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.