|Bradford City 0|
By Jason McKeown
This was a game that reeked of mid-table mediocrity. And it seems increasingly reasonable to forecast that this will be the final destination for Bradford City this season.
At Spotland here, both teams traded jabs but were lacking the potency to deliver meaningful blows. Each side’s ambition of claiming three points undermined by a cautious mentality. No one wanted to take any great risks, and so no one claimed any great rewards. A pedestrian encounter that will be quickly forgotten, as life in the slow lane continues for both clubs.
The Omicron-impacted League Two festive programme makes it difficult to study the League Two table and make concrete judgements. When some teams have as much as four games in hand, there’s more than a few clubs currently sat in false league positions. But for Bradford City there is little ambiguity. They’ve played the same number of games (25) as the sides just inside the play offs – sixth place Swindon and seventh place Mansfield – and they now trail them by a whopping eight points.
That’s an awfully big gap to make up over the remaining 21 matches, and there is precious evidence to suggest the Bantams could go on a strong enough run to haul themselves into top seven contention. Based on last season’s final table, 73 points are needed to finish in the play offs. So City need to acquire 40 points from their final 21 games, or average 1.9 points per game. A big, big ask of anyone.
This was a 12th draw of the campaign for the Bantams. Claiming a point from an away game should never be considered a terrible result, and on the back of last week’s Salford victory it was a more positive step forward than the Carlisle United debacle of two weeks ago. But such has been City’s muddling form since September, draws away to clubs below them in the league feel like missed opportunities. And that certainly felt the case filing out of Spotland at full time, after a cagey 0-0 draw that rarely set the pulses racing.
City are running out of time to push for promotion this season, and these types of results and performances simply don’t cut it. Rochdale, who had won only one league game since the start of November, looked spirited and on this evidence should have few difficulties avoiding getting sucked into a relegation battle, but they seemed beatable too. A sense of nervousness in the home ranks was evident on the few occasions City threatened to cut through, but they never faced a sustained spell of pressure that would have truly tested their fragile composure.
Deep in stoppage time, and after a final 10 minutes where the Bantams had looked the better side, Dale broke and won a corner. As is Derek Adams’ way, every single Bradford City player came back to defend it. Not leaving at least one attacking player on the half way line meant there was no chance of a City counter attack that might have led to a winning goal. It sums up the safety-first nature of this Bradford City structure, and it is one that seems at odds with the idea of overturning an eight-point gap to the play offs.
Bravery has to be their best hope of pushing for promotion now, but it’s a quality almost completely absent from the gameplan.
The frustrating aspect – as has become the norm – is that it doesn’t feel that far away from working. It’s become a familiar pattern in recent weeks, especially on the road, that City start games well and push their opponents back. And we saw that in the early stages at Spotland, where for the opening 20 minutes they dominated possession and looked bright in attack.
But, once again, it fizzled away quickly. In the opening 22 minutes of the first half, the Bantams had 62% possession. After that point and up until half time, their overall possession dropped to just 37%. Just as it seems they are the dominant team, about to press home their advantage, they fade. The pattern continued in the second half, where over the 45 minutes City had just 35% of the ball.
In the away end you acutely feel the effects of this slip in urgency and purpose. City’s superb following made up more than half the overall crowd and made an almighty racket during that first half hour. But with little excitement on the pitch and City’s authority slipping, the enthusiasm to chant began to fade and long spells of silence followed.
As fans, we turn up absolutely desperate to back the players to the hilt. But that motivation seeps away with every stray City pass, every attack where the amount of claret and amber shirts in the Dale half is too sparse, every cross into the box easily cleared. We want to get behind this group of players – and this manager – but on days like this we’re left with scant reasons to do so. And so boisterousness gives way to boredom.
The limitations of Adams’ preferred 4-2-3-1 formation remain. You can see what he is trying to do with the three who started behind forward Lee Angol, with Jamie Walker, Alex Gilliead and debut man Matty Daly given license to interchange positions, link up with each other and run between the lines of Dale’s more rigid 3-4-3. But it creates other problems in the team. Angol is left far too isolated – over his 70 minutes of action he had just 22 touches of the ball, giving it away 50% of the time – and the full backs struggle for cover.
