City lose the plot before setting up a big finale

2013-05-02 21.07.37

Bradford City 2

Wells 38 (pen), Thompson 74

Burton Albion 3

Zola 22+28, Weir 44

Thursday 2 May, 2013

By Jason McKeown

After the pre-match tension: terror. This was frightening, harrowing, shocking. Every worst fear realised during 45 minutes of football as poor as anything Bradford City have produced all season. What a time to freeze. What a time to implode.

And yet, the tie is not over. Garry Thompson’s superb strike 16 minutes from time means that City can travel to Burton on Sunday still believing it can be done. Burton should have finished the job. Phil Parkinson will know it and, crucially, Gary Rowett will know it too. That the Brewers take a lead from Valley Parade might be beyond his expectations; but we were on the ropes and they let us off. For them, the psychological effects of being handed the red-hot favourites tag will also take some managing.

Quite where it went wrong for the Bantams tonight is a mystery. With Kyel Reid having not trained all week, meaning he stood no chance of starting, Parkinson’s decision to go without an out-and-out winger left City one-dimensional and painfully predictable. That Zavon Hines had endured a difficult afternoon playing out of position on the left in the league game against Burton must have come into Parkinson’s thinking. He didn’t want to dislodge right midfielder Thompson to accommodate Hines’ pace and rightly so, but Will Atkinson on the left caused a narrow midfield to look even more restricted.

And Burton – who made good on Rowett’s pre-match promise to go for it at Valley Parade – were simply magnificent. There were aspects of their play tonight that might leave much to be desired, but they combined the ugly grittiness with some devastating passing football that City simply could not live with. The previously excellent back four were a shadow of themselves. Michael Nelson – in for the suspended Andrew Davies – will no doubt bear the brunt of the criticism, but really there was no defender who could emerge with any credit.

Certainly not the previously unflappable Stephen Darby. Tasked with marking Jacques Maghoma, City’s right back was the unwitting victim of one of the most astonishing individual performances I have seen in our six years in League Two. Maghoma ran the show, tearing down the left wing at times but equally showing a willingness to cut inside and run past Ricky Ravenhill in the centre of the park. No one could get near Maghoma. On this form, Burton won’t be keeping him no matter which division they are playing in next season.

Maghoma set up Burton’s opener midway through the first half, after getting clear of Darby and delivering a superb cross. Calvin Zola – who yet again had saved his best form for the Bantams – ran from deep and headed the ball home, unchallenged, in between Atkinson and Meredith. Rory McArdle was seemingly tasked with marking Zola tonight, but the Brewers’ striker popped up all over the final third with some very intelligent off-the-ball runs and strong physical all round approach.

City were punished for failing to take the initiative. A packed out Valley Parade roared the players onto the pitch and through the opening stages; but after the players mustered little more productive than a couple of corners, frustration did not take long to be aired. It was a cracking atmosphere tonight, with the level of noise at times prompting hairs to stand on the back of your neck. And yet the mood was not one of unequivocal backing that the big crowds against Arsenal and Aston Villa had provided. Tonight the greater expectation led to greater grumbling.

Within six minutes of opening the scoring, Zola had a second. Zander Diamond’s long ball forwards in truth found Zola in an offside position, but there was no excuse for affording him the time and space to work an angle and fire a stunning drive into Jon McLaughlin’s far corner. McArdle was with his man this time, but allowed Zola the yard of space he needed to pick his spot. Ravenhill might also have done more to help him.

At this stage Burton truly threatened to run riot. They passed the ball with a swagger and style that was chalk to the cheese of City’s direct style. Without the outlet of Reid or Hines, only Thompson took his share of responsibility of getting on the ball to make things happen. What happened to Gary Jones tonight? Perhaps the rest on Saturday was a mistake, as he certainly looked rusty.

Burton might have made it three when some superb passing tore City open and left John McGarth one-on-one with McLaughlin, who made an excellent block. That felt like a pivotal moment in not only the game, but the tie – preventing the visitors’ climbing out of sight. It had been Burton’s fifth shot on target, while City were still to register their first.

When they did it came from the penalty spot, putting the home side back into it. A free kick by Gary Jones had led to James Hanson crossing for an unmarked McArdle, only for the defender to produce an air shot that fortunately saw the ball fall to Thompson. His shot was handled by Burton right back Damien McCory as though he was making a goalkeeping save. Appeals for a red card were ignored, but at least Nahki Wells coolly slotting the penalty home.

But there was another sting in the Burton tail. McCory’s long pass saw Alex MacDonald run clear of a dozing Meredith, and his cut back was met by Robbie Weir to finish with ease. The space he found in-between McArdle and Nelson was hugely troubling. It’s stating the obvious that Davies was missed tonight, but this was the same back four that had kept a clean sheet against Burton only the other week.

