Bradford City vs Oldham Athletic preview
@Valley Parade on Saturday 16 January, 2016
By Jason McKeown
A question for you, valued reader, as Bradford City prepare to play their first League One home game in almost two months: what has been the best match you have seen at Valley Parade this season?
It is a more difficult question to answer than it should be. Of the 13 home games so far this campaign (league and cup), just 23 goals have been scored at both ends of the field. There has been some drama, such as Devante Cole’s stoppage time winner on his debut back in August, and Sheffield United’s comeback from 2-0 down in September. But League One’s second biggest crowd has probably only witnessed the 2-1 home win over Bury in October, and thrilling 0-0 draw with Coventry in November, that could qualify for true, rip-roaring entertainment. Excitement has been in short supply.
Does this matter? It depends on what you judge the priority to be. It depends on your reasons for turning up at Valley Parade when City are in action, and how strong your level of commitment is. If, like me, you have been going for many years and it is a big part of your life, being entertained isn’t necessarily vital. Of course you don’t want to feel bored stiff, but nothing you have seen this season will dissuade you from renewing your season ticket in a few months’ time.
What generally matters more to us is winning. If City are grinding out victories or winning in low key fashion, resulting in a push for promotion, that will be more than acceptable. In this, City’s third season in League One, there’s a growing feeling of restlessness over our place in football’s pecking order. The Championship is within touching distance, and the ambition is to end a 12-year exile in the lower divisions. And sure, we’d all love to get there playing stylish football akin to Barcelona in their pomp, but more than anything else we just want to go up.
So if City are promoted this season, but continue to be low scoring and less than thrilling, I think most of us would take that.
If you are a more recent supporter and – in the nicest possible way – less dedicated, the season has probably disappointed so far. Besides the rock bottom prices, the more recently acquired season ticket holders will probably have been enticed to Valley Parade due to the amazing atmosphere and the cup heroics of 2013 and 2015.
In my view, the noise inside Valley Parade has failed to reach the standard of the previous three seasons. At times it is still wonderful, but the chanting is no longer non-stop and the positivity has dipped. The narrative of a City promotion push will keep new and floating supporters engaged to a point, but how often this season have they departed Valley Parade buzzing over what they have seen? And will they want to renew for 2016/17?
It is the age-old debate: is it better to win football matches or to be entertained? I’ve already argued this season that Phil Parkinson – who has been under pressure to introduce a more attractive playing style – should be free to manage how he sees fit, and I stand by that.
When City have had bad days at the office this season, he has been hammered by a section of supporters in a way that has not happened over his previous four seasons in charge. He is responsible for developing a winning side and continuing to take the club forwards, and this should not be compromised by pressure from the stands or the boardroom to play in a way that he feels would prove less effective. The fact that his previous attempts to do so – namely the diamond formation – led to negative criticism and mixed results means he is entitled to reject such calls. Last season, City played some good football but dropped points at home especially, and he was criticised over those results.
But the problem, for every pragmatic manager, is that less attractive football is only tolerated when it leads to positive results. When City lose and are poor to watch, patience and understanding becomes wafer-thin. The mood becomes more volatile than usual. Sometimes, City teams of the past have been clapped off in defeat for the way they had played – it happened as recently as last season. The current City side seem unlikely to be awarded such an accolade after losing.
And so the recent winless run of three has prompted plenty of debate about the entertainment. For both goals for and against, only Scunthorpe United’s Glanford Park has been witness to fewer goals this season. 70% of Valley Parade league matches have featured two or less goals – 90% have seen three or less. In contrast, 62% of games at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, and 50% of games at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena and Gillingham’s Priestfield, have seen four or more goals. There is drama to be had in League One this season, but it is rarely seen at Valley Parade.
Writing in the Guardian last week, Jonathan Wilson reflected on Manchester United supporters’ grumbles over the lack of entertainment over the football under Louis Van Gaal, and posed the question “what is attacking football?”. It was an interesting piece, well worth reading, given the debate similar to the one at Old Trafford.
We know that City don’t score enough goals, but why? Is it because we have useless strikers? Do we not get enough players into the box? Is the supply line from midfield lacking? Are we too focused on keeping the opposition out? Some would argue yes to all, but we need to dig deeper than that.
Fact one – the first goal really matters this season
In City’s 23 league games so far, they have only conceded the first goal on seven occasions. But their recovery record from going 1-0 down is one of the worst in the division. Twice they came back to earn a draw, and on the other five occasions they lost the game. Never once have they recovered to win. In these seven games of going 1-0 down, they have only managed to score a collective four goals.
