A matter of expectation as Bradford City fail to better 10-men Walsall

Bradford City 1
Watt 14
Walsall 1
Earing 42

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

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22 replies

  1. As always a thorough and objective match report. Three questions; would you regard Abo Eisa as a forward, I believe he is out for two months; is Lee Turnbull still involved as Director of Recruitment? and finally what is the issue with Levi Sutton.

    • Hi John. Abo Eisa is a mainly a winger although can play in the number 10 role. When fit he will probably be competing with Vernam, Crankshaw and Gilliead. Plus Cooke in the middle.

      Yes I believe Lee Turnbull is still at the club.

      Really surprised about Levi Sutton. Adams said he was fit but left out the squad vs Walsall. He looked very good when he came on as sub on Tuesday so I was expecting him to start.

      The positive is there is good competition for those two defensive midfielder spots right now. I thought Evans did pretty well again.

      • Interesting you thought Evans was good yesterday, I am of the opposite opinion and glad he was subbed. In the first half he had a couple of chances to spray the ball to Vernam on the left hand side who was in acres of space but chose to move the ball to the right which was more overloaded with opposing players. I would have started with Songo’o and pushed Watt slightly more advanced.
        I sense Evans needs a good run in first 11 to really judge his overall game. He did get into the box a couple of times in the 2nd half but seemed to be knackered when he burst through so there wasn’t an end product. I’d be interesting to hear what you saw that I missed.

      • From what I can see, Evans is being asked to play a holding role and protect the back four. Win possession back, either through tackles or interceptions, and then get the ball to forward players. It can be a quiet, unassuming role and I thought he did it pretty well. Worth noting that the T&A only gave four players a mark of 7 or higher, and Evans was one of those players. So others saw it too.

        He wouldn’t be my first choice to play that role. I’m a big fan of Levi Sutton. And Evans has a very poor second half against Lincoln, so I was surprised to see him start again. He doesn’t have the legs any more to be an attacking player, driving up the pitch. Given the way the game unfolded, we needed that sort of player imo.

        Agree with you as well that at times Evans could have used the ball better.

    • Great acticle and spot on with your summary. I was talking to other supporters and we where all saying where is the inprovement from last season,where is the new players which can make a differance ,and then you start to wonder we don’t have them .It tells me the budget as been cut ,not good if you really want a top three spot ,it seens a lot of talk and nothing behind it to back the words up.The Jury is out.

  2. A really accurate summary of the match. I hope that behind the scenes, the manager and staff are seeing the same picture in order to remediate the weaknesses and enhance the strengths. Even with the limited abilities of some of the team it should have been obvious that different tactics were needed to draw out some of Walsall’s defenders to create space in the area.

    • There isn’t a tactic that exists that would have drawn out the Walsall defenders from the disciplined and, in the end, effective way they were playing. I don’t know what approach was available to Adam’s that would have caused Walsall -who didn’t need a goal- to go chasing the ball and open up the gap between individual players and the two back lines? It was basic defending, done reasonably well, that should have been punished by taking the opportunities created from the balls crossed into the box.

  3. Early days of the season and for this team. A good start and chance to improve. We do need Plan B and C though. There is plenty of time to get this right. We may need to invest in a quality forward in January. Sort it Sparks !

  4. Congratulations Jason on a very comprehensive game summary. I totally agree with everything you wrote. In my opinion, this should definitely be a reality check for many City supporters. City’s inability to score goals is a carryover from last season that was not really addressed in the summer transfer window. In this century only one L2 team has achieved promotion via the playoffs and scored less than 50 goals. Note, last season City scored 48 goals. Any improvement in that goal tally this season will be marginal. Forget automatic promotion, this squad will struggle to make the playoffs.

    One reservation I had about Adams was entertaining football and I have been pleasantly surprised. Ultimately, Adams will get us promoted but I seriously doubt it will be this season. It’s a shame that expectations were over hyped.

