|Bradford City 0|
|Harrogate Town 1|
Written by Tim Penfold (images by John Dewhirst)
This performance had, with hindsight, been coming. Bradford City have played well in fits and starts this season, and while they have been very good at times they have also had some disappointing spells in games. We’ve all thought about how good a side this could be if they were able to be consistently at their best – but today we got a preview of what this team looks like consistently at their worst.
Mark Hughes made only one change from the draw against Crawley, bringing in Lee Angol up front and taking the opportunity to rest Andy Cook. This was met with some surprise, as with an important league game against Mansfield in midweek more rotation was expected, and Ryan East and Scott Banks were unlucky to miss out. Abo Eisa made a Valley Parade return amongst the nine substitutes.
City started very slowly – Harrogate had a lot of possession, and City’s press seemed a little bit slower than usual. There had already been one shot blocked when a Harrogate forward burst past Matty Foulds into the box and squared it for Matty Daly. His shot was accurate, but Harry Lewis in the City goal could’ve got a stronger hand to it as it squirmed over the line.
The Bantams didn’t react brilliantly to going behind, but did manage to get some control over the game. They circulated possession reasonably between defence and midfield, but often too slowly, and with the exception of Tyriek Wright the forward line was quiet. Wright’s off the ball movement created a couple of shots, and a string of corners that were generally wasted. We’d gained the upper hand though, and the home crowd waited for the team to go up a gear or two and really start causing problems.
This never really happened, however. While the team kept the ball well enough, there was no real progression through the midfield. Richie Smallwood lacked the range of passing to link things up, while Gilliead was mostly anonymous. It was only really a couple of Brad Halliday runs that progressed the ball up the pitch, and the crowd started to show frustration.
When City did try to speed things up, errors began to creep in and gave Harrogate opportunities on the break. One good chance was blazed over by Daniel Grant, who charged clear after some sloppy midfield play but lacked composure, and by half time City had lost what control they had and were hanging on.
The fundamental tactical issue was that this team was playing in two separate units. There was a back six – the defence and the holding midfielders – and a front four, but there wasn’t enough linking the two. The midfield lacked the quality on the ball to move it forwards, and too often took the safe, slow, sideways option. Neither fullback is brilliant at driving the ball forwards, though Brad Halliday tried, and with the exception of Wright none of the forwards were moving enough off the ball or finding space.
In a direct team, this isn’t as much of a problem – the ball is moved forward directly from the defence to the forward, and the midfield’s job is to win the second ball as it breaks to them. But Hughes, to his credit, wants his team to play the right way. Without a midfield that can take the ball off the defence and progress it through the middle third of the pitch, this ends up with the sterile possession in the back line that we’ve seen all too often this season.
The half time sub didn’t really help this. Harry Chapman had been off his game and was carrying a knock, so Andy Cook came on and Lee Angol moved into Chapman’s role in the hole. Angol, however, plays this role higher up the pitch than Chapman does, and this made the gap between the two halves of the pitch worse. Harrogate started the second half better, and it took a goal line clearance from Romoney Crichlow to keep the deficit at one goal.
Finally, twenty minutes into the half, City created an opening – Cook’s persistence sent Dion Pereira into the box to find the side netting – but it was poor fare, and more subs followed. Pereira, Wright and Angol all went off with Banks, Eisa and East coming on.
It was, at least in theory, a slightly more defensive City side, but the presence of East suddenly knitted the two halves of the City team together a bit more. East is better on the ball and has a greater passing range than his competition for a midfield slot, and this meant that City were suddenly playing ten yards further up the pitch and actually finding their forwards. Everything was just a bit snappier and quicker, and Harrogate’s previously solid defence got dragged out of shape.
There were a couple of penalty box scrambles with dramatic blocks, and Scott Banks dragged a couple of shots wide from outside the box. And, of course, there were yet more set pieces, again mostly wasted. The exception was a floated ball from Brad Halliday, headed back across the goal by Matty Platt but just behind Crichlow with the goal gaping in front of him. Despite this pressure though, the visiting keeper was not tested once with a shot on target.
It wasn’t enough though, and to be honest City didn’t deserve it. You can’t just play for the final twenty minutes and expect to get results. There was not enough intensity on or off the ball – the pressing was sloppy and the movement was lacking, and the passing was just too slow.
The announcement of Smallwood as man of the match in stoppage time drew some boos and derisive laughter from the crowd. Smallwood is a good player – he’s excellent at breaking up play and provides a solid base in midfield. What he is not, however, is a deep playmaker. He is as badly miscast in that role as Eoin Doyle was as a target man. He lacks the range of passing and is unable to set the tempo properly, so City play like he does – slow and sideways.
In his Championship and League One career, this wasn’t a problem – Smallwood wasn’t the main playmaker, and his job was to win the ball and give it to that player. Here, there isn’t that better player to give it to, particularly when Alex Gilliead is off his game like he was today. East must surely be given an opportunity on Tuesday to be the playmaker, and let Smallwood focus on what he’s good at.
In his post-match interview, Mark Hughes was pleased that we have a midweek game, so the team can get this performance out of their system, and he’s almost certainly right. If we can bounce back like we did against Salford and put a run of results together, then this display will be quickly forgotten. But if we make a habit of games like this, then Hughes will come under pressure for the first time.
Categories: Match Reviews