|Cambridge United 0|
|Bradford City 0|
By Jason McKeown
It’s a measure of the robust organisation that Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have brought to Bradford City that the players instantly picked up where they left off 25 days ago. The Bantams have been reluctantly kicking their heels for almost a month, with three matches in a row called off. But there was no signs of rustiness in their performance at the Abbey Stadium. They didn’t blink. Getting straight back into their end-of-2020-groove.
It all meant the momentum – which risked being lost through City’s inaction – was maintained with a sixth game unbeaten. The run extended through an impressive display at the home of the current League Two leaders. City put in a performance that made a mockery of their own unimpressive league position. They were the width of a post – in fact both posts – away from claiming a notable three points. But they’ll take the draw, at the start of a really important week.
The strong foundations, which have come through greater defensive organisation, proved the bedrock of another confident City showing. Trueman and Sellars kept faith with 4-2-3-1 – with any temptation to go with two up front halted by a training ground injury to Lee Novak. It is a formation that makes the Bantams difficult to break down.
The back four once again benefitted from the added protection afforded by the rejuvenated Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton, but the defenders also deserve great credit for the way they kept the division’s second most potent attack quiet. The two O’Connors seem different players compared to the end of Stuart McCall’s tenure, whilst Connor Wood is looking more and more his old self again.
Sam Hornby – the potential weak link – also justified his joint managers’ faith in not bringing in a more experienced keeper on loan to cover for the injured Richard O’Donnell. Hornby kept a second consecutive clean sheet, even though he was kept much busier than the last outing at home to Port Vale. The 25-year-old seemed to have a personal first half duel with Paul Mullin, producing three excellent saves to deny League Two’s leading scorer.
Cambridge shaded the first half, inspired by the dangerous wing play of Wes Hoolahan and Luke Hannant. They looked a much sharper, more purposeful side compared to the timid outfit who were outplayed at Valley Parade just over a month ago. But Trueman and Sellars’ greater focus on making sure City are tough to beat continued to pay off. There was a good shape to the visitors when out of possession, with everyone knowing their job. The forward players working just as hard to win the ball as those at the back.
City were the better side after the interval. They began to control possession, looking adept at playing it out from the back. Over the 90 minutes, City produced 417 short passes – 101 more than their average for the season. The number of long balls attempted – 79 – was also comfortably lower than their 91 seasonal average. They’re become much more careful at keeping the ball.
This greater assurance in possession was supplemented at the Abbey Stadium by the promising debut of new forward Danny Rowe. At 6 foot 1 inches, Rowe is a striking presence – but on first impressions he is far from a traditional target man. The 30-year-old was excellent with the ball at his feet, displaying flashes of skill in beating opposition players. He continued to come deep for possession, linking up well with City’s other attacking players.
Rowe looks like a player who will create chances for himself, partly due to a shoot on sight policy that saw him produce several promising efforts from distance – six shots on goal over the 90 minutes, including two that required sharp saves. One first half effort from Rowe resulted in an injury to Cambridge keeper Dimitar Mitov – he left the field clutching his shoulder, perhaps because of falling on a playing surface hardened by a pre-match flurry of snow. Substitute stopper Callum Burton also made an excellent second half stop to deny Rowe a debut goal.
Rowe does not appear to be someone who relies on others to provide him service, which bodes well for a team that has struggled to be creative all season. He probably isn’t best suited to leading the line on his own in terms of stretching the opposition, but his quality was evident and he looks like he could thrive in a front two. There was plenty to be excited about from watching Rowe’s initial outing in a City shirt.
Rowe’s willingness to drop deep and get involved in the build up play was a quality that his new team mates began to take more advantage of as the game wore on. Probably encouraged by their managers, Sutton, Callum Cooke and Gareth Evans in particular showed more adventure in breaking forward – running beyond Rowe and into the space created as the striker pulled his marker out of position.
Sutton had been fairly subdued in the first half, but in the second 45 began to embark on his trademark inside runs and he sent some good balls into the box. And with 11 minutes to go, Cooke cued up Evans for a shot that bounced off the inside of the post, rolled along the line and hit the other post, before being cleared. The best chance of the game by far.
The extra attacking gear City found after the interval was encouraging, but it can’t mask the reoccurring issues that still threaten to limit their resurgence. The wide attacking players – Billy Clarke and Evans – struggled to make an impact. Evans was better in the second half, but the balance of the team is not quite right with Clarke playing on the right. The introduction of new loan signing Jordan Stevens for Clarke did help late on, although the on-loan Leeds winger will need to show greater quality on the ball as he settles in.
There is an argument for bringing Clarke into the central midfield position that Cooke is currently deployed in, or leaving the experienced attacker out of the starting XI. Alternatively, the balance problem could be rectified when Bryce Hosannah is fit to return. Finn Cousin-Dawson has played very well filling in at right back, but he lacks the attacking thrust of Hosannah. Clarke needs someone breaking forward to link up with. Without that, he looks too isolated.
If Trueman and Sellars can install that extra impetus to the way City attack, the team should start to win more matches. And with talk of signing Oldham’s Conor McAleny – plus Novak to slot back in – it’s clear greater adventure will be shown over the coming weeks. Defensively, City have been excellent since Trueman and Sellars took over – four clean sheets, and only two goals conceded in six games. But the potency at the other end remains questionable, with only five goals scored over those six matches. A return that needs to be improved.
Still, this was a very good point. With every reason to be encouraged that the unexpected long break has not caused any disruption to the Bantams’ rhythm. City now travel to bottom club Southend on Tuesday before welcoming 21st-placed Barrow to Valley Parade. The stakes are very high, but if they continue to play in this manner they should once again pull away from relegation trouble.
Categories: Match Reviews