Blackburn Rovers defeat raises some key questions

poelon blackburn

Photo: Claire Epton © Bradford City

By Katie Whyatt 

It was bound to happen one day, but Bradford City’s first home loss in a regular league game since the Middle Ages (or, more accurately, since 1st March, 2016: long before Brexit, long before Liam and Cheryl became a thing, long before Donald Trump’s Inauguration or, as an alternative measure, two England managers ago) was certainly a more turgid and lacklustre affair than they would have envisaged. Not that anyone ever visualises a defeat, but City would probably have imagined falling with more finesse than they happened upon today – or at least to a team that felt, in all areas, streets ahead of them.

As it was, it was a testing afternoon that raises a lot more questions than it answers, rendered especially frustrating for the home side for coming at the hands of a Blackburn team who, for all the hype, have barely hinted at living up to their pre-season tag of runaway league leaders. Commentators might still point to their vast potential and note Sheffield United waited four games for a win last year, but all the talk of Blackburn sleepwalking to the title – FourFourTwo, like many, went as far as to declare “whoever finishes above Rovers will likely be champions” – look, even on today’s evidence, a tad premature. They were combative and wily, but not genuinely terrifying in the way sides with genuine Championship credentials – think Preston and Bristol City in 2014/15 – have been before them.

As if to emphasise the point, Matt Kilgallon said after the game of his previous employers, “I don’t think they were a team where you’re going out at full-time thinking, they’ll be up there. Not at the minute, anyway.” (Notably, when asked if Bradford City asked if had more potential, he replied, “Definitely.”) Blackburn made it difficult for City, shutting down space in all the right areas, but City’s own lack of incisiveness likely shores some of the blame, too. It was a game of few genuine chances – indeed, it was Blackburn’s third, just over a minute into the second half, that yielded the winning goal, Dominic Samuel beating Colin Doyle after heading home from Craig Conway’s cross.

You wouldn’t argue for lingering defensive frailties but today nonetheless underlined just how costly not finding an adequate replacement for Rory McArdle could prove. The immediate problem was initially raised by Stuart McCall in his post-match interview with BBC Leeds and subsequently illuminated by Wayne Jacobs (and parroted here).

It is common knowledge by now that McCall’s system relies on playing out from the back: this works by sending, from goal kicks, the full backs higher up the field to allow the centre halves to split and provide the immediate options. McCall’s system was foolproof enough last season in that his four central defenders – Kilgallon, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, Romain Vincelot and Rory McArdle – rarely exuded anything other than nonchalance (unless faced with Stefan Scougall – any excuse).

Opponents then combat this approach by harrying one of the central defenders and pressing from the front. The issue for McCall now, however, is that City only have one right-sided centre half on the books in Vincelot – and had none to choose from today because  Vincelot, of course, was serving his suspension for the red card picked up against Doncaster in the League Cup.

In many ways, the scouts’ work is thus already done. Strikers will close Kilgallon down because they know this will force Colin Doyle to pick out Knight-Percival, and they know Knight-Percival – crisis having morphed him into a left-footed, right-sided centre half – must open up with his weaker foot. Consequently, he cannot dispatch anyone with the pace or menace McCall’s system demands.

The result, as McCall emphasised, is that City have to literally look elsewhere, and to other methods, for a solution. One of McCall’s most foundational doctrines is now especially difficult to execute. McCall has a pragmatic streak but one would not use the term in the same way one would to refer to a Mourinho or a Phil Parkinson, McCall admitting after the game that the more direct approach was “not the way we like to play” and didn’t genuinely align with any of his forwards’ strengths.

And what of those forwards, six of whom featured today? Charlie Wyke remains the most obvious focal point on the roster but it is Shay McCartan who poses the biggest enigma. It sounds like McCartan’s brief is to step into the Billy Clarke mould – Dominic Poleon served as something akin to a target man today – but it was troubling that he lacked the vision of Clarke – forgivable, in many respects, when one considers that Clarke, 29 at the time of his Valley Parade departure, is six years McCartan’s senior.

