By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall certainly can’t be accused of being predictable. Faced with the ongoing issue of making his Bradford City charges more of a threat in front of goal, at Bolton on Saturday he employed a number of different approaches that posed plenty of questions of Phil Parkinson.
Forget the fact the team was unchanged, save for Marc McNulty coming in for the injured James Hanson. City’s formation was not the straight 4-4-2 that has been seen over recent weeks. Mark Marshall began the afternoon up front with McNulty – Billy Clarke playing at the tip of a diamond. And then later on Marshall was given a free role and encouraged to hunt for space. In the second half the Jamaican popped up on both flanks.
Nicky Law was similarly moved around as McCall gave his players the licence to mix up the play. He was on the left in the diamond at first, then in the centre of midfield supporting Josh Cullen. Law was City’s man of the match once again and heavily involved in attacking moves. He more than anyone embodies what McCall is trying to do.
If only it all led to more goalscoring opportunities. There was so much to be encouraged about City’s performance at the Macron, especially during the second half where they were dominant. Nevertheless, Mark Howard was hardly worked in the Bolton goal. Promising openings were passed up due to a lack of killer touch. Shots on goal were far too infrequent.
Five consecutive draws clearly show that there is something missing from City. Billy Clarke has enjoyed an excellent start to the season and is playing some of his best football since joining in 2014. The Irishman is on the same wavelength as Law and Josh Cullen, linking up so well with them both. But because almost all of Clarke’s best work takes place outside the box, City lack vital presence inside it. They just don’t have enough people to finish off attacks.
If the season continues this way, there will be questions raised about whether you can play Clarke, Cullen and Law in the same team. They do great work together as a three, but it leaves City short elsewhere. Over recent years Arsene Wenger at Arsenal has been accused of playing too many players that are similar, chiefly overloading the side with attacking midfielders/number 10s, without someone breaking things up. It’s not quite the same for McCall and City, but there has to be more of an end product to the pretty build up play. The three are at their most effective in the same part of the pitch, meaning City are lacking in numbers elsewhere.
Law plays on the left wing but is not playing as a winger. This isn’t a new development at Valley Parade, the tuck-in-wide player was a regular feature of Parkinson’s time in charge – Will Atkinson, Garry Thompson and, last season, Tony McMahon, the most obvious examples. Law is a very different player to McMahon and offers a lot more going forwards. His continual cutting inside frees up space for James Meredith to charge down the flanks. This should be an effective left-sided midfield – you could argue Law and Meredith are City’s two best players so far this season – and yet there are not nearly enough balls coming into the box.
But McCall isn’t far away. His decision to continue Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival at the back was a surprise in view of Bolton’s predictable physicality, but the pair absolutely justified their manager’s ongoing faith with terrific displays. Equally important is what they bring to City’s attack. They bring the ball out from the back, and set the tempo and tone for the Bantams’ passing approach.
On so many occasions Colin Doyle would roll the ball out to Vincelot and Knight-Percival, and in front you’d see midfielders and attackers moving around into different positions, dragging markers out with them. It is not easy for opponents to anticipate what will happen next, given the variety of City’s play.
It was no small feat for City to be so successful at passing the ball through the middle of the park, given Bolton’s brawn. Josh Cullen was on the receiving end of some nasty challenges but would not be bullied. City stood up to the physicality and continued to play football to the McCall blueprint. The team has flair and are easy on the eye, and they clearly have plenty of steel too.
If McCall can just solve the striking dilemma, City could be flying. McNulty was not the answer on this evidence, but it’s early days. Jordy Hiwula impressed from the bench, but was wasteful in heading that late chance wide.
McCall needs to find that clinical edge, but he pretty much has the system and the template. City are really engaging to watch, inventive in their attacking approach, and anything but rigid in their formation. The jigsaw is nearly complete, but there’s still that one crucial piece missing.