The WOAP end of season exams #1: to be a poet or to be pragmatic?

Like sitting a GCSE exam, a number of Width of a Post writers were handed a topic heading relating to the 2016/17 season and asked to run with it; taking whatever direction they choose and writing as much or as little on it. The result is a series of ‘essays’ reviewing this season, which Width of a Post will present over the next fortnight. Kicking us off, Katie Whyatt answers the below question from Jason McKeown: 

McCall

Picture by Thomas Gadd

“There are lots of poets in football but poets, they don’t win many titles…this was a victory of the pragmatism, a victory of the humble people, a victory of the people who respect the opponents, a victory of the people who try to stop the opponents and exploit their weaknesses.”

The words of Jose Mourinho after Manchester United won the Europa League Final against Ajax. Jose was firing back at his critics who have criticised United’s dreary style of play this season.

In Mourinho’s words, Stuart McCall can be considered a poet and City’s 2016/17 was a clear move away from Parkinson’s pragmatism and to more idealistic values.  But ultimately it didn’t deliver success. Does McCall need to be more pragmatic, or can poets succeed? Which direction should Bradford City take next season?

From the outset, the new-look Bradford City were dazzling. At their best, they prowled the turf with an irrepressible energy and teamed the tempo with moments of genuine, genuine class: there was the verve and unpredictability of Nicky Law; the sheer quality of Josh Cullen, the wily midfield architect; the trickery and invention of Mark Marshall, the closest thing this squad has to what the kids call a Playstation Player, all nippy twists and turns; James Meredith, pelting down the flank and wriggling past his full back with pure nerve and menace.

Perhaps inevitably, it became convenient – early on in the season, at least – to mentally file Phil Parkinson and Stuart McCall as poles apart: Parkinson lining up his wind-up-and-go toys in banks of four, orderly plotting their courses, all right angles and straight edges; McCall somehow marrying a drilled precision with a more laissez-faire component to unleash a hitherto concealed dynamism in their shared charges.

In reality, that contrast is likely exaggerated a tad – Parkinson’s early dalliances with the diamond, in 2014/15, were food for the purists, and ‘Jon Stead at Stamford Bridge’ are five words enough to close that particular debate – but the reality is that Parkinson’s final season at Bradford City was his most pragmatic by some distance. A testing August in 2015 suggested City were still scrabbling for a concrete identity, and, though Parkinson’s tried and tested ultimately prevailed and shot the team to the play offs, the product was, at times, turgid. ‘Straitjacketed’ might be an overly-emotive term, but it was unquestionably a safety-first, low risk approach that, when it failed, drew vocal grumbles from his detractors.

For pragmatic managers, the line between acclaim and antipathy always feels finer than it does for more avant-garde hands. So it has been for Jose Mourinho, this season, but the reality is that Manchester United’s Europa League win probably applies a sticking plaster to a season that has been underwhelming for a manager whose demeanour has, at times, betrayed a joylessness. The same style of football he praises in that quote has been at the heart of a lot of the criticism. That his side beat Ajax probably saves his season, in a lot of ways; as Jonathan Wilson wrote, “Winning was the critical thing; the how can come later.”

For McCall, though, the success of this season could never have been severed from the method in the same way. In all likelihood, no one on the outside will ever know the full story about Parkinson’s departure. Even as a Sky pundit ahead of the play off final, a year having elapsed, he was evasive at best on that particular front, trotting out all the “right time” cliches. Yet it was obvious from the outset that Rahic and Rupp would take a more holistic approach to proceedings, outlining a specification that demanded youth, risk, flair, danger. It’s probably fair to assume the remit for a specific brand of football alarmed a Parkinson who’d previously enjoyed near-total autonomy.

Part of Stuart’s success criteria – and part of the reason why ‘success’ is such an awkward term to pinpoint here – is ticking those boxes. He had to craft the expansive, liquid football that has characterised this season, cultivating a culture of inventive play and rapid pace. If City had gone up automatically this season, fine – but, rightly or wrongly, that wasn’t really the sole point of the endeavour.

To say the season – and McCall’s methods – “didn’t deliver success” is probably quite a harsh verdict, in many senses, and likely masks over what happened on that May afternoon that condemned City to fifth consecutive crack at League One. In short: City reached the play off final, enjoyed 61% possession, and lost by one goal scored in the 85th minute. This comes in the broader context of having spent every day since August 13th of their ‘mid-table transition season‘ in the top five, just chillin’, twiddling their thumbs as Millwall and co. chugged away beneath them, Vincelot and Knight-Percival casually playing cards in the corner, often touching greatness, never looking earnestly troubled or likely to drop away.

The origin of their downfall has been been dual: shortcomings in front of goal, a tendency for an uncharacteristic defensive mistake. They don’t, generally, feel like system failings. This team play with a risk but it’s countered by a lingering sense of solidity, and it’s notable that, for all their shortcomings when dealing with dead balls, City almost matched their defensive solidity of last season: 43 goals conceded for the joint-second best defence in the league this time, 40 goals conceded for the best defence in the league last time. For what it’s worth, they finished with a marginally better goal difference this season – plus 19, compared to last season’s plus 15. For all the talk of risk, the defence is fine.

