By Jason McKeown
Whatever the outcome of the takeover talks with Gianni Paladini, it appears almost certain that Jon Stead will be a Bradford City player next season. Following a reasonable first loan spell in 2013/14, and majorly successful second temporary move in 2014/15, the 32-year-old is poised to make Valley Parade his permanent home after being released by Huddersfield.
Where and how Jon Stead has fitted into the Bantams forward line has been an interesting narrative over the previous 18 months. He was originally brought in by Phil Parkinson due to injury problems afflicting James Hanson. Stead returned last October and – during times of budget deficit concerns and the possible need to sell a player – it appeared as though the former Premier League striker was prepped to become Hanson’s replacement.
In the end, the FA Cup exploits meant there was no need for City to cash in on their number nine. And so what was once a case of selecting one or the other has developed into a Bantams strike force featuring both big strikers.
And with Billy Clarke performing extremely well at the tip of the diamond during the final few months of the season in particular, the forward line can be deemed to be a success of sorts. Clarke (14), Stead (11) and Hanson (11) chipped in 36 goals between them – 23 of them coming over the second half of the season.
Yet as WOAP and others have argued, City’s overall goal return largely cost them a play off finish. The defensive record was amongst the best in the division, but the ‘goals for’ lagged behind the promotion front runners. If Bradford City are to take that next step and close in on a place in the Championship, they need to find the back of the net more often.
Paladini’s potential investment could enable Parkinson to bring in a more prolific striker to challenge his other forwards. Without the Italian and his money backers, however, the manager may go into next season with largely the same strikers he has.
There has been some debate of late about the worth of Hanson – he ended the season on a goal drought and his confidence in front of goal was evidently lacking. With Stead performing heroics over the course of the season and Clarke’s impressive form, it is perhaps obvious to assign the blame for the lack of overall goals on Hanson’s shoulders; especially when you consider that five of his 11 2014/15 goals occurred during August.
And added to that, Hanson spent the final few months of the season in an unusual wider role. He was tasked with popping up on the left side of the pitch, and linking up with James Meredith, Stead and Clarke around him. Hanson performed this role admirably – like so many other City players, his performance at Chelsea was a high watermark – but in doing so it appears he has sacrificed himself for the good of the team.
Or to put it another way, Stead has apparently wrestled the target man role from Hanson’s grasp.
The merits of both players
Judging the striker options available to Parkinson in 2014/15, it is completely understandable that he sought to find a way to accommodate both Stead and Hanson.
Clarke is not an out-and-out striker, and his strength is clearly playing deep and making late runs into the box. Clarke’s old Crawley manager, John Gregory, once dubbed the forward “his little Lionel Messi” and you can see why.
Clarke has a great football brain and vision. He, more than anyone, has enabled the diamond formation to work and it almost looks built for him. A glance at Clarke’s career to date suggests that he is a drifter, as he has gone through club and after club. Yet Parkinson has recognised Billy’s attributes and got the best out of him.
And though playing 4-4-1-1 during November and December – Clarke behind Stead – worked well to a point, Parkinson was hamstrung by his lack of winger options. Filipe Morais has many qualities, but he is not a Kyel Reid type of wide player. Mark Yeates is also not a direct winger.
In Hanson, Parkinson had a striker too good to leave out over the long-term. Going back to the diamond meant Parkinson could deploy more ball-playing players in midfield, and rely on the running of Meredith (on the left) and Morais (on the right). It has enabled Clarke to become the spark for the team. The results have been largely positive.
Why Stead matters
And whilst it might seem Hanson has taken on the mantle of square peg in round hole, the move to the left has aided the club’s longest-serving player too.
Hanson has many, many qualities; but despite his obvious strength I would not personally rank his hold up play amongst his greater attributes. I don’t think Hanson is brilliant at playing with his back to goal. And to make the diamond work, when there is a lack of pace in the team, City need a target man who can play his back to goal. Who when he gets the ball, and is awaiting runners, won’t lose possession.
Stead has been that man. He is not as physical as Hanson and wins less in the air. But get the ball to him – especially to his feet – and opposition defenders struggle to gain possession. So many times we saw the ball worked to Stead in the final third, he kept hold of possession expertly, and then played the right pass once team mates had rushed forward to provide support.
Perhaps the best example of this in action was the fourth goal City scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Mark Yeates played the ball to Stead inside the box, and he expertly held off England defender Gary Cahill whilst waiting for Yeates to make a darting run to his left. Stead’s lay off was sublime – perfectly weighted and timed – and the finish by Yeates was equally clinical. Classic back-to-goal forward play from Stead.
