Stick or twist as Parkinson looks to get the best out of City

Aldershot Town vs Bradford City match preview

@The Recreation Ground on Saturday 10 November, 2012

By Jason McKeown

As Will Atkinson – a favourite of this parish – worked tirelessly to create an opening against Chesterfield long after many of his team mates had run out of ideas, a contradiction of sorts became evident. It was easy to put City’s faded second half performance down to tired minds and tired legs, after such a busy week. But there was Will – 120 minutes against Wigan, 90 against Northampton – continuing to create, while demonstrating impressive levels of fitness.

This team rotation/always play your best XI dilemma is not an easy one to get right. But for all the talk of players being tired, Tuesday night’s average performance appeared to owe more to unfamiliarity of certain players than it did exhaustion. Looking throughout the team and at the partnerships that are key to making any team function, and a level of foreignness was evident. At centre back we had John Egan and Rory McArdle playing together for the first time, and up front I don’t recall Nahki Wells and Garry Thompson linking up before – it showed, in the latter case.

Even in the wide positions, Atkinson has played little on the left in front of James Meredith and Zavon Hines and Stephen Darby have been out of the side more often than they have been in. As such, we had a team performance less-versed and below the high standards set at Valley Parade in particular, suggesting Phil Parkinson’s chopping and changing – unavoidable in some instances – has disrupted rhythm.

I guess there comes a point where we need to get over treating the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule as a problem. It’s undoubtedly very difficult for such a small squad to cope with, but our League Two rivals are not resting up as often as we might allow ourselves to imagine.

With the 2012/13 league campaign starting two weeks later than usual because of the 2012 Olympics, and ending a week earlier than usual due to the fact the 2013 Champions League Final being played at Wembley means the play off finals must be staged mid-May, there are simply a lot more midweek league matches this time around. During the first half of last season, City had just three midweek league matches. By the time we’re celebrating Christmas (seven weeks to go people!), the Bantams will have completed six Tuesday night league outings. The cup competitions do not help on top of this, of course, but tired legs are the price of success that – in the League Cup at least – we wouldn’t swap.

So Parkinson takes City to Aldershot tomorrow with the enduring challenge of getting the best out of a squad that has a game every three or four days until the trip to Bristol Rovers is completed at the end of this month. At which point the Bantams will have played 11 games in 35 days (they might get a 10-day break at this stage, should Northampton win the FA Cup replay next Tuesday). It must be very difficult to implement new ideas on the training ground when days off have to be factored into those three or four day breaks, and another couple of injuries could prove difficult to plaster over.

But when you watch Atkinson perform so impressively, you are offered hope that the congested fixture list is not a bad thing. Because here is a guy who has played 300 minutes of football in eight days and looked a better player for it. The opportunity to play so regularly has enabled him to get into the groove and prosper. It’s a bit like playing a computer game on a regular basis and getting really good at it – practice makes perfect. Conversely if you have a break from that computer game, when you come back you are rusty and initially struggle.

Each player has to be treated differently. Some need a breather, others don’t need the disruption of being in out in out. It’s a shame that Zavon Hines, for example, was not able to follow up his outstanding performance at Wigan with another run out at Northampton last Saturday, and he struggled back in the side on Tuesday (though it must be acknowledged that Parkinson’s diamond formation at Sixfields had much to do with Hines’ exclusion). Yet Carl McHugh – outstanding against Burton and Wigan, but less so at Northampton – probably needed that midweek break.

Whoever lines up for City tomorrow will have the pressure of increased expectation in delivering against the division’s bottom side. With Aldershot tasting league victory just once in the last 10 games and winning only once at home, 1-0 over Barnet, to date; they are unlikely to be in great confidence. City have won only two in eight in the league, and so this is the kind of afternoon where a repeat result of the Bantams’ previous four visits to the Recreation Ground will send alarm bells ringing.

Matt Duke lines up in goal, which is a noteworthy development. Jon McLaughlin has been first choice since Duke let in four at Rotherham and has done very little wrong. McLaughlin received the blame in some quarters for Burton’s winning goal in his last outing, but he might feel aggrieved to be relegated to number two on the back of one mistake. That said, cup keeper Duke has been excellent and was in turn unlucky to lose the number one spot in the first place. It is a tough call between the two City keepers.

