Familiar limitations face a new solution

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By Katie Whyatt

“For the possession and the way we’re playing, we’ve got to start getting more attempts on goal,” Stuart McCall said this week, in the build up to what would ultimately become Bradford City’s fourth draw on the bounce. “We’ve done a lot of finishing this week and we’ve got good finishers in the side.” The message was clear: bide your time, and the goals will come.

On the surface, these are familiar limitations. Concerns about clinicality, and the failure to kill teams off, characterised the discourse around the side last season, and, to an extent, persisted at full time today after a second half in which McCall’s men ran the show – again. When teams fail to convert prolonged dominance into anything meaningful, the margin for error shrinks. City surrender possession around halfway; James Clarke delivers a routine cross that, on any other day, Vincelot would have wafted away nonchalantly, no questions asked. This time, he slips, Charlie Colkett pounces, and City are left with a draw.

Just one or two goals more, and that slip wouldn’t have mattered. One or two goals more for their 17 shots, and that slip would have been remembered for the inconsequential bit of bad luck it should have merely been. As it was, it became game defining. Truthfully, the Bantams deserved a buffer here, and it is a sad irony that a defence usually so insistently impenetrable fell right at the death in the most sickening fashion.

McCall was half-right in his post-match assessment that you can’t legislate for those kind of mistakes – but, in a way, you can. Ideally, City wouldn’t have been in a position to allow that slip to become as pivotal as it did. Just one more goal and it wouldn’t have been an issue.

If that reads harshly, take it as an indication of just how rampant Bradford City were in that second half. Their slickly oiled machine purred on apace, unpicking the visiting defence adroitly, finding space even as their opponents packed men into the box, trying to close all the avenues.

There was something almost comforting about it: Law weaving in, Dieng following behind, Clarke threading through, Cullen Cruyff-turning his man, Marshall cutting in at a canter. This team look so well-drilled, but it obvious that creativity and self-expression are the overriding tenets of the McCall philosophy.

It was remarkable how well they read each other at times, for all they lacked an end product. Bristol were flexible enough first half, men dropping in and out of the hole but always rebounding into their compact 4-4-2, but, for all the hype surrounding ‘five goals in six league games’ man Matty Taylor, looked unlikely to wrest the game from City’s grasp during the second.

If the City goal had been coming, there was something magnificent in its ingenuity, Mark Marshall carving open the smallest of gaps through which to thread a looping cross for James Meredith. Meredith, one of the standout performers again so far this season, was his typical steely self today. There was something almost metronomic about him: there was a rhythmic tinge to how he’d pickpocket Hiram Boateng deep on the left flank, repeatedly round the Bristol man with an assuredness verging on the reckless, and never come off second best as he scampered away, blue and white shirts chasing dust. He was just, like, “I’ll have that, thanks – see you thirty yards up field.”

You only need to look at what Gary Cahill did yesterday to see just how impressive City’s defensive composure is. It’s a characteristic that underlines just how desperately unlucky they were to concede in the manner they did today.

Good managers know how to get the best out of what they have, and perhaps the failings last term were structural, more than anything else. An air of cautious uncertainty abounded at the release of the teamsheet today: every time Phil Parkinson had tried Hanson and Clarke together, they’d pulled in divergent – but not necessarily bad – directions, either frequently isolated, and Clarke hampered by a shortage of options. But as easy as it is to dismiss them as an unnatural pairing, there were mitigating circumstances within the wider team set-up for why they looked as discordant as they sometimes did last year.

Marshall, Cullen and Nicky Law have looked natural allies for Billy Clarke, who is an early beneficiary of the team’s less inhibited attacking approach. Parkinson’s rigidity in his final season, as effective as it was defensively, probably undermined any chance Clarke and Hanson had of becoming a more dangerous combination. They looked better today than they ever did last season. That it just wasn’t enough to push them over the line at this stage is, again, maybe understandable, given the little game time they’ve had together thus far.

With that in mind, it is clearer than ever before that the success of this team lies with more than just a fixed striking combination. McCall is lucky in that the number of offensive options – Vuckic, McNulty and Hiwula will all have roles to play at some point this season – makes the probability of hitting upon that winning formula feel more likely than it has done for some time.

That that combination is unclear at this point is not necessarily something to worry about. And coming off the back of a summer in which England entered an international tournament not knowing their best formation, that might seem like an irresponsible assertion. But the dilemma facing Stuart McCall is a different case to the one Roy Hodgson grappled with back in June: there is no shoehorning or tactical uncertainty, but an embarrassment of riches, and fluid players quick to accustom themselves to formational changes.

That variety is a strength at this point, not a weakness. To rewrite that is questionable. However McCall shapes up offensively, he won’t do anything as ill-advised as what Hodgson did with Dele Alli in France.

There were rebounds and spills today that just needed a nifty finisher to follow them up. In time, McCall will find that. Maybe that’s what he was looking for, bringing Marc McNulty on towards the end. In any case, Clarke and Marshall both twice came close with long-range efforts that whistled over the crossbar. Had any of those dipped just an inch lower, there would be a different filter on today’s game.

