More signs of progress as Bradford City come back to hold Exeter

Bradford City 2

Clarke 10, Staunton 45

Exeter City 2

Jay 20, Bowman 27

By Jason McKeown

The painful memories of Bradford City’s last Saturday outing at Valley Parade hung in the air before kick off, but to the Bantams’ credit there was no repeat of the Newport capitulation in the face of another strong League Two visiting side.

Though it was far from an unblemished display against the highly rated Exeter City, the home side produced a promising performance that suggests they can, in fact, go toe-to-toe with the best of the best in the division. And that recent victories against weaker opposition have had substance in shifting the season’s direction of travel.

In a topsy turvy first half, City threatened to produce a handsome victory, then fell in danger of falling to a worrying defeat, before coming back to level. A half time tweak to the game plan saw Stuart McCall’s men look a little more solid, although the gaps left at the back in pushing for a winner were almost punished, with the concession of some huge late chances for Exeter to grab the three points. 

As the dust settles, there will be much to encourage McCall but also areas of concern. The afternoon illustrated many of the issues that must be addressed if City are to climb the table, but also showcased the squad’s capabilities.

McCall had spoken pre-match about not being worried about City’s low early season league position, but with only three victories so far – all coming against teams in the bottom four – the need to leave a marker on this fixture was obvious. They had to build on recent results. Another poor performance and defeat would have quickly ripped up the recent green shoots of positivity.

They got off to the perfect start, at least in terms of opening the scoring early doors. Callum Cooke had picked possession after an Exeter corner broke down, and charged forward on the counter attack, threading a perfect through ball to Billy Clarke who finished well. The goal was a further illustration of the merits of McCall’s recent tactical move of nudging Clarke up front and allowing Cooke more attacking midfield space to operate.

But in truth, the goal had come against the run of play after Exeter started well. Matt Taylor came with a game plan of overloading the wide areas to leave City’s wing backs isolated, and the inside centre halves were torn over whether to move out of position to help them out. Especially as City’s midfield three were slow to track back.

Clarke’s goal followed some significant early Exeter pressure, but when visiting heads dropped after falling behind, it looked like City had ridden out the storm and could get their shape sorted. Clarke and Clayton Donaldson had chances to make it 2-0, and a potentially comfortable afternoon lay ahead.

That the game was then turned on its head left City with only themselves to blame. A ball into the box should have been defended, but Richard O’Donnell and Elliot Watt seemed hesitant over who should deal with it. Watt was pickpocketed by Jake Taylor, who quickly set up Matt Jay to fire home. A completely preventable equaliser.

Reinvigorated, Exeter were once again emboldened to come forward in numbers, with the overload on Tyler French resulting in Archie Collins getting to run past a dozing Cooke. Collins’ cross towards Ryan Bowman should have been dealt with by Reece Staunton, but the young City defender somehow allowed the much-travelled Exeter striker to poke the ball past O’Donnell. “They are in my eyes the best team we’ve played from an attacking sense,” McCall later admitted of Exeter. “But the two goals we gave away were absolutely criminal.”

Two goals in seven minutes, and a repeat of the Newport collapse began to feel like a very real prospect. The rest of the first half was vital in ultimately deciding the contest. City looked on the ropes, defending dismally and stumbling towards further calamity. Both O’Connors – who have been earning plenty of plaudits this week – once again displayed frustrating inconsistency. French and Connor Wood really struggled with being outnumbered. Watt, Cooke and Harry Pritchard needed to do more.

Thought Cooke and Paudie O’Connor did come close to equalising, Exeter continued to look more threatening and only last ditch defending and a decent O’Donnell save prevented them scoring a third. “We were hanging on a bit,” McCall stated. But the Grecians were not great defensively either. A minute into first half stoppage time, Watt swung over a corner that Staunton poked home. His first senior goal, which more than made up for his earlier error.

Exeter had let City off the hook, and McCall evidently used the half time break effectively. Ironing out some of the defensive issues, and bringing on Austin Samuels for Cooke, with Clarke dropping into midfield. There was a more solid shape, with better organisation in defence. It set the team to attack with decent effect, although they didn’t create a better chance than when Samuels latched onto a Clarke through ball but shot over. 

There was plenty of decent possession, with Anthony O’Connor and Staunton encouraged to get forwards and support attacks on their side of the pitch, and French and Wood doing better in attack than at defending. Clarke continued to play well in the deeper second half role – he is in excellent form right now. Samuels remains raw, but is starting to show more of what he can do. Donaldson came to life after an anonymous opening 45 minutes. He did a decent job for the team in the habitually under-appreciated targetman role.

