|Scunthorpe United 2|
|Eisa 5, Green 59|
|Bradford City 0|
By Jason McKeown
The most curious part is the sudden loss of identity. Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars had built a Bradford City team with a very distinctive imprint and sense of purpose. The players looked incredibly well drilled. They were showing a level of consistency you don’t often see in League Two. Methodical, structured and effective. And for once, the foundations looked strong.
Yet it’s all unravelling with worrying ease. Composure has given way to confusion. Assurance replaced with anxiety. Success to stagnation. If the first few months of Trueman and Sellars represented the feast after the famine, it’s back to slim pickings. And slowly falling down the league table.
Watching Bradford City go down to defeat at Scunthorpe United – a third defeat in four – it was almost as though the last few months of hot winning streaks hadn’t happened. This was a performance that took you back to the final knockings of Stuart McCall’s tenure. Of conceding a poor goal early doors, generally playing okay, missing easy chances, conceding again, and then missing yet more easy chances. They even ended the match playing McCall’s favoured 3-5-2.
On another night, the Bantams might well have won this game. Yet equally they could have lost by a lot more. It’s this lack of control over the outcome that is completely alien to what we’ve seen from Trueman and Sellars until recently. A curious disappearance of the previous high levels of organisation that has routinely helped City to come out on top of so many close games.
Trueman made the point after the match that he and Sellars are trying to make City more expansive. An acknowledgement that even during the run of wins, performances weren’t always as good as results. “We went a little bit more attacking tonight, and we got punished,” Trueman stated. “We’re trying to build something and it’s going to take time. There’s going to be lessons to learn.”
Nevertheless, as Trueman and Sellars stood frowning on the touchline deep in the second half, they must have been struggling to recognise the group of players in front of them.
The managerial pair have won so many plaudits for seemingly instilling a tougher mentality in the group, getting players who in the past has been dogged by inconsistency to turn up week in week out. But this was a ragged display from those same players – as though they’re starting to forget everything that was making them successful. “I thought we were below the standards we’ve set,” admitted Trueman.
It was evident as early as the fifth minute, when City had gone forward in numbers but were caught out after the turnover. Scunthorpe countered with pace and menace, the former City loanee Alex Gilliead charging down the middle of the pitch, before arrowing an inch perfect through ball for Abo Eisla to run onto and finish low past Richard O’Donnell to make it 1-0.
A good goal from a claret and blue perspective – I don’t remember such a cutting end product from Gilliead during his season and a half at Valley Parade – but the fact he carried the ball forward from his own half was damning of City. This simply was not the high standards of impenetrable defensive work that we’ve been used to from this team.
The early blow from Scunthorpe put City in a position of chasing the game, which to their credit they did quite well. Charles Vernam – finally given a chance on his favoured left side – produced a wonderful curling effort from the edge of the box that came crashing back off the bar. Elliot Watt also struck a powerful free kick that hit the inside of the post and bounced along the line, before it was cleared.
Trueman and Sellars took the decision to entrust young midfielder Kian Scales in the number 10 position that is proving so hard to fill in Callum Cooke’s absence. The only real criticism you can lay at the 19-year-old is that you’d like him to have been more involved in the game, but the blame for that probably lies more with teammates. When Scales did pick up possession, he looked useful. Unless Billy Clarke is fit to return, Scales deserves to keep his place for now – assuming the 4-2-3-1 is maintained.
In what was an open game, Scunthorpe had chances too. Just before half time, Devarn Green got free in the wide striker position and forced a good save from O’Donnell. Anthony O’Connor had another difficult night, where he was left too exposed by Oli Crankshaw. Levi Sutton and Watt once again found themselves out-numbered in the middle of the park, due to Scunthorpe’s 4-3-3.
The next goal felt huge, and Vernam probably should have grabbed it. When early in the second half Crankshaw’s excellent cross into the box lead to Scunthorpe difficultly clearing their lines, the ball fell to Vernam with the goal gaping. His shot was blocked, but his effort had been too weak.
