|Carlisle United 1|
|Bradford City 0|
Words and images by Adam Raj
Well, we’ve been here before. Middle of winter, Carlisle away, zero goals scored, a defeat and a terrible performance for good measure. The only surprise was just how bad of a performance this was from Mark Hughes’ men.
Following a 23-day layoff since the defeat at Leyton Orient, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect City to come out all guns blazing this afternoon with a real freshness about their play. Hughes himself had even talked about making a statement in his pre match press conference. What was served up, however, was the complete opposite.
The problems that have plagued the Bantams for a number of weeks were painfully exposed on an afternoon where they looked as average as their league position suggests. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the biggest problem continues to be the centre of midfield.
Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead just aren’t it. Not to say they’re bad players individually, but that partnership is broken. There’s no cohesion or authority about their play and there’s no obvious or identifiable delegation of duties between them. The much maligned Elliot Watt had his faults, but you knew what his role was, and in turn, you knew what Gilliead’s role was.
But that was last years side. In comparison, Bradford City 22/23 doesn’t have a Watt, yet want to play in the same possession based style that he was an integral part of. It seems counter intuitive to build a squad to play a specific style of play, without arguably the most important type of player to make it work. But that is forgetting about Ryan East who has gone awol since impressing against Salford in October. He was billed as the deep lying midfield replacement for Watt and has looked every inch that player in his limited minutes. But for whatever reason, Hughes seemingly doesn’t trust him.
The result is that you have two players in Smallwood and Gilliead who try to interchange that role, but who don’t have the qualities to pull it off and quite frankly look dreadfully uncomfortable in attempting to do so.
As for Gilliead’s role, Smallwood has come in and taken over that ball winning position, leaving the former winger, come utility man looking like a spare part. There is more dependency and expectation on him this season to be the attacking number eight in that partnership, but his skill set does not match the job description.
Despite City’s many issues, they have been strong starters of late. The last two defeats to Orient and Northampton may have looked particularly one sided, but City were the better side in the opening 20/25 minutes in both games. Today did not follow that pattern.
Carlisle dominated the centre of the park. That word is often thrown about in football but domination is no exaggeration in this case. The Cumbrians won every second ball from minute one. Smallwood and Gilliead, in particular, were too reactive and never seemed to anticipate where a loose ball wood drop. It meant that the Bantams were constantly on the back foot and had no hope of settling down a fast paced game inspired by an energetic home side.
The less said about City’s midfield in possession the better. The issues have been highlighted and are there for all to see. The range of passing is inadequate for a possession based side, resulting in no relationship between the defensive and forward lines.
City were rather fortunate to still be level by the time the opening goal arrived in the 34th minute. Harry Lewis made two strong saves to deny Jon Mellish and Paul Huntington but the former Preston centre half was not to be denied a second time. Taylor Charters’ in swinging corner was carried by the wind to the back post where Huntington was on hand to flick his header in off the post to give the home side a deserved lead.
Rather curiously, Carlisle thought the best way to preserve their lead was to abandon ship, sit back and time waste their way to three points. It was a strange approach, but one which I’m sure Hughes wasn’t complaining about. City could now get a foot on the ball, have periods of sustained possession and work their way into the Carlisle half. However, the outcome, from City’s attacking perspective was the same. Zero shots on target and nothing for goalkeeper Tomas Holy to be even remotely concerned about.
The second half was marginally better, in that City actually created a few opportunities. They even fell to the one man you’d want them to. Unfortunately Andy Cook’s finishing was well short of what we’ve seen so far this season. He fired wide from 12 yards out following Harry Chapman’s mazy run and then missed an even better chance when he met Smallwood’s back post cross but once again failed to trouble Holy.
It would have been daylight robbery at that point because Carlisle looked at Cook’s finishing and decided they’d have their own compilation of horrendous misses. Jordan Gibson was first up when he blazed over from six yards out whilst completely unmarked at the back post. Mellish was next as he prodded over from the same distance right in the centre of Lewis’ goal after Owen Moxon’s free kick was helped back across the box.
But when Cook is off target, there is nobody else to step up. Nobody even remotely looked like scoring aside from City’s number nine and that’s simply has to change.
But that’s not an easy fix, it’s pretty difficult to suddenly make players into goal scorers. At least City’s midfield problem is more of an easy fix. The most obvious and probably necessary course of action is sign one, if not two midfielders in the mould of Watt or Josh Cullen (if only) in January. Until then, it may be a simple case of reinstating East into the side so that in possession at least, City become a better outfit, even if it doesn’t solve any of the problems off the ball.
Or, it may be time to drop one of the four attackers in favour of East and switch to a 4-3-3. I hesitate to suggest that as it would no doubt be a negative change. But at this stage, City need to give themselves a fighting chance of winning a game by having a midfield who are not constantly losing duels and being ineffective in possession.
Whatever the answer, something must change. As the saying goes, if you lose the midfield, you lose the game and far too often that has been an apt description for this City side.
Categories: Match Reviews