|Tranmere Rovers 0|
|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
The decision over who should be the next permanent Bradford City manager has just got even tougher. The caretaker management team of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars continue to hugely impress, delivering their finest 90 minutes of work so far, as the Bantams ground out victory at Prenton Park. Relegation fears are easing, and the lengthy gap to the play offs is narrowing.
Lee Novak’s second half goal has made it 10 points from a possible 12 under Trueman and Sellars. Three victories in a row, for a club who had only won three games all season prior to the caretaker pair taking the reins. Novak capitalised on woeful Tranmere Rovers defending to plant a free header past Scott Davies. It followed an excellent Levi Sutton cross, and came just three minutes after a double City substitution prompted a tactical reshuffle that paid off.
The clever in-game management of Trueman and Sellars further strengthened their credentials for the vacant manager position. Before kick off, they’d raised eyebrows by tweaking their winning formula and going with a different formation – an approach that saw Callum Cooke and Harry Pritchard demoted to the bench. It was a decision partly influenced by ensuring they could maintain their freshness with games still coming thick and fast.
The changes did not work. But to their credit, they quickly reacted by altering the shape of the team midway through the first half. And, just before the hour, bringing Cooke and Pritchard on for the players who had started ahead of them, Clayton Donaldson and Gareth Evans. Cue Novak scoring and City defending resolutely to earn three points. A victory made sweeter by the fact former Bantam James Vaughan departed the field goalless and defeated.
If you want to be harsh you could make the argument Trueman and Sellars initially picked the wrong team. But their adaptability to recognise tactical issues and fix them during the match is to their credit. And the apparent thinking behind the tweaks to the strategy shows an awareness of the need for City to still improve. That the previous victories against Cambridge and Grimsby should really act as a base camp, rather than be seen as the peak of this team’s powers.
The biggest difference in City since Trueman and Sellars replaced Stuart McCall in the dugout has been defensively – and, more specifically, the number of shots on target they’ve faced. Including the five Tranmere managed here, it’s eight shots on target against City in four games (an average of two per game). A huge, huge contrast from the final four games under McCall, where City faced 26 shots on target (6.5 per game).
Making sure you face less shots on target naturally leads to conceding fewer goals (just two in four, compared to eight in McCall’s last four). Conceding fewer goals leads to more clean sheets. And that leads to more victories.
But ever since City started out again in League Two, initially under Gary Bowyer in 2019/20, City managers have faced a dilemma over how best to set up the Bantams defensively – and especially protecting a backline and goalkeeper that has remained largely unchanged over the past 18 months. The longer Bowyer went on, the more he became consumed with protecting his defence. Lining up with five at the back, and a midfield set up to prioritise guarding the backline over supporting the attack. The result was a style of football increasingly difficult to watch, and a slow drifting out of the play offs.
This season, McCall has mainly tried to play a 3-5-2 with wing backs relied on to provide attacking support, and the wide centre backs encouraged to play out with the ball. It worked okay when Reece Staunton was available, but when the promising centre half got injured McCall should have moved to a back four. Instead, he continued to play in a way that left the defence too exposed, and the concession of too many opposition chances on goal.
Trueman and Sellars have fixed that issue with the 4-2-3-1 approach, as it required the full backs to stay back, with Sutton and Elliot Watt providing protection to the centre halves. And City have ground out some very good results – some much needed victories. Steering the ship away from the fast-approaching iceberg.
The challenge, which seemed apparent in the tweaking of the starting line up today, is how to move forwards from there. The rot has been stopped, with back-to-back victories full of character and heart. But for City to really take off, they still have to be a better attacking force. Relying on stunning goals against Cambridge and Grimsby – all long range efforts – is not necessarily a sustainable way to win games. The forward line still needs to be more potent. As expectations inevitably rise again, City will need to be more than simply tough to beat.
So today, Trueman and Sellars attempted a 4-1-3-2 approach that they hoped would slightly tilt the balance towards being more effective at attacking, without losing the defensive solidity. Watt was left on his own protecting the back four, with Sutton moved to a wide right midfield position, and Billy Clarke moved to the left. Donaldson was recalled up front with Novak just behind, lining up close by Gareth Evans. It basically meant City had five outfield players who were predominately attack-minded and five defensive-focused, compared to the four-six split of before.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a tactical success. Tranmere started the game brighter, with Corey Blackett-Taylor revelling in the gap between Sutton and Finn Cousin-Dawson, giving the City youngster a really difficult time. In the sixth minute, Blackett-Taylor should have opened the scoring but screwed a shot wide after a defensive mix-up between Cousin-Dawson and Paudie O’Connor. Calum McDonald also ran into space and hit a powerful long range shot that Richard O’Donnell did well to block. Early doors, City didn’t get going. Evans continues to disappoint.
