The worries deepen as Bradford City struggle badly, again

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Bradford City 1

Hanson 7

Gillingham 2

Norris 51, Hanson (OG) 71

Tuesday 18 August, 2015

By Katie Whyatt (images by Thomas Gadd, see note below)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With half an hour still on the clock, City had careered themselves firmly into football Groundhog Day. Tony McMahon surrenders possession in the middle. Billy Knott fails to find a man. Stephen Darby doesn’t see Paul Anderson. Forward punt is lost at the top. No support for Alan Sheehan. Pass, pass, possession surrendered, Gillingham counter. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Three games into the league campaign, and Bradford City – tipped as clear favourites for automatic promotion less than ten days ago, with odds of 4/1 – now languish at the very bottom of the table with just a single point to their name. One point from a possible nine, the Bantams go to Barnsley on Saturday still frantically searching for their first win of the season – and, truthfully, for a style, goals and their preferred starting eleven. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not for a second.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, because, well, everything. Because of 149. Because of Burnley. Because of Carlisle. Because of last season’s fairytale. With so much promise and so much optimism, one point from nine, two missed penalties and three poor second half showings is inconceivable. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not ever.

Nothing is ever won or lost in August, and it would be foolish to read too much into these first few games – but the lack of direction is truly startling and raises questions that Parkinson will simply have to assuage.

And as fans filed out into the Valley Parade night, woes were compounded by the news that Billy Clarke, who picked up a knee injury during Saturday’s clash with Shrewsbury, will be out for ten to twelve weeks, missing a sizeable chunk of the season. There seem to be no easily solutions.

Another second half collapse now leaves City with a big mountain to climb. Despite entering the break a goal to the good, James Hanson having converted from Billy Knott’s low cross, it only looked a matter of time before the visitors responded. An unmarked Luke Norris found acres of space to fire past Ben Williams, then, with fifteen minutes to go, Alan Sheehan miscontrolled Gary Liddle’s pass to surrender a corner from which Deji Oshilaja headed in. It looked so easy.

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City were bettered all over the park tonight. Parkinson went for the diamond, with Knott in the hole for the injured Billy Clarke, McMahon at the base, and Josh Morris and Chris Routis deployed as the widemen. Sheehan, presumably in a vote of confidence following his excellent display at the weekend, was restored to his preferred position at left back, and James Meredith was demoted to the bench. Gary Liddle filled in for Nathan Clarke at centre half.

It wasn’t just the decision to stick with the diamond that proved City’s undoing – more on that later – but the change in personnel and the total reshuffle. At times tonight, McMahon looked lost. His positioning was awry, and Bradley Dack had the measure of him; he had the run on the City man three times in the first half alone.

Gillingham lined up in their own diamond, with Dack at the tip, but he was mobile enough to make things happen. He was almost a Coutinho type player, finding the pockets of space and linking up superbly with Gills’ Ben Dickensen and Jake Hessenthaler in the final third. Bournemouth struggled to quell Coutinho with two holding midfielders on Monday night, never mind with one utility player standing in; the centre of the park was where the game was up here.

That midfield is unquestionably better with Liddle in the holding role. He adds composure in his distribution, reads the game superbly and fortifies the defence as he doggedly screens the back four. Though an able centre half – having swept the board at Notts County’s Player of the Year Awards when he spent the season in defence for the Magpies, two years ago – it feels as though he’s selling himself short when he has so much to offer elsewhere.

The Bantams must find a more effective way of filling the Davies-shaped hole – they can’t carry on like this. They can’t carry on without Gary Liddle in the middle. Without an able partner for Rory McArdle. Andrew Davies repeatedly demonstrated his importance to Bradford City – and, apart from Carl McHugh, City never found a player that sufficed at centre half. Parkinson must get Nathan Clarke firing. This level of disruption is hard to stomach.

