Walking the thin lines

Match review: Sheffield United 3 Bradford City 0

By Jason McKeown

There’s a great line in the film Spinal Tap about how it’s such a thin line between stupid and clever. At Bramall Lane and in a game where a win could have delivered such big rewards for Bradford City, Stuart McCall’s tested that thin line theory and paid the price.

A gung-ho approach of three at the back, and deploying the two full backs as wingers, was an almighty risk that ultimately backfired. The Champions, Sheffield United, tore through a badly exposed Bantams defence in clinical fashion. It was brutal, it was devastating and it was highly damaging for City. It cost them the game and may have extinguished automatic promotion hopes just as suddenly as they had been revived.

And yet as foolish as McCall’s plan was made to look by the Blades, the tantalising glimpse of what might have been makes it difficult to be too critical of the City manager. If the Bantams were to have any hope of catching Bolton they had to win here and McCall tried to play the odds in his team’s favour. When in the opening 12 minutes the visitors attacked with promise and showed urgency and bite, everything they did in possession hinted at delivering a surprise win. They badly needed to score the first goal.

That they didn’t manage to do so allowed Sheffield United to run riot. The game was lost by poor shape off the ball and the midfield being left wide open and easy to overrun. When Leon Clarke emphatically smashed United in front, City were in big trouble. Before a quarter of the game was over Billy Sharp had run through to make it 2-0 and it was pretty much game over.

McCall reacted to his own mistake by making a very early substitution and reverting to a proper back four. Timothee Dieng had endured a harrowing afternoon that was reaching Chris-Routis-at-Oldham level, and had to be put out of his misery. Alex Jones – who took the wide forward position of a 4-3-3 – played well.

City got better from that point, but the damage had already been done. Sheffield United sat back, let City have the ball, and defended superbly. For all the possession the Bantams had over the last 70 minutes, they rarely looked like scoring.

Indeed Sheffield United made sure it was game over just before half time, with a third goal on the counter attack that was smashed home by Clarke. He and Sharp were outstanding all afternoon, and on this evidence City’s forwards are a long way behind the best in the division.

As are more of their Bantams team mates for that matter. Sheffield United were understandably in jovial mood and played like Champions. The difference in the two sides’ level of fluidity and speed of thought was vast. United are on another level, and if City don’t succeed in getting promotion this is the standard they must aspire to reach in League One next season.

They’ll also need to develop more of the nasty streak that champions like United so nearly always seem to possess. When the third goal went in, Sharp chose to goad us City fans in the away end, with Clarke eventually running over to join in. We City fans had earlier joined in the clapping the Champions, and the players sportingly gave their counterparts a guard of honour. All nice, classy things, but some will argue not necessarily the best approach for a must-win game. Ultimately City were too obliging guests to the Blades’ party.

It was so disappointing for the Bantams. To their credit they kept going and attempted to begin an unlikely comeback, but the bravery from the start had long evaporated. While Mark Marshall and Jones deserve credit for not letting their heads drop, Josh Cullen was below par and lacking in the levels of responsibility he is usually prepared to take. The Cullen chant was aired frequently in the away end once more, but it seemed a little hollow this time.

Charlie Wyke was too quiet and ineffective. Aside from his tap-in at Bury, Wyke just hasn’t looked effective enough in away games and needs to produce more. His superb performance at home to Oxford on Friday showed he can offer more than just goals. He needs to maintain those standards but dipped here. James Meredith and Nathaniel Knight-Percival also had afternoons to forget. Romain Vincelot had a rough time playing in the back three but got better after being pushed back into midfield. Nicky Law needed more courage to try more difficult things.

McCall sounded downbeat post match, but talked in a positive way about the situation. With two games to go, the focus has shifted back to making sure enough is done to finish in the play offs and, ideally, to ensure the second leg is at Valley Parade. Wimbledon and Rochdale are relatively kind fixtures to have. One more point seals top six, after defeats for Millwall and Southend. 

But the true cost of today could lie in the surrendering of 4th place and, with it, the guarantee of a play off second leg at home. Scunthorpe’s win over Chesterfield pushes the Iron a point ahead of City, and their last two games are at struggling Swindon and at home to already relegated Coventry. Somehow City need to overtake them again over the final two rounds of games.

Providing that does happen, the disappointment of this afternoon will be quickly eased – although the lessons shouldn’t be forgotten. McCall is not a manager to shut up shop away from home and play for a draw, but if in three weeks time City are embarking on a first leg trip to Scunthorpe, Millwall or Southend, with the cushion of a second leg at home, they should remember they don’t need to take undue risks to win the tie there and then.

