Risk averse Trueman and Sellars face their first crossroads moment

Bradford City 0
Oldham Athletic 0

Written by Jason McKeown (research support by Alex Scott and Tim Penfold)

In many ways, it’s as though the last 14 months haven’t happened. Bradford City are once again agonising about results fading. And yet holding themselves back from pushing harder, because of their own conservatism. On the pitch, the front line is lacking fluidity – leaving an over-reliance on the defence to grind out results. And when push comes to shove, the changes from the bench are playing it too safe.

But this is not the final few weeks of Bradford City under Gary Bowyer. It’s March 2021, and what were already very unlikely promotion prospects are waning again – especially after this stalemate against an out-of-from Oldham. The healing powers of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have completely revived a Bantams season that was going down a very dark path. But just as the big prize looked to be in sight, the Bantams have gone into their shells and the curve of improvement has flattened.

It’s all just too cautious. Oldham have already beaten Bradford City three times this season, and at the full time whistle the new Latics boss, Keith Curle, must have been shaking his head wondering how they’d not earned a fourth Bantams scalp. His Oldham side played with a confidence and verve that seems to be seeping out of their hosts. This is not the Bradford City of a couple of weeks ago.

The visitors had 20 shots on goal and more than twice the number of corners. They looked stronger in both penalty boxes, winning three times as many aerial duels. The returning Richard O’Donnell was kept busy in a way the dropped Sam Hornby rarely has been over recent matches.

And yet Oldham are a team with only one win since the end of January. In fact, they have won just four times since the December 3-1 victory over Bradford City that earned Stuart McCall the sack – the moment that gave Trueman and Sellars the opportunity they’ve taken so well. This was the sort of fixture City needed to win to get their own season back on track, after one point from a possible nine. That they didn’t win was one thing, but it’s the poor performance that will really concern the managerial duo.

There was a lot of signs here to suggest the worst aspects of the display at Carlisle last week was not a one-off. Just like at Brunton Park, City began quite well and the former Oldham striker Danny Rowe tested Laurie Walker with a stinging drive that the keeper did well to palm away. All indications suggested it would be a tough afternoon for the visitors.

But, similar also to the Carlisle loss, the opposition soon wrestled control of the tempo and began to push City back. Oldham were happy to press the Bantams and deny them space to pass the ball, before counter attacking effectively on the turnover without committing too many bodies forward.

The counter attack tactic is one that Trueman and Sellars have deployed with success over the last few months. But counter attacking only works well if the opposition are willing to go forward in numbers and leave space that can be exploited. Oldham knew this about City and rarely left themselves exposed to such risks. And City themselves were too slow at capitalising on opportunities to attack in numbers. The natural inclination to keep players behind the ball when not in possession – Trueman and Sellars are replicating the Peter Taylor philosophy of keeping all 11 players back to defend corners, for example – is making it difficult to quickly get bodies up the pitch.

Curle’s 3-4-2-1 formation meant that Oldham had an extra body in the middle of the park, which proved crucial. Eliot Watt struggled badly to impose himself on the game in the way he has done in recent weeks. The 21-year-old loves to have space to spray long passes to team mates that set up attacks. He was denied space to dictate the game by the industrious Callum Whelan.

No one on either side came close to having as many passing attempts as the 82 Watt had today. But the fact he gave the ball away 25% of the time magnified his lack of success. He wasn’t on form. It was though he and Levi Sutton were operating 10 yards deeper than usual, which left the four City forwards too isolated.

As City’s attacks began to flounder, Oldham were much more effective at carving out good opportunities. It seemed very evident that Curle had instructed his players to target Anthony O’Connor, as whenever the makeshift right back picked up possession, he was quickly hounded by blue shirts. Whilst Anthony has done a commendable job overall at right back, the last two games suggest City really need to get a specialist in this position. Bryce Hosannah’s latest injury set back is really frustrating.

Empowered to attack with purpose because of the chinks in City’s set-up, the Oldham chances quickly stacked up. Davis Keillor-Dunn was lively in leading their front line, and headed over a good chance from a corner. Conor McAleny – who City had shown a strong interest in signing during the January window – ran past a flat-footed City back four and forced a good save from O’Donnell. The City skipper – who did well on his return to the side – had to make further first half saves from McAleny and Keillor-Dunn before the break.

