By James Chamley
After the dismal performance and result at home to a Hartlepool side with the worst away record in the division, something had to change. A quick look at the upcoming fixtures saw Bradford City facing a tough run on the back of their recent poor form. A continuation of those performances and results would have seen Derek Adams’ side plummet further down the division and pressure begin to mount, potentially more so on the club than the manager.
With confidence among supporters reaching the lowest point of the season so far, Derek Adams switched to a 5-3-2 formation as his side faced 3rd in the league Swindon Town away from home. A solid performance and an outstanding 3-1 victory, alongside different personnel (mainly Coalan Lavery) finally being given a chance to shine, Adams’ tactical gamble paid off.
On the back of this victory, the Bantams unsurprisingly remained unchanged for the visit of league leaders Forest Green and were unlucky not to come away with all three points after another positive display, only to be spoiled by a poor refereeing display from Marc Edwards and some questionable tactics from Forest Green.
However, after a more than acceptable four points from a possible six against two of the divisions beat teams, there are still question marks over the new 5-3-2 approach.
The 5-3-2 formation certainly makes the Bantams more solid. In both games, City have given minimal chances away to teams who have some of the best attacking players in the division. The return of Niall Canavan has certainly helped, but by playing five at the back, City have closed the gaps in the defence which you could have driven a bus through on that Tuesday night visit of Hartlepool.
Oscar Threlkeld and Matthew Foulds’ performances that night were questionable to say the least, but both have improved greatly over the last two games with extra cover behind them being provided by the wider centre backs, Paudie O’Connor and Niall Canavan. Songo’o has slotted into the middle of the back three well, performing admirably, and with him naturally being a midfielder, he is more than capable of stepping into the midfield if and when certain parts of the game require him to do so.
Elliot Watt is another who seems to have thrived in central defensive midfield having two of his better games and Levi Sutton and Alex Gilliead have provided the energy and forward drive to compensate for having one less player in forward positions. Lavery and Theo Robinson have both had their best opportunities to perform since arriving at the club by partnering Andy Cook, who looks to be more comfortable having a strike partner alongside him to share the workload. There are certainly many positives to the new system Adams has deployed.
The system does however provide flaws, as all formations do. Watching City at times on Saturday go long periods of the game without possession and with an obvious lack of pace and width, it is a worry how the crowd would react if this style of play became the norm, especially given most weeks the expectation will be higher as the Bantams won’t be playing the top of the league every week.
Threlkeld and Foulds, whilst solid, are certainly not the attacking wing backs you often see used when teams use this formation. And with a lack of pace upfront, no width, and the two most creative players and fan favourites (Callum Cooke and Charles Vernam) sat on the bench, it appears teams will more than likely, be able to stop the Bantams from creating as many chances as they have been doing up until this point of the season.
As mentioned, it remains to be seen how Callum Cooke and Charles Vernam, arguably City’s two best players, fit into this new system. A first negative result using this system will surely raise question marks over why these two players are not in the team. Furthermore, the eventual return to fitness of Lee Angol and Abo Eisa leaves Adams with only two forward positions to fit in an array of forward players who will all expect to be featuring.
It feels inevitable that eventually, Derek Adams will have to revert back to a 4-2-3-1 formation or even potentially a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. However, that certainly doesn’t mean the 5-3-2 formation, which has provided recent success, should be brushed under the carpet. It could certainly have its uses this season, particularly when there is less pressure on City going into games, which has been the case in the last two fixtures.
For the meantime, Adams is still left with the challenge of finding a greater balance between attack and defence for the final two thirds of the season.