Last year City lost the semi final tie before the first leg reached the half time break. McCall’s City cannot go all out attack in the first leg and risk a damaging deficit that leaves them with too much to do in the second tie.

The rewards that come with the play offs get bigger, and how McCall manages the risks could be the telling factor. To get through the play offs and win promotion City are going to have to defend as well as they attack. They’ll have to be clever. Not stupid.

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17 replies

  1. If we secure playoff this weekend. I think he should maybe try a new formation against Rochdale. Maybe play Devine or play with Jones/Marshall on wing or Hiwula/Marshall on wing with Wyke up front with either Jones or Hiwula.
    Personally think if we don’t get promoted someone will offer Marshall game time in championship
    I also think we should be in the market for another winger or 2. Marshall was good but due to him being our only winger he didn’t get much room when creating chances another winger would help.
    Also Sheffield were good on the counter attack i think having 2 pacy wingers could help us in that regard as well.

    PS what is everyone’s fascination with Cullen, in all the games I’ve seen he hasn’t been much, last year I saw why everyone talked about Burke and I understood that but don’t see that with Cullen

  2. An accurate summary Jason, and your comment about a nasty streak also relevant, for on the few times we did threaten to break the Blades did not hesitate to put a foot in. Also their streetwise attitude with a defenders “injury” causing the referee to stop play and relieve a difficult situation. But other results certainly went our way and we are still in a strong position. So on we go, but please bin the system playing 3 at the back – it results in chaos.

    • Stuart in interview on the Pulse alluded to the fact he went 3 at the back because he thought 2 would struggle against their 2 strikers. Never looked like working, it made us look a lot worse a team than we actually are. I agree, lets not see the three at the back, Mcmahon and Mezza aren’t good enough to play as attacking wing backs. 4 at the back please. Would like to see Devine given a chance because there is very little go forward in the likes of Cullen, Law, Vince and Dieng. A priority to tie down Marshall with a contract, our only creative outlet and yet another good performance for the potential player of the season. Been a pleasure to watch him this season.

  3. A fair and accurate report. I think it was right to provide the guard of honour on entry. It should not have affected the performance. There was a case for bringing off Charlie Wyke with 15 minutes to go if only to send a message “must try harder”. I trust Stuart to learn the lesson from today and with the Millwall and Southend results, we should be okay. Bolton at Wembley still a possibility!

  4. Have we forgotten how to tackle, midfield was woeful today. Great possession stats but most of that was with our back four. Very rarely did we win a second ball, to much side to side no real penertration. No service to Wyke. Too predictable. Dieng was very poor, maybe Devine would have been a better option, Dieing hasn’t done it recently.

    • Deing has gone off the boil. No idea why Devine can not get a look in. I agree the back three did not work and why is Cullen playing holding mid and vincelot pushing on when we did change. McMahon must have had the most possession as he was our only outlay why we go side to side and not down the middle frustrates me. Why was Clarke not brought on? McCalls love child law offered by buggar all.

  5. Interesting piece and well written as always. Not sure about the clapping bit and linking it to not being hard nosed enough. I know this will come in for some criticism , but to an extent teams are remembered for the way they do things as much as what they do. One of the greatest teams in my lifetime was the 1982 Brazil world cup team. They were done over by a street wise Italy- but i suspect people could name more players from that Brazil side than the Italian. Ditto the Netherlands 1988 team compared to Greece 2008 or Portugal 2016 in respect of the Euros. Being “classy” is important. I was really pleased the way our fans were today – and didnt even get too wound by Sharp’s antics or by the few blades fans that let themselves down a lot at the end coming over to goad us when we were clapping their team. I like who we are and our appreciation of others and our good banter. Its part of who we are. We are not surely saying that we should be more like Millwall?

    • The clapping criticism isn’t my view just one I heard others express. Personally I’m glad we did it and would have been disappointed if we hadn’t.

  6. Ultimately we lost to the Champions and best supported/resourced club away. I view this as understandable albeit the manner in which it took place was very disappointing. The reality is that we are more than capable of winning our last 2 matches and if that happens we will have attained 81 points – one more than last season. There i also a very good chance of a desperate Swindon holding Scunthorpe next weekend, giving us a really good chance of finishing above them in fourth after all – again a place higher than last season. The final thought is one relating to the Swansea City 5-0 hammering four years ago. Although that happened the squad recovered to win promotion through the play offs. Championship-bound Sheffield United’s 3-0 may well provide the steely focus we need to succeed this time around where we failed last season.

