By Jason McKeown
Warning lights are appearing on the Bradford City dashboard that suggest promotion hopes could take a hit – unless things start to change
If Bradford City had completed the job against Rochdale and saw out the win, and if they’d sneaked a late winner at Wimbledon on Saturday, the Bantams would now be sat just one point behind third-place Northampton, with a game in hand. All the talk would be that City are closing in on the automatic promotion places, with a squad coming very nicely to the boil.
Then again, if Bradford City hadn’t held on to complete those narrow victories against Harrogate and Salford – instead drawing them both – they’d currently be sat 14th in the table. And all the talk would be about how the squad isn’t good enough, recruitment has been weak, and that far more is expected of Mark Hughes.
Ifs, buts and maybes. But these two extremes underline the fine margins of Bradford City’s season right now. They’re either on the cusp of excellence or the edge of mediocrity. And results over the last four games suggest it’s a bit of both.
When the league table is so tight and every club has at least 20 games to play, nothing is going to get decided any time soon. Nevertheless, these feel like crucial times for the Bantams, where a season of promise could be in danger of falling away.
And that’s because as close as the League Two promotion race undoubtedly is, the facts suggest that City are falling off the pace. It just isn’t immediately obvious when you study the current league table.
The form guide tells a different story though. Saturday’s 0-0 draw at AFC Wimbledon means City have won just two of their last eight matches. Go back a bit further, and it looks even worse. City have actually won only four of their last 15 games, or five of their last 18. Not great.
The strong start to the season – especially September – gave City a cushion over others that is currently getting chipped away. The Bantams achieved an impressive 21 points from their first 11 games – an average of 1.9 points per game, which is undoubtedly promotion form. (It put them on track for 87 points, which based on last season’s table would have been enough to win the league.) Over the subsequent 14 league matches, City have picked up 19 points. That’s an average of 1.3 points per game. (Working out at 60 points over a season, which would have secured City a 13th-place finish in 2021/22.)
To put it another way, results over October, November, December and early January are mid-table standard. City remain in the top seven right now, but they largely have their early season form to thank for it.
The big question is what happens next.
Keeping up an average of 1.9 points per game is a tall ask of any side, so it’s to be expected that results have tailed off a little. And it should be acknowledged that recent form isn’t terrible. The club is not in free fall or looking like they can’t buy a win. But still, it’s average of late. And with the immediate fixture list full of games against promotion rivals, it’s a record City must improve.
Goals are a major issue. Those first 11 league games, which yielded 21 points, saw City net 18 times. Over the last 14 games, they’ve scored just 13 goals.
Cook scored 50% of those 18 goals in the first 11 games (nine). He’s netted only four league goals since. Yet no other City player has scored more than two goals over these last 14 games. What seemed like a healthy reliance on Cook early doors is now a major problem, especially with Hughes benching City’s top scorer for the last four games.
Defensively the Bantams began the campaign very strongly, conceding just 10 goals over those first 11 games. They’ve conceded 15 times over the last 14 matches. It’s not a major difference, suggesting not a huge amount has changed defensively (though the heavy defeats to Northampton and Leyton Orient show they’re far from flawless at the back). Experimental 3-6-1 ranks City’s defence as competent but busy. That’s an assessment that passes the sight test.
And that brings us to the final performance indicator – expected goals. For City fans, this type of analysis has been ridiculed after the way Derek Adams would constantly use City’s xG record as a defence of disappointing actual results. And Hughes himself has said he doesn’t “place a great deal of score on it”. But xG it is undoubtedly an indicator of whether teams’ underlying performances are better or worse than results suggest. For City, xG form successfully forecasted the tail off in form of the Bantams in 2017/18, and under Mark Trueman and Connor Sellars two years ago.
So what’s does the xG say about City right now? Not great, unfortunately. They are currently ranked 15th in the overall xG table for goals scored, and 11th best for goals conceded. This suggests that City’s current league position is higher than their overall performances.
What all of these patterns indicate is that City are only going to keep slowly sliding down the table. They’re not scoring enough goals (just six in the last seven games, and three of those were in the same game) and are conceding a little too often. Performances are ordinary, and they’re failing to dominate.
Early doors the general consensus was City were getting good results, but were yet to fully click and find top gear performance-wise. Unfortunately, that’s remained the case – only now, results aren’t as strong. Oh, and they’ve only managed to gain one point from a losing a position this season. That is a stat that has to be improved.
No one should panic, as there’s still a lot of football to be played. The performance against Salford especially underlined the potential of this squad, and Hughes has the experience and pedigree to coach more effective displays out of his team.
But the tail off in form is becoming more and more apparent. And if it continues much longer, the damage will really start to be felt.
