Bradford City continue to benefit from Mark Hughes’ refined principles as new approach brings further rewards

Bradford City 3
Oliver Vassell OG 8, Gilliead Oliver 27, Eisa 68
Salford City 2
McAleny 13+60

Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)

Maybe this isn’t quite what Mark Hughes was originally trying to achieve. But with the manager’s recent tactical tweaks – plus the embracing of a more direct approach, an increase in the tempo of the play, and a resurgence in dogged spirit – Bradford City are suddenly producing a much more effective style of football that retains a level of beauty.

Hughes has found another way to win that was enough to better a spirited and talented Salford City side, enabling the Bantams to follow up their Thursday night win over Harrogate with another success that puts them right back in the promotion hunt. Confidence, which had been dented by four straight defeats prior, has quickly returned. A team that had forgotten how to win at home is now embracing the Valley Parade stage once again.

This is principles dipped in League Two realism. Playing the right way in more than just an aesthetic manner. Hughes has embraced the darker side and given Bradford City another dimension. He twisted when he could no longer stick. And perhaps has found the balance between idealism and pragmatic thinking.

The shift to a 4-3-3/diamond formation and tweaks to the starting XI tell only part of the story of how much things have changed. The slow, play it out from the back philosophy has been amended to more of a mix it up approach. Where once possession was almost always kept on the deck – passed backwards and sideways more often than forwards – there’s a greater urgency to get the ball up the pitch quickly. A greater intelligence to react to what the opposition are trying to do by finding ways to navigate around it.

When Salford pressed high early on, Harry Lewis motioned his defenders to get up the field so he could play a high ball forward instead to get City up the pitch (see Stockport home when they never reacted to the visitors’ high press). When Salford had possession in the middle of the park, the likes of Alex Gilliead aggressively pushed to quickly win tackles, rather than the timid, protect the back four approach of the 4-2-3-1 before (see Northampton home). When Brad Halliday had possession outside and not much in front of him, he launched crosses into the box rather than looking backwards to play a pass (see pretty much every home game to date).

It’s all a bit more, well, back to basics. It’s not flash, it’s not overly complicated and it’s not even especially clever. It’s just simplifying some of the complexity, and understanding better what your typical League Two player is good at. Hughes deserves so much credit for these last two wins, and for recognising the need to reconfigure.

And the City players merit huge praise too. They were outstanding here in defeating a Salford side who never gave in and looked every inch a side who will be up there come the end of the season. Salford started and ended the game especially strongly, but even their best efforts were not enough. The scoreline ultimately presented a fair summation of the game.

It was a match of twists and turns. City struck first when a deep cross from Halliday was met by a towering leap from Vadaine Oliver – preferred again to Andy Cook – and his header flew over the out of position Tom King and into the net. The Salford defender, Theo Vassell, had attempted to block Oliver’s header and may have had the last touch. Many media outlets have chalked it down as an own goal.

Whoever gets the credit, at the time, the eighth minute goal had come against the run of play with Salford showing positive attacking intent from the off. Lewis made a terrific one on one block shortly after, but when Conor McAleny powerfully volleyed Salford’s equaliser on 13 minutes, it was difficult to begrudge the visitors deserved to be level, and you feared for City.

But weirdly the Salford goal changed the game. It freed City from the shackles of their own tentativeness, and they kicked on to dominate.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to make that the performance City produced over the remaining 30 minutes of the first half was their best of the season. They attacked with purpose, producing some scintillating link up play and running between the lines. Harry Chapman and Gilliead were especially excellent, and though Wright was less involved than he can be, his every touch oozed quality.

Wright helped to put City back in front when his superb low cross picked out Gilliead, whose shot hit the bar and bounced down over the line, with Oliver tapping the ball home to make sure. Both players celebrated as though it was theirs. Another one for the dubious goal panel.

It was a funny goalscoring day for Oliver. Did he score two goals, one goal or none at all? All a matter of debate, but what wasn’t in dispute was how brilliantly he played. With City playing in a manner that demanded a targetman, Oliver flourished to lead the line magnificently. At last, the more bizarre signing of last summer is beginning to make sense.

