A brighter Bradford City performance can’t disguise a worrying trend as more home points are squandered

Bradford City 1
Cook 29
Mansfield Town 1
Kilgour 90+1

By Jason McKeown (image by John Dewhirst)

The story of how Bradford City succumbed to yet more late heartache is one that needs the deeper perspective of appreciating the opposite viewpoint.

At half time, the Mansfield manager Nigel Clough was facing an unparalleled challenge. His team were 1-0 down, and he’d lost three players to injury. The rules on substitutes – brought in last summer – meant Clough was not allowed to stop the game and make any more changes in the second half.

The only opportunity to use his two remaining subs was now, during the interval.  

And so Clough and Mansfield had to embark on the final roll of the dice at a time when supporters in the stands were still supping half time pints and 45 minutes of action lay ahead. Clough brought on two strikers, Danny Johnson and Will Swan, to add to the three already on the pitch. He moved two of those five forwards – Jordan Bowery and Luca Adkins – to wing backs. His team, decimated by injury, was now completely unbalanced. The kitchen sink was deployed with half of the game to play. There was no other option.

Such desperation would be rewarded in the nick of time when defender Alfie Kilgour was somehow left unmarked at the far post to head in a Mansfield equaliser. If the wild celebrations that ensued seemed over the top, they were a euphoric response to the adverse situation the Stags had clawed themselves out of. A proud Clough would remark after that he’d never experienced such a first half situation in his 25 years of being a manager. He considered his side’s performance here to have been better than their eye-catching 4-1 home win over Doncaster the week before.

The Mansfield side of the story matters in understanding the dilemma facing Bradford City in attempting to seal what would have been a crucial, morale-boosting victory over one of their biggest play off rivals. Could they go on, in the second half, to exploit Mansfield’s vulnerabilities by extending their winning margin? Or did the gung-ho nature of the visitors’ set-up demand a more conversative, defence-led response to keep Mansfield at bay? Not for the first time this season, City appeared caught between two minds. Ultimately, they neither attacked or defended well enough – and paid the price.

City’s performance over the 90 minutes deserved more and yet the players and management have to share in much of the blame for not grasping three points. They had a strong position, and an even stronger hand from the bench, to manage the game much better. That said, a team as good as Mansfield had too much quality not to push hard for an equaliser. They were always going to have spells dominating the game. It’s not unreasonable that City were left hanging on at the end. Though the weak way they conceded was criminally bad.

The equaliser and two dropped points also threatens to overshadow a display and approach of real promise from City. With Richie Smallwood unavailable due to the birth of his child, Mark Hughes had to reshape City’s midfield and there were very encouraging results. The diamond formation continued, but with Ryan East brought in for Smallwood. There was a much a better balance to the middle three that saw City look brighter both in and out of possession. East has been very unlucky not to play more and showed here he has plenty to offer.

Smallwood’s deep, playmaker role has been taken on by January arrival Adam Clayton over the last two games – and the veteran midfielder is performing it really well. Clayton is calm, authoritative and very impressive on the ball, routinely picking out good options and driving the team’s tempo. Alex Gilliead – made captain in Smallwood’s absence – embraced his greater responsibilities and arguably had his best ever game for the club. The change to the diamond has really suited Gilliead as it allows him to get up and down the pitch more. We know Gilliead is not the most creative, but he is good at winning back possession and setting up attacks. This set-up allows him to bring his strengths to the fore.

With Andy Cook finally reinstated up front, there was a better link up play between midfield and attack, even though Jamie Walker continues to look a level short of his best as he works his way back to full fitness and form. With Abo Eisa pushed back up front, there was encouraging signs about a Cook-Eisa partnership and they linked up well with each other and those around. Unlike the last outing at Stockport, where City’s attack was so tepid, this looks like a much better overall set-up.

Mansfield started the game sharper but after a slow opening 10 minutes City took over. There is a more directness to their play than before, and East, Gilliead and Walker did a really good job of pressing higher up the pitch, winning turnovers faster and not letting Mansfield settle on the ball. Yes, at times City still knock the ball around at the back a little too much, but they’re genuinely mixing things up a lot more. They’re no longer as predictable to watch, and that’s got to make it harder for the opposition.

