A solid point on the road for Bradford City still leaves Mark Hughes wrestling with the risk vs reward balance

Walsall 0
Bradford City 0

By Jason McKeown

Finding the right balance between attackingly courageous and being defensively solid is never easy. Here, in a game of few chances, was a reminder that as strong as Bradford City’s form is proving, Mark Hughes is still a few percentage points off getting that balance entirely correct.

The Bantams were characteristically tough to beat here at Walsall, picking up a fourth clean sheet in a row without any great anxiety. Harry Lewis did what Harry Lewis always does – producing two excellent saves. Matty Platt and Sam Stubbs are forging a very strong centre back partnership. Brad Halliday is in excellent form and Liam Ridehalgh has slotted back in after injury with real assurance. Just ahead of the back four, Adam Clayton is doing a sound job providing protection and setting up attacks.

But as unlikely as a Walsall goal seemed for much of the night, the same was true at the other end of the pitch. City attacked when they could, but always under the tight framework of their conservative approach. It’s a philosophy that relies on being resourceful with the infrequent occasions that sufficient bodies can get forward.

It works in the main because City have such a clinical striker. Once again, the best attacking moment of the night came from Andy Cook, who in the first half was desperately unlucky with a powerful looping header that crashed back off the crossbar. On another night, Cook’s attempt would have been a few inches lower, City would have scored and they’d have won the game. And there’s been plenty of occasions this season where that is exactly what’s happened, especially of late.

These are the small margins, and tonight they just didn’t quite go Cook and City’s way.

But when the level of your attacking risk approach is somewhat restricted, it’s putting a heavy reliance on the small margins of the limited opportunities that City create over the 90 minutes. They did not manage a single shot on target here. And over the course of the season, are averaging 11.6 attempts on goal per game – that’s only the 12th highest in the division. City are also the lowest goalscorers in the current top eight.

The question is: can Hughes shift the dial slightly without tilting the balance too far the other way, so they don’t become defensively vulnerable? After all, their goals conceded record is the joint second-best in the division, with only runaway leaders Leyton Orient shipping in fewer than City’s 29.

(And the side who are joint second with City for fewest goals conceded? Walsall. We really should have seen this 0-0 coming.)

You suspect this risk vs reward dilemma is very much in Hughes’ thoughts right now. In the second half against Colchester, he really went for it against opposition who for an hour looked the better side. The reward was those two memorable late goals and three huge points.

The Colchester success also came from the mid-game move from the diamond to a 4-2-3-1 – a switch that Hughes repeated here early in the second half, again when the opposition were getting on top. Alex Gilliead and Clayton operated as deep-lying midfielders (later swapped to substitute Ryan East and Smallwood), with Dara Costelloe moved out wide. Just like on Saturday, it had a positive effect in giving City more control. Prior to the swap, City were shading possession (52%). Over the 20 minutes that followed, this shot up to 64%.

City began the season with a diamond before Hughes quickly switched to 4-2-3-1 after a slow start. It led to improved results, before a drop off in December persuaded the manager to go back to the diamond just after Christmas. After the success of the tactical reshuffle on Saturday, and improvement to the performance at the Bescot, it must be in Hughes’ thoughts to start with it once again. Especially with Scott Banks back in his plans – it was the August arrival of the on loan Crystal Palace winger that originally prompted Hughes to move to the 4-2-3-1 (the cup game vs Hull) with encouraging results.

You can completely understand why Hughes kept with the diamond – and same XI – going into this game. City’s away form has been exceptional, with no losses on the road since Boxing Day. Yet the diamond’s limitations were unfortunately on show again here. In Richie Smallwood, Hughes doesn’t have a wide player with the capability to run at opposition players, create space for others and link up with Ridehalgh. That leaves City too unbalanced when they have possession. The trade off, as ever, is Smallwood is clearly having a positive defensive impact in this role.

With Costelloe failing to hit the heights of his performances at Doncaster and Gillingham, City couldn’t stretch the game in a way that enabled Jamie Walker to have sufficient freedom to do damage. Like Colchester on Saturday, Walsall lined up with three centre backs and they played too deep to give Costelloe room to get in behind them, whilst also denying Walker space in front. Gillingham made the mistake of giving City’s front three the freedom to link up with devastating results. Colchester and now Walsall have clearly been wiser to it.

There were chances in the first half. Aside from Cook hitting the woodwork, Walker twice found a yard of space that invited the Scot to get a shot towards goal. Both efforts flew well over the bar. For the second chance, Smallwood was in a great position and Walker really should have picked out his captain rather than gone for the shot. Again it comes down to those margins. When you don’t create a lot, the chances you fail to grasp are felt that more keenly.

As much as the early second half 4-2-3-1 shift curbed the enthusiasm of Walsall – who looked the absolute definition of a solid, mid-table League Two side – City still didn’t offer enough attacking intent. And that led to a third, and perhaps most curious of all, Hughes tactical reshuffle in the closing stages.