City produced 410 passes over the 90 minutes, which was notably better than Exeter’s 365. The majority of the contest (36%) was played in the third of the pitch the Bantams were attacking.

But when Exeter pushed forward, they looked more likely to score. They were more prepared to shoot than the hosts when in a decent position, which was nearly rewarded with a late winner. Randell Williams wasted a free header opportunity after failing to hit the target. Joel Randall had a shot on goal that O’Donnell palmed up in the air slightly unconvincingly, but the City skipper quickly got back to his feet to brilliantly deny Bowman from the rebound. Ex-History Maker Rory McArdle and Sweeney also saw efforts go wide late on. Stoppage time had followed a similar pattern to the opening stages of the game.

Exeter won the contest on expected goals (2.34 to City’s 1.83), but where it ultimately counted the Bantams dug in to take a point. It leaves them still languishing in the depths of 16th place in a league table that is now beginning to take meaning, although they are only six points off the play offs. To close that gap, City have to reduce the number of individual errors. They also need to be a greater goal threat. 42% of home shots on goal were from outside the box, which given their greater difficulty means City are less likely to score from such attempts.

Although French battled hard and showed some quality going forward, there is no escaping how much of a loss it was that Bryce Hosannah had to sit this game out through injury. The lesson gleaned all the way back in 2013/14 – when Andrew Davies and James Meredith suffered a long-term injury and Matthew Bates had to step in – is that your backline is only as good as its weakest member. And with City’s defence far from outstanding in the first place, losing Hosannah – with his natural wing back abilities – really hindered the side.

French is ultimately a centre back playing wing back, and when it comes to defending it shows. Almost all of Exeter’s best moments came from his side of the pitch. 

But the fact City have dug in with yet another injury deserves credit. As supporters, it has become fashionable to react to City team news by making adverse comments about the lack of quality on the bench. Yet City have Gareth Evans, Lee Novak, Zeli Ismail, Levi Sutton, Kurtis Guthrie and now Hosannah on the sidelines. That is a significant unavailability list at the best of times, but when McCall – like Phil Parkinson – prefers a small squad approach, resources are really stretched. It is no wonder the bench looks weak.

To finally have a blank midweek will be a boost to McCall in getting bodies back, with Ismail and Evans said to be close to fitness. Although the manager will be concerned about Cooke and Clarke’s second half withdrawals through injury adding to the problems. If and when the injury backlog eases, there’s plenty of reasons to feel positive. Evans, Novak, Hosannah would walk straight into the first XI, and Ismail and Sutton would enhance the bench.

“I was really pleased with the effort from everyone and the opportunities we’ve created.” McCall summarised. “We’ve gone against a good side today and it was a good point.” It was certainly a contrast in mood from the lows of the three straight defeats at the end of October.

City have over the past fortnight played their best football of the season so far. Performances are getting better. And results are improving. There are tangible signs of progress. At least compared to the last time they trooped off Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon.

Categories: Match Reviews

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23 replies

  1. Remove the defensive errors, get the first choice players back and we can be a force to be reckoned with.

  2. An excellent summary of the game Jason. There are definitely green shoots of improvement in the passing and movement of the team from an attacking perspective. I agree that Billy Clarke is in excellent form and he is central to the improvement up front. However we look particularly vulnerable defensively. The main issues seem to be the way our defenders back off when opposition players drive straight at the defence and our inability to deal with crosses into our box, where panic invariably occurs amongst our defenders. Overall though a good point against a decent side.

  3. I completely agree with your assessment Jason.

    This was a continuation of the improvement shown recently. Would the team have got a point against Exeter three weeks ago when they were at a low ebb against Newport and Barrow?
    I do not think so.
    Confidence was so very brittle.
    We got easy victories against Southend and Tonbridge as we should have done but it was important to take the confidence and momentum into a game against tougher opposition.
    Confidence is such an important part of the game.

    We have a way to go and as stated above big players to come back.
    We still have this annoying habit of making crucial mistakes at the back which usually end up in conceding goals as they did twice today.
    Reduce that tendency and it will go a long way to boosting confidence even more and offer a chance to gain momentum.

    I believe SM should review the captaincy as I personally think that responsibility should go to a midfield general, a Gary Jones type player but at present we do not have such a player.

    But there has been a lot in this game to give me encouragement that we are taking small steps towards a SM engineered improvement. Get to the window and add the right kind of players and we might be knocking on the door to the play offs, but if at the end of the season we have shown continued advancement (and cut out the mistakes) we might well have done enough for SM to earn another contract and have a right go next season.

    At 1-2 down today I would have taken a point, and at the seasons end I would take the above scenario.

