Stick or Twist?

Bradford City 1
Rowe 90+3
Bolton Wanderers 1
Delfouneso 83

By Alex Scott

Daniel Ellsberg is probably most famous as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but in a previous life, Ellsberg was a respected Harvard economist, who even developed his own eponymous paradox, still discussed by academics today.

The Ellsberg Paradox establishes the human tendency to strongly prefer definite information over the unknown, the devil they know, so much so that people often make decisions that damage their own interests as a result.

Sam Hornby sprinting up to the Kop end to try get on the end of a last-gasp Elliot Watt corner certainly classed as caution being thrown into the wind. For almost the first time in their three-month tenure, Conor Sellars and Mark Trueman were looking down the barrel. And they went for it.

This was out of character for a pair who’ve become known for keeping things close to the chest, forging an incredibly successful career so far by clinging onto the devil they know, winning close games that an objective eye would suggest they were fortunate to do so.

But the last few months in League Two have shown these two clubs to be skilled in knowing when to stick and when to twist.

On 31 October last year, Bolton Wanderers suffered a 4-0 defeat at The Breyer Group Stadium – Brisbane Road for the uninitiated – at the hands of Leyton Orient. The latest nadir for the club in a season of them, slumping to 19th in League Two, with only two wins in ten to show from what was supposed to have been a procession back to the third tier.

Optimism had abounded as they began the season with a new manager, a blank slate, a new approach, and highly beneficial league ruling in their favour.

“Next season I want to be in League One…. I want to talk about promotion pledged the newly-installed former Barrow manager, and Blackpool defender, Ian Evatt before the season. He also shed some light into his thinking as a manager, making clear that “I have to win. I’m addicted to winning and I want to win and, as I said, we want to win every game this season.”

Yet, two months later, driving back up the M6 on the back of a humiliation in East London, the wheels were coming off. The owners of Bolton Wanderers had a decision to make. Had they bet on the wrong horse? They’d invested in the squad, they’d given the manager everything he wanted. Even if taking the plunge now made them look stupid, surely someone else could do better than this? Should they stick or twist?

Six weeks later, 40 miles across the Pennines, Ryan Sparks faced a similar conundrum. Things were not going to plan for him either. The ink had barely dried on a contract extension for his manager – his first act as Chief Executive – yet another dismal defeat at Oldham prompted him to reconsider. Should he wait it out, or face the music and see what was behind Door Number Two?

Almost three months on and both clubs arrived at Valley Parade in very different circumstances. Both were riding the crest of waves as clubs at the top of the form league, though they had arrived here in different ways: Bolton by trusting their judgement, gambling on the devil they knew; City by embracing the unknown.

Despite neither having threatened the top three all season long, Saturday had the feeling of a promotion battle.

City began again with their tried and tested, conservative 4-2-3-1. The consistency with which it is being deployed under Trueman and Sellars probably the defining characteristic of their management so far. Consistency and conservatism are probably also the two key contrasts between them and their predecessor.

The first half was played at a frenetic pace, with lots of pressing and little finesse. Bolton shaded the half chances, and looked very dangerous when breaking. They were at their most dangerous when Alex Baptiste brought the ball up into midfield, creating an overload on the left, exploited to good effect by Dapo Afolayan on several occasions. But City held on relatively comfortably.

Summarising on BBC Radio Leeds/iFollow, Andy Kiwomya noted City’s struggles to get men in the box from open play, leaving them overly dependent on set pieces and long shots to create chances. This is a common theme for City under Trueman and Sellars, under whom City have drastically outperformed their expected goals, with their chance creation statistics amongst the lowest in the division during their tenure.

And this was certainly the case in the first half, with City only threatening from free-kicks and the rare counter. A snapshot into the top deck from Andy Cook all they had to show for their considerable efforts pressing and defending.

It was, in this sense, in keeping with their performances to date under the new managers. They battled hard, didn’t give much away, without looking that much like scoring either.

The first goal is often decisive in games but it felt somehow even more so here. These were two good sides, and two very good defences. One goal looked like it would be enough.