The chief strength of both Poleon and Omari Patrick is one of the more deadlier attributes in a striker’s inventory – raw pace – but it is redundant without a creator to initiate the race. City never came close to creating anything like a one-on-one today – though it is worth noting that they have managed to this season. At no point did they look genuinely likely to split – or even work in behind, conjuring a blitzed slalom of one and two-touch passes like the McCall team of a season previous – Blackburn’s (well-balanced) defence. To deploy either Patrick or Poleon as target men seems to diminish what they can offer in the build-up, even if the service – from all ten outfield players – lacked both precision and menace. As City laboured to defeat, there was none of the verve and dynamism that both showed in the latter stages of the league opener against Blackpool.

That victory exhibited this squad’s obvious promise and potential, but today exposed one of the caveats of having a team years younger than the preceding one – namely, that the guile and nous that scythes open defences doesn’t yet come to them as instinctively. It is an obvious and moot point to labour but it was hard to escape the feeling that last season’s triad of Billy Clarke, James Meredith and Nicky Law would have provided more perceptive heads at a time when McCartan struggled to exert his will on the game. Of all the new signings, Jake Reeves looks the most obvious creator, but the squad’s offensive fluidity nonetheless remains.

McCall’s post-match comments were revealing and his candour striking: “I want to be excited. I want us creating chances. I want us to think, yeah – there’s a goal coming.” It won’t have escaped McCall’s notice that City’s most compelling chance came from an edge-of-the-box effort from Nicky Law that dipped so innocently, at such an inviting height, that from the moment it left Law’s boot it was clear David Raya would pluck it from the sky.

It is common at this stage of the season for opinions to oscillate like pendulums and fortunes to violently change, and it is worth remembering that Poleon and Patrick, less than a fortnight ago, were widely lauded for running the final 15 against Blackpool with a cohesion and intent that bordered on the lethal. The issue now, for reasons over which McCall is left to ponder, is that no one came close to really meriting a goal this afternoon. The solution is definitely within the camp and his players have clear talents – it is finding a way to utilise them all at once.

For all the fanbase has approached the season with a tempered caution, the noises inside the camp have stressed the viability of a promotion push – and two wins from the opening two certainly added credence to those ambitions. It was troubling, however, that City, for all their huff and puff, made no impression on the Blackburn defence. This squad’s hunger and zeal is obvious, but what will be just as decisive is whether they can grow to become as steely or as clever as City teams of old.

Categories: Opinion

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11 replies

  1. Excellent read and brilliantly sums up where City ultimately fell short against a relatively unimpressive Blackburn side.

    Signing a right sided centre-half of real quality will be season defining and if the club fail to act accordingly in the window, it could have disastrous consequences for both McCall’s future as City boss and our final place in the league table.

  2. ‘Too nice’
    We are too nice. Yesterday we were bullied by a street wise outfit who tested the resolve of the officials, found its level and resorted to every ‘legal’ trick they knew they could get away with.
    Often the mark of a promotion team, allied to quality.
    Blackburn lacked quality yesterday and if we had been a bit more streetwise then maybe we would have got something, a draw being the most we deserved, from a poor display. Last season our disciplinary record was excellent with few yellow and no red cards shown to our players.
    We are in transition and it showed.
    Nothing to get too down about, but nothing to get too excited about too, yet.
    After the goal Blackburn who looked happy to get a point went on to manage the game and got the result in a perfect away performance.
    We need to get streetwise for games like this.

  3. A disappointing display by City felt like they couldn’t execute a game plan really need to get a replacement for McArdle asap Feel for Stuart he has had to go along with the recruitment policy of the owners. Time will tell if this is the way forward or not.

    • Hi Carol
      Completely agree with you about the recruitment policy imposed on Stuart by ‘I’ve a coaching badge you know’. It remains to be seen how much of this team is Stuart’s or the transfer committee’s.
      A fair reflection of where we’ll stand and what to expect will be clearer after 10 games but what I saw yesterday didn’t give me much to get excited about (yet) and the glaring holes in recruitment after letting the history makers leave was obvious.

