|Bradford City 1|
|Forest Green Rovers 1|
Written by Jason McKeown (image by John Dewhirst)
This was the kind of draw where everyone emerges happy, as underlined by the fact a feisty encounter fizzled out into stalemate well before the final whistle.
For Bradford City, this was a good point where they displayed their promotion potential. They took on the League Two pacesetters and gave them a bloody nose. And even though they couldn’t hold onto an early lead, there was enough of a hard luck tale to the equaliser – and from several missed chances – to provide a comfort blanket that this might have proved an even better afternoon. Derek Adams isn’t a man who needs any encouragement to declare his team deserved more that they got. And on this occasion he could certainly present a convincing case.
For Forest Green, this was also a good point where they maintained a decent lead at the summit of League Two on an afternoon where most teams at the top won and won convincingly. Rovers survived falling behind early and held their nerve as the noise from League Two’s biggest home crowd created a difficult atmosphere.
In the end, the visitors’ quality shone through and you could see why they have taken 17 points from a possible 21 on the road, prior to today. Forest Green seem to possess that magic formula of no little skill and a cynical edge that is often the hallmark of clubs who go onto win promotion from this level. They will take some stopping.
City, frustratingly, remain 10 points behind Forest Green. But they showed plenty to suggest they are capable of joining them in the promotion mix come next May. After its significant success in front of around 400 travelling City fans at Swindon last week, this was the first opportunity for the Bradford public to see the 5-3-2 formation Adams has reverted to in response to major failings against Hartlepool. And there was much to commend about it.
City definitely look more comfortable defensively, with Niall Canavan’s return after injury injecting greater composure in Paudie O’Connor and Yann Songo’o. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the tweaking of Oscar Threlkeld and Matty Foulds to wing backs seems to really suit them. Both had merited dropping after their feeble performances against Hartlepool, but they looked much more assured and effective in their new roles, and were useful both up and down the park.
Threlkeld, you suspect, is faring better because there is now cover behind him in the shape of O’Connor, who filled in effectively for him when Forest Green broke at speed. Threlkeld is also aided by Alex Gilliead being moved inside, given the winger’s lack of defensive cover that so often saw the City right back doubled up on.
Meanwhile, the 5-3-2 is having an interesting effect on some of City’s more forward players. This was Elliot Watt’s best game for some time. He looked to have a more defined role compared to recent weeks, where Callum Cooke had taken on the role of team focal point. Sometimes, you’re left operating slightly in someone’s shadow and it limits what you can produce – without Cooke on the field, Watt looks like a player revelling in more responsibility. Of course, there were mistakes from the young midfielder. Inconsistent decision making continues to hold him back, but this was so much more like it from Watt.
And then there was Andy Cook, who had largely looked muted leading the line on his own prior to the formation change. With Caolan Lavery deployed up front alongside him, Cook had a side of the pitch to focus on and he pressed well. Having Lavery closer to link up with saw him more active and busy. Cook’s overall body language seems more positive. As though he was back to enjoying himself.
It was Cook who gave City an early lead when he got clear of his marker to head home a Watt corner, but that wasn’t the full story of the striker’s contribution. Cook had successfully won the corner itself after chasing down a long ball that had seemed certain to go out of play. Such persistence from Cook was quickly rewarded with a seventh goal of the season and third in last four home games.
It set City up in a place where the strengths of the 5-3-2 became even more notable. It is not a set up that suits chasing a game – as would become an issue later on – but it is one that is effective at keeping your opponents at arm’s length whilst seeking to maintain a lead. In the opening stages, City had bossed possession (63% to 37%), but with a goal in the bank that pendulum swung (over the rest of the first half, City had 36% to Forest Green’s 64%). The home side were happy to sit back, frustrate their opponents, and quickly break when they won back possession.
During the period between Cook’s goal and half time, City produced eight shots on goal to Forest Green’s two. And that told a great deal about the effectiveness of the Bantams’ counter attack tactics. Adams summarised, “We were better than them today, there’s no doubt about it. Especially in the first half.”
The problem – and a familiar one – was that City did not take one of those other chances. O’Connor was especially guilty of wasting a big opportunity, when he met a Watt free kick with a header from close range that he could only direct straight at former City loanee keeper Luke McGee. And then just on half time, Cook spurned an even bigger chance when a Watt free kick shot saw the ball ping around and land at his feet. He had to hit the target at least, but screwed his effort badly wide.
