Humbling defeat to on-form Northampton underlines the home problems Bradford City have to solve

Bradford City 1
Cook 90+2 (pen)
Northampton Town 3
Pinnock 29, McWilliams 31, Sherring 59

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

It was the way that it all crumbled apart so easily that came as the biggest shock. As Sam Sherring headed Northampton Town into a three-goal lead on the hour, the home despair became as heavy as the rain. Several Bradford City players forlornly argued with the referee about something, with the rest just looking utterly dejected. Thousands of home supporters got up from their seats and made for the exit, as the Bantams’ biggest crowd since the opening day of the season began thinning out.

This was not in the script. No one saw such a cold reality check coming. Everyone was relishing this game, and the chance to break into the automatic promotion spots. To lay down a marker on a rival. To make a statement to the rest of the division. To crown the Mark Hughes revival of the club. And to truly dare to dream. Sure, a City defeat was hardly out of the question. But not the utter humbling that this afternoon proved to be.  

And it really was a humbling. A brutal undermining of City’s top three ambitions. The Bantams were given a true footballing lesson here by opposition who are walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Northampton were weakened, supposedly, by the absence of the division’s top scorer. Goodness knows how much worse this might have proved had Sam Hoskins not had to sit this one out through suspension.

Northampton deserve every plaudit going and then some. After they were cruelly robbed (some would say cheated) of automatic promotion last season, followed by a play off semi final defeat, the mental strength they’re showing to recover so strongly is deeply admirable. And boy, can they play football. From front to back they were organised, methodical and displayed greater intelligence. They backed off City at times, pressed at others. Their 4-3-3 formation proved mightily effective in easily winning the midfield battle so they could counter attack with purpose.

It felt for long spells like a predator toying and torturing its prey. In dreadful weather conditions that left the pitch unpredictable, Northampton waited patiently for City mistakes before pouncing. The visitors controlled the tempo, adjusting the speed when it suited. When they took it up a high level, the home side just couldn’t live with them. They absolutely deserved the victory that in the end came rather easily.

You could make an argument that, up until the 29th minute, with the score still 0-0, City were giving as good as they got. They had a good chance early doors when Harry Chapman fired over from a good position. Whether due to the heavy rain or the fact an injury to Romoney Crichlow meant Yann Songo’o had to deputise, City were initially more direct. Faster than usual in getting it forward from the back, and up the pitch to the front four players of Chapman, Scott Banks, Abo Eisa and Andy Cook as soon as possible.     

But the threat of Northampton was obvious. Lightning quick counter attacks had already cut too easily through City’s midfield and defence, with some dangerous balls into the box only narrowly missing their target. And when City began reverting to type of passing it around at the back, the ball began to be needlessly given away that little bit too often. The predator lay in wait.

That’s when, on 29 minutes, everything changed. Richie Smallwood had possession inside his own half, in a slightly wide position. He turned, he passed the ball across goal, but he didn’t look. The erroneous pass was gift wrapped for Mitchell Pinnock, who seized onto the loose ball, held off the futile challenge of Songo’o, and curled the ball past the panicked Harry Lewis and into the goal.

As City kicked off in a daze, the Cobblers advanced and made it 2-0 straight away. It was a goal of Northampton brilliance with an inside ball from Shaun McWilliams to the onrushing Kieron Bowie ranking as one of the passes of the season. It took out two City players. Bowie pulled it back for McWilliams, who had kept running into the box, and he picked his spot clinically to score. There were City players rushing to close down their pink shirted opponents, but they were chasing shadows.

From even-stevens to blown away in two, devastating minutes of action, the falling apart began. The weaknesses in City’s 4-2-3-1 set-up – its overrun midfield, its isolated sole striker, its creaky backline – wasn’t exactly disguised at 0-0. But it all fell sharply under the spotlight as the Bantams struggled to find any composure. Northampton wasted two great chances to make it three before the interval.

With only three home wins in 10 now, and none in the last five, it’s becoming painfully clear that this set up is not working at Valley Parade. 4-2-3-1 and the overall tactics are clearly proving revelationary on the road, but with the greater expectation to attack and need to play at a higher tempo in home games, it’s too often thwarted by visitors to these parts. And this can no longer be ignored.