City were also fortunate to keep 11 men on the field, when Keillor-Dunn got in behind the defence and was tripped over by Paudie O’Connor. The referee gave Paudie a yellow card. Yet the centre back looked to be the last man, despite other City players in close proximity. Keillor-Dunn was away and, without O’Connor’s illegal intervention, would surely have registered a shot at goal. Were it an opposition player committing the foul, and in normal times of a City crowd, it would have been a moment that had the Kop screaming for red.

The pattern continued in the second half, with Nicky Adams, Keillor-Dunn and Harry Clarke all having decent chances on goal. The Oldham substitute, Dylan Bahamboula, was equally lively and, after embarking on a good run, struck a dangerous low shot that went across the goal but just wide of the post. City did actually end the contest better and produced an improved final 10 minutes. Gareth Evans had a similar effort to Bahamboula that flashed across the goal and wide. But over the course of the 90 minutes, they didn’t deserve the point they did at least pick up.

“It was more important that we didn’t lose today, it’s as simple as that,” declared Trueman after the game. Given the pattern of the contest, and after consecutive defeats, such thinking is not impossible to understand. But it equally says much about the cautious mindset of the two managers. A point further illustrated by the like-for-like substitute swap of Rowe for Andy Cook, instead of showing more ambition to the win the game by going with two up front.

So why is it suddenly starting to go wrong? Especially after such an impressive run of results, prior to the last fortnight. Well, as we wrote several times on WOAP, even though City had been leading the form guide the underlying performances suggested they were over-achieving, and that their luck could quite easily turn like this. So this dip in results is probably not a surprise, even if the last two displays are concerning.

The loss of Callum Cooke is clearly a big issue, especially as the most obvious number 10 replacement – Billy Clarke – was also missing here through injury. Cooke has the fourth best passing completion in the whole of League Two, and has produced 38 key passes over the season (a key pass is classed as a pass that directly leads to a shot on goal).

Until his injury, Cooke had started 14 of the first 15 matches that Trueman and Sellars have overseen. In many ways, the managers have built the team around Cooke’s talents, with his key pass record improving from 15 in 14 games under Stuart McCall, to 23 from those 15 matches under the new pair. Cooke has also scored two goals and provided four assists over this period – compared to one goal and three assists from his entire 39 appearances under McCall and Bowyer.

Clearly, Cooke has been absolutely pivotal to the success of Trueman and Sellars’ 4-2-3-1, and it’s proving difficult to find someone else who can do the same job. Rowe and Gareth Evans have already been tried in the role, without success. Here against Oldham, Charles Vernam was handed responsibility with similarly discouraging results.

Cooke’s success has come through his expert passing and ability to time his runs forward; something which is less Vernam’s game. The January capture really couldn’t make an impact today, and seemed to struggle to stay disciplined in the central position. There was a moment in the first half where Connor Wood broke forward with the ball and Oldham looked stretched, yet both Vernam and Evans were in no position to offer the option of receiving a quick pass forward. Wood ultimately had to cut inside and play the ball backwards, taking away all the momentum.

Although he wasn’t involved enough, the final 10 minutes that substitute Kian Scales enjoyed on the pitch offer a potential solution to the problem. Scales is inexperienced for sure, but looks more naturally suited to the number 10 role. When he did receive possession he helped to make things happen. Food for thought for Trueman and Sellars, who will of course know the youth graduate very well.

But these recent failings in the number 10 role have really served to shine a spotlight on the shortcomings elsewhere. Especially the wide/winger roles of the 4-2-3-1. The lack of end product from these positions is really highlighted by the following table, showing the contribution of the wide players (starter and sub replacement) since the Exeter game.

What this shows is that, over 1,500 minutes of football, the two ‘winger’ positions in the 4-2-3-1 have contributed just one assist and two goals. (And, if we’re going to be really unkind, that one assist was at Walsall when Vernam had possession, was knocked over, but Sutton ran onto the loose ball and hit an absolute screamer, so we’re not sure it fully counts as an assist.)

Ultimately that goal/assist record is not good enough and goes a long way to explaining City’s overall lack of attacking threat. After, all, not once over this run of results did City score more than two goals.

