The three big questions ahead of Bradford City’s first leg play off against Carlisle United

Ahead of Sunday’s League Two play off between Bradford City and Carlisle United, Alex Scott, Tim Penfold and Jason McKeown assess three burning questions.

1) How will Mark Hughes approach this tactically?

By Tim Penfold

Mark Hughes was so close to solving the tactical problems that his team had a few weeks ago. Adam Clayton’s injury had – eventually – led to a switch back from the diamond to a 4-2-3-1 system, and comfortable wins over Sutton and Rochdale followed. The trio of Harry Chapman, Jamie Walker and Scott Banks were functioning well behind Andy Cook, and the attack looked as fluid as it had been all season.

This continued at Swindon – until Chapman pulled his hamstring in the first half and was ruled out for the rest of the season, while a suddenly-toothless City slumped to defeat.

Since then, there has always been at least one personnel or tactical issue in the City side. Winger after winger has been tried to replace Chapman (with the notable exception of Dion Pereira) but none of Thierry Nevers, Emmanuel Osadebe, Abo Eisa or Dara Costelloe have made much of an impact. In the penultimate game, Crewe were able to overwhelm the midfield duo of Richie Smallwood and Alex Gilliead with sheer numbers. So, on Monday, we saw the return of Adam Clayton and a more pragmatically-minded midfield.

Did it work? Not brilliantly. Whatever system we tried with this XI, there was a square peg in a round hole somewhere.

Initially it was Jamie Walker drifting in off the left in a 4-3-3, which suited Scott Banks on the other flank but meant Walker struggled to get into the game. Then, we switched to a diamond, putting Walker back at his preferred position of number 10 – great for him, but now there was no natural place for Banks, who looked uncomfortable as a second striker. Meanwhile, the midfield switch pushed Smallwood further forward into a role that suits him less.

So what will we see against Carlisle? Persisting with the current midfield three? That would make City very solid, but takes away a creative option and forces one of either Banks or Walker into a role that makes them less effective.

Go back to the 4-2-3-1 and swap Clayton for an extra attacker? That would most likely mean a passenger on the left, and the risk that the midfield is outnumbered and outplayed again. One solution that has been proposed has been to switch Gilliead to the left flank, but that takes away a lot of the mobility and ball progression from the middle of the park, while also putting Gilliead in an area where he’s less comfortable.

The make-up of the squad means that whatever Hughes does, he’s going to cause a problem somewhere. We have plenty of wingers for a 4-2-3-1, but only Banks is both good and fit to play. We can try a diamond, but there aren’t many options to partner Cook up front, and fitting both Clayton and Smallwood into the same midfield has proved tricky at times.

Maybe we’ll see a back three to match Carlisle, but that would be a huge risk to go for a relatively untried system for such a big game. So where can Hughes go from here?

2) Can City address their season-long weaknesses?

By Alex Scott

I wouldn’t class myself as an expert in turn of the century Russian literature. As my Netflix profile will attest, I am, in fact, quite a long way from that indeed.

A few months ago however, I did find myself at a National Theatre production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull starring Emilia Clarke. Long story, but let’s just say my choice of date night the week after was more of a Marvel affair.

Anyway, early on in the play, a character had a gun on stage. A plot device, a sidebar, not really integral to the story. I immediately Di Caprio Meme and gasp. Because if there is only one thing I know about turn of the century Russian literature – and there is literally only one thing I know about turn of the century Russian literature – it’s that Anton Chekhov is only introducing a gun in the first Act if someone is going to use it by the third.


Back in August, Mark Hughes reflected after a 3-2 defeat in Barrow that his City side “got sucked into a game that [they’re] clearly not very good at”. Despite dominating the play with 60% possession, City were outshot 15 to 7, and lost the expected goals battle, giving up two soft goals from set pieces.

“We were too easy to play against,” concluded Hughes. “We weren’t brave enough at times to play the football we’re capable of and that has to change.”

Narrator: It did not change.

All season long, City have been thwarted by teams occupying a low block and giving up possession. Normally, having very high possession statistics correlates with teams who are winning – and can keep the ball at the end to kill the game and pad the numbers. For City, it seems to go the other way.

This culminated in the home loss to Barrow in February, where they contrived to hold the ball for 70 of the 90 minutes without mustering a single shot on target.

But all season long, from the very first game, they’ve struggled to break down defensive teams. From the very start, they have been incapable of beating the low block no matter how much possession they have.