Bolton came out much the stronger in the second half, and following a good Hornby save from Afolayan, City were holding on. They showed their first signs of cracking under the pressure in the 65th minute with a flurry of chances for the away team before Eoin Doyle headed wide from six yards with the goal at his mercy. No wonder he doesn’t like heading the ball.

Trueman and Sellars resisted the urge to throw caution into the wind, bringing on Danny Rowe and Billy Clarke, but retaining the same system, as they have done in almost every game so far. Sticking with the devil they knew. The pattern of the game remained unchanged. Bolton were banging on the door.

Then, finally, they broke through in the 82nd minute, after Doyle was freed once more in behind, before cutting inside and seeing a deflected shot loop over Hornby and bundled over the line by substitute Nathan Delfouneso with what would have been a deserved winner. It had certainly been coming.

This prompted, for pretty much the first time under Trueman and Sellars, caution being thrown into the wind, with two out and out strikers, and men being thrown into the box. They lifted the handbrake and took the game to Bolton.

First Anthony O’Connor brought a fantastic save out of Matt Gilks in his first action of the game, then a sweet Elliot Watt strike was deflected wide as City pressed, before finally, as the game entered its 93rd minute, following an initially cleared corner, Levi Sutton’s hooked ball back into the box found its way to Danny Rowe in space at the back post in front of the Kop.

Bang!

This is probably the moment this season that the absence of fans has felt most stark. As Rowe was mobbed by teammates in the corner of the pitch, Anthony O’Connor punching the air repeatedly, the silence felt so jarring. This was the biggest game of the season, and the biggest of all moments; it deserved more than it got. Though the living rooms across Bradford and beyond will have made themselves heard.

Many of Danny Rowe’s strengths and weaknesses have been on show since his arrival at Valley Parade, but today he certainly showcased his Windassian trait of standing up in the big moment. A talismanic finish. One which should have been his first ‘big’ moment in front of the Kop, though hopefully many will come in time.

As the game ended with City – just about – dealing with another dangerous Bolton ball into their six-yard box, the pre-match vibe of a promotion battle felt about right. On today’s showing, and certainly the performances out of the last month demonstrate, there aren’t three better sides than these two in the league right now, and with a third of the season to go, all is to play for.

Both clubs have shown today – and this season – different approaches to problem solving, sticking and twisting, and the fact that both of them can be successful. There’s no right way to decide; both can work.

Trueman and Sellars have forged themselves a career out of the idea of sticking with what they know, what they trust and keeping things tight. And they have certainly built one of the best defences in the division, the back four again excellent under intense pressure here. Though as good teams tend to do, Bolton found a way.

But in their last 10 minutes here, City have shown their joint managers that they can create chances and take a game to their opponent, given the opportunity. They created more opportunities in the last five minutes here than they did in the previous 85, and more than they have in some entire games so far under Trueman and Sellars.

Ultimately, most decisions come down to the decision maker’s (or makers’) willingness to embrace the unknown, to take risks.

Those at the top of Bradford City have shown themselves to be more than happy to gamble so far this season. And whilst the managers again mostly stayed in their comfort zone today, they saw the first glimpse of what might be possible if they embrace Ellsberg’s lessons: take a leaf out of their boss’s book, and a take a little step into the unknown.



Categories: Match Reviews

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22 replies

  1. A point was a good outcome given that Bolton had the edge over us. However it shows great resilience that we got the equaliser. If we had been a bit more adventurous before Doyle scored his goal we might have had more from the game. I wonder whether we gave them too much respect in terms of the caution but demonstrated in the last ten minutes at least that ‘when we went for it’ we could not be stopped.

    Bolton were impressive – and far stronger than Cheltenham – yet whilst they were effective at pressing us and getting the ball forward, they were let down by lack of a killer instinct in front of goal. Bolton had sufficient chances to put the game out of our reach and in that regard Doyle could have had more impact. Whilst there will inevitably be a certain individual on WOAP claiming that we were lucky, it would be unfair not to highlight the effectiveness of our defence and the result will have done more for the self-belief of the City squad than Bolton’s. Although I still fancy us to finish above them I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time we play Bolton this season and if that is the case it could make for a cracking contest.

