Parkinson’s latest away approach deserves praise, but he still lacks the right answer

By Jason McKeown

For the second weekend in a row, I found myself muttering to others about Phil Parkinson’s tactics. This is not the beginnings of any campaign against the Bradford City manager – I firmly believe he has done a decent job to date, and his single-minded determination to implement his vision continues to impress – but, whether fair or otherwise, there is now an increased expectancy in the results he should be achieving from the squad at his disposal.

Five league games into this season, and in some ways the fundamental issue remains from five games into his reign 12 months ago. That is in finding the suitable balance between defence and attack, especially on the road.

After lining City up far too openly at Rotherham last week, on Saturday we almost saw the extreme opposite from Parkinson. A 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation allowed him to retain places for both Zavon Hines and Kyel Reid and proved successful to a point. An interesting step forward in tackling the issue, but ultimately still not quite the right solution.

There has been talk since Parkinson arrived – led by Mark Lawn – that as a club we want to see attacking 4-4-2 football featuring two wingers charging down the flanks. Parkinson seems bought into this vision too and, after the criticism for playing an attacking-minded 4-4-2 at the New York stadium, his Accrington approach of putting the pair up top alongside James Hanson was an unexpected way of keeping them both on the pitch, while ensuring City had necessary bodies in midfield. Hines was our best player, in my view. So far then, so good.

In a match that largely proved evenly balanced, it was unfortunately what happened midway through the second half where frustrations at the manager began to stir – and a public show of dissent towards his approach was aired by some. Accrington clearly began to start targeting City’s right side of the pitch, with a gangly Stanley forward pushed up against Stephen Darby and long balls sent in this direction. Target the smallish full back is hardly a new nor particularly subtle tactic at this level – poor Luke O’Brien was evidently the subject of many an opposition manager’s pre-match and half time talk over the years – and in fairness to Darby he was coping okay. Certainly better than Rory McArdle had held up in the same position at Rotherham last week.

But Parkinson, rather than looking to his bench for ways of winning a tight game, seemed more concerned with finding ways to make sure we didn’t lose. And herein lies this tight-rope dilemma between positivity and conservatism; and there’s an irony too in that Parkinson is damned when he does and damned when he doesn’t.

So – hypocrite warning here – having argued that Hines should not have started at Rotherham and that he should be on the bench at Stanley, I despaired at the sight of the former West Ham and Burnley winger being replaced for the less-pacy-but-physically-stronger Garry Thompson. That, along with the wholly unnecessary switching of McArdle and Darby (unless it was deemed necessary to dent Darby’s confidence), signalled that Parkinson was more worried about Stanley than ensuring Stanley were worried about City. A few minutes later, sadly, Accrington were in front.

Fortunately City came back, with Alan Connell – his introduction prompting sarcastic cheers from City fans towards Parkinson, before cries of “attack, attack, attack” – netting an impressive goal. In a game that neither team deserved to win or lose, we at least departed the Crown Ground in reasonably happy spirits. On the basis that regularly winning at home and drawing away will, over the course of a season, deliver a strong points total, this should go down as a satisfying result.

Yet still we have this conundrum of how to play on the road which is, so far, yet to be solved by Parkinson. 12 months in charge, his away league record reads W4 D5 L15. That’s 17 points from a possible 72. It would be unfair to make too much of this at the start of a new season with a new team (especially when you factor in two highly impressive cup away wins against higher league opposition), but over the last year City’s much improved home form has been hampered by largely fruitless endeavours outside of BD8. Saturday was a step forward in the right direction, but there is much work still to do.

Finding the balance lies not just in judging how much to attack and how much to defend, but in shaping the team. Midfield is clearly the pivotal area, and in theory going 4-5-1/4-3-3 should have helped. Yet we still didn’t see the best of Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones in the way that we have in the two home games to date. The pair have been running the show at Valley Parade, with hugely encouraging results. Will Atkinson did a good job playing alongside the pair on Saturday, but somehow they couldn’t stamp their authority on the game in the manner we know they are collectively capable of.

Which is where the winger and full back dilemmas come in once more. It was an interesting move by Parkinson to retain both Hines and Reid in the way that he did, but the fact they were positioned higher up the pitch saw Reid in particular less involved with the build up and City’s attack was less effective as a result. Much of City’s joy in home games has come from Doyle and Jones breaking up play and setting the tempo, with the two willing runners alongside –  eg Reid, Hines, Thompson, Atkinson – to unleash forwards with the right ball. Saturday’s formation saw these link-ups that bit more stretched and that bit less effective as a result.

Fine, launch a long range pass to Reid up the field – both Doyle and Jones are more than capable of producing accurate balls – but Reid then had to spend much of his time controlling the ball and finding his bearings, rather than charging forward in possession into space, meaning he was quickly closed down.

In my view, Jones and Doyle needed runners closer by, to make up for their own lack of pace. Although full backs James Meredith and Darby can came forward and provide support, this inevitably leads to gaps behind which can be exploited. TV replays of Accrington’s goal suggest it was the result of Meredith being caught out of position and Andrew Davies thus having to move over in a desperate and doomed attempt to provide cover.

And that’s where I still find myself feeling a little underwhelmed by Parkinson’s tactics away from home. For my money, he needs to build his team around Jones and Doyle (or, when fit, Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones), playing to their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. It seems to me that Parkinson is currently more focused on accommodating Reid and Hines. I can understand it to an extent, but memories of watching Colin Todd and Stuart McCall sides live and die by the consistency of the widemen leaves me anxious. Reid has yet to hit top gear this season, for instance.

