Bradford City must manage the margins better to get more involved in the promotion race

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

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23 replies

  1. Credit where it is due the first half was good would have been brilliant if we took our chances.Now the second half was
    it down to the manager been negative or the fitness levels of the players or the lack of tactical ability to change a game to me the rovers manager out witted ours,and thats why we did not win .Wrong tactics second half and wrong sub, when he had a chance to bring on a center half and move Songo into the midfield in my view cost us the win.

  2. “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”.

    The players looked shattered. The forward players in particular simply couldn’t continue with the intensity of the high press.
    It could be a fitness thing but more likely is that Adams doesn’t have trust in the squad players to come on and give the first XI a break.

  3. City’s poor performance over the last thirty minutes of the game is quite puzzling. Especially in light of the fact that the Rovers also played last Wednesday. Strongly indicating that City’s fitness levels may be an issue?

    Interesting to note that today Danny Rowe scored his second hat-rick in two consecutive games. Possibly another Doyle/Vaughan embarrassment for the front office at Valley Parade?

  4. My error regarding Danny Rowe. I was reading. the wrong game report with same score line.

  5. All over them in the first half and let them off the hook completely.
    All these shots but they’re not accurate enough so I’m inclined to ignore that stat.
    The key questions are:
    1) are we solid enough at the back? Not on this performance but there have been games where we are solid and can keep a clean sheet. Can’t ignore key injuries either. 6/10
    2) are we dominant in midfield (good possession and ability to win the ball back)? The answer is probably “we can be” I think we look better with Sutton’s energy in there but, very interesting from the stats presented here, we’re not doing enough in the key areas. 7/10
    3) do we have enough goals up top. I’d say the answer here is no. Even though we’ve just scored two at home. We are too reliant on cook. If he’s having a good game we score. If he’s having an off game we don’t. 6/10
    The problem is we are a good side this season in relative terms. Relative to recent seasons and relative to this league
    We are currently just not quite good enough though
    I said we need to turn our home games into wins and this game is a perfect example of that. Definitely two points dropped.
    We must stay closer to the pack at the top and need a run of wins now to do that.
    Yes fitness did seem to be a concern. A number of players looked very tired in the last 30 mins.
    On to the next and let’s get a win. This game can be used as a positive by the players to really pump them up to go and grab the three points

  6. Useful analysis. I feel like writing to Derek Adams and asking if he’s considered introducing shooting practice in training and showing the team a picture of the goal & the net and explaining they’re supposed to kick the ball into the back of it. All the talk of soft centres and fitness would have mattered less in this match if they’d been able to convert some of their huge number of first half chances- and we’ve seen that situation plenty of times this season.
    Discouraging in that context to hear the news of Eisa’s injury set back in Friday- looks like he was destined for a start yesterday.
    Also concerned & frustrated that for all the talk of competition for places across the team and a team recruited to challenge for promotion, for a second season on the trot we look threadbare at this stage of the season with a few injuries. I really thought we were staring into the abyss 3 minutes in when O’Donnell stayed down. How can a club of our size go into consecutive matches with no back up goal keeper on the bench? Haven’t we always had a third keeper lurking, in the past, even if not one who would challenge for the first team week in week out. What is this telling us about the player budget?

    • It’s telling us what we all know. That our budget is extremely tight. Despite the gazillion announcements of sponsorship deals we’ve struck and how many tickets we’ve sold at a higher price etc. We have an owner that cannot or more likely will not spend anything out of his own pocket (give or take a few thousand) unsure someone will say he’s done this and that but despite the early promises he hasn’t risked any cash just kept us afloat. DA said in midweek about behaving like a big club etc. We aren’t (still) seriously how much damage would it do to get a lad on the bench for 6 weeks contract!!! It’s not DA fault. RS has talked lots up and rightfully so nothing wrong with that, but expecting a top manager at this level to get promotion with an arm behind his back is unrealistic at best. Only BCFC could get the right gaffer, pay him what he needs, get the staff in place for him etc and then leave him short of cash when he needs it! Only have to look at the 2 short term strikers CL and TR signed to see what’s gone on with the lack of funds available. Reading our reports and comments is as if we all expected this season to be without challenges/ a few below par games/ last min disappointments. We’ve never had a manager yet that we haven’t moshed about for something most weeks!! DA has in my opinion 70% of what he needs right now squad wise. He has a plan and will get us sorted but may not happen this season. This will depend on wether SR is really bothered to help beyond the budget set up so far. As someone else said we are nearly there in many ways. Nearly wont get us up. This manager will do with more backing.

  7. Of all your reports and comments over many years, Jason, I think you have never written a better.
    I was truly miserable trudging back to my car yesterday, because I thought Bristol were possibly the worst team I have ever seen.
    4-0 at half-time would have flattered them.
    Yet we let them draw.
    A really abject last 25 minutes, following such a good hour or so.
    Adams has so much work to do, and I for one feel rather despairing.
    Phil W—please take the trouble to get your facts right. You ruin your own argument and make your comment worthless.
    Jason–thank you.