Oli Crankshaw looks a good prospect and was arguably City’s best forward player today. But his decision making is inconsistent – one second half attack summing it up well, when he broke forward with options and played a dreadful pass behind Vernam. You can see that both he and Vernam can become good players for the club, but have either player really shown what they’re capable of since signing in January? Not that they are the only players who have been used in the wide positions of the 4-2-3-1. As the table shows, whoever has played there, they’ve not delivered much in goals and assists. This suggests a flaw in the system.

Whilst Watt has played 46 key passes this season, Cooke 38 and Clarke 34, the contribution to creating shots on goal from Crankshaw, Vernam and Gareth Evans is alarmingly low. Even accepting they’ve not been around all season like Watt, Cooke and Clarke, Crankshaw has so far delivered just one key pass, Vernam three and Evans nine. And as a pretty dismal benchmark comparison, when Dylan Mottley-Henry was here he contributed seven key passes.

It all suggests there is a structural issue with the 4-2-3-1 that has been starkly highlighted by the loss of Cooke. If you’re Curle today and you know Cooke is out, of course you were going to target Watt. And then who else was going to provide service to Rowe? It’s unfortunately not that difficult to stop Bradford City’s effectiveness right now.

“I thought we tried to make the opposition predictable,” explained Curle after the game. That is a very, very revealing comment.

The dilemma for Trueman and Sellars lies in whether to stick with this formation – which had, we shouldn’t forget, delivered 10 victories in 14 games, up to the Bolton game – or look to try something different. With Cooke out for six weeks, you suspect they’re going to have to try a plan B. Or hope Clarke or Scales can step in.

If playing Oldham today felt like Groundhog Day, it was added to further by this formation dilemma. The last time Oldham were here – their FA Cup victory at the end of November – McCall had just lost Reece Staunton to long-term injury. In a different but no less significant way to Cooke, Staunton was pivotal to McCall’s preferred 3-5-2 set-up. The success of which relied on two ball-playing centre halves being capable of joining attacks (Staunton and Anthony O’Connor).

On that day against Oldham, McCall began life after Staunton injury by switching to 4-4-2, but the performance was awful. Over his final few weeks as manager, McCall tried different formations but couldn’t stop the run of defeats. If Staunton had not got injured it might have been different.

Trueman and Sellars are facing a similar conundrum of coping with the loss of a key player – do they stick with the same formation or switch it around to better suit the players still available? So far they’ve kept with their tried and tested, but it’s not working at the moment. So what do they do?

And that’s why they’ve reached the first crossroads moment of their managerial careers. No one can be upset that what was always a long shot of getting promoted now seems to be fading fast – Trueman and Sellars started out with one heck of a handicap. We also shouldn’t forget just what an astonishing run of results they’ve achieved overall. Even including this four games without a win, it’s an incredible 35 points from 18 games. Not bad for the youngest managers in the Football League.

Getting the City caretaker job in the first place was clearly a huge, huge moment in Trueman and Sellars’ careers. An opportunity they were probably never going to get again, that they had to get right. So their pragmatic, cautious approach of grinding out victories, edging City away from danger, was completely the right thing to do. They’ve done things a certain way, and that approach has earned them a 15-month contract.

You can completely understand why they would want to stick with a philosophy that has served them so well so far.

Yet the challenges will get harder. The pressure on them will grow. The pair will lead City into next season with everyone targeting promotion, and higher expectations from supporters, who – all being well with the Covid vaccine rollout – will be back inside stadiums, in large numbers, making their voices heard.

And, assuming promotion doesn’t happen this season, we’ll be back where we were when we first began life back in League Two, under Bowyer. Demanding promotion. Expecting to win every match. To dominate the opposition. To sweep aside all before us.

Which is why it feels like we’re heading back to where we were under the final months of Bowyer. Expectations outstripping reality. And a feeling that the players and the team are capable of delivering more emphatic performances, if only they’d play with the handbrake off.

Trueman and Sellars have got 12 games left this season, and a shot at the play offs that remains distant, with no one really thinking they can do it. If they’re not willing to find a way to have more of an attacking edge to their game now – to really throw the kitchen sink at it – when the risks of failure are pretty low, what will they do next season, when defensive football is less likely to be tolerated?

