Mark Hughes’ Bradford City continue to improve but there’s no hiding lack of cutting edge

Bradford City 0
Newport County 0

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

The shoulders slumped. The head dropped. During the closing stages here, Andy Cook had made another fruitless run forward and kicked the ground in frustration when the Bradford City attack broke down. Body language experts were hardly required to analyse the Bantams top scorer’s frame of mind, as another 90 minutes passed without the forward making much of an impression.

When the dust shortly settles on Bradford City’s 2021/22 campaign, the inquest into why things didn’t go to plan should focus heavily on player recruitment. Both last summer and during the recent January transfer window, the club failed to adequately strengthen its forward line. The consequences were on full display here against Newport, as they have been virtually all season.

City looked good on the ball and, for possession and territorial advantage, just about deserved to win. But they just don’t pose enough of a threat in the opposition box. “We still need a little bit of work at the top end of the pitch, that’s one element of our game we haven’t been able to concentrate as much on,” Mark Hughes admitted after the game. “It’s maybe a confidence thing – sometimes when you have those half-chances you try to be a little bit too deliberate and that’s when the chance goes missing.”

It’s now just 43 goals in the Bantams’ 39 league matches. That’s the 15th best record in League Two, and it goes a long way to explaining why City are destined to finish mid-table.

The Bantams have only scored 24 times at home – the same amount Newport’s Dom Telford has managed on his own all season. City have not scored at the Kop end since the January home win over Salford, 70 days ago.

That was also the last time City won at Valley Parade. The rot of successive defeats was at least ended here before it stretched to a club record-equalling six, but it still leaves City with the fourth-worst home record in League Two. They’ve won just two of their last 21 league and Cup games on home soil. Dreadful.

A particularly strong second half showing here suggested an end to the Valley Parade winless run. Hughes had shuffled his pack and gone with a diamond and two up front. It looked flat and predictable in the first half, and Hughes had a go at tweaking it a couple of times. Before words of encouragement at half time, coupled with some effective subs, saw City pick up the pace and push Newport back.

A cagey game became stretched and the pressure began to build. But for all the promising attacking play, genuinely good chances on goal remained in short supply.

Which is where Cook came in, or in this case didn’t.

Cook more than anyone carries the burden of providing the goals that City lack. Over the 90 minutes here, Cook had just two attempts on goal, failing to hit the target on both occasions. He was a willing runner in the main, but his link up play was laboured and predictable. He gave the ball away often, and struggled to win his battle with Newport’s Mickey Demetriou.

As the focal point of his attack, Hughes needs more from Cook. But the manager also needs to ensure there is better service into the big number 9. Cook has a strong lower league record, but playing up front for City this season has been slim pickings. Last season, an on-form Cook was averaging a goal every 172 minutes for the Bantams. This season it’s a goal every 255 minutes.

Cook remains City’s top scorer with 11 goals, but now has just one goal in his last 12 appearances. He seems short of confidence. He also took a second half knock that left him hobbling.

In other circumstances, Cook would have been substituted or even rested next week. But Mark Hughes will have quickly learned that City’s top scorer is still by some distance his best forward, leaving him with little option but to persist with him. There just isn’t the competition elsewhere to lead the attack, and in deploying two up top Hughes even had to resort to playing attacking midfielder Jamie Walker up front.

Hughes must be left pondering just how he has inherited such a poor hand of strikers. He is not short of bodies in the building, but there is no hiding the fact City have invested in ageing forwards whose better days were behind them. And who had highly questionable recent records. Signing cast offs from Port Vale, Walsall and Salford City must rank as some of the most uninspiring recruitment in recent years, and that is saying something.

Caolon Lavery, who came on as a late sub, is lively but all his best work is outside the box. He, Theo Robinson, Tom Elliott and Nathan Delfuenso have little chance of earning new deals at Valley Parade next season. Hughes is yet to see Lee Angol, but his injury record at City and prior to joining the club suggests he will leave at the end of the season. Finding goalscorers is going to be the big priority this summer.

What it meant was that, for all City’s promising play, they struggled to really lay a glove on an organised Newport side who deployed the 4-2-2-2 formation that Ralf Ragnick has recently made famous at Old Trafford. Newport manager James Rowberry’s side were organised and compact. Cunnng, too, at stalling opposition momentum through the dark arts of players going down suspiciously injured when they started to come under pressure.

That pressure really came after the hour mark when Hughes brought on Dion Pereira and Charles Vernam in place of Callum Cooke and a disappointing Gareth Evans. Pereira took on the tip of the diamond role and played with real aplomb. He ran with the ball between the Newport lines, produced some lovely tricks and had the crowd on the edge of their seats. Vernam, who played wide left, was simiarily adept at running past defenders and stretching the opponents.

