Arm / Trap / Stone

There are three types of win in a football match, and City’s 0-0 toil with AFC Wimbledon was not any of them.

Not any because, most obviously, the game ended in a draw. Neither City – who under vague manager Graham Alexander, and to no effect, dropped last season’s top scoring Andy Cook for returning high goalscorer Jake Young – nor the visitors troubled the scoreboard.

Following the game, Alexander said he felt City should have won the game 1-0, which is a little like wishing that you won £1,000 on a million pound lottery.


The arm wrestle win, or positive win, is when two teams play a similar way and one is more effective than the other.  If you are of a certain vintage you’ll recall great football matches which could be described this way.

The 1986 FA Cup Final saw Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 and going through the two sides one could pass players between the two sides and there would be little difference.  The Merseyside Cup Final was two versions of the same team – more or less – playing in the same way – more or less – and the winner was the team which did better on that day.

This sort of win is about a team setting a goal, and being excellent at achieving it.  It is not about out thinking, or even out fighting, although both those things are important, so much as it is about having a greater efficiency.


The trap card win, or negative win, is something which City have more of a relationship with, especially under Phil Parkinson, and it operates as an opposite to the arm wrestle.  In a trap card win, the strengths of the opposition is acknowledged but used against the opposition.

This is Bradford City vs Chelsea.  Chelsea’s strengths are turned to be weaknesses.  Their expectations to be better become source of frustration as City nullified what they could, and leading Chelsea to commit more, leaving City to counterattack against a team that feels like it is an affront to even have to defend.

This is one of football’s more glorious versions of a trap card win, but there are many, many others.  Saudi Arabia beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina on their way to the World Cup.  Most of the time the trap card win is about a worse team allowing a better one to tilt their resources into one area, while equalising battles in others.

Trap card wins are rarer in football because they start from an imbalance which is not often seen in league football but, when watching Manchester City trying to pass around Crystal Palace, or Norwich, in recent years one can observe this in action.


In contrast to those two methods of victory, the scissors/paper/stone win describes a game in which one team deploys a way of playing which is fundamentally different to the opposition.  This way of playing football is increasingly the linga fraca of the game.

When people talk about Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, Henrik Rydström’s Malmo and Xavi Alonso’s Leverkusen they rarely talk about the players being better, but it does not matter, because it is not the quality of players which is important so much as what those players are doing.  Does it matter if you win your one to one battle with Leverkusen’s attacking midfielder when they back those players up with central defenders stepping past holding midfielders?  Did it matter that you nullified the 2008 Messi when the space you left was exploited by other players?

A scissors/paper/stone win is part of top level football, but not exclusively.  During the early 1990s John Beck of Cambridge United had his team hoof the ball seventy yards and progressed not by being better, but by being different.


It was this kind of approach which animated City’s former manager Mark Hughes.  Whereas Phil Parkinson largely performed arm wrestle wins in league games, and the Welshman tried to win by being different.  His scissors/paper/stone was about maintaining possession and controlling the ball.  This worked, to a certain extent, but came unstuck in the play offs just as Parkinson’s attempts had against Millwall seasons before.

Neither approach is inherently better – although scissors/paper/stone is more interesting to discuss – and all three have their merits, with most teams attempting some combination, but rarely are successful teams not attracted to one of these pillars.

Which brings us to Graham Alexander, and Bradford City.


Alexander is new at the club, although given the expected life span of a City boss not that new, and has so far done little to suggest that he has a way of playing in mind.  His teams play wide, sometimes, but often not, and they mostly play three along the back, but originally they do not, and they play two up front, but sometimes they play one up front and so on.

As a pragmatist, Alexander is struggling to show the ability to recognise and retain pragmatic success.  Formations which start to work are changed for formations which might work.  Players who have found a place, are moved out of place, and it is all very without flavour.

Which is not to suggest that Alexander does not know how to be a success, or that he will not be, but that he will not be unless he can decide a way that he wants his team to try win games.

Are City going to out run, out fight, out battle?  Are City going to out think, out plan, and out smart?  Are City going to be and out and out better team that the rest of League Two?

All these things are possible, but the past three months of football have been beige, and the expectation that City will outperform their rivals but being so featureless seems to guarantee mediocrity.

The continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion push

When Fleetwood Town scored the second of their two late goals to equalise a game that Bradford City were strolling in one could not help but wonder two things: Just how the visitors from the East Coast found an extra two gears after a performance that suggested they had finished playing for the season, and just what Phil Parkinson would be saying to his Bradford City players after the game.

On the first point one has to give credit to Fleetwood and their manager Graeme Alexander for turning the game around. For long periods they looked uninterested in not losing the match, and incapable of doing to stop Bradford City winning without breaking into a run.

Nathan Pond equalised in the last moment capping a very good display from the defender but for long periods of the game the visitors were pedestrians watching the football go by. It speaks to their character that they came back into the game from the position they did, but it should worry Phil Parkinson that they did.

Which moves onto the second point which was the problem with the level of application which the Bantams put into the game and how this differs from Monday night. If Monday night was City exhausted this was City playing without wanting to expend too much energy.

Things started well enough when Billy Clarke slipped down the left and Jon Stead put in the ball from close range and Christopher Routis finished a fine move just after half time to suggest that the game could be won without much of a stiff challenge from Fleetwood but during the afternoon City lacked a level of application which would have won the match with ease.

Which is not to minimise the tiredness of bodies – it was obvious that the players are still suffering the long season – but when that tiredness is allowed to manifest itself with inaccurate and unproductive play then it becomes a problem and that was a problem today.

To win matches players must show character and showing character is a lot of about wanting to take up a position that gives a team mate an option for a pass rather than sitting behind an opposition player. Showing character is about making sure that when one is the only target (or one of few targets) for the pass then one attempts to take up a position where the pass is easier.

City’s midfield two of Routis and Yeates, and Clarke playing off the front man, were all too ready to watch the ball being hit long to James Hanson and Jon Stead from the safety of marked midfield positions. The full backs delivered little and the front two took up few threatening positions to be delivered too.

These issues compounded but would not have been a problem were it not for the late rally that Fleetwood mustered. When the visitors got going they found a City team who were not controlling the game so much has enjoying the remainders of it.

And one could point at Billy Clarke’s last twenty minutes where the ball passed over his head far too often and he engaged in neither attack or defence or François Zoko’s failure to hold the ball and preference for trying to spark a low percentage chance out of every ball rather than high percentage retention but to do so would be to inadvertently make a virtue from a performance which seemed better than it was up until the final moments when it got the result it deserved.

Without putting more on the line City will not win games, and not win promotion.

Which is not to damn City’s chances. In Parkinson we have a manager who has made a small art out of getting a team to believe it is better than it is, and then making the players that as good as he told them they were. Think back to the games before Millwall at Valley Parade and remember how Gary Jones returned with people suggesting that City had not improved the side since the summer.

The FA Cup run has created the idea that City are too good for League One and – on our better days – that is very true but those better days come from levels of application that far exceed what was seen today in the last ten minutes for sure, but in the previous eighty too.

Parkinson knows this of course. His stock in trade is getting overperformance from players. Not for nothing is Jon Stead’s game at Chelsea called the absolute best single player performance of the season.

Which is the continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion bid. As with the recently finished FA cup run the push for promotion requires City to overperform often and – when things do not favour Phil Parkinson’s side – they are dragged into a plethora of clubs in the middle of League One.