The Barrow game in August also had another subplot which has become a huge factor across City’s season: defending set pieces.

Across the season City have conceded almost half of their 43 goals from set pieces, the highest proportion in the division, by far.

This weakness undermined their otherwise good work defensively, where they conceded the fewest goals from open play in the entire division.

Even if they had just been average in defending set pieces, that would mean seven fewer goals conceded, and that probably would have lifted them into the top three and automatic promotion.

City have not consistently been able to convert their dominance in possession into goals from open play and haven’t been able to defend set pieces all season long. What began as a nuisance at Barrow has defined their season.

City have been too easy to play against all season and that hasn’t changed.

If you are comfortable defending out of possession, if you can defend solidly, if you can restrict chances for Andy Cook from set pieces, and if you can capitalise from your own attacking set pieces – whoever you are – you’ve had a good chance against City all season.

Somewhat poetically, City now face their biggest games of the season and they will have to overcome a side in Carlisle who, with their resolute 5-3-2,  fit – almost exactly – this profile.

Mark Hughes’s challenge over the next week is to find a way to overcome the exact type of team against whom his players have faltered all season long.

From the first game of the season, amidst some sporadic good form and good performances against good teams, they’ve found themselves against less talented opposition getting sucked into games that they clearly aren’t very good at.

Now, they sit here in the play offs and those quotes from Hughes in our first Act echo loudly.

“We weren’t brave enough at times to play the football we’re capable of and that has to change.”

It hasn’t changed all season. If City are to prevail in this tie, it will have to change now.

Anton’s literary device has been sat there all season long; he is watching from the wings. City now must find a way to ensure it does not bring about their demise in their final Act.

3) Can this City side handle the pressure?

By Jason McKeown

There’s been plenty to admire about this Bradford City team, but also genuine reasons for concern. And whilst in the main watching them is enjoyable, the flaky characteristics they’ve often displayed leave you questioning just how much you can trust them.

As we’ve written before on WOAP, you can only really rank the Gillingham away and Sutton home games as wholly convincing performances – plus Sheffield Wednesday at Valley Parade in the Pizza Cup. That’s about 5% of their full 51-game league and cup season. Meaning that for 95% of the time, they’ve switched back and forth between brilliant and mediocre.

Sometimes, the team’s dodgy spell has lasted 15-20 minutes and proved little more than footnote in victory. On other occasions, they’ve had a bad half that either left them with a lot of work to claim a win – or led to dropped points. The patchiness of City’s displays have conveyed an overall sense of underachievement. They’ve habitually looked capable of more. As EFL pundit Ali Maxwell summarised of the Bantams on the Not The Top 20 play off preview podcast, “They should be better than they are. I don’t think as a team they’ve been that impressive.”

Over the hustle and bustle of a long season, the margin for error has almost always been there. Didn’t play well enough/win today? Well, there’s always next week. Had a bad 45 minutes? Don’t worry, they can put it right in the second half. But now that we’re in the play offs, the leeway for mistakes and dodgy performances is vastly narrower. Get it wrong from here on in, and it could determine the entire season.

That brings greater pressure, which is another concern in this City team. Can they really do it when they absolutely have to? There’s no doubt this squad has more resilience than any Bradford City side since 2016/17. But the players haven’t always handled the high stake moments well, especially during the crucial promotion run-in.

It’s slightly tortuous, so apologies in advance, but this is what the league table looked like just over a month ago, after City won 3-0 at Rochdale.

That’s two points off third-placed Stevenage, and three points off second-place Northampton – with a game in hand and better goal difference. They were five points ahead of eighth-placed Salford (again, with a game in hand). What a fantastic position to earn promotion from. No wonder we bounced out of Spotland dreaming of top three glory.

Yet when that chance was there – and with it the rising expectation – they stalled. Just five points from the subsequent final five games, including defeats at mid-table Swindon and Crewe. It left them only just making the play offs on the final day.

Over that run, we saw worrying signs of the team struggling under pressure. The Gillingham home game, where they had a nightmare first half, came back to go 2-1 up, and then conceded seven minutes into injury time. And the Crewe defeat, when the occasion clearly got to the players and they showed too much emotion, losing sight of basic organisation to damage their promotion hopes.