The travesty for City was the first half had to come to an end. They were so in the ascendency, so on top, that only Salford could have welcomed the pause and chance to regain composure. Sure enough, the second half was slower from City. They didn’t play badly for sure, but failed to hit the same heights.

Salford got a second equaliser when McAleny struck again from a free kick. It followed a foul and booking for Matty Platt, although the assistant referee – struggling to keep up with the quick Salford counter attack – missed an offside in the build up. Given Richie Smallwood had hit the post moments earlier for City, a sense of injustice was there to claim. But to their credit once more, the team dusted themselves down and kept going.

The third goal came from the bench, quite literally really. Hughes had summoned Jamie Walker, Andy Cook and Abo Eisa just before a City set piece, and as the ball was launched into the box Cook nodded it across from Eisa to head home a belated first goal for Bradford City. For both Cook and Eisa, their goal involvements were also their respective first touches.

Walker, who caught the eye with a mixture of skill and winding up the opposition, could and probably should have made it 4-2 with 10 minutes to go. Played through by Wright, the Scot’s shot rolled agonisingly the wrong side of the post, meaning it would be a nervy end to the game.

Salford attacked in numbers and the ball pinged around the box one too many times for comfort. One horrendously bad Odin Bailey miss aside, City restricted Salford’s attempts to land a third equaliser of the game. Platt and Romoney Crichlow were outstanding at the back.

The final whistle was a huge relief and suddenly City are joint fourth in the table, just four points behind the automatic promotion places that had seemed to be out of reach mere days ago. There’s plenty of work to do to truly get back into top three contention, but with the players’ spirits soaring they have rediscovered some momentum.

The team looks so strong again. Smallwood has been unburdened from some of his responsibilities and looks a better player for it. Levi Sutton did so much barely noticeable work that collectively added up to a lot (the sort of performance his team mates would have appreciated more than fans). The full backs are in good form. Chapman suddenly has serious competition for his spot with Walker’s return to fitness. Even Cook – so outstanding this season – is no longer assured of his place.

Hughes has done a fantastic job of late refining his plan to adapt to the changing circumstances. Whereas other, recent under pressure City managers could not find a tactical way out of similar ruts, Hughes has demonstrated his managerial experience and acumen – with exciting results.

It all added up to a day to remember. One of the best City games for some time – perhaps the best since their return to League Two in 2019. The atmosphere is building up again, and a feeling of unity between supporters and players is returning.

It was a genuine pleasure to be here at Valley Parade today. In recent years, with so much Bradford City failure, we’ve all become that bit more hard bitten and cynical. Quick to be impatient. Difficult to please. Yet how could you not love this game? How could you fail to be perched on the edge of your seat? These are the days where you can genuinely feel proud to be a Bradford City fan.

All in all, this was the sort of warm, joyous feeling that we hoped Hughes, and his adventurous football philosophy, would bring back to this troubled football club. For 90 minutes at least here, he gave us it. Even if it wasn’t quite in the style he might have envisioned.

Categories: Match Reviews

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18 replies

  1. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a game at VP so much in years. It was a pleasure to see City playing with confidence and no little skill. Hughes’ tactical change of going more direct has really turned around a team that looked to be on the slide. Oliver was a relevation, finally giving Cook some serious competition and I thought Crichlow was outstanding. Finally I must give praise where it is due to Salford; it was great to see a side coming to VP to play football and their positivity contributed in no small measure to a great game of football

  2. Great entertainment (I think!❤️‍🩹) and so pleased that MH has turned things around at VP.
    Whilst the diamond can leave us open to being exposed on the flanks, as per Salford’s talented left back Touray, the change has brought about improved individual performances and a better offensive threat.
    With the imminent return of key injured players and new January additions, the promotion charge is most definitely on! 💪🏻

  3. A very good piece Jason, you described the game I watched exactly. Next please.

  4. A very good piece Jason, you described the game I watched today exactly. What a game, I am heartened by our display of grit and determination. No excuse now, whereas form can drop, grit and determination shouldn’t as it just needs 100% continuous commitment.

  5. Last week I enquired what was the point in signing Oliver. Well, he answered that in fine style today. Maybe Cook’s form scuppered MH’s plans ‘re Oliver. The change in tactics also really suit Smallwood and Gilliead.

