Cheltenham preview 2 of 2: blip or freefall?

Part two of our preview of City’s big game against Cheltenham is written by Alex Scott.

Bradford welcome Cheltenham to Valley Parade tomorrow in something which carries the impression of a promotion clash. With a win, Parkinson’s men would get within a point of the third place Robins, a defeat could leave the gap between the promotion places and City bordering on the dangerous. Seven points is by no means insurmountable at this stage of the season but in anyone’s book, two points from fifteen would at least be classed a ‘mini-crisis’. The sky may not be falling just yet, but people are beginning to look up, just to check.

The further question we can answer tomorrow is whether or not the team in this form can be classed as a ‘contender’? Without the injured stars, is this team as it stands before us one of the top seven in the division? Top ten?

Standing here, looking down upon a landscape featuring a mere two points from twelve (only Barnet and Aldershot have been worse over the period) and the two star players sidelined, the mood around the club has undeniably changed. Whilst the run of games hasn’t been easy, it’s not exactly been a murderer’s row either. Two injuries have derailed all semblance of momentum built up over the early part of the season and the side appears like one in the midst of a freefall.

Which is a point worth dwelling on for a second. The plan at the start of the season was to get away from the vast playing staff sprawl which defined last year. Quality over quantity. Something which is borne out by the fact that no other League Two team has featured fewer players (17) this season. With settled squads oft-heralded as “the route” to success, it’s worth noting City are tied for the lead in this metric with Dagenham, who lie 18th. (I’d argue success brings stability rather than the other way round, but whatever.)

The downside amidst all the positive spinning in the off-season would always be that a couple of injuries at inopportune times could throw a spanner in the works, forcing the manager to dust off his cavalry catalogue. And here we are. The first tough stretch of the season, the emergency glass has been smashed, the red phone is out, and the rolodex is spinning. (At this point, despite Parkinson’s efforts, no signings have been made)

Bullish early season claims of there being no such thing as too much football have been replaced with sheepish admissions that there is a thing as too much football, and this is what it looks like. Not that Bradford City are the first team to spin their way in and out of crises, but the critique that perhaps the squad might be better off if the resources invested in one of the higher-paid rotation players were instead utilised in multiple, lesser players is becoming harder to defend.

It isn’t like the injuries are out of the ordinary, either. Building the team around two players for whom one has no direct replacement seems (at the time, and in hindsight) an act of folly, especially when those two players are a direct winger who relies on pace and a 35 year old central midfielder. It’s not exactly unheard of for those type of players to be susceptible to injury. (I’m aware Gary Jones hasn’t missed a game since the Nixon administration but a) he’s 35, and b) there is a reason Rochdale let him walk mid-contract.) Playing Jones in eleven full games during a six week span to begin the season appears especially…um, let’s say, ‘misguided’ at this juncture.

But that is a function of the squad. After Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones went down in pre-season, the centre of midfield was left uncovered, especially as starter Nathan Doyle was still gaining match fitness. Gary Jones was the only option, unless we are counting our mystical bench filler extraordinaires from the reserve team, which of course we aren’t! (‘sup Scott. Nice to see you still exist.)

As Parkinson received the green light from the owners to search for reinforcements, it’s likely some rainy day money was factored into the pre-season budgeting, the pivotal question whether or not the rest of it has been utilised optimally may be borne out over the next few weeks, where there are another seven games slated. If Jones and Reid fall to the back end of their return projections, and the team’s form doesn’t improve in their absence, we are all in for a colder winter than we anticipated.

On to Saturday’s game which sees high flying Cheltenham come to town. Last year saw Mark Yates’ men recover from losing their star players and make it all the way to the playoff final before inadvertently stepping in the way of Nick Powell’s unstoppable career mode game. It is easy to forget now but, until Powell stole the show, those were Jermaine McGlashan’s playoffs. After two immense performances to take 6th place Cheltenham past Torquay 4-1 on aggregate (two goals, one assist), the former Aldershot winger McGlashan was ready to take his team back up to League One on the biggest of stages. Then he ran into Nick Powell.

The £60,000 signing last January would have joined Cheltenham thinking an immediate promotion was on the cards, with them spending the entire middle third of the season occupying the promotion places until a poor run in March thwarted any aspirations they held. McGlashan will likely start opposite the pacy Kaid Mohamed (who scored the only goal during last year’s dominant 1-0 victory at Valley Parade) flanking either Chris Zebroski or top scorer Shaun Harrad.

With the ever impressive (although admittedly out of form) 2012 League Two Player of the Year nominee Marlon Pack inside along with former £1.5m man Darren Carter, Cheltenham obviously present a tricky task for the quasi-reeling Bantams. Especially when you combine them with the fourth best defence in the league.

Whilst an undeniably hard game for Parkinson’s men, tomorrow’s game also stands as the toughest away test for Cheltenham up to now. Though they have passed every test thus far with flying colours, standing alongside Gillingham as the only unbeaten side away from home.

