Barnet vs Bradford City preview
@Underhill on Saturday 5 January, 2013
By Alex Scott
Phil Parkinson made his way at Valley Parade by resting people in cup games. Ever since he’s been here, the league has been the priority and the cups have provided an opportunity for the fringe players to make an impact. Last year’s FA Cup Third Round tie at Watford and the Arsenal game probably stand as the only cup games during his tenure which have seen Parkinson pick a “full strength” team. The primacy of promotion is undying.
Saturday provides an awkward dilemma. The next ‘Biggest Game Of The Past Decade’ is on deck on Tuesday with the arrival of Premier League panickers-in-chief Aston Villa. An unfathomable reward at stake I won’t mention. Kyel Reid and Nahki Wells are both recovering from knocks. (Wells looked to pick up another at the hands of Robbie Threlfall on Tuesday). The defence is makeshift, the midfielders look jaded. Where is the focus going to be? What is more important? This would be an article in itself, for all of us.
One could make the argument, with an expiring contract, another nationally televised giant killing would serve Parkinson’s star far better than a better-sourced promotion run. And think of the financial decision for the club. And for us. Genuinely, what is more important to you? I know what’s more important to me, and speaking as someone attending the game tomorrow, I wouldn’t be overly bothered if I saw a reprise of the Brentford replay outfit. If Wells, Reid, Jones etc… aren’t 100%, I wouldn’t play them at Barnet. Even if they were…
“One of the worst sides I’ve ever seen”
Were Parkinson to send out his primary charges (and I imagine he will), a reversion to type will likely be in order, with Tuesday’s “experiment” an abject failure. The team tends to look better with Will Atkinson in it (Morecambe aside), especially away from home, so I imagine he’ll start on one of the flanks, with one of the pacier wingers opposite. Parkinson noted how Doyle’s experience appeared to settle the nervous back four, and he may be forced into a redux if Carl McHugh or James Meredith are absent, or Curtis Good returns to the north east. If so, one (or both) of Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones will continue in midfield, with another question over Gary Jones’ fitness levels.
Barnet have had an uptick in form after the arrival of Edgar Davids, but in truth they had a lot of room to improve into. It is better being inconsistent than consistently terrible. They’ve bookended shock wins over Burton and Gillingham with defeats to Dagenham and Aldershot. (Striker Jon Nurse did get himself sent off in the latter as mitigation.) In the reverse fixture I nominated them “one of the worst sides I’ve ever seen”. But things have obviously improved since then, and they find themselves above the drop zone for the time being, although facing a hellacious stretch, with five of the top eight in their next six games.
Fun stat for the weekend: Barnet have actually fared better than Bradford in games against teams in the top half. (City’s 12 points from 12 games leaves them a lowly 20th in the division.) Although at the same time, City have obtained 2.15 points per game (3rd in division) against bottom-half dwellers, where Barnet reside, so whatever. Statistics!
How the squad will recover from another tough week will obviously factor heavily into the decision-making on the starters, and the legacy of the Morecambe game will likely be the uncertain fitness levels of numerous key players.
The James Hanson debate
One of the negative narratives which has been bubbling along under the surface all season long has finally seemed to grab the imagination as we hit the January sales. (And Tuesday’s game didn’t really give us anything else interesting to talk about.)
It was a terrible miss. Not exactly unexpected… but terrible. The game-changing Kyel Reid whipped a wonderful ball into the six yard box; James Hanson lost his man, and proceeded to head the ball straight at Barry Roche, stood five yards in front of him. It wasn’t good. Proof, for those that way inclined, that the striker has hit his ceiling, and for the club to progress to the next level (League One), he has to be replaced. Now. (For the record, on this base level, I don’t fundamentally disagree with the sentiment.)
Hanson actually played well at Morecambe in trying circumstances, especially in the second half, with the introduction of partner-in-crime Nahki Wells, but this doesn’t play into the narrative for those wishing to move him on. He’s also been one of the side’s most consistent players in recent weeks, which has seen key men struggle and wither under the festive fixture strain. (No one in the squad has played more league minutes than James Hanson.) But forwards need to be goalscorers and all that jazz.
I didn’t especially want this to descend into a referendum on James Hanson, primarily because the two sides are so convinced of their own veracity; it does risk being an (even greater) exercise in futility. The trenches are dug, the sides are set and we can all selectively prove ourselves right every single week. But we are going to have to have it out sooner or later. F**k it. Third rail. Let’s do this.
James Hanson is in an unenviable position. A vocal section which I haven’t done the necessary legwork to describe as a ‘majority’ (but guess it probably is, it’s at least a plurality) evaluate his strengths (link up play, heading, work rate) as peripheral, and replaceable. His weakness (finishing) is the most fundamental aspect of his job. When he showcases his strengths, no one notices. When he overcomes his weakness, he is met with “about time” catcalls from the naysayers.
The side currently isn’t winning, therefore the naysayers can take centre stage, consciously blind to his performance against Two-Time World Cup Semi-Finalist Per Mertesacker, the fact he hasn’t been subbed off once this year, and the fact the side lies 6th in goals per game in Hanson starts (24). The same side for which every attack runs through him.
It’s obviously easier to succeed as a team with forwards who score all the goals, but it’s not the only way, it isn’t even the common way. We want Hanson to be (or at least approach) a 15-20 goal a year man to play alongside Nahki Wells (for whom the description appears superfluous). Only three League Two sides have had multiple 15+ goalscorers in the past five years (Crewe 11/12, Chesterfield 11/12 (P), Rochdale 09/10 (P)). Three. We can all say we want Hanson to be a top goalscorer as well as our other top goalscorer, but that’s a pipedream. Such perfect storms are aberrations.
