The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

Pre-season ends on a bum note as Jackson’s three-man midfield is outgunned

The Team

Martin Hansen | Andrew Burns, Guy Branston, Lee Bullock, Robbie Threlfall | Michael Flynn, Chris Mitchell, David Syers | Mark Stewart, James Hanson, Ross Hannah | Nialle Rodney, Nahki Wells, Jack Crompton, Scott Brown

A mood of despondency could be felt across Valley Parade’s main stand during the final 12 minutes that followed James Berrett’s clinching goal for Carlisle United. Pre-season results may be meaningless, but a third straight first team friendly defeat is hardly the greatest morale-booster for Bradford City’s new season. A hard week of training aside, all preparations are now completed and – as the final whistle sounded – unsettling concerns over how well this team can perform when it really counts next week were unavoidable.

Just like against Bolton the week before, in the end Carlisle’s greater quality had told following a strong second half performance that left City struggling to get the ball from them. It could easily have been different: before and after the three visitor goals, all the best chances fell to a Bantams side who were continually frustrated by a superb display from United stopper Adam Collin. But despite Jack Compton and Nialle Rodney almost triggering a late rally with well-struck shots magnificently saved, the optimistic mood in the stands and even in the dugout had been firmly punctured.

Indeed Peter Jackson and Colin Cooper – vocal for much of the game – were silent and apparently resigned to defeat well before the end. This game will have offered them plenty to ponder over, with numerous positives that should not be discounted. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all was the limitations triggered from employing a 4-3-3 formation, especially when games really matter.

As Compton and Nahki Wells were brought on as subs with 21 minutes to play, a frustrated Michael Flynn came over to the bench to ask if formation was to be changed because “we’re getting murdered as a three.” The Welshman, David Syers and Chris Mitchell had been deployed as a midfield three, with Mitchell instructed to sit back and protect the back four, but once Carlisle’s 4-4-2 got into their stride the Cumbrians were able to use their extra midfield man to pass the ball through City with far too much comfort.

The familiar problem of 4-3-3 was also evident – the opposition doubling up on the full backs. Andrew Burns was selected at right back and the Development Squad member had a highly impressive game, but on the left side an on-the-way-out the now-staying-at-City Robbie Threlfall was less reliable and easily outnumbered by Carlisle attacking two-on-one. Unlike Luke O’Brien, Threlfall was less willing to go forward and take people on. The result was a City side struggling to get hold of possession and attack with any greater subtly than direct balls down the channels for wide forwards Ross Hannah and Mark Stewart.

Though for a while the formation was working well. Just two minutes into the game, Hannah chased after a forward pass and did brilliantly to turn and hold off a defender, before laying the ball off into Stewart’s path. The Scotsman charged into the area and hit an emphatic shot into the top corner to give City the lead. Stewart had another hugely promising afternoon where his movement and clever running caught the eye. Supplying him with the ball in areas he can hurt the opposition is a must this season.

With James Hanson in the middle of the three-man forward line and maintaining his form from the Bolton game during the first half at least, City were a handful and attacked with regular frequency and purpose. Hanson headed over from yet another brilliant Mitchell corner, while Stewart hit a shot narrowly over the bar. Hannah then had a one-on-one chance but failed to beat Collin, before later hesitating in the area when a loose ball fell his way.

A special word on Hannah, who’s pre-season has been largely anonymous for City and who may have fallen behind Rodney in the striker pecking order. Today was easily his most effective performance and on several occasions he showed decent feet in beating his man, good strength in holding up the ball, while his running down the channels demonstrated an intelligent football brain. Not everything he did came off, but the fact he was mostly doing the right things bodes well for this season.

Rather unexpectedly, Carlisle found an equaliser seconds before the interval through their first meaningful attack. Good build up play left Threlfall up against two men, and the resultant cross was headed home Tom Taiwo with Lee Bullock having lost his man. Despite this mistake, the club’s third-longest serving player performed strongly as centre back and Bullock’s increasing versatility should prove a useful back option over the coming months.

The half time break helped Carlisle more than City, and eight minutes into the second half they had an underserved lead through a magnificent curling shot from Barrett. From then on the League One side assumed control and though the Bantams’ efforts to stem the tide showed spirit they lacked true conviction. Flynn and Syers firing efforts over the bar and a belated switch to 4-4-2 were not enough to suggest a comeback, and soon after Barrett hit another stinging shot that flew past Martin Hansen to complete the scoring.

Hansen’s 90-minute performance in goal showed promise, and there was certainly no blame for any of the goals. He handles crosses well and his kicking impressed, though his lack of shouting will hopefully be improved upon through the confidence of getting to know team mates better. Jon McLaughlin watched the game from the bench and – given he’s not played a minute of pre-season action – it looks as though the on-loan Danish keeper will begin the season City’s number one.

For Jackson, most of the other first game starters will already be pencilled in, though a few areas might cause concern. Defensively City looked reasonably strong, though Guy Branston’s approach of diving in for tackles worries me and at one stage drew the anger of Cooper. The City captain had charged into a tackle that he didn’t need to make, and though he won the ball on this occasion, this manner of defending could easily led to him missing the ball and enabling a striker to run through on goal. His style of going in for the ball straight away may work well if his central defensive partner is primed to cover for any mistakes, but staying on his feet more often would seem advisable.

Where to play Mitchell is also a nagging question. He did okay as defensive midfielder before getting overrun in the second half, and his slight lack of height may make him better suited to right back. His ability with deadballs is a massive weapon for City this season, meaning he needs to start games. Alongside him today Flynn continued his excellent pre-season form, though David Syers is yet to really find his rhythm. Who plays in the centre with Flynn is still questionable.

As is the formation. All pre-season long, Jackson has used 4-4-2 and the change this afternoon was curious given it was the final rehearsal for the season. The manager’s despondent outlook at full time may be caused by how limited it was in success, but even with Compton having signed on loan and looking impressive when he came on as sub, widemen are not the strongest areas of the squad. The unused sub Jamie Green is presumably not going to win a contract, especially now Threlfall is staying.

There’s no need to panic about the upcoming season on the back of a few friendly defeats, but as Aldershot and the campaign’s commencement comes sharply into focus there is a nagging feeling that – as promising as this squad of players looks and as pleasing as they potentially will be to watch – it may not be as ready as we’d ideally like. One can envisage a slow start to the season as players develop, which may not be tolerated by some with patience in short supply.

