Sucker punched

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.

Categories: Opinion

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12 replies

  1. Thanks for that Jason. You’ve cheered me up no end this morning with your personal but arguably accurate assessment of matters #bcafc
    Yesterday was a huge disappointment for everyone even allowing for our seemingly poor record against the lowly teams. Something you eventually have to accept as being part and parcel of being a Bantam!
    Plymouth came with a game plan to frustrate and try to catch us on the break, which for them worked to perfection. It’s not pretty but effective at this level, especially if you have a ‘land of the giants’ team that can defend crosses.
    Thought Plymouth were one of the poorer teams I’ve seen as they created very little and simply defended resolutely for 90 minutes. This style certainly won’t be enough to challenge for the playoffs as their dismal home record shows, when the attacking emphasis is on them.
    As for City, we certainly didn’t deserve 2 successive home league games without any reward. As you say a few players have dipped in form and our old problem of the lack of goals seems to have returned, which I feel is not helped by the worsening state of our pitch.
    Hopefully, it’s a blip and the next 3 games against high flyers will tell us much about where we are as a team and where we are going in terms of promotion prospects.
    Personally, I’m still of the opinion that we can and will achieve playoffs as a minimum. Anything more will depend on form, injuries, suspensions and the January window.
    Keep the faith fellow Bantams!!

  2. We are lacking pace and width in our team. To get the best from Wyke we need to play with two wingers. Vincelot, Law and Reeves in midfield do not work well together. Whilst Reeves was unlucky with his shot that hit the cross bar yesterday, he has been disappointing so far this season. Reeves needs to be dropped. On the positives, Taylor has played well recently but needs to play more central and Robinson looked good when he came on at half time yesterday.

  3. On balance I agree with your summary. However, I see a team in a decline/slump, performances faltering, no plan b or c, found out by the other teams and woefully short on actual driving quality in midfield and up front. Where is Vincelot since his contract extension?. Robinson was a great cameo and, alongside Taylor, was the only spark in a dreadful incoherent performance. Lord knows what Stefan and Edin think of the home form but I think the rest of November will be defining for McCalls managership. Poor performances/results in the next three will be fatal in my view.

  4. Thanks Jason. Your point about the crowd is an interesting one, and I think the doubts about the team are creeping over the early season optimism. I don’t think we’re as good as the team that ended last season, and I think others are starting to feel the same. Also having gone a season unbeaten, we have now lost 4 of 9 at home (and only scoring 9 goals in those 9). Our away form is excellent, our home form isn’t good enough for a team aiming for the play-offs (never mind top 2).

    The other thing that stands out from looking at our results is that of the times we’ve gone behind this season – 6 – we’ve only come back to get anything on one occasion (Oxford United). We don’t seem to have that same resilience as the previous four seasons.

    It’s not helped by the mysteriously indifferent form from some players (Poleon, Law, Vincelot, Reeves, Jones) and the disappearance of McCartan (perhaps the biggest prospect of our pre-season signings and exactly the type of player we’re crying out for to create something in a tight game).

    You say 4-4-2 with wingers doesn’t work but I disagree. Even in our promotion teams that played 4-4-2, we tended to have one out and out winger (Beagrie, Reid) and one that tucked in (Lawrence, Thompson). A 4-4-2 yesterday with Law on one side and Gilliead on the other would have allowed Law to drift in and support Reeves and Vincelot when required. When I saw the team before kick off I questioned where the width would come from and said that team required Field and McMahon to push right up. They didn’t in the first half and it’s no coincidence that our play much improved (in the lead-up to the penalty) when we had Robinson and Gilliead getting to the by-lines. It’s disappointing that McCall doesn’t feel out team is good enough – at home, to bottom of the league – to go out and impose ourselves on the game and the opposition. I do wonder whether sometimes, when we try play complex or sophisticated systems, we unsettle ourselves as much as we do the opposition.

  5. Law is out of contract in June and very unlikely to be offered a new one so I would try to replace him in the January transfer window. But will McCall want to do this?

  6. The issue about the crowd and its contribution to the game, is an interesting one. I guess that simbiotic nature of the relationship between the team and the crowd is one in which both parties have to contribute. I felt that there was a reasonable atmosphere yesterday, until we conceded. The argument is that the team need to provide a spectacle and a final product (goals/win). The onus is on the team to start performing and providing a platform for the crowd to respond to.

  7. There are some fascinating and well thought-out comments here. My main point is that football is a funny game, and odd results happen, such as Chelsea losing at Crystal Palace and City winning at Chelsea . I do not think City were poor yesterday, nor do I think a defeat like this defines McCall’s management, just as the defeat by Colchester did not define Parkinson.As Jason said, we were sucker-punched. We hit the bar more than once, we missed a penalty,we missed a hatful of good chances, their goalkeeper was very good.They had 2 chances and took 1. On another day, we would have won, but we didn’t because that’s football.
    Re the game, I think, with Law , our build-up is too slow, and when you face extremely tall defenders, and a packed defence, I think you need speed.
    I don’t think we are as good as late last season, and I believe we miss Meredith dreadfully. Chicksen is a sad loss.

  8. Once again a brilliant honest report, well done, I totally agree with what you said, and about the support, even the song at the start, one of my favourite football songs ( take me home midland road) has got less intense, one player once said, when the kop makes a lot of noise it sucks the ball into the net, anyway I hear it’s a sell out for Wigan, so come on City.

  9. I think you make a lot of good points Jason, as always. I would quibble a bit with saying the keeper made a brilliant save from the penalty. 2-3 foot off the ground within a body length of the keeper is a poor penalty – if he guesses the right way he has a good chance of saving it.
    McCall admitted after the match that McMahon always goes the same way – don’t the coaches suggest this might be giving the keeper a chance? Doesn’t McMahon think that for himself?
    Personally I’d let Taylor take penalties – he has a really hard shot which will test the keeper even if he gets a hand to it.

    • Even though it was slightly telegraphed, McMahon gets a lot of power behind it so for me the keeper did very well to get down and block it.

      Had it been at the other end I’m sure we would have said it was a brilliant save by Doyle.

  10. Good read as always. Interesting point about the atmosphere and I would say it hasn’t been the same since Parkinson left.

    Don’t get me wrong I prefer the football under Stuart, but it is a more slow, deliberate style, while under Parky it was of a higher intensity, thus in my opinion easier for the crowd to get behind.

    I don’t think it was any coincidence that when we upped the tempo yesterday, the decibel level began to raise.

    Main issue for me this season is that we seem to be unbalanced in midfield, with two holding players, Law given what looks like a free role, and only one winger, normally Gillead, so we lack an attacking threat on the left.

    Personally I think Law needs to play on the left and drift inside by all means, or we play a 3-4-3, Robinson in his display off the bench looks ideal for a wing back role, and it would also give McMahon more license to get forward on the other flank.

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