It makes sense to loan out Jake Young, but the choice of club carries huge risk for Bradford City
Picture the scene. It’s 6 May 2023, the final day of the League Two season. Leyton Orient are at Valley Parade, revelling in a 1-0 win that seals them the title. They’re lifting the League Two trophy on our patch, whilst we’re ruing the fact defeat means we’ve just lost out on a play off spot.
Meanwhile, 87 miles to the North West, Barrow are celebrating pipping the Bantams to that last play off spot, after a 2-1 win over Stevenage. The scorer of the two Barrow goals: one Jake Young.
It’s all completely hypothetical of course, but it does highlight the risks of Bradford City’s decision to loan Jake Young to a promotion rival. It’s not like this isn’t without precedence either. Three years ago, Swindon Town were promoted from League Two after City loaned Eion Doyle to the Robins (a deal later made permanent). Doyle scored a hatful for Swindon, making a laboured Bradford City look foolish, as they finished the Covid-aborted season outside the play offs.
Young moves on loan to Holker Street after a lack of City opportunities of late, but having shown some strong flashes of his potential. The 21-year-old has netted four times from seven league and cup starts (plus five sub appearances). And each of those goals was eye-catchingly brilliant, not least his wonder strike at home to Walsall that stands out as one of the best City goals this season.
Young was deployed as a wide forward in Hughes’ 4-1-3-2, only to lose his place after a poor performance at Tranmere. The timing wasn’t great for Young, given City had just signed forwards Dion Pereira and Tyreik Wright. Ultimately, there wasn’t a place in the side for Young anymore. And his subsequent performances in the cup competitions hardly left Hughes with a major headache.
It’s an annual tradition at City for us supporters to latch onto a player not in the team and cite them as the answer to current problems. It’s something I wrote about all the way back in 2008, “Things are going wrong on the field, so in a fit of disgust those supporters determined to find criticism seemingly take a quick scan at the reserves and pluck out one or two names that it is ‘disgraceful’ aren’t in the team. With players underperforming and results not good enough, it’s easy to look at the unknown and hail them as the saviour to lead City forward from the mess.”
Back then I was writing about Luke Medley, but there have been countless others since and before. Indeed, I remember in our first Premier League season a clamour to get Isaiah Rankin in the team as he “wasn’t getting a chance”. Despite the fact £1.3 million Rankin scored just five goals the season before and was widely considered to have not been good enough for our promotion push. Rankin did eventually get a Premier League chance and missed what could have been a crucial sitter in the famous Liverpool game. Maybe Jewell had been right to favour other players all along.
As, I would imagine, is Hughes with his non-selection of Young – the latest in a line of apparent overlooked saviours. I like what I’ve seen of Young, but where was he starting in this team over the first half of the season? You wouldn’t pick him up front to replace Cook, nor would you have played him as a wide forward ahead of Wright, Banks and even Pereira.
Equally we don’t see Young in training – Hughes does. If Young had been excelling on the training ground, he’d surely have been given a chance – as Levi Sutton has proved. Listening to Hughes’ comments about Young, it’s obvious the forward has expressed his frustration over not playing, and it’s unclear how disruptive this has proved.
Young will hopefully establish himself as an excellent striker – he certainly has promise. But this is a player who started just 12 league games over two seasons at Forest Green. He has a lot to prove, and with City’s obvious need to get better going forward, and with three new forward signings already made in January, it’s hard to imagine Young was going to get many opportunities over the second half of the season.
Loaning him out is the right move in my view, but I’m not sure about the choice of club. It’s difficult if you’re City and Hughes, as the market dictates what clubs are interested and it would have been hard to tell Young he can’t go to Barrow (although it sounds like there were at least three other clubs interested in Young). But the risks are obvious. This could really backfire on City.
What Young clearly needs right now is regular first team football. Hopefully he gets that and shows his quality. But you don’t want this to work out too well for Young and Barrow, as there could be a heavy price for City to pay.
Lee Angol’s re-signing for City hasn’t worked out, he heads South seeking to finally get settled and fulfil his potential
Perhaps Lee Angol’s greatest asset is his timing. After an injury hit first season at Valley Parade, it was widely expected Hughes would release him last summer. But then right at the end, Angol was able to stay fit and was selected to play up front for the final three games of the campaign. He netted on the final day of the season against Carlisle, and he impressed over those final games for his link-up and hold up play.
It was enough to unexpectedly earn him a new deal at City. When he would have otherwise faced a summer of uncertainty. Trying to find a new club, with an injury record that would have put off a lot of suitors. Superb timing.
The good news for Angol this time around is he has largely stayed fit. The bad news is he hasn’t impressed enough against the backdrop of competing in an improved squad, and he’s found opportunities hard to come by. Angol initially played as a number 10 but there were better options, and he’s struggled to get in up front ahead of Cook and Oliver. With little prospect of that changing, Angol has not surprisingly left this window.
