Positives from the negatives

“I like to think the team who takes the initiative is rewarded but it’s not always like that in football. We lacked a little bit of sharpness to pull them out of position.”

The above quote was from Arsene Wenger, who was less than impressed with the tactics of home side Sunderland as his Arsenal side laboured to a 1-1 draw, but these words could just have easily come from Bradford City manager Stuart McCall after Saturday’s draw with Luton.

Like the Frenchman, McCall was to endure a frustrating afternoon in the dugout trying to get his side to overcome opposition whose ambition was little more than not to lose. There are positives to take from this; it’s the third home game in a row that the visitors have taken a defensive approach and, while clearly not everyone is firing on all cylinders just now, it’s says much for the ability of City’s squad that teams are worrying so much about them. The frustrating aspect is how successful Bournemouth and Luton have been with their cautious approach.

Let’s just for one second suppose City hadn’t conceded that late equaliser and held on for the three points. Log onto a City-related message board now and you’ll find little but criticism for the performance and alleged poor tactics Stuart employed, would such strong views have been expressed without Michael Spillaner’s late goal? Remember City did have only 10 men for the last 15 minutes.

Amid the wide range of criticisms is an impression City failed because they adopted long ball tactics, but this was clearly not the case. If Stuart really wanted City to play long ball he would not have bothered playing two out-and-out wingers, or leave the tallest striker on the bench and play two for whom holding up the ball and winning flick-ons is clearly not their game.

Once again City’s wingers were double marked and there was little room for the central midfielders to influence the game in the final third. In an attempt to counter this, City tired to play the ball forward from the back with goal kicks sent short to defenders Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee. The aim with this, it seemed to to me, was to attract some of the ten Luton players camped in their own half to break rank and try to close Clarke or Lee down. Had this happended space would then have been created for our midfielders to take advantage of and the ball could have been played towards them. Other Luton players would then have to close down that player, freeing up more space.

The tactic didn’t work because of the discipline of the Luton players, who were happy for Lee and Clarke to keep the ball in their own half. It meant they had to either play riskier short passes to the midfield in front or knock it long in the hope a City player would get on the end of it. Two people sat near me moaned every time they tried the former option (“they’re lower league footballers, just hoof it!”) and equally the latter (“that’s just aimless!”). Clearly these fans expected Lee and Clarke to be able to play pin-point accurate long balls up the field.

In the second half Stuart told Rhys Evans to launch the ball forward himself and City would attempt to win either the first or second ball. This was more effective and finally they were able to enjoy more possession in the final third, but still space to do something with it was rarely afforded by the Hatters. More chances were created, however, with Hatters’ keeper Conrad Logan making two excellent saves. The final ball wasn’t always good enough and there was a lack of fluency to moves, but the effort was there and, considering the tactics up against, it was hard to work out what Stuart was doing wrong up until Barry Conlon struck.

We can’t just throw on more strikers, particularly with only ten men, to force the goal. In the centre Dean Furman and Paul McLaren worked really hard and were among our better performers. The wingers were trying their best and, while Colbeck had a disappointing game, Daley was a menace despite the difficulty of two markers. On a Message Board one ‘expert’ asked of Stuart with reference to the wingers, “why haven’t you told them, that when they receive the ball to pass it quickly and make a run off their markers, because they will have two players out of position?” If only football was as simple a game as some people seem to believe it is.

I believe that, at first, the two widemen were playing too wide, but tucked in more in the second half to better support Furman and McLaren. Michael Boulding was ineffective but it’s not as if the rest of the team didn’t want to play the ball to his feet, which is his strength – he was tightly marked. Bringing on Conlon was a clever decision in the circumstances and for those who screamed to ‘free Willy’, why would Topp have found the space and service Boulding couldn’t?

For all this negativity they were up against, City overcame it by getting their noses in front and, but for a moment of lapsed concentration, would have got the three points they clearly deserved. The concern has to be that other visiting teams will adopt similar tactics although, with a defensively-shambolic Gillingham and second-placed Bury due to visit next, perhaps we’ll see more open games. Three days before travelling to Valley Parade, Bury entertain Luton and, while at the moment the league table suggests the Shakers are a better team than City, it will be interesting to see what tactics Luton adopt then and how successful Bury are in overcoming them.

Like Arsene Wenger and Sunderland, it’s difficult to take a positive impression of Luton from Saturday, particularly after reading the managers’ assessment which is at odds with the evidence. They have 30 points to make up on all but two teams, but are seemingly happy to play for draws rather than the wins they clearly need. One cannot help feel they’ve already written off the season and manager Mick Harford is just trying to do a decent enough job to avoid the sack. Even in a league where physicality often wins over ability, this approach will not keep them up.

Despite the crude chant they’ve nicked off Leeds United, their supporters probably know it too and many appeared out to live up the ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality their predicament breeds. I walked down Midland Road after the match with a small group of 18/19-year-old City fans ahead chanting across to a larger group of Luton fans on the opposite side who chanted back. It seemed harmless banter, though you could hear increasingly angrier shouting coming from Luton fans and suddenly they were crossing the road and two or three were charging towards these City fans to start a fight. The police and some more sensible Luton fans dragged them away, but you still have to wonder about the mentality of middle-aged men trying to start fights with cocky teenagers.

Like Mansfield Town’s supporters singing racist chants last year, its supporters and team’s graceless football is helping to ensure less people feel sorry for them as they head to non-league. Back in my car and setting off, we discovered trouble did emerge near the retail park – from both sets of fans – which meant the police had blocked our route home. Somehow it seemed fitting.