|Bradford City 1|
By Jason McKeown (image by John Dewhirst)
Eat, sleep, lose to a team near the bottom, repeat.
Once again the unpalatable part of Bradford City’s DNA has proven their undoing. Like falling flat on your face moments after tying your own shoelaces together, here a winning advantage over Rochdale somehow turned into an avoidable mess of a dismal home defeat. Another night of infamy, for a club forever flawed by its soft underbelly.
Players and managers come and go. Seasons can prove to be successful or full of failure. But whatever the backdrop and the cast, this type of inglorious Bradford City loss always seems to feature somewhere. After a weekend where we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Bantams amazing League Cup semi final victory over Aston Villa, we forget that just three days before it Phil Parkinson’s men had lost 2-0 to a Barnet side ranked 89th in the pyramid. That is the ridiculousness of Bradford City – give the best sides a bloody nose, only to slip over on the banana skins of teams in dire straits.
It’s what we do, and it’s absolutely infuriating.
This was both shocking and yet dismally predictable. Rochdale came into this game winless in over two months, with just one victory in their last 13 matches, and just two away successes all season – the last of which came over three months ago. If Mark Hughes had been allowed to pick which opponents to face right now, Rochdale home would probably have been right at the top of the list.
This, one of our games in hand over others. The chance to go fourth and close the gap on the automatic promotion contenders to just four points (with a further game in a hand). The chance to build a cushion over the play off chasing pack. The chance to build on two really promising home victories and develop some valuable momentum.
And for a while it was heading that way. Abo Eisa marked his belated full home debut with a goal of real quality at the half hour point. Brought in to replace the departed Tyreik Wright, Eisa produced a brilliant touch to bring the ball away from his marker before firing expertly past former City stopper Richard O’Donnell. With Rochdale showing a strong defensive resolve up and little attacking ambition in the first half, breaking the deadlock felt so crucial. A platform to go on and win from with comfort.
It really did feel comfortable too. City were not playing at their best but had a measure of control over an initially dispirited-looking visiting side. In horrendous conditions caused by a day of non-stop rain, the sticky pitch made for a game littered with mistakes. Rochdale seemed to find the going especially tough and their already brittle confidence was dented further by a pass success rate that – up until Eisa’s goal – stood at just 49%. In other words, for every two passes they attempted, one failed to find a team-mate.
All that was needed was a ruthless edge from City. To continue to press high up the park, put pressure on a suspect defence and get a second goal that would surely lead to a Rochdale surrender. Yet just as we all began to believe the change to a diamond formation and slightly more direct approach had made the Bantams less charitable, they once again showed their passive side that too often this season has seen them fail to grasp control of games and truly dominate.
The wily Ian Henderson almost scored just before half time, and after the break Dale manager Jim Bentley – who deployed a conservative 5-4-1 formation – encouraged his charges to push further up the park. City’s diamond four began to look a little too isolated, and when Devante Rodney hit the post from a speculative free kick, the warning signs were growing that the Bantams were far from having this victory sewn up.
In some ways, Rochdale’s greater attacking intent helped City. A tepid game began to become more open, and Harry Chapman started to find space where he could run with the ball. Eisa continued to look excellent at charging forwards, although there are questions over how effective his partnership with Vadaine Oliver might prove. Eisa likes to drop into deeper positions than Wright has been occupying when he played up front in the last two games. Oliver suffered from not having a player running beyond him to flick the ball onto.
Still, it looked like a below par City were on track, at least until the hour mark and two huge penalty calls by Paul Howard. First, he failed to point to the spot when Eisa was played through on goal and seemed to be clearly tripped. Then just two minutes later he judged Brad Halliday to have pulled back Rodney. Watching replays of the two incidents, it’s utterly baffling how Howard can deem one a penalty and not the other, given they looked so similar.
This lack of consistency from Howard was a frustrating feature of the whole night. If the terrible weather and Rochdale’s defensive tactics were hardly going to be conducive to creating an entertaining game of football, Howard’s non-stop blowing up for fouls and erratic decision making made it even more stop-start. His inequality over the penalty calls especially changed the game.
For the third time this season, Harry Lewis faced a penalty in front of the Bradford End. For the third time this season, Lewis saved the spot kick. But crucially for the second time this season, he could not prevent the opposition from scoring the rebound. Rodney was foiled from 12 yards, but Henderson was the quickest to react and slammed home the equaliser.
Seven minutes later, Hendrson struck again after getting free of Romoney Crichlow and Matty Platt to finish from close range. The Rochdale build up play down their left hand side did not reflect well on Halliday – who had a poor night by his recent standards – and both City centre backs should have reacted better to the unfolding situation. It was also a goal that highlights the limitations of the diamond. City play without width, which means opposition sides have space to attack down the flanks, doubling up on City full backs if they can. It’s something for Hughes to consider.
The City manager has impressed of late for the changes he’s made to the team to get them back on track, but he wasn’t winning any popularity contests with City fans this evening. As the minutes ticked down and Dale continued to hold their 2-1 lead, the inactivity of Hughes from the bench was perplexing. He had four subs still to make, but he waited and then waited some more.
Each time he finally acted, it was at the same time at Rochdale were making changes. Perhaps Hughes thought it was best to wait for Rochdale to make a move, to limit the momentum stalling impact of the game being stopped too often for substitutions to be made. But it meant the introduction of top scorer Andy Cook was delayed until the 83rd minute.
To provide some balance, the personnel City had on the pitch prior to that point – which included the 66th minute sub Jamie Walker – provided a decent attacking balance that allowed the home side to push for an equaliser. They may not have been keeping O’Donnell busy, but were at least getting forwards and winning plenty of corners. After Cook replaced Sutton, City arguably ended up with too many forwards on the pitch and not enough players to work the ball up to them.
As such, when Cook came on Rochdale actually took control of the game. They kept the ball in the middle of the park, with City having barely anyone in a position to win the ball back and launch it forward. The stats bear out the counter-productive effect of both Cook’s introduction and the two even later subs. Up until the 83rd minute, City had enjoyed 59% possession to Rochdale’s 41%. Yet in those crucial final stages that followed, Rochdale had 56% possession to City’s 44%.
Even more tellingly, City didn’t manage a single shot on goal in those closing moments. They couldn’t get near a Dale side who – let’s remember – were second bottom of the league, winless since early November. A ludicrous way to end a game that the form guide suggested should have been a comfortable home victory.
It is such a missed opportunity for City. All that good feeling built up of late has once again fallen away. And with the Bantams next eight league fixtures against sides pushing for promotion, they will have to do it the hard way if they’re to maintain their still promising position.
For Hughes, the questions he must have thought he’d answered have come back to the fore. Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead once again struggled. There doesn’t seem to be enough of a goal threat in the team. And they can’t seem to maintain a 90-minute performance. Does the manager stick with the diamond or revert to type? Is it time to bring back Cook? And what does Ryan East have to do to get a chance?
All this will be contemplated as Hughes picks up the pieces of this set back. There’s still an awful long way to go and no one should be overly despondent by this defeat. But just like his predecessors, Hughes has found he too can’t overcome a familiar issue that has held back this club for years – the abject failure to win the most winnable of games.
It’s what we do. And something we appear doomed to forever repeat.
Categories: Match Reviews