|Port Vale 1|
|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown
This was a game that sums up Bradford City’s season in that it is really difficult to form conclusive judgements about where it leaves them.
The Bantams were up against League Two’s in-form side – Port Vale – who have been sweeping all before them. And yet there was nothing between the two sides. City were as good as their hosts and full value for the point they gleaned from Lee Angol’s brilliant late header. On this evidence – and, indeed, their recent encounters with high-flying Swindon, Forest Green and Exeter – they are every bit as good as anyone in this division.
Yet, after this 1-1 draw, City remain wedged all the way down in 11th place, four points short of the top seven, with over a third of the season completed. Second-placed Vale are seven points ahead. City are stuck in the heavy traffic of play off chasing sides and struggling to close the gap on League Two’s frontrunners.
When asked on Sky Sports after the game if he believed Bradford City can fulfil the high expectations on the club this season, manager Derek Adams responded, “Yeah they will, I’m very confident of that.” He certainly has plenty of reasons to feel this way, not least the fact City are top of the expected goals table. But victories on the field remain sporadic rather than routine.
City are unbeaten in five games, but this draw means it’s only two wins in the last 16. To live up to that pre-season tag of promotion favourites, they’re going to have to get on a run of victories sooner rather than later.
Not that this result, in isolation, merits any gloom. This was a good point against a Vale side who had won 10 or their previous 12 matches, and achieved seven straight victories at home (scoring 22 goals and conceding just four in the process). The Valiants’ manager, Darrell Clarke, had been named manager of the month 24 hours before kick off – he won it for the month before too.
Against such a backdrop, City gave a good account of themselves in front of the Sky Sports cameras. And it was the type of performance we’ve become accustomed to all season – generally solid at the back, well organised and good at creating chances. Unfortunately, all the familiar failings were on display too. The defence always has a mistake in it and cannot keep clean sheets, and at the other end they’re just not clinical enough. Both issues can be partly explained by bad luck, but it’s become too much of a regular occurrence to be fully attributed to a lack of fortune.
The margins feel really tight, but City’s habit of failing to get the breaks suggests that something is also missing.
Adams has clearly been pinning a lot of faith that an improvement on the injury front will lead to better results, and we’re definitely seeing signs that he might be right. Whilst Andy Cook’s absence is a huge blow and Caolan Lavery was looking useful until injury, this was probably the strongest City XI and bench the manager has selected since the heady days of August, when the Bantams won three games in a week. Abo Eisa and Liam Ridehalgh were back, joining the recently recovered from injury Angol on the bench.
Unlike in September and early October, when the squad looked thinbare, genuine competition for places is emerging. And that means those in the first XI cannot afford to let their standards drop.
The move to a 5-3-2 following the Hartlepool game has made it more difficult for City’s forward players to earn a place in the team especially. And this was an afternoon that will test the manager’s faith in retaining this system. Just like in recent weeks, the 5-3-2 allowed the Bantams to be much more solid defensively and organised off the ball. But less creative as a result.
“Bradford made it difficult for us and sat in the medium block a lot of the time,” admitted Clarke after the game. ‘Medium block’ is coach-speak for defending the middle of the pitch, with the purpose of preventing the opposition from playing through you. Typically – and as was the case for City here – it means players dropping back defensively when the opposition have the ball.
It was not unusual to see Port Vale attack and lots of claret and amber shirts acting as a blockade to Richard O’Donnell’s goal. Elliot Watt, Levi Sutton and Alex Gilliead must have been shattered after the game. They really do put in the yards.
Adams was aiming for City to be effective on the counter attack, just as they had in the victory at Swindon. And for the opening 25 minutes of the game, there was much to suggest it might work. Charles Vernam operated as a striker with a remit to drift wide left and drag Vale defenders out of position, with Theo Robinson tasked with winning long balls and running the central channel.
Both had first half joy at getting the chance to run at goal and shoot. Both should have done better with presentable opportunities.
Yet Vale grew into it as the half went along, and had spells on top. The long throw in of Dan Jones proved a potent weapon, whilst Tom Conlon and David Amoo found success running between the City lines and taking players on. O’Donnell was required to make two impressive saves from long distance shots, but in the main City defended well. The three centre halves of Niall Canavan, Yann Songo’o and Paudie O’Connor performed as though they were enjoying the physical battle.
If, in recent weeks, City haven’t got the breaks, they got a big one in the opening half hour. Oscar Threlkeld was booked 15 minutes in for a silly lunge, and on the half hour should have walked after making a similar mis-timed challenge. It is not the first time this season Threkeld has struggled, and questions remain over whether he is the answer at right back. Fearing a red card was coming, Adams took Threlkeld off at half time, adding, “I knew the opposition were going to pin-point him.”