      • Sorry but are you saying that McCall didn’t know the transfer & recruitment policy when he took the job? If he never asked i find that a naive and damning indictment on his ability as a manager and negligence by his agent. He surely agreed to work under the set conditions so i find him equally responsible. His tactics on Saturday were blinkered and naive at best. We saw after 10 minutes we were getting no joy upfront against the big Blackburn centre backs. We had no width at all and never used the strengths of Poleon & Patrick to use their pace and try to turn the centre backs. McCartan was again ineffective, Reeves as usual did his pretty little 5 yard passes without actually creating a danger ball. This is football stuff and McCall & Blacks responsibility.

  4. Firstly, good to have a WOAP article. City seasons are not the same without your quality journalism. Keep up the good work Katie and co.

    Just checking it took the Blades 6 seasons to get out of league 1 and Town 7. That tells you how tough this league is. We are still work in progress and I wouldn’t read too much into yesterday’s game. Give us 10 games or so and we’ll start to see things fall in place.

    I thought Tim and NKP were our best players yesterday. It was great to see Charlie back and the fans responded as such. Blackburn probably edged a tepid game, a game with hardly any real opportunities of note in front of goal. Was either keeper really tested?

    Id like to see Poleon and Wyke start upfront. Poleon playing off Wyke. His speed needs to be exploited. Shay Id bring on off from the bench. He’s finding his feet but the weight of expectation might be impacting him at present. Let him settle in naturally.

    Finally, I understand some of our fan base’s expectation are very high, with the last two seasons involving the play offs but lets support our team to the hilt and not be too down when it doesn’t go to plan.

    • Hi Harry, fair comments from yourself – However I winced slightly at your indication that Saturday didn’t go to plan. It hasn’t gone to plan since the first kick off from the opening game. Yes – we Won the first two opening fixtures, more by good fortune than anything else. Blackburn were average at best, but differed in that they beat City – who did more than enough to assist them.
      The best way to attack is from the back, as they say. So long as our back four remains unbalanced and almost dysfunctional, then our problems going forward will persist. Time is running out to get that ‘quality’ CB in place, and many feel we will end up with a make do type player. That single signing alone could well define our season ahead (Until January, at least).
      It’s not all doom and gloom, and whilst we still have time, so we also have hope. Having C W returning is also a big plus, but only a single figure within the total sum. As with all equations – the combination of all sum elements have to be right to achieve the answer you are expecting.

      • Hi Chris – Completely agree on the current defensive issue and Wayne Jacobs made some cracking points on the BBC Leeds post match analysis. However, I would temper that with, once Romain is back I dont see why he and NKP cannot be the central defensive partnership. They did a pretty dam good job last season when paired together.

        Also my point is not about the game not going to plan, as SM can only work with tools that he’s got (inlcuding banned players) and when he does get the missing link we need to be patience for the team to settle (aka Sheff Utd team last yr). Finally, I’m not a fan of the diamond shape and we failed to curve open a chance of note playing through the middle. Spot on Blackburn looked average too apart from Dack who was their stand out player. However, I suspect they will be there come the end of the year and us too. Chin up.

  5. Very good article Katie.
    Your writing skills have really matured into your own excellant style. Always felt it was a bit David Peace before.
    Which in itself is a complement.

  6. Whilst I agree that we need an imposing right sided centre back, it would be foolish to imagine our problems will end when we find him. Indeed, individually, both Killa and KP played reasonably well on Saturday. I don’t believe that the crux of our problem lies with the lack of distribution owing to to having two left footed centre backs. In any event, Vincelot is too easily brushed off the ball at centre back and, based on Dieng’s performances, I’d sooner have him in midfield than Vincelot.

    We’re missing Meredith’s forays down the left. Midfield is a problem. Reeves has loads of energy but creates little. Law seems to be a fixture in the side but I’m not sure what he provides. I can’t see many goals coming from that area, as things stand. I’d be looking for someone with a physical presence, capable of regularly bursting through and not frightened to shoot. At present it’s all predictable sideways motion.

    Up front, I’d sooner have an in form Jones partnering Wyke but I think it’s going to take a while before it’sorted.

    Finally, I wish Stuart would have a word with McMahon to stop his niggling of opposition players. It’s counter productive and it’ll only be a matter of time before someone takes major retribution.

    • Back in his loan spell with us Nicky Law used to shoot at will from distance but nowadays a simple sideways pass is the best he can offer. He has it in his locker but collectively as a team we don’t shoot enough and try to pass the ball into the net.

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