|Bradford City 3||Southend United 0|
|Cooke 5, Watt 33, Pritchard 43|
By Jason McKeown
The stabilisers were very much on the bike here. The bar had been significantly lowered. But after such a torrid week featuring three straight losses, Bradford City badly needed the confidence rebooting of this easy home victory to get the season back on track.
Southend were the kindest, weakest opponents imaginable. Doomed, already it seems, to fall out of the Football League at the end of the season. It was straightforward for the Bantams, who settled their own jitters with an early goal and climbed out of sight by half time. The first occasion they have netted three goals in a first half since November 2017.
In the end they were only limited from inflicting a heavy thrashing by their own ambition. Still, for a side who had not scored from open play in their previous four matches, a 3-0 victory will feel priceless.
This convincing scoreline comes with the caveat that it was against opponents falling to a sixth straight loss. Yet Bradford City’s notoriously flaky history of facing bottom of the table sides means they deserve credit for avoiding the banana skin that they’ve slipped over from countless times.
It will certainly come as a welcome relief for Stuart McCall, who will probably have his best night’s sleep in days. Most importantly of all, the stylish manner in which City swept Southend aside, at least in the first 45 minutes, suggests the manager might have found a system that can be truly effective. Even when the Bantams are facing much sterner tests.
McCall maintained the 3-5-2 approach, but crucially opted to push Billy Clarke into one of the striker positions, where he partnered the veteran Clayton Donaldson. Behind the duo, Elliott Watt, Callum Cooke and Harry Pritchard lined up as a midfield three. And the balance of the whole team was hugely improved.
Effectively, McCall went without an attacking midfielder or number 10. And that afforded the midfield three more space in which to operate, especially when it came to bringing the ball forward or making runs into the box. Watt, Cooke and Pritchard linked up very well, sharing out attacking and defensive responsibilities – Watt sitting slightly deeper than the other two.
The trio’s greater ball retention, in the middle of the pitch, allowed the attacking wing backs Connor Wood and Bryce Hosannah to get forward effectively, receiving possession in areas where they could hurt Southend.
The fruits of this tactical tweaking were seen within the opening five minutes, as Cooke made a dash into the area that saw Clarke pick him out with a pass. The 23-year-old produced a lovely turn before clinically firing the ball into the bottom corner to put City in front.
At last, after 39 appearances in claret and amber, Cooke has scored a goal for Bradford City.
It was the first time all season that the Bantams had opened the scoring at home, and the body language of the whole team notably improved following the early boost. They looked more settled on the ball, more confident about their respective roles, and more trusting in each other.
After the dangerous on-loan Arsenal midfielder James Olayinka flashed a shot wide of the post, City took a firm grip on proceedings in the final 15 minutes of the first half. Clarke played a terrific pass to Donaldson, who produced an equally brilliant ball into the path of Watt, who struck a powerful first time low shot that arrowed into the net. 2-0, thanks to another midfielder revelling in the extra space to run onto.
Remarkably, the third midfielder of the central trio – Pritchard – also got on the score sheet, heading home a Clarke free kick just before the break. This was only Pritchard’s third league start of the season and he can – with justification – feel aggrieved by his limited opportunities. McCall will certainly struggle to leave him out based on this performance.
As much as the midfield three deserve great credit for each getting on the scoresheet, Clarke’s role in all three goals was pivotal.
The is-Clarke-a-striker debate has been done to death over the last few years, and it’s clear that McCall had been trying to get him to take that attacking midfield/number 10 role. But building the team around Clarke in this way has proved easy for better opposition sides to counteract.
When Clarke plays well – like the home win over Stevenage – City look effective. When he struggles or is targeted – like the home defeat to Harrogate – the whole team becomes impotent. Clarke’s outings at number 10 haven’t helped to get the best out of Watt and Cooke either. Cooke, especially, has looked compromised at times.
McCall had begun the season committed to playing a number 10, moving from 3-5-2 to a diamond formation. He went away from the number 10 system after the Harrogate defeat underlined its limitations. Ending up with the doomed 4-1-2-3 approach against Newport that he admitted was a mistake. That led to a return to 3-5-2 in defeats at Bolton and Barrow, but he didn’t quite get the midfield right and defensively the team gave away poor early goals that led to City chasing the game.
Ultimately, McCall has a squad of patchy performers so far. Not a single player has performed well every game, and so any system relying on the individual qualities of one or two players can be undermined if those one or two players have an off day. The 3-5-2 system is the best approach for the tools he has, and the team picked tonight – from a squad with lots of injuries – was the best at his disposal.
Whether Clarke is the solution for the striker issue remains a big question. But tonight he demonstrated the qualities he offers. He linked up well with the midfield runners, allowing City to finally show some pace and invention in how they attacked. For the first time all season, the Bantams weren’t easy to predict. When Lee Novak is fit again, a partnership of Clarke and City’s top scorer might be the best way forward right now.
Southend were absolutely awful in the first half, although did improve considerably after the break. City’s rhythm was disrupted by several stoppages for injuries. And promising moves were thwarted by Donaldson’s maddening tendency to stray offside. He also missed a decent one-on-one opportunity before eventually departing through injury. Dylan Mottley-Henry, who replaced Donaldson, needs to offer a lot more than he showed.
Southend threatened a way back, with former Bantam Timothee Dieng producing a glaring miss when he headed wide from a corner. City defended well, with Paudie O’Connor and Reece Staunton impressing. Wood and Hosannah were back on form too. A first clean sheet since the opening league game of the season is an important step forward.
The foot was taken off the gas in the closing stages, which was disappointing. But compared to the brutal inquests needed from the last three sorry defeats, it’s a small gripe. Ultimately, a must-win game was won. And City go into a mini-break from league action in a much healthier frame of mind.
“There’s still a lot of improvement to be made,” admitted a grounded McCall after the game. “There were certain occasions where we were sloppy with our passing. We could have looked after the ball a bit better.”
McCall also confirmed that Donaldson departed with the field a groin injury, making him a doubt for Saturday’s FA Cup first round trip to Tonbridge Angels. With Novak, Kurtis Guthrie, Gareth Evans and Zeli Ismail already on the sidelines, City remain light on forward options. McCall didn’t quite rule out bringing in another face in, but declared it was unlikely.
It remains debatable if McCall has got the small squad approach right. Yet the difficult path of the past week has led to him now finding a balanced midfield approach that the whole team benefited from here. And the eventual return of Novak and Evans could really elevate this refined set up.
Tougher challenges await – the Bantams next league opponent is fourth-placed Exeter – but if they can build on this victory over the next two games, against more relatively weak opponents, they might just be ready to take off those stabilisers again.
Categories: Match Reviews