So I do applaud Parkinson for his initial approach to Accrington. I just don’t think it quite proved as successful as he would have hoped, and it leaves that familiar headache for when City travel to Oxford in a fortnight. Drop Reid or Hines? Go 5-3-2 with Meredith and Darby as wing backs? Get a fit-again Ritchie Jones playing wide right midfield? Key to how successful City prove to be this season may lie in how quickly Parkinson can find the right answer, in order to deliver a level of consistently good away results that have alluded him since taking charge.

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9 replies

  1. I feel that the 4-3-3 4-5-1 approach might be the right answer but it needs to be given chance for the players to get used to the idea. I unfortunately couldnt make the accrington game but thought we sounded good, if you believe the bbc stats as well they only had one shot on target and they have won 3 out of 4 games so far. Having played several of the better teams in the division (on paper) we are only one point outside the playoffs! In my opinion its going ok, although hopefully it will get better!

    • This is new squad and im sure parky is still looking at formations and player compatabillity.
      Look at rotherhams result at port vale ?
      ive always said you can talk tactics all you want but the manager cant do anything when in a first half ,hines had 2 good opportunities to score ,so did hanson and so on. then with accys first real meaning full attack they score.

  2. It’s rare for me to disagree with Jason’s balanced and thoughful writings, but for once I must. Sitting among Accy fans in their stand, I had the closest possible view of Steven Darby’s problems as time and time again Accrington sent long balls up to their winger Boco who got the better of Darby every time. He had a couple of ill-timed lunges, and was in danger of getting at least a booking. In fact I like darby from what I’ve seen of him so far, but he is a bit lightweight and not specially tall. The inrtroduction of McArdle neutralised this particular tactic from Accrington; it was certainly not a pointless substitution.
    I don’t even think it’s fair to say the tactics were wrong; we deserved to be well ahead at half time, and the matter of whether close chances are or are not converted into goals is nothing to do with tactics. If one, or two, of those close calls had been converted into goals, which on another day they might well have been, I don’t think we’d be having a debate about tactics now. If I had a criticism, it was the slowness to deal with Accrington’s change of approach after half-time. Even their supporters, who had been very pessimistic throughout, began to think they might undeservedly nick a goal, and so it proved.

  3. A good report Jason but I also must agree that the McArdle Darby switch was very much needed. It was clear they were hitting him with a high ball time and time again seeking to win second ball. Parkie gets my thumbs up for making a positive change. Im sure there was no intention to dent Stephens confidence just simply a tactical need to negate what was happening and giving Accy much success.

  4. The only problem I had with PP’s tactics were that he had Hanson up front on his own.

    We all know Hansons game is all about flick ons and winning the headers, so been on his own up front when we launch balls to him doesnt work.
    He needs runners of him and until Connell came on we didnt reach many.
    So whether we are home or away we should have 2 strikers on the pitch at the same time

  5. Sensible analysis of the game, and good points in every post. I thought we were pretty good first period but we did’nt make it count. The drop off early in the second half was probably due to the amount of effort in the first and we certainly struggled to find any rythmn – but we did show commendable spirit to come back. Unfortunately we must have some of the most crass “supporters” in the land who targetted Hanson and others – it is difficult to see how Hanson could have performed his allotted role better. A poster on the T&A website described him as “garbage” – I wish these idiots would go away, their sort of negativity destroys,

    • The players beleave we can do it, management and the board beleave we can do it.
      Its time to we the supporters beleave we can do it.
      Never before do I beleave we will get promotion.
      Theres going to be ups and downs.
      Swindon lost 11 games last year and had a poor start .

  6. Diverse opinions in football are nothing new (and City fans have a good track record of wavering between the sublime and the ridiculous). In this case, that the different takes on PPs tactics started before the match, rumbled away through it, and have carried on afterwards, underlines how tricky and crucial this particular issue could prove to be this season.

    From the lofty vantage point of the Crown Ground’s crumbling terrace it wasn’t immediately apparent that Accrington had changed their tactics… this might have added to the dissenters in the crowd getting louder and more vocal.

    Regarding the boos directed at Reid in the second half: Firstly, when has a player ever played better as result of being booed? Secondly, people were getting frustrated at the lack of runs down the wing, and at the possesion being lost with those long, deep, diagonal crosses to the opposite wing; he played this ball at least 3 times in succession, has it occured to the boo-boys that he may have been following instructions here? Last season there were games where the wingers appeared to be inexplicably stopping short all the time, when a player is doing this consisitantly surely this sometimes hints at team orders being adhered to?

  7. It seemed more 4-5-1 than 4-3-3 due to the number of times Hanson was stranded up front on his own. We controlled midfield and had plenty of possession and it is the sort of formation to assist with 1-0 away wins, setting up solid and trying to build up to a goal. We were half asleep 2nd half and the goal had been coming as we backed off and looked to be inviting pressure. This is where I have issues with PP.

    We needed fresh legs and a change of either personnel or formation or both. Accrington played with a very high defensive line based on the half way line. I was hoping we’d get a few balls over the top for Reid to run onto and push him up top. Hanson’s flick on to Connell caught them out and it was a great finish but for me we should have been making changes that led to a 1-0 win rather than to chase a game at 1-0 down.

    I want to see a proactive manager recognising what isn’t working and making changes to correct it rather than just reacting after conceding. Gillingham away is another example, desperation tactics with Davies up front when hoofs to Hanson aren’t working so we then go with 2 target men, madness in my opinion. I like Phil Parkinson and hope he can get things right away from home.

    I think a successful season will be built on home form but points that are there for the taking must be gained on the road. Accrington were average and it was 2pts dropped on Saturday.

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