The nerves have got to different players at different times – Harry Lewis, Brad Halliday, Romoney Crichlow, Sam Stubbs, Alex Gilliead and Richie Smallwood have all made notable mistakes in recent weeks. Even the unstoppable Andy Cook has missed a few presentable chances.

City did win at Northampton over this period – but you can argue they went to Sixfields with less expectation, and that the pressure was on the home side. They did get over the line with a professionally managed 1-1 home draw with Leyton Orient on the final day – but you can’t ignore the fact the champions weren’t playing at full tilt.

On several occasions this season, they’ve climbed right to the edge of the automatic promotion places and then faltered. Wimbledon in September, Stockport in October, Northampton in November, Rochdale in January, Walsall in March, Swindon in April and Crewe in May. Every time they’ve had the chance to close in and take that higher step, they’ve not taken it.

The question is: can City deliver in these high tension, big expectation games? Brad Halliday’s midweek comments that he has no doubt City will be at Wembley don’t necessarily help. And Paul Simpson has understandably played the underdog card, pointing out that Carlisle’s resources are significantly lower than their play off opponents. Justified or not, City will be the favourites to win this tie – upping the pressure on the players.

If they can stay calm, remain switched on, stick to the game plan and not let their standards drop, you’d have to fancy City to triumph over these two legs. But the word ‘if’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. The overwhelming evidence of this season is that this is not a Bradford City team who can always be counted on to deliver.

Hopefully, they’re about to eradicate suspicions of their mental frailty when it really matters.

Categories: Opinion


17 replies

  1. Loving these reviews of the play-offs. I suspect that Hughes will start with Smallwood, Gilliead and Clayton on Sunday as he won’t want to lose the first leg. I think that Hughes will keep faith with the back five that started against Leyton Orient although some say that Platt is better suited to a more physical game than Crichlow. Personally, I would play a 4-4-2 formation with Derbyshire partnering Cook up front with a midfield from right to left of Osadebe, Smallwood, Gilliead and Banks. However, Hughes has rarely used this formation this season and I suspect he won’t employ it tomorrow. We have to trust Hughes and the players chosen to start. Football is usually down to fine margins and I expect the outcome against Carlisle United will be decided by one small matter.

  2. We can talk forever about form, formations, will he won’t he, should he or shouldn’t he. Its all on the day. Peterborough, with a 19 point league deficit turned Sheffield Wed over last night 4 0 , so let’s all hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. We are talking Bradford City after all.

    • Monday was a big pressure game but the team passed the test and got the result that mattered. By contrast you could highlight Stockport and Salford who failed to deliver and by all accounts Carlisle were lucky to get their point. After conceding against Orient it was a test of self-belief that City got the equaliser and it demonstrated that there is strength of spirit. It was evident that the players were up for it and responded well to the atmosphere which worked to our benefit.

      I suspect that a few believe that they have a point to prove and as James Hanson has been quoted, this is a career defining opportunity. I am therefore confident that they will rise to the occasion and as regards the tactics we have options off the bench to vary them if needed – I think that Matt Derbyshire in particular could be a game changer. On balance I feel we have a strong advantage from playing the first leg at home. Carlisle are not to be under-estimated but they haven’t exactly been on form for the last few weeks which suggests to me a side that is lacking in confidence.

      The opportunity is there for the taking. Let’s do a Posh.

  3. We’ve got to play Dion. The whole square peg round hole thing is exactly why we have a squad of players for likewise positions. We shouldn’t be sacrificing the overall stability and shape. Its a big game needing a big performance and maybe Dion has found his opportunities lacking this season but is there a better occasion to be chomping at the bit to play?
    If we try to shoehorn players into that position we lose out elsewhere.

  4. A great analysis especially when planning squad improvements for next year irrespective of division. Hughes won’t change anything much against Carlisle despite their poor form. He does need to change style and approach if we get to Wembley and next year. Loving these articles – Thanks

  5. Who’d thought that Sheffield Wednesday would lose 4 0 to Peterborough in last night’s away leg. It happens! We worry too much about the opposition. We should do what we’re good at. Don’t give the opposition to play the way we expect them to. Disrupt then! Give them something to think about. You are right we are vulnerable at set pieces. Mark has not be able to resolve that issue. Now is the time to tighten up in that area. We have a great opportunity to break from the shackles of league position and focus on performance. Let’s force the issue and let Carlisle worry about us for a change. Come on City prove the doubters wrong.

