|Bradford City 0|
|Derby County 2|
|Forsyth 15, Barkhuizen 45|
Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
Pre-season is a time of great contrasts. And as Bradford City discovered here, the quality of the opposition can quickly fly from one end of the spectrum to the other. After the stroll at Park Avenue, the first outing of the season at Valley Parade proved a jolt to the system as League One Derby County easily outclassed them.
Derby rolled into West Yorkshire with the dark clouds finally lifted on administration and ownership uncertainty. They brought a huge following to celebrate the club’s rebirth. A few new signings have been sorted, adding to those who remained from last season’s admirable battle against the odds. And when you consider Derby were only relegated due to a points deduction, it quickly became apparent this was a much sterner test for the Bantams than it had appeared it would be a few weeks ago.
Derby County are suddenly no longer Beleaguered Derby County. They’ve got their teeth back.
And it really showed here. This was, in many respects, League Two vs Championship. The gulf in quality between the two sides painfully clear from the Bantams’ perspective, as they struggled to lay a glove on their polished opponents. The 2-0 defeat matters little in the grand scheme of things, but there were clear signs that there is work still to do for Mark Hughes.
He will worry in particular about how easily Derby County played through his charges. Lining up back in the familiar 4-2-3-1, City were overrun in midfield and picked apart in the wide areas. Derby were adept at sniffing out space and exploiting the gaps left behind by a City side that at times looked a little too rigid.
At their best under Hughes last season, and at Avenue last week, City operate in small groups where they hunt for the ball and pass their way through. But here everyone just felt a bit too fragmented and separate. On too many occasions, a City player had the ball and there was no one in front of them to pick out.
The young full backs, Reece Staunton and Finn Cousin-Dawson, had a particularly tough afternoon. Staunton was up against the best player on the pitch in Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, with the powerful winger relishing the one on one battle and routinely charging past the City left back. Mendez-Laing also benefited from Derby players operating in packs, which saw them double up on Staunton.
It was a real struggle for Staunton, but in his defence he lacked support from team mates supposed to be near to him on the pitch, the chief culprits Jake Young on the left and Ryan East in the centre. I’m not sure any City left back currently on the books – or indeed in League Two – would have done much better. Mendez-Laing was that good.
Cousin-Dawson can also point to a lack of team mates help that left him too exposed at times, but he didn’t help his own cause by continually failing to track runners and giving the ball away weakly. Derby took the lead by taking advantage of the 20-year-old’s hesitancy. Louie Sibley had found space in the middle and produced a brilliant pass into Cousin-Dawson’s area that he didn’t spot, and running in behind him was former City loanee Craig Forsyth to finish smartly.
That goal had been coming and was just reward for a bright Derby start where they had played on the front foot. They pressed City’s backline well, forcing mistakes from Yann Songo’o and Harry Lewis that might have been punished. The new City keeper did at least make a pair of impressive saves, but the one-sided nature of the contest continued after the opening goal. Derby also had two decent penalty appeals waved away.
City were far from terrible. They showed an admirable commitment to play it out from the back. They had a couple of decent chances, including when Jamie Walker was excellently played through by Richie Smallwood and saw his angled shot well saved.
But they just couldn’t play their way through. Smallwood and East – so impressive last week – were off range with their passing. They also struggled to find space to operate, meaning the back four lacked options when they played it out from the back. Young was utterly anonymous, and Harry Chapman quiet for long spells. Lee Angol battled hard up front but didn’t see enough of the ball, especially in the final third.
As the Derby pressure continued, they scored a crucial second goal right on half time. Mendez-Laing once again burst past Staunton and headed towards goal, although this time the City defender got a tackle in. The loose ball needed a more alert Matty Platt to charge in and clear, but he hesitated and instead the attack was kept alive. Tom Barkhuizen saw a shot on goal blocked by Lewis, but his deflected rebound effort bounced into the goal despite Songo’o’s best efforts. Game over.
The second half saw another quick change in the contrast. Derby made 10 subs, swapping their experienced and proven XI with a side predominantly made up of youngsters. The quality of those in white shirts dropped significantly. Making for a more even 45 minutes. In effect, City were no longer up against Championship (or League One) standard opposition.
Early doors in the second period, City threatened to take advantage. Hughes swapped five players himself, with a new forward line and a shift to the diamond formation. Kian Harratt partnered Andy Cook up front, with Kian Scales at the tip and Emmanuel Osadebe wide left. Matty Foulds also replaced the demoralised Reece Staunton, and a new sense of purpose briefly appeared.
Cook had a header attempt cleared off the line by Richard Stearman and the City striker had another shot saved from the resulting corner. Harratt looked lively, and City produced a few decent attacking moves that fell just short because of the final pass. It was more encouraging, yet it was also fleeting.
For in the final half hour, the game drifted to nothing. And while it was less worrying to watch than City’s first half struggles, it was in some ways just as discouraging. This was now a severely weakened Derby County side, and yet they were still comfortably keeping City at arm’s length.
There were more City second half substitutions, with the unwanted Oscar Threlkeld and Fiacre Kelleher introduced and youngsters Charlie Wood and Bobby Pointon given an opportunity. The latter two showed some nice touches and movement to brighten up the increasingly slow final stages. The two players who ended the game at full back – Foulds and Oscar Threkleld – struggled to be the attacking force that the diamond formation needs.
There were happy noises bouncing around Valley Parade at this point – but it was all coming from the Derby County away support. An impressive 1,300 Rams following made an almighty racket and were clearly relishing what for them was a landmark occasion. The story here was Derby County, not us. And for that reason, it will be a game remembered fondly by their fans long after we’ve forgotten all about it.
And moving on is now the focus for Hughes and City. The manager will have learned lots here and little of it will be positive. But he will be the first to retain the perspective of knowing that City won’t face opponents of this quality through their League Two campaign.
He will go away surely thinking that he really does need another right back. And that moves to enhance the forward line – the club has held talks with former Gillingham striker Vandaine Oliver, whilst Andy Cook’s future continues to carry a question mark – must continue.
In the end though, it comes back to those contrasts. The weird accepted quirk of pre season is you never arrange friendlies against opponents at the same level. And so matches generally take place against either significantly weaker opponents or teams considerably stronger. It can create skewed impressions and false conclusions, good and bad.
When the league campaign resumes, City won’t ever look as comfortable as they did when bettering Park Avenue last week, but they will also never look as weak as they did here in defeat to Derby County. And that’s why pre-season friendlies are such an unreliable guide to an upcoming campaign.
No one was getting carried away by beating our non league neighbours, and no one should get carried away by this defeat. But it does highlight – if it was really needed – that this City squad is not 100% ready for the big kick off in three weeks time.
Categories: Match Reviews