  8. Spot on Jason – can’t argue with anything, except I thought Gilliead had a decent first half but like all of them the end product is missing.

    It’s not often I watch successive games but that’s 3 in a row now and I’ll be at Swindon next Saturday. What has been noticeable-
    1. The standard of referee has been good. I think he could have issued 2 red cards yesterday – Saunders and Pittman both would have gone with VAR – but on the whole I thought he was decent as were the previous 2.
    2. We start well and fade second half. Fitness, lack of bench options, lack of faith in subs, lack of belief- probably a combination of them all, but Cooke was out on his feet last 15mins, he was bent double several times, he should have taken him off but when Watt pulled up Adams probably decided to try and muddle through.

    I’ve watched a lot of non league football- Salisbury City, Bangor City – Bristol Rovers’ first half performance was the worst I have ever seen, we should have been out of sight.
    We didn’t take our chances but if we do . If we do then we will be right up there.

  9. Thanks Jason for yet another great article.
    Point 1, the loss of Liam Ridehalgh had a big impact. He was linking up very well with Charles Vernam and delivered some excellent crosses.
    Point 2, there were too many occasions when crosses went into the Bristol Rovers 18 yard box with only one or two Bradford City players in it.
    Point 3, when Richard O’Donnell was receiving treatment I was thinking to myself “why haven’t we got a goalkeeper on the bench?”
    Point 4, how many times have we seen us drop deeper and stop passing the ball in the final 15 minutes of a game?
    Based upon this performance, at best, we will be pushing for a play-off place. However, we know that fortunes do change over the season and being positive, we are still unbeaten at home in the league this season.

  10. Harsh on Foulds. He came on after 30 minutes and we were broadly superb for another 35 minutes or more.
    Had to be down to the managers instructions, and not what we should be offering for 16,000 home fans.

  11. Derek Adams is not the only manager who can boast four promotions. One other is Simon Grayson who sadly achieved nothing with us. (Nigel Adkins has the same tally and two of them remarkably were achieved with unfancied Scunthorpe.) There are quite a number with three to their name. Clearly some are better than others at pulling off the trick but none of them – not even Neil Warnock – manage promotion with every club or every season. It is naive to assume that we should be nailed on for promotion just because we have Adams. But for the pre-season hype and based on what we have seen so far, nobody would be talking promotion. For much of yesterday, however, we looked promotion material. I wouldn’t rule it out but neither would I have announced from the rooftops that anything less would be a monstrous failure.

  12. Adams is running the players into the ground and it’s his lack of options from the bench and reluctance to make changes until the player is hobbling, that cost us the 3 points yesterday.
    Cooke and Watt were out on their feet yet we only had one midfielder to call upon. Adams needs to look at himself. As for the overall performance I was quite pleased with the fluid passing game and 4 or 5 additions of better quality than on the bench, might just see us over the line.

  13. I thought that Foulds did fine when he came on. He didn’t offer as much going forward as Ridehalgh, but did a decent job (but we were lucky the Ref didn’t see his handball in the box!). Luke Thomas was dangerous in the second half, but more because he drifted inside rather than targeted Foulds specifically.

    Adams said that was one of the best performances (for 80 minutes) from any team he’s ever managed – I hope he knows that isn’t true. The performance against Stevenage was better for starters and Bristol Rovers were easily the worst team we’ve played this season (and not even because we made them look poor). Their defence was open and they had a few players who were visibly unfit (overweight). I can only think that Adams knows there is nothing to be gained by criticising the players again and knows he needs to keep their confidence up, because it wasn’t that good. It was better, showing signs of progress (the shape was a lot better) but it was still some way off.

    In my stand it felt as though, again, our overcautious approach cost us today. Not finishing chances, of course, but as you say we stopped doing what we were doing well once the goal was disallowed. You said it – in the 50th minute, when we went 2-1 up, we’d had 76% possession across the game. By full time that had dropped to 46% across the game.

    Sorry to bring this back to Angol again, but it’s a really key point. Cook is a good striker, the best we’ve had for a while, and his conversion rate with chances is pretty good. More chances are being missed by Cooke/Vernam/Gilliead (also Sutton and Threlkeld today). What we miss is a target man. With Cook and Angol together, Angol was the target man and Cook was in the box to get the chances. Since Angol got injured, Cook has tried to be both the targetman and the striker, spending more time outside the area. And he’s a good targetman, but it means the chances are falling to midfielders and they don’t have that clinical instinct. If Callum Cooke’s first half chance falls to Andy Cook, then the keeper is being made to work. Adams should try playing Robinson where he played Angol, to free up Cook. Ok Robinson might not be fantastic – though I haven’t seen anything from him in City shirt to suggest he is that bad, he’s put effort in on the few occasions where he’s been brought on – but he could be the foil for Cook and it could be that marginal difference.

