Friday Focus: Is 4-4-2 the answer for Bradford City, or do the issues run deeper?

A new, infrequent, bite-size series looking at the stats behind Bradford City’s season. 

By Tim Penfold 

Bradford City’s recent wobble in form has re-ignited the debate over Gary Bowyer’s tactics. Should we play 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or something else? Is Vaughan too isolated? Does the ball go long too often? Put simply, could Gary Bowyer be getting more out of this team than he is at the moment by setting things up differently?

One of the most common refrains on social media is “It’s League Two. Just play 4-4-2, get lots of crosses in the box and we’ll win.” But is that actually true? If it was, surely you’d see a lot of teams doing this, but they aren’t.

Using information on tactical styles available on, there are only two teams who play 4-4-2 every week and cross the ball a lot. They are our fellow relegated teams Scunthorpe and Walsall, languishing in 16th and 22nd respectively. If 4-4-2 and crossing was the magic formula for this league, surely they would be higher up?

This league is noticeably more varied and sophisticated tactically than the last time we were here. Teams play a wide variety of styles and formations – for example, nine play with a back three, whilst Newport and Stevenage have shifted between so many different systems that it’s difficult to guess how they’ll line up every week.

Despite its reputation as the last bastion of the traditional English 4-4-2, only four teams play the system every week, with another three playing 4-2-3-1 which could reasonably be described as a variant of 4-4-2.

There’s no obvious correlation between formation and success. The top team in the division, Swindon, play 4-4-2 – but the other three are all in the bottom third, including the bottom team Morecambe.

City’s results have been slightly better playing 4-4-2 than 4-3-3 – they’ve won 4 out of 6 games playing that shape, compared to 5 out of 8 playing 4-3-3 (note that I’m counting Stevenage away, where we started in a 4-4-2 but moved to 4-3-3 twenty minutes in, in the 4-3-3 games). However, City’s two wins against fellow top seven sides came playing 4-3-3.

So is there something else tactically that gives a clue as to how to get success? Well, it isn’t crossing. Using’s stats again, there are five teams that cross the ball a lot in the top half of the table, including three in the playoffs, and five in the bottom half. And the most regular crossers in the division? None other than Bradford City, with 23 per game from open play.

It’s not like they’re bad crosses either – 25% hit their target, which is the 8th highest in the division, and we create more shots from crosses than any other team. But that might be the problem – if only one in four crosses are hitting their target, and even fewer are producing genuinely good chances, but that still ranks you quite highly in the division, then the problem might be with crossing itself as a way of creating chances.

Swindon – top of the league and joint top scorers – put in far fewer crosses, attempt more through balls and as a result score more goals. A bit more variety in the way we attack might produce more chances.

So is there a tactical silver bullet? If there is, it comes from how teams pass the ball. The top five teams all try to keep their passes short, and the top four are particularly good at keeping possession. City, meanwhile, play a lot of long passes and aren’t particularly good at keeping the ball, ranking 11th in the division for total possession and 15th for pass completion.

This is what is at the heart of the problem with City at the moment – playing the ball long in a 4-3-3 leaves the central striker with a thankless task. Vaughan can win the ball in the air reasonably well – statistically he’s slightly better than Donaldson at that – but without a strike partner those headers often go to nobody. The midfield are too far away to support when the ball goes long – a shift to a passing game would allow them to get up and support the striker more easily.

With the return of Jake Reeves and Matty Palmer from injury, as well as Callum Cooke, we have some very good technical midfielders who would suit a possession-based game, so it’s not a case like last season where we did not have the personnel to play out from the back without giving the ball away.

It would suit our creative players – the likes of Ismail and Connolly want to get the ball high up the pitch and attack defenders rather than scrambling for flick-ons, and it would help our chance creation if we can learn to create by something other than just crosses. The question is not really one of formation. 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 – they can all work in this league.

Categories: Friday Focus, Opinion

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6 replies

  1. Thank you for educating some fans (including myself) on what will, won’t, does and doesn’t in fact work with tactics.

  2. The key take away for me in this thought provoking article is the statistics on keeping the ball, ranking 11th in the league for total possession and 15th for pass completion. If City are to significantly benefit from the return of Reeves and potentially Doyle then those numbers must improve.

    City are playing far too direct with a reliance on the speculative long ball. The back four must start playing the ball on the deck and feeding the midfielders who in turn must be more creative in play making.

    The big question being does City have enough quality in the squad to change tactics to a more possession game and is Gary Bowyer willing to change his approach???

    By the way, Newport’s tactics are very similar to City’s so I’m expecting a very dull game with a score line of 1-0, take your pick.

  3. reading what you say about formations brings to mind what a lot of managers say its how you execute and play the role that matters the most, Being a bit long in the tooth i do prefer a 442 formation and thought that was how Bowyer was forming his team from the beginning. This season we have an horrendous injury list which to me means we are not all playing from the same sheet, We need the team to have a better understanding of each other and back each other up to reduce injury and increase goal chances, It does point to all fans including me we will have to back the manager and be very patient and wait for success

  4. City always struggle to play without a back to goal target man type striker. This seems to be the case no matter who the manager is or what year it is. You’d think therefore that we should have more than one in our squad. It suggests, as someone just pointed out to me that long ball football seems to be in our DNA and might be why fans want 4-4-2 – because they know how isolated the central front man becomes when playing long ball in a 4-3-3.

  5. Very interesting. I hate the long ball hoof, and have only seen it consistently pay off in recent times, when booted up to Charlie Wyke, which was like aiming for a barn door, with good lay offs.

    What you say about greater possession and relying on good technical midfielders to move it forward, makes sense. I’d like to see quicker and more direct attacks too- but I also miss the days when James Meredith would dispossess the other team in his defensive area, then sprint like an express train down the wing, before putting in a pin point cross. Or Mark Marshall, who’d do that, then accidentally score in the process…ultimately, its not about a single approach, but varying the attacking options.

  6. brilliant article

    very insightful !

    unless you’ve played the game, or worked in the game, at a professional level, you can’t really have an opinion, but of course fans care and everyone is jose mourinho at the pub when the team lined ups are announced

    there’s more than one way to win a football match, and he does like to mix it up bowyer, i think he’s doing a grand job – newport is exactly the type of team that would have won 3 nil at our ground last year, but we set up not be bullied, it worked, our quality showed

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