Practice perfect

Bradford City 2
Osadebe 51, Walker 75 (pen)
Sunderland 0

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

Hey, come closer to me for a second. Hopefully no one can hear us, but – just in case – I’ll whisper this to you.

We look good. Really good.

Yes I know. Let’s get the disclaimers in right now. This was just a friendly. It is still only pre-season. A delve into our history quickly unearths a cluster of false dawns at Valley Parade. We’ve been caught out by the hype before and it’s hurt.

But I’ll whisper it again, we look really good. And what we’re seeing develop under Mark Hughes this pre-season feels more and more exciting.

Up against a Sunderland side who will be playing in the Championship next season, Bradford City completely outplayed their higher league opponents. It all led to a thoroughly deserved victory. This was a commendable display of attractive, positive football that gives real credibility to the Bantams’ hopes of mounting a successful promotion push.

The legendary American Football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said that “practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect”. The point being that any team can run around and practice generally in these situations. But practicing with a clear purpose and focus on specific areas is more likely to lead to meaningful improvement.

You’d like to think Mark Hughes can really relate to that philosophy. There was a genuine intent about Bradford City here and they set the bar very high. They appeared to play as though this was a real league match, and that every completed pass and successful tackle meant something. City were really organised and worked hard in sweltering heat.

It was practice perfect.

The improvement on the performance in defeat to Derby County 10 days ago was huge. There are fair arguments to make that the Derby loss didn’t matter, but Hughes wouldn’t have enjoyed his team’s struggle to get on the ball, how isolated players were, and how easily Derby played through them. He has seemingly imprinted those learnings on his squad. There was absolutely no repeat here. City were positive in and out of possession. They have a plan and did an excellent job of executing it.

Back in the 4-2-3-1, City were very tidy on the ball. They look after possession so well, patiently keeping it rather than trying to rush openings. It could not be a bigger contrast to the Derek Adams team last season, who didn’t seem to value ball retention and were happy to lose it in pursuit of going direct.

This display here was probably the best I’ve seen City with the ball since the Stuart McCall side of 2016/17. Like Stuart, Hughes seems to believe that dominating possession will lead to dominating games. And that proved the case here.

Setting the tempo for City’s calm approach were Richie Smallwood and Ryan East, who forged a useful partnership of simple passing mixed with clever movement. They could be huge players this season. And their arrivals are exactly what was needed.

But it’s not just the pair who look so confident on the ball. Every City player was accomplished. That even includes goalkeeper Harry Lewis, who might actually be one of the best passers at the club. I think we’re going to enjoy having this guy in goal this season.

And when City did lose the ball, they deployed an effective high line press where players hunt in packs to win it back. Witness City’s opening goal here, just after half time, where moments after Andy Cook had been denied when he rounded the goalkeeper, the loose ball was picked up by a Sunderland defender near the corner flag. He appeared to have time, only for a City press to see him hurriedly clear the ball and gift it back to the Bantams. Moments later Emmanuel Osadebe was able to run at an angle and finish smartly.

At times when Sunderland did attack, they found a well organised City defence who relished the battle. Brad Halliday enjoyed a very strong first outing at Valley Parade. He loves a tackle and gets forward really well. Romoney Crichlow is so composed and reads the game very well. He displays both strength and flair. Matty Platt looks like a very shrewd signing too.

It wasn’t always perfect, at least in the first half. The wide City players, Osadebe and Lee Angol, did initially struggle to get in the game, although they grew into the match and Osadebe improved greatly. Andy Cook is playing like someone under a lot of pressure, but his honest endeavour shines through. He is one of the good guys and you’d love to see him win this battle.

The first half didn’t have many chances but the fact Lewis had nothing to do showed the general pattern of the game. At the other end, Cook and the ever-delightful Jamie Walker came close. There were some brilliant City passing and several decent crosses into the box. Sunderland seemed to be playing at half pace at times, and mistakes at the back racked up.