From one good piece of pressing, Gilliead emerged with the ball and charged through the centre of the pitch, before picking out Eisa with a great through ball. The Mansfield keeper, Scott Flinders, made a very good one-on-one block to deny Eisa scoring for the third straight home game. But not long after Clayton sent over a corner and Cook was unmarked to head the ball into the back of the net to put City in front.

This was the only third time that City have scored from a corner this season – the last coming all the way back in September. Only five clubs have scored fewer set piece goals. It says a lot that, in the first league game all season that Smallwood has not played, the set pieces were improved. Clayton and East both showed that they can do better than Smallwood’s largely underwhelming deliveries. All three of those City goals from corners have been scored by the same player. But in a season where Cook has scored almost of all City’s goals, that’s not really a surprise is it?

Much has been said and debated about Cook’s lack of starts of late. The transfer window closed with Hughes’ strong words about keeping Cook backed up by their top scorer not departing. The manager has been at pains to say he wanted to give Cook a break so he didn’t run out of gas like he did a year ago. It’s typical of his season that Cook went straight back into the side and scored, and his all-round performance was admirable. If Cook can maintain this form, in time Hughes’ bold decision to give his top scorer a breather will look inspired.

Cook’s goal, City’s promising first half showing and Mansfield’s injury woes put the home side in a really strong position at half time. But what followed was less encouraging. As Mansfield overloaded their team with forwards, it was clear the game was wide open and City really needed to grasp the mantle and get that second goal. The continued effective deployment of the high press offered them some good counter attacking chances.

Cook was twice denied by Flinders, the efforts on goal and approach play really clever from the forward. Though in a growing theme for the second half, he might have made a better decision with one of those opportunities. As squaring the ball to a better-positioned Eisa, rather than shooting from an angle, might have given City a greater chance of going 2-0 up.

The problem for City was that they created little else beyond those opportunities. And as time went on and the dilemma between pushing forward or seeing it out began to grow, the narrow margins left them susceptible. Mansfield eventually got going and would boss the final 20 minutes of the game.

Defensively City were largely good in keeping them at bay, with Matty Platt back on top form and Romoney Crichlow as reliable as ever. The left back, Tolaji Bola, was also much improved after a harrowing debut at Stockport. Bola got forward well and produced several good crosses. For a player who is not blessed with great height, the Rotherham loanee largely coped with Mansfield’s physical threat on his side of the pitch.

It wasn’t a perfect display as Bola looked suspect positionally at times – and the inquest into Mansfield’s equaliser will call into question how he was caught out on the side of the pitch the visitors crossed from – but you can start to see why City felt they needed to improve the left back position.

Despite the decent rear-guard effort, Mansfield carved out good chances. Harry Lewis had made one brilliant first half save to deny Town debutant Davis Keillor-Dunn, but the keeper was uncharacteristically caught out when he come to claim a floated free kick and missed the ball. Bola produced a superb acrobatic clearance on the goal-line to keep it out and save blushes. Soon after, Kilgour hit the bar with a powerful header that Lewis may have covered. There were periods where City were struggling to clear their lines.

They needed to kill the momentum better, and that was where City had a really robust hand that they didn’t use effectively. Substitutions. While Mansfield had to get all their changes complete before the second half kicked off, City had three opportunities to stop the game and five subs to make. Hughes elected to pause proceedings only once, bringing on Thierry Nevers and Harry Chapman together for the tiring East and Walker.

At this point City went to 4-2-3-1 with Gilliead dropping back alongside Clayton, Eisa going out wide and Cook on his own up front. Hughes said it was a move aimed at countering the effective way Mansfield were using their striker wing backs to make the pitch as wide as possible. But he acknowledged later it didn’t really work.

Certainly Chapman became a villain after breaking through and needing to pass the ball to Nevers in space, who would have been through on goal and able to seal the three points. Chapman’s decision-making let him down as he held onto possession for too long. The groans around the ground were understandable and there’s a growing feeling that Chapman needs to be offering a lot more. Nevers is a relatively young kid asked to do something he probably has little experience of. City needed him to keep the ball and pass intelligently. Sadly, he did neither.

The big irony for Hughes and City was that they lacked players on the bench who could come on and calm down the tempo. Players who they’ve just let go.

