Doing your business early

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Steven Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Matthew Bates, Adam Bates | Andy Gray, Aaron McLean | Garry Thompson, James Hanson, Matthew Dolan

Doing your business early

After about fifteen minutes of what would be a stolid, fruitless encounter with Walsall at Valley Parade the visitors gave up.

Adam Chambers – the number seven – had showed well pushing forward from the Saddler’s midfield but found Matthew Bates in front of him detailed to sit and stop him playing. Bates and Gary Jones were the midfield and perhaps it was Phil Parkinson’s homework that told him that Walsall would push Chambers forward and leave another back but Bates was deployed to nullify that threat.

And he did.

Such underweaned ambition defined Bradford City on the evening. One wonders what was in Phil Parkinson’s mind when he decided that against a team eight points off the play-offs the highest priority was to stop them playing. That this was achieved – Chambers simply dropped back on top of his back four creating two holding midfielders – caused further problems.

Problems for Kyle Bennett who if he has skills – and I struggle to verbalise what skills are that put him above Zavon Hines who was moved on in the summer – has skills which involve cutting into the middle of the pitch which drove him straight into that deep sitting middle two. It crowded an already crowded area which already had the static Andy Gray and the ineffectual Aaron McLean.

Its worth considering McLean, Bennett and the likes of Adam Reach on the left who looked more dangerous than Bennett on the right but considering the onus was on either to breakdown the visitors neither were able to. Throw in with them Parkinson’s other Winter recruits and recall that the reason City had to sell Nahki Wells at speed was because we needed to “do our business early”.

The results of this business? Reach looks promising, Bennett’s promise eludes me, Matthew Dolan is in and out of the team, Aaron McLean looks like he is involved in the longest pre-season in football history getting ready for next term. Why the rush? Three months after not being able to hold out on Wells the approach we are taking to an upper mid-table club coming to Valley Parade is to nullify?

Which is not to criticise Parkinson’s approach to the game over much. Every man, woman and teenager who shouted vehemently that we needed to replace (for example) Stuart McCall – who could have (and still could) learnt much about shutting down a game from Parkinson – is forced to accept that this dour pragmatism is very much what was wanted. We are not an enterprisingly, free flowing, attacking team and were not last season either. Walsall at home 2013/14 might be the ugly face of Parkinson’s approach to the game, but it is the approach which was lauded in the summer.

On the pitch City looked like a team who have forgotten what winning looks like. There is little confidence and that is obvious when players stand on their heels not expecting a teammate’s pass to reach them or perhaps not recalling what to do if it did. All that was in the subconscious is not strained and pained over. In short, and collectively, Bradford City have choked.

But it may not have been so. A free kick thirty minutes into the first half which Andrew Davies headed wide, the entry of James Hanson after an hour which seemed to inspire would have changed things against a Walsall side that would have been happy to go home having said they battle hard for a point.

A mistake on the front post by Jon McLaughlin though and the evening, and the game, were lost.

Carl McHugh and contextual positioning

The more I watch football the more I am convinced that the game is more about character than it is about positions.

That prefaces the following statement: that I do not know if positions are everything or nothing in football. I veer from one conclusion to the other.

When I was a younger man positions were simple. Goalie, right backs, left wingers and so on. It was easy to look at the teams of the 1970s and put a man in a hole.

Easy but wrong. Because there was an increasingly level of subtlety to those positions. You can blame Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley if you wish. In Mexico in 1986 they played up front together for England and by no means were they both just “strikers”.

And so terms like “drop off man”, “goalgetter” and “in the hole” started and those are functional but following them as a train of thought takes you to a conclusions which is that in describing the positions in which Lineker and Beardsley played one was actually describing the tasks they performed.

Which rendered the need to talk about positions obsolete. There was a task to do on a football field of getting the ball in the area between the defensive line and the midfield and that was what Beardsley did. That he did it from “attack” rather than “midfield” is largely irrelevant because on the whole he was spending his time in that position.

Add David Platt to the England team following Beardsley’s (premature) exit and you have a player in the same position who is titularly a midfielder not a forward. Have Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard Jnr in your team and it may say that one is a striker and one is a midfielder in the Panini sticker album but both are spending 90 minutes in the same square footage of the field. That is a problem that England never mastered.

And so these tasks became described as roles which and the notion of positions was refined with more granularity. Words like “holding midfielder” came into the lexicon of the modern football supporter and that was no bad thing.

But the more that tasks were named the less importance on the fact that those tasks needed to be carried out was obvious. Someone needs to win a ball back in midfield and that is described as a “holding job” and rapidly came to seem like an option rather than a necessity.

Which is where I veer. If described in enough granularity positions are everything in football. If thrown around they are meaningless and ignore the importance of the tasks that need to be performed.

Wayne Jacobs talks about Phil Parkinson’s use of Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates at left back and does so with an authority. “Matthew’s right-footed and that causes a problem when you try to link up and get down the left wing. He is obviously tempted to drive infield. I’ve been really impressed with Carl’s attitude… however he is a centre half and sometimes if you come up against a real out-and-out winger, agility and movement can be an issue when you’re playing in that role.”

Which was obvious when McHugh faced Jamie Murphy of Sheffield United who exposed those flaws in his game away at the Blades. At home to Port Vale and MK Dons had wide players who pressed less and were happy to contain. This let McHugh perform a different set of tasks, ones he was more comfortable with, and thus did better at. From that we might conclude that the statement “he can play left back” is – in some way – contextual.

Jones and the rage against the dying of the light

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Carl McHugh, Matthew Bates | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Matthew Dolan, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Gary Thompson

When Gary Jones scored City’s equaliser with five minutes left of a blustery scrap at Valley Parade it seemed that the Bantams may be set to lay siege to the Crewe Alexandra goal for a winner in a game which the visitors never trailed it but ultimately went home happy.

Instead City seemed exhausted and the game ended with little more to report. Having refused to be beaten twice it looked very much like Phil Parkinson’s team could not muster much more. Bradford City – it seems – have reached a limit.

Looking down the teamsheet at the number of new or younger players in the side one might think that Parkinson has come to the same conclusion. He gave Carl McHugh a start to allow the young defender to show what he can do. McHugh misjudged controlling the ball with his head a dozen minutes into the game and Uche Ikpeazu steamed past him to lob home an opening goal.

McHugh floundered in tough conditions. Fingers were pointing at left back Matthew Bates in the murmuring of supporters but McHugh as central defender failed to command his part of the backline all afternoon and will have to step up his level of performance to turn potential into progress as a player.

Similar improvement is needed for Kyle Bennett who looked as lost a player on the right flank as one can recall. Bennett – as with a good few of his team mates – is ostensibly playing for a contract at Bradford City next season but proved very easy to defend against for the visitors and offered little for his teammates to find useful. He represented neither an outlet to pass to for the midfield or a danger when on the ball. The combination of these failings meant that much of the progress down the right in the first half resulted in long, raking balls to no one.

Bennett needs to do a single thing well to start being useful and I’d suggest that thing would be to improve possession when he gets it rather than cheaply giving it away either to an easy tackle or a wayward shot.

Better was Adam Reach who needs to get involved more but shows signs of attempting to do that. In the second half he combined well with fellow Middlesbrough loanee and debutant Matthew Dolan who had a better second half prompting play and able to say at the end of the game that the two Crewe goals and most of the attacking play came from going around his position rather than through it.

Ikpeazu’s second came after City had taken the game to Crewe but been caught with an extremely high line which Stephen Darby was outpaced to exploit. It sparked a revival that manifested itself as Aaron McLean turned back a ball across the box for James Hanson to thump in from eight yards.

A minute later and Hanson’s leap found McLean who used the strength he offers over Nahki Wells to tuck the ball back to Jones. A well hit shot and the power given by a fierce wind did the rest.

That Mathias Pogba scored for Crewe seemed to go against the spirit of proceedings as City launched a series of assaults. James Hanson spurned the best chance after he had taken and beaten the impressive Mark Ellis (different one, me thinks) only to fire over and it seemed that City lacked the ruthlessness that Crewe were showing.

Crewe, for what it is worth, seemed a surprisingly unsophisticated outfit firing balls forward to big, fast attacking players. After the years of Dario Gradi one got used to the idea of the Railwaymen playing good football. Nothing lasts forever.

Nothing at all.

To watch Gary Jones is to highlight City’s problems. I’m often mystified by modern football’s desire to make definitive judgements on events in progress. Jones – one is alternatively told – is either past it and needs to be replaced or he had fuel left for more and perish the thought he would ever not be in the midfield.

For me the joy of watching Jones is seeing how he valiantly pushes back the drawing of the night. There will come a day when Jones no longer should take his place in the City midfield but that day was not today.

He got to a flick back – the Hanson/McLean partnership starting to create goals – and lashed the ball low and long to nestle into the back of the goal.

Jones represent the state of the team at the moment. The limitations are obvious but the character is to push those limits as far as they can be. To play in the way Jones does that says that for all the sight of dark you will rage against the night.

The aforementioned Wells talked about crying the day he left City because he would miss the team which is already breaking up.

It’s impossible to know how many more vociferous moments Parkinson’s team of 2013 before it’s last hurrah but Jones’ arrowed strike was one of them.

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