We’ve won the battles, but can we win the war?

Swansea City vs Bradford City cup final preview

@Wembley Stadium on Sunday 24 February, 2013

By Phil Abbott

I stumbled over a ladbrokes.com prophecy yesterday regarding Bradford City’s chances of League Cup Final glory. It stated that it would be one step too far for the brave Bantams and that, at 4/1 for the win, it’s not going to be money well spent.

In an acclaimed piece of research published under the title, ‘How the weak win wars’ (Cambridge Press, 2005), Political Scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft concluded that in wars of the past 200 years, the underdog had prevailed nearly one third of the time, despite the odds being stacked significantly against them. At face value, on paper if you like, perceived weaknesses might have included a seemingly catastrophic deficit of manpower, skill, equipment or intelligence, often to the ratio of 10 to 1 against. But the manner of the victory of each of these underdog achievements would always appear to come down to one fundamental approach; attack the weaknesses, and not the strengths.

In biblical accounts, and often overly quoted in clichéd footballing punditry, David defeated Goliath, just as Bradford City will be desperate to overturn Premiership club Swansea in the League Cup final this weekend. But linking this story to Arreguin-Toft’s historical research, it was not the portrayed physical strength, imposing prowess or bloodthirsty mindset of Goliath that was his downfall, rather being hit on a weak spot by a calculated and brave David, facing up to the daunting challenges of this unprecedented one-on-one battle.

And so, to the present, and the battle for silverware; England vs Wales, League Two vs Premier League Two, Bradford City vs Swansea City.

Like some of history’s great war strategists, Phil Parkinson has won a number of impressive victories on the battle field in recent months, masterminding the downfall of Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa in successive rounds and now, before him, lie the hopes of tens of thousands of Bantams, and hundreds of thousands of romantic footballing neutrals hoping he can plot and execute just one more improbable victory to win the whole war outright.

In order to do this, Parkinson must do two things: use City’s strengths to attack Swansea where they are at their weakest, and protect City where they are most vulnerable. This will cause great debate and thought between him and his back room staff. So where might he perceive those areas to be?

Throughout this campaign, the set piece has been the main Achilles heel for the Premiership teams. For some reason, they find it more difficult to defend League Two plays than against better teams. The whys and wherefores are widely debated, but physicality, hunger and unfamiliarity are likely to be amongst the main reasons. If City are to get anything out of this game, I strongly suspect this to be one of the most beneficial channels.

Swansea will be without their star defender Chico Flores. Injured recently, Flores is a firm favourite with the Swansea faithful and has left a huge hole to fill following a series of outstanding performances. Coming off the back off a 5-0 hammering by Liverpool, their fragile defence needs to be tested early and often. We saw just what happened to Aston Villa when we breached their back line; they pressed the self-destruct button and panicked. Could this be the same for Swansea too? After all, there will be a huge number of players making their nervy first Wembley appearances on both sides.

The Counter attack has been Swansea’s nemesis in recent times. They enjoy tremendous possession stats in the Premier League, as high as 65% against really good quality opposition, but they have been undone by swift, incisive breaks. If City can muster the width and pace to release pressure from the back line and find Nahki Wells in space higher up the field, there is always that chance…

Woe betide Swansea if they fail to show respect to City and their players. Arsenal clearly thought they could turn up at Valley Parade and canter to a comfortable, uneventful victory, whilst Villa seemed sure they would overturn their first leg deficit quite comfortably. Swansea already seem to be taking more care over their preparations, but City must seize on any stones unturned in the Swansea research. Can the Bantams settle quickly into the match and be the first to unearth and exploit an element of weakness in Swansea’s game plan or personnel?

Parkinson has promised to pick a team in form, and there is some conjecture between fans as to who that might be. What Parkinson is sure about, however, is that he will only consider players who are 100% fit. There will be great excitement and heartbreak in the City camp when the team is announced and I fear the two cup stalwarts Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh may be the ones to miss out on the starting 11 at the back. However painful, it may be less of a letdown for McArdle who, after a short injury, will be glad just to make the bench. However, for young McHugh, who has provided some magic moments for the Bantams in the cup this year, it will be a tough pill to swallow if he is not to make the starting line up. ‘The boy from Donegal’, will need to pick himself up and dust himself down after playing such an instrumental role in helping the Bantams to Wembley.

In midfield, there are so many deserving names in the hat. Garry Thompson has had his finest moments for the club in the cup; Will Atkinson has found his feet and is one of the first names on the team-sheet now; Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines could cause mayhem on the wings; as could Blair Turgott given the chance. But only two of the above are likely to get a starting berth outside the Nathan Doyle/ Gary Jones double act.

Hearing their name read out in the starting line up of any cup final, never mind a major domestic English football final, will be an unforgettable and awesome moment in each player’s career. They will need to compose themselves, come to terms with their role and ensure, in the words of former Bradford Bulls coach Brian Noble, they “leave every bead of sweat on the field”. They need to ensure that the highest point of their career is not their name on the team sheet, but their name in the history books.

The sad thing for some players is that they will play no part at all in the game. It’s likely there will be no place for players who have played in the competition this season, such as James Meredith, Luke Oliver, Curtis Good and Ricky Ravenhill, and, whilst they will be hoping right up to the announcement of the team that they have been selected, they will likely spend most of the game lamenting on their bad luck at not having had a part to play on the hallowed turf. Be assured, if City do the impossible and win the game, they will all be worshipped by their adoring fans as the squad parade around the West end of Wembley!

For my money, I think, injuries apart, we will see Parky stick largely to the successful cup sides of earlier rounds, with the addition of Andrew Davies: Duke, Darby, Davies, Nelson, Dickson, Hines, Doyle, Jones, Atkinson, Hanson, Wells; with a bench packed with the likes of McArdle, McHugh, Connell, Reid, Turgott, Thompson and McLaughlin.

So back to Arreguin-Toft and his research. What would he be advising in this particular instance? I’d guess…”If their strength is Michu, make their supply lines their weakness. If their strength is possession, make their lack of time on the ball their weakness. If their strength is off the ball runs, make their inability to shake off markers their weakness. If their weakness is defending set-pieces, play for the foul or the corner balls. If their weakness is playing against the unknown, have something innovative up your sleeve. If your strength is desire, put them to the sword.”

Prediction: Bradford City 2 (Wells, Jones) Swansea 2 (Michu, 2), after extra time. You know the rest…

Cup Final: Width of a Post build-up

Categories: Previews, Wembley 2013

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