Promising Bradford City performance can’t disguise the need for a clinical striker

Bradford City 0

Colchester United 0

By Jason McKeown

There was a moment midway through the second half of this stalemate when Billy Clarke received the ball in the final third and you could almost hear the Bradford City forward sigh.

Clarke surveyed the options in front of him, and certainly wasn’t short of claret and amber shirts to pick out. But they were equalled in number by Colchester grey, and there wasn’t a single team mate making an incisive run. He reluctantly worked the ball out wide, and the move eventually broke down.

Clarke, Stuart McCall and Bradford City have been here before. Indeed, watching today, it was almost as though time had gone backwards four years, and this was the Bantams in early 2016/17 all over again. The last early beginnings of McCall holding the managerial reins.

Just like 2016, there was much to admire about the stylish manner of City’s football. The way that Clarke linked up in the middle so well with Elliot Watt and Callum Cooke, and the attack-minded overlapping full back play of Connor Wood and Dylan Mottley-Henry, had echoes of 2016/17’s Josh Cullen, Nicky Law, James Meredith and Tony McMahon. Then, a lack of cutting edge up front held the team back from league domination. And history could be repeating itself.

This looks like a good Bradford City team. But it’s a clinical striker away from being a very good one. McCall deserves great credit for the impressive levels of organisation that he has instilled in his players – it already seems a world away from last season. They play with a freedom to take risks, both on the ball and in how they are encouraged to get forwards. The football is pleasing on the eye. Yet the big question is whether it will lead to enough goals. To enough victories.

That all makes it eerily similar to how 2016/17 began, where McCall kicked off the campaign with Clarke, James Hanson and Jordy Hiwula as his striker options, as the club scrambled to bring in more forward quality. That year’s transfer window closed with Marc McNulty and Haris Vukic added on loan – neither proved more than bit-part players.

And though City were consistently in the play off pack in 2016/17, they fell behind the frontrunners. The January signing of Charlie Wyke eventually changed that dynamic, and City’s form over the final three months of the campaign was as good as anyone. Had Wyke being at Valley Parade all season, a campaign that would end in heartache could have proven very different.

This history lesson offers a cautionary tale to the current hunt to sign a striker. The window remains open, and the moves that McCall eventually makes are going to be pivotal to his team’s chances. This was a game and performance that adds urgency to that forward search, but ultimately it’s about who City sign more than when. There are hundreds of striker options available in these Covid-19 financial times, but the manager needs to find a diamond who can truly elevate this team.

Pace and craftiness would certainly be high on the list of attributes to seek. McCall again paired up Lee Novak with Kurtis Guthrie here, and they were willing workers. But they are too similar in style, and each would benefit from playing alongside someone with the legs and intelligence to get on the end of their flick ons.

Neither striker has made their name for being prolific in front of goal, as Novak’s early miss illustrated. City’s number nine forced Colchester keeper Dean Gerkin into a block eight minutes in, but really should have scored. He – and City – would not produce a better chance all afternoon.

In the Bantams’ opening two games of the season, they have barely had any possession. That changed here, with an early pattern set of the home side retaining the ball well and building up patiently. City produced 334 short passes – a significant improvement on their 2019/20 average of 268. But Colchester were happy to play deep and use their pace on the counter attack. They were ready for the forward runs of Anthony O’Connor and Reece Staunton, and worked hard to limit the space for Clarke, Cooke and Watt to operate.

It was notable just how regularly City’s build up play led to the ball being worked to the sides, away from the congestion in the middle, with Wood and Mottley-Henry performing well. It quickly grew predictable, as the ball was habitually crossed into the box and dealt with. Over the 90 minutes, City attempted 33 crosses, that’s a rate of 1 cross every 2.7 minutes.

Wood’s crossing was excellent at times, and Anthony O’Connor and Guthrie did come close with headers. But with the technical excellence of Clarke, Cooke and Watt, it felt a waste to resort to flinging in so many hopeful balls from outwide. It needs that craftiness in the forward line to unlock the team’s potential through the middle.

Not that Colchester were just here to defend doggedly for a point. Forward Jevani Brown was the best player on the pitch in the first half, causing plenty of problems to City’s back line. In the 23rd minute he flew past Staunton in the box and pulled the ball back for Noah Chilvers, who forced birthday boy Richard O’Donnell into a superb save. The Bantams captain also made a decent second half block from Luke Gambin, after the United forward broke clear on goal from an angle.

O’Donnell’s heroics were matched by City’s backline, which played very well. Staunton is looking a real revelation, with the 18-year-old shrugging off an early booking to deliver an accomplished performance on and off the ball. The three centre half approach was heavily criticised last season, largely due to the safety-first manner that Bowyer deployed it, but McCall’s pre-season work in this area is paying off. It looks effective both defensively and in how City attack. Anthony O’Connor’s average position on the pitch was remarkable, as he got forward so often he effectively played in midfield. (The average pitch position of Guthrie and Novak was also telling.)

The second half proved much more open. Gambian and Novak both found the back of the net, but were denied by offside flags. With eight minutes to go, City sub Harry Pritchard struck a powerful half volley from the edge of the box that required a fine save from Gerkin. Clayton Donaldson – who did pretty well after coming on – could not convert a headed chance. And with the last kick of the game, Staunton almost drilled home a winner.

The frustration of not collecting three points is a familiar feeling at this stage of the campaign. City have now won only one of their last six opening home games of the season. And for the third year in a row, they’ve failed to score on Valley Parade’s opening afternoon.

