Lacklustre Bradford City show their worst side as they bow out of the FA Cup to Harrogate

Bradford City 0
Harrogate Town 1
Daly 9

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

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15 replies

  1. How true. We’ve got the badge, the rhetoric, the big ground and big crowd to go with it. We’ve got the big squad, the top manager, the league’s leading scorer and the big expectations. It seems like we’ve got everything but the team and tactics appropriate to the division. And it’s beginning to look like the big squad is unbalanced. Too many wingers. Three centre-forwards when we only ever play one at a time. Not the right type or variety of midfield players. Not enough height at centre back. What happens if Platt gets injured? Above all we lack imagination. We field the same team and deploy the same sterile tactics. Possession without penetration does not win matches. Lower league promotion specialist managers all play a more direct style. They can’t all be wrong. If we want to play cultured football on the carpet why do we need Cook and Oliver, both of whom thrive on crosses. We need to play to our strengths not to some inflexible pre-conceived master plan that isn’t working. That’s how wars are lost. It’s not as if this current football is attractive to watch. I remember some great cup performances, vividly the day we drew 2 apiece with the mighty Spurs and might have won but for a goal-line clearance. We played with freedom and spirit that day. Today we looked like badly programmed robots. Not good enough. And yet such is the beauty of football we can and must put it right at Mansfield.

  2. Instead of moving up a gear as hoped we are clunking the gears in neutral. East is now a must with real intent to show for the ball and pass/carry forward rather than back or sideways. Time to test squad depth.

  3. For me there’s a fair few that played today as if they know their name is on the team sheet every game. With East, Banks, and even Eisa to a smaller extent, they came on and tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck and drive us forward, playing as if they were trying to force their way into that team. I really hope that came across to Hughes.

    I don’t think I’ve watched a game that had so many unforced errors! I think they were lucky it was only 7000 today. A league game and they’d be bringing the house down on this lot after that.

  4. Mitchell, your post is spot on. I’m losing the faith with each passing week. Isn’t our Assistant Manager supposed to be an “expert” at set pieces?! Our execution of them is the worst I’ve seen in years,

    What was the point in putting a large squad together, when the starting lineup is a given, week after week, regardless of individual performances?

    We struggle to score and Jake Young, who’s shown he can find the net, is treated like an outcast.

    Our midfield is the weakest for years, yet Ryan East can’t get a starting spot.

    Was it a condition of Dion Pereira’s loan, that he’s guaranteed a start?

    As ever, with Bradford City, there are more questions than answers. Life was ever thus.

    • Interesting question about pereira. It’s feeling that way isn’t it.
      As for the point about competing for the short and rotation. I agree. The players need to know their place is up for grabs. Again doesn’t feel like that at the moment. On the flip side maybe the manager isn’t seeing enough in training that warrants a genuine change of personnel in certain positions. Too many players going through the motions?

  5. Bring on January lets reset ,Mark will know now what we need and hopefully get the play maker and attacking players we need .Without more goals in the team its a mid table finish for me.I just wonder who brought most of the new players in ,we look out of balance ,i can’t believe it was the manager’, he dose not know players at this level so i expect him now have a bigger influencë on the players needed ,and i expect us to inprove in the new year.

    • I think January will be a disappointment if fans are expecting big recruitment. We already have a very bloated squad which apparently Hughes insisted upon, but having missed out on any FA cup prize money after yesterday’s dismal show, and of course any potential FA cup windfall I think some squad reductions will be required before any additional players are signed. Make no mistake yesterday was a massive blow to the club and we can only hope we can offload some of the underused squad players. It will be difficult as how many will be wanted by other clubs?

  6. I’ve said a few time that East should be given a chance. Gilliard is struggling. He should be rested. I sometimes wonder if Mark Hughes is sitting on a self destroy button with his stubborness of playing Smallwood and Gilliard in midfield. Both poor today imo. We are not improving. If anything week in week out we are getting worse. Harrogate are being beaten both home and away. Against City, they are world beaters. Enough is enough. Arses need to be kicked. Let’s not worry about the opposition let us focus on ourselves. Mark just play your strongest team but focus on there strengths. Don’t play tactics they are uncomfortable with. I want you and this team to succeed. Tuesday is a must win game (no pressure!).