Trueman and Sellars reacted by switching back to 4-2-3-1. Clarke was moved to wide right, with Sutton pushed central and back tucking in alongside Watt. And though City didn’t especially improve – relying on long distance efforts from Connor Wood as notable goal attempts – they were more solid out of possession. Vaughan did twice pick the pockets of Wood and almost created openings, but the home side’s attacking impetus faded as the first half wore on.
It became a war of attrition that would be unlocked by the second half substitutes. Tranmere’s Keith Hill made the curious decision to replace the dangerous Blackett-Taylor in the 56th minute, whilst City introduced Pritchard and Cooke to fully restore the proven game plan. Sutton had already got forward well and almost set up a goal, just before he got in behind again to lay on the cross for Novak to score. He is making some really clever runs and linked up well with Clarke to lay on the goal.
Sutton’s emergence in form is a curious one. He is the modern day equivalent of Luke Oliver, it seems, in that they were both signed by a manager who had managed them before (in Oliver’s case, Peter Taylor), but really struggled to impress, only to suddenly come to life after the manager who signed them was sacked. And just as it was strange to ponder why Taylor couldn’t get the performances out of Oliver that Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson subsequently achieved, it is currently a mystery why Sutton wasn’t playing like this for McCall.
There was still some 30 minutes for City to see their 1-0 advantage out, and Tranmere pushed hard. Lots of balls pumped forward, crosses into the box. But again, the back four was terrific in standing up to the challenge. Tranmere sub Morgan Ferrier did test O’Donnell, and an Anthony O’Connor mistake resulted in a chance for Vaughan that the City keeper kept out. Another sub, Paul Lewis, had a late, late stab at goal following a scramble in the City box, with Billy Clarke producing a heroic block to preserve the clean sheet.
So another credible City victory, and the Trueman and Sellars show continues to prove a hit. This was the first time their in-game management skills were evidently needed – and they demonstrated their acumen to improve the team over the course of the afternoon. The return to fitness of key players has also made a real difference – instead of bringing on Kian Scales and Connor Shanks, Trueman and Sellars could introduce Cooke and Pritchard. It must be bittersweet for McCall. As it will be for him to keep seeing that Novak has scored for City.
The hunt for the next Bantams boss has proven to be a highly confidential process – those on social media professing to be in the know have so far been proven hopelessly wrong in their forecasts. It appears Paul Hurst is the frontrunner – although the Grimsby vacancy could change that – but Trueman and Sellars are making it as hard as possible to be overlooked.
Really, they couldn’t do any more.
Despite how brilliantly they’ve done, it remains a huge gamble to give them the job and right now they are undoubtedly benefiting from reduced short-term expectations. They’re probably smart enough to know this too, hence the attempts to be more attack-minded here.
As Novak put it earlier this week, “There’s no way that we should be 18th in League Two with the squad we’ve got.” In the words of WOAP’s Alex Scott, what we are seeing is a regression to the mean. City were badly under-performing before Trueman and Sellars stepped in, and they’re still a long way short of their true capabilities in terms of the league position. It can be dangerous to place too much weight on an improvement curve taking the club from sub-standard to mid-table.
The search for the next Bradford City manager is about so much more than who can save it from relegation. This is a club and a fanbase with ambitions of climbing to a much higher level. Deeply dissatisfied with staying in League Two. And that’s what the next manager needs to be capable of delivering – promotion. Not this season, anymore, but come next August the goal is obvious.
As the bar inevitably rises, this is a managerial appointment Bradford City has to get right. Trueman and Sellars have to be in contention for the position, but – ironically – with each win they achieve, the urgency to make a decision over the next Bradford City manager actually recedes. (And also, ironically, the more attractive the position might be to out of work managers who two weeks ago might have turned their noses up at the vacancy.) The need to make a call is also eased by Lee Turnbull all but announcing he’s joined the club as “recruitment director” through his social media activity. Transfer ground work will surely be taking place.
There is absolutely no harm in giving Trueman and Sellars longer in the role. Why fix something that right now isn’t broken? But there’s an awfully long road ahead to return the club back to the level that fits its aspirations. And the strategy to get there needs greater consideration than just the form table.
Categories: Match Reviews