Bradford City vs Port Vale match preview
@Valley Parade on Tuesday 14 February, 2012
2012 has yet to get going for Bradford City – especially in view of the powerful way the previous year ended. Three defeats from three on the road, two home draws where late conceded goals cost points, and now back-to-back match postponements means that previous momentum has been lost.
The Bantams entertain Port Vale looking to get going again, and needing to do so quickly. Study the League Two table for more than a few seconds and a knot of fear will appear in your stomach. A four-point gap between City and the bottom two is a little too close for comfort. Particularly considering 2011 had ended with a seven-point cushion.
Two key considerations arise from the recently stalled form and frozen pitches, which will determine how successful the final 19 games are to prove in avoiding demotion from the Football League.
Consideration one – how thick and fast games are going to come
Starting with Port Vale, 15 matches are scheduled to be played over an eight-week period. Such a busy schedule could easily prove City’s undoing as fatigue, injuries and suspensions become more keenly felt
Manager Phil Parkinson is clearly harbouring similar concerns. There has been plenty of debate about why the squad is so large in numbers this season, with the changeover of managers and Development Squad causing a high number of new arrivals since the summer. But as Parkinson approaches his six-month anniversary in charge of the Bantams, it’s increasingly clear that the majority of his current squad is here through his own choosing. And the next few weeks look set to see more of a squad approach taken to selection.
When taking into account the fact some players can perform in different positions, the level of choice is huge. By my calculations, Parkinson currently has 12 players who could occupy the four defensive positions available and 13 footballers who can play in midfield. In addition there are six recognised strikers at the club. If the treatment room can stay relatively quiet between now and May, Parkinson won’t be short of players to pick a team from.
As games start cropping up Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday; we can realistically expect to see the squad rotated to keep players fresh. Parkinson explained that the signing of Matt Fry last Friday was due to the number of matches to play in a short period of time. It looks as though we’ll be getting used to Parkinson making plenty of changes game-to-game.
Squad rotation has always sat uneasy with City supporters. The mantra of never change a winning team means that any alterations which aren’t made because of injury or suspension tend to be leapt upon if they don’t work out. Yet Parkinson wouldn’t be stock piling in certain positions if he didn’t plan to chop and change over the coming weeks – and we have to place our trust in him that he knows what he’s doing when he does rotate.
Consideration two – the way in which City play
Port Vale’s arrival brings back memories of how different the tactics looked set to be when Parkinson first arrived last September.
In his first three games – Morecambe away, Bristol Rovers at home and Vale away – we saw City play an exciting and expansive passing style of football that was very pleasing on the eye. The ball was played on the deck at varying tempos; we saw little triangles of passing moves that out foxed opponents.
Parkinson had been scouting for Arsenal in between managing Charlton last season and arriving at Valley Parade. We quickly saw why Arsene Wenger entrusted him with such a role at the Emirates.
Yet results weren’t forthcoming. A 1-1 draw at Morecambe thanks to a late equaliser; a 2-2 draw with Bristol Rovers with both goals coming from the spot. At Vale Park three days later, City were superb going forwards and even home manager Micky Adams admitted his side were lucky to win 3-2 – but the point was they won 3-2.
The next time I saw City, they were entertaining AFC Wimbledon at home and losing a third game on the bounce, after a fruitless trip to Crawley in-between. And slowly but surely, we’ve seen an evolution of playing style – from City trying to become the Arsenal of League Two, into a direct, high tempo side which proved hugely successful over Christmas.
Such a change is understandable. City’s league position was too perilous to be trying to outplay well-organised opposition teams, while promising players such as Jamie Devitt were too much of a luxury. Defensively City were shipping in feeble goals each week, while not creating enough good scoring chances at the other end to cover them up. And as much as I was a big fan of what Parkinson was initially trying to do and I hope that, in time, circumstances will enable him to try this approach again, the change to a direct, physical style was beginning to bear fruit in December with City rolling over opposition teams.
Was bearing fruit. The way in which City play relies on players giving everything they have for 90 minutes. Chasing lost causes, harrying opponents in possession, getting the ball forwards quickly. It is a difficult way to play, but even more of an ask to do so twice a week.
Consider the momentum-breaker – Rotherham away on Monday 2 January. Two days after giving so much in the Shrewsbury match to record an outstanding victory, at the Don Valley City were by all accounts fairly lethargic and unable to play at such a high tempo so soon after.
Parkinson has continued to have his players performing in an attacking, direct manner over the subsequent weeks, and it should have delivered wins over Morecambe and Burton and a point at Bristol Rovers. But just like the attractive passing football of his early days in charge, these tactics haven’t recently delivered the wins needed.
So how long does Parkinson continue to employ this approach, and how successful can they prove to be in future given the amount of workrate it requires versus a backlog of fixtures? This is why a large squad is going to be so vital. It seems unlikely that City can maintain momentum from sticking with a winning team, no matter how much that goes against the sensibilities of us supporters.
The likely team to face Port Vale
For now Parkinson’s sole objective will be to pick his best eleven in order to deliver City’s first victory of 2012. Jon McLaughlin starts against Port Vale in front of a back four which is still robbed of the services of Simon Ramsden and Rob Kozluk. It seems a given that Marcel Seip will move across to right back to cover them, with Fry brought straight in for a debut at left back. The double match postponement should at least ensure Luke Oliver has recovered enough to resume centre back duties alongside Andrew Davies.
In midfield there is a question over whether Parkinson’s tactical evolution might start to move towards two out-and-out wingers, in home games at least. Will Atkinson’s anonymous debut at Bristol Rovers would otherwise see him replaced by the fit again Kyel Reid, but Parkinson might elect to play them both on each flank with David Syers and Ricky Ravenhill in-between.
It will be interesting to see if Michael Flynn is brought straight back into the team when fit, but the busy fixture schedule is likely to see the Welshman and Ritchie Jones rotated with Syers and Ravenhill fairly often.
Up front, Craig Fagan might be moved forward to partner James Hanson if two out-and-out wingers are preferred. Nakhi Wells looked like a player in need of a breather after the Burton and Bristol Rovers games, and has now had that rest without missing any action. He may therefore be entrusted to carry on developing a promising partnership with Hanson, while Deane Smalley also fights for a first start since joining on loan.
Saturday’s trip to Torquay looks daunting given their recent good form, and Parkinson the pragmatist will surely see the Port Vale game as a better chance of getting three points on the board. Expect to see a similar high tempo approach for now, and expect to see the best eleven selected rather than the fittest – but over the coming weeks, one or both of these approaches may have to change.