Hughes has got to change it.

He probably disagrees, because he didn’t even change it when there was still a chance to rescue the match. 2-0 down at half time in your biggest game of the season, and yet the subs all stayed out at the interval, warming up on the pitch. Hughes elected against changing formation or personnel going into the second half, and he maintained that view even when the game began to follow the same pattern and Northampton spurned another two good chances.

Cue Northampton’s third, the start of the exodus from the stands, and game over. Only then did Hughes act. He left it too late. Maybe the game was already up, but Hughes’ inaction made the outcome certain.  

The manager argued after the game that the players lacked discipline to play in the same 4-2-3-1 approach after half time. He said, “We were guilty of over-committing on occasions and we were leaving guys one v one at the back and that’s where your discipline comes in. You have got to have the right shape to mount attacks and build attacks and pressure and we did not get the part of our game right.”

Fair enough, but can you blame the players for wanting to chase the game at 2-0 down? And is 4-2-3-1 the sort of formation to maintain when you need to score at least two goals in 45 minutes to rescue the match? Yes, the players needed to be more intelligent, but the shape retained by the manager to chase a game did not appear to be right.

Vadaine Oliver and Tyreik Wright came on for the fading Eisa and Chapman, with City going 4-4-2 at last. The ball was once again pumped into the box, and there were half chances that might have opened the door slightly for an unlikely Bantams comeback. In truth, any advocates for 4-4-2 probably won’t cite the final 30 minutes of this encounter as evidence of its powers. Cook and Oliver looked uncomfortable together. At times they both went for the same high balls, or failed to read the other’s flick on attempt. They seemed to be arguing with each other on the pitch. They were getting too little joy.

It summed up those final knockings. Over a third of the game to play, and yet City were clearly beaten. Those fans who headed home from the cold early did not miss much other than a consolation penalty from Cook in the first minute of stoppage time. Northampton could have scored more but in the end scaled back their ambition and ran down the clock. They are now five points ahead of the Bantams in the table. Yet the gulf in class between the two teams seems much bigger than that.

That sense of helplessness in City was the most striking factor of the closing stages. It’s been a while City last looked so defeated and out-played on their own turf. Maybe not since Hughes’ first game in charge of the club when Mansfield won here with ease. It became hard to believe the home side had genuinely kicked off the afternoon feeling confident of leap frogging Northampton into the automatic places.

And that is the harsh truth this defeat has exposed. This Bradford City team are good – the best we’ve had in years – but they’re not quite there yet. Play off contenders – absolutely. Beyond that, the jury is well and truly out. Players have performed well at times, but their limitations are evident too. And though we’d like to think the January window can come and go without too much of an urgency to sign lots of players, in order to reach the level of a Northampton side in this kind of form – that is, to be true automatic promotion contenders – Hughes will need to strengthen.

In the meantime, solutions have to be found. The Smallwood-Alex Gilliead partnership is not working well enough in home games. Are two deeply-lying midfielders necessary, especially when they can be so easily overrun? And when it’s clear that the opposition tactics are succeeding, what does Hughes need to do to change the narrative?

Debates continue to rage about Smallwood. On his day, a good player at this level for sure. But the expectation on the captain’s shoulders that he should be the side’s playmaker appears to overestimate his true strengths. At the very least, it’s struggling to work without a partner who can match his passing ability and work together cohesively.

If you wanted to get a true measure of the difference in City and Northampton, it was the way players linked up in possession. Northampton were brilliant at creating triangles to pass around City. When a Town player had the ball, he would invariably have two options close by. In contrast, City’s players are too spread out around the pitch. When Smallwood has possession in the opposition half, he has very few close options and is often expected to pick out someone from distance. He can do it at times, but it’s not his strength. And it certainly isn’t Gilliead’s. Losing Elliot Watt in the summer continues to be keenly felt. 