There are a lot of encouraging signs to take into the battles ahead. A growing confidence that this could be a good season for the Bantams. With an improved style of football, and a group of players committed to the cause who you can genuinely get behind. It all feels very exciting.

But it’s 95% of what’s needed to achieve success. And finding that missing 5% remains a concern. For all the disappointment of James Vaughan’s departure, his style of play suggests he wouldn’t have been the answer to the problems evident today. It might ultimately prove a blessing in disguise that Vaughan left, but only if the hunt to replace him unearths a striker of the right quality.

There’s an awful lot resting on the next few weeks.

Categories: Match Reviews

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15 replies

  1. As ever a fair and rounded piece. It’s perhaps a little optimistic but we can all forgive that on the first day of the season!

    My quick review would be this.

    First half was good. We looked fresh and moved the ball well. I personally thought Billy Clarke had close to his best 45 minutes in a City shirt. I thought DMH was okay but totally overhyped generally. Novak has to score both those chances for me. At this level sitters need to be taken.

    I thought the second half was poor. I thought we were utterly toothless. I didn’t really think it was great football. It went down the channels, the wing backs cut back and then we started again. The point re there being nothing on for Billy Clarke sums it up really.

    I also curiously noted- and I don’t think this is a criticism yet- that when a move breaks down we go back to the keeper very quickly. I don’t think this is a bad thing to do with a league 2 team. Start again and don’t make it difficult seemed to be the mantra. It’s quite clever really.

    Staunton clear MOTM.

    A few small thoughts.

    I thought Macca was going to utilise Cooke in a more advanced position. He can’t do this when playing Clarke and we don’t really have anyone else to CM if Clarke is missing.

    Watt looks a lovely player.

    I like the CBS coming out and roaming a little.

    We need a right back and a striker.

    All in all, a decent platform to build on.

    Up the City

    • Generally agree – DMH did OK for 1st 10-15mins but then never attacked / went past his man to bye-line afterwards (and Zeli was non-existent after replacing him), Clarke had a great 1st half, but faded in last 20 mins – should have brought him off instead of Cooke imo
      thought we did much better when donaldson came on but definitely need a pacey more clinical striker

    • Thats a perfect summary of the game/

    • Pretty much bang on, Ben. The only variance being Mottley-Henry. Simon’s comment is nearer my view – not good enough. Every manager has his favourites and I fear Henry falls in that bracket, with McCall. However, things are brighter than I thought and if we can find this elusive striker, who CAN hit a cow’s arse with a banjo, then we should be challenging at the top end of the table

    • You may see Cooke used that way when Sutton is available

  2. Definitely a striker is needed. However, I would be worried that we end up with a youngster with little or no experience playing first team football. Like you suggested, we need someone with knowledge at this level. With a proven scoring record. Potential does not score goals. This type of player does not come cheap and I would imagine most or all have been snapped up. Fingers crossed, we will get the right sort of player.

  3. As soon has i herd Vaughan was off i said we haven’t got enough goals in this side. Novak has had 2 great chances in these opening games and failed. He has only scored 15 in a season twice ever in the football league. Clayton for all his effort doesn’t look like he can score a goal and Guthrie whilst seemingly offering more goal threat than Clayton still won’t get many imo. This article says that Vaughan won’t be missed in this regard but he is better imo than all 3 at what they do. Moving on has he’s gone there is no pace to suit the undoubted ability of the passing of Cooke and Watt. Clarke has looked busy at times but he is rarely a goal threat thus he is played to pass through to 2 strikers with no pace. Stuart is getting the best from what he been given imo and thats all you can ask for really in a manager. We look far more organised and hard working. We are at least 3 players short for the season, but a striker (even 2 imo) is a must.

    • To be clear I 100% agree with you that Vaughan is a better striker than what we have, but he is also very similar in style and we could do with something a bit different to what we have.

      • I disagree, Vaughan is an out and out goal scorer who comes alive in the box. More like a Peter Thorne than our current strikers.

        I actually think he’d thrive in this team as it will create chances unlike the last one.

        That said, I don’t disagree with the decision to let him go if his head wasn’t in it.

      • Totally agree we need pace. We do have options now in our approach play but pace is sorely lacking to take full advantage imo…

  4. I’m sure every club in lge 2 will be looking for that goal scorer forward.

    • True, but not every club will have the same space in their squads in terms of numbers and salary

    • Ironically the only two fan comments on the CUFC report in their local rag were to the effect that they are a goalscorer short of being a good side.

  5. What we saw is what everyone expected and the reason season tickets sales where so low ,and I am in sales and marketing , in my view the club marketing as been non existent you need to be positive and have a energy ,show people a vision or plan get them on board ,get out there so we can see what direction we are going in ,sadly people at the top are taking a back seat and the club is drifting, obviously the financial side as been cut and there is no sign of any major signings, we look like we are hoping a Premiership club will let us have a couple of the younger players, the owner needs to come out and tell us what he plans, to me he needs to try and sell the club or back it ,there is no middle ground or we will carry on eroding our support base and this season will emulate last season.

    • I would agree with this to some extent – in the days of James Mason we would have seen rallying promos from the management and players, encouraging fans to back the club while thanking them and letting them know the backing is appreciated. Even with everything going on it wouldn’t take much to create and put out such content.

      While Ryan Sparks converses with the fans, the personal element and connection from the playing squad doesn’t exist at the moment. As a result renewing this season felt like a chore to be honest. And we know a lot of people who are feeling the same.

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