A humbling afternoon as Bantams’ wings are clipped by Stockport’s thoughtful game plan

Bradford City 0
Stockport County 1
Madden 26 (pen)

By Jason McKeown

You could see the anger written across the faces of every single Bradford City player as they fell to this surprise defeat. Anger at each other, as several heated arguments broke out when passing moves broke down. Anger at their opponents, Stockport County, whose display of dark arts pushed patience to the limit. And anger at the referee, Leigh Doughty, for letting them get away with it.

But the true anger would be reserved for themselves. Individually, and as a team, pride will be dented by this loss. It was not merely an off day that can be easily shaken off. It was a humbling experience in which their limitations were exposed.

Make no mistake, this was a huge tactical triumph for Stockport County. The visitors belied their status as League Two’s early season underachievers, with just two wins under their belt prior, and finally started to demonstrate why they were many people’s pre-season favourites to win promotion. It will hurt City to have lost a game that turned the formbook upside down, but it will hurt even more to know it was fully deserved – and that it hinted at failings in their own strategy.

I think we can safely say that Dave Challinor has spent a lot of time over the past week watching footage of recent Bradford City games. The Stockport manager had done his homework and then some, deploying a gameplan that unearthed the weaknesses in this Bantams squad, and the way Mark Hughes likes to play.

Stockport pressed – boy, did they press. They pressed Harry Lewis whenever the ball was worked back to him. They pressed every member of City’s back four. They pressed the defensive midfielders, Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead. They pressed Harry Chapman. And in doing so they starved the oxygen from City’s supply line to its forward and wide players, Andy Cook, Dion Pereira and Tyreik Wright.

It was incredibly effective. In their own half especially, City players have been used to having lots of time on the ball. So many opposition sides have come to Valley Parade and parked the bus. Letting the Bantams have as much space as they like in their own half. But Stockport’s harrying and constant pressure was a completely different approach, and it really unsettled the home side.

Challinor and City have some weird history here. Almost exactly a year ago City were unbeaten at home and hosted Challinor’s Hartlepool United side who up until then had lost five and drawn one of their six away games, scoring just twice. They beat City 3-1 on a night of infamy. Prior to this game, City were unbeaten at home and Stockport’s away record read P5 W0 D0 L5. Groundhog day. And, like Bill Murray, we probably should have seen it coming.

Here, as was the case in that Hartlepool loss last year, the City mistakes racked up. So many times they gave away the ball in areas they just don’t usually lose it. Passes that habitually go to another claret and amber shirt would go out for a throw, or to a Stockport player. City were flustered and untidy, not quite knowing what to do. Stockport sensed blood early and attacked with intent. In the first six minutes alone they registered four shots.

There was an obvious high level of risk in Stockport’s bold approach. Committing so many players forward, in and out of possession, left them vulnerable to being undone on the counter attack. And City did hit the bar early doors through Harry Chapman. In the final third of the pitch, the Stockport defenders did back off and at times City had some attacking joy. But such was the success of the high press tactics at the other end of the field, the moments of City possession in the County half were very sporadic. The high level of risk paid off.

Indeed, Stockport scored what would prove to be the only goal of the game 26 minutes in, after a burst forward by Antoni Sarcevic was deemed to be illegally halted by Timi Odusina in the box. There was more than a suspicion of a dive. Paddy Madden held his nerve to finish well past Harry Lewis. It was a goal that felt as though it had been coming since the first minute.

Odusina can feel harshly treated to have been penalised for the foul, but he had completely lost Sarcevic in the build up and was hastily trying to recover his mistake. It summed up a nightmare personal performance. Odusina simply could not deal with Madden. He seemed to lose every challenge and, with it, his composure went. By the end of the half he looked a broken player and was not surprisingly taken off by Hughes. It was the sort of below par performance that’s usually followed by a long spell out the team, at least in the league. The competition for centre half places is fierce and Odusina has really put himself back after this display.

Also taken off at half time was Pereira. He touched the ball just 19 times in the first half and gave it away 45% of the time. He absolutely needs better service but also needs to make himself available by doing more off the ball running. Since returning on-loan, he has been absolutely nowhere near the level he had reached at the end of last season and it’s puzzle as to why, especially as he appeared to have a good pre-season at Luton.

Everything is there for Pereira to be successful – he’s at a club he knows well, has a manager who believes in him, and is playing at a level he’d rightly consider himself capable of thriving at. It’s down to him to take this opportunity, and so far he isn’t grasping it.

