Why managing scarcity could be key to Bradford City completing the play off job against Carlisle United

By Jason McKeown

In a semi final tie that everyone predicted would be low-scoring, it’s perhaps to be expected that Jamie Walker’s first half goal on Sunday carried a scarcity value. One that prompted some unbalanced and illogical behaviour from Bradford City.

Scarcity is all about the psychology of human beings when we have hold of an object, or commodity, that is limited in supply, and are worried about the implications of losing it. It can lead to us making poor judgements, or being over cautious – to our own detriment.

An example of scarcity is using a credit card to pay an unexpected bill when you have savings to cover it. You’re too worried about losing that savings pot for those just-in-case moments, and so don’t use it when a just-in-case moment actually arrives. Instead, in this situation, you wrack up higher interest repayments and debt. Last winter, I was so worried about our high energy bills I wanted us to eat out more often, rather than use our oven/keep the heating on, even though eating out would have clearly proven more expensive over the long-run. I was stupid to think this way, but scarcity was fogging up my brain.

Watching back Bradford City’s play off semi final first leg with Carlisle, this time through the lens of Sky Sports’ excellent coverage, it strikes me that scarcity impacted both teams’ decision-making – leaving the Bantams struggling to hold onto the precious value of Walker’s goal.

City initially set themselves up effectively. Watching back those first 25 minutes, they played better than I remembered on the night. The middle three of Richie Smallwood, Alex Gilliead and Adam Clayton pressed effectively, which helped to position the whole team higher up the pitch. When City had the ball, they went forward and supported attacks.

What City did well at first

In the 14th minute, the score 0-0, there was a really good illustration of the City high press. Carlisle had just won possession off Banks just outside their box, and worked it back across their defence to try and engineer space to attack. Smallwood, Clayton and Gilliead can be seen inside the Carlisle half, waiting for United to pass the ball forward so they can engage and win the turnover. Smallwood duly does this, and the visitors were again on the backfoot.

City kept doing this very effectively. Carlisle struggled to get out, and had only 35% possession at this point in the game. They attempted 46 passes, but completed just 18 of them (39%). City just didn’t let them settle. “They’ve been more combative, they’re more aggressive,” stated Sky Sports pundit Courtney Sweetman-Kirk at half time, on the Bantams’ early dominance. “We are expecting this possession based-style, but I like the way they’ve mixed it up.”

Evidence of this effective high press can be seen in City’s goal in the 18th minute. Harry Lewis takes a free kick and Corey Whelen just gets above Jamie Walker. The former Liverpool defender’s header away is decent, but Gilliead is pressing well and wins the loose ball. He nods it up towards Andy Cook, who this time beats his man. The flick on finds Scott Banks, who gets ahead of Jack Armer to nudge the ball into the path of Walker to score.

Cook, Banks and Walker doing really well for this goal, but Gilliead’s role is absolutely vital. If he isn’t positioned so high up the park to win the second ball, City don’t get the chance.

And so City are in front. They’ve scored a goal. In a game where there won’t be many.

And this is when it all began to turn.

What changed about City’s approach

The weird thing about the contest is that Carlisle clearly went into it fearing they would concede – and yet when City scored, that apprehension was passed over to the home side. Just listen to the words of Paul Simpson on his players, “I thought they were nervous up until the goal – the goal seemed to settle us. After that I thought we were outstanding.”

It’s true. Sometimes, when the thing you fear the most happens, the fog of anxiety lifts and you just get on with dealing with the situation you were scared would arise. That’s what Carlisle did, and gradually City began to feel the weight of scarcity. They would ultimately lose sight of what they’d done so well early doors. The qualities which had got them in front.

There’s a moment 52 minutes in, where Carlisle have possession at the back. Every single Bradford City player is not just behind the ball, but stood inside their own half. There’s still at least 38 minutes to play, and yet they’re adopting an over-defensive shape like it’s the last 10 minutes. This is largely caused by Smallwood, Gilliead and Clayton retreating 15 yards or so in how they are positioned off the ball, and so inadvertently causing the whole team to push back. The defence is sat too deep.

No one was pressing Carlisle anymore, and as the minutes tick by the visitors began to have more and more of the play. Between the 46th and 75th minute, possession is still 55% in favour of City. For those final 15, plus four minutes stoppage time, that drops to 37%. Of course, you’d expect Carlisle, a team trailing narrowly, to have more possession in the closing stages, but City’s retreat – and lack of press – invited some intense United pressure.

