Bradford City 1
Shrewsbury Town 1
Saturday 15 August, 2015
By Jason McKeown
Two sub plots set the soundtrack to this Bradford City performance, and the collective conclusions drawn were troubling.
The first narrative concerned a tactical battle in which Shrewsbury Town manager Micky Mellon had the measure of Phil Parkinson. The newly promoted side came for a draw and set about achieving it through stifling the home side. Whatever move Parkinson made, Mellon had a counter plan. An impressive level of homework was in evidence and it paid off.
The second story was one of an undercooked and dysfunctional Bradford City that has been constructed this close season. That Parkinson has made nine new signings and yet is still missing two key players says much about the pace and scale of change. There is clear quality in this squad but what, exactly, is the plan going forward still looks unclear. Worryingly, there is a suspicion that Parkinson doesn’t know either.
And so a nullified, under-prepared Bantams side laboured to a disappointing draw and, boy, was it a tough watch. On an afternoon of big expectations, the players only dampened hopes for the months ahead. There is a long way to go and it’s a marathon not a sprint, but the first week of the season has proven pedestrian and underwhelming.
The effects of sub plot number one were particularly disconcerting. If it was a surprise to see Parkinson revert to the diamond formation, Mellon had prepared for such a possibility. He had clearly identified that Billy Clarke was the dangerman, and tasked Ryan Woods with a man marking job that was carried out impressively. Wherever Clarke roamed, Woods was right by him. A physical, tough tackling player for sure, he made sure that the gap between the midfield and defence, which Clarke so typically exploits, was closed off.
And at this point, the narrowness of the diamond became a real issue. Chris Routis couldn’t get into the game on the right, and Josh Morris and James Meredith struggled to link up with fluency on the left. It meant the ball was continually launched long from the back by Rory McArdle and Alan Sheehan, with James Hanson the principle target. It might have proven effective if a more mobile striker than Steve Davies was playing off Hanson, but it was all so predictable and easy to defend against.
There were chances in the first half, but they were intermittent rather than frequent. City couldn’t find their rhythm. Morris had a free kick tipped over; Routis a shot deflected wide; Clarke should have buried a back post chance when a header from Hanson was palmed away by Jason Leutwiler. At the other end McArdle and Sheehan – who was picked ahead of the out-of-sorts Nathan Clarke – enjoyed a comfortable afternoon.
Just before half time a slip up in Shrewsbury’s midfield enabled City to make the breakthrough. Clarke was free of Woods and charged at goal, before laying the ball out wide to Davies and continuing his run into the box. Davies crossed the ball back, and Clarke was able to finish in style. It was a real moment of quality, but in truth the lead was barely merited. 45 minutes of direct football was tough on the eye and one hopes Parkinson was as frustrated by it as any home fan.
At half time you suspected Mellon would have to change tact and attack, but an equaliser barely 30 seconds into the second half meant he could continue to park the bus. A long ball forwards enabled Tyrone Barnett to get in on goal with defenders struggling to get back, and his shot somehow bundled over the line via a McArdle deflection. It was once again unconvincing stuff from Ben Williams. It was once again a moment to lament the decision to let Andrew Davies move to Ross County. Let us hope that this mystery new centre half is finally secured this week.
With the game back to square one, Parkinson opted to try width and bring on Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson. The idea was to play 4-4-1-1 with Clarke pushed further up. Parkinson was desperately unlucky that Clarke was injured just minutes later and unable to continue. Billy Knott came on, City went 4-2-3-1, but Mellon was prepared for that too.
If Clarke had remained on the field, Mellon might have wanted to continue to give him special attention, but without that concern he was instead able to double up on City’s two wingers. Marshall and Anderson were denied room to operate, and even on the occasions they beat their man there was someone else to close down the space.
Knott struggled to deputise and Parkinson reflected after that his midfielder was trying too hard. And so the pattern of the second half followed the opening 45 minutes. City couldn’t build up any attacking momentum. They pressed, but rarely penetrated. A couple of penalty appeals and some shots from distance. It was too comfortable for Shrewsbury.
It is concerning to see City’s attack thwarted by far-from-formidable opposition, and it might set a pattern for the months ahead. Not every opposition side will come to Valley Parade with such modest ambitions, but the audible groans of 18,000 home fans during the closing stages will show any other League One manager that frustrating the Valley Parade crowd should form an important part of the game plan.
This is something Parkinson and City will have to overcome if they are to challenge for promotion. And yet sub plot number two suggests that this won’t be achieved quickly. The new-look City are lacking in understanding, fluidity and cohesion. New signings like Anderson and Davies are short of match fitness.
Parkinson spoke in the week about looking forward to watching his best team emerge, but surely he should have a good idea of his best XI, even if that is inevitably a moving beast. Right now, Parkinson seems a long way from settling on it, and with the season firmly underway that is worrying.
Worrying in the short-term, and worrying in the context that the ambition is to challenge for the play offs this season – but not worrying if the bigger picture approach can be taken. It might look disjointed right now, but on an individual player basis there is some real talent in this squad – you could argue this is City’s best squad for over a decade.
And if we can begin to see what the new vision and strategy is, we can buy into it. Why wouldn’t we? This is Phil Parkinson we are talking about. The extraordinary job that he has performed – which is about to reach its fourth anniversary – means that backing his judgement is an easy call to make. If what he has built this summer means City are ultimately capable of knocking on the door to the Championship, we should be excited – even if it takes longer than anticipated to get going.
But the problem right now is that everything has been positioned for the short-term. This was going to be our year, where if not promotion a strong challenge would be formed. This could still happen – the season is only a week old – but it looks set to require patience. A rocky few weeks should probably be expected. It may get worse before it gets better. If this was a two-year plan, it would make more sense. But at the moment Parkinson’s contract talks are yet to be resolved with a deal that takes him beyond the end of this season.
No one wants to write off a season so soon, but at the moment this one carries an all-or-nothing feel and it’s important to remember that we should be planning in years not months. Get the final two signings made, tie down Parkinson’s future and let’s get this plan working. And as long as City get there in the end in achieving its ambitions, ugly days like this can be forgotten.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Sheehan, Liddle, Routis, Morris (Marshall 64), B Clarke (Knott 67), Hanson, Davies (Anderson 63)
Not used: Cracknell, N Clarke, McMahon, James
Categories: Match Reviews