  5. Definitely feels like two points dropped this one, against a team who haven’t started the season brilliantly. It’s never a done deal beating a team down to ten men. That said more composure and less frantic football would probably have seen us score a second.
    We are definitely missing angol. He was a very important part of those early games.
    Let’s see how we fair against the next opponents. Also not having had the best start to the season so far. A win puts the mood back on track.
    Maybe last few weeks are a reality check for city fans expectations. That said we are still in a very good position.
    On to the next

  6. On another day they would have scored a couple in the first half and we would all be toasting a good win. Some really good approach play in he first half and they moved the ball well and at a decent tempo in the second for the 15 minutes or so. The substitutions did not really come off this time. I hope folk can keep a sense of perspective Adams has had a handful of games in charge and we have seen a massive improvement on the back end of last season when we were creating feck all

    • Well said Paul! We’re only 6 games in and the play is tenfold better than last season! I’m very happy with what Adams has served up and it’s only early days. No time so start stressing out yet IMO.

  7. A good report Jason, though you mention that the squad doesn’t look like it’s capable of going from 15th last season to winning the league, the swing required is not quite as dramatic. We finished 15th last season because of a totally undercooked squad under McCall that slumped to 23rd just before his sacking. The signings In January of the likes of Cook, Vernam, Canavan, Crankshaw enabled the team to pick up 45 points from 30 games. So effectively Adams needs to improve a team that would have finished just short of play offs had the January signings been around at the start of last season based on us getting 1.5 points per game from 30 matches after Trueman/Sellars took over. I believe Adams is a far better manager than either McCall or the Trueman Sellars combo and will get us very close to the top.

  8. Thanks Jason.
    Bottom line is if we had scored and gone 2-1 up they would have had to change tactics and be more adventurous which in my mind would have seen us bag a few more and comfortably see the game out. The longer it went on the more challenging it got due to their excellent defensive performance. Every team at any level has games like this v 10 men. We are a world away in terms of quality and attacking intent from last season with Don , Samuels and DM Henry up front. It is I would say very harsh judging Theo Robinson until we’ve seen him play 4-5 games and get up to speed. We all had a similar thought process with Lee Angol until we saw him play. I trust Derek Adams that he knows what he wants and can get that into the players tactically. He also won’t suffer fools and is the sort of headmaster style of manger which we’ve needed for years. He won’t be panicked into playing someone because we all think they should be playing. I can only assume that Levi Sutton wasn’t included for a niggle or a breach of discipline. The latter being most likely as he was seen running pre match with the 3 young lads who are going out on loan.
    We are all so desperate to get out of this league. I read the reports inc this one and others comments I would be mistaken thinking we had played 10-15 games and really had a clue what this team and management was capable of or not. It’s way to early to judge. We must allow some perspective. Forget the Lincoln game for a million reasons, we’ve had one bad half of football this season. If we are say 10th early December time I think we can start worrying. I for one are grateful to have players playing with skill, heart, a plan and passion. Thank you Ryan Sparks for making the changes needed for a match day experience, thank you for holding out and bringing in a proven manager and bringing some care and attention to the club I love. Thank you Jason and all at WOAP for connecting me to the fan base opinion each week.
    Let’s remember where we were at not long ago and enjoy being back in the hunt with fans loudly behind every kick. We won’t be perfect this season but we will be in with a shout in certain.

  9. Really good write-up thanks Jason. I completely agree about the endless crosses into the box, it was clearly not working, especially as most of the crosses lacked quality, and yet we kept doing it right up to the final whistle. I felt that by the time we got into the final 10-15 minutes, there was a sense of hit and hope into the box, rather than targeted and decisive attacking play. I’ve personally always thought, why don’t we shoot more from outside the box? It seems to me that provided the shot is on target, generally 1 of 4 things will happen – 1) we score, 2) the goalkeeper has to make a save and parry the ball back into the danger area, 3) it deflects off a defender and goes for a corner or into a danger area, 4) it’s blocked and flies back out to launch another attack. Seems to me that being more direct and shooting more often like this would yield a better goal return than endless, aimless crosses and little chips over the top that rarely work.

    • We have recorded 89 shots at goal so far Edward, which is the highest in league 2. So I think it’s more the case that we need players to be a lot more accurate with their efforts at goal to achieve one or more of the 4 points you highlight. I keep seeing players trying to get too much power on the shot by ‘lashing’ at the ball when a nice smooth ‘golf swing’ would produce power AND accuracy.