    The comparison of Bolton with Cheltenham is telling. It will probably be the case that the chasing clubs finish stronger than the current leaders who will rely upon their existing points advantage to secure the automatic promotion places. I’d put my money on Cheltenham and FGR taking two of those places but there is still everything to play for.

    Newport will be a tough game on Tuesday but I suspect that the switch to Cardiff’s ground could work in our favour and suit our passing game. It might also be less physically demanding than would have been the case at Rodney Parade.

    Onwards and upwards.

    • A very good game to watch and arguably City’s best performance this season. Nice to see good fortune continues to shine brightly on City. Good teams tend to get more than their fair share (like City). Alex noted, City are drastically outperforming their expected goals, with their chance creation statistics amongst the lowest in the league. In other words, the stats bring into question the sustainability of City’s good run of results. If City’s back-four maintain their high level of efficiency then maybe the xGoals stats can be ignored. Time will tell.

    • We’ve actually got a good defence. Canavan and Paudie are the best we’ve had since Davis and McCardle. Bolton are a good side who will probably go up in the top three. We should be proud of ourselves today.

  2. This game was a credit to League Two and once again showed that the EFL is the best in the world. Whilst the media would have us believe that nothing below 6th place in the Premier League is worth watching, the lower divisions and the lowest division of all, league two continue to show that there is life outside the PL.
    In years gone by the erstwhile Fourth Division bore no resemblance to the divisions above them. It lacked skill and athleticism.
    This game had two teams carrying the momentum of unbeaten runs into a clash where nothing was likely to be left on the pitch.
    And it wasnt.
    Whilst Bolton looked to have won it, courtesy of a goal that had a lot of good fortune about it, City hit back with an equaliser that had pure quality written through it.
    I was quite happy for this one to end in draw, but feel that these two teams could be going head to head again before this season is out.
    The best two teams in this division.

    • I really enjoyed this game. I want to mention comments made about lack of quality.
      If quality means having to watch Newcastle or Crystal Palace then I’ll stick to Division 2.
      On Friday I watched Huddersfield play Cardiff. I thought it was paint-dryingly boring. Yesterday had everything.
      Two pretty decent teams playing flat out, giving everything. The sensational ending. A referee who was determined to let the game flow.
      If that’s lack of quality then I want more of it.
      Thank you, Sparks, Trueman, Sellars for making my winter so much better than it threatened to be.

  3. A really interesting article. Enoyed it a lot. Thanks

  4. This seems a bit of an unnecessarily negative spin on things to be honest.

    MTCS and the players have so far shown an impressive belief that their chances will come, and theyll take them when they do. That requires mental strength and confidence in each other, and in the game plan. As Michael Wood of bfb is so fond of quoting, Peter Beagrie once said bravery in football is doing a thing for the fifth time, having failed the previous four, because it is the right thing to do. MTCS have a plan and are well within their rights to stick to it at the moment.

    I also think it’s very short sighted to see the 4-2-3-1 formation as “conservative”. We have more players in the box these days than weve had for years. A fluid formation that is very difficult for opponents to pick up – Vernam and Crankshaw ending up on the same wing at one point, Cooke with essentially a free role, Sutton making surging runs. Give me this over stolid 442 any day.

    The equaliser did not come about because of a switch to 442, it came about because of the persistence and determination of Levi Sutton to retrieve and cross the ball back into the box, AOC to climb high to flick it on, The Don having the cool head to lay it into the path and Danny Rowe being Danny Rowe. Look at the reaction from the players to that goal, the two O’Connors in particular.

    The equaliser came because of the spirit, togetherness and determination MTCS have created from a group of players who were struggling under previous managers. To suggest they should change anything right now is insulting to be honest with you. Bolton gave them the hardest game since they took over, but their players stood up, took a valuable point and denied Bolton the extra 2.

    I think they’re doing just fine.