In contrast, and though they didn’t play anywhere near as well as they can, there was something to admire about the determination of Chapman to hunt for the ball. And in how Wright would bamboozle defenders when he did get possession out wide. But this was a really bad first half from City. Stockport were excellent, with Myles Hippolyte – the former Bantams trialist from the Gary Bowyer era – running the show. The 4-2-2-2 formation completely overran City’s 4-2-3-1.

The harrowing events of the half called for a different approach from the Bantams. Hughes brought on Yann Songo’o and Vadaine Oliver as the Odusina and Pereira replacements, switching to a diamond 4-4-2. The intention was to go more direct and beat the press. Yet here, Challinor again demonstrated how closely he’d been studying Hughes and City.

For within two minutes of City’s double sub, Challinor took off creative midfielder Sarcevic for defender Ashley Palmer, and moved to three at the back. The high press completely stopped, and instead Stockport focused on dealing with the aerial threat of Oliver that would arise from City’s more direct approach. Challinor knew that at some point Oliver would be brought on and – given the in-game situation – City would move away from their slow passing principles (he must have watched the closing stages of the Wimbledon game). Like an expert chess player, the County manager was thinking one move ahead of Hughes.

And so we had a very different second half to the first. City were more dominant on the ball (their overall possession went from 54% in the first 45 to 63% over the second half). But they were up against a Stockport side content to defend their lines and slow down the play as much as possible. The level of time wasting was farcical at times, and shame on Doughty for doing absolutely nothing to address it, but it succeeded in denying City the chance to create any attacking momentum.

There was huff and puff from the Bantams, with Lee Angol brought on for Chapman, increasing the home side’s physical presence. But it never really felt as though they were on the brink of finding an equaliser. Five City attempts on goal over the second half, but not a single one on target. They would end the game having attempted 106 long balls (which came mostly in the second half) – a long away above their season average of 77 a game. Oliver won plenty of flick ons but struggled to link up with Cook, who touched the ball just 22 times over the 90 minutes. There was little chance League Two’s player of the month was going to add to his tally here.

This defeat is a set back, no question. Because it highlighted the downsides of City’s approach under Hughes. Challinor had worked out a tactical game plan to stop the Bantams, and it worked well. Other League Two clubs are bound to pay attention to this.

The consolation for City is that not many clubs in League Two will be as good as Stockport. They can try and adopt the same approach for sure, but probably lack the capability to pull it off. And that’s why Hughes won’t be rushing to discard everything he has built so far. Just because his strategy failed in this game, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to take from this defeat that Hughes will surely be paying attention to. He will know also that, even though this is City’s first home defeat of the season, and first in eight games, a loss was coming. The team have been a little too sloppy in recent weeks. They’ve routinely switched off mid-game, come under some pressure but just about getting away with it. The standards are high, but need to be higher.

This defeat proves that.

There’s no need to panic. No requirement for a long inquest. City end the day still nestled in the play off spots, and have shown a great deal of capability to last the distance.

They need to take their medicine. Lick their wounds. And move on. But they also need to be heed the warning that others in League Two are becoming wiser to their approach. That there’s now a clear template of how to thwart them, which won’t have felt nice to have experienced. And that’s why they looked so angry.

Categories: Match Reviews

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21 replies

  1. Excellent assessment. This defeat is not entirely unexpected. We have not recently been that convincing, even in victory. I said here a couple of weeks ago that we lacked a tall and commanding centre-back to partner Platt – and seven people registered their disagreement. At Stoke, Hughes had a huge back four, including Erik Peters, a very tall left back, for example. I’m surprised Hughes doesn’t realise the need for stature in defenders in our division. Odusina might make a full-back because of his speed but he’s not my idea of a lower league centre-back. (And he’s on a three-year contract.) You build a team from the back on solid foundations. We have got, if anything, too many players in forward positions. Young scored very good goals but can’t even get on the bench. Harratt was an unused sub today. It seems he is surplus to requirements. We had Cook, Oliver and Angol up top in the later stages but no one putting in crosses from the byline. Strange isn’t it that when a goal is imperative, we abandon the pretty stuff, the fashionable playing out of defence, and go long. Isn’t this what the fourth division specialists have always done. Isn’t this what the current league leaders are doing under the man considered an obnoxious dinosaur by many? Let’s hope we are in better shape – in every sense – when we go to Salford.

  2. Generally good summary Jason. Can’t believe you did not mention the visitors number 19, Kyle Wootton. In the first half he was the main tormentor , our centre backs were out fought and outthought by him.

  3. Outmuscled on the pitch and sadly outthought off if.
    No need for panic stations, but defo a bad day at the office that we must learn from, starting at Salford next Saturday when team selection will be key.