Stead is amongst passers of the ball at the club, in my view. Like Clarke he possesses tremendous vision. When you are watching games in the stand – especially at League One level – you can generally spot the options that attacking players have and who the man in possession should pick out. Yet Stead routinely identifies passing opportunities that we supporters don’t see. And he gets them right. That is why Stead is so good at leading the line. That is why he has become the main target man.
But Hanson still has a lot to offer. Hanson is not the greatest with his back to goal, but over the years he has proven fantastic at playing a central forward, with another striker in front or running beyond him.
The most obvious example is Nahki Wells. For two fantastic years we saw the ball worked to Hanson, and Wells peel off into space, knowing his strike partner would find him. They were on the same wavelength, playing at their best because of each other. Hanson made Wells look good. Wells made Hanson look good. Hanson was the deeper of the two strikers, and would pull opposition defenders out of where they wanted to be positioned – leaving gaps for Wells to punish.
When Wells left, for a time Hanson had to become the most forward player in the team. He did a decent job at this, but the emphasis for the rest of the team suddenly became about supplying him with possession further up the pitch. Hanson was less involved with the build up play because he had to be getting on the end of things. His goal rate improved, but City lost something because of it.
Aaron Mclean – to state the blindingly obvious – was the wrong partner for Hanson. Mclean was no Wells, playing off the last man. He wanted to play deep too, to link up with the midfielders (unfortunately, not very well). Mclean would come looking for the ball which was admirable, but it meant that City couldn’t stretch the play and put the opposition under sustained pressure.
Mclean was no Wells, and neither is Stead. But the difference is that Stead can lead the line much more effectively. It is a different type of forward play, and it isn’t going to lead to the prolific goal returns of Wells, but Stead has become a hugely important player at Valley Parade.
The role of Hanson
Yet although Stead’s presence enables Hanson to go back to playing slightly deeper, there are two issues that has necessitated the latter’s move towards the left.
The first – and as we just said – is that Stead is no Wells, and he isn’t good at running onto flick ons. The second is Clarke. The space that Clarke likes to operate within means he dips in and out of midfield and attack – the same space Hanson where might otherwise feature. So to get the best of Stead and Clarke, Hanson has been moved into an unusual role.
But here is the crucial thing – Hanson can still deliver a huge amount from here. His strength might not lie in back to goal play, but he is a player who thrives running forwards in attack.
By that, I mean he operates most effectively from starting deep when attacks begin – winning the ball and getting it forwards (to Stead or Clarke) – and then continuing to effect attacks by charging into the box and running onto things. Be they crosses to head (Hanson has always been better heading balls that he runs onto rather than those that are hung in the air towards him) or passes to feet where he can shoot or lay the ball off. Funnily enough, this is an area where Stead is much less effective.
One of Hanson’s best goals in a City shirt – his play off semi final effort at Burton two years ago – is the perfect summary of how his approach can be so effective. In that attack, Hanson won the ball in a deep area for City and got it to Wells quickly. Wells brought the ball forward and Hanson continued to run behind his partner. The ball then broke into Hanson’s path on the edge of the area, and he finished emphatically.
Hanson might start attacks on the left side of the pitch, and he might win the ball and get it to Clarke or Stead from there, but his job is not then done. His objective – and he probably needed to do it better than in the final few weeks of the season – is to get into the box and get on the end of things. If he can achieve this, it might be answer to the lack of goals City score vs the top six.
Stead is never going to be more prolific than he was last season and Clarke too is probably unlikely to get more than 15-20 goals from the tip of the diamond. If Hanson can improve his goal output more in line with 15-20, and more goals can be contributed from midfield, City might be able to elevate themselves to play off finishers.
Of course the arrival of another striker might change the dynamics, but Hanson is not the sitting duck waiting to be replaced. The conundrum for Parkinson – if he is in the market for a striker – will be making any new arrival fit into this system or switching to a different approach. If by some miracle (and it’s not on the cards, as far as we know) Wells was to re-sign for City, Stead and Clarke would probably be more likely to lose their place than Hanson.
If two wingers were signed and City had a wide threat again, Clarke and Hanson could yet be the strikeforce. Away at Leyton Orient and Doncaster, City used the 4-4-1-1 with Hanson taking the Stead role, which worked well.
Parkinson has three very talented forwards in Stead, Hanson and Clarke – and at times was very successful in getting the best out of them. It remains to be seen whether the trio can take the club onto the next level, but don’t rule out the manager sticking with them for next season.