Bradford City 1
Thompson (OG) 10
Swindon Town 2
Saturday 13 September, 2014
By Jason McKeown
That bright future is in danger of looking like a false dawn. Three consecutive home league defeats have all but extinguished Valley Parade’s buoyant early season mood, paving the way for darker thoughts of a difficult winter ahead. Expectations are lowering fast.
This was a big improvement on Yeovil – frankly, it couldn’t have been any worse – yet there were too many similarities to dismiss the Glovers’ defeat as a one-off. Once more, dreadful defending on set pieces was Bradford City’s undoing, as Swindon profited from hesitancy and uncertainty to overturn an early home lead. The game was won – and lost – by the 20-minute spell that preceded the half time break.
City didn’t react well to the set back of conceding Jon Obika’s equaliser, and looked on the ropes when Swindon’s debut signing was farcically left unmarked to slam home a second. Had the first half continued another few minutes, the rattled Bantams would probably have endured further collateral damage. It was grim watching.
The inquest into the two goals conceded will be long and brutal. In both occurrences, good initial Bantams’ defending was not followed up after the ball had been cleared for a corner. Billy Knott must have felt extra frustrated to see his last-ditch block, when City were leading, count for nothing when seconds later Obika – who signed from Tottenham on deadline day – was left unmarked to bundle home the resultant set-piece. Obika’s header took a deflection that deceived Jordan Pickford. There were post-match criticisms aired at the on-loan keeper, although it is difficult to ascertain what, exactly, he was supposed to have done wrong.
Pickford was certainly blameless when three of his team-mates fell over in the area, allowing Obika to profit and score what proved to be the winner. It was another corner badly dealt with; this time following the successful defending of a Swindon free kick, after Mark Yeates was harshly penalised for a 50-50 challenge in front of the Midland Road stand.
Both goals – and the three gifted to Yeovil last time out – were a brutal reminder of one of last season’s toughest lessons: that at this level, City simply cannot get by without Andrew Davies. Like Pickford, Rory McArdle unfairly emerged as a post-match scapegoat when he was in reality the pick of the back four. The Northern Ireland international had a mixed afternoon for sure, but this still bettered troublingly poor displays from Stephen Darby, Alan Sheehan and an especially out-of-sorts James Meredith.
It had initially looked so promising for City. They began the match in the confident, vibrant manner that had characterised their August endeavours. By the 10th minute they were a goal to the good and had already missed an earlier penalty. Sheehan’s spot kick was weak and easily read by the hugely impressive Wes Foderingham – although there was a question over whether the Swindon keeper should have remained on the pitch to save it.
Foderingham was the last man when he hauled down Billy Clarke, who had latched onto a blindside backpass, inside the area, just two minutes in. Referee Richard Clark pointed to the spot but kept his cards in his pocket; with Foderingham probably spared from dismissal by the angle that Clarke was running at when tripped, and the fact it was so early in the game.
It was all academic after Jason Kennedy was on hand to pressurise Louis Thompson into bundling Yeates’ superb low cross into his own net. City were passing the ball around well and continued to push forward in pursuit of a second goal, and the spirit looked good when Swindon threatened at the other end. Witness an excellent save from Pickford that saw team-mates rush over to congratulate the youngster.
Swindon’s equaliser punctured the mood and broke the home side’s spirit far too easily. The confidence evaporated, the self-belief drained. The visitors – who looked so sloppy early doors – improved greatly and took their opportunities clinically. At half time, boos rang out from three sides of Valley Parade and – for the second Saturday in a row – a 2-1 deficit looked a considerable challenge to overcome.
City made a better fist of it this time, gradually clawing their way back into the game during the opening minutes of the second half, and then beginning to dominate. Phil Parkinson’s decision to replace Meredith with the wide threat of Filipe Morais was decisive on the pattern of the game. Gary Liddle moved to centre back and Sheehan back to his natural left back slot. Finally, the home side brought some width to their attacks. The pressure on Swindon grew.
At which point, the Robins retreated from a progressive, counter-attacking side that were pleasing on the eye, into one that readily embraced the dark arts of football. They time-wasted at every available opportunity; their players going down at the slightest contact, causing the match to be stopped for long periods. Special mentions go to Thompson and Brazilian Raffa Branco, who are both quite simply an embarrassment to their profession.