I get why Gilliead continues to be picked ahead of Ryan East in terms of the former’s greater athleticism and tackling ability, but it comes at the cost of not enough passing quality in the middle of the park. Smallwood would be better sharing playmaker responsibilities with someone like East, even if it means he can’t be the influential controller that Hughes wants him to be. I’m not convinced East is the long-term answer, but neither – it increasingly seems – is Gilliead.

That’s the biggest issue right now for sure, although Hughes won’t have been wholly happy with what he got from his front four. You assume Wright wasn’t quite fit enough to start after injury, as his pace and directness would have been a better option than Eisa in this game. The latter – finally making his full Valley Parade debut after his injury nightmares – did okay at times, but had too many quiet spells. It was the same with Banks who drifted out of the game after a decent start.

To play out from the back requires having technically gifted defenders. Matty Platt can just about pull it off. But he needs someone alongside him better on the ball who can accept they might not receive get the best pass from Platt, but possesses the composure to manage tight situations. Crichlow offers that, Songo’o does not. This is not a central defensive partnership that will win you a promotion.  

This was clearly a poor City performance. Players not doing themselves justice. A bad day at the office. It happens. But it’s happening too often at home. You can’t just shrug this off when you remember the Crawley, Stockport and Wimbledon performances.

It comes back to the point – something has to change. I absolutely love what Hughes is doing at this club and he’s getting the majority of the calls right. But performances, overall, remain short of the ambition to earn promotion. And there’s too many dropped points at home to give credence to the idea that the current strategy is working at Valley Parade.

Whether its through changing some of the players or adjusting the tactics, this harrowing defeat is a warning that City are not yet at the level we all want them to be. The ideals of playing football the right way are hugely commendable and should not be readily abandoned, but promotions are earned by winning lots of games of football. And Hughes has to find a way to do that more often at Valley Parade.  

Categories: Match Reviews

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33 replies

  1. Northampton were good and have taken the most points by some way of any team since the start of last season – so to give a goal away was criminal.

    But please let’s not invent conspiracy theories. Your “cheated” comments, does a disservice not only to Bristol Rovers, but also Scunthorpe.

    And if Chapman could finish off his wonderful play, we’d probably have won three home matches when we’ve only got one point.

    But goals change games.

    • banbroview, Jason’s only saying “some would say cheated”, as indeed some have said! He’s not saying he agrees with them and he’s certainly not inventing conspiracy theories.

      • This has to be most sensitive forum of any I can think of (and I’m on a few!!)

        It’s my opinion that it was unnecessary. You disagree. Then that’s fine and it’s really good of you to speak up him!!

      • Nothing to do with sensitivity, banbroview, just accuracy, that’s all.

      • It’s my opinion that this was a “conspiracy theory”. I never stated as fact, so I don’t have to be “accurate”.

      • Well, this seems to have escalated!

        First thing to say, the point I was making was to praise Northampton and their resilience for coming back from double promotion disappointment last season. Unless you’re a Bristol Rovers or Mansfield fan, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for what they went through. Other clubs would not have bounced back so well. Us included.

        In terms my comments “some would say cheated” I don’t know why you instantly leap to the words “conspiracy theory” as some attempt to rubbish their sense of injustice. No one is implying Scunthorpe United threw the game against Bristol Rovers that denied Northampton promotion. But that doesn’t mean they can’t feel cheated. There is no conspiracy theory and there doesn’t have to be for “cheated” to be an understandable emotion.

        To bring it back to the facts, on the final day of last season Northampton and Bristol Rovers were level on points, with Northampton having a better goal difference. They just had to beat Barrow away to be virtually certain of going up, which they did. But Scunthorpe – Bristol Rovers’ last day opponents – fielded a weakened team. One with an average age of 20. They were already relegated, had nothing to play for, and went with their kids. This ended up producing a 7-0 win for Bristol Rovers, meaning they pipped Northampton on goals scored.

        If that was, you’d feel gutted and a little cheated. Rovers were fortunate to play Scunthorpe United at the moment they did, and the 7-0 win was a freak scoreline. That’s not to accuse anyone of throwing the game, as I’m sure those who turned out for Scunthorpe that day did their best, but it wasn’t good for the integrity of the league that promotion was settled this way.