Perhaps it’s good to rein back expectations now. Unlike a year ago no one seems willing to talk up this season’s prospects. If we believe promotion is a possibility we’re not shouting about it. The quality of the players Jackson has brought in suggest a challenge for the top seven at least is a realistic target, and overall we should be excited rather than apprehensive.

But perhaps the despondency felt in the closing stages this afternoon was an acknowledgement that – while this season can prove much more enjoyable than the last few – there is likely to be a few more bumps on the road ahead yet.

Welcome to the tactical sophistication

Watching City getting men behind the ball defending with numbers rather than quality and leaving the attacking side of the game undermanned it suddenly struck me what this “dour football” of Peter Taylor’s really is.

City lost 2-1 to Port Vale in the glare of a watching TV audience having tried to keep a closed shop most of the game but then after two goals – the second of which was offside – ended up unlucky not to equalise in the dying minutes. It was not pretty stuff either, and ultimately whatever the plan at kick off, that plan did not work.

Having spent much of Friday talking about the principal that how if the job was offered in the summer Taylor’s name would still top the list of potential managers the practice of watching a dour, negative display jarred but the final reckoning City lost to an offside goal and were it not for a great block would have drawn the game. If wishes about Bradford City were snowflakes we would have woken up to a hefty covering Saturday morning, and we did.

However for all the dourness and negativity those two moments – had they fallen differently – would have given City a creditable result (a draw, assuming one of those snowflakes did not melt) and so Taylor would note that his tactical approach – while unsuccessful – was realistic in its chances of getting a result.

Were it not for a mistake by a linesman or a bit of pondering by Lewis Hunt that left John McCombe in to block then The Bantams would have had a draw at promotion chasing Vale. For all the negativity that is evidenced in the game the approach is practical, reasonable and realistic.

But it is dour and watching the game we wanted the players to break the shackles and entertain, going for a win.

We wanted the players in our struggling team to forget the fact that in frustrating and negativity the chances of a draw are there for all to see and to go for broke. We wanted the manager and players to play an attacking game at a promotion chaser, seeing if they could bring back a win.

There is a word to describe that attitude and the word is naive, or at least it was.

In football it is naive to look at away games – especially those against promotion chasers – as the chance to get three points. Away victories are uncommon. Look at any Saturday of results in The Football League and something between two thirds and three quarters of the results will be home wins, then draws will be the next most common, then away victories.

Sir Bobby Robson used to say that a team need wins its home games, draw away and should expect no better than that and will achieve its targets. Two points per game will get any team promoted from any league.

Perhaps Peter Taylor has this in mind. If he does he seems a long way off achieving it but that “long way” was a linesman’s flag away against Port Vale. No matter what you think of the approach or the manager’s approach his understanding that when one goes away from home one frustrates and tries to minimise opportunities knowing a draw is a good return is common thinking in the game, it is the realistic choice.

So we should use the terms that apply consistency, or so I realised when considering “dour football.”

This “dour, negative football” is “tactically sophisticated” as distinct from being “tactically naive”. Likewise the desire to see more “attacking football” – to see players who leave more space as they uncompress the game looking for space to play in – is to want the players to be more “tactically naive.”

This revelation ruined my evening and once again one of my Nan’s oft sage (although always containing the odd swear) turns of phrase came into my head. “Them buggars best be careful a what they wish for, cause they’ll get it.”

I never took to the phrase “tactically naive” because I could never think of the opposite to contrast this naivety with. The fans over the years that use the phrase against managers like Stuart McCall at City and Kevin Keegan at England must have had something in mind as the opposite, but I could not see it. If trying to win every game was to be considered tactically naive what was the opposite? What was tactical sophistication?

Naive has a good half dozen meanings in the OED but in football’s lexicon it seemed to point towards a kind of inability to accept certain pragmatic realities and react to them by changing an initial approach. It was being incapable of flexing tactically to cope with the opposition. A tactically naive manager was one who always ended up getting beaten by some veteran gaffer who saw the benefits of soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter. When Keegan’s Newcastle United lost 1-0 at St James Park to Ferguson’s Manchester United in 1995/96 it was the only time that his team had failed to score in a home game that season The Red Devils having frustrated the attacking flair of the Magpies and caught them with a Cantona sucker punch.

It was the “naivety” of Keegan for all to see supposedly in that his team out played but did not outscore their opponents. That season ended with Keegan’s famed “I’d love it…” speech which was used as proof that the grizzled old Scot had bested his naive foe. That dour football had bested attacking flair, the naivety of an attacking approach had been exposed.

“Sophistication” is probably not the word that springs instantly to mind watching last night’s first half of Bradford City’s football but there it was, for all to see, a sophisticated tactical approach which recognised the realism of the game and set out with a pragmatic plan to get a result.

It is old Arsenal’s 1-0 ways against new Arsenal’s being four up having gone on the road with a plan to play and after half an hour at Newcastle United only to ended up lucky to get a point. Arsene Wenger naive to carry on attacking at four up but wanting his team to play a certain way rather than accept the reality that closing the game down at half time would have meant coasting to a victory.

Knowing what we do about how teams come to Valley Parade with rows of defender and packed midfields and try nick a point, sometimes taking more, and expecting our team to play in a different way simply because it is more enjoyable to watch is laudable but it is the very stuff that was called “tactically naive” this time last year when Peter Taylor joined the club.

“Them buggars best be careful…”

This is the situation we are in. A popular consensus wanted Taylor and his “tactical sophistication” into the club and perhaps there would be more sympathy for the browbeating over how dour it can be to watch if – when watching a manager who wanted to play attacking football – the words “tactically naive” were not allowed to float around unchallenged so often.

“Move on”, or so we are told, but the point of this article is not to wallow in the blanket of snowflake wishes and memories but rather than to state that “move on” too often means forget to the point where as a football club we have become masters of Orwellian doublethink.

Attacking football is naive, and we want an experienced man who can play in a tactically sophisticated way. When we get that we want someone who can bring more flair and make the team more enjoyable to watch. Passion is not important in a manager, then we rage at the dispassionate figure on the sidelines. The manager does not have enough knowledge of the English game, but the next one is too parochial. The manager is too showbiz and interested in talking about his past as England captain, but the next one is too sour and grim.

Least we forget the purpose of constant war in Orwell’s 1984 is to waste the excess of production. This is exactly what City do when changing managers.

The club’s resources go not into improving the team but rather into changing it to suit the new approach – Omar Daley’s exit for Kevin Ellison being a great example of that – and then changing that back again when the mood sees fit to replace manager.