The second half saw improvement from City, as Burton eased off and attempted to hold onto their two-goal cushion. The introduction of Nathan Doyle made a big difference, as he provided the composure and tempo that had been lacking, with City finally starting to pass the ball. Fellow sub Reid, whilst clearly short of full fitness, offered much-needed width and did well. But Burton were defending admirably.

Thompson’s strike did put City back into it, and it could be looked back on as pivotal come the final whistle on Sunday. A deserved goal it was too, as he, Hanson and McLaughlin were the only City starters to emerge with any credit tonight. That Burton hit the bar through MacDonald soon after underlined their counter attacking threat, but we were firmly into time-wasting and gamesmanship country, as Burton ran down the clock.

City might have drawn on the night, with Wells and Hanson wasting glorious chances in almost identical fashion. Screwing shots wide on the turn when there was time to take a touch and show composure. That summed up the evening for City, one where the basic principles of what has got us to where we are were somehow forgotten. The fact the tie is not over is probably the best we could have hoped for.

With three days until the second leg, Parkinson will need to formulate a strategy for the Perelli Stadium very quickly. He was clearly caught out tonight by Burton’s adventurous approach and the free role afforded to Maghoma, but worrying about what the opposition might do to us cannot be the principal focus.

We didn’t do ourselves justice tonight. Now all we can do is ensure that’s not the case on Sunday, and to leave the pitch having given everything. It will be a tall order to overturn the deficit on the turf of the Football League’s best home form team, but it is not impossible.

As fantastic as Burton were tonight, I still don’t believe they are a better side than the Bantams. We now need to go and show that. Give them lots to worry about. Prey on their anxiety. This magnificent season does not deserve to end on a whimper, and everything we’ve seen over the last 10 months suggests this group of players won’t let that happen. I have every faith they can turn it around.

It’s only half time, and all season long we’ve proven to be a better second half team.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, Nelson, McArdle, Meredith, Thomspon, Ravenhill (Doyle 57), Jones, Atkinson (Reid 57), Hanson, Wells (Connell 89)

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Categories: Match Reviews, The 2012/13 play offs

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17 replies

  1. think phil got it wrong tonight im sure he knows it and will change it on sunday quick question to any one what has carl mchugh done to upset parkinson seems well out of favour but looked really solid against wigan villa and arsenal nice to see big john egan too

  2. I’ve just watched the game back and was shocked to hear myself agreeing with the pundit (Andy Hinchliffe maybe??). He said that we had played without guile and had offered nothing at all for our front two to feed off.

    I actually think that goes for the league game against Burton as well (the other week). We look very limited without two attacking options on the flanks and just woeful with none. The big loser when we play like this is James Hanson, who gamely wins every flick-on and chases down every ball, but never gets the chance to attack a cross. I just think back to that diving header against Villa; surely with regular decent delivery from out wide he’d turn into the goalscorer so many think he can never be. The last couple of games have seen an alarming reversion to off-the-deck football, with Ravenhill in particular guilty of hoof-ball and Hanson is working so hard to create things. It wouldn’t be so bad perhaps, but Nakhi Wells doesn’t seem to be buzzing round him like he was earlier in the season. If I’m honest, he already looks like he’s on his holidays. Unlikely to happen, but I’d quite like to see Connell start on Sunday.

    As for the back four, what can you say? Tonight surely puts to bed the debate about whether we need Davies? McArdle is young and next to Davies will get stronger and stronger, but Nelson just doesn’t look at the races. Meredith doesn’t seem fit and Darby looks well frit of a bit of pace!

    • The positive is we know we can play far better and we’re still in the tie.
      I still can’t work out why mcardle was with Zola??? Surely nelson was the better option with his height ???

  3. Is Davies back for the second leg – If he wins the battle against Zola (which he can do comfortably) then I think we can disrupt Burton’s attacks much more effectively. Hopefully, Darby just had a blip in an otherwise excellent season dealing with Maghoma – perhaps Parkinson will get Thomson to sit deeper to help out – although this would require more of an outlet on the left (i.e. Reid should start).

    Everyone knows we can perform much better – the fact we are only 1 goal down (and there is no away goals rule) means we are still very much in with a chance.

  4. I think one of our main issues is we’ve dropped scoring from set pieces ala Arsenal, Villa etc. In fact I think the last time we scored from a set-piece (not including direct free-kicks) was Villa away. In the early season we were renowned for set pieces, but not any more.

  5. Spot on, Jason. We were, in my opinion, outplayed and out-thought in the first half. I do not understand why Burton went more defensive, and hope it comes back to haunt them.
    If you could be neutral, you would have enjoyed Burton’s display, but, because we are not neutral, we didn’t.
    I thought Well looked for free-kicks too much, and I do not like to see the big boot upfield from City, when they can pass it so well.
    Thompson impresses me.
    I personally thought the crowd were solidly and enthusiastically behind City, contrasted to last season, and that augurs well for 2013-14, whatever division we are in.
    Thanks for your reports. Living in hope.