    I’d echo that’s the best game I’ve witnessed at City for a long time. Every single player put a shift in and played their part. What a refreshing transformation. More of the same please!

  6. One of the most enjoyable games since Parky, superb subs from Mark Hughes and (together with Thursday night) a complete connect between the team and the crowd.

  7. Great write up as always from this site.

    Two much needed ho e wins in the bounce now.

    I think the Oliver situation as baffled me this season, we’ve got him and a few others in the squad who have done great at other clubs but mark had seemed unwilling or unable to adjust the way we played to accommodate them, I was starting to find it baffalling. I always think that the very best managers can find a system or adjust it to make it work for all the players in their squad to get the best out of everyone.

    Just hope we can really kick on now and our home form can really pick up

  8. Exciting and entertaining just like an ice hockey game with lots of goals. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last of possession focused football in L2.

  9. Yes. Fandabbydozy.

    Two teams in it to win it, and going at it hammer & tongs? Tick.
    A goal fest from early doors, with 5 goals liberally spread through the match? Tick.
    A marginal striker, getting in on the goals? Tick.
    Yet more heroic saves from the Chicken Man? Tick.
    The Bantam faithful in good voice & humour, generating a fantastic atmosphere? Tick.
    Referee mascarading as the Pantomime villain with a generous portion of unfathomable decisions that energise the crowd, but are not calamitous enough to unjustly swing the match? Tick.
    Oh..and 3 points for the win. Tick.

    If only you could put this formula on order every week.

  10. Delighted for Oliver and Eisa. They both deserve today and now we can really make an assault on third place. We were clearly not quite ready for that on the 19th of November vs Northampton. What a difference today, 6 weeks later. Now i think we would beat the Cobblers. Well done Mark, Glynn and all the players for turning things around in the last 4 days. Long may it continue !

  11. Brilliant summary of the game. And the same conclusion for me…that’s the best I’ve seen at VP for at least 2 years. Thank you Sparky for using your whole squad and making them need to fight for their place.

  12. Today’s game was up there with the 3-3 draw with Sheffield Utd in Stuart McCalls 16/17 season. Excitement, goals and one of the most tense finishes you would see. What a strong bench today when Hughes can call on Cook,Eisa and Walker as well as Songo’o

  13. The 3 subs coming on at once definitely showed Hughes’ intent to go on and win the game, although with Oliver gone we lost some our ability to hold the ball up which we could have done with later when we were holding on. That said, the attacking gamble paid off.

  14. Jason no mention of the cracking atmosphere. Chalk and cheese compared to Thurs. Fans 100% behind the players, the Kop and NWC working in harmony (for a change).
    The only thing which could have been better is a packed away end, admittedly Salford will never bring many.

    I walked out at full time with a bounce in my stride. Not felt like that’s for yonks. More of the same MH 😃

  15. I heard Mark Hughes say in a previous post match interview, that He was not panicking of the result at this side of the season as there is a lot of football to be played and the group are still gelling and building confidence and quoted that the important stuff will be in the 2nd half of the season and also everyone will have their part to play as well as we have a big squad.

    Wow, what a way to start the 1st returned leg of the 2nd half of the season, also we have had our fair share of injuries earlier with players coming back into the fold for the final push, maybe worth putting a 10 x home match mini season ticket up for sale to get VP huge & loud to end the season in 2023.

    Feels like we have got Our Football Club Back, and long may it continue……….

  16. Excellent report Jason. Like many others I thought it was the best game for some time. Played, for the most part, with much more energy than recently. (Might have been the Brussel sprouts!!!). Obviously the change in tactics has been well thought out and the team have taken it to it impressively .Well done everyone

    A word about the referee. As a former ref myself I don’t much go in for slagging them off. Yesterday’s official was certainly not the very best and there were plenty of things to argue about but whether things were missed or interpreted differently, it all added to the excitement and the atmosphere.

    Without a doubt, my man of the match!!!!!

  17. One word Brilliant from the player’s the Manager and the supporters, now keep it up .

  18. Brilliant game. Two good sides both going for it.

    I don’t understand any criticism of the ref. Thought he was excellent. He let the game flow and didn’t fall the diving. Only decision I thought he got wrong was not booking Watt for a scything challenge on Chapman. He did miss him but if he’d caught him, it would surely have been red.

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