Bradford City 2
Liddle 45, B Clarke 58
Crewe Alexandra 0
Saturday 14 November, 2015
By Jason McKeown
There’s a template here, and it’s working. A successful formula, which is delivering results. Phil Parkinson has developed a group of players who fully understand the masterplan, and they are following it in an impressively consistent manner.
After this, a comfortable victory over a lightweight and limited Crewe side, Bradford City are unbeaten in seven games. Going further back, it’s one defeat in nine. Or going even further back, it’s now just three losses in 16 games. City now stand 7th, outside the play offs only by goal difference. Pre-match talk of promotion, from James Hanson and Rory McArdle, carries substance.
The masterplan is a simple one. There is nothing revolutionary about Phil Parkinson’s 4-4-2. The Crewe manager, Steve Davis, would not have needed to have worked particularly hard to uncover just how the Bantams were going to play. Yet few teams in League One will be getting the very basics right quite as effectively as the Bantams are right now. This group of players has arguably become Parkinson’s most pragmatic Bradford City team yet. It will be interesting to see how far it can prosper.
Essential to the success is a team-wide understanding of their jobs. Every player evidently goes out with clear instructions, which begin with winning their individual battles. Everyone must work as hard off the ball as they do with it. When not in possession, opposition teams are pressed and closed down high up the pitch. When in possession, City get the ball forward as quickly as possible – invariably via the direct route – and then they play football in the final third.
Some players overlap and interchange with others, but no one roams too far away from their assigned position. It is all so admirably organised, and it is increasingly impressive to see the same solid performances delivered, week in week out. League One players are supposed to be an inconsistent breed, brilliant one game and shocking the next. This lot are turning in seven-out-of-10 performances as a matter of routine. Nothing flashy, but it is getting the job done.
Against Crewe, every player won their individual battle with ease. The struggling Railwaymen played some decent football in the early stages, and caused a few concerns, but they were easily bullied by a home side who looked unflustered by their opponents’ initial threat. They remained focused on what they had to do. Winning the battles, and then winning the match.
When the terrific Billy Knott won the ball high up the pitch, early doors, a marker for the afternoon was set. Crewe were afforded little time on the ball, and their attempts to play quick fire passing were undermined by the yawning gap between their intentions and their abilities. All City had to was get their noses in front.
And though they dominated the first half, home attacks remain sporadic rather than overwhelming. The limitations of this 4-4-2 set up are a lack of bodies in the box; a shortage players who can get forward to link up with others. Billy Clarke made his first league start since August, as his nears full recovery from the early season injury lay off, and impressed greatly. But to get the absolute best out of City’s number 10 requires others close by, to link up with him. That didn’t happen here at times.
Indeed there has to be a question mark – only only partially addressed here – over Billy Clarke’s suitability in a straight 4-4-2. Since Clarke hobbled off the field against Gillingham in August, the diamond has been consigned to the dustbin by Parkinson, yet Clarke was a player who thrived in this formation. He likes to link up with both midfield and attack, floating in-between the two, but that doesn’t fit in with the current approach. Billy Clarke and James Hanson struggled to forge a cohesive partnership as a front two. It didn’t matter too much here, but it will be a problem if it is not improved upon when tougher tests follow.
As it was, City were able to prosper here through good attacking play. Greg Leigh – in for a league debut, as James Meredith became an international full back over on the other side of the world – excelled in linking up with Kyel Reid, who himself enjoyed his most effective home performance since re-signing on loan. Reid was a constant menace, and is developing a useful understanding with Knott, in addition to Leigh. The three were behind much of City’s best attacking play, whilst Tony McMahon was typically powerful on the right.
Numerous chances were created and spurned. An early McMahon pile-driver was blocked by Crewe stopper Ben Garratt; Hanson headed over a presentable opportunity from Knott’s cross; Reid’s low effort, following a scramble, deflected towards goal and produced a stunning tip wide from Garratt; Hanson, Gary Liddle and Billy Clarke also came agonisingly close to opening the scoring.
The breakthrough finally arrived with seconds of the first half left. A free kick was swung over from deep by McMahon, and Liddle powered home a header that went into the far corner, though Garratt will be disappointed not to have kept it out. This was only Liddle’s second goal for the club, and both have come against Crewe. It also meant three of City’s last four home games have featured a home goal just before the break. Attempting to beat the half time rush for a pint is not advisable around here.
If there was a criticism, it was that the goal came from yet another set piece. Some people have got a little carried away by City’s lack of goals from open play of late – isn’t scoring from a free kick or corner still an achievement? – but the ‘drought’ was ended early in the second half, as clever close control from Clarke saw him find the space to fire a low shot that squeezed under Garratt and into the net for 2-0. The way that Clarke beat players for fun in the box for this goal, the ball seemingly tied to his feet by a piece of string, had echoes of Robbie Blake. We’ve really missed you, Billy.
Crewe, to their credit, kept going and Bradden Inman smacked the crossbar from distance, but a comeback never looked on. The Alex came to Valley Parade last October in an almighty mess, but ended up avoiding relegation in May. On this evidence, they are an even weaker side and it will be a small miracle if Davis can save them again. Billy Clarke, Hanson and Reid all passed up presentable opportunities to add to the scoring. A three or even four-goal margin would not have flattered the Bantams.
Hanson will reflect on the fact he should have departed the pitch with a couple of goals. This was not his best game of the season by any stretch, but he was still a menace to the Crewe backline. The competition for striking places is hotting up and Devante Cole won’t have enjoyed his demotion to the bench. Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Parkinson settles on a first choice striker pairing, rotates, or finds a way to incorporate all three into the side. To do the latter would probably require a move back to the diamond, which would surely mean an end to Reid starting, so it’s debatable whether all three in the team will happen anytime soon.
At the back City were once again outstanding. That’s now four clean sheets in a row and no one has scored more than once against City for a month. Nathan Clarke slotted in well alongside Rory McArdle, and Leigh is an excellent defender who is almost a waste to have as a back up player.
Indeed, the role of Nathan Clarke and Leigh will have encouraged Parkinson most of all. For it is a further sign that the manager’s imprint, and his template, is being embraced not just by a clutch of starting players, but across the squad. Indeed, only five players – Ben Williams, Stephen Darby, McArdle, McMahon and Reid – have started all of the last seven, unbeaten games. Others are coming in and doing as good of a job as the player they replace. Competition is fierce in almost every position. The standards are rising.
Whether all of this recent promise is going to lead to a concerted promotion push still remains to be seen. City still don’t score enough goals, and don’t usually create enough good chances per match. Their conservatism could yet be their downfall.
Yet equally, the doubts about City’s credentials are receding. And if the team can keep producing these results, ensuring first and foremost they remain hard to beat, who knows? The next three league games are going to be very interesting for the on-song Bantams. They are clearly going to pose bigger challenges than Blackpool and Crewe at home. But one thing we can be confident about is that our players will be confident for these battles.
They have evidently bought into Parkinson’s vision. They know what they need to do, and that they need to do it every single time.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, N Clarke, Leigh, McMahon, Liddle, Knott (Routis 88), Reid (Marshall 80), Hanson, B Clarke (Cole 80)
Not used: Cracknell, Mottley-Henry, Devine, James
Categories: Match Reviews