        Northampton felt aggrieved enough to talk to the EFL about what happened. Scunthorpe did not break any rules, but it was hardly in the best spirit of things. See article here:

        Bringing it back to my comment, I really don’t think with these circumstances, writing “some would say cheated” is an unreasonable comment.

        Hope that settles it and we move on.


  2. I’m not sure this is the case…….City were controlling the game and Northampton looked average before the goal. We need to look further into this. Playing tippy tappy football on a surface that doesn’t roll should have been talked about and changed before kick off. The amount of pass’s that never made their man. The Captain today was awful, not only his football but there was no communication from him. From his mistake came the first goal he didn’t even acknowledge his error,the team capitulated after that and forgot their roles. Nervous we are punching above our station,Hughes and Hodge’s seem to be on a ‘one trip pony’, they don’t seem to have a ‘ Lets try this next ‘ plan and its so predicable,opposition tacticians must chuckle at how easy their jobs going to be coming here. Lots of work to do i hope we can find an answer.

    • We simply could not be giving a moral sapping goal away against, the number one team of the past 16 months at protecting 1-0 leads.

      To me this was just one of those matches. A bit like when we lost at home 3-0 to QPR around this time in 1998.

      We move on.

    • I agree, up until the first goal I thought Northampton were really average, at best. Another example of the hype that precedes many “dead cert top three” teams that come to VP. What really frustrated me (and eventually made me leave early for the first time since the horrors of adamsball), was how we made Northampton look so good…a breath takingly poor response to going behind.
      I hope Mark can sort this, as we are so close to being actually quite good, while somehow still retaining the ability to be completely clueless, often in the same game.

      • Agreed.

        Before the first goal gift any result was possible. The disappointment was how the team reacted when we conceded.

        There’s a fragility about City at home which we need to address.

        That all said you have to admire Northampton. Once they got their noses ahead they were brilliant.

        It’s a long season, not even half way through. We go again…

      • I think you have to remember that this is a Northampton team that has been winning and not losing many for nearly 18 months.

        Our team, were understandably spooked at giving away a terrible goal and Northampton instinctively smelled blood and took their second goal brilliantly. It’s probably the best goal I’ve seen scored against us this season.

        Suddenly, we’re 2-0 down against the one team who know how to win L2 games the most.

        What we could do with is Walker asking his former teammate Andy Halliday to come back. Them two in central midfield would be ideal. Can’t see that happening though!!

      • I get your frustration.

        Walker coming back will be huge, as despite our good start we’ve missed him, although I don’t expect peak performances until February

  3. Such a disappointing afternoon. I thought we made a pretty bright and positive start, and could quite easily have been justifiably leading after 20 minutes, but unfortunately their first goal was an absolute gift. I’ve lost count of the number of goals/penalties we’ve gifted teams at VP this season which must have cost us a lot of points. Hoping Hughes can sort out the very poor home form soon. Ironically, if we were collecting even half as many points at home as we have done away, we’d probably be top of the league!

  4. A very fair and true reflection of how we performed today. We were second best and Northampton Town deserved to win.
    I thought that Eisa showed signs of promise.
    Cook won lots of headers, but there was more often than not, no Bradford City player near by to collect or even challenge for the ball.
    Why do we pull all players back when defending a corner or free kick? The other team usually then gets a second opportunity to get the ball into our 18 yard box.
    I’m not going to over react to a single result, we’re still in a decent league position, however personnel and formations need to be changed for our home games.

  5. I said last week the player’s and the crowd had to be up for the game,both did not turn up.The crowd where very subdued along with the player’s. Nearly 19 k there at this level thats incredible .Everything ready for us to move forward ,big crowd lets go for it,instead we end up getting beaten at home again ,an i look for some backbone a leader to get us going and the manager to react and change it instead in my view , he his working to a time table ,then brings on the subs to late , and leaves it to late to change the formation .Every club in this league now knows how to beat us at home with out a play maker in midfield we can not break teams down ,our manager dose not react or will not change the formation. Somebody at the club needs to sit down with Mark and ask him three wins at home this season is good enough in his view.

