A familiar storyline underlines the need for Bradford City to improve on their overall performances this season

Salford City 1
Tolaj 35
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

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10 replies

  1. Alarm bells started ringing for me last week after Mark Hughes stated that the focus was top three in May, not now. Certainly not something I was expecting to read at this point in the season. Sounded to me like a precursor to expecting rough seas ahead. The January Transfer Window is likely to play a major role in City achieving promotion this season. I’m far from convinced it will be via automatic promotion.

  2. Two problems seem to crop up regularly:

    1) We don’t mix it up enough both in terms of our style of play and team selection.

    2) The midfield pairing of Smallwood and Gilliead give the ball away far too much. This makes me think that neither of them are good enough on the ball to play at the high tempo which is needed to beat a high press or break down a low block. Smallwood certainly isn’t a playmaker yet he seems to be trying to do that job.

    Both issues appear to make us easy to defend against at times. The first should be easy enough to solve because we have the personnel to do it.

    The second problem needs to be rectified in the January transfer window.

    Oh and can we get Smallwood off set pieces please?!

  3. Can’t disagree with any of your comments about last night’s game or your observations as to where we are as a team.
    The 4/2/3/1 systems means our two centre backs and both central midfielders have much responsibility for how we build our attacks. Unfortunately, the current lack of pace and creativity in this area is reflective in recent performances and is an area for strengthening come January, especially as it’s apparent that MH doesn’t have much faith in the available back up players.
    On a more positive note it was good to see Jamie Walker back, who will hopefully prove to be the catalyst for a change in tempo and creativity.
    Despite the cup exits and the recent disappointments that we all feel there’s certainly no need to panic as we are still well placed in the league. Whilst MH is not too happy with certain aspects of our play he is clearly fully confident in his ability to achieve success come May and as such deserves our trust, even if it comes with the occasional criticism.

  4. I just hope we have money to spent in January, we have to many average player’s and not enough goals in the squad ,who looks at the stats of the player’s beforethey sign .The stats tells you there’s not many goals in the player’s signed .Then the balance in midfield with no play maker again this leads to a lack of goals.So i hope we shift some of the unused players out,reduce the size of the squad and get the three quality player’s in i think we need for the run in.

  5. There’s various team issues need addressing as mentioned in the write up.
    IF we’d have not had long term injuries to Walker and Manny Osadebe, I believe the midfield problems, lack of creativity, and the seemingly lethargic movement of the ball would not be as protracted.
    However, we’ve effectively four out of the five current regular midfield spots occupied by what are naturally wide/wingers.
    This is not conducive to what MH is wanting to achieve and never will be.
    Until he gets players available that can do the job well that he requires, he should adapt his team structure to what he has available.
    If that means 433 or the 442 that got us to the premiership, then so be it.

  6. I’ve seen comments that if Hughes had any other name he’d be under pressure. I actually think it’s the complete opposite because of Hughes’ name we have increased expectations exponentially.

    If McCall had been sat 5th after 19 games we’d have all been praising McGod. Crikey if Adams had been sat 5th at this point last year nobody would have been calling him delusional and he might still be here now (blessing in disguise we were awful). The fans stayed behind Boreyer longer and remember that football!

    We’ve more points than either the PP team that got promotion or the one that made the play offs after 19 games, we’ve 2 less points than McCall had in the play off final year after 19 games which are our only good seasons for the last 20+ years.

    I loved the 2013 team they were a brilliant group who would die for 3 points but PP was a very pragmatic manager and I rarely turned up to VP thinking I was going to be hugely entertained. So often we relied on a spark from – unquestionably the best player in the division – Nahki Wells. We saw the catastrophe and how important he was when he left.

    Possession football isn’t just about all out attack and it’s not going to be wave after wave for 90 minutes. It’s also about limiting the opposition – they don’t have the ball they can’t win football matches and, while Hughes can’t put the ball in the back of the net unfortunately, we do generally create better chance than the opposition at home.

    I completely agree there is a frustration linked to our ability to play at tempo when the opportunity appears and I agree this is due to a limitation in the middle of the park. Our good sides have always had a Cullen/Evans (how lucky we were then), a Doyle, a Whalley who can scan the pitch and move play quickly when the opportunity arises. Smallwood and Gilliead both have limitations here but criticisms of them both are unjust, however the partnership doesn’t offer balance.

    At the same time you can’t criticise Hughes for sticking with a team that even in a November where they’ve ‘reverted to type’ have taken 6 points from 9 in the league.

  7. Thanks very much Jason for the report and analysis. I didn’t go last night, nor did I watch on I Follow, so more than even reliant on your insights. Your views from last night, and indeed over recent weeks, highlight some worrying patterns and trends on the field and big questions about the quality of the large squad (are the likes of Young, Harrett, Odusina, East good enough?). My ‘concern’ level has been steadily rising – now at about 6 on a scale of 1 – 10 !!. And, made worse by two factors: a) will Osadebe return the player he was when so horribly injured ? and b) an over-reliance on the January window. I can’t think the last time that it really made a difference. Surely, by definition, available players are not at the top of their game. My only question, Jason, would be on your view that Hughes is “arguably the best manager in the league”. You say “arguably”. Well, in the spirit of debate and discussion so admirably reflected in WoaP, I wonder if his skills and capabilities are perhaps not best suited to L2.

  8. Agree wholeheartedly with the analysis. It’s fine for the manager to have a vision and particular style of play but you need the players to be able to play that style.
    It might work at a higher level where you have the players with the skill and energy to do so but in league 2 and with our current group of players this is not working. Without cook and Lewis we would be lower in the league.
    Either the manager reflects on his style of play or the board back him further in January to try and get some players who can play in the formation preferred by MH otherwise another season in the doldrums ahead.

  9. Yup. Agree with your well set out view, Jason. I’ve been as frustrated this season as prior ones about the sluggish tempo and dangerously ridiculously frequent side to side passing at the back, which again last night could have cost more goals. But you’re right, they CAN do pace & aggression in patches- such as the first movement of Saturday’s game).

    Hughes needs to find the formula that works, and yes, consider mixing up his strategy and available resources.

  10. Maybe someone needs to ask Mark why he persists with the combo of Gilliard and Smallwood. There names are engraved on the teamsheet. The team then has to play around these 2 midfielders. They need to stay close otherwise, the ball is lost. Long passing is not their strength. Smallwood is no Watt. He’s a battling midfield player a spoiler. Some who wins the ball, break things up. He does not see the creative opportunity to send a long meaningful pass. I believe we will do well at Orient. It doesn’t address the problem we have against lesser teams especially at home.

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