So while City slip to a tenth away defeat of the season – the most of any club in League Two although, worryingly, we have played more games than most – I reflect on how unsuccessful the approach has been but how much that twelve months ago it was presented as the solution.

This is important as we look for another solution.

The sad truth

It goes against how I believe any football manager should be treated – I know they should get, and deserve, far more time than this – and his predecessors have received greater support and commitment from me in similar circumstances.

But I’m afraid I can’t do it this time…

I don’t want Peter Taylor to be our manager anymore.

Two straight defeats have undone the excellent work of beginning the year with back-to-back wins. City have twice climbed to the cusp of the play offs this season, on both occasions after they had beaten Bury 1-0. However a lack of consistency and the hindrance of starting the campaign so badly leaves the team seemingly unable to take that next step and elevate themselves from play off hopefuls to play off contenders. It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year.

And I can live with that, really I can. Years of disappointment mean you have to learn to accept failure or find something else other than Bradford City to care about. So I don’t believe Taylor should leave Valley Parade because he is failing to deliver success in his first full season – in time I think he would get this club promoted, just look at his track record – it’s something deeper than that.

I’m sick and fed up of the horrible style of football we’re enduring under Taylor.

I didn’t go to Oxford, so I’m not in a position to criticise the 13th league defeat of the season. But listening to Derm Tanner and Mike Harrison commentating on the game for Radio Leeds, a feeling of embarrassment and despair grew inside me that I can no longer dismiss. It was obvious that, once again, City possessed no greater ambition than to defend deep and nick a goal. Indeed Taylor’s post-match interview admission that he’d played Omar Daley and Mark Cullen up front so the team could counter-attack – rather than speaking of a more positive game plan – was depressingly familiar. We’ve played this way so often this campaign.

And his approach is unlikely to change. In October and November we saw City playing some excellent football, but when a few close games subsequently went against us the attacking style that had turned around the campaign was reined back again. Entertainment and excitement has been largely lacking all season.

That matters a great deal to me. Don’t get me wrong, I am desperate for my football club to achieve promotion and to escape this division. I want us to climb back up the leagues and, ultimately, re-establish ourselves as a Championship club. I especially want to see City earn a promotion via Wembley and all the excitement that brings. I want to see larger Valley Parade crowds roaring on the team, and for that feeling that we belong in the division we are part of to return – rather than this current unsatisfying state of considering ourselves superior to our league opponents.

But more than anything, I want to enjoy watching City. Supporting Bradford City has never been about glory, and as overdue as some success now is such great moments can’t last forever and the regular week-to-week experience has to be enjoyed not endured.

That’s why I ultimately don’t want Taylor to manage my club – because the style we play and the enjoyment factor is, to me, perhaps more important than the league table.  I’m probably in a minority for thinking this way – football is all about results and, if City were winning most weeks from this style of football, few of us would be complaining. But as I listened to City apparently stick 11 men behind the ball at Oxford and be 11 minutes away from winning, I knew that even if we’d have held out I would not have felt happy about the three points.

I guess I just don’t want it this way.

Taylor can take City to League One in time, heck he can take us to the Championship eventually. But if the journey there is going to feel this underwhelming and tedious, I’d rather we stopped and dug out the map to find a different route. I want to love watching City again, like I have felt for many years even during difficult times. That desire to go to games as often as possible remains for me – starting with Burton home on Saturday, I’ll be attending all five of City’s matches that will take place in that next fortnight – but these days watching the Bantams is more of a routine than an escape. It’s supposed to be the opposite way round.

All of which leaves me feeling and looking a little foolish. For much of the last 11 months I have argued Taylor should have been awarded longer contracts than the club were willing to provide. Yet if they’d have acted on my views, dismissing Taylor now would prove a costlier exercise. All I can say is that the principle of giving managers time to deliver success is, to me, absolutely the right one to uphold. Over the last year the club has focused too much on the short-term and, 13 months on from throwing away the longer-term building work of Stuart McCall, it hasn’t got us any further. It’s time to stop making each season promotion or bust; we have to give the manager – Taylor or whoever – time to get it right.

So if you want Taylor to be sacked because of the current league table, I can’t agree with you. Sure the poor results point to a poor manager, but after a decade of utter failure it should be obvious there are no quick fixes and overnight success was always unlikely to occur. Equally I don’t believe sacking Taylor will improve results and enhance our promotion prospects, it will most likely mean taking a step back initially. It’s just I’d rather take that step back and then move forwards if it means we don’t have to endure football as dismal to watch as it has been for most of this season.

Despite my views, I won’t be leading the cries of ‘Taylor out’. In fact if that chant is aired on Saturday it’s unlikely I’d join in. Match day should be a time for positive support, no matter how difficult that often can be to muster. My personal views are less important than the efforts of the team to win, and I wouldn’t want to undermine that effort for my own selfish reasons.

But unless Taylor returns to the more positive attacking football that we’ve seen in the past – for which he’d quickly receive back my full support , even if results aren’t transformed – I fancy I’ll raise a smile if or when he leaves the club. After so much tedium this season, it will make a rare change.

Expecting the right time from a stopped clock

“A stopped clock is wrong twice a day”

Or so I said to my brother in regards to one of the blowhards who sits nearby at Valley Parade as he bellowed at Omar Daley after an hour that the winger should “Get working again.”

Six minutes later the 1-0 lead the Bantams had over Barnet was gone and with it went all of the optimism that came in the week when Peter Taylor turned down Newcastle United.

Daley had needed to get working again – he did and came close to an equaliser at 2-1 putting in a good shift all afternoon – but fifteen minutes into the second half the scale of work which he and Gareth Evans on the flanks had to do had not become apparent because for all the six minutes of madness on the pitch it was the fifteen minutes at half time which I believe lost the Bantams the game.

Specifically it was the replacement for the injured Tom Adeyemi with new face Mark Cullen and the repositioning of Gareth Evans onto the flank. It was a mistake. That is if one can call a change that fails “a mistake” on the basis that it has failed. Had it succeeded it would have been a “tactical stroke of genius”. It is reverse equifinity in action.

Aside from breaking up the attacking partnership which was working well when Peter Taylor made the change to put Evans – ostensibly a striker – into a midfield to replace the more central player Ademeyi he changed the dynamic of City’s engine room. Ademeyi’s instinct to bolster the middle was replaced by Evans’ to attack and as a result the midfield dominance was gone.

