Crewe Alexandra 2
Kirk 42, Lowery 60
Bradford City 1
By Adam Raj
Five different systems in the first six league games. Gary Bowyer seems to have absolutely no idea what his best system is or his best XI either. Am I wrong in thinking that we should’ve experimented and tinkered like this during pre-season rather than now? We’re in League Two, with League Two footballers, why are we confusing them every week by giving them a different set of responsibilities and tactics to try to learn and follow? Surely, they need some sort of consistency to try and build up relationships on the pitch?
Today was the latest instalment in what has become another season of formation bingo. We saw it last season with David Hopkin and Michael Collins, and unfortunately it seems to be raising its ugly head again this season. 3-5-2 is how we lined up in Cheshire this afternoon, with Paudie O’Connor making his first league start, Jamie Deviit likewise playing in the number 10 position but, more surprisingly, Hope Akpan somehow keeping his place after last week’s horror show.
I can’t tell whether Akpan is only getting game time because Callum Cooke isn’t fit enough to start a game yet or whether Bowyer actually rates him as a defensive midfielder. I sincerely hope it’s the former.
There seemed to be more purpose in the way City started the game. James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson leading the press from the front, and it initially appeared Crewe struggled to come to terms with our surprising shape. But then again, City struggled to come to terms with it themselves.
The first warning sign came after 28 minutes where Charlie Kirk, the best player on the pitch, was allowed acres of space down City’s right-hand side to have a one on one with Richard O’Donnell which thankfully went wide. It was a huge let off, one which should’ve been dealt with immediately, but it wasn’t.
Four minutes later and City were rather fortuitously in front. Jamie Devitt’s excellent strike from outside the area was tipped onto the crossbar by Crewe keeper Jaaskelainen, but the predatory James Vaughan was there to head home the rebound. Euphoria in the away end and a sense of relief that City now had a lead to protect in a game where we, yet again, weren’t very good.
For five minutes after the goal, we had the momentum behind us, forcing errors out of Crewe and creating a few goal mouth scrambles. But a few goal mouth scrambles are about the best we’d create all afternoon, in what was another clueless attacking display.
And that five minute period was about as good as it got too, in another game where we failed to turn up for the duration. Only ten minutes had passed since the goal and Kirk, yet again, had the whole City half to himself to this time fire past O’Donnell. It was pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier chance, which we failed to learn from and ultimately paid the price for.
Kelvin Mellor, being a wing back, had advanced into the attacking third, but Anthony O’Connor was virtually playing within the same area. It’s not rocket science that if Mellor goes forward, then Anthony O’Connor should stay back and cover. Or if the worst-case scenario occurs and they both advance, Hope Akpan (being the right sided CM) should cover that right centre half position. But he was also in an advanced position trying to flick the ball over the head of every Crewe midfielder when he lost out on a 50/50 (shock) and the ball was fed to Kirk.
These are basic principles of a 3-5-2 formation. Why did it take until half time for this message to be relayed onto the pitch? This is just one example of players today not knowing their jobs.
Crewe came out in the second half a totally different animal. They had obviously been caught out a little by our shape, but fifteen minutes worth of advice from their manager was all it took for them to devise a game plan to beat us with relative ease. In contrast, City came out lethargic and devoid of any ideas.
After a bright start from the home side and a flurry of corners, the hosts’ second of the afternoon came fifteen minutes after the restart. Matt Palmer and Connor Wood got attracted to the same ball, failed to mark Daniel Powell who received the ball, passed it to Tom Lowery, who skipped pass the half-hearted challenge of Hope Akpan and finished expertly into the far corner. An excellent goal from an attacking perspective but defensively, it was embarrassing.
The lack of an aggressive midfielder who can break up play and tackle was more prominent than ever today, especially in that goal. Multiple passes along the face of our box leading to a goal, just as last week, because not one of the midfielders can tackle. How can a team who are expected to fight for promotion play without a single midfielder capable of making a tackle? Actually, how can any team play without a defensive midfielder?
And from that point the game was pretty much done. We didn’t create a chance of note all afternoon, even the goal was a fortunate rebound and we didn’t look like scoring again.
Crewe and in particular Kirk, toyed with us for the next half hour. Passing it through the thirds with absolute ease, it looked like a training session at times. The overload out wide was a reoccurring theme which seemingly went unnoticed by Bowyer, given the zero changes made to the shape of the team throughout the game. The hosts really should’ve had a few more, given the quality of chances which they had, and it wouldn’t have flattered them one bit.
Clayton Donaldson skimmed a header just wide and debutant Harry Pritchard saw a close range header fly over the bar. Apart from that, it was hopeful stuff from the Bantams, with next to no quality whatsoever.
What is a massive concern at the minute is the fact we don’t seem to have a game plan in games, especially in attacking scenarios. It looks to be all a bit disjointed and unprepared, focused on stopping the opposition rather than giving us the best chance of winning the game ourselves.
We have two fantastic strikers in this division, yet we didn’t create one chance at all for either today. Why is that? Because the strikers we have primarily feed off crosses into the box, whether that be from open play or set pieces. From open play we play without wingers, and today’s wing backs were well marshalled and had very little support when they had the ball.
Our set pieces were absolutely appalling today just as they have been all season. We had six real targets to aim at from set pieces today against what wasn’t a very big Crewe side at all, and 90% of set pieces and subsequent second phase deliveries failed to beat the first man. That’s a real poor do.
But this brings us onto what actually is City’s style of play? Are we a side who keeps it tight hoping for set pieces? Are we a possession-based side? Are we a long ball team? What are we? We’re six games in and I really couldn’t tell you how Gary Bowyer wants us to play at all, and that is deeply concerning.
On the face of it, we seem to have done good business in the transfer window, but for the second year running it seems like we’ve recruited without a plan. We signed players and then tried to figure out the best system when we should’ve recruited players to fit a system. The pace and width we were promised in the summer hasn’t arrived, aside from the forgotten man Zeli Ismail. We’ve signed and re-signed numerous attacking midfielders, have failed to sign a defensive midfielder and have only two fit strikers.
It seems to me that the whole midfield, for whatever reason has been neglected. I think for me in these first six games, I’ve realised just how important a central midfielder is. It’s all well and good having a good attack and defence, but if you don’t have a midfield to supply the attackers or protect the defenders, it’s all pointless. And that I think is where we are now. Hopefully Callum Cooke and Jamie Devitt will be the missing spark going forwards in midfield, but the same problems of teams walking through us at will, will persist unless that Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Jim O’Brien type player is signed.
The latest decision to let Sean Scannell leave the club is an interesting one. On the face of it, his replacement Harry Pritchard seems unspectacular and slightly underwhelming. But with the wages saved on Scannell, you would hope there are further additions to come. If/when they arrive, I think we’ll know if allowing Scannell to leave was worth it or not, despite his own disappointing performances in a City shirt.
I want Gary Bowyer to pick a system and stick to it. Whatever it is (but preferably one with width), because the players need some continuity. The constant chopping and changing has done managers in the past no favours at all and has, in some cases, proven to be their downfall.