  7. Bit of a reality check for what life in the championship could be like, facing stronger opposition. It exposed the season long frailties of attack, its like watching England going forward, just too slow & focused on possession, whilst other teams run at us with pace. Today, they pressed us more aggressively than we did them, for much of the game.

    Clearly much to be positive about this season, we should barring disaster be certain of play offs, but winning promotion will take a different gear against the top teams we have struggled to beat.

    Its going to be a roller coaster of a month!

  8. Great report and thoughts as I usual Jason. Just remember we were at home in the first leg against Burton so it can be done playing the first leg at home.

  9. Parky’s hardest to beat line up always had two banks of four at the back. Sheffield United when not in possession had two banks of four. Stuart’s team seems to be in chaos at the back at times when we don’t have the ball. Too often Stuart has tried to be clever with his formations, and his team have struggled. He is then praised for putting right what he got wrong in the first place. He needs to develop a more pragmatic approach at times. Parky, when his team was struggling, would tighten up even more, not pretty, but effective. It gave something to develop from, Stuart seems to over complicate things. Scunthorpe and Sheffield away have both shown that we have a lot to do, and also, that one or two players are not really good enough. whether we stay down or go up. Only my opinion but it feels valid.
    My ‘Blade’ neighbours tell me that they have been erratic in their performances but that The Bantams do bring out the best in them. It was their best performance of the season last season and this season too he said.

  10. A very disappointing performance and the wrong line up and tactics from the off against an excellent Sheffield United team. Firstly I disagree with the guard of honour we paid them far too much respect before the game had even started.

    Secondly 3 at the back was suicide and we were left totally exposed down the middle if the park. There were too many side ways passes, we were stretched and kept giving the ball away so cheaply. We looked tired and out of sorts. There was not enough players behind the ball closing down the space. We looked slow, predictable and there was not 1 challenge made for all 3 of their goals. The blades took their foot of the gas and if it wasnt for Doyle the result would have been a far heavier defeat. Doyle has made 4 or 5 crucial saves in the last few games that has won us the points.

    Thirdly although city were 2nd in the form charts behind Sheffield United in the last 8 games performance have been below par with city grinding out results against some gritty opposition but not of the calibre of yhe team we came up against today. This constant choping and changing of formations of late has been papering over the cracks of our lack of drive and pace from midfield and lack of goals which Sheffield United exposed to great effect.

    City will make play offs and have as good a chance as any to win promotion but we have to be smarter than this and attack and defend as team with everyone knowing their jobs.

    The current crop of players have got us into this position and have the tallent to take us further. However, there has been too much reliance on Mark Marshall of late and we need the players to step forward in a formation that supports rather than exposing are weakenesses.

  11. I think they are falling second best too often on the physical side of the game

  12. I watched on television, and it was a painful experience. Sheffield were better in every department of the game, even in cynical fouling.They were the best Division One side I have seen, and can imagine them doing very well next season.
    Remember where we were in June last year. I think McCall has done a very good job with the resources he has. But the fact remains that, even when we are at our best, we never roll teams over. The last 4 home games were odd goal, rather lucky on Friday and against Swindon. In fact, the Swindon game epitomised City. Outclassed poor opposition, yet scraped home.
    I think we go across field too slowly, and allow defences to regroup, but, even after watching football since the 1940s, I would never claim to be an expert, and would never criticise the tactics used by experts such as McCall and Black.
    I think we are not good enough to go up, but neither were Barnsley last season, and look at the wonders of them and Burton. Some strengthening is needed, as is a bit more speed, and possibly a bit more toughness and roughness in the play.
    I am very optimistic about our prospects, with our owners, manager and fans.
    Finally, I think Jones is good, but not really fully fit, and Wyke seemed yesterday not to have recovered from the foul treatment he received on Friday. Please re-sign Marshall.

  13. I agree with much of the criticism voiced above but I wanted to raise another point in connection with the relative strength of the two sides. Talking to Blades fans in a cafe before the game, not only was I surprised by their friendliness towards us as a club but also by their critical assessments of their own team. Universally, and this was from at least ten people, they have not been over-impressed by their performances this year. Happy to be going up but not keen on the way they play. Furthermore, they all seemed to be pessimistic about their chances of staying in the Championship unless they invest heavily in new players.
    So, when I was sat there glumly watching their midfielders rampage through our physically inferior challenges; watching our defenders wake up too late to the movement of Sharp and Clarke; and watching our forwards frustrated by the endless crab-like progression of our midfield, it dawned on me just what a rebuilding job would be needed if we were to go up. I hope it soon becomes a necessity!

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