The mystery of Christopher Routis

“No object is mysterious. The mystery is your eye.”
Elizabeth Bowen

The news that Christopher Routis is staying at Bradford City for another season is a mystery that adds to the intrigue around Phil Parkinson and the remarkable progress he has made with Bradford City.

Manager Parkinson has watched more of Christopher Routis play than most ever will in and out of training. Parking watched Routis at Oldham Athletic redefine the term “bad game” for a new generation of City fans. He saw him so woefully out of position and then out of the game at home to Preston North End.

And Parkinson saw Routis put in the type of performance that became his trademark late in the season as he filled in in for Filipe Morais in midfield. Chesterfield at home was the prime example. He did some good things, some bad things, but showed a good attitude to try recover from the bad.

Jungle canyon rope bridge

The mystery is that the areas of Routis’ game which were lacking during the season seemed to be the areas which Phil Parkinson looks for more than anything else in his players while the things that Routis does do well – and I struggle for an exhaustive list – hardly seem important to Parkinson at all.

Routis stands alone in the City squad in the profile of his play. He has some abilities on the ball but is no one’s playmaker. He can tackle but is no one’s central defender. He is not short of effort but he is no one’s engine room player.

What use is a ball playing defender to replace Andrew Davies or Rory McArdle when absent to Parkinson? If Routis could do what Davies or McArdle do in the way that Gary MacKenzie did then his abilities to (occasionally) flight a ball forward would be useful perhaps but because his style of intercept defending is so different it seems to cause more problems than it solves.

One might put forward the idea that he may make a holding midfielder but Parkinson is reluctant to use him like that and it is not hard to see why when – in one of the other two midfield positions where his passing should be useful – he is bullied off the ball and out muscled from games.

Put that axe down son

Let me emphasise that I’m not seeking to put the hatchet into Christopher Routis, or say he is a poor footballer, just that having watched him I’ve yet to see him be effective for anything like a sustained period. He is a midfielder in teams which are beaten in midfield, and a defender in teams which make defensive mistakes. In anything other than bursts of minutes he has yet to play well for the club.

That Routis may or may not be what is called a talented footballer is not the question. The question is to the usefulness of having him in the squad.

After a year of watching him I’m not massively convinced by his talents, and I’m less convinced that he has a place in the Bradford City squad as managed by Phil Parkinson.

Nevertheless Phil Parkinson wants him in the squad, and Bradford City have given Christopher Routis a contract for another year meaning he will be in the squad.

What is not seen

Recalling Bowen’s comment there is no mystery as to how Routis plays or what we can expect from him so we must wonder what Parkinson gets from the Frenchman that balances out the problems he has.

Routis is not the shouter like Gary Jones, nor the leader like Andrew Davies, nor the constant performer like Rory McArdle. What he adds must be the most invisible of things which Parkinson values. One is tempted to think of it as the most mysterious thing too. The trait which Parkinson finds which he wants in the squad despite everything else.

Whatever that is, it has just secured Christopher Routis a new deal.

The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, Tony McMahon, Christopher Routis

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

Phil Parkinson facing the face of success as Preston beat Bradford City 3-0 at Valley Parade

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, Billy Clarke | Mark Yeates, Matty Dolan, Dylan Mottley Henry

The 3-0 defeat to Preston North End will be hard to take for Phil Parkinson and his Bradford City team but contained within it a number of sobering lessons.

The game turned almost entirely in the fourteenth minute when a hopefully ball forward to Joe Garner was demurred from by Christopher Routis, who then ended up on the wrong side of Garner, and then brought Garner down, and was then sent off.

Following that City enjoyed a good deal of good play and Jon Stead will look back at a shot well saved by Sam Johnstone (who frustrated City in a 1-2 reversal by Doncaster earlier in the season) but after half time when Gary Liddle – press-ganged into central defence – slid into Jermaine Beckford the direction of the match was sealed.

The three goals flattered Preston who played well and one was left with the feeling that but for a fourteenth minute sending off one could have seen a superb football match but with the certainty that for the visitor’s had enough talents they did not need all the help City gave them.

Mistakes

I’m not going to criticise Christopher Routis for his sending off but I am amazed by Phil Parkinson believing that the Swiss was ever going to be suitable to play central defender in this match.

Routis is titularly a central defender and perhaps it says he is a central defender on his passport but the skills that are needed to play a League One football game as a central defender (especially against Beckford and Garner) he does not possess. Rory McArdle does. Andrew Davies does. Gary MacKenzie does. The Preston three of Tom Clarke, Bailey Wright and Paul Huntington do.

And while hindsight is 20:20 playing Routis in the position was a mistake by Phil Parkinson and one that had consequences in short order. Without Davies and without MacKenzie one might suggest that Parkinson had only two central defenders left in McArdle and Routis and was forced into the selection but to that I would say he then had only one and had to play someone out of position.

Christopher Routis has shown time and again that he cannot play a central defensive position in League One. Parkinson made a call playing him there rather than dropping Gary Liddle into the back four and was rewarded for that with the performance one had come to expect from Routis even when Routis is playing well.