  4. How this season goes it’s all the recruitment in January no more kids we need Quality and experience in my view a centre half plus a target man that can score and hold the ball up ,and pace on the wings and a midfielder that can tackle if we get most of them we will make the playoffs if we can get these within the salary cap I don’t know, the players should have come in pre season , today the game could have been out of sight if Exeter had there shooting boots on ,defensively we are a shambles ,going forward we look good but same players don’t want to work off the ball leaving gaps for teams to exploit i.e. players don’t track back and our defence back off allowing teams to run in and shoot or easily find a player unmarked in our area.

    • Strange how this gets the thumbs down going but in essence is actually pretty accurate. The gist of the post talking about this season goes and in my eyes January is pivotal if the club is looking at a successful campaign, two or three players in the right positions could swing it in our favour.
      Yes, a point against a decent side is a small step in the right direction but again i agree with the original post that Exeter should have been out of sight had they taken their chances.
      A commanding centre half who can dominate the box and a decent striker could make all the difference.

      • Al some of the reply’s I’ve read seen to have been watching the game through rose tainted glasses ,can you imagine Roy Keen giving a summary on yesterday’s game ,with a reliance on the younger players coming through,it makes me wonder have we gone back to when Rupp was here and putting in kids and selling them on and that’s why we did not the experience Players we need in January.

    • I think its a measure of how far we have fallen that a point against a league 2 side is considered welcome. To be fair the game was entertaining with an emphasis on trying to play football from both sides but theres still some way to go before we can think about this team ever looking like automatic promotion candidates. Even the playoffs will be a push. It is encouraging to see young players come through the ranks, something in a season or two that may pay dividends, but for the season here and now the past three years of failure still refuses to fully rid itself from the club. It may take another season, maybe two before the full benefit of the departure of Rahic and a new CEO in the offices comes to fruition. I guess the impending question is if promotion isn’t acquired this season but it feels like there is on field progress do we tie McCall down for another 2 seasons?

      • We are currently a L2 club and it is not unreasonable to take comfort from a decent performance against a leading side. Given the Covid situation and the recent legacy at VP we have to be realistic about rebuilding the club and the fact it won’t be a quick fix.

      • Fans are clearly not looking at the various squads in this league if you think we could be going for automatic places. Stuart himself has dismissed this idea as fanciful pretty much. Look at how many of our players were playing youth football earlier this year and you will see why even the play -offs is very far stretched imo and would be an incredible achievement. We are in transition from a big squad on good wages to much smaller resources. As Stuart has pointed out, the teams doing well have had managers and players in place for a few seasons offering stability and foundations to build from. We should do the same from here.

  5. A point against a top 4 team after the start we have had is good as long as the performance was OK too. On the whole it was, with more of the attacking posession, and with some nice moves I never felt we wouldnt score again when we were behind. Intrestingly the two goals were defensively poor, but the ifollow stats showed that we had won a much higher % of tackles than Exeter…it seems that its not so much how we tackle but the fact we dont tackle at the important times denying the opposition the time to shoot on goal.

    One of the commentators actually hit the nail on the head with one of the issues, when the wing-backs go forward the relevent wider centre back has to close down any attackers entering that space and slow them down or challenge them. AoC seemed to keep drifting back to the central space menaing if French was forward it was just too easy for Exeter. Hopefully one of the coaching staff will be working with the wider centre backs in getting them to understand that one must attack the ball carrier and the other two act as a central defensive pairing in those situations.

    Really gald to see Staunton score a goal…prior to the goal he had already ranged forwards to the spaces around the box and looked very comfortable on the ball in attacking areas. I can see him being snapped up before too long, though hopefully he will value first team experience rather than sitting in resrves for a bigger club.

  6. I’m as encouraged as everyone else by this result against an in form team. A few questions for me:
    The injury count is alarming & building. It seems to me most are not down to injuries inflicted by the other team, and often on the training pitch. I think we’ve been in this situation before. How statistically does our injury count compare to other teams, currently and over several seasons? Is there something that needs looking at more deeply on the physical endurance side, or training approach?
    Good insight above on tactical reasons for defensive laps. I am constantly screaming at the TV for them to challenge sooner and allow less runs into the box.
    Should Stuart consider benching O’Donnell and playing Hornby, or are we getting over-excited by a single performance on Tuesday? I think most of the defensive weakness is in front of Richard O’D, but every match his distribution is questioned, and he doesn’t look to be marshalling his back line?

    • In answer to your question Andy, there has been a 16% rise in injuries this season in the PL. even with all their facilities, money and coaches. The article below looks at it and one feeling is the curtailed pre-season is responsible. Something we too experienced with a very short disrupted pre season

      • From T&A on subject too:

        The City chief admits that several players could be at risk of picking up problems because of the hectic run.