  6. Agree. I have said in the past, there is no plan B. Same old same old. Pass from the back. Slow and more often not productive. The times Smallwood tried a long ball wide, the Northampton defender easily guessed right and intercepted the pass. Today was no difference to previous home defeats. The opposition have us sussed. Changes and tactics should have happened after the second goal. To suggest that the players pushed forward and leaving themselves exposed is not surprising. They must have thought they would have to push forward and risk exposure at the back. To leave the substitutes until the 72nd minute after we went 3 down was too late. To continue trying to play out from the back with 2 forwards up front was silly. Kicking the ball long may have changed things. Forget Tuesday Mark Hughes most look at different strategies. We cannot continue playing like this at home.
    I like the team we have and the progress we have made but there is room for improvement. It’s clear the team cannot fulfil Hughe’s desire to play from the back. He just doesn’t have the squad.

    • i disagree sorry. We continually played it long. And Platts distribution was woeful. Also to use this tactic with only Cook up top i dont understand what they expected to achieve? Thye dint even really press like say stockport did yet we changed tactics due to has Hughes himself has said Critchlow not been available. It all looked messy and not organised. The sytem undoutedly works away but i have been saying for many weeks it does not at home and does not utilise the crowd and situation we have. Too slow, too negative (no need for 2 defensive midfielders), and tactically makes it easy for the opposition

  7. Reality check required by Mark Hughes. The back four and holding midfielders are not suitable for playing from the back. My concern is that Hughes has backed himself into a corner with his public promise to continue focusing on possession football while he remains at the Club. Currently, City are definitely playoff contenders but without tactical changes at VP I fear they are handicapping themselves from achieving automatic promotion.

  8. It was undeniably a poor performance today and almost all players were guilty of such shocking passing – no make that gifting the ball to the opposition! Distribution all around the field today was rubbish. Yes the conditions were bad but City made Northampton look outstanding. They truly deserved their win without a shadow of doubt and it could so easily have been a much higher score. I absolutely love Mark and what he’s doing for our club but I do hope he can fix our home form and make changes as necessary without being too stubborn. One bad loss on its own is just that but recent home form shows it’s not a one off and this needs addressing without saying “That’s how we’ll play while I’m here!” Make the changes Mark and let’s get on with promotion. That is all! Cheers

  9. Games like this happen if we flipped our home and away form round everyone would be saying how brilliant we are and we’d still be on the same points.

    This is an overreaction as usual. It’ll come at home. Patience and support required.

    Although one thing that did stand out today. Keeping Critchlow in January is key.

    • Critchlow is with us for the season. No logical reason why he’s going back in January. Huddersfield will get more value from him continuing his education with us.

      And yes a gross over-reaction as usual. Chapman has to do better with these chances he’s getting, otherwise his great ball control and play is pointless.

      First goal was always going to be vital in a match like this.

      • Don’t disagree Chapman has been wonderful to watch without adding the final touch.

        Huddersfield did recall Critchlow in January last year from Swindon to loan him to league 1 Plymouth.

  10. I wonder how many times we will hear opposition supporters say “that’s the best we’ve played”? I’ve heard it a good few times this season already, highlighting how the target on our back, at VP especially, has expanded since Hughes took over. We must find a way of dealing with it if we are ever to progress from this division.

    To be fair to City today, we were looking the most likely to take the advantage until we gifted them their first goal. And we had changed the way we were playing for this match, going considerably more direct than usual. Unfortunately far too many long passes from deep went directly to Northampton, and when Cook did win the ball he rarely had many options for help nearby. We need to work on this approach if it is to become a useful weapon in our armoury – maybe Oliver would be a stronger target man? And we could take a leaf out of Northampton’s book and perhaps do things in numbers – they were excellent at it in all areas today. I do think the anticipated return of Walker will help us at VP in particular as well.

