Peterborough United 2
Ntlhe 18, Assombalonga 24
Bradford City 1
Saturday 21 December, 2013
By Joe Cockburn
It was always going to be a tough game for Bradford City. Peterborough score a lot of goals and tend to win on their own patch; they aren’t in the play offs for no reason. And with the news that James Hanson wouldn’t be playing, things suddenly got unthinkably tougher.
Parkinson chose to react to that by doing as I would have, replacing Hanson with Garry Thompson who, despite his poor form of late, always seems to perform when up front and I think we all would have put him in ahead of any other options.
But Parkinson felt Peterborough’s attacking style of play warranted a more defensive approach; so he chose to play a 5-3-2 formation, bringing in Matt Taylor for his first appearance in a City shirt for a long while. Along with the forced Hanson change, the City boss also chose to leave out Kyel Reid. As much as I don’t like the fact that he can’t cross or make a right decision, Reid has been City’s most prominent attacking threat lately, but he couldn’t be deployed in this formation. So Mark Yeates was brought back in. Yeates had impressed some supporters with his recent substitute appearances, and I think Parkinson was attempting to use him as a driving force from midfield.
The game started off slow, but despite the change in formation, City’s style of play did not alter. Many long balls were being pumped up (once again by Rory McArdle) and City’s midfield were not in the game at all. Peterborough were probably edging the game when something very, very special happened.
City took a few swings at clearing the corner (arguably Gary Jones and Yeates could both have cleared more effectively), but when Posh left back Kgosi Nthle took aim from all of 40 yards, there was nothing that could be done. His shot caught the wind and whistled past Jon McLaughlin into the top corner, an absolutely astounding goal which many City fans applauded. No-one could believe their eyes.
But, as we have seen before, City totally froze. Thompson stopped even challenging (not that he had won anything before), none of the three midfielders were leaving the centre circle – in either direction – and somehow no-one could see James Meredith on the left in acres of space when City had the ball. It really was a shambles.
And that is the word I would use to describe Peterborough’s second. McArdle for once didn’t try a useless hoof from the right back position, he chose to lose possession in a more inventive way. The Northern Ireland international gave Stephen Darby a shocker of a hospital ball, which he could only go backwards with, but McArdle offered no option to the backtracking “wing-back”. Darby was inevitably caught in possession, and City’s defence once again frustratingly backed off and backed off, and Matthew Bates (who it must be mentioned I thought performed very well bar this moment) must have had Assombalonga to score any time, as he let him turn without any attempt of challenge on the edge of the box. And, yes, it was a good finish to be fair. But don’t let the Pulse tell you it was “two wonder goals”.
City finally chose to come forward, and as Nahki Wells got in behind, he played a magnificent pass to Jones on the edge of the box, who should have scored. Big time. He had a free shot from 15 yards and put it straight at the keeper. A chance that many other midfielders in the league would gobble up.
But that chance did everything but energise City. The midfield continued to not track back – it’s weird that everyone goes on about how we need an attacking midfielder, but I noticed on Saturday that they don’t do much work when it comes to defending either. I pointed out one moment in the second half where Nathan Doyle lost the ball on the halfway line. He then started strolling back as Lee Tomlin carried the ball forward and played it wide. As City conceded the corner, both of Posh’s midfielders were in the penalty box with their two strikers. Nathan Doyle was 20 yards from the area and Gary Jones was inside the centre circle.
Anyway, back to the end of the first half, as Peterborough had two further chances. Again backing off and the lack of a challenge led to these, as Assombalonga dinked wide and Tomlin struck the post from the edge of the box – Bates with a feeble attempt to get his backside in the way. Something needed to change, and it undoubtedly lied in the formation and the strike force.
Fortunately Parkinson saw these two issues and rectified them. He brought Reid on to replace Taylor (notably in the first half when Luke Oliver was warming up, he got a great ovation and chant from the City fans – I think he may replace McArdle on Boxing Day) and then the forgotten man Andy Gray replaced Thompson. Thompson needed to go off, but those not at the game and on Twitter certainly did not want Gray.
We at the game thought two things. He couldn’t do any worse than Thompson, who added another abysmal to his recent high number of poor performances, and that, we’re playing very poorly and the atmosphere has died since the second goal, let’s have a laugh. So Andy Gray’s name rang out from the travelling support for the following 45 minutes, certainly in a sarcastic manner.
Not only did personnel and formation change at half time, so did the attitude. Long balls were stopped, and for possibly the first time this season, City were playing a bit of football. Now, I am not going to criticise the man, because he has been one of the stars of this season, and earned a longer deal. BUT, would we have kept the ball on the floor as much as we did in the second half were Hanson on the pitch? Certainly not.