        McCall said: “They might not be injured at this moment in time but a lot of our lads have had real tightness and cramp. It’s down to the multitude of games.”

        “We said a month ago that we were doing great with injuries and then we’ve suffered. They’ve all been soft tissue injuries – Noves (Lee Novak), Kurtis (Guthrie), Zeli (Ismail) and Evo (Gareth Evans).”

        “But that’s happening across the board at every club because of the amount of games”

      • Thanks for these. I’m sure the factors (lack of pre-season, over-load of fixtures in a smaller squad) are right. I still wonder if we have more fundamental issue re physical regime. It’s a suspicion just based on an anecdotal view. I don’t imagine there are league 2 stats on injury & their causes to test it.

  7. Interesting how the mood has changed. On the one hand less hysteria on social media from the pickled onion operatives. On the other, more confidence in the team and the sense of more composure.

    A fortnight ago we had people calling for the manager to be changed. Back in the summer the same individuals were confidently predicting a meltdown and then taking satisfaction in proclaiming that they were right all along.

    This is not going to be a quick fix but things are starting to feel that they are going in the right direction. Decent signings in January could make a big impact. We need patience and to give the manager the benefit of the doubt. A lesson also to ignore the idiots on social media who should stick to pickling. There are going to be setbacks but we shouldn’t judge progress on the basis of a bad result alone.

    • Totally agree Gary that this isn’t a quick fix. We’ve tried quick fixes over the last three seasons to no avail. What’s need is the patience (and a good dose of reality for some fans) that to turn things around is going to take time.
      It’s very easy to keep shouting “sack the manager”, “sack the board”. It seems to reflect the wider society that can scapegoat and blame people, but fail to offer up any alternative. Just keep banging the same drum.
      The anti-SM brigade were the same anti-Bowyer/Hopkins/SM/Parkinson group and will no doubt, after a few weeks (not even months) be calling for SM’s replacement to go because he hasn’t miraculously turned our playing fortunes around.

  8. As usual measured comments and good points made on this site. Major plus points for me being the emergence of young players, which in turn obviously links to a sensible budget approach during the current covid crisis. Unable to understand the criticism of Donaldson on T&A site – he did a lot of good work that was essential given the lack of other options up front. Given the current squad I feel inconsistent performances are to be expected, but that was an enjoyable game. Finally a word for the ref, he may have missed the odd thing but a refreshing approach and only one foul in the first half !

  9. Yes, I remarked to my boyz that the ref seemed to allow a free flowing game- albeit must have felt the need to catch up his “quota” of cards by the end.
    I’ve been quite down in Clayton D in recent weeks re lack of pace, position, and end product. But I accept his hold up play, getting others on the ball, winning free kicks in good spots- is really helping. His assist to Elliott Watt (if memory serves) in the Southend game was brilliant team play.

    • Thought the Don had a decent second half. Effective in the first portion of last season and a big miss thereafter when our form dipped. No coincidence in my view. Fairly obvious that we need a new target man and it would be nice to turn up a new Jimbo.

  10. A degree of consensus emerges from the comments above as regards the importance of the January transfer window. But, is it just me or have I heard much the same for the past few seasons, only for disappointment to reign at its close ? We have struggled to recruit, full stop. But particularly so in the Jan transfer window. I see nothing changing for the next one. So, place less emphasis on the transfer window and more on working harder with existing squad (see Stuart R, 9.55 p.m above) and on the ‘promising’ youngsters, would be my message.

  11. The next window could be very interesting if we believe the widespread forecast that some clubs will not make it into 2021.
    There could be an inordinate number of 0layers looking for new clubs and even maybe prepared to accept more realistic deals.

    • I agree Mark. This season could well be the high water mark for club football finances and in turn the future of some clubs.
      Whilst Herr Rupp has and does come in for criticism from some fans over his lack of profile, the man has backed the club financially at a very tricky time for all clubs.
      I believe that the 2021/22 season will be a very different one to previous seasons. Whilst the EFL has sought to try and get a grip of finances with the salary cap, I fear it may come too late for some clubs. And for others, we’ll probably see budgets slashed next season as the reality of this pandemic continue to hit football. Even yesterday the inventor of the possible vaccine has warned things may not get back to normal until next winter. How long can clubs expect to operate on their current budgets without fans in the stadiums?

  12. The emphasis on the January window to sort out the deficiencies in the squad is worrying. These were identified on this site and others before and during the summer window. Yet nothing was done – for which McCall must take some responsibility. As a result, points have been lost and a large gap has developed between City and the automatic promotion and play off places. It is questionable whether even with “quality recruits” the difference can be made up – so confining City to yet another season in L 2/Div 4.

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