|Port Vale 2|
|Robinson 16, Conlon 32 (pen)|
|Bradford City 1|
By Tim Penfold
Port Vale put the final nail in the coffin of Bradford City’s play off hopes, as the Bantams slumped to a fourth successive defeat with another lifeless display.
City lined up in the 4-4-2 system that a vocal section of the club’s fanbase has been asking for, with Clayton Donaldson leading the line alongside Andy Cook and Callum Cooke pairing Elliot Watt in central midfield. The hosts, meanwhile, lined up in a 3-5-2 system. Former Bantam Kurtis Guthrie was missing from the matchday squad entirely, which marks the first time since his transfer to the club in January 2020 that Guthrie’s absence has harmed City’s chance of winning.
A 4-4-2 formation is not inherently more attacking – remember Phil Parkinson’s 2015-16 version with three defensively-minded midfielders – and even when it’s trying to be it can be limited by its personnel. Colin Todd’s version had two wingers and only sometimes a holding midfielder, but had full backs that weren’t allowed to cross halfway. The attacking central midfield was often a pushover, so the team relied almost entirely on the quality of its wingers. When it was Nicky Summerbee, Jermaine Johnson or Lee Holmes, that worked. When it was Bobby Petta or Ben Muirhead, it didn’t.
This version did have a holder in Elliot Watt, albeit one who is more of a deep passer than a destroyer. It had Levi Sutton at right-back in place of Finn Cousin-Dawson, adding an extra attacking dimension which nearly worked early on when Sutton overlapped and found space only for his low cross to find the keeper. And it did have two out-and-out-strikers, who combined for the opening goal. A Watt through ball set Andy Cook free down the left, and he squared for Donaldson to crash it into the roof of the net.
Unfortunately, it also had a defence that, without Niall Canavan, has been somewhat disorganised. Vale hit back instantly with a goal that dragged the City backline all over the place – in the end, with the centre backs pulled out of position, it was Levi Sutton and Charles Vernam who had responsibility for marking Theo Robinson, who got between them to equalise.
City didn’t have a huge amount of control over the game, though threatened on the counter with Donaldson not quite getting enough on his attempted chip. However, Vale got themselves in front with a goal showing one weakness in the system. They were having plenty of joy down City’s left, with their right wing-back Worrall causing problems with his positioning. He was normally too deep for Connor Wood to come out and close him down without leaving a massive gap behind him, but left winger Ollie Crankshaw wasn’t tracking him well enough.
When Worrall did come far enough forward for Wood to engage him Vale’s right-sided centre back Nathan Smith would push on as well. Crankshaw switched off, left Smith in behind him then pushed him over in the box trying to recover. Penalty, and 2-1 to Vale.
The second half started in much the same way the first ended. Crankshaw had hobbled off injured but his replacement Gareth Evans had gone very narrow, leaving a gap on the right again and Connor Wood had two to deal with. This allowed Worrall an opportunity to cross without any pressure, and City were quite fortunate to escape.
It took quarter of an hour for anything else of note to actually happen. Vale failed to clear a free kick properly, allowing Andy Cook to get a low snapshot off which was well saved by Scott Brown. Vale then looped a header over from a corner, before Trueman and Sellars decided to ditch the 4-4-2 and match the hosts with a 3-5-2. Matty Foulds came on for Charles Vernam and went to the left of the back three, with Wood and Sutton pushing up as wingbacks.
This didn’t change the completely flat performance, however. The two sides just stalemated, with each having a spare man at the back and cancelling each other out everywhere else. Lee Novak returned in place of Clayton Donaldson, but wasn’t able to link well with Cook, while Vale occasionally threatened on the counter or when Paudie O’Connor overplayed it at the back.
In the end, City’s play off charge has ended not so much with a stumble but with a full trip and faceplant. With the exception of Forest Green, even the performances when winning have largely not been good enough, and results have finally caught up.
For all the good work that the club has done over the last few months, it needs a big step forward in the summer.
Categories: Match Reviews