Sutton United are Angol’s 12th different club, and he’s still only 28. At no club has Angol made more than 30 league starts, and he is a player who badly needs a settled home to show what he can do. We undoubtedly saw glimpses of his ability over the past 18 months, it’s just whether he could do it consistently – and stay fit.
Sutton United offers a stage for Angol to finally live up to his potential. But given his patchy CV, this might be one of his last Football League chances.
City will continue to make transfer mistakes, but should be striving for successful imperfection
Every football club wants to get their recruitment right, and there’s been plenty of focus on this area at Bradford City over recent years. There is every reason to believe that, in Stephen Gent, City have now got the right man, but amongst some supporters of late, there have been the first murmurs of criticism for the club’s head of recruitment. Not every summer signing has worked out so far, and there remain obvious weaknesses in the squad.
Every football club wants to get their recruitment right, but no one is perfect. Every club and every manager makes bad signings. Given City brought in 17 new faces during the summer it was unrealistic to expect every single one to be a success.
Rather than striving for perfection, City should be approaching recruitment using the philosophy of ‘successful imperfection’. This is a theory of engaging in positive actions that move you in the direction of your goal, but accepting you don’t have to be perfect to make progress. It means acknowledging mistakes will happen along the way, but that they can be learned from and get you closer to your goal. Doing the right things to succeed, whilst knowing it won’t be flawless.
Gent has led recruitment on a number of signings that are generally working well – Harry Lewis (which, despite Hughes knowing the player, was actually a Gent recommendation), Matty Platt, Romoney Crichlow, Brad Halliday, Harry Chapman, Tyreik Wright and Scott Banks. Even with others where the jury is out – Richie Smallwood, Vadaine Oliver, Timi Odusina, Ryan East and Jake Young – you can see a level of logical thinking that hasn’t been evident at Valley Parade in recent years. It’s not Gent’s fault that Smallwood is struggling on the field.
City are recruiting in a different way to before, and that should give us greater confidence of making better moves this January compared to the year before, and year before that, and year before that. It doesn’t mean every signing is going to work out, but nor does it mean Gent’s ability and judgement is weak. And the quick way that City replaced Tyreik Wright with Thierry Nevers is a sign of more proactive thinking.
Thanks to last summer’s business, we have a squad that is edging us in the right direction – even if it clearly has a way to go. Gent and City need to reflect on what hasn’t worked so far and build on what has. That is successful imperfection.
Andy Cook is too valuable to let him go this January, but there’s a chance it could happen
Andy Cook is out of contract this summer. A fact that leaves the club vulnerable to losing him this transfer window.
Cook has not started the last four games, as Hughes has elected to bring Vadaine Oliver into the fold. It made sense to leave Cook out for the Harrogate match, and Oliver has taken his chance well with two goals over these four appearances. He’s finally started to show what he can do. And is demonstrating he can play a meaningful part in City’s promotion push.
But what does all this mean for Cook, who has remained benched? There’s an argument made by some that Cook’s form had dropped off, with no goal since the Northampton game in the middle of November. And to an extent that’s true, but it ignores the fact that between the Northampton and Harrogate matches, City barely played. Just three times in fact, including a Papa John’s Trophy game at Salford where Cook was rested. In reality, Cook had gone two games without a goal (Leyton Orient and Carlisle) before he was left out. Hardly a goal drought, especially as prior to that he’d scored in three consecutive games.
Despite Oliver’s improved form, City are still not scoring enough goals overall. So there’s a decision for Hughes to make. Does he continue to play Oliver ahead of Cook, or bring back his top scorer? The choice of formation could be a key factor – over his two years as a City player, Cook has never really played in a front two. It’s unknown if he is capable of doing so, which means the 4-2-3-1/diamond dilemma might dictate who plays.
But here’s the risk for Hughes and City in continuing to leave out Cook. If you’re an ambitious League Two club (and, for that matter, if you’re an ambitious National League club), then you might be well very tempted to test the water. A five-figure offer for Cook, and promise to the player of at least an 18-month deal, and suddenly the Bantams might find the 32-year-old wants to leave. At Cook’s age, financial security is important and knowing you have a club for next season would be quite a pull. Especially if you’re suddenly wondering just how much game-time you’re going to get at Valley Parade.
It would be utter madness for City to let Cook leave, and that’s why they need to make sure they’re showing him love and appreciation. This is the league’s third highest scorer, with only Northampton’s Sam Hoskins having a better minute-to-goal ratio. Cook would be incredibly hard to replace. But if he can re-establish himself as the main man at Valley Parade, it’s a dilemma that City can avoid. (They may even want to consider offering him a new deal at this point.)
The transfer window closes in two weeks’ time. If Cook doesn’t start against Carlisle on Saturday, we should start to be concerned.