The win over Bury had shown what could be done with Lee Bullock holding and Ademeyi and David Syers buzzing around and while the different shape against Barnet – back to the 442 – changed the layout of that it had not altered the effect of those three. City were in control of the first half to the extent that the visitors did not enjoy a shot on target in forty five minutes.

Recall the successful Manchester United midfield of Ryan Giggs wide, Roy Keane battling with Paul Scholes alongside him and David Beckham on the right. Beckham and Giggs were never mirror imagines and the Englishman always played a tighter role, pulled into the middle, added to the centre. A second Giggs on the right – Andrei Kanchelskis perhaps – changed the balance drastically.

In the second half – Adeyemi gone – and the middle two needed the support of one of the two wider players – Daley and Evans – to continue that dominance but both those players were pressing their efforts into attacking. Daley (and Evans) had to work harder because he had to come back into the midfield more as well as continue his forward play.

The tip from a three to the two in the middle and the resulting pushing of four into the attacking unit saw too many players put into the position of waiting for play to happen, rather than making it happen. The players could have worked harder but which City fan would have ever suggested the solution to the problem was to give the already working Omar Daley more work to do?

Robbie Threlfall on to the left with Luke O’Brien moving forward or Tommy Doherty on with David Syers shifting to the right would have continued the more solid midfield and were options available to Taylor. Rather do that though Peter Taylor – the manager who is famed for defending 1-0 leads – seemed to make a change that wanted more goals.

The difference between Taylor’s success and failure was the width of the two posts that City hit – had those chances gone in then no doubt the stuffing would have gone out of Barnet and City’s dominance would not have been questioned – but it did not.

It is an irony that – to me – City’s undoing in the game seemed to be in manager Peter Taylor acting against his instinct to defend the one goal lead. He thought Barnet was there for the taking, City almost took them, but not quite.

Players cannot always shoot straighter, tackle better and pass more accurately but they can always work hard and it is not wrong for supporters and managers to want that on Saturday or any game but as much as anything the Barnet defeat came from the manager and that manager charging some players on the pitch with the responsibility for too many roles. Ending up with a pair of old fashioned wingers on when we needed (at least one) wide midfielder.

The stopped clock is right twice a day. Peter Taylor – like all football managers – is expected to be right all the time. On Saturday – in the final reckoning and from the point of view of the scoreline – he got it wrong.

Which way up is the map supposed to be?

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Reece Brown, Oliver Gill, Steve Williams, Luke O'Brien | Leon Osborne, Tommy Doherty, David Syers, Omar Daley | James Hanson, Jason Price | Moult (for Daley), Speight (for Price)

The stretch of the M1 we followed to get down to Burton today was fraught with spells of heavy rain and high levels of spray, which made driving hazardous. And then three junctions before our turn off, traffic came to a complete standstill as an accident still some 10 miles ahead left everyone stationed.

In many ways it symbolised the year 2010 for Bradford City.

Faced with little to no movement on the motorway and with the clock ticking to kick off at the Pirelli Stadium, the atlas was hastily opened and an alternative route was worked out by getting off two junctions early. Abandon plan A, see you later non-moving traffic.

But what looked a good idea on paper proved to be almost as big a nightmare. The A roads we plotted as our short-cut were filled with heavy traffic, roadworks and over-used junctions through small towns which caused colossal tailbacks and took over 20 minutes a time to get through. Stress levels through the roof, but in the end we got into the ground just as the players came out for the game.

Perhaps if we’d waited on the M1 while the accident was cleared up we might have missed kick off, just like several City fans and even Burton’s planned starting player, Nathan Stanton, who had to be dropped to the bench. But as alluring and promising as the short-cut appeared to be in solving our immediate problems, the subsequent unexpected twists and troubles with plan B made it difficult to argue we had made the right decision.

Last February, Stuart McCall was forced out of the club he enjoyed highly distinguished spells of success with as a player – and who he still cares so much about he’s now even helping out the under 14s team – because it seemed his progress as manager was too slow and City were at a standstill. He’d made mistakes for sure; but after the majority of fans held up SOS banners begging him to stay in April 2009, he set about building a young hungry team which was just two or three players short of taking City into the direction we wanted to go.

Yet a few defeats around Christmas last year, and the impatience of many fans and members of the board became too strong and all of it was torn up. There had to be another, quicker path to realising the success we craved, it was felt; and rather like the alternative route devised from our road atlas this afternoon, his replacement Peter Taylor looked good on paper.

Ten months on, the evidence is mounting that getting rid of McCall as manager has proven a backwards step for this club. Sure, I know and understand the arguments about how McCall had been given almost three years and the lack of progress was there for all to see. I also agree he had sizeable transfer budgets and failed to make the most of them.  But after he offered to quit in Spring 2009 and after many of us begged him to stay, we saw tangible evidence of him learning from past mistakes which deserved more time to see through. After trying the short-cut approach of throwing money at people like Paul McLaren, he was building a team with great potential that could grow and take the club forwards over the next few years.

Taylor was an outstanding appointment for sure, but as City slumped to a seventh defeat in 13 league games this afternoon the reasons to believe he is the man to revive this ailing club are few beyond those that were apparent last February. The league position, the results, the performances and the level of passion have all declined since McCall fell on his sword.

For a week since the brilliant victory over Cheltenham Town, we’ve all basked in that warm glow of happiness and the positive mood was prevalent in the Burton away end at kick off and even through to half time, with City unfortunate to be a goal down after Jon McLaughlin brought down Lewis Young in the area and was unable to keep out Shaun Harrod’s spot kick on 31 minutes.

And though Burton had played well and hit the woodwork twice, City had been equally impressive and regularly cut through the Brewers’ defence during an exciting opening 45 minutes. Omar Daley, moved to left wing as Lee Hendrie was absent, twice cut inside and forced saves out of keeper Adam Legzdins. The hard-working David Syers had a long range effort tipped wide of the post. Then Daley produced a stunning run from the wing that saw him beat defenders for fun, before wildly blasting over from six yards.

The players were backed strongly by an enthusiastic away following. Confidence was high that we would come back in the second half.

But then, inexplicably, Taylor switched tactics and pushed Daley up front in a 4-3-3 formation, and the players changed from passing the ball around the pitch to direct balls to James Hanson and Jason Price. I remember McCall was often heavily criticised for not changing tactics or making subs early enough in games, but all season long Taylor has chopped and changed early and not for the first time it had a negative effect.