This was the kind of situation that Yann Songo’o has excelled in, but he was sat as an unused Walsall sub, 150 miles south at Northampton. Hughes could equally have benefited from having Levi Sutton to bring on, but he was also sat on the bench of a different club, coming on late on in Harrogate’s shock 1-0 win at Carlisle. Sutton was introduced for Harrogate in the 79th minute, around the time that Hughes must have been wishing he could have come on for Bradford City.

The decisions to let both Songo’o and Sutton leave were understandable but leave City short in this key area. That could be significant over the coming months. You can only assume the mystery player who the EFL have ruled was signed too late was a midfielder (insert your own wild and fanciful rumour here, Joe Allen is a name I heard).

That said, Hughes still has good options to make more changes. He could have brought on Vadaine Oliver for a tiring Cook, or Matt Derbyshire for Eisa. He might have introduced Sam Stubbs to add another defender at the back, or Dara Costelloe to play wide. City’s big squad is supposed to give them a major advantage in moments like this, but not if you don’t use it.

The reality is that – up until the double sub – Mansfield were just edging possession (52%). After Chapman and Nevers came on, Mansfield went onto have 67% of the ball over the remainder of the game. So the subs Hughes did make did not help, and he was reluctant to do anything else.

The point of making subs from a winning position is to disrupt the momentum of your opponents. Stop the game for 30 or more seconds, to kill the tempo. It’s not pretty, but it works. Hughes might think himself too principled to deploy such dark arts, but this was a time to be streetwise rather than righteous.

The players – following the lead of Clayton – did try to make the final stages stop-start, taking it in turns to go down injured and taking their time with throw ins and goal kicks. The biggest time-waster of all was one of the Valley Parade ball boys, who on three occasions went to present the ball to a Mansfield player before dropping it onto the floor. Such antics brought cheers from the crowd but eventually led to the officials sending the ball boy off. As the young lad made his way up the main stand steps to a standing ovation, Mansfield took advantage of the off-the-field distractions to score their equaliser.

In the cold light of day, this was not a terrible result for City. It was a game they couldn’t afford to lose, and though coming so close to victory leaves it feeling like a defeat, the performance for the most part should give everyone more confidence that this team is capable of lasting the distance rather than fading away.

But still, the problems are there for all to see. It’s just five home wins out of 14 games now – meaning City have the 15th best home record in the league. That is nowhere near good enough for any team harbouring serious promotion aspirations.

Of those nine home games City have failed to win, they actually scored the first goal in five of them. It means they’ve dropped 11 points from winning positions at home.   

It gets worse. City’s first half record is the best in the division. If every game ended at half time, City would currently be top of the league on 51 points (four points clear of Carlisle). Their second half record is the 18th best in the league (27 points gained). That’s a really worrying drop off.

And it’s at home where these failings are especially apparent. City’s first half record at Valley Parade is the joint best in the division alongside Stevenage. If every game ended at half time, City would have amassed 30 points at home rather than 21 they’ve actually achieved. Their second half record at home is the 21st-best (twenty-first!) in the league. They’ve scored just seven second half goals in their 14 home games, conceding 10.

They’ve only managed eight goals at the Kop end of the ground all season, and three those were in games where the opposition won the coin toss and City kicked towards the Kop in the first half.

This is a real problem and this Mansfield draw has highlighted it further. And it’s why the opposition perspective is so key in telling this story. Because guess which team has the third-best second half record this season? Yep, it’s the Stags. Their first half away record is a dismal 21st, but in the second half they’ve earned 24 points for their post-half term exploits on the road (joint second-best in the league).

Clough spoke after the game about how riled up and motivated his players were at half time and that comes from the experience and confidence of being in such situations before and succeeding. You can imagine the City dressing room at half time was a lot quieter and fearful.

City have shown all season they’re capable of building a good platform to win at home (they’ve scored the first goal in 13 of their 19 league and cup home games), but they’re not seeing out victory often enough (seven home wins from those 19 league and cup games). It’s a really concerning pattern and – if they don’t fix it – it will probably be what condemns them to another year in League Two.

It’s three straight draws now for City. All of which, in isolation, are decent results. But when you’ve only won five of your last 20 games, decent draws are not enough. City have slipped down the table slightly to ninth, and that’s their worst league position since August.