He does individual things well some of the time and is poor in team patterns. The curious thing about Parkinson’s decision to play him was that there were four very good examples of what good look like when it comes to defending in League One. It looks like Tom Clarke, it looks like Rory McArdle, and it does not look like Routis.

Not mistakes

Why Parkinson felt that Routis was capable is in his judgement and his judgement is sound most of the time. Routis aside Parkinson will look back on a team that showed much against a very good Preston North End side although there are areas of concern and lessons to be learnt.

Going forward City’s cutting edge depends on Jon Stead and Jon Stead’s mood seems to govern much. Against Preston he was not the Jon Stead who put Chelsea to the sword and was subdued. James Hanson – on the other hand – maintains a constant level of performance. It is not hard to see why managers have been frustrated with Stead in the past but Parkinson has a decision to make on the mark he sets on Stead.

The Jon Stead of Chelsea is a player one would take the edge of the budget for, the Jon Stead of Preston is somewhat lower in value, and only those inside the club know what offers have been made to the forward. With Aaron McLean still earning for City whilst in semi-retirement at Peterborough for another season there is a need for the City to have a player who can provide (in both scoring and creating) goals in games like Preston at Home.

If that is Jon Stead then one would be overjoyed – he has a #sowhat cult following and all – but the lesson of Preston for Phil Parkinson is that of the two Steads and the judgement the manager must show is which one will get get most of the time should he be signed, and how much is that worth?

There is value to be had elsewhere. City have no goalkeeper signed up for next season. Ben Williams saved a penalty and has some talents but if Parkinson wanted a keeper to control his penalty area and clean out crosses then Williams is not that man.

Which is not to take anything away from Williams but rather to say that this game with Preston is the type of match that Phil Parkinson needs to take lessons from.

We know what good looks like

To get promoted from League One you have to be good. Good looks like Bradford City’s performance with ten men in many ways. Short of a man the players worked hard and worked hard for each other. At times it was – to use a cliché – difficult to tell which side had the full complement of players but when Daniel Johnson first and later Chris Humphrey fired the kind of shots one takes when one has a man, and a goal, advantage the difference was obvious.

Good looks like confidence, and City can add more of that, and it looks like self belief and that is sometimes lacking from the Bantams. Mostly though those things need to be tweaked rather than overhauled and after the game one was left with the idea that City with eleven men would not be far away from Preston. That City have the right framework in place for promotion, but need to improve in some areas.

Phil Parkinson does not need a template for knowing what a team which can be promoted looks like but – if he does – Preston North End might represent it.

(Aside: Dylan Mottley Henry made his début and looked keen.)

The power of facing character comes into question as Bradford City lose to Chesterfield

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Tony McMahon, Francois Zoko

I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. George Orwell, Why I Write

A poor place to start – when talking about events such as Bradford City’s 1-0 reversal at home to Chesterfield that squandered a play-off advantage – is with the self.

That one might have preferred to be elsewhere on the inexplicably snowy last day of March 2015 – perhaps watching England draw with Italy, perhaps doing one of any number of other activities – avoids the subject of the game itself and it was a game which presented facts, some of which are unpleasant to deal with.

Bradford City lost the game after a mistake by Gary MacKenzie which saw him head a ball back towards Ben Williams – and short – rather than in the opposite direction. Byron Harrison intercepted and scored. It was Chesterfield’s only goal from their only shot on target.

The mistake itself should be a problem to no one – mistakes are not infrequent and being able to overcome them is how we define character in football – and certainly that mistake aside defensively the truth is that Bradford City were untroubled.

But Bradford City were found lacking going forward. Chesterfield – a compact team who showed a significant commitment to curtailing any opening that City could force – achieved their aims of denying City space to play in by closing down quickly and making possession hard to maintain. It was not pretty, and perhaps not even admirable, but it was effective.

City – on their part – were cowed by the visitors. Specifically there was falling back by the Bantams players from doing what was difficult to taking easier options which were ultimately (and always going to be) fruitless. Billy Clarke – having problems with the 38 year old Ritchie Humphreys in the holding role – was guilty of taking soft options. Jon Stead was under the control of another veteran Ian Evatt all evening and again took softer options that were need to break a resolute defensive line.

No matter how valid it is Stead on the ground looking at the Referee saying he has been pushed over has never been the prelude to a penalty, but Stead on his feet pushing his back into a central defender has been the precursor to match winning goals in big games.

The Referee Jeremy Simpson was appalling – as usual – and many players may feel hard done to the morning after the night before but more resolution from the Bantams could have opened up Chesterfield. Claims and little passes out of danger did not.

Two Asides

Two points. One: The booking for François Zoko for diving which seemed to be the result of Zoko falling over the ball. No one asked for a penalty, no one suggested Zoko dive, but Referee Simpson had decided that he wanted to book Zoko. I can only hope that he had a personal reason against Zoko as a man – perhaps from a previous game where Zoko had gone unpunished – and was of a mind to book the Ivorian at the first opportunity because failing that one is left with two very dubious choices as to why the official did as he did.

Two: Christopher Routis continues to show the problems he showed as a central defender in central midfield. As a defender he was able on the ball but not drilled to the way the team plays. As a midfielder he is able on the ball but again does not play as the team needs him to. This is not a criticism of Routis specifically – he is the player he is – but the role he plays needs a player who can better balance the cause and effect of what he does with the players around him.