One positive note to take will be that Cheltenham do appear to be something of a flat-track bully, fuelling their rise to third on the back of stellar results against the bottom half dwellers. (They are still to beat a top half outfit.) But any confidence gleaned from this must be qualified by what we see ourselves as. With Kyel Reid and Gary Jones firing and everyone fit, I think we can probably all agree we are a play off team. Without them? I don’t want to bring up that whole “third worst side in division over last four games” stat but, well…yeah.

Before the start of the season I posited that any chance at promotion relied on the attack becoming not only more involved, but more clinical. (Crudely, they needed to score about 15-20 more goals over the season to fit the profile of a promotion team.) A target I was sceptical of. But here as we stand, one quarter of the way through the season, the James Hanson-led Bantams attack are actually outperforming this goal. City are on target to score more than 75 goals. In the last decade, only five sides have scored more than 75 goals and missed the play offs.

One issue I have, which I don’t know the answer to, surrounds the team’s dependence upon set pieces for goals. Thirteen of the twenty goals so far this season have come from set pieces. Is this a genuine trend which will run throughout the year, or is this (as I suspect) a statistical outlier, and we will soon witness a regression to the mean? In the Premier League last year Stoke scored 55% of their goals from set pieces, only Blackburn from the rest scored more than 40%. We currently stand at 65%.

The team have scored one open play goal in a month (six games), Zavon Hines’ breakaway goal last week. Whilst a goal is a goal is a goal, becoming so reliant on set pieces for firepower, doesn’t seem to be a sustainable strategy for long term success.

In the short term though, things may be looking more promising. Cheltenham don’t concede that many goals, but of the goals they do concede, they relinquish the highest proportion of goals from headers in the entire Football League (now 46%). That feels like good news for the Bantams, especially with Hanson searching for a goal, but (not to labour the point) the removal of the side’s set piece specialist and crosser-in-chief (no side in the Football League has a higher proportion of goals from the left flank than Bradford) completely changes the personality of the team. Are they even that team anymore? If not, who are they?

Jon McLaughlin has made the keeper’s jersey his own (10 games, 8 conceded, 4 clean sheets), and with the glorious return of the great Northern Irish equaller Rory McArdle at right back, the defence just about picks itself. However in front of them, questions abound. (Whilst I’m convinced Stephen Darby is superior at this point, the defensive unit, especially Luke Oliver, appears more comfortable with a hybrid-type like McArdle outside him.)

Thus far Nathan Doyle and Ravenhill haven’t illustrated an ability to play together, and at this point it may be valid to ask whether the addition of Doyle has left Ravenhill a redundant figure? I like Ravenhill, but his strengths are matched by the former Barnsley man, and Doyle can do a bunch of other things. Ravenhill’s attempt to play the left side of the diamond last Saturday was awkward, and he cut a figure of a man without a home. Maybe it’s fitness, maybe I’m being harsh, but I’m unsure what he is bringing to the team at this point.

Will Atkinson has improved this year, but as the final third of last week’s game betrayed, he may struggle to hold up defensively in a midfield two, especially against a central midfield three as strong as Cheltenham’s. I don’t know what the hell is going on with Ritchie Jones, but his inclusion (if fit) would seem logical to combat the dynamism of Cheltenham on the counter.

I’d say I was ‘expecting’ the continuation of the midfield three (it would make sense), but after last week with the fans’ negative reaction to the first half, Hines’ game changing introduction, Alan Connell’s peripheral performance, it may be difficult for Parkinson to pull off. With James Hanson and Nahki Wells both better together than apart, a matching 4-5-1/4-3-3 for tomorrow becomes even trickier. The last few weeks have seen Parkinson appear to name his best 11 players, and come up with a formation afterwards, with ‘mixed’ results (third worst side in division over past four games).

If the team switch back to 4-4-2 (and thus incorporate Hines), I’d imagine it would have to feature three central midfielders to cope with the power of Cheltenham. Having Atkinson tuck in from the right hand side would solve one problem, and it has worked well so far when utilised. However with the likely inclusion of McArdle, the team will quickly begin to look like last year’s vintage, an entirely one-sided outfit, but with an inferior primary outlet in Hines. As last year proved, it’s difficult to constantly play one handed. You are easy to defend, and if a key player has an off day, you’re in serious trouble. It’s a tricky problem. One which I don’t really have a solution for with the squad in it’s current composition.

With the games involving Cheltenham being the lowest scoring in the division, allied to Bradford’s recent impotence (one open play goal in a month), there likely won’t be much in tomorrow’s encounter. With that in mind, and Parkinson’s historical tendency toward conservatism, it stands to reason City will play things close to the chest, eschewing the fans’ vocal desire to open things up.

Whilst referring to anything as a ‘must win’ at this point of the season is preposterous, with seven games in three weeks coming up and tricky trips to Northampton and Burton on deck, the possibility of this blip turning into a freefall is becoming ever more apparent. It’s hard to gauge the impact of history as it is happening, but this feels like a big moment for the team, they need to improve. Fast.

Read part one of our Cheltenham preview here.



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