The Curious Case of Bradford City’s recruitment, and what to expect in 2020/21

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

By Ricc Stead

Let me preface this article by saying anyone that follows me on social media (@Riccles05) will know that I am as big a fan of Stuart McCall as anyone, both as the colossus on the pitch that he was, and the manager he now is. What I aim to try and do in this piece is give some reasoning as to why we may not be bringing in the players a lot of the fanbase feel we need, and what we can expect from Stuart’s Bradford City team this coming season in terms of tactics and approach.

Having watched Stuart’s previous two spells as a manager at Valley Parade,  and also seen first hand how his teams set out at Motherwell, and Rangers up in Scotland, I think I’ve developed an idea as to how I expect to see Bradford City line up this season. Although the season began with a 352, wing back formation, I don’t think anyone will be majorly surprised to see us eventually take up the 442 formation. And given what we were subjected to under Gary Bowyer, this may be a welcome change.

However, that isn’t telling the full story – and the mechanics within that formation may answer the question as to why we aren’t bringing in the type of player many feel we are simply crying out for.

This summer’s signings have been the subject of much frustration and debate around the Bantams social media channels over the last couple of months – many feel we aren’t moving quickly enough, aren’t filling in gaps in the squad, and aren’t bringing in enough quality to mount a promotion push.

The thing I read most, is that we need a ‘midfield enforcer’ a hard-nosed b*stard, for lack of a better term, to put himself about, get stuck in, generally let the opposition know we’re there. And while I personally do not disagree or dislike such a player, I’m not expecting us to sign one. And the reason, as far as I can see, is simply that he wouldn’t fit into Stuart’s line up.

Our 4-4-2 line up relies on getting the ball into wide areas, for the touchline hugging wingers to race to the by-line and to cross the ball in for the waiting strikers.  Stuart also expects his two central midfielders to be versatile enough to be proficient in attack and defence. To be more detailed, our central midfielders need to be mobile, quick, have the stamina to run up and down all day long, be good in the tackle, be able to pick a pass, as well as shoot, and be technically strong.

The midfield enforcer, at the level we compete in, more than likely isn’t going to be quick and mobile enough to carry out the role we want him to.

When the team attacks, the two midfielders will be expected to be up supporting the play, increasing our options in the final third, making us harder to defend against, and in theory, this should result in plenty of action at the (in our POV) right end of the field, and a hatful of goals.

But this is also the reason we will be frustrating to watch from a defensive point of view, and why we may find ourselves conceding a number of chances too. The BTTS accumulator at the bookmakers will be a decent punt this season!

With the 2 wingers, 2 strikers and the midfielders getting forward, we are very susceptible to a quick break, and unless your central defenders have the sheer pace of an Adama Traore, and the defensive and technical ability of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic rolled into one, we will find we’re caught out.

The formation is fairly rigid, the centre backs will only venture forward for set pieces, and the full backs will operate in the first two thirds of the field only, allowing the wingers play in and around the final third and penalty area.

In an ideal world, one of the central midfielders would stay back while the other ventures forward to support attacks, but that is easier said than done in the heat of the game for players that also will not have played together before, and may not be used to having such licence to attack. Human nature may dictate they both dash forward together, looking to get the definitive final touch, or an assist to their name.

McCall, his staff and the other players will have to be very aware to this possible danger.

That all raises questions as to the value of Billy Clarke, who has returned, to a very mixed reception, for a third spell at the club. In my opinion, Billy is a very talented player for our level, with excellent vision and technical ability, however, he does not fit into the system I expect us to play.

In McCall’s previous spell Clarke was used as a second striker, dropping off, to link play between the midfield and the forward, but the way we play means we often don’t see Billy’s strengths, if he is used as a second striker, our propensity to get wide and crosses into the box means Billy often finds himself playing as an auxiliary deep target man, holding the ball up, and laying it off.

His relative lack of height and pace means he isn’t as big a threat in the box when the ball comes in as a more natural striker may be.  The latter is also the reason he may struggle in a wide role.

It is my hope that these fears are unfounded, and we have the ability to change on the fly, and try different things. If, to name but one example, we looked to play ‘through the thirds’ with a slower tempo and a shorter passing range, then an attacking midfielder operating in the hole behind the attackers is a role that Billy would excel in. But I didn’t see us doing that previously, meaning Clarke is often left looking a little like a passenger, anonymous, and not influencing the game as much as you would expect 1 of 2 strikers in a 442 formation to be able to do.

In conclusion, we’ll be a good team to watch, and I think we’ll create a number of chances every week. We will also concede a number of chances. Finishing ability, goalkeeping, and a bit of luck will be major deciding factors to whether we are successful, or not this season.

As usual, it won’t be dull being a Bradford City supporter!

Categories: Opinion


5 replies

  1. You could go 4-4-2 with a midfield ‘diamond’ with Clarke being the furthest forward of the four. It would require more flexibility and I guess more distance covered. Not sure it would work, and would mean we would need to keep possession, otherwise risk being overrun in midfield.
    One of the great things about football is that you can never exactly tell what is going to happen next.

  2. League Two clubs are operating with very little in the way of squad depth. This means injuries are going to play a massive influence on the final League Table. Ultimately, we could see more surprises than normal when it comes to the top seven clubs next May.

  3. I agree with CMs being more all purpose these days. The nastiness, biting into tackles, aggression should be a team ethos. The number 6 enforcer model is out-dated now.

    Don’t see any indication of 4-4-2 though. I think we’re moving towards a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 formation. A back 3 will probably suit us, covering the defensive frailties with more bodies. Young Staunton at LCH. Wood and Sutton/French playing either side of Watt and Cooke and dropping in as required. Clarke in behind a front two.

  4. Didn’t watch the Bolton game but got the impression they played a 3-4-1-2 formation. It worked and suited the players we have at our disposal so why change it? Seems to me this is the only way to get the best out of Billy Clarke and retain the threat of two strikers. We may concede some goals along the way but will hopefully score enough to secure at least a playoff spot whilst being entertained in the process. Was it Stuart who said he’d rather win 5-4 than 1-0?

  5. Good article and I think its correct that Stuart would have ideally liked to set us up in a 442. But I think he will have to sacrifice that freedom mainly because of the centre backs. We’ve seen time and again from both O’Connors and BRE that they are prone to errors and can be easily caught in a back 4. A back three with the addition of Staunton at Bolton seemed to suit both O’Connors with Paudie putting in a great performance.

    The evidence that Stuart might continue with a back three was with the overlapping centre back tactic that Sheff Utd have used so well in their rise up the leagues. It was clear in both the Huddersfield friendly and Bolton game that O’Connor and Staunton will be allowed the freedom to get forward. The downside of that was shown with Staunton’s error in the Huddersfield friendly but the upside was O’Connor’s excellent assist for Pritchard’s goal at Bolton. Both look confident on the ball so this might be Stuart’s way of allowing attacking intent but covering the defensive issues we’ve had.

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