By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall was simmering with frustration as he pinpointed the crucial moment of Bradford City’s fourth league home defeat of the season. “We talked about it before,” he growled inside the Valley Parade press box. “They will sit in and camp in, but you’ve got to be aware of them on the counter attack.”
His players – or specifically Tom Field – failed to heed the warning. With 35 minutes on the clock, the on-loan Brentford left back had failed to spot the run of Lionel Ainsworth behind him, gifting the Plymouth Argyle winger time and space in the box to roll the ball into Jake Jervis’ path for a tap in. A soft, soft goal, in a game that was always going to be low-scoring.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. 48 hours earlier at the pre-match press conference, McCall was preaching just how important the opening goal was going to be. On Plymouth, “They are a very difficult team to break down. They don’t concede many goals away from home. We know they will come and defend resolutely.” And yet City still fell to the sucker punch and couldn’t climb out of the traps set by those in citrus green.
The home side were dominant from the start, at times laying siege to the Plymouth Argyle goal. The visitors kept almost everyone in their own half, and were happy to let their opponents dominate possession. They set up to play for a 0-0 draw, and certainly weren’t going to change that stance after taking the lead against the run of play.
Had City got the opening goal, Plymouth would have needed to display greater attacking intent and the game might have opened up. It might have led to a three or four-goal Bantams victory, which would have been a more accurate reflection of the pattern of the game. But failing to land the first blow was crucial. City were left chasing a game against a side happy to park the proverbial bus. It was an impressive rearguard action. Plymouth centre halves Ryan Edwards and Sonny Bradley – plus the holding midfielder Yann Songo’o – were simply outstanding.
City had more than 60% of the ball, 19 attempts on goal and nine corners. Paul Taylor saw a long range piledriver tipped onto the bar by on-loan Argyle stopper Remi Matthews just before half time. 12 minutes into the second half, Jake Reeves’ half volley also smacked off the crossbar. Tony McMahon had a penalty superby saved by Matthews. Charlie Wyke and Romain Vincelot missed two great opportunities each.
A defeat at home to the bottom club never looks good, and there was understandable anger and frustration from many supporters at full time. But the reality is that City were very unfortunate to lose this game. There was no shortage of desire and effort. No complacency in the way they went about trying to unlock an ultra conservative opposition side, for whom Jervis was booked for time wasting as early as the 38th minute.
Individually there was some average City performances that didn’t help; and at times in the first half especially the tempo could have been higher. The second half was much stronger, aided by the half time introduction of Tyrell Robinson for the under-performing Field. Robinson showed no fear and great energy getting up and down the pitch, providing much-needed width. He linked up well with City’s best player, Paul Taylor, who pulled most of the strings before his influence waned in the latter period.
Indeed the most disappointing aspect of the display was the final 10 minutes, when City ran out of both steam and ideas at a point where you expected a big final push. McMahon’s penalty miss cast a shadow of negativity over the team in the closing stages, as though all hope drained out of them. Late panic inside the Plymouth box when Colin Doyle went up for a free kick aside, the final few minutes proved Argyle’s most comfortable period.
McCall stands accused of picking the wrong team but there wasn’t much different to the approach and formation to that used over September, when City were flying, or last season. Nicky Law is going through a poor run of form, but McCall – like Phil Parkinson – will always want an extra body in the centre of the park to ensure his midfield aren’t outgunned. In modern football, a 4-4-2 with two out and out wingers simply doesn’t work. As the pattern of the game flowed, it became obvious two holding midfielders weren’t needed and Reeves was sacrificed, but at this point City had to take more gambles and the introduction of Alex Gilliead was followed by Argyle being able to have more of the ball.
There was nothing subtle about Derek Adams’ approach. His charges slowed the game down at every attempt. The Argyle boss was also wily in his substitutions. Antoni Sarcevic, for example, made a notable impact in carrying the ball forwards on the break and helping Plymouth to play out time by passing it slowly around City’s half. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but Argyle’s terrific away support celebrated wildly at full time.
Whilst questions were raised by some at Stuart McCall and his selection, there are two areas where he can feel entitled to point the finger back towards any detractors. The first is the Valley Parade atmosphere, which continues to reduce in its intensity by the week. For long spells today, the game was played out in total silence.
What has happened to the Kop? Where are all the chants that added so much vibrancy to matchdays only a couple of seasons ago? Valley Parade just isn’t the same place it was. And we all have a responsibility to get behind the team much better than this. We’re supposed to be part of this.
And the other, even more telling area is the player recruitment of the summer, which increasingly looks less and less successful. The playing budget was reduced this season, and a number of big players ended up moving onto pastures new. At this stage of the campaign, it’s difficult to argue that any of the players brought in have improved the club.
Alex Gilliead has played well, but there was a reason why he was largely on the bench last season during his first loan spell at the club, behind the departed Mark Marshall. When fit Adam Chicksen has looked a decent player, but he doesn’t have the speed and athleticism of James Meredith. Dominic Poleon started well but has faded, and is less effective than Jordy Hiwula over the first half of last season. Shay McCartan has been a major disappointment, and a long way behind what Billy Clarke offered. Jake Reeves appeared to be the pick of the summer recruits, but his form has suddenly tailed off. Josh Cullen is missed.
The only major summer departure City have coped well without is Rory McArdle, but even that’s only due to the form of players already at the club last season, Matthew Kilgallon and Nathaniel Knight-Percival. They and Romain Vincelot are the front runners for the player of the season so far.
No one would dispute the judgement of the transfer committee, led by Greg Abbott and Edin Rahic – some good players have been signed by the club since the summer of 2016. But a third of the way into this campaign, the newer arrivals just aren’t pulling up enough trees. It’s a difficult challenge for the manager, who is expected to make more from fewer resources. He has some, but not full, control over the ins and outs. This reality shouldn’t be forgotten. To be in the top four is an over achievement, rather than a basic expectation.
It can come good for the club. Paul Taylor’s recent run of form offers promise, and if Reeves can rediscover his confidence he can inspire City forwards again. But already eyes are starting to turn towards January and the resources that will be available to the transfer committee. A new striker is a must. Alex Jones once again failed to take the opportunity. Dominic Poleon will probably start at Wigan next week, more by default than good form.
There is a long way to go, and for the most part City are enjoying a good season. The next fortnight brings three major tests in the shape of Wigan, Scunthorpe and Shrewsbury, but it might just bring out the best of a Bantams side who are playing better in defeat than they have been in games they have won. This encounter added to that paradox.
The team might have tripped over their own shoelaces and failed to make up ground on the top two, but they remain very much in the hunt for a third consecutive play off finish. There is no need to let doom and gloom take over. Keep in touch between now and Christmas, and let’s see what the January transfer window brings.