  6. Zola is essentially a lower division player but when the ball was played long to him, he was skilful enough to bring it under control and pass it to teammates and his second goal was stunning. When we play the ball long, Hanson goes for the flick on and this rarely works and he’s not good enough on the ground, shooting included, to make the same sort of impact. The result is that some of the players around him are made to look like passengers because they’re not brought into the game when we play hoof ball, Atkinson in the first half for example. We are at our best when we play through the midfield and bring the wide players into the game, especially Reid when on-form. I’m not anti-Hanson, but I think your report is too generous to him. He might help get us out of the division yet but I don’t see him operating successfully at a higher level. Famous two goal away wins at the business end of the season – Bolton 1985, QPR 1999, keep the faith!

    • Have to disagree with Mike H and support Jason’s view on this.
      I thought Hanson had a very good game last night. Zola was poor when he came to VP a few weeks back, and he was obviously much improved last night, but I think their tactics and our way of handling him made him look better than he is. Nelson played him very poorly in my opinion, frequently following him deeper into no-man’s-land and then losing the header, leaving a big gap either side of McCardle for their on-rushing midfielders. The 4-1-4-1 they played meant they could rush on without fearing our counter-attacks, which were less likely anyway with Atkinson and Thompson making us narrower (itself necessary because their man infront of the back-four often meant Jones and Ravenhill were often outnumbered in the middle). This is not a criticism of Parkinson either, as Reid’s injury and Hines’ drop in form of late meant Thompson and Atkinson (both of whom had done so well against Arsenal and Villa) were solid choices. But it wasn’t until Doyle came on that we were able to pick the tempo up and start passing it around. Even Reid, who I find really frustrating to watch even when fit) offered us some width to pull wider their compressed midfield and encourage Meredith to push on.
      What I mean by this view of the team shapes on show is that for 70 minutes Hanson was being asked to feed off direct/high balls to him against often three central defenders and mixed set pieces (I agree with the comment above on this). Hanson rarely finds himself in strictly attacking positions, not because he isn’t capable, but because he has become so important to us moving up the field as a unit. With back to goal, I think he’s amongst the best in the division. If we were to be playing with two out-and-out wingers who delivered frequent and accurate crosses (not something Reid excels at) then I have no doubt Hanson would be ahead of Wells in the scoring stakes. But with often unpredicatable service and as the link between our midfield and attack, Hanson is both effective and working exceptionally hard as part of a collective.
      And if that’s not convincing… the man scored at Villa for crying out loud, so let’s give him a break eh?!

      • To add my own thoughts to Mark’s excellent comments, I think that the praise of Calvin Zola, whilst fully merited, needs the perspective of the fact he is an inconsistent player who does not perform like that week in week out.

        We at City are slightly unfortunate that he seems to save his best days for us! I remember him having an outstanding game for Tranmere against City in the FA Cup second round in December 2007. David Wetherall was marking him that day but could not live with him. Then of course there was the Crewe game in October 2009 where Zola netted that wonder goal as part of a brace. As Mark says, however, Zola was anonymous in the league game two weeks ago, and Nelson did a good job on him that day. Would I like Zola at City? Yes if he played like that every week. But he doesn’t, so I’ll stick with Hanson personally.

        I feel that the criticism of Hanson last night was harsh. Too many players too the easy route out last night of just knocking it long to him rather than getting on the ball and making things happen. And no one other than Wells was close enough to Hanson for him direct the ball too. It is simplistic to say that Hanson should chest down and lay off every ball. If it’s flying aimlessly forward, as it was, the best he can do is win it and the direct it to someone. But Burton were easily able to mark him closely and then get close to Wells. Hanson won plenty, but Burton were effective in making sure they won the second ball.

        I don’t think the way we played last night could see us get the best out of Hanson, and it is therefore harsh that he bears the brunt of the criticism. Stick him in a team with Jacques Maghoma and the service he was providing, and then compare Hanson with Zola.

      • Couldn’t agree more! Against Burton in the League, Hanson tried to bring it down quite a few times, mostly succesfully, but even then there was no obvious offensive ball to play. When the ball is so high off the ground his only option is often to flick on and he does it so well. Twice against Burton the other week Hanson flicked on then had to chase his own flick on because nobody else was anywhere near. When he can, he brings it down. When he can’t, he invariably flicks it on. It is the duty of other players to offer more. And, while he doesn’t seem deadly in front of goal, I think with better service he’d get his eye in. How many times can you say he’s had a tasty ball to attack this season?

    • Couldn’t agree more with Mike H’s comments. Zola was everything you’d want a lower league centre forward to be and if he had been playing for us (and Hanson for Burton) I am convinced we would have won that game.

