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.

Taylor laying out his formation for next season

In talking about needing to bring another attacking midfielder/forward to the club Peter Taylor has made it clear that he is favouring a 433 for next term.

Taylor’s 433 was deployed at the end of last term which finished with six unbeaten games and the signing up of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and Tommy Doherty showed the the City gaffer had an eye on playing the formation that boast three in the middle. Now his talk about bringing in another flank man confirms it.

Already Taylor’s team lines up with Jon McLaughlin behind Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Robbie Threlfall across the back. The midfield three of Flynn, Doherty and Bullock are set for the middle but up front the picture is less clear.

James Hanson would seem a cert for the middle striker role but Gareth Evans would need to ensure that he maintained his performances at the end of last season to nail down a place on the right of the central striker. Evans also represents the back up for Hanson with defender Luke Oliver third choice for the position and it is expected that Taylor will be happy with that choice.

Should Evans not be right then Omar Daley – a pre-season under his belt – will probably be although the winger who missed most of last season injured can be used on the left where Leon Osbourne played at the end of last term. Gavin Grant – who has yet to sign for the club after playing non-contract last year – also was employed in these roles.

Daley divides opinion and his deployment in this kind of formation is a curious one. For the wide role Taylor requires players who are ready, willing and able to track full backs back when they break but are also have good enough judgement to know when to move to a more attacking position to bolster the attacking line as well as the abilities to make good with the ball.

The great thing about 433 is that it can turn into 451 really easily. The worst thing is that if you are not careful then it turns into 451 really easily.

Daley would be one of my choices on the flank but he will always struggle getting back and the player would need to show unbroken concentration to make the position his own. Evans would need Hanson to play every week to nail down the position. Osbourne has shown the willingness but probably would not be the player than anyone would go into the season with as a first choice.

So Taylor is on the look out for wide players who he can trust and no doubt his famed book of contact will be out to try find someone. One rumour had Robbie Blake about to sign for a return to the club although Taylor has multiple targets with the manager saying “I think I’ve got one in my sights but that doesn’t mean we will get him. You just have to see what develops, so there’s more than one that I’m speaking to.”

We await progress for the manager but – it is worth reflecting – that for the first time in over a decade City fans will not be in the dark over the majority of the side at the start of August and two months early nine of the starting eleven can be nailed down.