It’s also what little they did with the ball when they actually had it. In minute 75, Smallwood is in possession and level with City’s own box. There is only Cook positioned inside the Carlisle half, and even then he’s basically on the half way line. Everyone is so fearful, they are bunched together nearby, with no one showing for a short pass. It all presents Smallwood with little option but to angle the ball down the line and ask Emmanuel Osadebe to run after it, whilst trying to win a throw in or a corner. The City sub fails to keep possession and Carlisle come again.

Osadebe has had a bit of criticism from some fans for his performance. But he really wasn’t used in a way that allowed him to be anything more than a willing chaser of hopeful punts outwide, and was expected to hold onto the ball with barely a team mate to support.

It was a thankless task, and City’s players needed to be much smarter in keeping the ball. “The only [disappointing] thing from my point of view in terms of how we played was our first pass – when we did win it, we needed to be a little bit more accurate,” reflected Mark Hughes. “At times, the ball’s changing possession, so if we can get the first pass after the transition I think that will help us.”

They nearly paid the price. Minute 88. Carlisle’s Owen Moxon has the ball just inside the City half. No one goes to close him down. He has time to pick his pass, sending the ball low to Taylor Charters, who turns and plays in Kristian Dennis behind Matty Platt. Dennis takes the ball around Lewis, but from a tight angle can’t find the target. A let off, but one of the clearest examples all night of the dangers of City’s scarcity mindset.

That Walker goal was a great moment, but it was akin to giving City a Ming vase and asking them to carry it over a lake covered by a thin sheet of ice. They became too cautious, too edgy, too worried about losing what they had gained – and their fear almost cost them.

They’ve got to be more brave and intelligent in the second leg. They cannot sit back and invite so much pressure. They won’t be able to survive 90 minutes of Moxon deliveries, unless they engage higher up the park and push on themselves. Looking ahead to the second leg, Sky Sports pundit Jamie Mackie predicted, “The way Carlisle finished the game, I do think they’re going to score.” It’s a fair assumption.

City have got half way across the lake and, despite a few cracks in the ice, the vase they are carrying remains in one piece. But they’ve got to stop worrying so much about losing what they have, and remember the qualities that earned them the prize they’re now desperately clinging onto.

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19 replies

  1. Mostly agree
    But I thought we managed injury time really well, with the balll mostly down near the kop

  2. The scarcity principle meets the deprivation syndrome in this thought-provoking analysis of the psychology of footballers. One interesting idea is that sometimes going a goal down can steady the nerves. It’s difficult to explain why but there’s undoubtedly something in it, on occasions. However, we don’t want to put that, and our nerves, to the test in the second leg, by conceding. You don’t need psychology to tell you that the longer Carlyle go without scoring, the more desperate they will become and the more players they will throw forward, offering opportunities for us to play on the break. This might be a match to go with three at the back. I doubt we will, however, given our decent away record with a back four. Personally I’d go for physicality over psychology any day when push comes to shove. I make no apology for favouring big centre backs – preferably with spikey elbows – in matches like this.

  3. As Luton proved last night, it’s not the biggest club which gets through. If we lose then fine but I want to go down with a fight, not like how the last 55 min played out on Sunday. We retreated and retreated. No pressing of the opposite. Felt like we completely switched off ro forgot how to play. No wonder the Carlisle manager was so positive post match. We do the same on Sat and we’ll know what will happen.

    Finally, we’ve got to playoff by playing in 3rd gear for most of the season. Now, that it really counts I hope we do find the mythical higher gear.

  4. It’s a difficult situation. City is at home 1 up. Instinctively, you would expect Bradford to push for a second. You are right, Carlisle reacted with long balls and diagonal passing and crossing. Their manager, instigated this change. I would have expected Mark to react but he didn’t.
    Hence, pressure second half. Mark needs to come up with a strategy to counter that tactic, otherwise, we are in for a tough time at Carlisle. Despite all Carlisle possession, Lewis had nothing to do. It would be unbearable for City to sit back and absorb the pressure. Let’s hope and pray that City can turn in a performance on Saturday.

  5. Peterborough showed the way to approach the psychological disadvantage of playing the first play off match at home.

    We’re now left buying our nails. You can bet Carlisle’s forwards will be falling all over the place in the final third to provide Moxon with the opportunity to fire in his free kicks.

    If we can get an early goal on Saturday, it’ll change the complexion of the challenge we’re inevitably going to face.

  6. I love the Ming vase analogy Jason, sums it up very well.
    Let’s look at it this way, 90 mins to play and we are 1 up in the first minute,
    It doesn’t sound so difficult then.