  4. Do you think our game plan would have worked if we had of maintained our composure and confidence. Take on a man, solid pass and that’s four of their players beaten.
    Surely a player like Smallwood would have the on field intelligence to dictate to the lads to quicken the pace and mix it up a bit (instead of waiting for a half time time talk)
    The game plan clearly wasn’t working and was crying out for physical players like songo’o, Oliver and Sutton from the start.
    Hughes may have to swallow his pride now and again and play basic football and battle.

  5. Too many players put in a poor performance…am I right in thinking the last time a defender was pulled at half time was when Stuart McCall pulled Ben Richards-Everton?

    It thought I’d gone back in time to last season.

    The passing accuracy stats must be appalling.

    I agree it’s not panic stations, but if we are finally to haul ourselves out of L2 this season, in the marathon of 46 matches they are going to have to produce more consistency.

  6. I agree with much of the above. I posted 2 weeks ago that Wimbledon exposed a weakness in our still new and forming team. A high press and good aggression seems to really trouble us, and today was a mirror image. Whether we succeed or not this season, will rest on how we respond. Sutton, Songo, Angol could all start the next time we play such a team and footballing principles will have to compromised for urgent, percentage football.

  7. Credit to Stockport for the instant high press from the start, but this was the poorest display I have seen this season. A really panicky looking start and we lost the ball so often it was embarrassing. If it hadn’t been for Lewis we would have lost 3 or 4-0 with some great saves stopping certain goals.

    With Walker and Banks injured and Pereira lacking in any form the only two relatively creative players we had on the pitch today were Wright (pace and slipperiness) and Chapman (flicks and chips) though our poor ball retention meant that we didn’t get them on the ball as much as we would have liked, Cook had very little service so I couldn’t really fault him much.

    Behind them Smallwood and Gillead can be solid but they are pretty pedestrian and haven’t convinced me they are comfortable bringing the ball out from the back, (I always get the feeling this was supposed to be Osadebe’s job but his early injury exposed the lack of options around creative players). By then not having Critchlow in the back four we look even less comfortable at this.

    By January I think Hughes will have to decide how he wants to cull the large squad and what type of players he wants to bring in to address the creativity weakness in the middle of the park and as well as a back up player for Walker who should be back by then.

  8. I have been holding off until we played enough games to judge,so here we go, we have a large squad in my view to big .We need to trim it down ,better a smaller squad with more quality than having a squad where half of them don’t get a game and can start hanging around the squad moping .If you look who we resigned from last season there’s simply no goals there ,hence a lack of goals . Where we needed a play maker we signed a ball winner on a 3 year deal , we really need a fit walker back fast and in January look to get a play make in ,because we are simply not scoring enough goals to go up.

  9. Why is it that over the last few home matches, City has struggled to get the better of the opposition. Stockport had lost 5 out of 5 games away from home. Yet when they come to play City, their manager, measures how City will play and how to combat it. Which they did successfully. The question has got to be asked, why didn’t Challinor do the same against Stockport’s previous away encounters.
    Is City so predictable that opposition managers knows exactly how we are going to play. We struggled against Wimbledon. Achieving a point in the last minute. We need to make the opposition think, otherwise, it’s going to happen all the time.
    We have to change the way we play, so the opposition would not be be able to stop or disrupt us. I was truly frustrated today. From kick off, Stockport were running us down preventing us time to pass the ball. More often than not they forced a rushed pass or simply nicked the ball. Yet City persisted with this tactic. WHY? It was predictable what would happen and it did. What surprised me that they only scored once. City was very poor today and other than Chapman’s early shot that was it.
    I’m still confident in Mark and his team I just think we have to be flexible not predictable in our play.

  10. Stockport have provided L2 clubs the template for breaking down City’s slow possession focused football. It will be interesting to see if City’s next opponent Salford adept the same tactics of fearless forward pressing. Given time, City should be able to develop counter-tactics. City’s possession focused football’s days are likely numbered. At least when playing the stronger clubs in this league. Long term, I don’t think City have been found out. They have too good a squad and manager not to be able to adept. My long term concern for City continues to be consistency and goal scoring.

  11. Very poor from city today.
    Hoping this serves as a well needed wake up call. Ironically it might be better to give the points to a club currently lower down the table than to hand them over to a current top 7 rival.
    The key to how significant this result is will lie in the response.
    Tough away game. You could argue the perfect opportunity to set things straight.

  12. A game of two halves.

    The first: completely out of sorts, barely able to string two passes together, often looking like we were playing a man down (perhaps two).

    The second: they did us a favour by dropping the aggressive (but tactically very efficient) press, still we couldn’t score. When combined, that story has potential future implications — as several others have pointed out here.