Reid, as expected, was a threat. The home side’s full backs had an easy run of it in the first half, and Reid made sure they earned their wage in the second. Despite a relative equilibrium in pace, Reid was past Mark Little at every opportunity, winning fouls and corners, and was pushing the team forwards. Gray also was doing well. Again, not criticising, but doing the things that Hanson doesn’t; holding it up, effectively laying it off and creating space – things which I actually think he is teaching James to do, as that has been creeping into his game this season.
One person who significantly did not benefit from this change in style was Nahki Wells.
The lack of long balls and Hanson flick ons to feed off meant Wells spent long periods out of the game, and was slipping a lot, and giving the ball away on the odd occasion that he got it. To me, this shows that he is not a fully rounded player yet, at all. Yes he scores goals and that is an invaluable attribute which we would be nowhere without; however playing the football we were, and pushing the Boro defensive line back as we were, meant Wells’ pace was not needed, and whenever Reid put a cross in he seemed to not be in the box.
Yeates, while often negative in his passing, was a massive influence in this style. He knew when to keep the ball in the defence, and where to be to offer Darby the pass, and when to turn and go. He, Gray and Jones linked up well on the right, sometimes to open up play and bring Reid into the game, and sometimes to work a little opening down the right channel, and it worked a charm.
Peterborough’s defence were stretched, and couldn’t deal with City’s play. It was great to watch and refreshing, as I for one have recently gotten fed up of our hoof-it style carried forward from League Two. And it was everyone’s best friend, Andy Gray, who was at the forefront of it.
And with 15 minutes to go, the fans still chanting his name, the somewhat inevitable (to us in the stands anyway) happened. Gray got his first City goal (of this spell). A fortunate break of the ball left Reid with space to run into on the left. He took aim for the bottom left corner. His shot was horribly dragged but fell straight into the path of Gray, who cleverly let the ball run through his legs and flicked it into the corner. A left footed backheel.
Pick any City striker, any City player to do that, it wouldn’t be Andy Gray. And probably, those sarcastic chants helped him through. The fans got behind him (something us travellers are accused of not doing) and reaped the rewards.
City continued to come forward but started to rush and lose the stylish element of the game. Long balls were being played (and won by Gray) but no-one could get onto it and the ball stopped sticking up front again. Reid fell out of the game and City couldn’t figure out why their momentum was amounting to nothing. But we had evidently reverted to first half and rest of the season City. It was frustrating to watch.
Gary Jones had two more chances similar to his one in the first half but both were wasted. Unfortunately for the captain, you would expect a bang average midfielder to score one of those. A lot of midfielders we have seen this season would have taken two if not all three of his chances.
Peterborough started getting chances on the break, and I give this short bit of information its own paragraph, because I need to mention it in every article I write, as I don’t think he gets enough coverage – once again, Jon McLaughlin made a string of fine and valuable saves. Time after time he denied Assombalonga and Tomlin, and kept City in it at 2-1.
Parkinson did the usual, brought on Connell for Bates, but it was never going to really have an impact with only injury time left. City’s style deteriorated as the game went on, and the final whistle finally came to give Peterborough three points that possibly, in the end, they were lucky to earn.
My personal immediate reaction to the game was that we fully deserved the loss. A neutral on the train thought we were the better side and were ‘robbed’. I disagreed with him, but when writing this article I have come to realise he had a point. Robbed, no. But we certainly were by far the better team second half, and possibly warranted a point for the way we turned around and upped our game in the second half.
Pre-match, the match was bigged up to be Assombalonga vs Wells, with scouts in attendance seeing what lower league striker they could add to their artillery in January. There was only one I would sign watching this game. Wells offered nothing, was a 5 or 6 out of 10. Assombalonga put himself about, created and was on the end of chances, and did the running for his team, being effective in the air as well as pacey. And, on that performance, the London Road crowd will have been glad to have got the services of Assombalonga rather than Wells in the summer.
In terms of Rotherham, City need to up their game to take anything. David Baldwin was telling me before the game (we got a taxi with him from the station – long and very odd story) that City hoped for five points from these three Christmas fixtures. On that first half performance, City would be very lucky to take one or rwo. On the second half performance, City could take four or six (Rotherham still know how to beat us unfortunately, and I don’t think they’ll lose at Valley Parade on Boxing Day).
The only change I may make is Nathan Doyle. He has been in very poor form for a long time, and needs a kick up the backside a-la last season. I would bring Jason Kennedy in. People may disagree and not be Kennedy fans, but for me they need to lay off him. Had Kennedy put in the performances Doyle has recently, he would be public enemy number one and certainly wouldn’t have kept his place for so long.
It was a disappointing and frustrating loss, but I suppose quality in finishing just had us beaten. From the second half, that performance and – I keep using it but it needs using – style could be developed to improve City’s chances over the next few games and throughout the remainder of the season.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Bates (Connell 86), Taylor (Reid 46), Meredoth, Doyle, Jones, Yeates, Thompson (Gray 46), Wells
Not used: Ripley, McHugh, Oliver, Kennedy