Only Crawley, Barrow, Crewe and Rochdale have picked up fewer points than the nine that City have accumulated over the last eight games. When you look at the squad, when you consider the finances behind it, this feels like an underperformance from City. And it’s something they’ve got to start improving. With games against promotion rivals coming thick and fast, it’s time to find that elusive higher gear and begin to really push on.

Otherwise, the story of Bradford City’s season will become easy to predict and wearily familiar to write.     

Categories: Match Reviews, Uncategorized

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22 replies

  1. Frustrations continue to pile up, many of them of our own making. Is there any point signing a 36-year-old to sit on the bench? He is not going to improve is he? We are a small team and look vulnerable in the air when under siege. Wootton should have buried his chance for Stockport. Today we were not so lucky. Hughes’s remark that the goalscorer got the chance because he could not be bothered to run back was seriously disturbing – not least bearing in mind the same big defender, Kilgour, had scored in Mansfield’s last match. This was the last knockings of the game: why would Kilgour want to go back to defend a losing position? Hughes seemed genuinely surprised and affronted that the opposition kept putting high balls into our box. This is a tactic common in this division and we will certainly encounter it next week against Steve Evans’s long ball specialists. We’ve got umpteen wingers on the books but now play a system that doesn’t use them as wingers – and, admittedly, at times look better without them, but I can’t help wondering where the goals are going to come from whichever system we play? Our bench today only had one defender and the rest were attacking options. As Jason perceptively points out we were not able to bring anyone on to shore up the defence in the game’s last phase and this might well be the case for the rest of the season. On a positive note, I thought Clayton was excellent. He gave us bite and guile in midfield which had been lacking. Gilliead surpassed himself and was man of the match by some margin.

  2. You’ve already pointed out our inability to hold on to a lead.
    Two other trends City need to address.
    1 When they fall behind they don’t come back (only one point from a losing position)
    2 they are the only club in the division whose back 4 has not contributed a single goal between them. (I suspect they could be the only team with this stat in the EFL).
    As you say, this felt like a loss at “Fortress” Valley Parade.

  3. Just before half time a chap near me was heard to mutter “whenever I come to Valley Parade Andy Cook is the only City player who looks like he might score a goal.”
    I knew what he meant. apart from the goal we had spurned two chances, two clear cut gilt edged chances. I was already fearing that those misses might come back to bite us.
    Andy is the only genuine goalscorer/finisher we have on our books. he is doing his job. the return from elsewhere in the team is pitifully poor.
    when Mansfield’s belated equaliser went in there was no shock-horror from fans, just a sense of depressing resignation, as we’ve been here before far too often. how different it could have been if we’d also put away one of the other great first half chances which we’d been unable to convert.
    Gillead might have shaded man of the match but I was very impressed with Clayton. hard work and intelligent use of the ball.

  4. I’ve revised my Will and requested six City pallbearers so they can let me down one last time.

  5. A man completely unmarked (!) in our box scores the equaliser in extra-time.

    Does the manager not go over extra-time defensive duties/scenarios on the training ground and/or at half-time?

    I mean it really isn’t that difficult, no?

    • Why does it have to be just defensive duties to go over. Its as though only our opposition are allowed to score in added time. Kill the game off and a few hearts to go with it seems a better option to me.

  6. Excellent article thanks. What a fascinating/shocking statistic about us being the best first-half team in the league, but almost the worst second half-team. What on earth is causing this massive disparity in performance?
    With regards yesterday’s game, I thought East played very well, and his corners were excellent on the whole. In contrast I thought Clayton’s deliveries (other than the one corner that lead to the goal) were on the whole poor – failing to beat the first man numerous times. For me East should be taking all our corners. Having said that I agree that Clayton played very well in the middle and looked to get the ball forward quickly.
    I left VP yesterday feeling a strange mix of bitter disappointment for conceding the last minute goal, but also optimism that it was a good performance with numerous players still needing time to bed-in to the team/system (Clayton, Bola, Walker, East etc). Keep the faith!