Over those 23 league games, they have scored the first goal 13 times. In nine of these instances, they have gone onto win and a further two still at least earn a draw. They have only lost twice from 1-0 winning positions (both in August).
So in the 23 games City have been involved in so far this season, the team who opened the scoring has gone on to either win or at least draw on 18 occasions.
Fact two – City get worse in the second half
The current League One half time table (ie a table made up of every team’s half time scores rather than full time) would currently see City third in the league with 39 points, only two points behind half time table leaders Gillingham. Third is 10 places higher than their current league position.
At Valley Parade, they have not once gone in at half time trailing. Apart from one instance (Port Vale), City’s home score at the interval has either been mirrored by the full time result (ie if they were winning at the break and then they won the game), or it has got worse in the second half from a claret and amber persuasion (they were drawing but lost, or winning but drew).
The Port Vale home, and the Rochdale and Chesterfield away games are the only occasions in the league that City have improved on their half time ‘result’. In the cup matches, there is only the Aldershot replay where this has happened too.
This fact is remarkable to me, because it goes against what we have come to know from Phil Parkinson teams – namely that they come on stronger later in games. Compare this season’s half time/full time record to the 2013/14 season, for example – City’s first back in League One. That year’s half time league table saw City perched down in 18th, yet they finished 11th in the real table.
Fact three – City have stopped scoring late goals
Early days into Phil Parkinson’s reign as manager, I sat and watched a 1-0 defeat at Macclesfield Town next to the club’s former chief scout, the late Archie Christie. The Scot provided an insight into Parkinson’s thinking and – given he had been responsible for appointing the City manager – there was no reason to believe he was wrong. The Parkinson way, at least for that season, when City were struggling, is to be conservative early doors, take few risks, and if the game is 0-0 at half time, that’s not a bad thing. Then become more attacking as the second half progresses, and if City are level or trailing commit more bodies forward.
And watching Parkinson and City since that day, that low risk first half policy has always stuck in my mind. There have been so many instances during his time as manager that the second half has been more exciting than the first; and where the game has opened up in the latter stages. The 2012/13 season was full of examples like this, and City scored a lot of goals late on in games.
In total, they netted 16 goals in the final 15 minutes of games that year. In 2013/14, they managed 14 and last season they scored 11 goals after the 75th minute.
But this season, City have scored only two goals in the final 15 minutes of matches – the Devante Cole winner against Port Vale, and Gary Liddle’s consolation goal against Sheffield United. That is the worst record in the division by some distance. It is very un-Phil Parkinson.
Fact four – there are fewer goals in City matches, both for and against
The following table looks at Phil Parkinson’s five seasons in charge, outlining the average total goals per game (both scored and conceded), and how many City scored and conceded.
|Average total goals pg||
* Projected, based on goals for and against so far this season
In a sense Parkinson’s first season can be seen as anomaly. He took over five games into the campaign, and it wasn’t his team. What we have seen, since 2012/13, is a year-on-year decrease in the average goals in City games (goals at both ends). The defensive record has barely changed over that time, but the Bantams’ goal output has significantly decreased. They are on track to scored less than 50 goals this season.
Yet there is one crazy stat that suggests that this lack of goal action isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because City’s average of 2.17 goals per game (scored and conceded) this season is the second lowest in the division. And just who has the lowest amount of goal action? Burton Albion, the league leaders. I doubt Brewers fans are complaining much.
The difference? Burton’s second half performances are excellent. They are sat 13th in the half time table, but their post interval goals for and against record reads 21-11 (City’s is 12-18), and they’ve scored 10 goals in the last 15 minutes.
So perhaps it’s not how many goals you score, but when you score them.
What these four facts support is our gut feeling that there has been a lack of drama about this season. And as we examine the team that might play Oldham Athletic tomorrow, the question is how can this be addressed? Because as much as Phil Parkinson isn’t going to go 2-3-5 anytime soon, he will be concerned by how few goals City are scoring and will want to improve. Especially with recent results proving disappointing.
Going to back Jonathan Wilson’s excellent piece about defining attacking football, he makes the very valid point that it doesn’t matter how many attacking players you select, if you don’t have people who can win possession the forwards will be ineffective, simply because they won’t have the ball to attack with.
Wilson writes, “The problem is, before those exciting players can do any attacking, they have to have the ball – a lesson Florentino Pérez, for instance, seems never quite to learn…You can sit deep, rely on your defenders or your defensive shape being good enough to win possession and then counter, with the advantage that an opponent on the attack is likely to be off-balance and to have left space that can be exploited. Or you can press, go hunting possession, again with the advantage that a quick transition is likely to be more productive than attacking a defence that is set.”
