Bradford City 1
Cambridge United 0
By Adam Raj
Back to basics. A term thrown around for sides in trouble. A term also used by Stuart McCall in his bid to try to turn around Bradford City’s season. It was a message that the squad failed to understand from the former City manager but a message that they have taken to like a duck to water under the stewardship of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars.
A first win since the start of November was the result of a real team performance. This group of players have played like anything but a team for the most part of the season, but today’s committed and professional display showed the foundations of a side who are capable of pulling away from trouble.
This afternoon’s visitors in Cambridge United proved a tough test on paper. A side sat in the play offs and boasting the league’s top scorer in Paul Mullin upfront. It was a game where City had to build on the organised and disciplined performance at Crawley in midweek, show a bit more quality in the final third whilst maintaining their defensive solidity.
In what was a scrappy half, City had the better of it. Firstly, Paudie O’Connor saw a powerful header from Elliot Watt’s corner, deflected in by Harry Pritchard, ruled out for a very tight offside. And then it was that combination again which led to the opener. A fantastic cross-field pass by Paudie O’Connor was chested down by Pritchard, in a touch that completely took Cambridge right back Kyle Knoyle out of the game. City’s number seven then hit a sumptuous half volley into the far bottom corner from 30 yards on his weaker right foot. It was a level of quality in City’s attack that has been non-existent for much of the campaign.
City had won the midfield battle in that first half with Levi Sutton, Elliot Watt and Callum Cooke doing their jobs on and off the ball with great success. Trueman’s move to a 4-2-3-1, to give more support to the defensive line as well as give more support to Watt, has proven to be the balance that McCall was unable to find in the most important area of the pitch. Levi Sutton looks a player reborn in the last two games – industrious, energetic and tenacious with some quality on the ball. It seems to be the perfect and necessary foil for Watt to get on the ball more and not be bogged down with being the side’s ball winner and playmaker.
In very un-City like fashion, the Bantams flew out of the traps in the second half. The first ten minutes after the restart saw more chances than the last few games combined. Firstly, Paudie O’Connor blazed a header over the bar from a Watt corner. Lee Novak then missed a glorious chance to double City’s lead. Good combination play by Cooke and Sutton saw the latter released down the right flank to deliver an inch perfect low cross to Novak who side-footed wide.
Novak was at it again minutes later when Billy Clarke set him through on a one v one with United keeper Callum Burton, but the City number nine took too long to sort his feet out which allowed centre half Harry Darling to recover and block the forward’s effort. Callum Cooke then went close with a half volley that he hit straight down the keeper’s throat before substitute Austin Samuels hit a low drive just wide.
Probably the only criticism of City this afternoon is that they should have won by a bigger margin. At the other end, they remained largely untroubled. The visitors’ only real chance of the game came late on when substitute Joe Ironside met a cross-field diagonal ball at the back post with a fierce volley that was expertly saved by Richard O’Donnell.
Max Watters on Tuesday and Paul Mullin this afternoon have one thing in common. Both are tied at the top of the League Two scoring charts on 15 goals apiece. After conceding for fun in recent weeks, it is testament to the work of Trueman and Sellars that both strikers were kept on the periphery in the last two games. It is also testament to both the O’Connors.
Paudie was yet again outstanding today, just as he was on Tuesday. Anthony likewise, although his work has seemingly gone under the radar somewhat. Both won their aerial duels and both read the game expertly on occasions to make vital interceptions. Paudie has looked more like the player we thought we were getting when we handed out that three year deal.
I think, now, we are seeing the benefits of a player who is playing in his preferred back four with the adequate protection in front of him. He’s not being asked to play the sweeper role in a back three where his centre half partners spend more time playing as wingers than defenders and where the midfield in front of him is light in both numbers and organisation.
It is evident that since the change to the 4-2-3-1, City look more comfortable with their roles in the team. Far too many times, the players looked at a loss as to what they were actually meant to be doing. I think the lack of understanding with regards to individual roles and responsibilities was a major factor in McCall’s downfall. In this system, it is stripped back with simpler and more familiar roles for players to understand and carry out.
Having the players understand what exactly is expected of them is the first step to producing a side who are organised and disciplined – words that, generally, cannot be attributed to City this season. But words that are essential characteristics for any good team.
There are obvious deficiencies in this squad that will only be rectified with the addition of fresh blood in the January window. But we are now seeing the foundations of a squad who are up for a relegation dog fight – foundations which were not visible towards the end of McCall’s reign.
The green shoots of recovery may be exactly that, or they may be a false dawn. But on the evidence of Trueman’s caretaker spell, if the new manager is able to sustain this level of organisation and discipline mixed with much needed January additions, it should see us with enough to survive.
Categories: Match Reviews