By Andrew Whieldon
It was not until the 31st December last season when Bradford City finally stumbled on to the 24 point mark, following a 3-1 victory over Shrewsbury Town. This season, just fourteen matches in, the Bantams have already reached that milestone. This might not be a very significant landmark in the long term, but for everybody associated with the Bantams it shows the giant strides that Phil Parkinson has made with the club over the course of just under a year.
Fourteen matches into last season, Bradford were floundering in twentieth place, having registered just three wins (20%), and having scored 18. This season the Bantams have won 50% of their league matches, and have scored almost the same amount of goals at home as last season’s total, 16, and are sitting pretty in fifth place, a point off automatic promotion.
Thanks to the blog experimental361 analysis of League Two, we know that Bradford’s attacking potency is the second best in the league. Averaging after ten matches: thirteen attempts on goal and scoring a goal every eight attempts. In defence we have become the meanest in the league, limiting opponents to on average seven per match. This Width of a Post article highlighted how clinical Phil Parkinson’s men have been with set pieces. After ten games the Bantams have scored 68% of their goals from set plays, and conceded just three. So with a third of the season already behind us, where has it gone so right for Parkinson and the Bantams?
I have highlighted three factors which I believe have contributed to our success so far this season. 1) Tactics, 2) Transfers, and 3) Home form.
This season Parkinson seems to have got his tactics spot on, mainly playing with a tried and trusted 4-4-2. There are only a few occasions, away at Rotherham and at home to York when our tactics were not as effective as they could have been. Counting the Rotherham result to be bad day at the office, the York game when we lined up with a 4-3-1-2 has been the only game where I have questioned the formation. It was rectified mid game, and Bradford got a favourable result from that.
In the 4-4-2 we play, is when I feel the Bantams have been most effective. For the first part of the season the midfield four of Reid, Jones, Doyle, Atkinson/Hines has worked well. Reid has been allowed to flourish. Usually we are used to seeing an overlapping left full back, however with a defensively sound Meredith, not usually venturing over the half way line, Reid has that space to attack.
On the other flank, when Hines plays he is a similar player, this time right back McArdle gives license for Hines to attack, and is complimented by Doyle in the quarterback role, with Jones being a busy man, breaking up play and getting forward. When Atkinson is used, usually in ‘higher profile’ matches he brings a lopsided nature to the team, an acts as a third central midfielder, outnumbering the opposition midfield and still bringing width to the team where necessary. Since Jones’s and Reid’s injury, Ravenhill has come in. He adopts a more conservative role and acts as cover for Doyle.
You may not always see him, but you notice Ravenhill when not there, see the Rochdale away match, and he had his best match to date last week against Cheltenham. With a now more conservative central pairing, and Reid injured, McArdle, and Meredith especially, are now allowed to get a bit further forward on the pitch, see the Cheltenham third goal as an excellent example of our new tactics without Reid and Jones working magnificently.
It has also been Phil Parkinson’s ability to bring substitutes on, and make changes when necessary to affect the outcome of the game. Stuart McCall was criticised for not doing just that, and his sides were guilty of conceding late goals.
In the summer Parkinson’s objectives were to build a concentrated side, with the focus on quality over quantity (Bradford have used the least amount of players this season, 18), but importantly also to bring the right player with the right attitude. In previous seasons we have seen our ‘marquee’ signings have a poor attitude, despite having obvious qualities (Doherty, McLaren) in previous years we have also relied on the loan market, bringing in youngsters.
The Man United defenders/Rehman/Taylor dispute sums my point up well. They will probably turn into decent footballers, but they did not have any presence about them, they were boys instead of men, and it was very noticeable. Our only loan signing this season was two matches ago Forsyth, and he is tall, strapping and seems very capable.
This summer big signing was Andrew Davies, magnificent last season, and outstanding again this. I believe this is probably the best defender we have had in the last ten years at the club.
The only mistake I can think of would be the cheap and dubiously awarded penalty given away against McGlashan vs Cheltenham. At right back Rory McArdle, originally bought as a centre half, has been steady away, and not really put a foot wrong. Criticisms have come from some saying play players in the correct positions. But in my opinion he is more solid and effective, and physically taller than Steven Darby. Darby although hardly putting a foot wrong too on the occasions he has played, does not have that aerial prowess McArdle has. He was targeted by the Accrington players as long diagonal balls troubled him.
In midfield Gary Jones has been a revelation. I cannot sing his praises high enough. He does the simple things well, and his work rate is outstanding. Nathan Doyle, a better technician on the ball, does not have Jones’ work rate, and the two complement each other very well.
Hines and Thompson have impressed in patches when on the pitch. Hines is a very good flair player, he has pace and trickery, however confidence seems to be an issue with him, and he goes missing sometimes. In my opinion he is a great impact player coming from the bench. Thompson can count himself unlucky not to have played as many games as he perhaps deserved, and although doesn’t seem to have as much pace, he is bullish, skillful and a very good footballer.
Will Atkinson, who was on loan last season, made the move permanent in the summer, and has been employed in a more central role since the switch. I have a lot of time for Atkinson, and his performances have steadily improved over the season.
Up front, Parkinson managed to sign Alan Connell, top scorer for champions Swindon. Another very skillful player, he has not yet really been found a role for at the club, despite goals against Wimbledon and Accrington, when played as an striker, he spurned a few guilt edged chances. In the game against York, he was played as the hook, in the hole behind the front two. At this level however I am sceptical of how effective that position is. He is still a very good alternative, and has obvious pedigree.
Home form is the reason Bradford are in fifth place. Previous seasons, teams have come to stifle Bradford at Valley Parade. Packing the midfield, and getting ten men behind the ball, has mean that under Taylor, Jackson and to an extent McCall, Bradford have resorted to the long ball tactic.
Over the seasons in League two Bradford has been:
W D L F A PTS %
07/08 10 4 9 30 30 34 43%
08/09 11 10 2 39 18 32 47%
09/10 8 8 7 28 27 32 34%
10/11 10 3 10 27 30 33 43%
11/12 8 9 6 34 27 32 34%
Only really since 08/09 has Valley Parade been a fortress, losing two matches. However many of those draws could have been turned into wins. This season the Bantams have won five out of seven home games, scoring sixteen and conceding five, and Phil Parkinson and his players seem to be a lot more attack minded and a lot more convincing in front of goal. But this has been built on a base of defence, solid, uncompromising, and reliable. This trust in our defence has not been there for a long time, from players or fans, but because of this the whole team is much more confident.
Having been a season ticket holder for fourteen seasons, having seen numerous players and managers become part of the revolving door at Valley Parade, this squad of players is probably the best I have seen at Valley Parade. They seem a perfect balance of professionalism and passion, attack and defence, and a manager that is sensible without being too cautious.
Not since McCall have we had a team that is so willing to attack, although exciting, however there was not that defensive base or tactical nouse there. We were too reliant on the individual over the system. With Taylor we were the opposite, system over individual and mechanic and robotic over passion. In full Parkinson has found that perfect balance the club so desperately needed, we play good balanced football, even exciting on occasions.
But none of this would have been achievable had it not been to the dedication, hard work, and unseen hours undertaken by playing and non playing staff alike. For which I and many other fans are truly grateful for. I am not having a knock at past regimes, just complimenting this one. Players have noted that we have the best training facilities in the league, the sport scientists seem to be very professional (look at the pre match warm ups), The chairmen for investing in the one of the biggest playing budgets in the league, and last but not least it has to be down to manager Parkinson and assistant manager Steve Parkin.
One example that springs to mind, just last week following the 3-1 victory over Cheltenham, Parkinson admitted to driving down to watch Northampton lose 4-0 to Barnet on the Friday night. This is commitment and through preparation I have not seen from certain previous Bradford managers.
There is still a long way to go; away form is gradually improving and results against the better teams in the league need to get better. Three of our four losses this season have come against the top seven. Gillingham (1st), Port Vale (2nd), Rotherham (7th). However, as the season unfolds further, Christmas time will be a good indicator of where we should be in May.
But before the Christmas report comes in, the half term report reads A+