|Salford City 1|
|Bradford City 0|
Words and images by Jason McKeown
Bradford City might have spent October breaking hoodoos but over November they’re reverting to type. Just as bogey team Harrogate dumped City out of the FA Cup weeks after the Bantams had finally defeated them in the league, here Salford did what Salford normally do when they face these opponents at Moor Lane. Win and keep a clean sheet.
The feelgood factor of City’s 1-0 league triumph here barely a month ago became a distant memory, as in plummeting temperatures the visitors plummeted out of the last cup competition they were still involved in. It matters, because City have made little secret of their desire to do well in the Papa John’s Trophy. And it matters even more when you consider the financial windfall missed out on. One that will be especially felt come January.
And that’s where the reverting to type becomes a big concern. Just as they were well-beaten by Northampton on Saturday, there can’t really be too many complaints from City over the way they were knocked out by Salford. Sure, there was a decent handball penalty appeal in the second half. Harry Chapman was desperately unlucky to see a curling long range effort smack against the woodwork. City had 62% of the ball and produced 494 passes to Salford’s 311 – no mean feat, given Salford have the highest average possession and passes per game in the division – but City never managed any sustained pressure to suggest an equaliser was deserved. They just didn’t do enough.
Which right now, for City, is reverting to type.
Watching City pass, pass, pass and then pass a bit more tonight, the glaring missing ingredient is tempo. Everything about them is just that little bit too slow. That’s nothing new, and much of their season to date has been akin to trying to drive along the motorway without fully taking off the handbrake. It all feels like City should be built for speed. With pacy forwards, creative midfielders and attacking full backs. We keep waiting for lift off. And yet we’re still chugging along in the slow lane, wondering what’s happening.
For much of the season, City have succeeded despite failing to find the higher gears. And that’s because there is quality in the ranks to produce big moments. How often have we talked about City not playing as well as they can, and yet having spells in the game where it clicks and they get the job done? Sometimes it’s relying on a wonder goal – this year’s goal of the season competition is certainly going to be tasty – often it’s come through the dogged brilliance of Andy Cook.
That capability to produce big moments has masked some less than convincing City displays. There’s not been too many complete performances. If, indeed, any.
Over the last few days – and indeed recent home games – those big moments have been in less supply. And with it, those deficiencies have come more to the fore. It’s also exposed the limitations in the squad that we all hoped had been addressed through a summer of promising transfer activity.
The slowness of City stands out in games like this. Salford are similar in style to City and have clearly had similar issues. Early doors, we saw a game of both teams building up slowly from the back. Waiting for gaps to appear in the opponents’ set up, so they can pass their way through and start attacks. It was a war of attrition, with the entertainment not helped by the fact both teams were very organised off the ball.
In such circumstances, the first goal felt huge.
Perhaps encouraged by City’s lack of attacking impetus, Salford began to up it. They pressed a little bit more keenly, and when in possession worked more quicker to the dangerous Matt Smith. They quickly realised that Yann Songo’o was struggling playing as a left-sided centre half, and that closing the space between him and outlet Matty Foulds was severely hampering City’s efforts to play out.
10 minutes before half time, Lorent Tolaj got free and struck a powerful effort into the far corner to put Salford ahead. Given his incredibly high standards since joining the club, Harry Lewis might reflect that he could have done a little better to keep it out. That’s probably harsh, and my viewpoint – stood behind the goal – perhaps wasn’t the clearest. It certainly wasn’t a goalkeeping error.
There’s a couple of things to say about City falling behind. The first is that it hasn’t happened that often so far this season. That’s clearly a good thing. Because it shows the excellent defensive resolve that means City aren’t losing games that often. But the second thing to highlight is the response to going behind when they do. Which isn’t great.
In the league, they’ve achieved a grand total of one point from a losing position (Vadaine Oliver’s stoppage time equaliser against Wimbledon). In the cup, there’s only the come from behind victory over Hull. On the other eight occasions they’ve gone behind this season (including here), they’ve gone onto lose.
On nights like this, you can see why they have such a bad record when they go a goal down. When a team gets their noses ahead, the onus is on the opposition to attack more, create extra pressure, commit bodies forward and do everything they can to equalise. City just don’t do that. They don’t take extra risks to chase games. And the 4-2-3-1 set up simply isn’t suitable for going all out attack.
That’s why, in the second half here, City had a lot of the ball but didn’t exactly knock hard on the opposition door. They created chances, with Tyreik Wright, Dion Pereira, Scott Banks and Jamie Walker – making a welcome return off the bench after his long spell injured – going close. But it isn’t consistent, throw-the-kitchen-sink, the-opposition-cannot-get-out-their-own-half, type of pressure. It comes and goes. And, more often than not, so too does the final whistle.
It comes back to tempo. Wright – by some distance City’s best player tonight – was the only attacker who had Salford stretched. He’s got pace to burn and has tremendous trickery. But he needs support around him to maximise his threat. Pereira was typical Pereira in that he produced some nice touches and flicks, but doesn’t get into the game enough. Chapman was not at his best either.
Up front, Oliver was given a rare start ahead of Cook and couldn’t take his opportunity. His style of play just doesn’t suit what City are trying to do. He is not great with his feet and wants high balls to knock down to others. Even when he did get that type of service, he was too isolated and no one was reading where his headers were going. That three-year deal to sign Oliver looks a bad piece of business right now. You wonder if both the player and club might elect to make a tough decision in January.
And then you came back to the familiar issue of Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood. It carried on as it was on Saturday. Two players struggling to create. Struggling to impose themselves on the opposition. You can see when they pick up the ball that they’re scanning all options to pick a pass, but too often there’s not enough players close by ahead of them, and so they take the only available option and pass it backwards. Elliot Watt got some harsh abuse from City fans tonight, but the uncomfortable truth is that he is sort of player we lack.
Smallwood was taken off in the second half, with Ryan East given a chance and looking reasonably bright. East probably deserved to start this game. The fact he didn’t doesn’t bode well for his prospects. Hughes understandably elected against mixing up the team given the importance of the competition for City, and fact there is now a decent gap to recover before the next game. But sticking with Smallwood and Gilliead after they had such a bad game on Saturday strongly points to a greater lack of depth than we had hoped.
Games like Saturday should be the moment where those who hadn’t done their jobs lose their place, but Hughes clearly doesn’t trust those in reserve to come in for under-performers.
The final whistle blew, and just as normal City were beaten in these parts. With just two wins in the last nine games, reverting to type is not a good thing right now. The extended time on the training ground ahead of the big game at leaders Leyton Orient needs to prove beneficial for City’s season.
If Hughes believes this 4-2-3-1 set-up – and personnel – is the right one to succeed, that’s absolutely his call and he deserves to be backed. But he cannot possibly be satisfied by the way his team are performing of late, in recent weeks and – to an extent – all season. The principles of passing your way to success are commendable, but the pace has got to be much sharper. There’s some really talented players at this football club, led by arguably the best manager in the league. Now, they have to find a way to truly live up to their capability. To find those higher gears. Rather than relying so heavily on big moments.
Categories: Match Reviews