  7. Whilst I’ve been frustrated and concerned by our last few performances one thing is certain for me, barring a total collapse and a relegation battle, Hughes must be given time and lots of it. If I were Ryan Sparks I would be thinking to myself, even if we end up with mid-table mediocrity, and fans start to turn on Hughes, I am going to make the difficult, but sensible long-term decision to stick with him. I don’t understand the thinking of “get a new manager in” every time there is a bump in the road. How many other professional careers are so ruthless? Like anyone else Hughes is always learning and improving in his League 2 knowledge and experience, as are the back-room staff like Hodges and Gent. Having said all that, we are still sat in 6th place and with two thirds of the season to go and I still have faith that Hughes will get us going again.

    • Thank you for your sanity.

      We were poor yesterday. We made one of the whipping boys of L2 look like Man City at times. But we need to keep calm.

      This is the first year I’ve lived in Yorkshire for 30 years. It’s my first season ticket and it’s becoming depressing but overall we are in a decent position. Talk of Hughes being under pressure and Mansfield being ‘must win’ is nonsense. Also booing Smallwood – what was that about? He had 3 times more of the ball than anyone else so therefore logically he will make more mistakes! I didn’t think he had a bad game, I think others were much worse.

      In this level of sport you cannot play with 10 men. Pereira shows some lovely touches but he is not involved for too long and whimps out of every tackle. Banks offers so much more.

      My worry is that at home we have been worked out. Kick Chapman out of the game and then frustrate .
      It pains me to say it but we were outplayed by my home town club. Move on and put it right.

  8. League 2 specialist managers play direct is such a flawed and boring argument. Peter Taylor was a promotion specialist, Adams too, playing very direct football.

    The reason that there are so many to cite is because if everyone plays that way, which they generally do, probabilities dictate direct teams will go up. For every case that is successful there’s generally close to 20 others who won’t in a given season.

    Wellens is one example, with Swindon, who showed another way and he’s doing it again with Leyton Orient. Swindon ironically are another. Along with ourselves 3 footballing sides make up the top 6 and as far as I’ve seen probably the only 3 footballing sides in the division.

    We have some key players still to come back and still sit 6th Walker and Osadebe will hopefully prove to be like new signings themselves when they return and Osadebe potentially the man to play alongside Smallwood and break lines. No other club would be sat 6th after losing 2 marquee signing on the first day of the season.

    Bad dat at the office yesterday it sounds like. Onto the next game of 46

    • I’ll give you Walker as a marquee signing but Osadebe? Behave, hes a 26 year old whose played league 2 for the last 5 years. Walker is a big loss and a player Hughes will have placed a lot of faith. Hughes will get the time he requires, that theres no doubt. If he can get that central mdifield sorted out quickly i think the teams apparent problems will sort themselves out.

    • Well said Lrdlockwood and Rob, I like Smallwood too. He does what he does (never hides, shields the back line, breaks up play, blocks the passing lines, encourages others) very well IMO, but he needs someone other than Gilliead (a utility player at best and probably not with the Club this season had he not been under contract for a further year) and East (probably signed cheaply with ‘development potential’. Only 16 career League starts at previous Clubs which, for someone of 24 possibly points to an inconsistency in his ability and why his career hasn’t progressed as far as one might expect – he was let go by Swindon at the end of last season). I believe it was hoped that Elliott Watt would have re-signed and played next to Smallwood in the engine room with Walker at no. 10. I’m certain this (the East/Gilliead position) will be addressed come January but until then let’s keep backing the players, manager and stop booing!

      • Difficult to argue with Tim Penfold’s assessment of the tactics and failings in the approach. Equally it seems highly unlikely that MH will not be aware of the teams’ shortcomings. For all the expertise that we have derived from attending matches at the academy of broken dreams (ie Valley Parade) surely MH has own knowledge of the game. I think that John Dunn hits the nail on the head in that the combination of Watt / Smallwood was likely a big assumption in the pre-season plans and the absence of Walker has thrown another spanner in the works. John Dunn also makes the pertinent point that MH inherited players (ie Gilliead) who were under contract. I remain confident that notwithstanding the recent loss of momentum we are heading in the right direction.

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