As Bowyer’s swift ending at Valley Parade showed 14 months ago, even cautious football comes with risk. Trueman and Sellars have produced magnificent work in the dugout so far. But their willingness to be braver will inevitably come more under the spotlight, the longer Bradford City continues to operate below its true potential.

Categories: Match Reviews

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20 replies

  1. Great, detailed article. Thank you to the contributors.
    The key point for me is that the management duo should play the system that best suits the players still available. Square pegs in round holes get found out.

    • Sir Alf Ramsey was possibly the best tactician we have ever known. He said that you do not select players to fit the system. You select the system to fit the players.
      City played badly yesterday. They were slow to the ball, they had too many misplaced passes, they were weak in defence on the flanks, they very rarely looked like scoring.
      If Cooke is so pivotal in the preferred system and he is injured for so long, then surely the system should be changed.
      But I continue to have faith in T and S. In November we seemed to me to be doomed. Now we are safe .
      It’s not such a lot, but it certainly beats the alternative.

  2. I don’t want us ripping up a formation that has served us so well so far.
    Instead I want us to stop putting square pegs in round holes.
    Evans isn’t a no10 – in Cooke’s absence we need to get Clarke or Scales in there.
    Vernam and Crankshaw look like they need a kick up the backside to me.
    Watt and Sutton look shattered – we simply have to sign some competition / cover for them in the summer.

  3. An excellent summary of today’s game and the outlook going forward.
    It really is becoming one dimensional now, I think our management team have been very fortunate that grounds have been empty recently as I do not think the recent tactics and performances would have gone down too well.

  4. This was a game that we would (and did) lose prior to T&S. After two games which we had lost (V Newport and V Carlisle) today it was important that A, we didnt lose, and B, we didnt concede.
    So in some ways mission accomplished.
    The performance was not good, although we started well and ended stronger.
    We lost to Newport because of two moments of stupidity. Giving free kicks away in crucial areas has been a feature of many games and sooner or later we were going to be punished. Of the penalty probably the least said the better.
    We lost to Carlisle and although we did not really deserved anything, we could have had a point. The second goal should never have been given and going in at 0-1 is easier than going in at 0-2.
    We conceded a third but had enough chances to get a draw, even allowing for a poor performance.
    Today was really all about stopping the rot, which they did.

    Its all well and good taking about the reaction towards the team, and presumably T&S if crowds were in VP but equally we have to consider the effects of not having crowds and how some teams have used that to their advantage.
    Newport quickly realised that if they shouted the loudest then the officials gave them the decision. In a stadium full of fans their noise would not be as obvious.
    This season has been strange and has thrown up strange results.
    Look at Liverpools losing sequence and at Portsmouth where they have lost seven at home compared to unbeaten when they had crowds.
    In our division it seems that anybody can beat anybody and one has only to look at midweek and today to several examples of strange looking results.
    So going back to today.
    As I said under SM (Who I adore) we would have lost today. After two defeats the performance was secondary to getting some kind of result.
    That we did, and we move on to the next game.

  5. I have said the same. If they are unwilling to attack or at least try something different when there is effectively nothing on the line then what will they do when there is? They had nowt to lose today but as Trueman said himself ” it was important not to lose the game”. Why? We are not going down yet the managers pursue the same negative approach. To add to this many city fans declared the January transfer window as “the best ever” ???? . Whilst it certainly gave us options up front, only Canavan imo has truly shown the consistency required, Rowe for instance was been declared as “an hero” by some after 2 games. Well sorry but his unless he has the ball to feet he is suggesting a player that doesn’t offer anything much more than the occasional shot as a team player. He maybe been stifled by the negative ,”lets not get beat” tactics of the managers and this mat also apply to any of our forward thinking players and its concerning that they are now saying that the “culture” of the club is to replicate these same tactics.

    They have done well in results and making us hard to beat. However these results and performances were flagged up by WOAP a few weeks ago, as painting a false picture and they have been proven correct. It was very disappointing to see the approach today with nothing to lose. Indeed watching this type of football is very boring. You have to get results playing this way and for the mangers to be happy not to get beat with nothing to lose and who knows what to gain without any pressure is concerning going forward. Indeed their excuses for recent performances are also indicative of, despite very little pressure, an anxiety and questioning of whether they can produce a better balance between “not getting beat” and ‘been better than the opposition.

