|Bradford City 1|
Written by Jason McKeown (images John Dewhirst)
After a week in which questions have been raised about Bradford City’s goal potency, this was not the most reassuring of answers. Two points slipped through the Bantams’ grasp despite a dominant display, and they can have no one to blame but themselves.
They were up against dogged and determined opponents in Walsall. But the visitors had shot themselves in the foot with a needless red card just before half time, when Joss Labadie recklessly lunged in on Gareth Evans, meaning they played more than half the game with 10 men. It is a truism in football that it is difficult to play against 10 men, but if it was that much of a surefire tactic some managers would start picking teams a man light. The fact is City were given the initiative and couldn’t take it. They played very well, but the margins they couldn’t overcome didn’t need to be as thin as they proved.
In the second 45 minutes, as City attacked their Kop end, they would enjoy 77% possession, produce eight shots on goal and earn seven corners (Walsall had zero of either). The Saddlers eventually went 5-4-0, time-wasted persistently and showed no ambition beyond keeping the scores level. But City could not turn their huge territorial advantage into a winning goal. Nor did they really seriously test Walsall’s 20-year-old goalkeeper Carl Rushworth during that second period.
It’s a concern of course. The last knockings of the transfer window had seen a scramble to sign up a striker that led to a late night unveiling of journeyman Theo Robinson to an underwhelming response. If Derek Adams is pleased to have Robinson, he did not demonstrate it in his public comments via the pre-match press conference. City look short of goals and appear to be hugely reliant on Andy Cook.
When in the fourth minute of stoppage time the ball fell to Robinson – on as a late sub – there was one heck of a script ready to be written. But the veteran blazed the ball over the bar and moments later the final whistle was greeted with some boos.
Apart from Lee Angol – who is sidelined for up to three months – Adams ended this contest with all of his striker options on the field. Cook could easily have had a hat trick but was ultimately wasteful in front of goal. When he has days like this, City need someone else to pick up the mantle and that is where the problem lies. It is too early to make conclusive judgements from the sporadic opportunities he’s so far had, but Caolan Lavery’s start to life at Valley Parade has been less than convincing.
The stark truth was that for all the possession and intent, in the second half City just did not hurt the 10-men Walsall enough. The three visiting centre halves – Rollin Menayese, Ash Taylor and Emmanuel Monthe – were outstanding. But at times the Bantams made it too easy for them.
There were two fundamental issues that held City back from going onto win this contest. Firstly, there was an overreliance on getting crosses into the box. With Walsall deploying three centre halves, space in the middle of the park was squeezed. But the number of times City worked the ball outwide and swung crosses into the box was too predictable and easy to defend. Especially when City were still playing 4-2-3-1, and there was only really Cook to aim for in the box.
Over the 90 minutes, City attempted a staggering 47 crosses – an average of one every two minutes. In 2013 the professor Jon Vecer released a study that concluded crossing from open play was an ineffective way to score, with his research citing that an average of only one cross in 4.87 attempted is accurate, and an average of only one open play cross in 91.47 attempts actually leads to a goal. Of those 47 crosses City attempted today, just 14 were accurate. More often than not, those balls into the box proved meat and drink to Walsall’s back line.
Crossing the ball worked brilliantly well in the home demolition of Stevenage. It absolutely has its place and it’s brilliant to see Adams favour a two winger approach. However, at times some more variety is needed.
The other problem was tempo, or more accurately the lack of it. This was a second half that cried out for Callum Cooke and Elliot Watt to run the show by setting the pace. And though both had decent games, their failure to get the ball forward quicker and ensure attacks were faster meant that Walsall were able to keep their opponents at bay.
There was no period in that second half where City got absolutely on top, hemmed their opponents back into their own penalty area and had them on the ropes. Sometimes in football, you can smell a goal is about to come – but you never quite got that sense in the second half. Plenty of hope, but not nearly enough purpose and creativity behind City’s play. The set pieces – so good in the first few games – were not at the same level today.
All of which adds to that fear that has been difficult to shake off all summer – are there going to be enough goals in this City side to challenge for automatic promotion?
Such frustrations seemed a long way away for much of the first half when there was plenty to like about City’s play. Walsall initially had matched Adams’ 4-2-3-1 and started the first 10 minutes very well, with Kieran Phillips and Brendan Kiernan looking lively, playing just behind the former Bantams loanee George Miller.
Not for the first time this season, City quickly shook off a lethargic period by bursting up the other end and suddenly posing a threat. Cook had an effort blocked by Rushworth, and kept the attack alive to help lay on a follow up acrobatic volley from Evans that tested the Walsall keeper to the full. Paudie O’Connor was unlucky to see a header fly narrowly wide.
Not long after, a City corner was half cleared and Watt delivered stunning first-time half volley that flew into the back of the net. After two games without a goal, the Bantams were back on the scoresheet.
That goal was part of City’s most effective spell of the game and they had some great chances to extend their lead. Charles Vernam spurned a gilt-edge opportunity, after receiving the ball in the area, laying it off to Gilliead, and then peeling off his marker to get on the end of Cooke’s cross. Somehow, the winger got his angles wrong and his header went badly wide of the post. The pace of the interchange between Vernam, Gilliead and Cooke in the build up was exactly what was missing in the second half. Had Vernam scored, it would probably have been the goal of the season so far.
