|Bradford City 2|
|Vernam 42, Cook 50|
|Bristol Rovers 2|
|Kiglour 48, Pitman 90+1|
Written by Jason McKeown (images John Dewhirst)
This was a game that exemplified the fine margins of League Two football – and the struggles of Derek Adams to get Bradford City to take more control of their destiny.
They should have defeated Bristol Rovers at a canter. They dominated two-thirds of the contest, carved out plenty of opportunities and looked a cut above their bedraggled visitors. Yet they allowed themselves to succumb to the sucker punch of conceding a stoppage time equaliser.
A third home draw in four, which sees City again fail to make up ground on the early season pace setters. And they can have no one to blame but themselves.
You don’t see games like this higher up the football pyramid. That a team can put in such an wretched first half performance as Bristol Rovers managed, and yet still be given the opportunity to ultimately get something out of the game. They should have been on their way to a heavy defeat by half time. Wishing they could board the bus and start the long journey home. As their manager Joey Barton revealed after the game, “I spoke to the lads at half time and said that we were kind of fortunate that the game was still here for us. If we improve and up our performance, there’s only one goal in it.”
The fact Bristol Rovers could recover and glean something after such a shambolic first half display demonstrated how far Bradford City still have to go to live up to lofty expectations. The Bantams had won every individual battle, played some excellent football and looked in full control. All they had to do was keep it going. But they couldn’t – losing the lead twice and dropping two valuable points.
And that is deeply concerning.
There was so much to be positive about, for so long. “We had a fantastic performance, for the first 45 minutes that’s the best they’ve played at home this season,” stated Adams. “It was absolutely outstanding – we played Bristol Rovers off the pitch.”
He wasn’t wrong. From kick off, the attitude and tempo of City was excellent. The starting eleven – unchanged for the second time in a row – looked well drilled and full of purpose. Andy Cook completely bullied Bristol Rovers’ centre half Connor Taylor, and the rest of the visitors’ initial back four did little better in containing an energetic Bantams forward line that was full of running.
Callum Cooke and Levi Sutton both had great opportunities that arguably should have resulted in a goal, with Charles Vernam once again pulling the strings – linking up well with Liam Ridehalgh. For so much of the first half, it smelt like a goal was coming. Vernam finally broke the deadlock just before the break, when a Cooke corner was met by the head of Yann Songo’o and keeper James Belshaw failed to keep hold of the ball, leaving a tap-in for the City winger.
The half time stats told their own story – 15 City shots, and a big fat zero from Bristol Rovers. Five City corners, to the visitors’ nought. 59% home possession, with Rovers struggling to get anywhere near the Bantams’ penalty box. “We couldn’t have done any more,” Adams later rued. He’s absolutely right, but the fact the scoreboard only said 1-0 demonstrated a familiar weakness.
For all the dominance, and for all the opportunities – just three of City’s 15 attempts were actually on target. Adams’ preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation is no surprise, given the success he had deploying it with Morecambe last season. But it brings attacking limitations. A lack of bodies in the box, options to aim crosses to, and players positioned in the final third to link up with others.
It’s not that other players don’t go forwards. City press high and the midfielders and full backs support attacks. But many players’ jobs, in these game moments, seems to be to lie in wait and win the back the ball if the opposition clear their lines, rather than get into the box and on the end of things. Levi Sutton is a worthy exception – he is vital.
The 4-2-3-1 relies on individual brilliance from the four players who make up the 3 and the 1. Cook has struggled in the lone striker role for much of this season, though this was one of his better recent games. Vernam has been excellent, but Cooke and Alex Gilliead are failing to deliver to the standards needed.
Cooke is a mystery – his pass success rate was more than 90% here, but he’s not making the same killer contributions as last season. You don’t often see him in the opposition box, and that’s part of the problem – his best work is further back compared to last year. I would argue that Cooke is the best player on our books – the one player, more than anyone, who can play at a higher level. But the stark truth is that, right now, he’s just not effecting games enough. Playing well within himself and still providing a lot of key passes (chances that lead a shot on goal), but capable of having a much bigger impact.
Gilliead’s record so far very much reflects his career stats – he doesn’t score or assist anywhere near enough. Much of City’s goalscoring issues stem from the fact they are relying on Gilliead to turn into a player he has never managed to be. When Lee Angol and Abo Eisa are fit again, Gilliead must surely be stood down. The 4-2-3-1 simply cannot carry a player like Gilliead who contributes so little where it really matters.
It all meant that, despite Bristol Rovers looking incapable of avoiding a thrashing, they got to the break with the chance to regroup. Barton had switched Rovers from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 just before the interval, and it became more effective following the half time introduction of Luke Thomas.
Barton had identified that an enforced first half City change had seen them lose something on the left hand side. Ridehalgh had to be replaced by Matty Foulds, and the young left back struggled to offer the same attacking impact. Whereas Ridehalgh had enjoyed a pass success rate of 79%, Foulds could only manage 53%. With Thomas now running down his side of the pitch, Foulds had an uncomfortable afternoon.
On the balance of his overall performance, Foulds is just about an okay deputy for Ridehalgh – but you wouldn’t want the summer signing from Tranmere to be out for long. Vernam’s game suffered from not having the same outlet Ridehalgh offers. He began trying to do too much on his own.
Early in the second half Rovers won their first corner and – amazingly – scored from their first attack of the game. Anthony Evans’ cross was on the money, allowing Alfie Kilgour to head home. There is a lot to like about a City centre back pairing of Paudie O’Connor and Songo’o, but they definitely lack aerial dominance and it would ultimately cost City.