Dominant, but not devastating. At the moment, that’s not the end of the world. If you’re debating the efficiency of territorial dominance, that’s a far nicer topic than ‘Why are we being torn apart every week?’, or ‘Why is our build up play so laboured’, or ‘Why are we leaking goals constantly?’ This is a side that can conjure up individual moments of extreme brilliance – there was one glaring one in Marshall’s assist today. In time, those goals will come. City have the right pieces, and the assembly instructions look far more convincing this year.


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Categories: Match Reviews

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15 replies

  1. OK, it’s still early days and I shouldn’t get too worried. but, i’m a City fan and worrying comes with the territory. two years ago the lack of goals cost us a play-off place….last season the same malaise arguably cost us an automatic promotion place and ultimate play-off failure. it is early days but the omens aren’t good. how many points have already gone begging? stuart was only half right in his post match assessment…the slip did cost us two points but it should by then have been irrelivant. we should have been goals ahead.

  2. The last paragraph sums up the situation perfectly 👍🏻
    Work in progress but work that is clearly onwards and upwards

  3. I thought we lost the killer touch when the game was stopped for the drone. We lost our flow and noticeable that Bristol tightened up, the break allowed their manager to give instructions. That said I suspect with the heat our players were beginning to suffer after a very energetic half. Ultimately two points dropped. Fantastic atmosphere and feel good factor. The entertainment can’t be faulted even if we didn’t get a second.

    How people saw the drone before the game was stopped? Presumably sensitivity about terrorism?

  4. Only one minor quibble…Marshall didn’t provide a pinpoint cross for the goal, it was a cross/shot that hit the defenders leg and looped up nicely for Meredith x

  5. Chill out. This time last season we were down near the bottom of the table. We are currently sat two points off the top and still unbeaten. From what i have seen there are no stand out teams in League One who are going to run away with it like Wigan did last season.

    We played well yesterday and it was just a slip from Vincelot which cost us. If we’d have won it would have been a totally different reaction from City fans. They love a good old moan.

  6. Owing to work commitments I wasn’t at the Bristol Rovers game so I won’t comment on our performance. However, looking at the bigger picture, we are heading into the latter part of September still undefeated in the league. Look at Manchester United, who have spent ludicrous amounts of money in the summer, they have just lost three games on the trot. If people are moaning that we only drew last Saturday, what would they be like if we’d lost three consecutive games?

    IMWT

  7. Front two need looking at because on Saturday v. the Gasmen we reverted at times to the long ball of McArdle / Hanson era!

  8. Another spot on blog from WOTP! How refreshing to have articulate accurate comments rather than the all too frequent negative rants generally seen on social media. The progress made by our team this season is clear for all to see. The goals are coming!

  9. We are the only unbeaten team in the football league and I think the only other team unbeaten is Man City.

    Its been a great start so far and even though slightly frustrated about not scoring enough I’d have happily taken this at pre-season and talking about what we are and where we are

  10. Nice summary much of which I fully agree with. However I found the word ‘clinicality’ jumping out at me. Not sure where you you got that one from? I liked the use of ‘metronomic’, a creative use of your expanding lexicon! (-:

  11. I am delighted with where we are and how we are playing; and I really don’t want to become the Private Frazer of WoaP, but a truly balanced view of the game if you don’t acknowledge how close we were to getting nothing.

    For all the pretty football in the first half the only reason we did not finish 0-1 down was that the Rovers’ missed an open goal, which was pretty much the only chance of the first half, and they made it from our slack defending!

    In the second half we were a joy to watch for 20+ minutes; but the drone did not make as much difference as the 3 sub’s did! After they came on we fell apart!

    We should have scored a minute from time, but Rovers’ were counter-attacking to the end and might have sneaked a winner.

    I am not getting at Stuart or any of the players here; and I think we are not far short of being a team that could win the title; burt we are clearly still short!

  12. I’m somewhat perplexed by all the hand wringing about our current form.
    Most of the results have been achieved with a threadbare squad who, despite this handicap, have been playing free flowing football, gaining plaudits and points along the way.
    Saturday was the first time where we could truly say there were players in contention for places across the park. But many of those players now in contention are still some way behind those who’ve been holding the fort since the season began. Collectively fitness levels and game time need to be attained before we truly start to see the best from some of the returnees and our new loanees.
    Be patient. The season is a long long way from the business end. We’ll have a few bumps in the road ahead but just enjoy the fact we’re playing football the way god intended it to be played.

  13. Saturday was the first match I have had chance to get to this season. Was really good to see the boys again despite the frustration of drawing a game we should of won. It’s plain to see we lack pace up top , Billy Clarke is not a out and out striker , thought Hanson had a good game but he will get 10 -12 goals a season . We have no left sided midfielder , who ever plays on the left wether it be law or Marshall constantly cut inside on their favoured foot which the opposition soon get on to , mcnulty an vukcic are also pace less , don’t understand how bury can get someone like James Vaughan when we’re crying out for a striker like that , thought josh Cullen looked like a future premier league player , if we could get him permantly that would be a real coup .

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