They’re all part of a masterplan

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

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Categories: Match Reviews

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15 replies

  1. Agree 100% with all of that.
    We’re on a great run at the moment but with some tough tests on the horizon it would be foolish to get too carried away.
    McMahon has added solidity to the team on that right hand side which seems to have rubbed off on others and he epitomises our style of play at the moment.
    With injured players still to come back, the future looks promising. Much however is likely to depend on keeping this squad together in January (in particular I’m thinking about Reece Burke and Lee Evans here). Also, like you say, a lack of goals could prove to be our downfall. Lots of chances and great crosses were spurned today by not having enough bodies in the box.

  2. Billy Clarke looked fit as a fiddle today, not surprised he made a point of running to hug the physio when he scored. Nice gesture that.

  3. I agree with your observations on the progress of Bradford City and the selection dilemma that PP faces. Billy Clarke is a key part of PP’s plans for the future given he has awarded him a new extended contract. He is probably our most skilful player and as such is more than worth a place in the team but as you say Clarke fits more comfortably in to the dreaded diamond.
    We will have to see how it pans out but certainly we can rest assured that the future is bright for the fans and no doubt challenging for the manager, especially when all he has a full squad to select from.

  4. This was a solid display. A comfortable win.

    However it emphasised City’s inability to ‘steam roll’ a poor team. The fact we could only score two goals against the bottom of the table is extremely worrying. We need to score goals to improve our position. The inability to secure an emphatic scoreline, given that it was only two of our mainstay defenders absent, must in the long term be a cause of concern.

    • Agreed, the irony is that had we taken any 1 or more of those missed goal opportunities we would have been sitting in a play off place on goal difference . . . It’s not only points GD can be crucial at the end of the season – PP must get the boys hitting the net from 2 out of 3 chances rather than what feels like 1 out of 3

      • Slightly unfair Crewe have only conceded 26 goals in 17 games and away from home (where they probably tighten up) have only had more than two goal put past them once.

  5. I’d argue that beating the weaker sides (especially at home) is actually really encouraging as in the past few years we’ve only managed scrappy draws or even defeats against a lot of them.

    I’m actually more confident against the stronger sides in the division as they attack us more which gives us chances to counter. A solid defence is key though, which we have at the moment.

    Also, with our lack of attacking options, I think it would be better having one of Clarke/Cole/Hanson on the bench as back-up. Keeps the first choice two on their toes and gives us fresh legs for the last 20 minutes or so. Luke James isn’t getting a look in. Has PP just completely given up on him?

  6. Sadly the area we currently don’t have competition for is the main striking role and to say this was not Hanson’s ‘best game of the season by any stretch’ is being too kind about his performance which, like many of his this season, was not good enough. Overall, though, a decent performance and a game we bossed for large parts.

  7. After our poor start which yielded just 2 points from the first 4 games,we have now taken 25 points from 13 games which is automatic promotion form. It’s a great run ,we havnt been incredibly impressive in many of the games but we are very solid and difficult to beat. In fact the criticisms directed at Man Utd at the moment could apply to us.Solid,unspectacular, not creating enough chances but achieving results. Interesting to see what the team will be when Morris is fully fit and Billy Clark starts to get sharper.

  8. Of course “Billy Clarke and James Hanson struggled to forge a cohesive partnership as a front two”. You can put any number of names in front of JH with the exception of Nahki and come to the same conclusion. Unlike yourself I have absolutely no doubts as to Billy Clarke’s suitability to play in a front 2 providing his partner has the same level of ability and movement as he has. Clearly this is not the case here.

  9. Too many people have this thought that lots of goals scored represents a better push for success. NO, so long as we continue to keep clean sheets – an odd goal win will suffice. Other than that, as usual, a well written piece.

  10. Interesting report and comments as always. I agree with the Leigh, Reid, Knott comment. This may be an unpopular view but I’m not sure what Meredith offers over Leigh and Leigh doesn’t have to stop and go backwards every time the ball is on his right foot.
    Call me old fashioned but I cannot see how you can get to be an international footballer when you dare not risk playing any but the simplest of balls with your weaker foot.
    Meredith has been great for us, but I’d pick Leigh over him on the performance we’ve seen so far.

    • I missed this Saturday’s match but it must have been a hell of performance from Leigh for you to want him to replace arguably our best player over the last two years

    • It’s obviously early days to be saying that Leigh is better than Meredith, but I agree that the potential is there for him to be exactly that. He is at least as quick, better in the air and is more prepared to move off the touchline, with and without the ball, to create good passing angles and drive at defenders; this is because he isn’t scared to use his right foot. Meredith hugs the line to keep the ball on his left peg and if he gets turned sideways has no option but to pass backwards because he won’t play a simple square or forward pass with his right foot. This frequently slows down positive attacking momentum and frustrates the hell out of me. Parky should have him stay behind after training every day to work on right foot passing until he can do it.
      But the first duty of a full back is to defend and the jury is still out there. Leigh had a terrific game on Saturday but there were a couple of instances when a man went past him when I think Mezza would have got a tackle in.
      But it’s great to know that we have two quality left backs competing for the shirt.

  11. They looked a lot more complete with Clarke in the team, he was able to contribute a lot more to the overall play of the team. I reckon McMahon was glad to have him in there.
    In the second half there were a few opportunities flashed across the box that I thought was crying out for Cole to be there making sure he got across defenders and in a position for a tap in. I’d like to see a Cole/Clarke combination tried against Aldershot, they’d prefer to get into a physical battle with Hanson than have to cope with the movement of them two.
    The defence is playing really well, but I do worry about this high pressing sometimes. Crewe only had a couple of opportunities in the second half and they stemmed from knocking the ball past the high pressing midfielders into the space left behind. Coventry should be able to exploit that more than the largely inept Crewe Alexander.

    It was a very good performance though, all wins are hard fought regardless of the opposition. I’m not having this ‘only’ 2-0 nonsense

    A word also for the amazing moaning couple sat behind me. A particular highlight being (without irony) to Reid having passed the ball back to Leigh. ‘Bloody hell Reid, you can’t even beat two players’

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