When on form, Threlkeld is a decent defender for sure but the attacking success of the 5-3-2 is limited by his struggles to be effective going forward. Matty Foulds, on the left, was much more impressive in linking up well with Vernam. The young defender was switched to right back at half time as Ridehalgh replaced Threlkeld and lined up on the left. Whilst Finn Cousin-Dawson is doing promising things for Northern Ireland Under 21s, his absence here was badly timed for the young defender’s first team prospects at Valley Parade.
Early into the second half, Port Vale took the lead when James Wilson rounded O’Donnell and tapped home. But rewinding the clock 25 seconds showcased a great deal about City’s struggles to mount a stronger promotion push so far this season. The Bantams had been on the attack, with Sutton – once again terrific – bursting into the box and laying on an easy chance for Vernam. Somehow, the City forward fluffed his lines.
The ball was cleared to Amoo, who ran forward at space. As the visitors struggled to get close, Sonogo’o had the chance to clear but his challenge was timid. Canavan didn’t spot Wilson’s well-timed charge into the box, and the ball was in the net.
The similarities with this goal and the one conceded at home to Forest Green, in the last league game, are maddening. And it underlines glaring weaknesses that Adams must address. The 5-3-2 is leaving gaps between the midfield and three centre backs, and at the crucial moments the defenders are making mistakes. I don’t know if Adams is taking a zonal marking approach during open play or operates with two man markers and one defender spare, but in these kind of moments you do see a slight lack of organisation over who is picking up who.
There’s been too many goals conceded this season where the opposition win the turnover and quickly break. When the game has slowed down because of a set piece or goal kick, the level of organisation shown by City is really impressive. But in moments where events escalate quickly – like an opposition counter attack – players seem to lose sight of their individual responsibilities. This is something that Adams will be working with them on. Until they get it right, clean sheets will remain scarce.
(And it’s worth adding that even in the two games that City did achieve shut outs this season, the opposition missed sitters.)
Songo’o has done the best he can at a position that is not his strongest. But ultimately, he doesn’t smell the danger like a natural centre back would. Adams has a big decision to make on Songo’o if he retains the 5-3-2. This defensive slip-up was also not the greatest timing given the questionable call of sending Reece Staunton – City’s most promising youth product for some time – on loan to Bradford Park Avenue, despite a man of the match display midweek. As proved last season, Staunton is especially effective in a 5-3-2 and – with Fiacre Kheller not looking up to it – Adams is now left with a choice of keeping Songo’o at the back or moving to a four.
The fact Adams has such a decision to make over 5-3-2 is largely because of what happened next. Just after the hour mark, he sent on Callum Cooke and Angol for Robinson and Songo’o, and changed formation back to the familiar 4-2-3-1. “We were very comfortable in the shape that we were in, but we had to get another body on going forward,” was his post-match explanation.
It worked and worked well. Up until that point, Port Vale had bettered possession, shot count and corners won. Over the final half hour of the game, City shaded all three metrics.
So much has been said about Angol, especially by Adams, during the player’s three-month absence through a hamstring injury. The manager has clearly placed a lot of weight on Angol’s talents to make the 4-2-3-1 work this season, even though – to us supporters, who still don’t know the player well – the forward’s pedigree and track record makes it seem questionable he is the player to truly elevate this team.
This was only one afternoon, but it was very encouraging on that front. Angol was so much more effective than Robinson, and his presence on the pitch made a huge difference. With 16 minutes on the clock, Angol nodded home a terrific Foulds cross for the equaliser. It was a really good header that left Vale keeper Lucas Covolan rooted. Angol’s goal – and all-round performance – goes some way towards justifying Adams’ belief in the 27-year-old. Let’s just hope he stays fit!
From that point on, the game was pretty equal with both teams pushing on for a winner. And if Threlkeld deserved to walk in the first half, Vale were indebted to the leniency of referee Lee Swabey, who probably should have sent off Nathan Smith after he hauled back Angol illegally and appeared to be the last man. Perhaps there was a case to say there was other defensive cover, but Smith was lucky. The fact Swawbey would end up giving a yellow card to an enraged Adams says a lot about how long the City boss complained about the decision.
Despite Gilliead going close to winning it in injury time, City will take the point and the positives of the second half comeback. Adams might not have Cook back for next week’s visit of another top League Two side – Northampton – but he has tougher selection headaches over what formation to play, and where to accommodate Angol and Ridehalgh. He’s yet to find an opportunity for Eisa, who remained an unused sub here. And Cooke’s quality when he came on suggests the manager must find a place in the team for the creative midfielder.
Throw in the fact the fixture list looks kinder after Northampton, and it all suggests City are on the cusp of achieving better results. Of climbing into the play off places, and maybe even competing for the top three.
But the thing is – it’s felt that way for many weeks.
Perhaps, it will suddenly click and City will go on a run to match the recent heroics of Port Vale. Or maybe this is as good as it can be from this group of players, at least until reinforcements arrive in the January transfer window.
It’s still really, really difficult to make any firm judgements.
Categories: Match Reviews