Why ditch a 4-4-2 formation that was working well in all but the scoreline? It sums up the lack of trust Taylor seems to have in his own players and over-dependence on functionality over style. City became one-dimensional, predictable and easy to defend against. Burton grew stronger and James Collins headed home former Bantam Adam Bolder’s cross to make it 2-0, after Luke O’Brien had made one excellent tackle but couldn’t get his bearings in time to stop the cross.

And therein lies the other downside to 4-3-3, which we often saw under McCall last season. By going so narrow in shape, the opposition have extra space to run at isolated full backs, often doubling up on them. Burton’s speedy wingers Young and Jacques Maghoma terrorised O’Brien and Reece Brown, the former at least standing up to the challenge admirably. Meanwhile when City had the ball they had no-one in wide areas to stretch the game, and moves kept ending with Brown crossing from deep and Burton’s defence – superbly marshalled by former promotion hero Darren Moore – easily clearing.

Just like the M1/A road dilemma, switching to plan B so quickly had not worked out as hoped. What of Plan C? Well when your subs bench contains three strikers, a defensive midfielder and two defenders, there isn’t one. With City struggling to provide the forwards any service, all Taylor could do was swap the front three and hope the ball fell kindly in the box. Daley was taken off, a bizarre decision but sadly typical of the level of faith shown in the Jamaican all season. With it, the opportunity to go back to using width was lost.

Burton’s third came after another successful charge down Brown’s part of the pitch – the shell-shocked youngster almost begging for the final whistle by this stage – and Russell Penn tapped home. City’s direct 4-3-3 approach failed to create a single noteworthy chance until a 93rd-minute header from Syers. The pre-match positivity had long since drained to silence and resignation, but not anger.

All of which leaves City having gone two steps forward and taken one step back over the past fortnight, and the longer-term outlook returns back into focus. This writer saw City director Roger Owen in a service station on the way home (but lacked the courage to ask one of McCall’s loudest critics what he now thought of Taylor and the results of the actions he was calling for last January). The two recent wins shield Taylor from the Board sacking him and the recent improvement should not be dismissed readily, but this week the pressure is on again.

The dilemma is whether Taylor’s ways will prove a success in the long-term and to keep patient as it stalls again, or whether it’s best to find a different route. Whatever the future holds, the current problems raise suspicions that, last February, the club took a wrong turn and is now struggling to work out which way up the map is supposed to be.

Perhaps it’s time to face facts, I think we’re lost.

How much should we analyse City’s uninspiring win over Stevenage?

Since I have been in football there has been a basic question to face. Are you pretty or are you efficient? It’s as if you’ve got to choose. What is dangerous for football is when people become convinced that you have to play a boring game to win.”

Arsene Wenger, Arsenal manager, May 2004

It was the complete reversal of football’s usual full time etiquette – supporters of the winning team warmly applauding, the losers receiving a mixture of boos and appreciation for at least trying – that encapsulated Saturday’s outcome in all but result.

Bradford City may have won the game 1-0, but we home fans trooped out lacking that warm feeling of satisfaction a win usually generates. Meanwhile the Stevenage fans stayed back to afford their players a standing ovation that lasted beyond the emptying of the rest of the stadium. When they did finally depart, their chanting was kept up on Midland Road outside. Any passer-by could only have concluded, from seeing the glum faces of City fans and the smiles of their Stevenage counterparts, that the Football League newcomers had just won the game.

As the roads around the stadium clogged up from heavy traffic, City manager Peter Taylor admitted live on BBC Radio Leeds that it had been a poor performance from his team, probably caused by tiredness from the midweek extra time heroics against Nottingham Forest. The listening Huddersfield Town summariser Kieran O’Regan quickly and emphatically rejected Taylor’s explanation, claiming it was too early into the season for fatigue to play a part.

And he might be right, perhaps instead Taylor’s squad rotation had more to do with an under-whelming display. There had been seven changes from the team at Shrewsbury to the Forest starting eleven, and a further five changes from that were made for Saturday’s game. Three games in, and already 19 different players have been used. The grumblings that the team played like a bunch of strangers arguably carried some merit.

But while a poor performance should largely be tolerated by City fans if it still achieves the desired result of three points, it was the manner of how City played which prompted the most concern. Once Omar Daley had lifted a shot over the bar early in the second half, Boro keeper Chris Day was not even troubled by so much as a wild long range shot into the Kop. City sat back and defended, many players seemingly fearing to cross over the half way line.

Were they too tired, shy among each other’s company, or was playing so conservatively the result of quite deliberately and effectively-employed tactics from Taylor?

When it became apparent City were just going to defend dourly for the game’s final 30 minutes, restricting visiting attacks to long range efforts, fears began to spread about whether we’d have to become used to this. Ever since he became manager in February, there’s been a Jekyll and Hyde nature to Taylor’s reputation. A strong track record at several clubs provides encouragement he can deliver some belated success to this club, but listen closely to supporters of the teams he’s managed and complaints about boring football are a worrying constant.

During the initial 18-game spell last season, we were treated to some exciting and unpredictable football, but on other occasions City played some unappealing and tedious stuff. The final five games of the campaign saw a 4-3-3 formation used to generally-thrilling effect, and the manner in which City battled back to defeat Forest last Tuesday was anything but boring. So which is the real Bradford City, and which is the real Peter Taylor?

Perhaps it’s best not to over-analyse Saturday’s events, for the time being at least. It went by almost completely unnoticed, but tagging on the results at the end of last season meant this was a fifth straight win at Valley Parade – a feat not bettered since the promotion-winning side of 1998-99. At this level few teams can play consistently well, and with justification we can perhaps view Saturday’s showing as the type of game we’ve regularly lost over recent years.

But Taylor cannot discount the importance of entertaining either. It won’t have escaped Mark Lawn or Julian Rhodes attention that Saturday was – officially at least – City’s lowest league attendance since dropping to League Two level in 2007, and any floating fans present will hardly be rushing back.

Those who were there produced an atmosphere both pitiful and wholly embarrassing. To be completely out-sung by barely 200 opposition supporters is a situation we cannot simply allow to continue in the future battles ahead.

The question is whether it is the team’s responsibility to provide the fans with the spark to sing or the supporters to lift the players is one we’ll never universally agree on. But if the boos that filled the air at full time deservedly gave Taylor food for thought, the continued chanting of opposition fans as we filed out of the ground gave us fans something to reflect on too.