I think this is an interesting way of looking it, because watching City this season I think that the speed of which we win back the ball might be one our biggest issues. I don’t think we put enough pressure on opposition teams when they have the ball, perhaps because the backline sits too deep. If we could regain possession higher up the field, we would be in a better position to attack more effectively. Billy Clarke’s goal against Shrewsbury in August is a good example of this. City pressed and won the ball high up the pitch, breaking at pace and going 1-0 up.
The City midfield is so vital in how City win the ball back, and this part of the team represents the biggest change to the year before. The diamond formation of 2014/15 meant that City always deployed a holding midfielder whose job it was to protect the back four and win the ball, with two wider midfielders tucked inside for support. This season, Parkinson’s straight 4-4-2 means there is room in the centre for a ball winner and, potentially, an attack-minded player alongside, perhaps pressing higher up the field.
The interesting aspect about Lee Evans is that he can do both the holding and attacking roles, and finding the right partner has been a conundrum. In home games, Billy Knott has been favoured for his greater attacking prowess. Knott has had some good games and some not so great performances. At his best he pops up all over the park and can support attacks, whilst also having the solidity to slot alongside Evans when City do not have possession. Away from home Gary Liddle has been preferred to Knott, given he is more of a holding midfielder and less inclined to get forward.
Subtle differences, but are they too subtle? When City attack Knott clearly likes to make things happen in the final third, but he is a creator of chances rather than someone who gets on the end of things (even though he does have goals in him). If City can have Evans sitting deep spraying the ball and setting up attacks, can they risk having a player alongside who will burst into the box? A David Syers when he was in his City pomp?
But the wider point stands: it’s not just about City the ball, but what they do without it. As the above Wilson quote states, you can either wait for your opposition to lose the ball when they attack (be reactive) or you can press for it (be proactive). Given City sit deep and have bodies back, could there not be a greater emphasis on pressing the opposition for the ball when they reach a certain part of the pitch. It should be in Evans, Knott and Liddle’s game to do this.
And then of course there is Tony McMahon. He is having a good season and I very much rate him for what he brings to the club; but much of his strengths lie in winning back possession and instigating the beginnings of attacks. He would arguably be more effective as a central midfielder than a wide player, not least because McMahon is not a player truly capable of charging down the pitch with the ball, beating players and swinging over crosses. He needs the ball to be worked to him in a good position to send over his deliveries (which are often excellent).
I think McMahon has done a manful job for City in the absence of Josh Morris, Paul Anderson and Filipe Morais, but for ability and attacking prowess you would select any of the other three over him in a wide position. They have pace and a trick or two to beat defenders. They can stretch games by putting opposition players on the backfoot. McMahon, for all of his qualities, cannot.
The imminent return of Josh Morris to full fitness is a massive deal for me. I remember fondly his performance at home to Port Vale where he ran past defenders and scared them. We need that kind of weapon to open up matches.
Because without it, the only attacking player capable of beating a man is Kyel Reid, and if you’re an opposition manager that becomes easier to plan for. Reid has performed well on his return on loan, and his link up play with James Meredith has been effective. But Reid’s crossing has never been the greatest, and this has contributed to the struggle to get good balls into the box.
It all leaves the City strikeforce lacking in service, and it is not surprising that no forward is particularly impressing. James Hanson is not having his best season. Billy Clarke has not hit the heights of the second half of 2014/15, perhaps because of his injury problems. Devante Cole’s struggles for gametime and goals have been covered extensively on WOAP this week. Luke James? Well I’ll keep arguing the point that he has not shown himself capable of starting for a team with aspirations for getting into the Championship. Parkinson has used him correctly in my view.
It also means that the back four is well-protected – perhaps too well-protected. Could Phil Parkinson employ a greater level of risk with the aim of greater reward? Does Stephen Darby really need a man in front of him for help? Could the back four push out a bit and play for offside more often, trusting in Ben Williams to command his box?
It is not an easy one to answer, but there is no doubt that City are playing low risk football this season, and there is a danger it will ultimately deliver low rewards (as it has been doing). After a dreadful start to the campaign, and after such horrendous luck with injuries, Parkinson has done a brilliant job getting the Bantams back into play off contention, largely by being pragmatic, but we are all craving for a bit more drama and excitement. He says this is the best squad he has had since taking over as manager, but we’ve not really seen it so far.
It does not require a revolution, but with a few tweaks here and there the goal output could increase and the second half of the season could prove a lot more enjoyable than the first.
18,000 season ticket holders have not got together for over 50 days. Tomorrow it would be nice to look back at 4.45pm and know that the team gave them greater reason to stick around past 3.45pm.