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.
If you like what Width of a Post do, please vote for us in the Football Blogging Awards.
Categories: Match Reviews