For despite having Harry Chapman to call on from the bench, Hughes raised everyone’s eyebrows by introducing central defender Romoney Crichlow to replace forward Costelloe.

You can’t dress this up as anything but a cautious move – or can you? Crichlow’s presence was cue to go 3-5-2, with Halliday and Ridehalgh pushed up as wing backs. And in those closing moments, City produced a small flurry of pressure that betrayed any idea they were merely trying to hold on for a 0-0.

Was Hughes experimenting here? Is this actually a more attacking approach? Hmmm.

Over the last few years of City managers trying and ultimately failing to get the attacking/defensive balance right, the most gung ho approach was Stuart McCall’s 3-5-2 of 2020/21. A style that was a direct copy of the one Chris Wilder had pioneered with great initial aplomb at Sheffield United. McCall’s 3-5-2 looked good when Reece Staunton played, but struggled badly when the ball playing centre half was injured.

Crichlow offers the qualities to make 3-5-2 work (and more than how it was used at Gillingham last week to see out a winning margin). As good a player as he is, you’re not dropping Stubbs or Platt on current form to make way for him if you stick to four at the back. So how else do you get Crichlow back in the team?

Hmmm indeed!

Ultimately, the game will be quickly forgotten. It’s a point that keeps City very much in the mix, and after three straight victories it would be wrong to be too upset that they couldn’t chalk up another win. Not at their best, City still demonstrated their overall quality. With 12 games to go, we’re up there on merit and on track for a very exciting run-in. After season upon season of watching us fall away long before this point, to be where we are right now is something to savour.

And it means the biggest area of interest, going back up the M6 to West Yorkshire, is what happens next. Will Hughes now try and get City playing with more attacking potency, perhaps sacrificing some of their solidity? Has the diamond lost its sparkle? Is it time to find a starting place for Banks – and if so, who do you sacrifice? Is the 3-5-2 a small preview of a totally different formation to come – one that might actually unlock a more effective level of balance?

It’s a tricky call to make, but it’s one that could ultimately define the Bantams season.

Categories: Match Reviews

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19 replies

  1. I thought it was a solid and valuable point gained away from home and another clean sheet too.
    If Cooks header had gone in we may have been talking about yet another great win on the road.
    I thought we played OK.against a solid Walsall who won’t uproot any trees but are no mugs.
    Kimwomya and Raynor are difficult to listen to as they often over react.
    “City are under the cosh here” or “City can’t get out of their own half here”.
    In fact they controlled sky threat from.the home team well and now seem to be able to manage games to the conclusion.
    We are, in my.opinion.exactly where we want to be at this point.
    Top and you are there to be knocked off and lying where we are it really is up to us.
    Hopefully we want it enough.

  2. Jason, again an excellent game summation. Except for, “a powerful looping header that crashed back off the crossbar.” Really, sounds a bit over the top to me. City went to Walsall with a goal of not losing, and they achieved it. I expect a similar approach at Newport.

  3. Chapman should have been introduced. Costelloe started brighly but is flattering to deceive. he his easily knocked off the ball and keeps giving it away. He is young and raw but doesnt look like a goal scorer to me and he looks completely lost when he gets moved to wide left which isnt his fault btw. We look a solid outfit and it does come down to small margins (which we often call luck). But that creates concern cos if it doesnt fall on our side then we may fall short. Better to be imposing and the worry be on the opposition. Apart from Cook and Walker there was very little goal threat in tonight’s starting line up again and i think most city fans fear this could cost us. Lets pray that the small margins go in our favour from here on.

  4. Another opponent whose chief hope of scoring is the long throw in. It is really infuriating me. Long hold ups as a player waddles over, the centre backs lumber forward and City bring back Cook to defend. It’s slow, tedious and terrible to watch. Referees should be adding time on at the end of the half to make up for these long breaks as fans are being cheated. Pleased I don’t have to watch Stevenage v Walsall this weekend.

  5. Castello is not the answer He needs to get more involved Gilliead just seems to be running around like a headless chicken with no end product

  6. Somewhat confused by Mark’s reluctance to drop Smallwood or/and Gillard. Don’t know how East feels about his position at the club. His performances have been good but does not give him a starting birth. Not loosing at Walsall was a good result but come the end of the season, will those drop points be the difference between automatic promotion or the lottery of the play offs.
    Is Osadabe injured? He would have been useful last night because of his association with Walsall and his performances since his return.

    I am happy with City’s current position for the run in but I believe that we should go for wins from the beginning of a game instead of 75 minute substitutions to try change things.

  7. I think Critchlow is good but what a difference Stubbs has made. 5 clean sheets in the 7 games he’s started and he’s bringing out better performances from Platt and Halliday too. (honourable mention to Clayton too, for giving better protection for the back four). I questioned why we needed to bring in another centre back in January but this has proved inspired. If we keep defending like this then we have a really good chance.