With both Pereira and Vernam, decision making needed to be better, but there was no disputing the major impact they made. Between the 60th and 75th minute, City racked up seven shots on goal (they had 14 over the full 90 minutes) and had 63% possession (compared to 56% over the entire game). If there was an opportunity to have got the breakthrough, this period was it.

Indeed, Walker had the best chance of the whole game during this period when he ran through on goal but could only shoot tamely at County goalkeeper Joe Day. It was almost as though Walker had too long to think about it. Pereira, Alex Gilliead and Vernam also had decent opportunities during this spell. And as the home crowd – who had been subdued first half – sprang to life, it felt like City were on the cusp of victory.

But rather than a grand finale from the Bantams, suddenly Newport came on strong. Unhappy memories of the Swindon defeat came flooding back, as the home side seemed to run out of steam and were left hanging on. This time, City held out. The backline was excellent, with Yann Songo’o and Paudie O’Connor having their best games for several weeks. Alex Bass was also back on form. Overall Hughes was satisfied, “I’d like to think we could see positive steps. We’ll continue in the same vein and get better every time we play here.”

So stalemate then, and a final seven games that look increasingly meaningless, save for giving Hughes more chance to really understand this division. With talk that deals will shortly be offered to some of the players out of contract this summer, this period almost feels like an early pre-season for 2022/23.

The manager can operate with one eye firmly on what he needs to build so that City can make a much stronger push next season. These games give him the chance to weigh up what he has, but more importantly gain a full appreciation of exactly what’s missing.

Another huge summer of recruitment awaits. Let’s hope the painful lessons of this season’s lacklustre business are fully recognised – so they aren’t repeated.

Categories: Match Reviews

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13 replies

  1. It’s all about next season we all can see where the problems are i would like to see a couple of our younger players given a chance to see what they can do.And regarding the player recruitment i can not see us not having a top three budget next season that must have been agreed with Mark Hughes as part of the deal that brought in to city.You simply get what you pay for , if you wants the best players you have to pay the going rate . I suggest we where way down the pecking order when trying to attract the better players this season.

    • The teams of 2012/2013 and 2015/2016 would be good models to base a reasonable team structure for the future. Even better with a good striker 25 goal a season man.

  2. Thanks for the report Jason. On the whole I thought we played really well today, and it was probably the most positive and entertaining draw that I’ve seen at Valley Parade for a number of years. When Pereira and Vernam came on it was such an exciting and entertaining period for 10-15 minutes, and with the crowd really getting behind the team it was wonderful to just soak up the atmosphere and positivity – it felt like we were all really enjoying ourselves again after 4 years of frustration and hopelessness. Under Hughes, the future looks very bright and full of hope.
    I thought pretty much every player had a good game today. For me Watt was excellent, and is really flourishing under Hughes. We really missed him against Port Vale. As you say, despite all the neat passing and build up play today we are desperate for 2 or 3 quality strikers with pace, power and a bit of quality, but if we can hang-on to the likes of Vernam, Cooke, Watt, and Paudie, and perhaps sign Walker (and Pereira…?) I actually don’t think we are far off the core of a decent team for next season, especially with 4 months for Hughes and Hodges to work with the players between now and next season. Exciting times!

  3. Hope next season MH goes for quality more than quantity. Alot of this squad needs to go, Hughes will have the contacts from alot of the clubs he’s been at and with Glyn Hodges there who’s worked in League 1 an 2 will hopefully get a squad working to get out of this league.

  4. I’m feeling so much more positive since Hughes took over. Second half performances, effort and entertainment like today are what we want to see just with the added extra of putting the ball in the net.
    Cook is understandably getting a lot of stick at the moment because we’re not scoring goals but he clearly plays better with more support and I actually thought that he put a good shift in today and won his fair share of headers. Undoubtedly the rest of the strikers on the clubs books simply aren’t good enough.
    I actually thought that Evans did ok today too after a dip in the last couple of games. Opinions eh? 😂
    Recruitment is going to be key as it always is and that certainly hasn’t been our strong point over the last year. Hughes must be given the money to seal deals for players that his reputation is likely to attract.
    Quite a few of our so called “better players” are out of contract so it’s pleasing to hear that Hughes wants to start getting deals tied up for some of them quickly.
    A couple of the in contract players need to be moved on too. Yes I’m looking at you Oscar and Fiacre!😂

  5. I thought MH offsider was the set piece coach at Doncaster Rovers. Maybe he could do better with City forwards.

  6. Next season we need to pay for a top-class striker, rather than spend far more on five who can’t score. No more false economies.

