|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