By Jason McKeown and Tim Penfold
The playmaker role has changed – City are more conservative yet are taking more risks
By Jason McKeown
Like a lot of Bradford City supporters, I was content to see Billy Clarke sold to Charlton Athletic during the summer. Clarke had done a lot of very good things over his three seasons in a City shirt, but it had reached the point where his limitations were starting to neutralise his qualities. Where his presence on the field held back, rather than boosted, performances.
The main issue was that having Clarke as the playmaker, in the hole behind the striker(s), was unnecessarily slowing down City’s attacks. Clarke’s mid-season injury inadvertently resulted in Mark Marshall being pushed further up the park with encouraging results. City were able to get the ball forwards much faster, and Clarke’s eventual return created an increasingly unwarranted bottleneck when City tried to play through him.
You could see why Stuart McCall still wanted to accommodate a player of his quality, but Clarke just couldn’t deliver strong enough displays to justify building the team around him.
And the difference this season is that the playmaker role has not only gone to a different player but a different position. Jake Reeves has so far assumed the mantle of the architect of City’s attacks. But rather that play like a number 10 in the Clarke mould, Reeves is sitting deep in midfield alongside Timothee Dieng or, more recently, Romain Vincelot.
Reeves is the best passer in the team and has been increasingly dictating attacks, only he is doing it from a deeper position – and that is having a very positive effect on the potency of City’s attacks. He is a bit like an American Football quarter back. His role is to look at what’s in front of him, and have the vision and technical ability to pick out the right pass.
It all means that City’s greater conservatism – two holding midfielders, and only one out and out striker in Charlie Wyke – is allowing attacking players to take more risks. With a dual anchor of Reeves and Vincelot, midfielders Nicky Law, Alex Gilliead and wide forward Dominic Poleon can pile forwards knowing there is protection behind them and that losing the ball won’t lead to City being caught out on the counter attack.
Law – who began to struggle last season because he simply hasn’t got enough defensive awareness – has thrived of late, taking a more central role. Gillead and Poleon have been outstanding. Reeves and Vincelot will also have their moments of getting forward – see City’s third goal vs Bristol Rovers, where Reeves crossed for Charlie Wyke – but that is because they know their partner will stay back to cover behind them.
In Paul Taylor and Shay McCartan, City arguably recruited two direct replacements for Clarke, and the fact neither has made much of an impact to date partly lies in how unnecessary the number 10 role appears to be in this current set-up. That will inevitably change over time, as opposition managers work out a way to negate McCall’s tactics. But for now City have become more direct, more powerful and more potent. 13 goals in four games testament to the new approach.
Those who wish to compare Reeves with Josh Cullen are arguably missing the point about what the summer signing from AFC Wimbledon offers, and the way City are going about their business. Increasingly, Reeves and Cullen look to be very different players; and if Cullen was still at Valley Parade he’d probably be taking the Nicky Law role now.
But without Cullen and without Marshall, City are still thriving as an attacking unit. And that is primarily due to a change of emphasis that means the number 4 position is the new heartbeat of the team.
McCall the player would wholly approve of McCall the manager.
Finding different types of strikers has been crucial
By Tim Penfold
With the playmaker role shifting deeper, this has changed the balance of the front line as well. At times last season City fielded four players – Marshall, Law, Clarke and Cullen – whose primary job was creation, and only one whose job it was to put the ball in the net. This led to some wonderful football, with defences being dragged all over the place, but not enough goals.
Now, however, we have swapped a creator – Clarke – for a finisher in Dominic Poleon, who gives the team several useful attributes. Firstly, he’s mobile – in terms of pace and intelligence of movement, he’s got all of Jordy Hiwula’s strengths. However, unlike Hiwula he’s an instinctive finisher, adept at sticking away half-chances when they fall to him. He’s also stronger than Hiwula and more versatile, able to play on the left of a front three as effectively as he does through the middle. With the extra finisher in the team, City are taking chances much more efficiently and scoring plenty of goals.
The extra pace in the frontline – not just Poleon but also the likes of Alex Gilliead and Omari Patrick – also supports the decision to deploy the main playmaker deeper. With the ball circulating around 5-10 yards further back, particularly away from home, opposition defences are drawn out, and Reeves’ passing ability gives City the option of playing their pacy forwards in behind. The more direct style of player recruited means that our frontline looks to get in behind opponents more often rather than just playing in front of them. This also helps at home, though opponents are much more likely to come and stick men behind the ball. Against this approach, the Gilliead – Wyke combination will have more success, and it’s no coincidence that while Poleon has scored most of his goals away from home, Wyke gets his at home.
Stuart McCall got close to this system at times last season, when Billy Clarke was deployed behind Alex Jones, Charlie Wyke and Mark Marshall, but this sometimes left the defence and midfield exposed, particularly against Scunthorpe. Swapping Clarke for a more natural midfielder in Law helps the balance of the team, while Jones – possibly the best finisher in the team – loses out to the more rounded and versatile Poleon.
There will still be roles for the likes of Paul Taylor and particularly Shay McCartan – McCall is, at heart, a tinkerer, and will select players who suit particular plans for particular opponents. But it does seem like the current starting XI is one that gets the best out of both his creators and his finishers.