A more clinical finisher would have made it count. A point demonstrated moments later when a similar chance fell to Green at the other end, and he made no mistake to make it 2-0. Again from Scunthorpe’s perspective it was a good goal, as a cross into the box was well won by Ryan Loft, sparking chaos. But Trueman and Sellars will have spent the pre-match inquest pointing out that Connor Wood should have done more to stop the cross, and that Niall Canavan had the chance to clear but shanked the ball up in the air, which Green latched onto.
Compare the defensive failings of this goal with any of the large number that City conceded under McCall’s final few weeks. This is a backline worryingly returning to bad habits.
There was still half an hour to play, and it became akin to a basketball match. One team attacked, and then the other team had a go at the other end. O’Donnell made three very important blocks that kept the scoreline respectable, whilst Andy Cook, Paudie O’Connor, Gareth Evans and Jordan Stevens will be ruing the missing of some extremely presentable opportunities. “With the quality we’ve got in the team we expect to convert these chances,” groaned Trueman.
Two weeks ago, City were 1-0 up at Newport County with 15 minutes left to play, and about to climb over the magical 50-point mark that would have more than ensured their Football League survival. They were about to cement a season-best placing of 10th, and cut the gap to the play offs down to four points, with two games in hand.
They somehow went onto lose the game that night, and clearly it has had a lingering impact on confidence. It was quickly followed by a very disjointed performance against Carlisle, a timid display against Oldham, and now this sloppy defeat.
The irony is that the attacking aspects of this performance were better than was produced in some of those five straight wins. It’s at the other end where things have really started to go wrong.
Until the Bolton game, City were barely giving their opponents a sight on goal. The following table shows the number of opposition shots on target during each of the five wins in a row, and the subsequent opposition shots on target over the past five games.
As you can see, the average number of shots on target achieved by the opposition is now five times higher. It’s got especially concerning since that evening at Newport, with Carlisle, Oldham and Scunthorpe each registering at least six attempts on goal.
If the Newport defeat was a blow to the team’s self-assurance, the difficult afternoon at Carlisle further accelerated the erosion of spirit and morale. Especially for Sutton and Watt, who have done such a great job protecting the back four until recently.
At Brunton Park, Watt dropped from a season average passing accuracy of 70.3% to just 40% – his second lowest of the season, after the October Barrow loss. Sutton fell from an average of 72.8% to 51.4%, comfortably his worst since he started to find his feet under Trueman and Sellars in December. Both players were substituted.
Such a bad day at the office must have damaged the pair’s confidence, and in the two subsequent games they’ve faced opposition who have lined up with an extra midfielder in the middle, to out-number them. Only Wood and Anthony O’Connor have played more minutes than Watt has for City this season, whilst Sutton has started every game under Trueman and Sellars. One or both clearly need a rest, but there aren’t any senior options to replace them.
With Cooke’s long-term absence causing well documented problems, the central middle spine of the team that has done so well over the last few months looks compromised. Watt and Sutton should be really proud of their efforts this season, but they’re increasingly being targeted by opposition managers and they need more help. “Their performance levels probably have dropped off at times, but that’s because of the high standards they set as individuals,” Trueman reflected.
The danger City face now is they’re heading towards a bumpy end to a season that began chaotically enough. Relegation isn’t going to return on the agenda of course, but the team increasingly don’t look to have enough depth, stamina, quality and conviction to push for the play offs. It means they’ve not got a lot to play for.
Neither Danny Rowe or Andy Cook are getting good enough service, or fully convincing they can lead the line effectively on their own. Vernam and Crankshaw continue to flatter to deceive. Gareth Evans is struggling to prove he deserves a starting place. Anthony O’Connor is having a tougher time at right back. Paudie O’Connor looks increasingly robbed of composure. Canavan has proven he isn’t flawless after all. Wood continues to look average.
Whatever Trueman and Sellars were doing before that was working so well, the team has lost its direction and the spotlight is firmly on the pair to see whether they’re capable of fixing it.
This is turning into a slump. And it’s one that Trueman and Sellars can’t afford to let drift into something worse. They’ve done a remarkable job turning around City’s season, but they’ve suddenly got something to prove all over again.
Categories: Match Reviews