      I would go so far as to say that we have more chance of reaching the final if Hanson doesn’t start the second leg. Every manager in the 4th division knows how City play and they set up to combat the long diagonal ball to Hanson – some with more success than others and Burton were very successful last night. If we can hit them with the element of surprise by not playing Hanson, playing through midfield, keeping the ball on the ground and utilising pace up front, then our superior ball players may have the edge.

  7. I wasn’t at the game and it’s amazing how you see a different game on the TV. I thought, until the first goal, both sides were absolutely abject. Then Maghoma & Zola combined (they were the difference) and the rot set in.

    City just played long ball all game, perhaps the reason being that the pitch looked so bobbly. Jones & Atkinson being unable to pass two yards to each other in the first 10mins was maybe also a reason for the long ball.

    I thought Burton edged it but we shouldn’t be disheartened. Despite playing so poorly we missed 3 open goals (McArdle header, Wells miskick, Hanson miskick), one of their goals was blatantly offisde and they should have had 2 men sent off. The handball as Martin Allen said was a straightforward red card and that challenge on Reid near the end was a straight red.

    I don’t see how we can criticise Wells because he isn’t 6foot 4 and therefore superfluous to City’s tactics. Also re Nelson it was more noticeable how many times McArdle miskicked but again I think the pitch had much to do with this.

    At the end of the day we are still in it. We should be thankful to Burton for taking Zola off as the game changed instantly and we can still do it, particularly if they go negative in the 2nd leg. Deal with Zola and Maghoma and get some shots in as their keeper is dodgy.

    Come on City!

  8. I hate to say my pessimism was well-founded. Whilst we have to applaud Burton’s performance it does ask some serious questions about PP’s tactical nous (and the players?). Once Burton had decided on on 4-1-4-1 formation with Hanson being obviously the main threat to them. What do we do? Play hoof-ball to Hanson. Zola’s first goal was tremendous (when does JH get a ball like that?). Seeing their team I would have had Doyle playing alongside if not slightly in front of McArdle.
    There is a broader issue and one I tackled Jason about in a previous article. The 15 game run was hardly the most inspiring – scrappy wins, poor draws and a dreadful defeat to Exeter. We got to the play-offs through the disastrous form of Exeter, Southend and Fleetwood, ARE WE GOOD ENOUGH?
    Quite clearly without a decent winger we are one-dimensional but that doesn’t say much for the rest of the team. If Kyle is good then we might get a result. The poor quotient of goals from anyone in midfield will haunt us. I would love to see Atkinson in a central creative midfield role alongside Jones or Doyle.
    Looking to next season – I would say we have failed to get out of Div 4 because we really play 4-2-4 and time after time teams with 5 in midfield have put us to the sword. We have to radically re-think our formation for next season and of course, have the personnel to execute it. There’s not much wrong with defence. The midfield needs overhauling. Scott Brown maybe should be developed. Can we get better wide players than Hines, Reid or Thompson? Should we cash in on Nahki? And James? Or will it be alright next season with the same players?
    Oh and by the way – whilst statistically and common sensically we have no chance at Burton – funny things do happen! I remember winning twice at Norwich when we didn’t seem to have a prayer – maybe 0-2 – to the Bantams?

    • I think that City’s end of season form deserves greater appreciation than that. We played some good football and defeated some very good sides. Take the Northampton and Burton wins. Yes scrappy goals, but promotion rivals. We were terrific against Bristol Rovers and Chesterfield. Yes Exeter collapsed, and yes you could argue that we are lucky in that respect, but only 2 defeats since Wembley is an impressive return that deserves respect.

      For me it is too early to talk about next season. We had an off-night last night for sure, but when we get on the front foot and play to our strengths we are an excellent side at this level and offer a lot for opposition sides to worry about. We didn’t do ourselves justice last night. Caught out tactically for sure, and it will be fascinating to see how both Gary Rowett and Phil Parkinson approach Sunday, but let’s not give up and write off this team just yet.

    • One thing I’ve noticed this season is this:-
      Phil Parkinson is a very cautious manager in terms of over thinking selection at times
      Were great when teams come at us, however not so good when were the team trying to force the issue and on the front foot.
      My evidence is when we’ve gone a goal down at valley parade we then seem to go out and attack teams with power,pace,venom .
      Sadly last night we lost to many individual battles all over park!.
      Can I say it was Rory mcardle who was marking Zola all game nothing to do with nelson but I have to say his long big boot up the field was awful.

  9. At the risk of sounding over confident, this is now well poised and plays to our strengths.This group of players has shown great character this season and pulled it out of the bag just when they needed it (OK, Swansea was a bridge too far, but you get my point!).I think they will push Burton aside on Sunday , not because they are a much better team but because they have a reserve tank that seems to kick in just at the right time.
    If not, then lets applaud a great team effort this season and pray to God that Parkinson stays on.

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