Coventry City vs Bradford City preview
@Sixfields (Northampton Town) on Saturday 15 February, 2014
By Alex Scott
Coventry City manager Steven Pressley went out of his way to point out how different his team were to Phil Parkinson’s “Dark Age” Bradford City team three months ago; his frustration getting the better of him in a highly comical rant of sour grapes. There will be no love lost between the two managers or teams over Valentine’s weekend, and the return fixture in the autumn of last year will feel a long time ago for both the embattled managers.
Both sides have changed since that day, and neither for the better as both are now left resembling shells of their former selves. Both have lost their star forwards, both have faded from the play off race, and now both are looking warily over their shoulders.
Bradford’s bright start has dulled into a pitch of darkness, with the amount of performances you would class as ‘good’ since the reverse fixture able to be counted on a single hand. Whether this is down to misfortune, injuries, or just being a bit found out at this level is up for debate, but it is likely a combination of the three. Regardless, Bradford only have a smash-and-grab in Milton Keynes to show in terms of wins since that 3-3 draw at Valley Parade.
Despite how different they want to appear, Coventry are suffering from similar ills, with their self-heralded free-flowing cosmopolitan style from earlier in the year having faded badly over the winter months. This weekend, with key injuries taking hold and disaffected star forwards already out the door on both sides, a totally different battle will be in store. James Hanson and Nahki Wells vs Callum Wilson and Leon Clarke this is not.
The impact of the break-ups of the two best strike partnerships in the division is plain to see for all, both teams suffering from painful withdrawal symptoms as the cracks once covered are now laid bare for all. Whilst Phil Parkinson has spent the New Year undertaking a thus-far traumatic transition, Pressley’s methadone has come in the form of the 23 year old once-Villa prospect and England Under-21 international Nathan Delfouneso. Latterly known as the “nine league goals ever Nathan Delfouneso”. Along with Bradford and their new man Aaron Mclean, both sides have struggled to kick the habit of scoring out of nothing, and the world sure looked a prettier place three months ago.
The conditions are expected to be tough, with the over-worked Sixfields pitch predictably in a less-than-impressive state, unable to host a reserve game this week. More rain is forecast in Northampton over the next 36 hours, which obviously puts the fixture in doubt. One would think that a quagmire on the ground would favour a more ‘agricultural’ Bradford team, but right now I’m not sure what to think about where this team’s strength lies. Those travelling should note that this game is stated to kick off at 2pm.
Parkinson was able to recruit an experienced forward to attempt to fill the void left by Wells; an act which Pressley has admittedly struggled to adequately replicate this far. This has left the Sky Blues with a left winger up top, playing in behind an inexperienced loanee striker, and a central midfielder filling in wide left. The 3-0 reverse to Notts County last weekend a worrying harbinger of tough times ahead for Coventry and their manager, who threw in the play off towel earlier this week.
After starting the year bagging goals for fun, things have slowed down for Coventry and their momentum has all but gone. They are more like Bradford City than they would ever want to admit.
The main difference in this City team in particular over the past few months is that scoring goals has become a chore. Losing your two most potent attacking threats will do that to you.
The argument is one of two things. Parkinson’s men are either a decent-to-good side out of form and out of luck, or a poor side that were salvaged by one or two great players early in the year and are now watching helplessly as reality bites. There is evidence either way, and the side you fall on probably reflects more on you than the evidence.
They just give you a headache. City are the fourth-worst first half team, but at the same time the fourth-best second half team. Despite these improvements in games, they’ve only come from behind to win a game once, and that required a 94th minute winner from James Hanson, at home to Shrewsbury.
No team in the division has been behind at half time more often than Bradford City. They’ve only been ahead at the break seven times, but gone on to win six of those.
They have one of the worst records in the league in games decided by one goal or less, somehow only winning three of the 24 such matches they’ve been involved in. Logically, you’d think that isn’t a repeatable trend – goals decided by one goal are highly dependent on chance – surely they must regress back to the mean sooner or later? But maybe there is something there stopping them. Perhaps they just aren’t good in close games with the pressure on?
Does that feel like this team? I thought I had a handle on us at the start of the year, but as the season has worn on, and the necessary changes have taken place, I have less idea about who this team are as a unit.