Despite the victory, Valley Parade was not a happy place to be on Saturday. Supporters, management and players all have a responsibility to in future reverse all outcomes but the result.

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.

On the defensive

For much of Bradford City’s 2008/09 campaign, I felt frustrated by the number of visiting sides who adopted negative defensive tactics at Valley Parade. It was often nine men behind the ball, very little ambition to even cross the half way line and, most frustratingly of all, too much time-wasting. Although City had a good home record, that almost half the matches ended in draws showed such defensive tactics succeeded too often.

But as much as the sight of Chester supporters and players celebrating a 0-0 draw perplexed, the real frustration came from City’s failure to overcome such tactics. As much as we want it to happen, it’s obviously too fanciful to expect opposition teams to set themselves up for a defeat; and if they believed going for a victory against better players was unlikely to succeed, you can’t blame them for taking a point. When City have been higher up the leagues, we’ve often done something similar to others – equally frustrating their players and fans. It’s down to the so-called better team to earn the victory.

But it’s a debate that rumbles on. The World Cup is a week old and, after months of over-hype, a collective sigh of disappointment can be heard over the so-far lack of drama. Every competing nation has now played their first game, and for the majority the priority was not to get beat. Defensive football has largely dominated, the edge of your seat barely required.

Why has this happened? Various theories have been offered ranging from claims there are too many small nations involved who stand no chance of winning, to the intense pressure on managers and players to avoid the indignity of a first round exit breeding negativity. England aren’t the only nation pinning arguably over-optimistic hopes of glory on the shoulders of their team, not everyone can meet their expectations.

As we’ve seen with the ridiculous situation of 545 people complaining about Vuvuzela horns to the BBC, the World Cup is widely considered as being more about the TV viewers than those in the stadium or even supporting their team. We want to see Ivory Coast v Portugal for free flowing football and to laugh at either Didier Drogba or Ronaldo finishing on the losing side, which is in contrast to the wants of the two managers trying to plot a win and keep their job.

We want to see small nations fit into our stereotypes, look grateful for the chance to be here but then roll over to the flair of the world’s better footballing nations. Not hold on for a dourly-achieved point or respectable narrow defeat.

Which is where football as a sport and football as entertainment are at odds. When Chester held onto that draw at Valley Parade in December 2008, 12,000 home supporters went home fed up at their team’s inability to break down weaker opposition and disappointed by the dullness of the occasion. When Paraguay kept men behind the ball and failed to allow Italy the space to play on Monday, we at home struggled to stay awake. Who cares that the 1-1 draw was a great result for Paraguay considering Italy are the best team in the group? New Zealand better be more willing to let them play in the next game.

But enjoyment of football should not only be measured by goalmouth action and number of goals. While so much of the focus can be on the spark each team’s star man provides, international football is almost always a team game and it can be fascinating to look at the tactics employed and the approach the opposition takes in endeavouring to overcome them. Don’t just write off a game as “two teams cancelling each out”, at least look at what each is trying to do.

Take Germany v Australia, universally considered to be the game of the tournament to date. Australia approached the game like so many other World Cup participants – a very defensive-minded formation designed to frustrate the opposition. Yet Germany passed through them at will, tearing them to shreds even before the task was made easy by Tim Cahill’s sending off.

But how Germany did it was the most impressive feature. They played the ball out from the back, knocking it between defenders at a sedate pace. The intention was to encourage Australian players to vacant their position to close down the ball, or just switch off for a second and lose the man they are supposed to be marking. Seeing the chance, a killer ball was played to someone now in space and, as other Australians then rushed to close them down, more room was created for other players to receive a pass. From the sedate beginnings Germany were suddenly playing at the speed of an F1 car, with the move usually resulting in a chance on goal.

What was interesting was how, during City’s 2008/09 season, then-manager Stuart McCall tried to get City playing in a similar style against defensive opposition. We often saw Rhys Evans roll the ball out to Matt Clarke or Graeme Lee – usually to screams of abuse from supporters who could not understand what was going on – and the central defenders would keep knocking it around until an opposition player tried to close them down. Space vacated, the opportunity to play through them.

It didn’t work as well as Germany of course – we don’t have the players and the narrow Valley Parade pitch suits teams who want to pack the midfield – but it did grind out a few wins that were looking as though they were going to be draws.

Although the other side of the coin that season was the naivety of upholding attack-minded principles on the road; most explicitly seen at Notts County, where the home side’s counter attack tactics saw them take advantage of too many away shirts bombing forward by scoring three first half goals from only three first half attacks.

McCall later admitted he should have been more prepared to approach away games with the view that a point would be a good return; and with City narrowly missing out on a play off spot, it’s questionable whether they came up short due to regularly failing to get the better of defensive-minded visiting teams at home, or because McCall did not try to play in a more similar manner on the road. Similarly a lesser nation in the World Cup is not going to go all out attack against teams with pacy players who thrive on space, as they would be embarrassed too.

As the new season slowly begins to feel closer than the end of the last one, it will be interesting to see if Peter Taylor does a better job of finding the balance. His track record and initial 18-game spell in charge last season suggests there won’t be a lot of high scoring games. City did not have a great season on the road last year, and it’s reasonable to assume taking a point from visits to some of the better League Two sides will often be accepted by Taylor.

Nor indeed is it clear whether City will have the attacking nous to overcome visiting teams playing more defensive-minded. Such tactics were rarely employed by visitors last season – a clear indication of League Two’s lesser view of us – but may be a regular feature again this season if City start well.

We know City will be organised and disciplined under Taylor, but what flair there is more likely to be displayed in the ability of Tommy Doherty’s passing rather than wingers tearing full backs apart. Much may rest on finding a goalscorer this summer.

But even if we do endure a few 0-0s, they surely won’t be as bad as some of the early World Cup games. The three game group stage makes any loss in the first two matches near-terminal to a team’s chances, and it’s understandable why the incentive of not losing is greater than risking a win.

For now let the commentators, pundits and armchair viewers complain. The sight of New Zealand celebrating a draw may not be anyone’s cup of tea, but for City fans it’s a more enjoyable sight than opposition teams celebrating the same result at Valley Parade.

Boulding stays and will hope for a more competitive League Two

Touch wood, everyone will be starting the new campaign equal. Last season’s League Two saw a whopping 74 points collectively deducted from four teams, with the result a less competitive and more conservative division. With Luton beginning on minus 30 and Bournemouth and Rotherham minus 17, you had to be really bad to become embroiled in the relegation battle. Two clubs – Grimsby and Chester – were, thanks largely to some wretched winless runs. The latter getting relegated with Luton, who never really stood a chance.