  14. What an outstanding performance and to think Adams and team are managing to produce this while missing some key players including club captain, and two key forward options.

    What really impressed me is that someone like Foulds comes in and clearly knows his job and despite being backup can perform his role well. Evidence of this across the team that Adams is making his mark and instilling his methods into the players. Shame he can’t get on the pitch and put the ball in the back of the net too as we should have been out of sight.

    Very frustrating end but good to see us moving in the right direction.

    As for the goalkeeper – that’s a calculated risk. Could be outfield players that Adams has more confidence in going in goal than a kid who will likely never be a professional footballer.

  15. Great report, thanks Jason. I always look forward to reading the WOAP reports, there’s something especially therapeutic about them, especially after a game like this where I left VP yesterday feeling a mixture of frustration, confusion and deep disappointment.

    Couple of thoughts from me:

    1) One thing I’ve noticed this season with regards finishing, is our inability to score from those chances where we catch them on the counter and its 2 on 1, and yet we somehow manage to dilly-dally around and let another defender or two get back and put a tackle in before getting a shot off. I remember last season Cook particularly had a great ability at picking up on a half-chance and drive towards goal, shrugging off defenders and finishing – just not happened this season – we need that back.

    2) Despite the frustration of us dropping points all over the place etc, one thing that’s great is that at least our football is entertaining and generally enjoyable/exciting to watch. I still remember the games under Bowyer 2 years ago – how utterly boring they were and so so predictable. I’ve found myself really looking forward to going to VP again this season, even if some of the results have been frustrating at least we’ve had something to shout and cheer about rather than sitting in silence while we passed it between defenders for 5 minutes and then pumped the ball long to be headed back by the opposition.

  16. I know the debate on O’Donnell has been going on as long as he has benn at the club. But for a keeper to be beaten with a header from a standing jump from that range is not really OK. He had time to see the cross coming and recognise that he wasn’t going ot be able to come for it, so surely he needs to move back?

  17. Like DA said pre-match fine margins. No one has mentioned the disallowed goal. It looks very tight to me on playback and if that stands we were out of site. Similarly if Songo gets a touch tight to Pitman and puts him off the header we see the game out. All that is said in the context of a game which should have been over by half time.We are not far off and given time DA will put together a truly competitive outfit.

    • I was sat almost in line with it, he was stood offside as they lined up and ran forward before anyone else and before it was crossed. He was probably a yard offside.

  18. A problem we have is we don’t have 2 or 3 regular goal scorers in the team. We are reliant on Cook scoring. When Angol played it gave us options. Since his injury we cannot put enough of the chances we create away. We do not have enough quality in the squad to cover injuries. We have Canavan out. He is a massive influence in defence. Ridehalgh could be out for some time. Abo Eisa had a good pre-season but he is yet to feature. Can’t believe that he has damaged his hamstring in a training incident. I would imagine he will be out sometime. Angol’s return can’t come soon enough. However, will he be able to cope long term?
    There appears to be no good news on the injury front. I know all teams go through injury problems but it has been cruel on City. Just maybe our fortune will change and those missing players when they finally return will be the good fortune we need. Results then will start to push us up the table. Adams has got us playing decently but he cannot work miracles being handicapped with all these injuries. His substitutions are sometimes questionable. Clearly he feels the squad at his disposal cannot improve the outcome of the match. Unless it’s a forced substitution he is reluctant to trust his bench to change or improve the performance of his first 11.

  19. I rate Gilliead. I think he would beat James Milner at cross country.

  20. I feel we have more reason to be optimistic rather then downbeat. For much of this match, and the majority of other home games we played attractive, entertaining stuff. Certainly better than was forecast by some when Derek Adams was appointed. We don’t have a large/strong squad and appear to lack options – having two of our first choice back four missing on Saturday confirmed this. Also our early season striking partnership looked pretty good, but has yet to be renewed. The negativity expressed by some is a bit over the top, personally I don’t think we will be far away come the end of the season.

  21. Having had time to reflect on the game and sitting there at the end with my head in my hands , apart from the result we did play very well ,particularly in the 1st half ,the best in a long while, where we dominated. We did seem to run out of steam after we got back in front or we sat back . Their equaliser i thought was going wide , probably O’Donnell ‘s thought too ,given the way he didn’t seem to make an attempt at saving it and fell to the ground deflated. We are almost there in terms of improvement but game management needs to improve. As has been said I thought Canavan on ,Songo’o into midfield would have strengthened us but we shouldn’t have been in that position given our 1st half performance. Never an easy ride watching City is it !

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