The right way to win (and lose)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

By Jason McKeown

The final half hour at the New Meadow encapsulated so much of what is good – and what is missing – in Bradford City this season.

Fortunate to be 1-0 ahead after Shrewsbury Town defender Aristote Nsiala turned Alex Gilliead’s cross into his own net, the Bantams produced an outstanding rearguard action to earn a clean sheet and three unlikely points. They toppled Shrewsbury – unbeaten at home until now – off the top spot of League One, after withstanding considerable pressure.  It was another brilliant defensive display from City. Another remarkable victory.

And yet as proud as manager Stuart McCall felt in the dogged determination of his players, he will also be left wondering why they can’t play as well as Shrewsbury did when they themselves are chasing a game. Just four days earlier, Scunthorpe United had fortuitously gone 2-1 ahead at Valley Parade in a contest that, up to Hakeeb Adelakun’s free kick, City had bettered. The response from City was poor as they looked hesitant and tentative in trying to come back.

They never built up a late head of steam in the way Shrewsbury did against them on Saturday. They looked a beaten side long before the final whistle sounded. They lacked the nous and self-assurance to exert heavy pressure. Scunthorpe were too comfortable. They set up for the counter attack, kept slowing down the tempo and dominated their own penalty area. But City made it too easy for them.

Something that Shrewsbury couldn’t be accused of as they laid siege to City’s goal. Town kept varying attacks and remained unafraid to pass the ball through midfield and outwide. Several chances were created, and some miracle goalkeeping and last-ditch defending was required from City to preserve their lead. Shrewsbury might have lost, but I doubt many home fans were feeling underwhelmed by the way their team kept knocking on the door. Ultimately, they did everything but score. It was the right way to lose.

The problem for City this season was that the timid response to being 2-1 down against Scunthorpe United on Tuesday was no one-off. It is a damning statistic that only once all season have they recovered from going behind in a game – the last minute Romain Vincelot header at Oxford in September, which earned a useful 2-2 draw. City heads haven’t always dropped in response to going behind, but they have often lost composure and chased the game in a frantic manner. They seem to forget – or abandon – the style of play that has made them successful. A lack of belief in each other, and in themselves.

The last 10 minutes against Plymouth, and response to going 2-1 down against Scunthorpe, suggests the situation is getting worse. That’s why McCall might just be tempted to sit down his players this week to rewatch the final 30 minutes at New Meadow, as an example of how it should be done.

And if he does, as well as making the point about how a good team should react to adversity, the City manager can retake the opportunity to praise his players for just how well they performed under the cosh. It was a superb defensive performance against Shrewsbury, as League One’s best home side were thwarted. An amazing goalmouth scramble in the final minute of stoppage time, where City threw bodies at the ball to block several attempts, personified their bravery.

Matt Kilgallon was outstanding, further cementing his status as the runaway leader in the player of the season awards, whilst alongside him Nathaniel Knight-Percival and substitute Adam Thompson were equally colossal. In the full back slots, Luke Hendrie continues to prove a revelation playing on the left hand side. He was given a really tough examination by Shrewsbury’s talented right winger, Shaun Whalley, but stuck to the task manfully. Tony McMahon’s steady improvement also continued. The rhythm returning to his game after a rusty return from injury.

And in Rouven Sattelmaier, City had a match-winner between the posts. The German deputised for the injured Colin Doyle, and produced a pair of stunning saves to deny Carlton Morris and Whalley. Sattelmaier’s shot stopping ability has never been in doubt – though questions have been raised over his distribution and composure. At the New Meadow, he was accomplished in everything he did. With Doyle out for several months, a run in the team beckons. Keep playing like this, and the 30-year-old might just retain his place when the Republic of Ireland international is fit again.

With the defence playing so well, City were able to win in spite of forward players being below their best. Once again Paul Taylor is the man making things happen. The spark to ignite the rest of the team. He is enjoying playing in the free role behind Charlie Wyke, and it particularly suits away games like this.

Back at Valley Parade – and as demonstrated on Tuesday – City really need another striker to play with Wyke, in front of Taylor. But to do so risks midfield being outgunned. It’s a difficult dilemma, but on current form the City attack has to be built around Taylor.

In midfield City were once again ordinary. Nicky Law couldn’t build on an improved midweek display, giving way to Tyrell Robinson shortly after half time, who did a very good job for the team in the closing stages. Romain Vincelot and Jake Reeves remain out of form but battled hard. Neither are afraid to get on the ball or to put in a tackle. Hopefully their old verve will return, allowing their undoubted qualities to shine.

Alex Gilliead ultimately won City the match with his cross that set up the own goal, following an excellent Wyke flick on. Gilliead is that rarest of beasts in the City team this season – a player with the ability to go past people. In home games especially when the Bantams have looked static in their movement, they need more players willing to take people on. That’s why Josh Cullen and Mark Marshall are proving to be such big misses. Robinson will run at people. His rawness makes it understandable why he is being held back, but it surely isn’t going to be long before he is starting games.

Ultimately City look well set up to keep winning tricky away games like this. They are generally a good side when they don’t have the ball – an improvement on last season – but lack the spark to break down teams at home who are happy to let them dominate possession. Wins like this underline their automatic promotion potential, but the disappointing final 20 minutes at home to Scunthorpe hint at why it might be play offs at best for City.

23 points from 10 games on the road is outstanding. They are only two wins short of matching last season’s entire total of nine away victories. But just 13 points at Valley Parade – the 18th-best record in League One – is undermining this exceptional work. Five defeats in the last nine at home. The five Valley Parade losses before that were spread out over 48 games.