  11. Is it time to close the corner stand and return fans to the Bradford End? We have no fans at all over in that quarter of the stadium. Maybe a more vocal stand would help ease our home pressures and encourage the team.
    Something isn’t working at VP so maybe it’s worth a try

  12. Northampton were more Parky than Sparky. They were big, strong, physically fit and quick – just like us the last time we went up. Our current team lacks these qualities and tries to compensate with superior skill and ball retention. Trouble is we don’t have superior skill. Even if we had, yesterday’s sodden pitch was not the type to encourage carpet football. And the pitches are going to get worse as we head into winter. We are unbalanced in several ways. Three players who don’t get a start are on 3-year contracts. We are asking an awful lot of our four young loanees. We lack height at centre back. We lack mobility in defensive midfield. Our tactics are inflexible and ultra predictable and therefore naive. We lose heart if we go behind at home. On the plus side, we are among the front runners and can readjust in the window.

  13. Not sure why we are so vulnerable in transition when we have two defensively minded centre mids. They broke on us more than once before the first goal so it was not just a loss of shape when we went behind. On the flip side the Gilly/Smallwood combo offers too little forward momentum/creativity. MH has to trust in East or remedy the problem in January.
    Chapman again flattered to deceive he was the pick in the first half but could not add the goal to the performance. If Wright is fit he has to start!

    • That central midfield struggles at Valley Parade yet seems to work away from home. Its something that must frustrate the heck out of Hughes and doesn’t seem an easy fix. Not the first time at home where we look flat footed and devoid of ideas in the part of the pitch. Agree about Chapman, i think he’s our main creative threat but just can’t seem to add that final pass or goal to his impressive build up play. Opposition managers have done a number on us a few times now, get that first goal and the big crowd becomes restless.
      I think we will see a couple of changes come January as Hughes looks for players able to cope with his passing demands.

  14. Agree with most of this Jason but the comment ” I get why Gilliead continues to be picked ahead of Ryan East in terms of the former’s greater athleticism and tackling ability” made me chuckle. I think East moves well enough around the pitch and distributes the ball quickly. As for tackling ability, Gillead rarely puts a tackle in. A lot of shadowing, but often runs around aimlessly for me
    The main gripe for me was Hughes not changing it soon enough. As soon as they scored their second it should have been done then.

    • In thought East was poor when he came on.

      He’s not the answer.

      The answer is Walker. He’s our Kevin De Bruyne. Walker will link up the midfield better than anyone.

      ]Playing Songo’o instead of Gilly is also something I’m surprised Hughes hasn’t done – after all let’s remember that Yann is a tough tackling CDM.

      • Songo’o is slow and not very mobile. Definitely not an alternative to Gilliead. Ultimately, I trust Hughes’ player assessment regarding Gilliead being the best of a questionable lot. Central midfield is definitely a priority for January recruitment.

  15. I agree on Gilliead. At the risk of being accused of singling out one player when others had poor games can someone please tell me what Gilliead offers to this team?

  16. Sometimes there is a danger of attaching pre-conceived ideas of how City might lose the game to how they actually lost the game. City did not play tippy tappy football, they did not pass it slowly around at the back, they were much more direct and quick to get it forward and up until the first goal, should have been ahead.

    Chapman is a superb footballer but he has to add goals to his game (then again if he could he probably wouldn’t be with us). I can only remember one clearcut chance for them before the goal. I thought it was a terrific game until that error but then we fell apart and like Hughes said we lacked the composure and control to ever create a sustained spell of pressure.

    The Smallwood mistake was not caused by a desire to pass slowly around at the back, it was an attempt to quickly switch the play (that’s my opinion anyway). Unfortunately, Songoo did not expect it and you can’t blame him for that. These things happen but we did fall apart and really on the balance of play, despite all the half chances we had, 5-0 would not have flattered Northampton.

    It was one of those days for City – we need to stop being so hysterical – we should have been ahead but we were 2-0 down. The boos from the fans were awful to hear and frankly I’m appalled at the number of people that left “Sing when you’re winning”, it should be “Stay when you’re winning”.

    There a very fine lines in sport and although Northampton were good value, it could have been very different.

    I for one am not going to lose the faith or walk out on them.

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