Encouraged by the let off, Walsall equalised just before half time when Kiernan found far too much space and crossed for Jack Earing to sidefoot home. This was Oscar Threlkeld’s second game back from injury, and it will worry Adams that it’s now four opposition goals in a week that originated from the right back’s side of the pitch. In Threlkeld’s defence, playing behind Gilliead – who likes to drift in – does at times leave him very exposed.
Within a minute of scoring, Labadie went into Evans and Walsall were down to 10 men. Cue the second half of City pressure without success. The best opportunities included a Cook header that was well off target and a run at goal and shot that he got badly wrong, plus an effort in the area from substitute Oli Crankshaw that was well blocked.
Like Lavery, Crankshaw struggled to make an impact and the decision to take off Vernam was curious. Whilst he didn’t hit the heights of his performances against Stevenage and Mansfield, Vernam was still the chief threat and the only wide player really willing to charge into the box and take people on. Once he departed, it was noticeable that the approach of crossing from deep was utlised even more.
To be successful playing with 10 men, you have to accept that you can’t plug all gaps and to let some opposition players have the ball. In Walsall’s case, they allowed both City full backs to have lots of possession and come forward largely unchallenged. Liam Ridehalgh embraced this well and had a good game, but Threlkeld did not get forward effectively. Given the areas of the park where City were afforded time and space on the ball, a far better option might have been to bring Crankshaw on for Threlkeld and ask the City forward to play right back.
Speaking after the match, Adams seemed encouraged enough by the performance, claiming his charges could have “scored seven or eight goals”. He is right to be pleased about a lot of the aspects. They are largely playing in an effective way and doing so many right things – they will win more games than they lose this season.
But it will definitely worry Adams that they didn’t take their chances, again. And that another opposition team who clearly attempted to quieten Cooke and Cook has succeeded in halting City. He will also want it to be even harder to score against the Bantams.
The Bantams remain third in the table, with only one defeat in their first six games. It’s a pretty decent return overall, but the defeats to Leyton Orient and Lincoln, plus this frustrating draw, have put a dampener on the early season enthusiasm.
The booing at full time, whilst hardly significant at this stage, does hint at challenges ahead for City and the expectations of supporters. It’s something I mentioned in terms of the team’s capabilities in the Lincoln match report, which drew a ripple of social media outrage from some. So it’s worth looking at in a little more detail.
Firstly, a club of Bradford City’s stature should always be expecting to be promoted from League Two. It remains a sense of real exasperation that we landed back in the basement tier in the first place, throwing away years of hard work reviving the club. When comparing the size, fanbase and history with other League Two clubs, City are clearly punching well below their weight and that has to change.
Over the summer, the talk from the club appeared to be that automatic promotion is the target – something Adams himself has wholly endorsed. And with many League Two pundits predicting City will win the division this season, expectations of a championship season are prevalent amongst fans and very, very understandable.
But the problem that might lie ahead is that the squad building over the summer doesn’t seem to suggest such a big enough improvement to expect this group of players to go from finishing 15th in League Two to winning it. Many of the signings are promising, but some on paper look underwhelming.
In keeping with early season matches, the XI picked here was mainly players who were at the club last season (just three new faces, technically four summer signings including Cook). It is a very good first XI. There are some excellent League Two players at the club. But on the bench and the sidelines, the quality is lacking – at least in terms of forward players.
The playing budget has, we are told, being maxed out. And though that brings other questions about the long-term ambitions of Stefan Rupp – definitely something to discuss another day – there is a sense that the club and fanbase could be on a collision path over expectations.
The early signs are that City look much better than last season. There is so much faith placed in the powers of Adams and, so far, that looks like a decent strategy to adopt. He has really stamped his authority and personality on the team, and City look all the better for it compared to a year ago. But is the squad he has top three material? Is it a squad that can win the league? It’s very early days, but it remains questionable. Much will lie in the strength of the rest of the league. And in keeping key players fit.
City can and should be challenging for the top seven. And that would represent progress from where we were last season, and indeed the season before that. And for a club that is continually guilty of tearing up plans and starting all over again, riddled by short-termism and the consequences of failure on top of failure, progress should be seen as a good thing.
But supporters are absolutely entitled to expect a lot, especially when the club has fuelled that ambition with the way it has talked up this season over the summer. And that’s where the issues might lie. Because City could be doing pretty well – at least by recent dismal standards – but it might not feel that way, at least not to many of its fans.
So talking up a great performance when you draw 1-1 at home to 10-men Walsall – the dictionary definition of a middle of the road lower league club – isn’t going to fully convince. And City go to another club of high ambitions – Salford City – next week with the spidey senses tingling that a fourth game without a win could result in a bit of a backlash.
It’s started so, so well. It’s now slowing down a little bit. It’s still early, early days. But City has got to rediscover top gear and get back to living up to the high expectations it has placed on itself.
Categories: Match Reviews