    • erm, i’m not so sure that we have players in the box tbh. Seen quite a few good crosses from Wood going in there but usually only one person in there. Someone asked me on Saturday how this style of football is any different to Bowyers. I replied the difference is in results, a more combative midfield, but then i couldn’t really think of how in style and intention it was. Bowyer had the players and squad to do so much better imo and thus failed. The current duo still don’t have those resources yet imo. If we had not got the results/points then playing counter attacking football at home would have been slaughtered by a lot of city fans. From limited chances recently we have managed to take the chances but the key has been the defence. We have had a debate on here about ‘luck’ recently and we have had it no doubt. You make your own luck yes but there has been a few game changing moments that have gone in our favour eg a penalty that was’t given, hitting the post etc. The recent stats on expected goals provided by WOAP was enlightening and you can’t blame fans wondering how long we can keep defending and be able to score from just a few chances. One nil to the Arsenal was a fact and brought success. Similarly Parky had success but also pragmatism failed on occasion eg against millwall in the play-offs. The management duo found an immediate formula and will stick with it and why not. They are already well in front in the positive stakes and will be allowed any ‘off days’ that may happen. But you cannot help some fans from wondering if when it comes to a one off game whether pragmiaism will win out, However so far , so good.

  5. Good to see an article from you Alex, and enjoyed that- as I do your contribution to the podcasts!
    I’ve mused with interest on the xgoals theory that you’ve promoted, and the view that statistically, City are outperforming their potential in terms of goals scored. In short, that they are fluking the goals and thus the results.

    I know a little bit about statistics, and would suggest that the results of 15 games pushes results beyond a fluke. We’d both accept that the defence is a strong, but you don’t pick up 10 wins without the goals. The only explanation for them, is re-envigorated old, but mainly new players with a desire for shots from wherever, and an instinct for finding the net. Some better poachers…but basically a stronger hunger to go for goal.

    I agree with you, though, that 2 experienced managers who have stuck to a cautious, basic strategy, are tentatively spreading their wings. Bring it on.

  6. Thank you for this article, very clever.

    Of our remaining 15 games, I think that only a third of them are against teams currently above us in the table. This could have an impact on our final league position.

    As for the comments about the lack of atmosphere inside Valley Parade when Rowe scored, here lies the problem with this season. Don’t get me wrong, our league form since Sellars and Trueman took over is amazing. However, owing to the fact that we, the supporters, can’t attend games, means that all of this great form feels slightly hollow to me.

  7. You have to say the defence is awesome.

    Whilst Bolton had plenty of pressure I was never worried when the ball was out wide – Canavan and POC have been sensational. For all their pressure I can only think of two Hornby saves and maybe a goal line clearance. Not a great return for all the pressure Bolton had at times.

    Out of nowhere we have a squad! Look at the subs that came on – Clarke, Rowe, Gibson, the Don!

    My only negative? The pitch.

    In a week when we have been driving landing craft around on the surface of Mars, why can’t we get grass to grow in BD8. It must be a nightmare to play on at times.

    • As an ex head groundsman ,i alwys get a little irked when ‘the pitch’ comes up . The club have spent upwards of £250,000 in recent years to try to remedy the underlying problems , the pitch in front of the stand extending 30 metres into the pitch, is on solid bedrock, nothing short of blasting that out would alter that , and the rest of the pitch is a combination of rock spoil from digging into the hill and rubbish, VP was a council tip before it became a pitch, That said i’m afraid people are looking at tv pictures and getting a false idea, The pitch has been sanded, i would guess 40 to 60 tons last week, part of the long term project to improve the surface, the fact that it was watered and the day was sunny caused it to look like a beach but the surface was firm and allowed passing , and a good foothold. With the ifollow available, we have seen other pitches in the division and most have been awful , note Newport can;t even play on theirs! City;s pitch is certainly among the better surfaces.
      As an aside to this, the current issue in football is the long term injuries suffered by players from the 60’s and 70’s from heading the ball. there’s also research going on into head injuries suffered by players in this era caused by the current modern pitches, normally up to 80% sand and actually rock hard , even harder when the Desso reinforcement is used, as it is on most premier pitches , this is something the PFA are looking into , the problem will not go away , players are insisting on a firm flat surface that is safe to play on, something that is simply not possible to provide with the weather we have , Is the answer to stop playing during the winter months ? that would allow pitches to be constructed with less sand in the mix ,safer but not as hard wearing . or. as many sports, Rugby league, rugby union , NFL etc , have decided , make 4g, proper 4g ,not the council rubbish , the preferred surface.

