|Bradford City 3|
|Salford City 2|
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