  7. It appears that we need to keep a clean sheet to win a game now. This is due to our lack of goals, its rare we score more than one game in a game and rare that anyone besides Andy Cook will get us a goal.
    Checking last season final league positions, Mansfield secured 7th position with 77 points, that’s got to be our minimum target then this season.
    19 games left we are realistically gonna need to win at least 12 of those games to reach 77 points as we currently sit on 42 points.
    Draws are fine but now is the time to release the handbrake and have a go at teams, especially when we are leading.We have loads of attacking players in the side so let’s see some attacking intent and get some wins and momentum going into the business end of the season!!!!

  8. A few points:

    – Good atmosphere, nice to see a decent away following for a change
    – Maybe it was only me but were Bola’s throw-ins illegal or just weird? He seems to be left winger for parts of the game
    – Chapman needs to step up, has talent but lacks that end product. Abit of an enigma for me
    – On the balance of play I thought 1-1 was a fair score but it’s never nice to get sucker punched (we’ve made a habit of this unfortunately)
    – Lets stick to that midfield going forward, totally agree it seemed more balanced and importantly creative

  9. The acid test for any team aspiring promotion is an expectancy going into every game. Sadly, the only expectancy I currently have is a draw, or a defeat. But for their injuries, Mansfield would have probably won the game. Our performance was better but the game highlighted, once again, MH’s inability to respond effectively to the changing tactics of the opposition.

    There’s plenty of games left for us to put a run together and establish ourselves in a play off place. However, I just can’t see where the goals are going to come from. Perhaps the answer will come from one of the January signings, to give us that much needed impetus?

  10. Same old same old City dropping points in the last minutes of a game . The only bonus was this time I didn’t waste £10 on ifollow . Can anyone on here honestly say we could go on an unbeaten run …………….anyone ? Thought not .

  11. We lost points yet again due to the lack of goals in the team and the lack of tactical nous from the management .Our two late changes where simply the wrong ones to make ,i called it at the time and i was proved right .I hope i am wrong but you don’t have to be a super computer to predict how the season will pan out a mid table finish .There’s a old saying fortune favours the brave and we are not brave.

  12. Obviously disappointed we didn’t see it out, but an excellent game. Some relevant comments posted but too much negativity. Good first hour from City, but they have a strong squad and used it well to secure the point.

  13. A number of issues highlighted in this article which I do agree with, but the overriding one for me is that I don’t think this team has the necessary resolve to get promoted. When things go wrong they shrink. It’s a bit clichéd, but I just don’t think they want it enough. Sure they want to win, but when it gets hard, what have they really got?

    It seems to me that Hughes has realised you can’t get Premier League football out of League Two footballers, and I don’t think he’s really sure what to do. As Jason points out, he seems too principled to employ the dark arts, but the reality is an element of pragmatism is needed to get out of this division. He’ll need to realise fast, because as things stand there is no way this side gets promoted.

  14. I haven’t been impressed at all with Mark Hughes as a manager all season, yesterday apart which I thought was our best home performance of the season, apart from throwing it away at the end ,his formations, tactics and use of substitutes has been poor,I honestly think we will fall away and not make the playoffs, I hope I’m wrong.

  15. Only to echo what some others have said, walked away from VP not to disappointed after seeing an entertaining game of football viewed by over 18,500, crazy crowd numbers for two teams hardly setting the world on fire. First 45 arguably the best seen at VP this season but frustratingly only 1 goal for our endeavours. Second started well enough but as a team we gassed badly, Mansfield finishing the better side and worthy of a point at the end of the 90.

    Two fundamental problems from yesterday that have plagued us all season, no one apart from Cook is a genuine goal threat, and our second half form continues to be disastrous. Without being able to kill teams off it puts under increasing pressure as the game goes on.Failure to fix both of these, this City team looks destined for league 2 football next season.

  16. Same as AI, good game, but we ran out of steam. Don’t agree on subs as the 2 we made backfired, why would you make 3 more? The reason we didn’t win is simple – we can’t score – Eisa has to score that, Walker should hit the target, Chapman – why did he not pass!! If it ain’t Cook we ain’t scoring.

    One recurring theme, our dead balls are dreadful. Not just corners, free kicks too. We put one decent cross in all game and we scored from it.

    Keep the faith.

  17. The stats on first half v second half performance are startling and really clear. Not ability then…and maybe Mark Hughes needs to work on his half time team talks…but I wonder if there is a key factor not being looked at- relative fitness, to other teams?

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