      • Hi Tony,

        I defer to your experience on this but wanted to ask if you feel the surface has improved significantly since the major works on it a few years back.

        From my layman viewpoint it doesn’t seem to be any better. I’m interested in what you think.

  8. Make no mistake our defenders have been magnificent for weeks now. It is said that all good teams are built from the back. If we can improve our counter attacking by more accurate passing and utilising the pace of the likes of Vernam and Crankshaw we could become unstoppable. Our current formation is working well but I suspect we may need a plan B to release our undoubted attacking potential. I feel confident our young management team will continue to come up with the answers.

  9. Well if I was offered a point before the start of the game I would have taken it (maybe reluctantly). Bolton were far and away the best team I’ve seen City play this season, however both teams’ defences showed how strong they are. I don’t think City were very fluent but I don’t think they played poorly, like some others have said, more that both teams nullified each other so well.

    The expected goals theory has a major flaw in it and needs to be seen with a pinch of salt. Personally, I think City look really dangerous going forward and are arguably fairly clinical when they do get their chance. I would imagine our expected goals under McCall would have been higher than what it is now, however we don’t concede chances anymore let alone goals. Walsall never had a shot at goal really, same with Mansfield and Leyton Orient. Arsenal’s expected goals under George Graham would have probably been less than most teams, however they’d win 1-0 every week so does it really matter.

    Next two fixtures will be very interesting. Newport have picked up lately however they haven’t been the same team since Twine was recalled by Swindon and the game against Bradford City Reserves (Carlisle sorry) is definitely a game for the taking. 4 points would be brilliant!

  10. An excellent, intelligent review of an excellent and vital game.

  11. I was impressed by Bolton’s counter-attacking. I think ours can be as good, once Crankshaw, Vernam, and Stevens have bedded in more. Numerous times a match a well-intentioned pass is cut out or fails.
    And our defence is so reassuring. I was not that worried about Bolton or Doyle till later on in’t second half, and I don’t remember any player slotting in as Canavan has – and he is so calm. (Just as well, next to Paudie)

    I really enjoyed Danny’s equaliser, and I also childishly like that Doyle had his “goal” nicked off him, and that he headed his best chance so carefully wide.

  12. A good point against probably best side in the division , what a difference 3mths makes ,1-0 down 7 mins to go , game over .
    Not now ,the desire to keep the unbeaten run going was brilliant to see and the finish from Rowe nearly brought my roof down ,imagine that x15,000 , wow !
    There were tired legs in the midfield no doubt ,and sloppy passes when breaking caused us problems but the defending was again outstanding ,big respect to Crankshaw who helped out at the back and looked a handful going forward.
    The mentality of the squad is great to see, some hard games to come in another busy month so everyone will be needed.
    The only downside for me was the radio Bolton , sorry Leeds commentary which tried my patience, talk about bigging them up ,might be on mute in future.

  13. Think all the talk of City being fortunate through the 15 game run is disrespectful. You’re ignoring the fact that football is as much about keeping the ball out of the net as scoring, something which City are very good at doing. Despite all their pressure you’re also choosing to ignore there was an element of fortune about their goal as Doyle’s shot spooned up into the air.
    And finally when did XG become the trendy stat to quote – this measurement ignores the fact we have quality players at the top end of the pitch who can score goals in the moments that matter (even if we only create a few chances).
    It also ignores team spirit, grit, determination, organisation etc so you can put XG back in its box for me.
    Enjoy the ride whilst it lasts, don’t overthink things and remember we could have been more adventurous in this run but would probably have conceded more goals and picked up fewer point (as per Stuart).

  14. Ive always said I’d be happy with a scruffy game a scruffy goal and three scruffy points.But to win a great game like yesterday’s with a scruffy goal like that what Bolton got,would have been an injustice to any side.So it was pleasing that we hit back with a belting goal by Rowe.

  15. Think we ‘missed a trick’ by not having Rowe on the pitch for more of the game – it’s quite a conundrum for our managers to pick a best XI at the moment… Looking forward to two more big games this week…

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