    • I’m guessing you will notch up more thumbs down than up but the general gist of your post is correct. I too was left a bit disappointed by yesterdays ‘lets not get beat’ mantra when a draw meant nothing in the grand scheme of things and this mentality was exactly the body language shown by the team from the off.
      In a sense its a very strange mindset to go with bearing in mind if we win our games in hand the playoffs are still there to play for, albeit to a lessening degree than they were 4 games ago. Unfortunately for us though our squad is still lightweight in terms of a promotion campaign, wether that be this season or next. A team that looks completely reliant on Callum Cooke both in attack and workrate at the back, his unavailability has shown a lack of creativity and how he allows others to play to their abilities.
      As for Trueman and Sellars, they’ve probably exceeded everyones expectations, got us to a safe mid table position and made us hard to beat on the whole. Next big test for them is to turn us into a cohesive attacking threat not reliant just on Callum Cooke.
      And that will be the test of recruitment department in the summer because apart from Cooke, not one other player in the front six can justify being picked every week based on their form to this point. As i see it, each one of those positions is still up for grabs, and that doesn’t happen in a team going for promotion.

  6. Another great piece guys ,I’m so glad I found WOAP , real fans views instead of the usual diatribe you read in the T/A comments section.
    Frustration is a bye word to watching City over the years ,and this game provided it in abundance. I was very vocally urging players, in a hopeless thought transference find of way to get forward when space was there ,Connor Wood in particular, constantly playing the ball back to Canavan without even looking forward ,yet when he found himself in the edge of there box with no support drove forward and shot at goal like he did of old. Too many times though backwards was the only option as there was no movement ahead . I agree that the formation is less effective without Cooke and I think the introduction of Scales , who looked lively gave us some impetus in the final 10 mins. I know playing with one up top in fashionable these days but it doesn’t work unless the one is busy and mobile which Rowe isn’t ,so it’s Cook for me but he needs the support.
    Vernam looked a good signing but he looks strangely off the pace and Crankshaw is more concerned with defensive duties than causing problems for defenders and although Watt didn’t play as well as we know he can he doesn’t disappear from games and keeps himself available .
    Overall I have to agree with T/S though ,it was important not to lose for the sake of confidence but the shackles have to be released at some stage and I think with the players we have we can be a force going forward.
    Play offs were a bit of pipedream really ,but as we all know months ago we would have lost that game ,so for me it’s a point gained.

  7. Good report, but if you look at my comments from last week we are on the same page, but I did notice the supporters where split with my assessment which mirrors yours, I’ve been involved as a amateur manager for many years and even at the level I was at ,changing tactics especially during the game is the art of a good manager ,if its not working change it ,I can see where are weaknesses are and certainly Oldham did yesterday and we did not react not a good sign ,we are playing with two wingers who I said last week have no end product we can not persist with them both playing and I can imagine Rowe will want away if we keep taking him off and playing him has a lone striker and really do need to sort out the right back position as Oldham and most other teams will target the position with a slow centre half playing there the manager’s really do need to show they have a plan B.

  8. Certainly think Anthony O’Connor needs a rest and Scales needs to play. Hard to understand why Hornby was dropped and Paudie O’Connor lost the Captaincy. Noticed the the out players left the field at half time leaving Richard O’Donnell to walk back on his own.

    • O’Donnell has been captain all season, so his coming back makes that a natural option, although I’d prefer Canavan as captain. Paudie is too petulant to be a captain currently. He said have been sent off today for a professional foul and last week at Carlisle for stamping on a player.

  9. Love the research and stats. No one is claiming that the data tells the full story but it certainly directs one towards further questioning in order to get to the ‘root cause(s)’ as to what is leading to the problem. The analysis above has ‘defined’ the problem i.e.: ‘over 1,500 minutes of football, the two ‘winger’ positions in the 4-2-3-1 have contributed just one assist and two goals’.

    The next question is ‘why’, and then ‘why’ and then ‘Why’ etc. (‘The 5 whys of problem solving’.) There will be reasons why the ‘winger’ approach is not working as it is set up at the moment which, may or may not, involve their starting position when they receive the ball, their options to turn and attack a defender, the passing to their feet or having to chase a 50-50 pass, how often is a ball played behind the defender for them to run onto and so on and so on.