  7. Spot on Jason.
    I was worried in the second half that if City played much deeper we would have to open the gates in the Bradford End to let them back in

  8. Well put, The unfortunate thing is that this has been our constant strategy all season. The crowd is desparate for use to finish teams off. But we retreat back into our own half and makes the whole game so anxious to watch. Waiting for the final couple of minutes for the opposition to equalise or score the winner, which they inevitably do.
    To be honest it has been a toil of a pleasure watching City this season. Not a patch on the highs and enjoyment of previous promotion seasons. I don’t understand the tactical thinking that the whole stadium hates. We just want to be entertained not sat watching the horse racing on our phones because the team have gone into game management mode.

  9. I was impressed at how we began the game with high energy / intensity and the players working for each other. Ultimately the tempo gradually fell away but I think that this was as much through physical exhaustion – by the last 15 minutes there were some very tired legs. I thought that after getting the goal the players eased off a little to recover because that initial tempo could never be sustained indefinitely. In the event they fell victim to the visitors changing the tactics in the second half and it felt that we couldn’t get back into gear. On Saturday I think we need to make better use of the substitutes to add fresh legs and new approaches which was essentially what Carlisle did.

    I still think we are in a good place and have nothing to be frightened off. Instead of fretting about our weaknesses we need to remember that Carlisle United are hardly world beaters. Besides the pressure is now on them.

  10. Great analogy Jason. I thought we played a great first half against Carlisle, incisive football with purpose and a high press that worked well.

    I know that games ebb and flow but we just sat back and invited Carlisle into the game in the second half. As you alluded to we stopped doing what we did well and just invited pressure on and the ball just kept coming back which usually ends up in city cracking and conceding late in the game.

    This has been the pattern of play all season so in many respects the play off leg followed the same patchy performances such as Crewe & Gillingham. I can’t explain the reason why this team just retreats into a default position of a low block with no press but we seem scared to push on at times and believe in our own abilities.

    City did find a way to win which is all important and Lewis had nothing to do. I found Simpson and the Carlisle fans on social media overly happy with the their evenings work when in fact they lost the game and with a little more conviction and self belief city could’ve been out of sight by half time if the players continued playing the high tempo high press game plan.

    City can’t afford to to park the bus in the second leg however, if we can keep a clean sheet for the first 20 mins and cut out the silly mistakes we can go through.

    It’s all so telling that Walkers goal came from a long ball from Lewis that found its way to Walker after 2 flick ons. Maybe a weakness we can exploit in the second leg if we have the tactical awareness to play higher up the pitch.

    I believe the team that makes the least mistakes will go through on Saturday. Come on city let’s get the job done.

    See you at Wembley.

  11. We always talk about the advantage of the big home crowd but stepped off the gas and therefore didn’t make the most of it in our home leg. Concern around the bench options at this moment in time too. No one that comes on is making us better or having an impact.
    Re Osadebe – it wasn’t just Mondays performance, it’s all his performances so far that have been disappointing. Can’t work out what type of player he’s supposed to be – not a great passer, wasteful in possession, can’t go round anyone, zero goal threat. Smallwood was literally telling where to be on the pitch on Monday.

  12. The fact is at the kick off we hold the area.
    We are winning and to progress they have to score.
    As the time in the game reduces they will naturally become frustrated, as long as it stays 1-0.
    That plays right into our hands.
    Gaps behind etc.
    Despite the concern we are in the driving seat and as time goes on at 1-0 it really is in our control increasingly.
    Let’s heap the pressure before Saturday on them.

  13. Signing Clayton has resulted in City relying far too much on Cook and pragmatic football. If Clayton hadn’t been injured in late March I suspect Banks would be still warming the bench with Derbyshire playing upfront beside Cook.

    Worth noting, with Banks in the starting lineup for the last 9 games of the season City’s goal production increased by about 30%. Begging the question, why was Banks so under utilized this season??

  14. This is a good but flawed team, a squad that doesn’t dictate any one way to set up. It’s not a team i believe can employ a high press for 90mins without getting too tired (mentally and/or physically) and making a big mistake.

    We’re strongest in defence and we have the top scoring forward, so for me it’s pretty understandable why we see the team retreat during the game and rely on that strength to halt attacks and then hopefully see some Cook magic.

    It’s not ideal but it feels like what we are. Please be enough!

  15. Goals in football are rare events. We have one and CU don’t so advantage City – marginally. I think you are right that we tend to ease off after scoring, but how much is the change in momentum is down to the other team’s change in psychology. Afterall they have nothing to lose after going behind. So not sure it’s all down to City. Come on City!!!

  16. Sums it up perfectly, I don’t think it is Mark Hughes tactics, more the fear of conceding, we seem to do it all the time when going in front

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