But what of the rest? There were around 10 League Two clubs with little to play for last season. No where near good enough for promotion, but no where near bad enough to throw away such a sizeable headstart that relegation worries were anything stronger than faint. It was a campaign for going through the motions.

The downside, on Valley Parade evidence, was how good a result an away draw was thus considered and we had to become used to visiting team after visiting team playing either five at the back or five in midfield. Compare Macclesfield Town’s – the perfect example of a club able to coast through a nothing season – approach at Valley Parade last March to that of relegation-threatened Mansfield and Dagenham the March before. City’s home record may have been better last season, but few opposition teams turned up to BD8 with ambitions of testing it.

No player seemed to suffer more from this than Michael Boulding, who’s first season in Claret and Amber can be politely described as disappointing. It became quickly obvious that Boulding was a player who likes to run the channels and receive the ball at his feet, but the deep defensive tactics of opposing teams meant the space to do so was minimal. In too many home games Boulding was anonymous, rarely touching the ball never mind threatening to score. Away from home he wasn’t always on his game, but the increased space afforded by home teams more prepared to take the game to City meant he was a more notable threat. He ended the season with 13 goals – but hasn’t scored at Valley Parade since December 2008.

The affect of these opposition defensive strategies meant the kind of football the majority of City fans like to see wasn’t always possible, and over time the myth has grown that manager Stuart McCall likes his teams to play ‘hoof ball’. It’s true to a point that City have become more direct under Stuart compared to the style that predecessors Colin Todd and Nicky Law, for example, liked to play, but the chances of City getting through a sea of opposition players parked resolutely in front of their keeper makes the success of short patient passes manifesting into goalscoring chances limited. Get it into the opposition’s final third, even if it’s not by the prettiest of means, and the opportunities to get closer to goal increase.

During a season where there was endless debates about no Plan B, it would be wrong to say this was all City tried. It appeared they went for a mixed style with the ball passed around some times, then targeted down the wing at others, with direct attacks another weapon. Play the same way all the time and, against defensive-minded opposition, it becomes too predictable. Some of City’s better moments certainly came through quick-fire passing and, when in form, were an exciting team to watch.

‘Hoof ball’ really came to the fore during the poor run of form in March, which showed it was a sign of drained confidence. Players are less likely to try the patient approach when people in the stands are screaming “forward!” and ready to chant “you’re not fit to wear a shirt” at the first sign of problems, so our necks began to feel the strain from all those ‘hoof balls’ during the increasingly desperate run-in. Stuart needs players with certain qualities to take the club forward this season, the conviction to play to your strengths and take ownership of situations, even when low on confidence, being high up there. Easier said than done with League Two calibre players though.

Which brings us back to Boulding, who has today revealed he wants to stay and prove himself after last season’s disappointment. Whether opposition teams – more likely to go into matches targeting a win with a proper relegation and promotion battle – change their defensive approach this season remains to be seen. However for Boulding to succeed he’s going to have to show more in his game. Unlike at his former club Mansfield, where he was the star, this City team is not going to be built around him. He faces a battle just to make the starting eleven ahead of Peter Thorne and Gareth Evans. It’s not going to be enough for him to have long anonymous spells in games and to wait for the team to play him the right ball, he has to come looking for it and to be more determined to influence games.

There’s no doubting Boulding is a good player and City remain fortunate to have him. In a division that should be more adventurous and competitive this season, he needs to follow suit.

Whatever happened to Plan B?

When Barry Conlon checked back to see it the header that gave City a 1-0 win over Bury we all checked back a month or so to when City were in trouble.

Back then Barry was getting booed and City were on the way out of the promotion picture. The reason for this was Stuart McCall who was tactically naive or he lacked a plan B or both.

The jungle drums that beat were against him but sound distant now. McCall was never the hapless legend afforded a job above his talents that his detractors would have him portrayed but neither does he have a Midas touch either. Sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he does not and it seems that the former out weigh the latter.

McCall suffers as all managers do from the wisdom of crowds where broad judgements are given to fine situations. It is very much a tool in the modern arsenal of a manager to be able to filter the signal from the massive noise that pervades every decision one makes.

McCall’s continued use of Conlon shows this skill is growing in the City boss. The manager wants Barry in the squad but not the side and while backing him to beat boos and be useful he is careful not to overplay his importance at the expense of his plans for Michael Boulding.

McCall does the same with TJ Moncur who’s presence in the side over Paul Arnison is a mystery to me but not to the manager who ultimately is charged with maintaining cold judgement when all around are dealing in hyperbole.

The calls for Barry to start will increase but Stuart must keep his own council on the hard working, prolific Boulding despite the noises around him and the emotion of Conlon, Willy Topp et al.

Perhaps one day McCall will join a club where if need not worry about damaging his legend status – his comments at City have shown on occasion an impressive willingness to wield the power he has – and his relationship with supporters will differ.

Then he may be aggressive as well full throated in his defence of a Conlon but for now he has the lesson of filtering out all except performance and the justification that comes with winning.

Now the manager faces a different set of tests with Joe Colbeck out for two months and the continued motivation of Omar Daley now paramount but those tasks begin from second in the division.

Plan B? Tactics? Barry Conlon? Everything becomes right with a win.

The end of the curse of October

At twenty five to five this report was going to be very different. At twenty five to five the report was going to centre around Bradford City and the October curse but at quarter to five Peter Thorne completed an amazing come back and the report had been turned on its head.

Our record in October over recent seasons has not been good last year we played 5, lost 3 and drew two. The year before played 4, lost 3, drew 1. Going into the last ten minutes today with confidence obviously low it looked as though this year would read played 2, lost 1, drawn 1. However thanks to an inspired performance from the player, who was the focus of what is becoming known as ‘boogate’, defeat was avoided and Bradford are sitting pretty in the automatic promotion spots.

Bradford set up like they do for all home games in a 442, Nix predictably came in for Omar Daley who was on duty with Jamaica, Luke O’Brien replaced the suspended Paul Heckingbottom, and TJ Moncur returned to the side in place of Ainge despite him doing a more than capable job against Luton. For much of the first half Bradford dominated possession without creating much but were more than comfortable with an Accrington side who didn’t look in any danger of breaking the deadlock. The Bradford fans locked out of the ground despite having tickets weren’t missing much of a spectacle.