You could, fairly, give City the benefit of the doubt for conceding that first equaliser. The second half had only just begun, and it was too early to truly see whether they had lost their first half intensity. The fact they went back into fifth gear straightaway was encouraging. Within two minutes of Rovers’ goal, Elliot Watt supplied Cooke, who played the ball to Vernam, who crossed for Cook to brilliantly smash home. The defending from the visitors was woeful.
And City didn’t let up, at least not for the next 15 minutes. More decent chances were created, with Vernam and Foulds going close, and the Rovers’ 3-5-2 utterly overrun. The experienced visiting midfield pair of Paul Coots and Glenn Whelan were completely pushed back by City’s high press. “We should have been out of sight,” added Adams.
In the 65th minute, Cooke floated over a free kick and Cook headed the ball into the net. 3-1 it seemed, and game over. But celebrations were cut short by an offside flag, and at 2-1 there was still some work to do.
Curiously, this disallowed goal seemed to be the turning point. City’s intensity suddenly dropped off. They began to sit back, offering Rovers encouragement. The decision by Barton to take Coots off also helped, as his replacement Sam Nicholson offered them more going forward. The 3-5-2 began to dominate.
The stats are incredibly revealing. Up to the 65th minute, City had a pass success rate of 75%. They’d had 55% possession (down a bit from the 59% at half time, but hardly a concern). And they had recorded 18 shots on goal to Bristol Rovers’ three. The game was a bit more even than the first half, but they were still comfortably the better team.
In the final 25 minutes? City’s pass success rate fell to just 52% – in other words, they gave the ball away one in every two times they had possession. What’s more, in those final 25 minutes Bristol Rovers had 71% of the possession and recorded seven shots on goal to City’s zero.
What on earth happened to City’s performance? They completely stopped doing all the things that had made them successful, and invited pressure and encouragement from a beleaguered opposition side – who should have been completely out the game. Every team will always have a spell of pressure, but City never got to grips with Rovers’ sudden ascendancy. The in-game management was simply not good enough.
Hence by stoppage time, a Rovers player was allowed too much space to roam forward without being pressed (check out the Sky Sports Monday Night Football-style analysis below from the excellent Bradford City Latam), allowing him to work the ball to Evans, who crossed for Brett Pitman to head home superbly. Songo’o will rightly face questions for not making it more difficult for Pitman to get his head to the ball.
There were questions, too, raised at Richard O’Donnell, who got nowhere near the header. But that fails to recognise the quality of Pitman’s effort – it was beautifully placed into the top corner – and not many keepers would have got near it. Besides, O’Donnell also deserves credit for getting through the game after surviving a horribly cynical challenge from Harvey Saunders, early doors, that rightly resulted in a booking. You can’t help but feel part of Saunders’ intent in going into O’Donnell so recklessly was in his team knowing that City were operating without a back up keeper.
Adams grimaced, “Bristol Rovers got out of jail. They know that, you saw it with their celebrations.” Amazingly they almost won the game, with Connor Taylor testing O’Donnell late on. At that point City looked done and were hanging on. There were once again some boos at the full time whistle.
“Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve and today we didn’t get the three points we deserved,” summarised Adams. That’s true, but it ignores the self-inflicted nature of the damage incurred.
Just why did they stop playing over the final third of the game? Was it deliberate direction from the manager to take a more conservative approach? Did doubts take over the players’ minds? Or is it a question of fitness? Ultimately the Bradford City side that ended the game was not the same as the one that had started it – in terms of confidence, purpose and attacking intent. Adams needs to figure out why that is and how it can be rectified.
Overall, City remain not quite good enough at the back, despite obvious recent improvements that had resulted in back to back clean sheets. And going forward, they don’t create enough truly brilliant chances – or score enough goals. Cook is on track to score 21 goals this season, Vernam 15 – but no one else looks capable of hitting double figures. And that could cost City in the promotion shake-up.
But still, it doesn’t feel like Adams is too far away from getting it right. And that’s what it comes back to – those fine margins. It feels like a small improvement at the back and up front is all that should be needed to turn frustrating home draws into victories. The big question is whether Adams can improve on the narrowness of those margins, or is happy to live with them.
Last season, 32 of Derek Adams’ Morecambe’s 46 matches were settled by one or less goals. Of his 23 Morecambe victories, 14 were won by one goal. Only five of his 14 defeats were by more than one goal. And then there were nine draws. In other words, Adams earned promotion by successfully managing the fine margins between victory and defeat. Sometimes those margins went against him, but more often than not they went his way. Hence Morecambe went up.
The route to success for Adams at Valley Parade may lie in a similar approach. That’s not something that anyone still habouring hopes of winning the league with 100 points will want to hear, but every piece of evidence we’ve seen so far suggests City can push for the play offs but nothing more.
Despite threatening to thrash a few teams, they have yet to produce a truly dominant 90 minute performance. In each and every game – win, loss or draw – they’ve faced some tricky moments. Ridden their luck or fallen foul of it. Adams has improved this team from last season no question, but he lacks the quality he needs in certain areas. He will do very well to get this team to finish in the play offs.
To achieve even that, there is a clearly a lot of work still to do. Earlier in the week, Adams revealed that his previous impressions of Bradford City were they were a good footballing team with a soft centre. Results like this suggest he’s not yet solved that particular issue – one that has held the club back for too long.
Categories: Match Reviews