By Jason McKeown
1) The defence is conceding too many goals
Having kept four clean sheets in the first 10 League One matches of this season, the last 21 games have seen just two shutouts. Bradford City have only conceded more than two goals on three occasions during this poor run, but too often the team’s overall efforts have been undermined by conceding at crucial times.
The long-term lay off of Andrew Davies was widely blamed for the defence’s sudden struggles, even though a similar period of City being without the influential centre back, last season, saw those memorable victories over Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa. Davies’ recent return from injury has not yet resulted in the expected improvement.
There is no doubting how vital Davies is to City’s cause, but the problem runs deeper. His long-time partner-in-crime, Rory McArdle, has struggled compared to last season. The left back slot – even before James Meredith’s untimely injury – has been a concern. In-between the sticks, Jon McLaughlin has enjoyed a mixed season at best.
Over a short-term period, McLaughlin is capable of outstanding form. But his six years at the club have so far seen him struggle to sustain performances over a lengthy period. Just like in 2009/10 when McLaughlin played second fiddle to on-loan Huddersfield keeper Simon Eastwood, the club has devoted a relatively small part of the overall budget to goalkeepers – and this has meant a lack of competition for the Scot.
Regardless of whether McLaughlin is retained or moved on during the summer, the goalkeeping budget needs to be reviewed.
2) There’s a lack of balance in midfield
Ever since his first game in charge as manager back in September 2011, Phil Parkinson has favoured a 4-4-2 formation that he has rarely deviated away from. This includes two deep-lying central midfielders and a wideman who can tuck in, with much of the attacking emphasis on one out-and-out winger to provide the attacking spark.
Last season this balance worked well, with Parkinson either favouring the directness of Kyel Reid on the left and solidity of Garry Thompson on the right, or Will Atkinson (doing the Thompson role) on the left and Zavon Hines (Reid) on the right. Whilst Mark Yeates is an almost like-for-like alterative to Atkinson, Hines was not adequately replaced (Parkinson should have kept Zav, in my view). The result has been a lack of wide options to suit Parkinson’s style of play.
Now robbed of Reid, Parkinson needs to get the best out of the number seven’s loanee replacement, Kyle Bennett. Early impressions are that he is not the same type of player and looks reluctant to run at people from outwide, preferring to cut inside. This is causing City to become too narrow. Adam Reach impresses, but lacks the pace to be the side’s out-and-out winger. It’s the same story with Mark Yeates and Rafa De Vita.
Parkinson either needs Bennett to become Reid, find a different loanee replacement, or change the midfield set-up.
3) Goalscoring opportunities are drying up
It’s easy to look back on early season performances as some sort of false dawn, but the way in which City played back then was hugely effective rather than lucky – and Parkinson needs to get his players back to that. One of the major worries in recent weeks has been the lack of decent goalscoring opportunities created, which has heightened the importance of every wasted sitter or close miss.
Take the Carlisle home game in August. A 4-0 victory, but it should have been 10-0. The way in which City played back then saw opposition teams overwhelmed by the level of pressure they faced and the variety to the attacking play. Direct balls to Hanson for sure, but also a genuine threat from the flanks and creativity from Nathan Doyle. The opposition might stop one City route to goal, but still have others to worry about.
It’s a sign of low confidence that the ball is hoofed from the back rather than anyone taking greater responsibility to begin attacking moves. Hanson is at times being made to look poor by the predictability of where the ball is going to end up and, even when he wins it, failure of others to get up the pitch and provide him options. And the more the ball is cheaply given away, the more the pressure is placed onto City’s backline.
Clean sheets are not happening first and foremost because of the ineffectiveness of how we attack.
4) Aaron Mclean is not (yet) Nahki Wells
On the surface, Aaron Mclean looked set to be a like-for-like replacement for Nahki Wells – arguably one of the main reasons why Parkinson signed him. Yet it has become increasingly clear that Aaron prefers to be more involved in the build-up play compared to the Bermudian, with his greater work coming outside the box.
It’s not that this is a bad thing, but it means that City no longer have a striker playing on the shoulder of the last man, sniffing out chances. Suddenly, Hanson has become the forward-most player and is having to play with his back to goal. Previously the big man would be flicking the ball on into the path of his strike partner; now he is having to direct it sideways or backwards towards Mclean. The result is that City are spending less time in the opposition penalty area.
For Parkinson the dilemma is to either change this aspect of Mclean’s game, or ensure there are other players running forward to present a further option for the strikers to link up with. I believe the manager is looking at the latter option, hence Matty Dolan sitting against Crewe and Gary Jones having the licence to get forward. Both of Jones’ goals that day were the result of Mclean flick-ons, but Hanson had also been involved in the build-up.
The team is able to get more out of Mclean in general play but looks set to lose out on the number of goals that his predecessor Wells provided. It’s about adapting the game plan to ensure the team makes up for Nahki’s goal tally, even if that means spreading around the goalscorers.
5) There’s not enough competition for places
In November and December, Mark Yeates was desperately unlucky to continue to be overlooked. Almost every time he came off the bench during a game, he made an impact. Yet the week after he would still be amongst the substitutes, rather than being rewarded with a start.
Flash forward to now and Parkinson is struggling for impact players who can come off the bench and affect the game. That translates into a lack of competition, meaning those in the team can deliver below-par performances and yet retain their places. It’s not as simple as to say that people in the first XI are relaxing and not trying hard enough; but dented confidence has been allowed to drain further by the player remaining in the side and struggling even more.
There is not much that can be done recruitment-wise to rectify this until the summer, but until then Parkinson badly needs those players in reserve to press their claims for a starting position.
Although the club has stated for a year now (privately and publically) the benefits of not fielding a reserve team this year, and relying on behind-closed-door friendlies, I remain unconvinced this approach has helped. There should be greater competition for places than appears to be the case of late.