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.