That free kick moment had come after Levi Sutton – City’s clear man of the match – had produced a brilliant solo run from his own half that saw him beat several players and bear down on goal. He was illegally hauled to the floor by Bailey Cargill on the edge of the box. As last man, Cargill surely had to go but escaped with a yellow card. It was one of several questionable decisions by referee Marc Edwards. It was the third time he has officiated at Valley Parade, but the previous two had come from behind closed doors during lockdown. He didn’t seem to handle this occasion well.
City certainly had cause to complain loudly when, early in the second half, Forest Green equalised. It came, ironically, on the counter attack, but there were some strong challenges on first Sutton and then Gilliead that suggested Edwards should have blown for a City free kick. However, no whistle came, and Jake Young strode past a flailing Songo’o to finish low past Richard O’Donnell. The fact so many City players surrounded Edwards in anger told its own story.
Nevertheless, City could hardly be considered blameless. As it became clear there would be no intervention from the referee, the reaction to Forest Green’s forward charge wasn’t great. O’Connor went in rashly for a challenge and missed the ball and man, aiding Young in his momentum. He needed to block Young’s run towards goal by slowing him down or shepherding him wide. Stay on your feet. It was a reminder for the defender – not for the first time – that football is a 90-minute game. O’Connor, who seemed to lose his head soon after, still needs that greater consistency if he is to fulfil his promise.
In O’Connor’s defence, his later sense of injustice was fuelled by being on the receiving end of a reckless elbow challenge from Jamillie Matt that merited a red card. Edwards predictably missed it. On another day, Forest Green could have had two players sent off. But this is what teams up at the top of League Two invariably do. They’re physical. And they play on the edge. They’re streetwise. And it’s something City need to aspire to replicate.
At 1-1 and with some really heavy challenges from the visitors in particular, the atmosphere grew more frantic and the tempo of the contest accelerated. This was, first and foremost, a good encounter to watch. A reminder – and, for the home crowd, one needed – of how much fun it can be to support a Derek Adams side. There were decent chances at both ends. It all seemed set for quite the finale. And you sensed if anyone was going to win the game, it would be City.
Which is why it was slightly disappointing that it all fizzled out. As the clock ticked down, a sense of pragmatism began to emanate from both camps. Adams still had Charles Vernam and Callum Cooke amongst his substitute options, but he elected to hold back. Cooke did finally come on with just four minutes to play, but it was too late to make an impact.
During those final 15 minutes, it was as though both coaching teams were waiting for the other to make the first move to try and force the outcome. In the end, neither did anything. “Their bench was telling them to kill the game”, claimed Adams after.
Given both teams were playing the same formation, it’s perhaps no surprise they ultimately cancelled each other out. But for City and Adams, the last period of the game did showcase some of the limitations of the 5-3-2. It is not approach that suits pressing in the way City were managing so thrillingly earlier in the season. It is not a route to dominating matches and pinning opponents back through heavy pressure.
If City get in front – as they did at Swindon and here – it is a useful way to manage the game. But in situations where City are chasing a goal and needing to work up a head of steam, it looks like a formation change will be needed. “You don’t create as many opportunities as you do with other formations,” admitted Adams of the 5-3-2.
Like any formation, its success depends on personnel available. Lavery – who started the game well – went off injured after 28 minutes. His replacement Theo Robinson certainly tried hard, but he was not able to press in the same way. The experienced forward played deeper than Lavery, and tried to be the link up between midfield and Cook. It was not a success.
It all underlines that, as much as this was an afternoon of positives for City, with much to like about the performance, Adams remains a few pieces away from completing the jigsaw. The move away from 4-2-3-1 had to happen, but the manager hasn’t necessarily cracked it forever with 5-3-2. He also has a dilemma of deciding where Cooke and Vernam fit into this set-up – or if arguably City’s best two players are going to have to get used to warming the bench for the time being.
Nevertheless, City have picked up four points from two difficult matches in the wake of the Hartlepool debacle. They are struggling to make up the deficit on the early season frontrunners, but they’re not allowing them to disappear over the horizon either. And at a point where loud questions were being asked of the Bantams and of Adams, they’ve delivered some encouraging answers.
Categories: Match Reviews