The story of a season in one yard, as Bradford City face Leyton Orient

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Bradford City vs Leyton Orient preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 29 November, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Antonio German’s one-yard bundled equaliser for Gillingham, last Saturday, was the perfect summary of Bradford City’s season so far.

It is a campaign of thin margins, and volatile mood swings between supporter positivity and negativity. German’s scruffy prod home late, late on prompted another major pendulum shift – as upbeat sentiment over three successive victories gave way to yet more gloom and anger.

The victory that was on the cards was not going to go down as especially thrilling, but it would have proven an important one nonetheless. It would have placed the Bantams just four points shy of the play offs, with a relatively kind run of fixtures leading up to Christmas. Victory would also have made it three from nine at home this season – which, while not spectacular, would be a welcome step in the right direction.

Instead, Gillingham’s last bursting of the bubble has prompted familiar complaints about the squad’s lack of depth, frustration over Phil Parkinson’s conservative tendencies, and pessimism about the months ahead. We have been here before, and we will revisit this darker outlook before the season is out, as the ups and downs inevitably continue.

Currently sat 12th in League One, six points behind the play offs and six points above the relegation zone, City look every inch a mid-table team going nowhere fast – one that is struggling to determine if this reality is a good or a bad thing.

Gills reflections

There can be no argument that the Bantams should have beaten Gillingham last Saturday, or that the failure to take the full three points was self-inflicted. A decent attacking display had placed the team in a winning position, and for 70 minutes they were the dominant side. The lack of a killer second goal was a problem, as Gillingham threw the kitchen sink at City during the closing stages, but it was a still a match in which the home side should have held on.

The inquest this week has been brutal, with certain theories thrown forwards as to why City dropped two points from such a dominant position. Chiefly, there is an accusation that Parkinson’s choice of substitutions cost his side momentum and invited the late visitor pressure. I don’t personally believe this was the case at all, and I’ll come back to my view on those substitutions in a moment.

But first, my assessment of where it went wrong – it is a mental issue of the players struggling to remember how to win matches at home. As the clock ticked downwards, there was an evident rise in anxiety levels. Composure and confidence giving away to fear and doubt. City began to drop deeper and deeper, even though there was still at least 10 minutes to go.

It was a time for more for clever, experienced heads to demonstrate their leadership skills and get the team over the line. Unfortunately, this was lacking all over the pitch during this crucial period. Perhaps if City had got away with this uncertainty and hung on for the victory, that mental barrier would have been broken down for future battles. But instead, the barrier has probably grown even taller and certainly looks more daunting to get past. What happens the next time that City are in this kind of narrow winning position? How will they cope with everyone fearing “another Gillingham”?

The ball retention, during the closing stages, was especially poor and proved City’s downfall. The corner in which German bundled home the equaliser from was partially the result of a wretched Andy Halliday clearance in his own penalty area, which put his team mates under more pressure. Yet it would be unfair to single Halliday out, as there were others who kept handing the ball straight back to Gillingham. In one instance, a Gills attack was thwarted and Jordan Pickford had the ball in his hands. Rather than take his time and allow players to get into position, the City keeper booted the ball hurriedly up the pitch and it went straight out of play, thereby enabling Gillingham to start again. Absolute madness.

Which brings us onto the substitute debate, chiefly fuelled by Parkinson’s decision to withdraw Billy Clarke, with eight minutes left on the clock, in order to bring Jason Kennedy on. A switch to 4-5-1 was seen as a negative move and one that encouraged Gillingham to further gamble in pursuit of an equaliser. Parkinson has been criticised for this, but I don’t agree that moving to 4-5-1 was the problem – if anything, the change of formation should have rectified the ball retention issue.

Firstly, it has to be noted that in the previous two victories over Halifax and Preston, Parkinson made similar defensive substitutions to help the players see out the game – namely in going from a two-man strike-force to playing one up front. In the Halifax and Preston victories, Parkinson actually brought central defenders on and adopted a 5-4-1 formation in the closing stages. A similar set up; the difference on these occasions, compared to Gillingham, was that the players hung on.

The argument on Saturday was that Parkinson should have replaced Billy Clarke with new loan signing François Zoko, and continued to play two up front. But this exposes a lack of understanding in how Clarke plays, and the overall approach that Parkinson has adopted since his half time tactical reshuffle at The Shay three weeks ago.

For City are not strictly playing 4-4-2, but a 4-4-1-1 formation. Jon Stead has been leading the line on his own, with Clarke playing in a hole behind – linking up with both his strike partner and the attacking midfielders behind him. It is a role that completely suits Clarke, who from day one has not looked an out-and-out striker, and it is a clever move by Parkinson in finding a way for City to perform effectively with both Clarke and Mark Yeates in the side.

There is a comparison in City’s 4-4-1-1 with how Sir Alex Ferguson built his first Manchester United title-winning team in 1993, where Eric Cantona dropped in behind Mark Hughes and made the most of the space between a typical opposition two banks of four. Clearly, Billy Clarke and Jon Stead are not in the same league as Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes, but their playing styles in this formation are not dissimilar.

