Opening / Generative / Failings

The Team

Colin Doyle | Tony McMahon, Romain Vincelot, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Nicky Law, Daniel Devine, Mark Marshall | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Jordi Hiwula, Paul Anderson

One day after the last game of last term Bradford City was sold to new owners starting a close season which felt like nothing of the sort. Managers went and came, players followed or did not and and so the opening day 0-0 draw with Port Vale which marked a new era beginning felt oddly like a remnant of the old.

Oddly because while the faces had changed the problems remained the same. Stuart McCall replaced Phil Parkinson as City manager and will have been pleased not only with his team’s clean sheet but with how untroubled his goalkeeper was. Colin Doyle’s opening day did not see him seriously tested.

That the defence played as well as it did denied its rapid construction with Romain Vincelot dropping in along Nathaniel Knight-Percival and both putting in fine first ninety minutes. In training in the week Nathan Clarke joined Rory McArdle (injured) and Matthew Kilgallon (to fit) on the sidelines but the famously niggard Parkinson would have been proud of how few chances the City back four gave up today.

The midfield saw Timothée Dieng injured too – that last week in training must have been very exciting – and with Vincelot dropped back Daniel Devine came into make his début as Nicky Law Jnr made his second, or is it third, first appearance for City.

Devine’s first game answered a problem for McCall. As an eighteen year old he was largely able to stand up to the cut and thrust of a physical Port Vale who anchored the midfield with the impressive and tough Anthony Grant but looked confident enough to play on a level with the more senior players around him. He was good in the way that eighteen year old midfielders should be good.

There is a desire to bring in another midfielder to the club and one hopes that that desire is sated by Devine’s performance. It certainly should be. New chairman Edin Rahic has talked about wanting to develop young players and here is the first opportunity. The virtues of development are seen alongside Devine in Nicky Law Jnr who left Bradford City some six years ago as the kind of flimsy attacking midfielder who needed the steel of a holding man alongside him and returned cast in iron.

That may over-dramatise his changes but his usefulness at collecting the ball and taking responsibility for it was a revelation in the truest sense of the word. Law spent much of the first half setting the midfield line and controlling the distance between himself and wingers Filipe Morais and Mark Marshall. He plundered the occasional shot at goal too as did Vincelot who saw a shot just go over the bar, Billy Clarke watched Vale keeper Jak Alnwick push his effort onto the bar too, and there was a slash off the line to keep Alnwick’s goal intact.

But to iterate chances oversells City as an attacking force. Marshall, Morais and Anderson toiled without much return or sign of return. Morais involves himself in much and performed best of the three but never managed to find a cross or through ball or piece of play that created the chances the play up to the final third merited.

Morais on corners seemed a curious thing when one watches this video of all seventeen of Tony McMahon’s assists last season and notes how many of them were corner kicks. McMahon was at right back today, James Meredith at left back, and neither combined on the flanks with the wide men in front of them as well as one might have hope. The season is early and there is work to be done on understanding players patterns but all five fullbacks and wingers used were at the club last season yet seemed more adrift that then players in the heart of the team who were making first appearances.

Marshall followed on from last season with a performance which left one wondering what his aims on the field are. Is he to supply the ball quickly to James Hanson before the defence is formed up or is he to take his time and why – assuming he has one or the other of those instructions – does he not do it nearly half the time?

He is frustrating to the point of bringing down expectation levels when the ball comes to him. His delivery – which I would have argued was the best part of his game when he arrived at City – is so seldom seen that he borders on making himself redundant.

Which is a good word for Paul Anderson who has – in August 2016 – mislocated anything that made him a player to get excited about when he arrived from Ipswich Town. Anderson is a spectator to his own abilities with seemingly no sense of position – he comes forward when the ball goes beyond him, he drops back when James Meredith wants an option – and no output. I’m reminded of Irvine Welsh’s take on the unified theory of life: “At some point you have it, and then you lose it.”

McCall could persist with both Anderson and Marshall and in the hope that the pair will rediscover whatever it was that attracted Phil Parkinson to them and one suspects he will. One of the better parts of McCall the manager was his warm hearted work with players to try improve them. It might be that one longs for the ruthlessness of Parkinson who sliced Gary Liddle out of his team eight months ago having had him as a core member of the team previously.

Perhaps McCall might ring The Macron Stadium and tell Parkinson that he left a couple of things behind? But that is not McCall’s style and it is a real test of the manager who is praised for his man-management that he might manage these two (or three) men into something much more impressive than they showed today.

Football was – for a time – not wanting for attacking midfielders who could play in wide positions. The decline in wing play seems to have altered this and now every player who does not have a position is a number ten rather than an eleven. I’m not a man of faith and faith is required to believe that Paul Anderson will do in his second season what Peter Beagrie did in his.

As it is McCall is stuck with a generative unit which adds too little to be worth the shirts they take up. Add Billy Clarke to the mix and one ends up with a Bradford City team that can defend well, takes the odd pot-shot, but does not create good enough chances. Plus ça change.

Neither James Hanson nor Billy Clarke are the twenty a season striker that are bayed for but I’d argue that with a generative unit that fails to create no player would score twenty in this team. Which is not to say a further forward is not needed but that the real problem lays in creating rather than converting.

Port Vale were happy with their point at five o’clock and the aforementioned Anthony Grant will have impressed the watching scouts but City should not be wondering how this draw was not a win.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

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