  7. Many of the posters above expecting a budget amongst the top of this league clearly have not been listening to the statements from the club about self sustainability. Rupp wants out and thus why would he put in any more many than he needs too?
    Having said that the budget we did/do have could and needs to be used better. The likes of Walker and Pereira show that decent loans can be found. Myself and many others looked at our forward options before the season even started and said that this side isnt going up, unless we manage to win games one nil more often than not. Its not hindsight, its clear based on stats and recent records of the players brought in. Someone who recruited these players suddenly expected them to do things in the latter days of their careers that they hadn’t even done in their ‘prime’.
    So yep please lets give Hughes something to work with as he has already shown/proven that he can improve individual players and the side. But also be realistic about the actual budget he will be working with cos the days of “he who knew nothing about foorball’s” spend are well and truly over until another owner is found

    • Got to agree with Danny about spending money well.
      Given our terrible record in the transfer market over the last few seasons, when it comes to forwards, we need to spend smarter not necessarily more.
      If we continue the same route as last summer/January then all we’ll do is sign more expensive over-the-hill failures with poor injury records and even worse scoring records.
      Let’s be ambitious and try and get one or two decent pro’s but also take gamble on some young players who we can develop. I’d rather gamble on them than a bunch who spend more time in physio than on the pitch.

  8. Yesterday I thought your comment that Jamie Walker shot “tamely at” their goalie was harsh, and today I’ve confirmed that opinion by watching the highlights. His first-half shot was tame – his one-on-one shot was low, hard, and would have gone under the goalie but for a really good save.
    I was disappointed with Cooke – I like to see him in our team, even if he didn’t used to see much of the ball, and rarely where he could do any good. Now we are trying to play football, he seems to be unable to move the ball on quick enough, and unable to shape himself to receive the ball to advantage. Yesterday he spent his time twisting and turning and falling over. We moved the ball quicker when he went off. Hopefully he’ll learn!
    Good game, great contest, loads of football, a “fight” – just could have done with a goal or three.

  9. It’s early days yet but yesterday showed how the team has been improved since Hughes arrived, my criticism would be that we need to improve our first touch and how many touches it takes to pass the ball for the next phase of play, yesterday we were closed down by Newport which limited our options.We need to have players in positions to pass and move the ball, this will then allow us to have a more cutting edge. Too many times passes were made to a player who needed to go backwards to then have to move forward.
    Noticeably, Hughes did say in his post match comments that they had focused more on defence and midfield and did say the forward line needed more work.
    Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  10. The question Rupp.must be asking is ‘stick or twist’.
    He wants out but at the right price and who can blame him. He was conned into buying us by Rahic.
    To be fair I think he has been fair to us, keeping us afloat when Covid first bit, getting rid of Rahic and refusing to take a bid from a dubious source.
    Not much of his experience of owning City can have been pleasurable and much of it has been costly.
    So the choice is does ge invest more money in order to.get up.a league making us more attractive to potential.buters prepared an acceptable amount to.allow Rupp to get rid or does he continue to try to do it on the cheap with the likelyhood we will stay in L2 for the foreseeable. And lose Hughes!!! If season tickets were put in sale now then the ‘Hughes effect’ is likely to be Citys only chance of getting a decent number of renewals.
    If Adam’s was charge then I would not have renewed and many more would have felt the same way.
    So Rupp must be made aware of what an important part of the equation Hughes is.
    Rupp came to the game yesterday. Surely he is staying local to meet Hughes and hopefully there will be a discussion of what Mark wants and needs for next term..
    A lot rides on what Rupp thinks about this.
    I would like Rupp to continue his distant ownership.and provide the wherewithal to get a major part of his investment back through.planned investment in the team now we have a manager that knows what he is doing.
    It would be also of benefit if Rupp could be a little more public and not rely on Sparks to be the face of City.

  11. Of course we need a 20 plus goals a season striker. Someone like Newport’s Dom Telford with 24 goals in 27 appearances this season perhaps? Let’s offer loads of money for him.
    Yet before joining Newport he had scored 13 goals in 106 appearances over 5 years. Last season (his first) with Newport he scored one goal in 15 appearances. I would respectfully suggest that had we brought him in during the summer then our fans reaction would have been one of derision.
    We’ve experience of buying scorers with decent records only for them to flop at Valley Parade. Aaron McLean and Eoin Doyle spring to mind (although the way we used Doyle to play a James Hanson role was ridiculous).
    At this level strikers go on streaky runs and seem like the solution to goalscoring but the run often ends and they revert to type.
    It’s a hard task trying to dig out that striker who is about to start that streak. I’d love to have a consistent scorer in the ranks but haven’t a clue who we should sign. Chances are not Dom Telford.

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