We hear from all around us that we want someone like Tom Pope. That’s who James Hanson should be. A “proper number nine”.
Hanson arrived in League football in 2009, and in his first three seasons scored 36 goals. During the same time period, Pope (two years Hanson’s senior) scored nine goals. Nine. Nueve. Granted, he has appeared in fewer games over the period (78), but well, frankly, why do you think that is?
Last season for Port Vale, he scored 5 goals in 45 appearances. It is easy to say we need a player who has scored 23 in 29 to start the year. It’s also redundant. We know that. Everybody wants a player like that. Unsurprisingly, teams aren’t overly willing to relinquish such players. And you know what, if you were looking for a Tom Pope successor, someone with the requisite attributes and circumstances to follow in his path and explode into a breakout year in the near future, you’d probably settle on James Hanson. An actually high performing, still-young player, who is a focal point of a good team, with atypical physical attributes, who is just struggling to put it all together.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the miss was the familiarity of it. We’ve seen it a dozen times. But this just made the angry, disdainful response all the more intriguing, with my main counter being “so?”. We know he’s poor in front of goal. We already knew that. The manager already knew that. Why focus on it? What’s changed? You have to factor that into your game plan. The real question we should be asking is why is it, against a desperately poor Morecambe team; did the side only create one real chance?
While we appear loathe to admit it, Hanson isn’t really the problem. (He’s actually fundamental in how the side functions, but that’s by-the-by). I noted before the year, that to fit the profile of an automatic promotion team, City crudely needed to score around 70 goals, with the strikers picking up around 45 between them. Wells, Hanson and Alan Connell are currently just about on target. The midfielders however have currently amassed the grand total of (drum roll…) five league goals between them (G. Jones 2, Reid, Thompson, Hines), with only three occurring in open play. City play four midfielders each week, and they have been outscored collectively by their own defence. Sidebar: David Syers has scored more league goals in the past week than all of our five central midfielders (G. Jones, Doyle, R. Jones, Ravenhill, Atkinson) have combined for this season.
If there is a problem, (and I’m not sure there is by the way, they are still the 7th top scorers in League Two), it is the lack of goals from the rest of the team, not the profligacy of the forwards. If the aim of this team is automatic promotion, and maybe I’m being overly optimistic or pressuring here, but it probably is, or should be, they need to score more goals. They are currently on track for 68 goals for and 53 against. The perfect profile of a playoff team.
Meredith and G. Jones concerns
The takeaway from the Morecambe draw shouldn’t be James Hanson and his frustrating travails. The more important takeaways were far more troubling: the uncharacteristic halftime withdrawal of James Meredith, the regression of Gary Jones and the continued inability for the side to function offensively without Nahki Wells or Kyel Reid. (Or James Hanson for that matter).
Firstly the Meredith issue, hopefully he will be OK, it appears he is another victim of ‘the bug’. The consensus around these parts are that the last two games have been his poorest to date, (I actually thought he did fine in a tough matchup against Rochdale, and unfortunately I was stood on the opposite side to him at Morecambe, so can’t really comment) the fact he is under the weather, probably mitigates any under performance. Regardless, the impact is limited now we are in January. A left back will have been on Parkinson’s wish list before this, now it merely jumps up the queue. He will likely miss the game at Barnet, with Parkinson looking to extend Curtis Good’s loan spell. (Who actually impressed on Tuesday. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by that.)
The Jones regression is more worrying in that he is one of our more important, and remunerated players. However, the cause is likely fatigue. It shouldn’t be a huge problem to overcome in time. If you want to panic about something though, if you want to take to the streets (internet) and shout about something, it’s that final point.
The Morecambe first half aside (and a few other halves here and there), the flat, direct 4-4-2 has become the quote Parkinson style unquote. It’s efficient, it’s organised, and it’s effective…to a point. Not once in his tenure here has he been able to elicit goals from midfield. The goal threats are the two forwards, and set pieces. That’s it. If your midfield cannot contribute to the goal tally, you need three (or more) excellent finishers in your forward line; otherwise you won’t score enough to excel at the highest level.
Like everything, this only represents one side of the coin. Whilst volume is lost going forward, it is restricted coming back the other way, with Bradford relinquishing the fewest shots per game of anyone in the division. It isn’t even close. Unfortunately they have conceded a higher than average amount of goals/chances, so the impact of this organisational rigidity has been dampened. Perhaps the team can get by with goals from Nahki Wells and set pieces, tighten up defensively, and that will make the difference. Perhaps, but, well…you can pick the hole in that plan as easily as I.
A change of approach?
I like James Hanson, that much is probably clear by this point. But I’m not sure this side can compete for a top three spot, in this configuration, with him as the most important player. There aren’t enough goals from elsewhere to subsidise his profligacy. So one of two things is going to have to change.
Just remember, hypothetical 20 goal a year strikers never miss chances, or misplace passes. They just get used as a yardstick after every chance, which if they would score them all, would make them 50 goal a year men. Signing a new striker will not be a panacea. And finding one that can do everything Hanson can (which he’ll need to), and score twice as many goals on top of that, will be a costly, and difficult proposition.
Maybe the side has it in them to change, to play to Connell’s or someone else’s strengths up front alongside Wells. But they haven’t shown the ability to at this point. James Hanson’s finishing frustrates, even for apologists like me, but the truth is, in this form, the side is better with him than without. Do I think that will be good enough? I don’t know. Does Phil Parkinson? We’ll find out in the next few weeks. But for Barnet, and the foreseeable future, we will persist. Two (last minute) wins in seven doesn’t look good for anyone heading into the next ‘Biggest Game Of The Past Decade’.