There’s a five-point gap between the teams in the top six and the chasing pack. And looking at the teams City are keeping company with – Wigan, Shrewsbury, Scunthorpe, Blackburn and Charlton – you wouldn’t anticipate anyone dropping out of contention. It probably sums up the Bantams that they have now beaten Wigan and Shrewsbury away, yet lost at home to Scunthorpe, Blackburn and Charlton.

Still, City are keeping pace with them and have the capacity to improve further. The January window could be the key to adding the attacking thrust lacking in the squad. And if McCall can get his players to play better when trailing matches, an automatic promotion push might just be on.

Categories: Opinion

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9 replies

  1. Thanks again for another excellent and honest match report as I was at work yesterday so I couldn’t get to the game.

    A goal scoring midfielder would be top of my list for the January transfer window, however they are like City home league wins at the moment, rare!

    Joking aside, Stuart and the team are still exceeding my pre-season expectations so well done so far for this season.

  2. Buy Oztumer from Wallsall.

  3. Brilliant analysis of City this season. We just lack another forward and in my view a driving attacking midfielder.

  4. Absolutely right..the next month if December is likely to make or break an automatic promotion push..especially as there are three home matches in there. Win all three, and continue the strong away form, and this would change the whole dynamic around Valley Parade. Add to that a Cup win to take us into the Third Round and December really is a massive month that will dictate which way the club ends up in May. Win the lot and we could be second by the New Year…and this truly is achieveable.

  5. “The January window could be the key to adding the attacking thrust lacking in the squad”. Indeed so, Jason, but not just in the forward line. You can have as many quality strikers as you like but if they don’t receive quality ball from midfield the end result is going to be the same.
    Remembering back to the closing of the August transfer window there was talk about City having got everyone they wanted with the exception of another central midfielder. In my opinion this is where the problem lies. Law, Vincelot and Reeves are the epitome of journeymen League One players. No one can fault their commitment, however they will enjoy the best years of their careers at this level (in Vincelot’s case they are already in the past), never being regulars in a promoted team before the inevitable drop to League Two. Sadly, they simply do not have it within their capabilities to play that incisive through ball the front-line are crying out for. McCall knows this, so their role is reduced to winning the ball and passing it (in Law’s case, dribbling it before depositing it at the feet of a wide player) out wide. Gilliead (or McMahon/Robinson) then cross the ball into the box – but almost always in the air! Why?! It was meat and drink to Rory and his Scunny buddies who simply used the experience as heading practice, as did the Plymouth backline. It’s significant, I think, that the goal Plymouth scored against us was from a cross whipped in along the ground and the OG that gave City the win against Shrewsbury was created similarly.
    The team lacks guile and until this is properly addressed we shall remain a League One side.

  6. In these situations ball retention is key, both in breaking teams down and defending a lead, and we don’t seem to be able to do that. Yesterday during general play and hanging on for the win, we and our midfield especially weren’t adept enough in this area. Our balls through or over the defence were often over-hit, so again possession was given away cheaply.
    I’d say we need better ball handlers in midfield and players with the ability to pass and run at a defence that presses high up the pitch.
    Our goal yesterday came from breaking at speed on them, the only other time I remember us breaking their line was in the first half. We kept the ball well on our left down by the corner flag; nice interplay between, Taylor, Law and another player gave Taylor the chance to take on 2 defenders and get into the box. He jinked between the 2 at pace and had space to put a quick ball across their 6 yard line. All we needed was Wyke (although he was tied up), Gillead at the back post or a midfielder anticipating the ball and they’d have had a great chance to score, but no-one made that run.
    With the size of their centre back pairing, playing into Wyke always looked unlikely to produce results. They were not only massive but were quite at ease grabbing, holding and pulling at any opportunity. Quick ball, running off each other and speed (such as Taylor and Robinson) may have been more successful in getting round their back pair. I assume players such as McCarten, Poleon, Patrick and Jones were players we hoped would provide this, perhaps they still can Although I would trust more experienced heads in midfield (We need a midfield version of Killa)

  7. “lack the spark to break down teams at home who are happy to let them dominate possession.” Reading comments about City dominating possession are regular but always make me wince. I can imagine away managers chuckling at this as they depart Valley Parade with the points. the fact is we dominate possession in areas which don’t hurt the opposition as, around the centre circle we pass across and back then back and across.this gives visiting teams time to pull players back, organise and pack their defence. then, when we do get forward and the cross comes in, our front men are crowded out in the area. i know our build up play has neutral pundits purring and i’m all for playing good football but Stuart has to find a way to play good football but get the ball forward much quicker, not giving visiting teams time to pull players back, to organise and pack their defence.

  8. Jones, Mccartan, Poleon and Patrick should all be made available for transfer or loan in January so that we can refresh our strike force. Obviously we shouldn’t let all of them leave but replacing one or two of them could give us the freshness and impetus that we need to support Wyke and Taylor.
    If we can do that as well as adding an attacking midfielder to help us break teams down at home then there’s no reason not to be positive.
    As others have said, December is a huge month.
    Ps: Field and Raeder could be improved upon too in an ideal world.

  9. I like this review, but want to comment only on your thought that Shrewsbury never altered the game plan which has been so successful this season. I know we cannot compare with Manchester City, but I watched them yesterday on TV. They did just what Jason says, and never strayed from the style that has paid off for them. They never panicked, they never threw aimless long balls upfield, they stuck to their plan, and in the end it paid off. Proof that sticking to what you know is right pays off.

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