By Jason McKeown
One of the many what-ifs about Bradford City’s 2020/21 season is how different things might have been if they’d managed to bring in an adequate replacement for James Vaughan last summer.
Austin Samuels might one day emerge as a brilliant professional footballer, but over his loan spell at Valley Parade, the 19-year-old was too raw and inexperienced to fill Vaughan’s considerable boots. Lee Novak led the line well early doors, but there was not much else coming from the other strikers on City books. And when Novak got injured, the Bantams were quickly in trouble, winning just one league game in his absence and sliding into the relegation zone.
If Stuart McCall could re-live the last 12 months, he’d surely have pushed to sign another, more experienced striker before the start of the 2020/21 campaign. Especially with £300k of his transfer budget left unspent.
Someone like Danny Rowe would have more than fitted the bill.
Speaking after he was sacked, McCall disclosed he was intending to sign Rowe in the January 2021 window, declaring him “the best striker in League Two”. Eight league and cup goals over the first half of the 2020/21 season for Oldham – including a superb winner against Bradford City in the FA Cup – had put Rowe in the shop window. How McCall could have done with a striker delivering that sort of return, as things went wrong for City under his tenure.
It was no surprise that Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars both equally felt Rowe would be a good addition at Valley Parade. And, with the help of Lee Turnbull, the current managerial duo made their move in the window. Oldham, facing some post-Covid financial struggle, were not in a strong position to resist the Bantams offer.
Yet despite making a very impressive start to life in West Yorkshire – with two goals in his first three starts – Rowe is struggling to make an impact at City. He has scored a further three goals but is habitually consigned to the bench. Back up to fellow January arrival Andy Cook. On Saturday at Harrogate, in a must-win game for City, Rowe was an unused sub.
It is a curious state of affairs. And one that Rowe himself can hardly be satisfied by. After a career spent toiling in non-league at the likes of Stockport, Lincoln and Fylde, moving to the bigger stage at Bradford City was clearly a huge moment. He admitted, upon signing, that the size of Valley Parade had blown him away.
A lot of credit deserves to go to Cook for the way he has grasped his own opportunity. Seemingly unwanted at Mansfield Town, Cook has come to City with a lot to prove and has so far delivered an impressive eight goals from 12 appearances. At Harrogate Town on Saturday, Cook was outstanding.
There are growing calls to sign him in the summer, and prising him out of Mansfield’s hands would certainly be a boost for City’s 2021/22 prospects. Cook’s 18 goals for Walsall in 2018/19, when the Saddlers were relegated from League One, shows he can also thrive at the next level.
But still, the mystery is what has happened to Rowe and why has he faded into the wings? Is it a temporary situation, that will be rectified next season? Or should there be some concerns about his long-term future at the club?
As with a lot of things under Trueman and Sellars, it all comes down to the system. The managerial pair have deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation to great success. City’s form over more than half a season – under the pair, and sticking to this formation – is amongst the best in the division. It’s why they’ve risen from relegation candidates to play off contenders.
Even during dips in form, Trueman and Sellars have kept faith in the system. On Sky Sports recently Gary Neville argued that coaches don’t need a Plan B for when things go wrong, they should focus on refining their Plan A. Trueman and Sellars would advocate that philosophy. Even when faced with calls to change formation during stickier moments, the pair stuck to their guns.
Of course, playing 4-2-3-1 means there is room for only one striker. Which has meant a habitual choice to make between Rowe and Cook. With the frantic run of games, the managers have understandably rotated the pair, but there’s no question that Cook is first choice. If we discount the Mansfield Town game where Cook was ineligible to play, he’s started 13 of City’s last 15 games.
What Cook offers Trueman and Sellars is positional discipline. The 4-2-3-1 is effective when the lone striker plays in between the opposition centre halves. Staying in that central position, making runs. Even though a lot of the time those runs won’t be rewarded with receiving the ball.
Cook has done this very impressively. In many games it feels like he goes through long spells barely touching the ball, but he never lets his head drop. Nor does he stop doing the right things. And eventually, he will exploit a gap and an opportunity comes his way. His record shows that, more often than not, he will take it.
The issue that Trueman and Sellars seemingly have with Rowe is that he lacks that same level of restraint. His performance in the starting against Crawley Town last Tuesday was a good example of that. Rowe began the night occupying the centre halves, and making those runs the managers would want. As often happens with Cook, there were no early rewards.
But rather than continuing to do the role in the same way, after a while Rowe began moving out of position. Coming deeper to try and get more involved in the play. Seeking to be more useful.
This is a perfectly understandable reaction, and for a time in the final 20 minutes before half time Rowe began to display more purpose. He had a couple of shots on goal, ran at defenders, and picked up possession out wide. There is a roughness about Rowe’s game – you can tell he has not spent time in a Premier League academy, for example. And at other, lesser clubs he would have stood out as the best player, therefore getting more involved to influence matters.
If it was the school football team, Rowe would have been the captain and taking all the free kicks, penalties and corners.
But Rowe moving away from what Trueman and Sellars want in their lone striker creates problems with the system. When Rowe goes a bit more rogue, City lack a player pushing the opposition defensive line. Against Crawley, for example, Rowe hunted for possession outwide and found room to send over a cross, but there would be no one in the box for him to pick out. The system doesn’t work as well when players are fluid in changing positions.