And this is the conundrum when City are narrowly leading and looking to see the game out. Keeping Clarke on the field, in the hole, is difficult when Parkinson needs players in set positions, defending the lead. It is not that Clarke couldn’t drop into midfield and concentrate on preventing Gillingham attacks, but that there are better-suited players for this role – namely the man who replaced him late on, Jason Kennedy. But beyond that, swapping Clarke for Zoko – who we must assume is a player more suited to leading the line, would see City go from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2. In other words committing more players forward.

Of course there is an argument that City should have pushed on for the second goal rather than being too conservative. But they had the chances to have wrapped the game up, and indeed should have made those chances count. And it was only when the clock was truly ticking down that Clarke was taken off and the 4-5-1 adopted. Parkinson hardly shut up shop the moment that his team made the breakthrough.

On to Leyton Orient, with reasons to be cheerful

If we are to ignore the frustrations of German’s goal for a moment, there were a lot of positives about City’s display last week that can be taken into this Saturday’s visit of Leyton Orient. The 4-4-1-1 worked well once again, which suggests a way forward at home. Clarke and Stead linked up superbly, whilst Yeates was again a tormentor on the left. Gary Liddle returned to the starting XI and offered a timely reminder of what a good player he is. Billy Knott had a mixed afternoon, but there was a lot to be said for his confidence on the ball and constant willingness to make himself an option for others.

And if, defensively, City could cut out their one mistake per match, we would really be onto something. There remains fractions of the crowd who don’t rate Rory McArdle and sarcastic hoof noises were made on a couple of occasions when he went direct – are these people clueless or just morons? McArdle is having a terrific campaign and is certainly the standout performer of the back four. Andrew Davies is yet to hit the heights of the last three seasons and will be disappointed to have being caught out for the goal, but he is certainly getting there and you just hope he can finally get that run of games.

Stephen Darby is back on form, whilst James Meredith is streets ahead of Alan Sheehan in the left back battle.

Expect Parkinson to go again with the same team that started against Gillingham, minus Filipe Morais who departed the field early with an injured shoulder and is now out for at least three weeks. This is a major blow for the Portuguese, just at the point where he is finding his form. Morais’ contract is due to run out in January, but another short-term deal will surely be offered.

James Hanson’s return to fitness has been slowed by the form of Stead and Clarke, and it is going to be difficult for him to get past them and claim a starting berth. Rarely in his City career has Hanson being a substitute and it’s difficult to determine if he is someone who can make a big impact from the bench.

A whisper has reached WOAP’s ear that Huddersfield Town recently tabled a bid for Hanson, although the figure quoted is some way short of his market value. Bolton are also said to be interested in the striker.

Zoko is also likely to get some game time his weekend, especially if his temporary employers are chasing the game. He is an interesting signing and a useful extra body to have in, given Mclean’s temporary move to Peterborough. He looked a good player when Stevenage came to Valley Parade last season, and netting 16 goals for a team who were relegated is a good return. I watched Blackpool’s televised victory over Cardiff – the Tangerines’ only win of the season so far – where Zoko netted the winner. The Ivorian is a big physical striker but with more pace than Hanson and Stead.

Opponents Leyton Orient have gone from the division’s big over-achievers, last season, to this campaign’s most notable under-achievers. A large amount of outside investment, during the summer, has not translated into a repeat of 2013/14’s promotion challenge, and instead Orient find themselves struggling near the bottom, not helped by the nonsense around potentially sacking long-serving manager Russell Slade and then seeing him quit for Cardiff.

Under recently installed Italian boss, Mauro Milanese, Leyton Orient achieved their first home win of the season against Crewe last week – food for thought as we bemoan our own home woes. In terms of the threat they pose to City, Orient are undoubtedly the type of opposition that can add to the volatile mood swings between positivity and negativity.

For a Bantams victory for City will make it three wins and a draw from four games, and widespread satisfaction would emanate prior to the intriguing FA Cup second round tie with Dartford next weekend. Yet anything less than a victory over Leyton Orient will increase the gloom that has returned following German’s one-yard intervention.

Thin margins, once more.

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10 replies

  1. > It is not that Clarke couldn’t drop into midfield and concentrate on preventing Gillingham attacks, but that there are better-suited players for this role – namely the man who replaced him late on, Jason Kennedy.

    I’m not suggesting that Clarke is ideally suite to the role but it’s hard to see how Kennedy was an improvement. His reading of the game, first touch and passing are always poor – all vital skills for holding onto the ball and shutting down the game. Gary Jones was an expert at this, always in the right place at the right time.

  2. Brilliant article!

  3. Your comments on McArdle, Davies and Meredith are spot on Jason. And as to whether McArdle’s detractors are clueless or just morons they are, in my opinion, both!
    As to the Hanson rumours, at the risk of being accused a ‘Hanson basher’ – which I’m not – would it necessarily be a bad thing if he were to move? I don’t believe it would.

  4. In reference to the possible sale of James – we do actually know what its like to mange after selling your best goalscorer – so I would say to Roger (and my friend Amanda) be careful what you wish for!

  5. Jason – this is one of the best articles I have read on either BfB or WOTP.

  6. Who do you think will replace Morais today? Zoko can play out wide and is good when doing so, but will Parkinson opt for Halliday on the wing and maybe play Knott and Liddle in the middle instead?

  7. Really good piece

  8. Defence often just face criticism from fans rather than praise for the work they put in every game. McArdle is an important player for City and his strong performances this season just goes to show the dissenters that he was worth that 3 yr deal

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