In defence expect the same back four. Parkinson may rotate parts of the team, but it’s always a worry to see any manager mess about with the defence and they need to develop understanding after such disruption. That might be harsh on McHugh, but the physical threat of Aldershot would suggest the tall Egan will be better suited in this game alongside McArdle – McHugh will get his chance again at some stage. On either side of the central defenders are Darby – unimpressive midweek – and Meredith.

Gary Jones is not quite at the level he was in midfield, but still a huge influence on matches. He will line up next to Nathan Doyle – the pair will both probably be rested for the Northampton game – as they look to get back to previous high standards. Atkinson surely keeps his place on one of the two flanks, but if Parkinson wants to bring Craig Forsyth back into the starting XI he will have to shift Will over to the right.

Up front, we hope that James Hanson has shaken off his bug to lead the line. Having spent so much of the season defending Hanson, I don’t really feel the need to comment on how badly he was missed on Tuesday. It spoke for itself. I don’t want to start singling out players, but so far for me Alan Connell and Thompson have not shown enough to stake a claim as first choice strikers. Wells should get the nod alongside either Hanson or Thompson.

For Aldershot, it seems unlikely we will see former Bantam Guy Branston. After starting the season injured, Guy has only made five appearances for the struggling side – the last coming almost a month ago. Branston has been an unused substitute over recent weeks, with the Shots picking up a few results (they are unbeaten in four).

Branston’s time at Valley Parade is well documented, and you do have to wonder what he makes of swapping one club who struggled last season, but who are now flying high, for a side who face a serious battle to stay in the Football League. It must seem like a very long 18 months since he was part of the League Two team of the year and playing for Torquay in the play off final.

When opting to move to Valley Parade, Guy was sold on promises he would be joined by players of the calibre of Gary Jones, only for them not to arrive. No sooner had Branston packed up and headed back down south, Jones was moving to West Yorkshire. While no doubt 100% committed to the Aldershot cause, he must surely look on at what’s happening at City this season with envy.

Let’s hope he’s feeling similarly sick at 5pm on Saturday.

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4 replies

  1. The problem with Duke and McLaughlin in my view is that neither is consistently good enough for a team with promotion ambitions hence all the chopping and changing. None of the recent managers have been convinced about McLaughlin as he has always been in and out of the side. Both him and Duke are weak links in the side.

    • I’m not sure they are weak links as such. More that they are decent keepers for this level and nothing more.

      It’s often said that successful teams invariably have a goalkeeper who, at times over the season, will win their side points almost on his own (eg “X is worth 10 points a season on his own”) and thinking back to our last promotion of 98/99 that was certainly the case with Gary Walsh.

      The big question is do McLaughlin and Duke have the capability to prove the difference between winning and drawing or drawing and losing? I’m not sure.

      But then again, Duke was our man of the match at Wigan…

  2. I agree about Connell and Thompson.

    Connell when he starts has a few good touches but doesnt look like scoring but when he comes off the bench he looks a different player.

    No wonder at Swindon he came on as an impact player.

    Thompson for me is a right winger and I wish we could get him playing like he did when he beat us on his own but it seems his mind is made up he wants to be a striker.

    If we had the funds id like to see us bring in a striker and personally this might sound harsh but if Thompson wanted to leave in Jan id let him go

  3. Thought Branston got the rough end of the stick after having some storming games at the end of last season, would loved for the club to have kept hold of him but i guess he’d have been fourth choice this season…as it’s panned out he’d have been playing regularly. I’m a fan of Connell’s but have been disappointed with his effect on games, that also goes for Thompson, he doesn’t look a central striker to me, looks to have lost a yard of pace since his Morecambe days. Regarding McLaughlin and Duke, can understand McLaughlin losing his place after the Burton game, as i said in a previous thread, he was badly at fault for the goal conceeded, as a keeper you have to be positive at all times, coming or not coming for the ball leaves the defenders a clear decision to make, to come then see a mistake made needs a positive reaction from the keeper, unfortunately against Burton McLaughlin didn’t react and made it simple for the Burton player to cross the ball, it’s a cutthroat business and i fancy if that mistake hadn’t lead to the Burton goal McLaughlin would have played at Wigan and probably lost it. It’s a funny old game!!!

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