Referee Clark had an erratic game, which played right into the hands of Swindon. He showed no inclination to address their time-wasting, and was inconsistent in what he deemed to be free kicks. Swindon deserved to win this match, and at times looked like a top six-side, but their antics in the final 20 minutes left a very sour taste. At full time, Mark Cooper should certainly have shown more humility in the way he celebrated, given the way he had instructed his team to get over the line.
When Swindon players weren’t lying on the ground, City forced several corners and two brilliant saves from Foderingham. First, Sheehan’s free kick required Foderingham to tip the ball past the post. Then deep into six minutes of stoppage time, Darby was left unmarked in the box and his header was magnificently tipped over, when it seemed destined to loop into the top corner.
It was all in vain, however, and a minute later Sheehan lost his head in the face of more Swindon time-wasting, raising his arms at Branco and earning a red card. That said, the way that Branco fell to the floor after Sheehan’s fairly minimal contact was disgraceful.
Where this defeat leaves City is now the big question. They played well during periods of the match, but let themselves down badly during that 20-minute spell. Nevertheless, there are positives to take and the extreme mood of doom and gloom should be avoided. City are nowhere near as bad as these back-to-back home losses might suggest.
The clichéd talk will be of a need for a Plan B (Morais probably was Plan B, but as it didn’t overturn the result it may be overlooked). Everyone knows that the addition of a couple of wide players would be welcomed, but the likelihood of bringing in sufficient quality may have disappeared when Tom Cleverley’s proposed transfer from Manchester United to Aston Villa merely became a loan move. The finances largely dictate that Parkinson must largely go with what he has. That is the reality that people need to accept.
And for Parkinson, that means getting the diamond sparkling again. Since his stunning performance against Leeds, Knott has been assigned the deeper role within the midfield to limited success. He was City’s best player today and certainly fares well in taking the ball from the two centre backs – who then split apart to take full back spots, whilst the full backs themselves temporarily move forwards and become wingers.
Knott is the heart of the team and terrific at setting up attacks. However, he is less suited to winning back the ball when the opposition are coming forwards, and the shunting of Liddle to a wide diamond position has completely neutered the former Notts County man’s influence.
Equally, Billy Clarke is not as effective playing up front compared to his favoured position behind the front two. He partnered James Hanson to limited effect, and always looks more comfortable taking up deeper positions and trying to make things happen. Yeates also didn’t suit the tip of the diamond, as he clearly prefers to drift out wide. It was a typically mixed display from Yeates, although for now he deserves to remain in Parkinson’s thinking.
Playing Liddle, Yeates and Clarke (and arguably Knott) in positions they are less suited to appeared to have a negative impact on the team’s balance – but Parkinson wouldn’t have been forced into doing so if his highly paid striker was in any kind of form. The manager has issued a public kick-up-the-backside to Aaron Mclean – who came on as sub and toiled hard – and so much depends on him rediscovering his goal touch. James Hanson, who was superb all afternoon, needs a strike partner and Clarke does not look the answer.
The England coach, Gary Neville, stated in his national newspaper column that the diamond is “one of the most complex formations to get right”. At Valley Parade we are not yet approaching the crossroads for sticking with or ditching the diamond, but it clearly needs to be tweaked quickly to become more effective.
And perhaps – on a difficult and disappointing day – sticking by this approach was the biggest plus to take home. Unlike against Yeovil, where the players resorted to a default setting of launching the ball long to Hanson, the players kept to the passing principles of the diamond in their pursuit of an equaliser. Forget Plan B for the moment, because there is no point in the Plan A if we cannot trust in it during times of adversity and when chasing a game.
This is the route the club has gone down, of playing a more passing and attractive style of football – and it was a route that was demanded by supporters. It cannot be undone now, and it shouldn’t be undone now. The answers to the problems lie within the building, and it is down to Parkinson to find the right combinations to turn around what worryingly looks like the beginnings of a slump.
Turn it around he must do quickly. The season cannot hinge on waiting for Davies to come back. History shows that he will break down again and again. There is enough quality within the camp to achieve better results than this, and this second half fightback against suggests we are not that far away.
City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle, Sheehan, Meredith (Morais 65), Knott, Liddle, Kennedy (Bennett 83), Yeates (Mclean 75), Hanson, Clarke
Not used: Williams, Routis, Wright, McBurnie
Categories: Match Reviews