    What we also have to consider in all this of course is, what was the goal of the Managers? If the object, above all else, was to not concede and then take one of a small but significantly decent number of goal scoring opportunities opportunities then it could be claimed that, overall, the ‘process’ is working? Losing Cooke will obviously have had an adverse effect on the quality of the midfield but, he was in the team up until the Newport game and the ‘problem’? with the wingers approach appeared to be in evidence whilst he was still playing.

    Thanks for another great article that shares both subjective opinion alongside some very interesting ‘start-with’ definitions of what may be the problem for the team not scoring ‘enough’ goals.

    • There’s no need to refer to any statistics, or ask the question “why” five times.

      The simple answer is “because the players involved aren’t good enough”.

  10. City fans are so desperate for success that far too often their perception becomes quite distorted. Remember last season and City’s visit to Morecambe. That was the game where Donaldson broke his big toe and was sidelined for months. Many on here believed that was the reason why City’s good run ended. It turned out to be totally false and I expect the Cooke injury saga to end in a similar fashion.

    Last week the misperception was that tired legs and weariness were the reason for City’s drop in performance level. Based on yesterday’s result that excuse turned out to be totally false.

    T&S along with Sparks have got off to a great start and with no experience to fall back on it will be interesting to observe how they deal with the uncertainty and rough waters ahead of them. Sparks can certainly talk the talk but can he truly deliver? Like someone else recently said on here, “it is, what it is,” and time will tell.

    One thing I can honestly state, City are not one of the best clubs in this division. There’s a lot of hard work to be done. I hope for the survival of the Club that they are up for it.

  11. Excellent analysis of the current situation following a fourth successive game without a win. I don’t disagree with anything said in this article and I just wanted to comment on the points that have been made are spot on.

    Interesting test for Trueman and Sellars plus the team they select to play against Scunthorpe and Colchester in the coming week.

  12. Trueman comments concerned me. He suggested we were set up not to concede but also limitted our ability to score. Further more, he suggested Oldham to be the Manchester City of division 2. They are the worse form team in the division. Yet we struggled. Other than Cavanan and O’Donnell the rest of the team was poor. It’s clear they did not fit the formation Trueman wanted them to play. Clearly he needs players comfortable in the position given. Number 10 is a key position but I thought there was a total lack of creativity there. Against Scunthorpe on Tuesday, the players selected need to fit in the formation set out.

  13. Carlisle and Oldham are the kind of teams we need to beat. We did not look like beating either of them. They both passed a lot more on the deck, and to each other. We are reduced to lofted passes that often go to the opposition. Even I notice how our players receive the ball already on the turn towards their own goal, so that the only way they can pass is back. Even the miniscule highlights video showed an example of that, and an example of Oldham passing forward to a marked player – willing to risk a positive pass.
    I might not reckon it a good buy, our next away match!

  14. I love the length of article, that allows for subjective and objective opinions to be raised and discussed. Great job.
    One point that keeps being made and can only be subjective in comments and postulations is that we wouldn’t be in this position if McCall had stayed.
    I disagree. It would have occurred in a different way but there were the shoots of some form returning and players returning, and slowly instilling a mindset of attacking football. Players who weren’t up for the job were slowly being ditched. What we would of had now at this stage of the season would be a team plying under an attacking philosophy, not scared to get beat not scared to entertain and not scared to win, providing a real opportunity for footballing and team progression over a sustained number of seasons.
    As you point out, and it has been so I feel since we were fortunate to beat Barrow, unless our management duo can shake of their conservative – now boring, unimaginative, predictable, sloppy, dispiriting, automated – football and provide a team willing to give it a go (both wingers were playing on the front foot when they arrived, until they were reminded we don’t do that at City, and where the hell is our ‘Boro loanee?), then we will be no better off than had we stuck instead of twisted.

    I’ll get me tin hat

  15. Great analysis.
    My two penny worth:
    We’re safe. Just go for it. Bring 90 minutes of attacking football in and we won’t care if we lose every match. Effort, commitment, risk-taking, excitement but which might end up with disappointment is far better than sluggishness and if only(s). Just go all out and we will remember that, not drabness.

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