|Bradford City 2|
|Oliver 11, Sutton 49|
|Leicester City Under 21s|
|Alves 62, Maswanhise 66|
Words and images by Jason McKeown
The legs must have weighed that bit heavier for Kian Harratt, as he made the lonely trudge back to the centre circle of the Valley Parade pitch, after missing what would prove a decisive spot kick in Bradford City’s penalty shootout defeat. Harratt was consoled by team mates as he joined them to watch Kasey McAteer score Leicester Under 21’s clinching penalty. But that show of support will have seemed of limited consolation.
In the grand scheme of things, this shootout loss has very little significance. It does mean City have failed to confirm their place in the knockout stages of the Pizza Cup, and so will travel to Burton for their final group game with a bit of work to do. But the penalty shootout was little more than a gimmicky way to settle a tied game, in a competition that continues to be weighed down by public indifference. If you’re going to miss a penalty this season, do it here. Not in some league game where it actually matters. Or a crucial European Championship play off tie (sorry Tyreik).
But still, for Harratt – who has had to take a few knocks this season – this was another mini-blow. Only moments earlier, in the stoppage time period of an entertaining tie, Harratt had so nearly been the hero. A scramble in the box had seen the ball end up at the far post and in the path of the on-loan Huddersfield striker. Harratt produced a wonderful overhead kick attempt that was brilliantly saved by Chituru Odunze. He was so nearly the match winner, and yet would end the night feeling lower than most. The fine lines of football.
And it was clear this was a big moment for Harratt. There are rumours the 20-year-old went to see Mark Hughes last month to question his lack of game time. After the Walsall game, where he didn’t exactly do himself justice after coming on from the bench, Harratt was as an unused sub in the next three games. Then his dad publicly complained about the situation on social media, leading to Harratt junior not even making the bench on Saturday. So he had a lot to prove tonight, and was even given the opportunity to play in his favoured striker role. Yet the evening would end in personal disappointment. And Harratt is back to sweating over whether he’ll even be in the matchday squad this weekend.
Harratt’s plight was a decent summary of most of the team Hughes picked here, at least the nine starting players who have been waiting on the sidelines to show what they can do. In the main they played well here – very well, in fact – but such is the bar they must reach to truly have a chance of dislodging those in Hughes’ first choice XI, playing very well somehow didn’t quite feel enough. And to blow a 2-0 lead and only draw the game won’t aid their chances either.
Hughes would have spent many hours agonising over team selection for the Walsall game that followed City’s brilliant win over Sheffield Wednesday last month, such was the level of the performance of his back ups in that first group match. He won’t quite have those same tough dilemmas this time around, albeit he won’t be upset by what he saw either.
Indeed, City produced a mostly excellent display here and in truth should have won the game easily. They took the lead early doors when Vadaine Oliver got free of his marker to produce a bullet header from Ryan East’s pinpoint cross. Early in the second half, Levi Sutton finished well to make it 2-0, and a comfortable victory looked on the cards.
In-between those two goals, City had produced all the chances. Yann Songo’o delivered his own overhead kick attempt that flew just wide. Harratt was played in one-on-one slightly wide and forced a good save from Odunze – who was terrific all night. Odunze, who is a 19-year-old American, also did well to block another powerful Oliver attempt after Luke Hendrie had sent over a teasing cross.
Hughes didn’t just experiment in terms of giving back-up players a go, he switched up formation by trialling a 3-5-2. Timi Odusina and Songo’o joined Romoney Crichlow as centre backs, with Hendrie and Jake Young deployed on the wings, and Sutton and East playing just behind Lee Angol in the centre. This was how Harratt got to operate up front, partnering Oliver – who certainly benefited from playing alongside someone.
The formation switch gave City a good level of control. Over the 90 minutes they had 64% of possession, producing 538 passes – a long way above their League Two average of 460 per game. They also had 20 shots on goal and won double the amount of corners than Leicester Under 21s.
Food for thought. Hughes has favoured the 4-2-3-1 in the league so far. But with performances far from wholly convincing, it will be interesting to see how seriously an option he considers 3-5-2 to be going forwards. Especially when it comes to utilising his first choice players. The 3-5-2 did not really suit Jake Young here, who struggled to make a great impression and at times displayed questionable body language. Not that it was all bad, and one beautiful piece of skill on the hour saw Young go past two defenders and produce a cross shot that Hendrie somehow failed to force over the line.
Alas, that would be a turning point in the game. After barely producing an attack of note, Leicester’s kids suddenly came alive and Twanda Maswanhise hit the bar when he should really have scored. A couple of moments later, the lively Will Alves finished well to reduce the arrears. And worse was to come four minutes after, as Maswanhise was played through on goal and squeezed a shot past Harry Lewis.
City did eventually get going again, with Young smacking the bar from a free kick, Harratt heading just over and Oliver forcing Odunze into action. But the final 20 minutes were more end to end, with Leicester carrying a threat too. It all meant, despite Harratt’s best efforts in stoppage time, that the game ended in a draw.
Aside from Harratt’s penalty miss, Sutton also saw his spot kick of the shootout saved. Leicester’s four penalties were all well taken, with Lewis struggling to get near any of them. It means Leicester Under 21s can still qualify at City’s expense. But a point at the Pirelli in two weeks’ time will be enough for the Bantams.
Ultimately this was a game with different City cast members and even a different formation, but a slightly familiar story. Here, as all season, they played some brilliant football and had spells of being in complete control. But they struggle to maintain it for 90 minutes, and the opposition always seems to have a period where they get on top. They can’t kill teams off. So far this season, dominance isn’t leading to dominance. At least not in terms of emphatic scorelines and results.
As we wrote last week, that level of one-sidedness will come – but it’s unlikely to be a consistent feature. Instead, nights and performances like this are probably going to remain the norm. And at times – like here – it will cost City. But for the most part, it should be enough to win games at League Two level. And to be successful overall. The quality within the ranks is so notable.
And that, for all the minor tremors of disappointment about throwing away a two-goal lead, and losing a penalty shootout, is the big takeaway from tonight. This squad is full of strength and depth, and the back ups largely showed that here. There’s an argument to make that the team Hughes picked tonight was stronger than the best XI City could deploy last season, at least over the first half of that campaign under Derek Adams. That’s got to count for something in the long run.
Nevertheless, as Hughes will know from managing the situation with Harratt and his dad, keeping everyone happy, motivated and on top form won’t be easy. And that’s why tonight might just have fallen short of what those given the opportunity to impress would have hoped to have achieved. They pushed their claims for sure, but they didn’t completely convince, especially in terms of the final result. And with the standards and expectations so high right now, there really isn’t a big margin for error if you want to rise up the pecking order and earn a regular starting place in the team.
Categories: Match Reviews