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You felt the game demanded, on City’s part, a reversion to a flatter midfield four. Lacking pace and composure, it became abundantly clear that the Bantams were never going to beat Dack, Dickensen, Hessenthaler and, later, Rory Donnelly in the centre. They were never going to break through that front four; City tried to play out from the defence in the first half, but Gillingham were pressuring and pressing too quickly to make this safe.

Had Parkinson used the introduction of Mark Marshall to play 4-4-2, with Anderson in front of Darby, City could have avoided the congestion and skipped the danger man in Dack. As it was, they were too narrow again, were closed down quickly and looked short of options.

Sheehan looked the most likely to make something happen, coming close to converting a Morris free kick, but he struggled without a definite winger in front of him. Only in the dying stages did Marshall show flashes of the pace and trickery he was recruited for. Gills keeper Nelson spilled and Marshall collected; his pinpoint cross found Sheehan with just a minute left on the clock, but the full back’s header was saved.

With both teams playing narrow, the game quickly fell into a pattern: it was down to who retained possession. Routis performed well before injury forced him off, albeit sometimes lacking an end product, and swept up Hanson’s knockdowns, twice creating openings for Hanson to come close. His absence was noticeable and meant City struggled in the final third. Luke James has an impressive workrate, and grew in confidence and stature as the game wore on, but the lack of support from midfield meant he was often grappling with a thankless task.

With around half an hour to go, I asked my brother whether he thought this game would have been different if Billy Clarke was in the hole, dictating the tempo and the pace from the top. He was unstoppable there at times last season, and, though Shrewsbury dulled his influence, should have been a massive player for us this season. But without underselling the importance of Clarke, it probably wouldn’t have changed anything. City needed a calm figure, yes, and a leader – but the gulf was petrifying. Bradford City were truly woeful tonight, make no mistake.

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Perhaps most worrying of all is that City, even in their good spells, have looked miles off the pace this season. Even at their most fluid, they’ve never looked as cohesive as their opposition. Shrewsbury came for a draw but looked a force to be reckoned with, battling well as their play centred around the flame-haired Ryan Woods. Gillingham looked strong tonight and, while Dack was the clear focal point, were clinical.

How would we fare against last season’s Bristol City, against last season’s Preston? Parkinson’s side look fragile, disjointed, hesitant, fearful – stricken with panic even when they weren’t under pressure.

I don’t think I’ve ever written that about a Parkinson team before. The last three years have been characterised by a fearlessness, a composure, that charges them to routinely punch above their weight. That fearlessness was what turned them into one of the most formidable cup teams in the country. Into one of the toughest forces in the lower leagues. Into the most resilient Bradford City side we’ve seen in a long, long time. We can be whatever we want to be, what people tell us we can’t be – that was the mantra they lived by. And now?

I’ve never written that about a Parkinson team before, because this man routinely delivers under pressure. During the post-match interviews tonight, Parkinson conceded, with rueful honesty, that he deserves every bit of criticism that will be directed his way tonight. It is such honesty that has driven this team from the depths of the basement division to League One.

And it is the honesty that has to save the season.

Time and again, Parkinson has produced under pressure. Kept his head when others around him were losing them. One win in 21. Four losses in five, last term. Eight points off the play-offs and fatigued from a cup run. Give him the time, and he will find results for us again.

Ultimately, it feels like we have so far to go to be the team we need to be, still, with just 12 days of the transfer window left. For all of the positivity going into the new season, this team feels so incomplete. We still lack – or, at least, don’t employ – pace in the middle, and a true leader in the absence of Gary Liddle. People scapegoat Ben Williams, and, while his performances haven’t been perfect, no one in this team can claim theirs have been, either. The midfield went missing for Gillingham’s leveller today.

So far to go, and so little time. One point from nine, and a big trip to an in-form Barnsley ahead. You wouldn’t bet against this team, but they need to show far, far more if they are to be up there in May.

