|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