    In MH we trust, but this isn’t the premiership and how willing is he to let League 2 scenarios dictate what he wants to do?

  13. Agree with everything except your outrage at “the dark arts”. These are used by all teams and fans were berating us for not adopting the same tactics when we conceded late at Barrow and Colchester. Indeed I think WOP praised our “game management” in the final few minutes in one report. Stockport were no way near as bad as Doncaster and Wimbledon for time wasting although the lad who went down with a leg injury and then started clutching his head to end a half promising attack was a farce. This is one rule that needs ending. An article in the Times was interesting. A proposal for 30 minutes each half with rugby style clock stopping every time the ball is out of play was blocked by the PFA because players would be worked too hard. Apparently in the average Premier League game the ball is in play for 54 minutes. The rest is waiting to take corners, free kicks, throw ins as well as subs, injuries etc.

    • In game management to me is slowing the tempo, keeping the ball and going to the corner flag. Dark arts is going down injured all the time like Stockport did. I don’t know of any of our fans calling for us to play that way but I certainly haven’t been. Referees were apparently instructed this season to clamp down on time wasting but we are seeing no evidence of them doing this.

      • Can WOAP please stop referring to ‘the dark arts’? Call me old-fashioned but it’s actually cheating and should be termed as such. Referees may have been told to clamp down on it but, certainly at Valley Parade, never do. Years ago you’d really only see it when Eric Gates and Sunderland rolled into town (and rolled around the VP turf) but now it’s every other game and has become so prevalent that football is practically unwatchable. Before anyone states that football is ultra-professional so this behaviour is understandable, football is meant to be entertainment and the referees effectively sanctioning cheating makes for wasted Saturday afternoons.

      • Spot on Gnasher, it is supposed to be entertainment. I paid to watch football and I see players waste time, pretend to be hurt and a referee being a show pony. I recall the Yeovil away game and I said I wasn’t watching any more – that was the worst I’ve ever seen – ball boys kicking the ball away, keeper taking a minute over each kick. Ironically Chelsea was a week later and so it’s forgotten!.

        Stockport weren’t as bad as Wimbledon who were diabolical. The problem on Saturday was that the ref knew it was going on but would do nothing about it. He was regularly running around with his arms raised showing that he’d stopped the watch, but it’s not solving the problem. The lad who claimed a head injury was faking, the ref knew it, the coaching staff told him to do it that’s why Hughes was so irate, but the ref did nothing. The lad is rolling about in agony and is suddenly all better like Lazarus – it’s laughable.

        However, City were poor and when Stockport played, they were the better side.

  14. I didn’t watch the game but follow City very closely.
    One thing I want to mention to all WOAP readers is the Valley Parade atmosphere. It seems to bring out the best in opposing teams…indeed it is their “Wembley”.
    But is the converse true? Is it possible that our players, particularly the young ones like Pereira, adversely affected by what must seem a massive crowd and by the rather too high expectations of them?
    I just feel it must be tough to be a City player at Valley Parade, in front of a big crowd, against opponents for whom it must be the top game of the season, and managed by a legend of the game.
    I think the management are getting it right, but do not think progress will be the plain sailing that some might expect.

  15. This was not solely the brainwave of Challinor as you are making out.
    Wimbledon did exactly the same thing and but for a last gasp equalizer would have achieved the same result.
    They pressed on out back four and Stockport did the same.
    So in the last 2 home games we’ve been rumbled. Also at Harrogate we were appalling continually coughing up possession with sloppy passing.
    This defeat has been coming for a while how we react is another matter but changes need to be made.

  16. Thanks Jason and contributors….a great report followed by another interesting discussion.
    Just a thought and doubtless people will shoot me down in flames if they think I’m being overly pessimistic…
    Would Hughes’s preferred style of play – and indeed many of the new squad – be better suited to playing at a higher level than League 2 ? And, therefore, and almost paradoxically, is this style, approach and squad sufficiently ‘fit for purpose’ to get out of League 2 ?

  17. City have a soft centre—ie competent individuals but sadly lacking energy , physical strength and pace to penetrate opponent’s penalty area and support the forwards — as well as strong tackling.An inspiring,vocal leader is also a must—all our successful teams over the years have had one.

    • Perreira, Wright and banks are the ones supposed to provide that pace. Also to some extent young.

      City are a decent side. Solid. Attritional to some degree. They won’t blast teams away every week. But neither will anyone else in the league.

      We have a squad. The squad needs to ensure it can still pick up results during the inevitable downturn of: form. Injuries. Suspensions.

      The vocal leaders. Well football feels like it’s changed. Not seen many vocal leaders around the league for a number of years.

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