Another way of looking at how Rowe’s game has changed at City is to analyse his stats playing for Oldham earlier this season, and how they compare to his time at Valley Parade, using Whoscored.com data.
Rowe has scored more league goals so far at City, but his influence on his team’s build-up play has notably decreased. He has one assist so far, compared to four with Oldham. His key pass average (a pass that leads to a shot at goal) is less than half what it was, and his average number of passes and shots on goals are down.
In other words, Rowe was a big influence on Oldham’s overall play. Something that at City he is being asked to curb. And focus instead on just leading the line.
Interestingly Cook’s stats for City, compared to Mansfield, are marginally better. He’s scored more goals of course, plus his passing average is better, and he’s having 33% more shots on goal. His key passes and assists – which were already very low at Mansfield – are no different. And that’s fine, because Trueman and Sellars aren’t expecting Cook to create chances.
Another key aspect of the lone striker in City’s 4-2-3-1 is the ability to win aerial duals, thus enabling the team to get up the pitch. Both Rowe and Cook have seen a notable increase in the number of aerial duals they’re expected to contest, compared with at their previous clubs. And, again, Cook has enjoyed notably more success.
For City, Cook is contesting more than twice the number of aerial duals per game compared to when Rowe plays, and he’s winning three times as many of these contests on average. Both players lose more aerial duals than they win – you’d expect that – but Cook is winning a larger percentage of his aerial duals (44% to 39%).
So Cook is in a position on the pitch to contest more aerial duals than Rowe achieves, and he’s winning those aerial duals at a higher rate.
Oldham’s overall stats this season, compared to City, show they attempt more passes and contest fewer aerial battles, suggesting Rowe has moved into a set-up that is less suited to his strengths. Mansfield and City’s possession and aerial stats are very similar, so it appears the adaption for Cook has been easier to make, because at City it’s more of the same of what he had been experiencing.
Given City’s approach does not result in a lot of chances being created, there is a reliance on the lone striker to be efficient in terms of chance conversion. The following figures from BBC Sport show Andy Cook is more prolific at taking chances.
This shows that the pair have had almost the same amount of shots on goal, but Cook is more successful at turning these attempts into goals.
Switching back to Whoscored.com figures, this greater potency from Cook is probably due to the fact his attempts at goal are from closer range.
The difference is pretty staggering. 61% of Rowe’s efforts come from outside the box. He has a powerful shot and is capable of scoring special goals, but in football it’s more difficult to score goals from further out.
Meanwhile, 81% of Cook’s efforts on goal come from within the box, and 14% of those are from the very close range of six yards out. Again, the logic of football would suggest that shooting from nearer the goal is more likely to result in a goal.
What all these underlying figures show is that Cook is more suited to the number 9, lone striker role that Trueman and Sellars prefer. The 30-year-old has impressed greatly, and that’s underpinned by his willingness to stay disciplined, work hard off the ball and be switched on when chances eventually come his way. The way Rowe started so well, but then has faded, is probably reflected by the fact Trueman and Sellars brought him in before Cook became available. In time, they’ve identified that Cook is a better fit.
All of which raises the question, where does it leave Rowe? He’s hardly come here at this stage of his career to be a bit-part player. Does he have a significant part to play in next season’s plans, or is there a small question mark about whether he might even leave in the summer? The irony for Rowe is that – just as much as McCall will wish he could have signed the player – Rowe would probably have fared better in a Stuart McCall team.
Much of Rowe’s future will be influenced by City’s hopes of keeping Cook. But even if Mansfield exercise their clause to keep him, Trueman and Sellars will surely bring in another striker during the summer. So Rowe has to assume that he is not guaranteed to be first choice, no matter what happens.
For the player’s part, he has a responsibility to better understand the role he is being asked to play by the managers. This is also a time for Trueman and Sellars to show their coaching prowess, and improve the forward’s game. After all, they have spent good money on the player. It is their responsibility to get the best out of that investment.
Perhaps, with the benefit of a good pre-season, Rowe can play more how Trueman and Sellars require. Focusing his efforts on doing a job for the team, even though it will curb some of the high influence he is used to providing.
Alternatively, the next stage of Trueman and Sellars’ master plan at Valley Parade could be to change formation to incorporate Rowe. After all, it’s easy to focus on what Rowe can’t do – whilst overlooking his evident talents. Rowe looks like a player who would perform better in a front two, alongside someone who is prepared to get in behind the opposition defence or act as a targetman, who Rowe can play off. Rowe can focus on coming deep and dragging his marker out of position, leaving gaps that he and other forward players can exploit.
It comes back to the Plan A and sticking with a philosophy debate. 4-2-3-1 has worked brilliantly and the pair are perfectly entitled to keep playing it. Still, it would be nice to see a front two or front three as an option for certain games or match situations. It is amazing, really, that City have only tried Rowe and Cook once as a partnership – the final 20 minutes at home to Bolton.
There’s a player in Rowe for sure. One with a big character. And if he can project that in a positive way on the team, he could become a talisman that takes Bradford City forwards. But right now, it’s not happening for the player. He looks too individualistic to fit into such a functional team. And his cause is not helped by the overall results that City are achieving without him.