On the same day that Lampard and Gerrard were being reunited for England and consequently sparking the usual debate of whether they can play together, Bradford seemed to be suffering from the same problem with their two talented central midfielders, MacLaren and Furman. Where as Lampard and Gerrard both like to push on and get up with the strikers leaving a hole behind them in front of the defence, MacLaren and Thurman both like to lie deep in the midfield leaving a gap just behind the strikers. Consequently any ball knocked down from Bradford’s front two was not contested and simply picked up by the Accrington players, who would soon easily give possession back to Bradford. It seemed as though this pattern would continue until changes were made.

Then 20 minutes into the game Accrington won a corner and a few nerves seemed to enter the Bradford players as they shakily defended the corner and eventually scrambled it out for a second corner. Again the corner wasn’t dealt with in the most sure manner and as the ball went out for a third corner an air of tension seemed to be gripping the strong Bradford following. The third corner saw Bradford punished by a move they themselves have used to good effect as the corner got sprayed to the edge of the box which was dummied by one and placed into the bottom corner past Rhys Evans by the onrushing James Ryan. Out of nowhere Bradford found themselves a goal down having once again been punished for the slack marking which has been evident over recent weeks.

Fortunately this seemed to spark life into the men wearing claret and amber and the tempo of the game picked up as they began to turn the screw. Minutes later Nix brilliantly switched the ball from left to right in a well worked move that found its way to Thorne on the edge of the box but City’s red hot striker just pulled the ball wide of the post with the chance that nine times out of ten he would have nestled in the bottom corner.

It was the Bradford youngsters who seemed to be stepping up to the plate, Furman was battling away and still keeping composure with the ball at his feet, while Luke O’Brien was bombing on from full back to give Nix the over lap and create the extra attacking threat. This threat was probably more effective due to absence of Daley purely because any full back would struggle to catch the Bradford speed merchant never mind overlap him.

City continued to look for the equaliser as the first half wore on and were extremely unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for offside just after the half hour mark. A lovely weighted free kick found its way to Graeme Lee and Lee cleverly nodded the ball down to Thorne who did find the net on this occasion only to see the linesman flagging. Somehow he had seen Lee to be offside when the free kick was taken.

As the half wore on frustrations began to show and Colbeck was booked for dissent by the referee, Mr. Jones, who was handling the game very well. It was the referee giving another free kick Bradford’s way that led to the best and final chance of the first half. A Colbeck free kick caught a deflection off the wall onto the bar and the rebound fell to Michael Boulding with an open goal gaping. However, the ball bounced away from the player who couldn’t get his head far enough around the ball to direct it into the net.

The mood at half time was neither upbeat nor low, although some were annoyed the Accrington catering staff were unable to cope with the big crowd and although it has been denied that Windass will return rumours may reappear because someone had eaten all the pies! After the break the players returned to positive reception as the crowd certainly didn’t think this game was beyond Bradford yet.

Unfortunately this mood lasted no more than 5 minutes as Terry Gornell playing in only his third game on loan from Tranmere slipped all too easily in between Bradfords two centre halves and an exquisitely played through ball found him one on one with Evans and the youngster slipped the ball between the former Chelsea keepers legs. Now Bradford found themselves with a mountain to climb.

The goal seemed to zap the confidence from the players and the effort seemed to have gone too. I was soon worrying about what I would be able to put in this report as for the next half hour nothing appeared to happen. Gornell still worried the City defence with his movement but Bradford could no longer seem to put anything together themselves. Numerous times Rhys Evans rolled the ball to the disappointing TJ Moncur who proceeded to just lump the ball back to Accrington side. This seemed to happen with almost every possession Bradford had and made the exclusion of Ainge seem even more unfair.

After the game McCall would say in an interview about how he worried about the lack of leadership on the field and this was certainly evident as the 11 players went completely quiet with no communication apparent. With around 20 minutes left McCall resorted to his much criticised ‘plan b’. Barry Conlon had warmed up and stripped off and everyone waited to see what reaction the travelling Bradford contingent would give the big striker. I admit that I have been one of Barry’s biggest critics in the time he’s been with the club but would never go to the extent of booing him. I have never seen what he offers and have even labelled him lazy despite the majority appearing to think he gives 110%. I have often thought he doesn’t compete for headers and falls over to easy for a big lad.

My disappointment was further enhanced by the fact the player he was replacing, Kyle Nix, is a player who’s cause I have championed on many occasions and a player I feel always likely to get a goal when played down the middle. To be fair Nix had not had his best game off he came with Boulding taking his place out wide. The 442 was retained but the wingers were pushed further forward as Stuart tried to find a way back into the game.

For his first ten minutes on the field of this game Barry did nothing to change my negative view of him, that however was soon to change. With ten minutes to go and Bradford looking like making it 1 point from 12 another long punt was launched up the field. A punt which before would of been won by the Accrington defence was brought down by ‘Big Baz’ and neatly laid off into Boulding’s path who struck it first time into the underside of the bar and down into the net. Suddenly Bradford felt they may get a point after all and no more so than Barry who was all over the place. Winning the ball in his own half and spraying perfectly into the channels, winning balls in the opponents half and knocking it to players wearing claret and amber. Something the rest of the side had struggled with for much of the second half.

Two minutes from the end Conlon found the ball coming his direction inside the box and for once his leap saw him rise above everyone else and he directed a header into the back of the net. For the second game in a row he had come off the bench to score and if he wants to stop the boo boys then he can do no more than find the net regularly.

Accrington were on the rocks and Bradford were now wanting blood. Less than 60 seconds from the restart they worked their way into the Accrington half and Bradford fans had barely had time to catch their breath before the ball was slid into prolific Peter Thorne’s path and there was no doubt about where the ball would finish. Thorne thumped the ball home to complete an amazing Bradford comeback that had been unthinkable just ten minutes before. The relief and joy was evident in the stands as the fans went wild and some idiots even charged onto the pitch, hopefully no repercussions will follow for the club from these actions.

The shocked Accrington players threw men forward in vain even keeper Kenny Arthur appearing in the Bradford box for a late corner but City hung on and the three points ended up somehow crossing the border from Lancashire to see Bradford climb back into the 3 automatic promotion places. However the result certainly did not tell the whole story and it was obvious from Stuart’s face at the final whistle that he was less than impressed with the overall display. Still it is about time the gloom merchants at Bradford began to look on the bright side and we go into the Gillingham game only a win away from top spot and the curse of October ended.

Recent Posts