Their sense of adventure has distorted their defensive shape at times and they haven’t been able to ping back into that structure as quickly as you’d like – see Swindon’s goal here – but, on the whole, that kind of vulnerability has been rare and, truthfully, is likely part of the price you have to pay for such exhausting, bruising, blistering play. Far more common, in actuality, have been more preventable goals – click here, skip to 16 seconds in and cry for the death of watching the spare man. Sheffield United aside, how many times have City actually been slashed open and demonstrated a core vulnerability? Not that many. McCall’s style doesn’t really have that much of the blame to shore.

In many ways, the Morison finish that is so painfully seared onto everyone’s minds was characteristic of both types of goals City have, to varying degrees, been susceptible to conceding this season. Mark Marshall loses possession high up the pitch – so City are scrambling to recover ground anyway at this point – but what kills them is they collectively failed to track Gregory. Skip to 1:15 here and watch their dreams unravel. McArdle backs away from Wallace, lets Dieng take the reins, but Gregory has all the time in the world to gear up for that header. No one even ‘loses’ Gregory – no one is close enough to him to do so. You’d have backed McArdle to win a one-v-one aerial duel – yet even he is but mere mortal. He’s not Elastigirl. There’s no way he could have forged a contest from that distance.

Nathaniel Knight-Percival is tight to Morison but Morison is a split second quicker. Knight-Percival is an foot behind, if that – but that fraction was enough for someone as deadly as Morison. Even if obtained by a strike pair of such undoubted and Gregory, is it harsh to say that goal might have been prevented?

Immediately following Morison and Gregory’s perfect show of nerve and steel is the moment McMahon elects to fire into a pack of blue and white shirts despite options in the box, shooting when the whole world implored him to pass. The only real criticism this team have faced is that, in the eyes of some supporters, they have often done the reverse.

It can feel, at times, there’s a backlash at work in the whole debate around style. A sort of reclaiming of something, and maybe a cynicism and scorn towards things that go against that unclassified ‘something’. Pep Guardiola doesn’t coach tackles? Oh, sorrrrreeeeeyyyyy, Pep. Cold Tuesday nights in Stoke (or, now, Yorkshire), and all the rest of it. Because, you know – winning.

McCall, were he that way inclined, could easily coach a team to rigid militancy, forge a midfield that cycle predictably through predetermined gears, prod strikers to read their lines without feeling, birth a team miming right on cue and jogging over the line with a sterile efficiency. But would you want him to, really?

Diego Costa might be a loose cannon but to change that bite is to lose Diego Costa. On second thoughts, I’m not even sure Stuart McCall could coach a team that way. Not out of inability, but because of who is is, most fundamentally, as a coach. To make McCall stifle his players is to dent what this time is supposed to – and currently does – represent.

McCall has never been stubborn – they’ve tried at least nine different formations at various points this season. And there has never been any glaring tactical shoehorning, never a spent, red-faced McCall wrestling a flailing Marshall into a front three, foreheads gleaming with sweat from the struggle, both refusing to be beaten, both refusing to compromise. Instead, it’s all felt relatively seamless, like Lego blocks clicking into place, City spinning and shuffling into all manner of guises with an understated nonchalance. McCall has a practical streak – “horses for courses” was the closest thing he had to a catchphrase in the campaign’s opening weeks – but it never comes at a real cost. There are likely certain assumptions you have to navigate through first.

It is not too far-fetched to wonder if, as commendable as this squad’s mental steel has been, the attractive playing style has played its role in transferring that sobered mentality into the stands. The most galling Parkinson defeats could be picked apart almost mercilessly, with unforgiving venom – when things went wrong, the manner compounded defeat. As gruelling as City’s 3-0 autumnal away loss to Southend was this season, the response in the stands felt calmer, more measured than the storm that would have struck Parkinson for a similar result.

If you want to reduce this season to ‘they got to a play off final and lost’, go ahead, but you probably have to broaden the criteria. Initially, this season, from a lot of angles, was bound to building a culture of which the playing style would form a critical part – even more so than the outcome, if anything. If City challenge again next season, the likelihood is that this season won’t be filed as a nearly season so much as a foundation year, as, in truth, it was probably always meant to be.

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Categories: 2016/17 season review

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2 replies

  1. You’re style of writing Katie, feels like our style of play during the 2016/2017 season. A slick presentation of words woven into sentences which when clicked together create sublime paragraphs. You certainly have a way with words and this article must have taken a while to put together.

    I will always be grateful to Phil Parkinson and how he changed things for the better both on and off the pitch. However there is no denying that his last season in charge wasn’t easy to watch from the stands. It goes back to the argument of results verses style of play. Well, I believe that given time McCall can be our poet.

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