  10. Can’t help but feel there’s an overreaction to yesterday.

    The reason it’s sometimes more difficult to play against 10 is a team may go from having limited desire to winning the game to having no desire to win the game. Yes ultimately you should go onto win the game with 11 but some of the best teams in the world struggle with this so it’s understandable L2 quality footballers may also.

    Adams style showed some success once again as we weren’t short of chances. On another day Cook could have had a hat trick. We are riding high in the league table and the difference to the Bowyer era (last time we were in such a position) is it looks like a team who can score goals.

    6 games is too early to judge either way but I’m definitely positive. 3rd in the table, 11 points. Is there anyone who wouldn’t have taken that? Great start to build on, let’s hope we can and I think the signs are there.

    Very few if any have two quality strikers and are dependent on a few pivotal players not getting injured. I’d argue even big spending Salford only have Henderson who can be considered prolific. That said I do agree with the concern about those chipping in elsewhere.

  11. After what I saw yesterday the whingers need to reel their collective necks in. Jason bemoans the fact the pace of the interchange between Vernam, Gilliead and Cooke in the build up was missing in the second half. Hardly surprising since Walsall were down to ten men and had nine men camped around the edge of the box denying us space to play in. They refused to be drawn to the ball and were happy to play for a draw. The only space available was down the flanks so that’s what we exploited on both sides. Despite it being hard going we still created several clear cut chances to win the game. Amongst others Cranky missed a tap in and Cook failed to hit the target when he blazed the ball into the side netting. If the likes of Manchester City sometimes struggle to get through two banks of 5-5/5-4 expecting us to breeze through it is totally unrealistic.

    The expectation levels might have gone up a notch but over the last few years I’ve had to watch some of the most abject, chanceless, soul destroying football ever seen on Gods earth. So after witnessing the equivalent of footballing hell I just don’t understand yesterdays complaints, and fwiw the booing has annoyed the hell out of me. These people must have incredibly short memories.

    The bottom line is we played well enough to win the game. We created enough chances to win the game. I enjoyed watching it. Unfortunately it just wasn’t our day. So what, it’s ONE game of football.

    • Totally agree!

    • Agreed pal. Also probs the same complaining that we don’t have a proper number 9 and should play wingers and get more crosses into the box!! Well now we have on both counts. I do think when crossing it’s much harder to defend a cross that’s from the byline rather than the edge of the box area. Ie Cannovan’s goal v Stevenage

  12. Great analysis as usual. Personally i don’t think it was a complete disaster – it’s still earned us a valuable point. There are also countless examples in football of teams going down to 10 men, parking the bus and finishing with a point (or better). Another time City would have scored and gone on to win comfortably.

    I am actually more concerned about the defence at the moment. Once again a needless goal was conceded against the run of play, as we also saw against Oldham, nearly de-railing the whole game, and Crawley. So far only one clean sheet from eight games and 12 goals conceded overall – that’s also got to be addressed. If that goal had not been conceded just before half time, I am convinced City would have gone on to win the game with or without the red card.

  13. Good assesment jason. My issue yesterday was there appeared to be too much complacency from the players. Like they almost expected us to win when they went to 10 men rather than stepping up the tempo, getting funners behind them, having a few shots from outside the box. Itwas all too predictable and thus made it easier for them. the lack of movement in the 2nd half compared to the 1st justifies my points imo. Adams has made some strange subs for me in the past couple of games. We do miss the drive of Sutton and that was another issue lacking from the midfield yesterday. We have a lot of similar shot shy players. Gillead for instance has no belief at all in his ability to shoot and i am left questioning his inclusion at the minute considering the amount of goals conceded on our (and his) right hand side. Defo 2 points lost and if Cook gets injured for any length of time then i fear for our ambitions. The latter i have spoken about elsewhere and there is a disconnect from what Sparks/Adams were saying pre season about it been a failure if we do not get promoted against the actual quality and depth of the players recruited. We have still had a decent start. And we have played some decent football at times which has allayed my concern over Adams approach to games. Morecambe also did this then fell away but managed to just do enough. Will be very interesting to see where we are after a dozen games, but this was defo 2 points lost

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