbs with the headline Deutschland Katerland which either means Germany Are Tomcats or more likely Germany’s Hangover. Perhaps there is a correlation between strength of the rebuke for the former two nations and the relaxed nature of the third that ties to the carefree opening performance of German and the stolid, disjointed nature of the French and English.

Certainly Capello – not enjoying his 64th birthday over much – is mystified by the way his team fails to mesh suggesting that perhaps the pressure of playing in the World Cup finals gets to his players turning Rooney from the best player in the World to a pedestrian in the side. There is much sports psychology which would agree that the fear of failure is the most significant cause of failure.

Mental problems though are the very stuff of international football management. A dozen sides are equally good enough to win yet only one does and it is a combination of luck and belief which selects that side. Fabio Capello has had none of the former but seems to have built little of the latter although it is worth noting that the two best performances for England came from two players the Italian had publicly thrown full weight behind: Jamie Carragher and David James.

Belief is a problem as are selection and formation. Capello has not addressed the recurrent problem with Frank Lampard’s positioning that sees the Chelsea man undisciplined and too ready to wander away from his duties. Perhaps Lampard has been detailed by the previous three England managers who wander away from his midfield team mate and is simply disciplined to a different role but that role clearly works less well and England are more effective when they have and hold possession in the midfield. Lampard’s arriving late in the box gets in the way of Rooney’s dropping off and there is room for only one in the side.

That Capello has inherited this problem from the timid Steve McLaren and not solved it is surprisingly ineffectual for a manager of his standing in the game and perhaps suggests an issue not with how well Capello knows football – that is not under debate – but how well he knows English football. The England manager is seen at a Premiership game most weekends which compares with Sven-Goran Eriksson who would often watch three matches and then catch some games during the week. Eriksson was brought up on English football, McLaren had played in the league but one has to wonder how well Capello knows his players and the strengths and limitations of them.

The manager has moved from club to club playing his 442 and winning trophies and the English game is built in tribute to that formation. England have the players to play it more effectively in the country and in the squad but to do that Capello must know his squad better and realise – even at this late state – which of them can be used in his desired framework and which cannot be.

This may mean he makes some headlines for dropping the very successful Frank Lampard but the alternative – one fears – is that the headline writers will have something far more damning and far worse to write about when England exit.

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