After another moment of indecisiveness Tuesday night in Cumbria, Jon McLaughlin is again subject to his traditional spell of mid-season derision from the City faithful. Thankfully for the still-young keeper, there is no viable option behind him anyway, leaving any discussion redundant. He’s a replacement-level keeper at this level, not ineffective or expensive enough to replace, with just enough potential to persevere. And with only Aaron Jameson on the books behind him, persevere we shall.
Rory McArdle’s return midweek leaves the back four to pick themselves; although with another ninety minutes passing by without the return of the impressive form from the autumn, the feeling of solidity we expected to feel once he and Andrew Davies were reunited is conspicuously absent. Stephen Darby and Matthew Bates will continue outside the pair. Fairly or unfairly, Bates has the look of a rich man’s Marcel Seip to me – a jack-of-all, whose injury woes may have lowered his ceiling dramatically. I’m not saying he won’t improve in time or that he’s not a really useful squad player, but after a promising beginning to his City career, and heartening pedigree, the suspicion that this may be ‘it’ is taking over.
After Garry Thompson’s reportedly anonymous hour on Tuesday, the most recent hour of a definitively anonymous season, it may be that Kyle Bennett returns on the right side. However, with Coventry’s struggles against the long ball earlier in the year, the re-inclusion of Thompson is likely. Adam Reach will continue on the other flank, impressive if as yet ineffective.
Nathan Doyle’s exclusion from the team to allow the ascension of new loan signing Matty Dolan has passed by with a nod of indifferent acceptance from the fan base, with lots of people noting that Doyle probably wasn’t meriting his place in the side anyway.
Curiously the loanaphobes from the past eighteen months disappeared just as their currency was at its peak. I’ve always thought that argument highly reductive, but even I must admit finding the concept of three loanees under 24 in a four-man midfield a little worrying. But there are no shouts from the rooftops about too many loanees. (We currently have as many temporary players in the squad as we are allowed to field in a squad. One win in 21.) There’s enough anger flying around at the minute! Where is everyone?!?
Anyway, as déjà vu hit all around, Parkinson admitted his error as the dropped Doyle returned at half time at Carlisle and looks set to continue on Saturday alongside Gary Jones.
James Hanson and Aaron Mclean will continue their burgeoning partnership at the top of the pitch, trying to dwarf the silent but ever-growing elephant in the room.
As the squad return to fitness, and the honeymoon periods subside away in front of us, the unnerving question pervades the entire team: is this it? The central defensive has reunited to a slight, if not yet tangible, improvement. The new loan players have come in to a little promise, but a lack of threat. Aaron Mclean has now managed to get his fitness levels up, and despite impressive bursts of link-up play he and his team have looked indifferent since his arrival.
The positive spin on Mclean when he arrived was that the antecedent to the Wells-Hanson partnership was the Mclean-Craig Mackail-Smith duo which fired Peterborough up the leagues last decade. Acquiring Aaron Mclean afforded an opportunity for a straight swap without the loss of any momentum. However, the 2014 vintage of Aaron Mclean is not a straight swap. He is necessitating a fundamental change in how the team functions, effected through the loan market, with little-to-no evidence of it is an improvement.
At the beginning of the year, City were a well-defined, well-drilled unit. They knew who they were, but what’s more, they knew exactly who they weren’t. With all the changes over the past few months, I’m not sure anyone knows who they are anymore. Without Kyel Reid and Nahki Wells they have lost the offensive threat, and save long-range potshots and the rare set piece, it’s hard to see the team’s route to goal. With only Oli McBurnie and Andy Gray to supplement the goalscoring, the answer is equally as elusive.
What they were before the turn of the year may not have been perfect, but at least it was identifiable. This reformed City team may be more talented, but who exactly they are as a unit is a mystery.
In all likelihood they are a decent enough side out of form, struggling to replicate the easy route to goal provided by Nahki Wells for so long. But (worryingly, given the lack of ambition in that statement) that may just be me being optimistic. The dependency on Wells was a worry throughout the last couple of years, and we are now proving that cold turkey is tough to stomach.
As the days and games left in the season drift away, the pressure rises. Each game takes on more importance, with Coventry away the next in the line. The other elephant in the room, the red one with all the dotted lines and the revolver could do with being shown the door.