  6. Much well-processed food for thought here. It will take some digesting. Carlisle are a dogged team which remind me in many ways of the Morecambe side that Adams took up. Hughes’s tactics will come under scrutiny, particularly if we fail to progress. Over two legs, there is much scope for tactical changes. We need to be proactive rather than reactive – and far less predictable. Kamara pulled off a huge shock at Wembley by ruthlessly dropping David Brightwell and bringing in Eddie Youds after a long-term injury. It turned out to be an inspired choice, a master stroke. It may well be that the bravest, boldest and most tactically astute of the four managers involved in the playoffs will win the day.

  7. Would love to see the same analysis of Carlisle weaknesses
    Hopefully hughes has it!

    • Two wins in their last eleven is probably the highlight! And only 3 goals from open play in those 11 games. They have definitely limped over the line.
      Jon Mellish is a big loss in their defence, and if they continue playing their wing back Jack Armer on the left side of their back three to fill in, they will be even weaker going forward as a result as he’s such a good outlet. If we can keep tight at set pieces, and not shoot ourselves in the foot, I think they will really struggle to threaten us. Which is positive!
      It’s probably the easiest tie but we just match up quite poorly with our weaknesses! And I don’t know how we’re going to score outside of Cook half chances. Here’s hoping Hughes finds a switch to flip!

  8. An excellent article and analysis, you absolutely nailed it!!

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see two goalless draws.

  9. Can’t fault the analysis and breakdown of the stats, but there’s a danger of forgetting what’s gone right this season.

    And that’s our second half of the season record, when Hughes changed the formation, against our Top 8 rivals (incidentally wasn’t Salford away, another impressive 90+ minute performance?)

    Against them, we are unbeaten with three wins and four draws.

    This shows, as johndewhirst alluded to above with his comment about Monday’s matches, that it us who handle these big pressure games better than (or at least as good) as our rivals for promotion.

    Nothing illustrated this more than Monday’s set of games, where arguably we were the calmest. So let’s not forget, as you can see from any of our rivals discussion forums, Carlisle in particular – who also have the worst record in the Top 8 mini league, have just as many flaws.

    So yes, they will be two tight matches – but I’m confident we can come through, because we’ve been largely good in these matches all season.

  10. Another great article with some wonderful analysis. After Mondays performance against Orient it’s easy to forget City’s frailties throughout the season. For me, the fact that we rarely perform over 90 minutes is a big concern, especially the slow tempo tippy tappy starts to some of the games – a style of play that has no place in the fourth division……in my opinion! If we start the home leg against Carlisle with purpose we certainly have the wherewithal to take a decent home advantage to Brunton Park. It appears we don’t have a great record at their place in recent years so tomorrows game will be so so critical. If the boys can sustain the same level of performance as Sunday for 180+ minutes, we can look forward to another Wembley appearance.

  11. Another great article – as a London based bantam who can rarely get to games, I hugely appreciate your insights!
    Big opportunity for MH to justify his reputation and get us to Wembley!
    Come on city!

  12. Oh gosh! Meticulous research undoubtedly, but it was like reading Private Frazer’s lines in “Dad’s Army”. We may not be the ultimate team but we’re in the playoffs with three other teams with similar records. Tight, but doable. We are not doomed.

  13. Thanks for the articles leading in to this game and the whole seasons work all at WOAP.

    If you analyse the 4 teams in play offs we have all failed to grasp the metal at one stage or another when it looked good for a place in the autos. This will be about who can handle the pressure not just if the play offs but being on national Tv (sky) for the first time in the league this season (which is itself is a poor doo by the way)

    I think our experienced soldiers should just about be the difference but what do I know!

    If we don’t make it this season we will be stronger for it next season and if/when do go up finally we will be in a stronger position to stay up etc. or am I already trying to protect my sanity for the week ahead!?!


  14. City win this tie if they keep their heads. But frankly I’ve not seen enough evidence over 46 games to suggest they will. What I have seen evidence of is city potentially not performing at home. Being a goal down going into the second leg but all the rhetoric coming out of the players and managers mouths being oh we’re still in it. We need to roght these wrongs and we still have a chance.
    It’s been that way all season

    Good luck. We’ll need it.

  15. With our away record we can be confident that a 1-0 lead is likely to be enough tonight. If the management and players cannot achieve that tonight then all is still not lost as we have won 11 away matches. However i sense we are ready for the slender home win and away draw needed, just like 2017 !

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