    I think the big question in this article is the right one, Hughes getting to know when it’s the right time to gamble. The frustations at home come from playing too conservative too late into the game. Away from home the balance is probably ok, as you say we could have nicked all three points with Cook’s header/Banks’ free kick/the corners near the end. But at home we need to be prepared to go for it a little earlier.

    And we have a big squad with good depth for this division, at this stage in the season Hughes needs to be using that to our advantage (Gillingham to Bradford to Walsall to Newport in 10 days is going to take it out of the players). Banks, East and Chapman will all feel they should have had more minutes these last two weeks. But I thought Walsall were decent, a point there is decent, on to Saturday.

  8. Another clean sheet, another point and another cause for a certain satisfaction. It’s a mark of what we have achieved that many supporters are not happy with an away draw! I personally hope we do not adopt the 3-5-2 system, first introduced to us by Chris Kamara. His was quite an attacking version, actually, almost always deploying a winger as one of the wingbacks and a sweeper, Marco Sas, at the centre of the three. It helped that Sas had much accuracy with long-range passing. We found it difficult to score, however, and in crucial matches at the end of the season Kamara, to much rejoicing, reverted to 442 and restored Tommy Wright to the left wing. As an historical note Willie Watson was, as I recall, the first City Manager to introduce twin centre-halves in a flat back four, as the game evolved and the old 2-3-5 disappeared. Back then it was inconceivable the pyramid would one day invert to 3-5-2.

  9. A great clean sheet, and I always think a draw away from home Is a decent result. If you are playing defensive mindly and not creating much I think it is really important to get the results because the fans can quicky turn on negative football if it isn’t effective.

    We are on a great little run, teams are probably not looking forward to playing us at the minute which is always a good sign.

    It was also really nice to win last Saturday, the two away results before that were brilliant but I felt we needed to win at home and was nice to show this team could win three games on the bounce.

    We just need to carry on this little bit of consistency now for the remainder of the season. Now it’s the buisness end of the season it will be the clubs who handle to pressure the best and remain consistent who will get promoted.

  10. I thought it was a good point against a side who played well. Walsall pressed high and with vigour and the central defence was rock solid. They do make the old Wimbledon side look like Barcelona though, long balls from every angle. To our credit we barely lost a header all game – to me (and I’m a pessimist), they never looked like scoring. Lewis made 2 good stops but they were saves he should make – and other than that they had a bit of pressure but nothing major. We though created some decent chances – again not many though!

    I thought Smallwood was excellent last night – you see the stats Jason – but he appeared to put in a great shift.

    Costello showed good touches but as someone said no end product and gets knocked off the ball easily.

    It’s unrealistic to expect a win every game. The opposition can play well too. I targeted 4 points from these 2 games so come on City in Wales.

    Finally just in agreement with Mark above, Kiwomya is a terrible commentator and Raynor who is normally OK was brought down to his level last night. When they said we were under the cosh we had nearly scored a minute or two earlier.

    • Kiwomya is probably the worst commentator I’ve heard and is dragging Jamie Rayner down to his level. Filippe Morais is streets ahead of him and puts his points over in a measured, intelligent manner that’s easy to listen to. I can only guess BBC Radio Leeds is working to a tight budget!

      • Andy Kiwomya played about forty games for us, virtually half of his total league appearances, spread around ten clubs. BBC Leeds’ commentators are almost sycophantic in their regard for his mythical legendary status and powers of insight. He comes across as a good bloke, a great enthusiast but not alas a great summariser.

      • Living in Canada, I am not used to the biased reporting that the media covering the Bantams are free to apply. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if they are not an extension of the City PR department. Having said this, WOAP is head and shoulders the most unbiased. It’s quite refreshing to in general read their unbiased reporting.

  11. A points a point. Well done City. Keep it going. Hard long season. Games coming thick and fast. As always with a draw. You never quite know immediately if it’s one gained or two dropped.
    Time will tell….
    On to the next one.

  12. I think in hindsight that was a decent result. Away from home against a team that recent results suggest are hard to beat, and a team that appeared to respond in a positive manner to criticism from their manager. I can’t really add much to previous comments, some think that Hughes was too safe with his preferred line up and his reluctance to go for the late win with his substitutions, while others think that his decision was the right one, given the circumstances. I think back to the Mansfield game on the 4th February and I wonder if MW does likewise. I think he brought on Nevers in an attempt to keep Mansfield on the back foot and we ended up conceding a very late goal when a cross to the back post left Kilgour with an open goal. Had Stubbs been on the pitch instead of Nevers that opportunity may not have presented itself. Stick or twist? I think he made the right choice.

  13. Surprising to see from the current League 2 table that Walsall, though currently 14th, have the 3rd best defensive record after Orient (the best) and City (2nd best). All things considered, probably a decent point for City at Walsall.

  14. Does anyone know how Newport set up, long throw tactics?

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