City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Liddle, Sheehan, McMahon, Routis (Anderson 34), Morris (Davies 68), Knott, Hanson, James (Marshall 75)

Not used: Jones, N. Clarke, Leigh, Meredith

With special thanks to Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his brilliant photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details.

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Categories: Match Reviews

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12 replies

  1. We’ve got away in the past, especially last season, with our midfield not exerting authority on a game as we were still getting results (and it was partly our away form that kept us from looking over our shoulder).

    This season they’re getting shown up. GFC weren’t amazing in the final third but their midfield play, link up and movement around our box made us look non-league. Is it becuase our midfield isn’t good enough, or becuase the tactics seem to bypass them?

    No-one was looking to spread passes, no one was looking to take men on, no one wanted to take the game to the opposition. We will face better attacks than that we faced last night and we could end up with another Bristol City result if the midfield continues to perform so timidly.

  2. Last night was truly awful, the management being tactically inept with a lack of plan B. They brought 2 wingers on who proceeded to cut inside at every opportunity keeping the lack of width. Several times Anderson was stood in acres of space out wide and Darby totally ignored him and played the ball inside to a marked man. The midfield might as well not have been there due to the amount of hoof ball and when they did get a chance the lack of creativity was startling. We are crying out for a Bradley Dack or a Luke Freeman in midfield. I felt sorry for Luke James who bust a gut trying to make things happen. A nippy irritant to defenders but even he was trying to control head high passes all night. PP needs a serious rethink about his team shape, he needs a solid CB, and a true leader on the pitch in the spirit of Gary Jones. We are too quiet and it appears as if there is no urgency at the moment. THe team just looks rudderless with the loss of Davva & Jonesy. Not worried yet but mightily frustrated

  3. Having read WOAP (and previously BfB), and always enjoyed the reporting, articles and sites in general. I normally read and keep my thoughts to my self. I am a first time poster so please don’t attack me if my views are not agreed with.

    However, having witnessed City Saturday and again last night, i felt the need to post.

    In my opinion, we lack strength at the back, quality and creativity in midfield, and in all honesty do not look like scoring up front.

    For me, the diamond formation (with the current midfield, or that of last night), leaves us far too narrow, and easily over run by our opposition.

    I found it strange to see having brought on Anderson (who at the time was hugging the touch line), that when Darby received the ball, he chose to switch play again across the back line, rather than play it out wide to a man who is in space and (has been brought in for his assist and quality of distribution).

    With Knott and McMahon still on the pitch with the introduction of Marshall, why did PP not revert to a traditional 4-4-2, and utilise the widemen for the reasons i assume we brought them to the club? To play as widemen.

    In defence to me, we look soft and unorganised, and very prone to lapses in concentration.

    I find It hard to comment on our front line, as i feel we have up to press been unable to judge as our midfield fail to create chances.

    All in all, i feel on the 2 performances I have seen thus far as regression rather than progression from last season.

  4. “Sheehan looked the most likely to make something happen”… and doesn’t that just sum up last night’s performance! A man who has undoubtedly started the season well, but didn’t get a look in last year, is now our ‘man most likely’ despite the big recruitment drive.

    For me, Katie has once again diagnosed the patient with precision. Yes, the diamond formation seems to ensure we actually shackle ourselves so the opposition don’t have to. Yes, in searching for his answers Parky doesn’t seem too shy of disrupting little partnerships across the park to accommodate individuals – for X to play, I need to shift Y and Z into different positions – thus breaking any blossoming familiarity. And yes, there are too many players just rank under-performing so far.

    But where is the character (followers of @DeludedBrendan hold your tongue!)? We have never seemed so limp under Parky, so willing to capitulate, happy to flick a weak foot at a challenge rather than thunder our bodies into them. The never-say-die attitude of previous seasons has evaporated in these opening few games, and it is troubling. It really is. I don’t agree that the takeover situation affected things. Nothing has ever been said about Parky’s attitude toward the Sheffield United approach. Did that disturb the ‘all in this together’ ethic of the camp? I don’t even buy that.

    But something is missing. I’d go further, something seems wrong. A team that came so close last season, despite some torrid spells especially in the dying minutes at home, looks a shadow of itself in these opening four games (all of which I have attended). It is still too early to panic, and Barnsley won’t solve anything by virtue of being a single game, but ten games in we all need to see a change in attitude, in mentality, in character.

    We need to find ourselves again, because last night I watched strangers playing with strangers, and I didn’t recognise any of them.

  5. I think Katie has identified what to me is a significant issue, and that revolves around Liddle – who is superb in the role in front of the back four. The decision to switch him to centre back, and in turn move Sheehan (who performed well there on Saturday) was difficult to fathom. Consequently Dack flourished. I would class myself as a PP man through and through, but this and the fact that we see new signings (Marshall & Anderson) who have the potential to influence games is confusing.

  6. Sorry meant to say new signings on the bench!

  7. To play Liddle at CB is to seriously weaken our midfield. signing the already discarded Nathan Clarke looks less like the answer and more like a convenient easy signing after he hung around VP pre season touting for a contract.
    thankfully we have now brought in a GK who should go straight in on Saturday (Williams attempted “save” for their equaliser was woeful and he was AWOL for their second.)
    on last night’s evidence, of the two problem areas identified at the end of last term, one remains and the other has been swapped for a self inflicted new one.
    We still need a pacy striker, but have now got pacy widemen (if we only use a system which plays to their strengths). unfortunately, due to close season decisions we now still need a strong and dominant central defender as well. this problem, we are told again and again is about to be rectified. this signing can’t come soon enough.

  8. how many holding midfielders are we playing?? No pace, pedestrian and far too deep….4 4 2 please, no need to be a tactical genius at this level, just sign good players who know their role and play them correctly.

  9. Excellent article Katie. Said what most fans must be thinking after a poor start to the season. Not keeping Andrew Davies looks like a big mistake his huge presence and commitment is sorely missed BIG boots to fill. There isn’t anyone taking control organising the midfield and back four they look like strangers on the pitch . I have always had faith in Phil to turn things round let’s hope he can do it this time he has a mountain to climb.

  10. I take a slightly different view. I’m not sure the issue centres around Davies’ departure, the problem, in my opinion, is midfield to strikers. In all three league games the opposition have created more chances, been more fluid when going forward, had much better links from midfield to attack and been willing to shoot. In my view, the reason many supporters focus on our defence is because of our inability to keep the ball at the other end of the pitch, our inability to create chances and the inability of our midfield to impose themselves on the game. The opposition therefore have more of the ball, put our defence under constant pressure resulting in inevitable breaches. In all three league games, the opposition has looked more likely to score. Now, whether it is the diamond formation the players can’t play to, or do not like, I don’t know but either way it is clearly not working. What I do find disconcerting is, apart from 20 minutes at Swindon, we look short of confidence, cohesion and fight; something I never thought I would say with Phil Parkinson as manager.

  11. 3 games in and people are already screwing.

  12. I’d like to raise a point, firstly i’m not defending the way we played on Tuesday because we were terrible from back to front but one thing i did pick up on is the influence of the crowd. People are constantly moaning and rightly so because we kept lumping it forward which clearly didn’t work but with around 10 minutes to go we played some decent stuff (albeit for around 25 – 30 seconds) pass, pass, pass back to front and tried creating some space by going sideways – as soon as we did this the crowd was roaring for us to push forward. With 10 minutes to go we should be encouraging the players to keep the ball and try and build, not put our back line under any more pressure and try and create something for a change.

    The players cant win if we are attacking them for hoofing it one minute then for keeping it and trying to play the next. I don’t think its time to panic just yet but lets get it into perspective – we have some talented players but without the right system they look like non leaguers. Square pegs and round holes come into mind – come on Parky do what we are all asking for… in the words of Mike Bassett ’44*beep*2′!!

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