If the three behind the lone striker were creating brilliant openings, the ends would justify the means. But they had a limited impact here. In the first half there was a moment outwide where Walker produced a beautiful backheel that took two Rochdale players out the game and should have given Gillead space to run free. The summer signing from Scunthorpe was weakly tackled. Late in the second half Walker tried the same backheel party trick. This time the ball rolled out for a throw in.
It was that sort of afternoon for Walker, Gilliead and Daly – Walker looks a good player, but ultimately there was no end product from the three. 4-2-3-1 cannot work if the three players behind the forward don’t contribute more.
Just behind the trio, Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton started as the holding midfielders and had their work cut out against Dale’s midfield four. Whilst Watt had a typical start of being over ambitious with some of his passing, his presence was missed when he went off injured after 24 minutes – as can be seen in the way the possession stats suddenly swung so starkly in Rochdale’s favour. Callum Cooke replaced Watt, but the holding role is less suited to his strengths. The continued decline of Cooke is hugely worrying and does not reflect well on Adams.
In the second half Rochdale came on strongly. The introduction of Alex Newby for the injured Liam Kelly made a big difference, as the grey-haired widemen linked up well with the excellent Abraham Odoh and posed a lot of questions. For lengthy spells City were penned back, not helped by continually giving possession back to Rochdale when they had cleared their lines. Yet to their credit, they rarely looked like conceding.
Defensively it was an impressive performance from City. The decision by Adams to leave out club captain Niall Canavan for midfielder Yann Songo’o was a real eyebrow raiser, but it worked well. Paudie O’Connor and Songo’o were outstanding, as was Liam Ridehalgh who made some excellent headed clearances and blocks. Even Oscar Threlkeld – for how woeful he was in possession – put in a decent shift defensively.
That solidity at the back might have laid on the platform for a City victory, with sub Andy Cook almost netting with a backpost header and Walker testing Joel Coleman from distance. Then came the best Bantams chance of the lot, as from a counter attack Angol sprinted clear of the defence and was seemingly about to hit the target. Alas, he suddenly pulled up injured and fell to the ground. He couldn’t continue.
The initial diagnosis relayed by Adams is that Angol’s season could be over. Given the 27-year-old only signed a one-year contract last summer, it could even be the last we see of him in a City shirt.
Angol’s exit was cue for Charles Vernam – harshly left out – to come on and he helped to lift City in the closing stages. They finally began to find some rhythm to their attack and apply some pressure, with Walker going close. Still, they struggled to create a truly big chance. And in the end, they were indebted to Sam Hornby for making a superb stoppage time save to keep out an excellent Newby free kick. A nice moment for the goalkeeper, who is dealing with the uncertain backdrop of rumours that Tomas Holy will be joining the club.
So a point acquired, but the one-place drop down the table underlines the feeling this could have been much better. Since the break caused by Covid, City have taken seven points from a possible 12. There are definite signs of improvement, and reasons to believe the second half of the season should be better than the first proved to be.
But there isn’t any real suggestion of a dramatic enough shift in their fortunes to achieve promotion.
The January window has more than a week to play out and clearly more new faces will arrive, but at this point it’s difficult to imagine they will significantly move the needle. It’s just a lot of ground already to make up, for a club that has struggled all season to make any great impression on League Two.
In fact, at this stage, the bigger question is just how much things have improved full stop. City now have 33 points from 25 games. At this same stage last season, the Bantams – who lets remembered had been fearing relegation – had 31 points. They were 10 points off the play offs then, compared to the eight-point gap this time. It’s hardly a dramatic change in fortunes.
The season is far from over, and no one should be giving up on play off hopes just yet. But, so far, the campaign is playing out as expected. For all the hype Adams’ appointment generated, there was no disguising that he didn’t have a squad strong enough to compete.
As we wrote several times in our preview of this season, City were relying on forward players to produce goal and assist returns at a level they’d never before achieved in their careers. Shock horror, that’s not happened. Gilliead, for example, has performed to pretty much the level he’s performed in every previous season of his career. Sure, we can criticise his efforts this campaign. But what else did we really expect from him?
The limitations of the 2021/22 City squad were no secret on the eve of the season, and the subsequent months have underlined this. So unless there is something truly groundbreaking about to happen in this transfer window, the trajectory of Bradford City’s 2021/22 looks increasingly easy to predict.
Categories: Match Reviews