The player who plays that role has to understand the dynamics of the game. He has to understand when to stay close to Gary Liddle to look for a short pass and when to go long and wide and look for a ball behind the full back. He also has to understand when to not move forward into the areas that Clarke behind the front players wants to move into and when to do that to offer Clarke a chance to switch positions.

It is a tough position to play and it needs a player who can read the game in situ and Routis is not that player. As able a deputy as he proves trying his hardest to fill a gap the gap going forward has become more and more obvious and is repeated on the left hand side when Billy Knott is not playing.

Facing

The mix through of players who could not and players who would not commit enough to win the game was decisive and the chance to move sixth which presented itself receded. Tony McMahon had a late strike which Tommy Lee – a fine keeper – saved well but few of the City players will be especially happy with being bullied out of a game.

Phil Parkinson has made his career on pulling teams together and battling through. On Saturday I thought that City had to over-perform to win sixth place in League One and losing to Chesterfield 1-0 was a prime example of what happens when The Bantams do not do that.

One never wants to fall into cliché but there is a truism in games being won by the team that wants to win more. Chesterfield made it difficult for the Bradford City players to do as they wanted to do and so some of the players did something easier and less productive.

That is the test of character that we so often talk about Phil Parkinson’s City teams passing, that was failed last night.

The game was settled by a small margin – a mistake – but such is the nature of games between teams that have similar virtues. Parkinson – if this season is not to fizzle out – needs to find a way to have his players overcome stiff resistance or face the unpleasant thought that to progress he will need different, bigger, characters who can.

Bradford City contemplating becoming what they are after beating Oldham 2-0 at Valley Parade

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Gary Liddle, Mark Yeates | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Gary MacKenzie, Billy Knott, Tony McMahon

The month of attrition

Before Billy Clarke turned to scramble into the goal a ball that was bouncing around the Oldham Athletic penalty area it would have taken a brave man to suggest that Bradford City would definitely win the game and that the Latics would definitely lose it.

When Clarke slowly rolled a ball into the corner of the same goal twenty minutes later Oldham Athletic had sunk to 13th in League One with seven left to play leaving them – to all but the brave – with no chance of securing a place in the play-offs.

Without the odd goal in the opening hour – the Latics were on top for twenty minutes – it seems that the visitors are all but eliminated from promotion.

So we come to the defining part of the season. The month of attrition.

Duck week

Bradford City’s victory was as hard fought as any this season and all the better for it.

On the surface City spent a week in Portugal as reward for endeavours to date and perhaps away from the distractions at Valley Parade – and there were significant – the collective mind had been focused. Every game from now seems to hold the prospect of ending the season. Promotion places then are like the statue carved from marble. Bit by bit teams are chiselled away until it is complete.

The sight of Andrew Davies beating the ground in frustration after pulling up following a burst of speed to follow Conor Wilkinson worried. City with Davies are more likely to win and everyone in Valley Parade knows it. His replacement Gary MacKenzie looks assured and calm, authoritative even.

Oldham press early and Wilkinson looks useful up front although is often isolated. The early exchanged are for the Latics and City seem lost in the midfield. Mark Yeates and Christopher Routis are a pair alongside Gary Liddle who is prepared to push himself to a performance despite an obvious, creeping fatigue. Liddle is being talked about as Bradford City’s player of the season because of performances such as this.

Yeates struggles to get into the game and Routis’ positioning is poor while Billy Clarke shows both faults. It is a common feature of Bradford City teams under Phil Parkinson that players are faced with problems like these and, when faced with them, find a minimum performance. Keep going, and keep giving what you can, and see what happens.

As good as you are

Bradford City vs Oldham in March 2015 is what I go to football for. The game stands on a knife edge and until Clarke’s injury time goal it could have gone either way. The game is won not necessarily by the best team – because the difference between the sides is not significant – but by the team which takes the chance, that runs when tired, that puts in the head where it hurts.

The best thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City is that they are a team who realise that they are as good as they are. The sum of the parts. The equal of the endeavour.

The reward, and the reason for the reward.

Billy, Billy

Billy Knott replaced Yeates and brought his high intensity pressing to the game as City pushed onto Oldham Athletic. It was a corner that both James Hanson and Jon Stead has attempts at heading that fell to Clarke’s left foot. From that City controlled the game by attacking and pressing the visitors.

A smart piece of fakery where Knott sold the dummy of time wasting to set up Stead, who rolled to Clarke, who scored put a gloss on the game. Half an hour before and it was hard to say who would win and Oldham deserve credit in defeat, but the defeat is probably terminal to their play off aspirations.

City go into the rearranged Chesterfield game on Tuesday night knowing a win will put City in sixth position, but the same can be said of Chesterfield, and with City looking to nudge ahead of a pack of peers one can only look forward to the game with some relish. Doncaster Rovers, Sheffield United and Barnsley all follow.

At the end of season of Stamford Bridge football and giant killing City are in a burly, knock down brawl. The next few weeks could be very enjoyable indeed.

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