Match review: Bradford City 2 (McMahon, Wyke) MK Dons 2
By Jason McKeown
Many managers fall into this trap. You’ve just achieved a great result in your last game after changing your system midway through, so you elect to use it from the start next time out. Only the circumstances behind why it was successful aren’t necessarily repeated, and it has been easy for the opposition manager to predict your strategy.
The MK Dons boss, Robbie Nielson, was able to enjoy the measure of Stuart McCall here. He correctly anticipated Bradford City going with the 4-4-2 approach that had been switched to in the second half of Saturday’s victory over Port Vale, and set up his team to stifle their creativity.
On an evening when former City hero Gary Jones was paraded in front of the crowd, one of the key reasons why he was let go three years ago was replayed by the modern day Bradford City. Packing midfield, with a high tempo 4-5-1 stopped Jones’ City back then, and it was a familiar tale here. The 4-4-2 was outnumbered in the middle of the park.
Neilson’s MK Dons are far removed from their old attractive passing approach, hindered by a soft underbelly, that routinely undid Karl Robinson on trips to Valley Parade, and their dogged approach earned them a deserved point. They weren’t subtle but they were street-smart. Leaving City playing catch up and struggling all evening to find the initiative.
Like many visitors to Valley Parade this season, they pressed well and got forward in numbers when opportunities arose. A fast, proactive start resulted in an away goal within three minutes. Stuart O’Keefe’s long range shot was deflected into the net, but criminally City allowed him far too much space to shoot, and should have prevented him receiving the ball in the first place. It was a goal of good fortune, but City brought on their own bad luck.
And left with an even greater urgency to attack, the MK Dons shackles left the Bantams toothless and frustrated. Romain Vincelot and Josh Cullen battled manfully in the centre, but were outnumbered which prevented them from launching attacks. Nicky Law tried to tuck inside to help, but with space on the flanks to go forward City lacked the balance to make it count. James Meredith, so often City’s best attacking threat, had a rare off night. On a dreadful pitch, MK Dons were happy to let City have possession outwide, only putting pressure on the ball when home players were level with the box. They did the ugly things well.
Certainly far better than City, who continue to look vulnerable at the back and liable to concede preventable goals. Having got back to 1-1 with a debatable penalty netted by Tony McMahon, a freak mis-hit cross deceived Colin Doyle to restore the Dons’ lead. It would be harsh to blame Doyle too much, but in the first half at least the Republic of Ireland international struggled.
Charlie Wyke netted for the third home game in a row to restore parity, but as the players trooped off at half time it felt like the home side had got away with one. Players below par, and a set up that the MK Dons had neutralised. Something had to change.
And though the second half performance was improved, it still wasn’t enough to better an outcome of a third straight 2-2 home draw. City pushed forwards and had spells of pressure, but struggled to sustain it. Alex Gilliead was excellent on the right wing, and the source of much of City’s best efforts. But tellingly the MK Dons had the clearest cut chances of the half, with Doyle back to his best to prevent them.
The problem with going back to 4-4-2 here lied in solving the never-ending conundrum: Billy Clarke. Unquestionably a real asset at this level, but his deep-lying preference was at the heart of the frustrations.
The packed out MK Dons midfield left Clarke too isolated, and at times Wyke had to play on his own, his back to goal. A role he can do well, but not exactly playing to his strengths. And it was why MK Dons were happy to risk allowing City plenty of the ball outside, knowing any crosses would be predictable in the fact they would have to be aimed at Wyke.
The diamond that was discarded midway through the second half against Port Vale was successfully getting the best out of Clarke – and means City can operate within the lines of an opposition 4-5-1. Asking Clarke to play in a 4-4-2 sees City lose something. But even then, McCall’s decision to replace Clarke with Alex Jones on the hour somehow worsened the situation. Not for the first time, Jones struggled to make any impression playing down the middle at home.
All of which left it curious why McCall elected against making any further changes. He’d been outthought in the first half but did little to address it over the closing stages. At one point Mark Marshall looked set to come on but in the end Jones was the only change made.
Watching home players pile forwards in numbers disproves any argument McCall is playing it safe. But having taken such a risky approach to a point, you wonder why he wasn’t prepared to push it that little bit further.
Results elsewhere were kind – League One is a poor division this year – but that added to the sense of missed opportunity felt, once again. City are unbeaten at home for over a year now, but have only won once at Valley Parade in three months.
At least Peterborough manager Grant McCann will find it more difficult than Neilson to predict the Bradford City line up on Saturday.
Categories: Match Reviews