By Katie Whyatt
Almost, but not quite. For all the mud-slinging, pre-match furore and uncertainty about the manner in which the travelling support would mark the moment their former Special One emerged from the tented tunnel (with indifference, as it transpired), there was only one way this was going to go on the field. Two insistently stoic defences who never give much away at the back end. Two teams who, although loftily placed in the league, rarely fire home for fun. If the apathy towards Phil Parkinson’s entrance was unexpected, the outcome wasn’t as hard to call. City were, again, fluid if not threatening. Bolton looked handier in the final third, but their greater rigidity was recognisable if not telling.
There was almost something metronymic about it eventually. Vincelot / Knight-Percival / Dieng would rob Sammy Ameobi or James Henry on the edge of the 18 yard box. City would send the ball spinning out from the back, move swiftly, break down in the final third. Bolton would launch a lofted ball forward as they broke for the counter, and Proctor and Spearing and Henry and Ameobi would work an opening, and Vincelot / Knight-Percival / Dieng would rob one of them on the edge of the 18 yard box, and the cycle would restart. Two outwardly different styles of build-up play, possession split evenly, both firing blanks. About a minute in, Jay Spearing hit a looping piledriver that Colin Doyle, thankfully, was equal to. At that point, it looked like an uphill slog loomed. But things levelled out, and this was as even as they come. There really wasn’t much to separate the sides today.
Two fiercely dependable and efficient defences earned this draw. Everything else almost felt like a sideshow to ‘We’re Nat Knight-Percival and Romain Vincelot and watch us win these headers’. To ‘I’m Lewis Buxton and I’ve got Mark Marshall under control’. For now, clear limitations in the final third prevent this team from being as gung-ho as perhaps Stuart McCall would like them to be, but there is at least the assurance that this greater technical fluidity has not compromised the defensive solidity that defined the campaign last season. Neither side could bypass backlines that dominated proceedings with confidence and smart positioning. The portents never suggested a goal-fest; the ease with which offensive threats were routinely snuffed out confirms what we thought we knew about both defences.
If there is comedic irony in the fact Anderson, Knott, Morris, Reid and Stead all scored for their clubs today, City can at least take confidence in the tenets underpinning their build-up play. McCall has vowed never to make this team play like robots; the components are there, and his side just need to find a way to push themselves over the line. McCall had probably hoped McNulty would answer the goalscoring doubts that are beginning to dog this team; playing as a lone striker, with Billy Clarke a little deeper, one assumes the thinking was that Marshall’s tendency to drift inwards and Law’s natural spatial awareness would bridge the gap between the front pair and provide the support Clarke needs to thrive. The discordance and distance were visible but there were compelling moments, McNulty bringing down Clarke’s looping ball in the second half but spurning the guilt-edged chance as he squared instead for Marshall.
Nicky Law continues to establish himself as the closest thing this team have to a natural focal point, so readily accommodative of Billy Clarke and, erm, everysinglesystemthisteamplaysin. An early flagbearer for what the McCall ethos entails, he single-handedly kept the Bantams ticking at times today and was a visionary in his movements.
On BBC Radio Leeds on Friday, former Ipswich Town defender Richard Naylor was asked the importance of and ease with which teams can adapt to plan B, in response to a growing consensus that Leeds United have finally sealed their identity and reverted to Garry Monk’s initial vision. Naylor’s belief was that the best players can instigate in-game changes themselves: the best eschew rigidity for instinct. Nicky Law is the archetypal man for that, and sternly refuses to be pigeonholed – his positional sense and ambition were unbelievable at times today, and underline why freedom is so important to this Bradford City team.
These players are effective precisely because you can’t put them in a box. Perhaps there are accusations that this side lack as clear a structure as Parkinson provided, but this intelligence runs throughout the team to solidify their confidence in their flexibility. Holding midfielder Dieng repeatedly dropped wide to marshal the space left from Law’s marauding runs. The brief here is ‘swap and interchange’, formational discipline latent but secondary. If there are questions about the balance between fluidity and structure, perhaps the answer lies in us revising what we thought we knew about each position.
Although concerns abound that City have still yet to find an effective striking combination, the ease with which the midfielders – Law more than anyone – persistently reincorporate a rotating cast of forwards arguably bodes better than a sterner specification would. These ranks brim with quality – Haris Vučkić was an unused substitute today – but McCall still has some refining to do to before his men hit upon the cutting edge they have otherwise lacked. That is genuinely all they are missing. True, they have missed it for years, but the solution feels closer than before. The right man is in the camp, not outside it. It is only a matter of time.
Always, however, that is easier said than done. When James Meredith met Jamie Proctor’s misdirected pass deep into the second half and found Jordy Hiwula on the edge of the box, the familiar scent of a vitally missed opportunity diffused through the away stand as the Huddersfield loanee bundled through and slipped in a shot that Mark Howard parried away with ease. City are so nearly there and simply need to find something, someone – and not necessarily a striker – to anchor them in the final third. Mark Marshall’s repeatedly hasty decision-making spoke for the whole squad today in that they just could not find an effective route through. They will face few defences stauncher than Bolton’s this season but equally City’s stubborn defensive displays will not always be able to mask their attacking deficiencies.
Not quite, but almost. This squad play with an irrepressible energy and a slick assurance that, surely, few teams will be able to match this year. A vision of high-intensity football has found fruition in a group of players capable enough to shore that mantle. The questions now are both old and familiar, but the manner in which they will go about answering them will likely be different to what we have seen before.
Categories: Match Reviews