By Jason McKeown
The second most-hyped game of Bradford City’s season went exactly the same way as the first. Just as September’s highly anticipated trip to Bolton saw a cagey 0-0 affair, the Boxing Day tussle with Scunthorpe offered much promise but delivered little action. The pattern of both encounters was frustratingly similar.
A point at home to the league leaders is not something to be sniffed at. Scunthorpe have the best away record in League One, and before the game only four home teams had taken any points from them. The 48 points they have collected is the best at this stage of a League One season since Charlton Athletic conquered this division in 2011/12. Scunthorpe were far from their best, but displayed all the grit and determination hallmarks of league champions. They’re up there for good reason.
Yet the statistics for Bradford City are damning. It’s now just two goals in six league games for the Bantams, and this dismal return has dragged them out of automatic promotion contention to looking over their shoulders at teams just outside the play offs. It has to change quickly, otherwise it could be a difficult second half to the season.
The performance against Scunthorpe felt like a repeat of most home games this season. Defensively City were outstanding, and it’s to their credit that this was a fifth home clean sheet in a row. The back four and goalkeeper are 60% different to last season, but impressively have conceded one less goal than this time a year ago. In midfield the approach play was generally good, with Josh Cullen once again in excellent form and looking a cut above everyone else on the field.
In two-thirds of the pitch, City are dominating their opponents. The foundations are really strong.
But in the final third, it’s a different story – and if anything City are going backwards. Against Scunthorpe Stuart McCall deployed Nicky Law in the hole to good effect, but it is worrying that so few clear cut chances were created. Pushing Law up the park allowed McCall to select two out-and-out wingers, and all afternoon the ball was worked into good crossing positions. Yet the delivery often lacked pace or was too easy to defend against.
City looked too predictable and lacked the level of invention they are capable of.
A year ago the lack of goals from City was attributed to the lack of bodies in the box, but that’s not a problem this time around. City push forwards, take risks and leave gaps at the back. Yet somehow the ball just never seems to fall right. The Scunthorpe United goalkeeper Luke Daniels was under-worked.
Stuart McCall praised the players after the game and rightly so. There is no question that every player in the team is giving their all to the cause. The effort is not in doubt. As a manager, that’s all you can ask for.
What’s lacking is enough quality in the forward line and from the wide positions. The over-reliance on Billy Clarke has been laid bare during his keenly felt absence. The failings of loanees Jordy Hiwula, Haris Vuckic and Marc McNulty have been too significant. James Hanson has struggled to hit the heights he is capable of. Mark Marshall and Filipe Morais must do better.
All of this has added fuel to the calls for City to sign a new striker. Over the first half of the season you wanted to see enough from the squad to suggest that they could overcome the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer. That there would be enough players capable of chipping in the goals to develop a promotion-winning team. But it’s not happening, and increasingly it seems that the outcome of the season rests on the endevours to bring in better players over the January transfer window.
Right now there are similarities to see in how Chelsea were under Jose Mourinho’s second spell as manager. During his first season back at the Bridge, Chelsea dominated lots of games but lacked a striker to convert the chances. They missed out on the league title, and signed Diego Costa during the summer. A year later Chelsea were Premier League Champions. Costa netted 21 goals.
Of course, City don’t have millions of pounds to chuck at the problem like Chelsea did, but this January the spotlight will shine on Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp and how deep their pockets are. Since taking over the club in the summer, the pair have been quiet – too quiet – in communicating their plans for the club. That changed in very public fashion on Boxing Day, after their pre-match stroll around the pitch included declaring their aim of getting City back into the Premier League during their lifetimes.
It is a grand ambition and one to be enthused by, but actions will always speak louder than words. Rahic is on record saying that McCall will have money to spend in this window should City be in contention for promotion. A decent points haul against Bury on Saturday and Northampton on Monday would confirm that is the case. So are they ready to splash the cash?
Rahic is keen to bring long-term thinking into Valley Parade. He finds the short-termism of English football bemusing. So he is not going to blow a lot of money on players now if it leads to belt-tightening later. Everything we know about the pair’s thinking suggests taking steady, progressive steps. Going back to the summer, they were unlikely to have been demanding a promotion challenge this season, and it could be argued the club are ahead of schedule. That a top 10 finish would be a good building block for the future.
But from time-to-time, risks or bold steps need to be taken. City cannot go shopping in January thinking only about the next five months, but if they can identify players who can make an impact both in the short-term and over years to come, it could justify a sizeable investment. If they can bring in a striker who scores the goals to cement a play off finish this season – and can possibly do even more over a full season, should City lose in the play offs – it could be seen as brilliant business.
Greg Abbott and McCall will know that they need more in the striking department. They will have their targets, but they’ll need the resources to bring in a season-changing player. The issues with Vuckic and McNulty suggest this cannot be done on the cheap. The stunted progress of Reece Webb-Foster shows the new generation aren’t ready yet.
City need to bring in someone who can lift the place, change the dynamic of a struggling forward line, and inspire a resurgence in results. The goodwill afforded to the owners is great to see, but a bad transfer window will trigger doubts about their capabilities of ever bringing top flight football back to Bradford.
It will not be easy to bring in better players in January. But without changes, games like Scunthorpe will continue to be the norm over the second half of the season.