By Jason McKeown
Now one of the first names on the team sheet, for Mark Yeates there is something especially symbolic about Bradford City’s trip to Preston North End this weekend – for it was in this fixture last season when his Bantams career seemingly began to end.
On that October evening 13 months ago, Yeates spent the entire 90 minutes on the Deepdale sidelines as an unused substitute. The Bantams’ 13th league game of the campaign proving unlucky for the summer arrival from Watford. Yeates could have been playing on the left wing that night, just as he had at the start of the season – but instead Kyel Reid was on the pitch playing out of his skin. Yeates could have been playing just behind James Hanson in the hole, a position he had filled for the previous two-and-a-half games, in place of the injured Nahki Wells – but instead Garry Thompson was chosen to partner Hanson.
So out of the pulsating 2-2 draw he sat, and Yeates would only start a further three games in the remainder of the season (two of those being the final two games of the campaign).
It was telling that Yeates’ presence at Valley Parade started to diminish at that point, given the wider problems that were increasingly effecting the team. Preston was game number three of the infamous one win in 21; and yet as the situation grew more and more worrying, Yeates was still not seen as the solution. He became a bit-part player, reduced to appearing off the bench. The fact he generally impressed in his cameos did not translate into a place in the starting line up the game after.
And eventually it clearly got to Yeates. And just at the point where his manager had no option but to give him a more meaningful opportunity, he blew it.
Bramall Lane, last January, was that big opportunity. It was such a key moment in City’s season and, after Kyel Reid hobbled off seriously injured after 32 minutes, the chance for Yeates to reclaim that left wing spot was available on a plate. His lack of commitment and overall body language was woeful, as he left Carl McHugh behind him out to dry. The miracle of Gary Jones saved the day for City, but Yeates’ dreadful performance was as big of a talking point.
Although an injury problem was a factor in his display, the upshot was that Parkinson signed Adam Reach on loan to replace Reid instead of entrusting Yeates, who did not start another match for three months.
Last season, the big problem for Yeates was that he didn’t provide anything of great value to a team that played to such a high tempo. Yeates does not have the pace of Reid, so couldn’t be the out-and-out winger who charged past opposition full backs for fun. He didn’t have the physical presence to play at the team’s other wide midfielder, who was tasked with playing narrow to support Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones. There was simply no need to slow the tempo down by playing through Yeates, sitting behind a striker. Only after the end of season move to a more patient, passing style of football – which has been continued into this campaign – has the signing of Yeates made any sense.
Yet the turnaround for Yeates this season is unexpected and mightily impressive. He must have been a huge headache for Phil Parkinson during the summer, as the City manager attempted to rebuild his team on a reduced budget. The still-contracted-for-one-more-year Yeates – reportedly on good money – was draining resources that seemingly could have been better utilised elsewhere. If he had been out of contract in the summer, he wouldn’t still be here – either through his own choice or Parkinson’s.
But now, this marriage of inconvenience is finally working. From the fringes to the heartbeat of the team, Yeates’ influence has grown and grown.
This time when an injury presented an opportunity, Yeates took it. He was still in and out of the team early season, but Hanson’s breakdown in the warm up to September’s league game at MK Dons prompted a reshuffle of pushing Billy Clarke from the tip of the diamond to leading the line. Early doors Clarke had made this tip-of-the-diamond position his own, meaning Yeates’ opportunities came as a narrow wide player in the revamped midfield. Now Yeates could play at the tip, in 2014/15’s version of ‘the hole’. And how he was grasped his opportunity. There is no Bradford City player who looks more at home playing the diamond formation than Yeates.
He brings movement and creativity to an attacking approach that was in danger of looking too rigid. Yeates doesn’t merely stay central behind two strikers, but drifts to both flanks as he sniffs out space to cause the opposition problems. He is all but exonerated of any defensive responsibility and looks all the better for that. Feed him the ball and he will make things happen.
There are mistakes for sure and on occasions he holds onto possession for too long, but rarely in modern times has there been a Bradford City player so unaffected by errors. He might sometimes prompt groans from the crowd when he does something wrong, but he won’t react to that negativity by hiding from the ball or resorting to only trying the easy option. There is a lot to be said for a player who is so brave in possession.
Port Vale home, Crewe home, Barnsley away, Sheffield United home, Bristol City away, Oldham away, Doncaster home, FC Halifax away. Yeates has impressed greatly in all of these games, collecting man of the match awards or at the very least being amongst the team’s top three performers. He is amongst the early season contenders for player of the season, and at times is a joy to watch. Following the recent Doncaster home game, the club even produced a show-reel of Yeates’ best moments via their Youtube channel (see below). This, finally, is the player we expected after he joined from Watford. This, finally, is evidence of how Yeates managed to play over 30 times during the Hornet’s near-promotion campaign of 2012/13.
There is a ‘but’ coming, however. For how well Yeates is playing individually, his team has been misfiring. The victory over Halifax was only the Bantams third in 13 matches.
Allowing Yeates to perform at his best in the hole – with the freedom to move where he likes – is not translating into Bradford City victories. It is a problem for Parkinson, who is left to ponder how to get more from the team without reducing Yeates’ influence.
There have been increasing calls to abandon the diamond formation due to its lack of impact during home games in particular; but a return to a more conventional 4-4-2 presents a challenge accommodating Yeates.
He could be pushed to the left wing of a 4-4-2 of course, but would be less influential on the game and would also be expected to re-take on defensive responsibilities that he struggles with. Perhaps he could appear in a middle midfield two, but it would need to be balanced by a very defensive central partner to provide cover. City don’t really have a specialist in this area; and besides, going down this route would mean there is no room in the team for Billy Knott. You certainly couldn’t play Yeates and Knott as a central pairing.
Which leaves Parkinson looking at other formation ideas if, indeed, the diamond is to be permanently ditched. At Halifax he tried a 4-2-3-1 approach that was abandoned at half time. A 4-3-1-2 formation – which was used at the end of last season – is a potential way forward, but it is hardly a revolutionary move away from the diamond and would likely prompt similar issues. 4-4-1-1 could be a short-term solution in the absence of fit and in-form strikers, beyond Jon Stead, but it would be a hard sell to City supporters who retain this misguided view that playing one up front is a negative approach when in reality it doesn’t have to be.
Which brings us back to Yeates and a trip to Deepdale. He is highly unlikely to be on the bench this time, and he certainly won’t sit out the entire 90 minutes; but the challenge of avoiding a repeat of last season’s difficult campaign has not yet been fully conquered by Yeates.
In 2013/14, Parkinson felt the solutions to the problems did not include Yeates and was – eventually – proven right in that belief. When it comes to Yeates, the manager will not be thinking on the same lines this time, but there remains a question over whether Yeates at his very best and Bradford City succeeding are mutually exclusive.
Parkinson would be foolish to defuse Yeates’ impact, but equally he has to find the right formula to win football matches. It is going to be fascinating to see how this unfolds over the coming weeks, and a big test of the manager to crack this conundrum.
Mark Yeates has routinely proved the man of the match of late, but now we badly need him to become a match winner.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus