By Tim Penfold
It’s been a season of change both on and off the pitch for Bradford City, but the most obvious and striking change has been the style and systems that the team have played. From the pragmatic, direct and predictable (yet hugely successful) football that the team produced under Phil Parkinson, we have moved to a much more fluid and entertaining style under Stuart McCall without losing the results on the pitch.
The first and most significant shift has been that the team has become more attacking. Last season we averaged 10.63 shots per game, but this has jumped up to 14 per game this season. The most obvious cause of this has been the change in the balance of the midfield. Last year, 3 out of the four midfielders had a role that was, primarily, defensive. The two central midfielders stayed deep and recycled possession, rarely getting into the box. Tony McMahon tucked in on the right flank and did a lot of defensive work as well. Only Kyel Reid was given license to really go and attack opponents.
This season, when the team has played a midfield four, the balance has been different. Both wide players (Marshall and usually Law) are asked to attack, and one of the central midfielders (often Dieng, but Cullen towards the start of the season and against Wimbledon) is tasked with getting into the box when attacking, with just one being primarily defensive. In the defence as well, both full backs are asked to get forward, with Meredith getting even more freedom down the left due to Law drifting inside, and the switch from Darby to McMahon giving us greater attacking threat on the right. The net result is that we create a lot more chances.
Of course, all football tactics are a balance between putting the focus on chance creation or chance prevention, and Phil Parkinson’s teams were brilliant at this. Last year we conceded, on average, 8.57 shots per game, and this has gone up to 10 this year. However, we’ve still got one of the best defences in the league, and the overall balance between creation and prevention seems better – last season we averaged 2 more shots per game than the opposition – this season it’s 4 more.
It’s best described, as always, by Experimental 361’s Expected Goals stats. This would expect us to score 1.78 goals per game and concede 1.1 this season, compared to 1.3 scored and 0.92 conceded last season. In terms of net chance creation, McCall’s side is better.
The other big change this season has been in formations, and specifically the different ones used. You could fairly easily predict Phil Parkinson’s teams over his regime – usually playing some variant of 4-4-2 with a target man and either a Billy Clarke style number 10 or a Nahki Wells style poacher up front. You’d get one more attacking wide man (usually Reid) and one tucking in on the other flank (Atkinson, Thompson, McMahon). We did get the diamond for quite a lot of 2014/15, but for the rest of the time he stayed solidly in the realms of 4-4-2.
In Stuart McCall’s first spell he was an attacking 4-4-2 coach. Two strikers, two wingers, and no real room for forwards who dropped off, like Willy Topp, or number 10s like Chris Brandon. In his final season he shifted to a 4-3-3/4-5-1 variant, and this was quite the event.
This time it’s different. In his first four games he played four different systems – 4-4-1-1 against Port Vale, Diamond against Accrington, 4-4-2 against Peterborough and 4-5-1 against MK Dons – and while he generally spent the first few months of the season switching between 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 depending on whether Billy Clarke was fit, he was not afraid to change things up, bringing the diamond midfield out against Fleetwood at home and Northampton away.
He even brought out a back three against Millwall at home, something not seen at Valley Parade since Colin Todd briefly used it in 2006. This was a world away from the tactically rigid coach that we’d seen first time around, and the flexibility of his teams has only become more pronounced in recent weeks.
It’s entirely possible that he would’ve stayed with 4-4-2 variants as much as possible as the season went on, but injuries to Nicky Law and Alex Gilliead, and the departure of Filipe Morais, forced McCall to get creative. A brief experiment with Alex Jones wide in a 4-4-2 ended after about 15 minutes at Coventry, while Hiwula also popped up in the wide role, but then he changed things spectacularly.
Against Swindon at home I initially thought he’d selected a 4-3-3, with Cullen, Vincelot and Dieng as the midfield 3, but he’d actually gone for a 3-4-3, with Vincelot dropping into the middle of the back four. This seemed to work fairly well, though the real action came after he introduced Billy Clarke and the system changed to a 4-2-1-3.
He then went even more attacking against Scunthorpe, with what was, in theory, a 3-4-3 but ended up almost as a 3-3-1-3 with Billy Clarke drifting forwards. Despite the result, we out-created them and the goals conceded were not really down to the system – more down to individual sloppiness at set pieces. That said, Timothee Dieng had been left wide open at times, so the team was modified to a 4-2-1-3 against Walsall at home, with Vincelot moving back into midfield. This system has been the preferred one for most of the rest of the season, providing more defensive solidity whilst also playing Marshall, Wyke, Jones and Billy Clarke in arguably their best positions.
This tactical flexibility is a vital weapon in our promotion hunt – it means we can shift between systems mid-game depending on what the opposition does. The best example of this was at Bury, where Vincelot dropped deep and made a back 3 as Bury threw on more strikers and gutted their midfield – we were able to use him where he was most needed. McCall does out-think himself at times – see the disastrous first 20 minutes against Sheffield Utd and the improved performance after he shifted away from a back three – but you can normally see the logic. The last two teams to actually beat Sheffield United both used back threes.
Players like Romain Vincelot and Alex Jones, who can play multiple roles, are also vital to this. The ability to change your system without making a substitution gives a manager far more options in a game. As well as the Bury game mentioned above, he was able to change against Coventry at half time without making any further subs, and against Oxford at home he moved Law from the left into the hole and Hiwula from up front to the left, and was rewarded a few minutes later with a move started by Hiwula and eventually finished by Law for the only goal of the game.
The ability to do this, and the experience to know when to do this, are the biggest tactical change about McCall this time around. We knew he attacked, we knew his teams passed it short but his game management and tactical flexibility has improved tremendously, and this shows in City’s ability to come back into games, and also more recently to close them out.
It’s a very different Bradford City these days, but this evolution has been for the best. It may be more difficult to work out the system, but the stylistic shift is more fun to watch and at least as effective as anything else we’ve seen over the years at City.