In the second half City were even more dominant. They pushed Sunderland back with some clinical attacking play. At times the crowd was gasping with joy, as some wonderful attacking moves cut Sunderland open and just narrowly failed to be rewarded.

There was no argument they merited their lead provided by Osadebe. And the domination continued even with a string of second half subs that included a first City appearance for Vadaine Oliver. He is tall and physical for sure and – once up to speed – will surely relish the quality of City’s crossing.

Alex Neil shuffled the Sunderland pack too, but the Black Cats never built up any momentum to suggest they would come back. Victory was sealed when Walker was brought down in the box and the Scot smashed home the resultant penalty. Game over. And on this evidence, you would not have known that Sunderland were the higher league club.

You get no prizes for winning your friendlies. Just ask Adams, who had a great record in pre-season last year. But what we are seeing in these warm up games under Hughes is a clear raising of the standards. A very evident way of playing can be seen, and the players look extremely well drilled. They’re enjoying themselves. And if they keep it up when it properly begins, we will enjoy it too.

Let’s just keep it between us for now. But make no mistake – something is really stirring here.

Categories: Match Reviews

Tags: , ,

7 replies

  1. What a wonderfully positive evening at Valley Parade! Every player played well and you could have given MOTM to just about anyone. I thought Threlkeld looked a much improved player when he came on in the second half and what a shame he decided to pull the ball back when he could so easily have scored! Even the youngsters were cutting Sunderland’s defence up towards the end of the game. If we play like this against the majority of League 2 opposition we will be in for a very entertaining season! Can’t wait for the Doncaster game!

  2. Considering we also have a number of other players to come back from knocks, and Vadaine Oliver will only be fully fit in 4 weeks time, this was very impressive. I cannot wait for 30 July !

  3. A well deserved “preseason” City win. It’s worth noting the Sunderland AFC writer James Hunter noted in his game blog summation “The one consolation is that this lineup is about a million miles away from the one that will start against Coventry on opening day of the season.”
    It’s early days and preseason. Let’s see how City do when the games truly count for something.

  4. We’ve definitely got a stronger squad but the true test will be in league competition. However, what I’ve taken from the four pre-season games thus far is that there is a good fitness base and team spirit in the squad. The players look composed, work well together, understand the game plan but above all work hard at it and for each other. The example of Oscar Threlkeld last night was particularly encouraging – a player putting in the effort to earn a place in the team and not sulking on the sidelines. Under previous managers we wouldn’t have seen that and I think it sums up the leadership that Mark Hughes has brought to Valley Parade.
    There is a risk of getting carried away but I’ve seen enough this summer and at the back of last season to be confident that games are going to be satisfying to watch. There’s no guarantee that we’ll win them all but I’m pretty sure we will see entertaining football, a good work rate and players playing for the shirt.

  5. No need to keep it quiet. Let’s bruit it abroad: we are going to have a very good season, one of those that will pass into our folklore. We looked so good, so accomplished, lively and inventive. Yes, we were well drilled, had clearly practised things like short corners and positioning at set plays, not perhaps in search of perfection
    – unattainable in football – but to get a higher yield. All the new players were impressive and I particularly liked the look of Osadebe who was always attempting something different. Bearing in mind we were missing half a dozen players, not least Chapman and Odusina, we really did appear to have a very strong and well-balanced squad. Football is about to change with the extra substitutions requiring greater tactical flexibility. In the future, it may well be that teams have strikers who start the game and those who finish it. We look to have anticipated this in our recruitment. No need to keep it quiet. Let’s shout it loud and bold and encourage more season ticket sales. We are going up!

  6. Very wise, Mr. Dewhirst!
    I’ll be ecstatic if next season’s matches are ‘satisfying to watch’!

  7. Great article, Jason. Am getting more and more ‘carried away’ and optimistic… Let’s hope we can keep hold of Mark Hughes, and that no so-called ‘big club’ comes looking for him after they sack their current manager – it would be wonderful to see him lead something really special for City…

%d bloggers like this: