So Bradford City did it again. This time it was Aston Villa who failed to deal with their intensity at Valley Parade.
Everyone loves an underdog - they were expected to bow out gracefully against Arsenal but refused to go quietly. Phil Parkinson has received the plaudits on behalf of a deserving group of players who are clearly relishing the challenge of pitting themselves against highly paid superstars on a regular basis. I am surprised Parkinson hasn't achieved more as a manager - I had him down as a potential Premiership manager back when he did such an impressive job with Colchester United. His subsequent roles at Hull and Charlton yielded very little and it's taken him quite some time to improve Bradford's fortunes.
I think their cup runs this year will prove too much for them to achieve promotion from League 2 - they've already played more than 40 games and are still in two cups. Such a schedule would test the resources of clubs with much larger playing squad's. Regardless, Bradford's star is in the ascendancy under Parkinson.
The constant analysis of the game these days means we are all guilty of a bit too much navel gazing at times. To understand the reasons for Bradford's success against Premiership team under Parkinson, you don't have to look too deep beneath the surface - the key success factors are really quite straightforward:
1) Early delivery from wide areas
Bradford's major attacking threat arises when their wide players deliver early balls into the box. Wide players like Zavon Hines, Blair Turgott and Will Atkinson all did this - they didn't try too hard to beat their opponent, aiming simply to get the ball out of their feet and get the ball into the box where James Hanson and Nahki Wells consistently managed to evade defenders. The wide man doesn't need to pick a specific man out - he should be able to trust his team mates to arrive in dangerous areas if they know the ball is going to be delivered there early. The quicker this happens, the less time opposing defenders have to organise and cover. This doesn't only apply to open play, but to set pieces where possession is recycled, or second phase ball as it is also referred to. This was perfectly demonstrated by Gary Jones and his delivery into the box for Bradford's second goal.
2) Single minded desire to attack set pieces
How many times do you see seemingly aimless balls delivered into the box from set pieces when attacking players seem to go through the motions of making a predictable run into an area and challenge but don't really look like getting on the end of it? Parkinson clearly won't accept this from his players. Every attacking player makes a movement towards the ball or towards the area it is delivered into that is dynamic and threatening - they attack the ball like every opportunity really matters, and they threatened from numerous set pieces as a result. Carl McHugh's outstanding header for the third goal was a great example of this.
3) Let them have the ball in their own half
Bradford have conceded a lot of possession against all three of the Premiership sides they've beaten in the competition so far - this is natural against sides with more gifted players and Parkinson clearly has a plan to negate this. If Bradford don't win the ball back within a couple of seconds of losing possession, the whole team drops back to defend in their own half. Two banks of four quickly form, and with Hanson and Wells in front of them look very compact, denying the opposition space to receive the ball in areas that can hurt Bradford. As a result, Villa last night rarely played the ball into players' feet giving them time to turn and run at Bradford's defenders - they always had to go back to their own goal. They had a little joy in the opening 15 minutes of the game when Bradford's players were still adjusting and finding their distances ie adjusting their shape to ensure they covered the key attacking areas in their half of the pitch, but once they had adjusted, the only joy for Villa came either from an aerial ball to Christian Benteke for him to flick on or when Bradford themselves lost possession in their own half and gave Villa the chance to attack before the defensive unit had re-grouped. This tactic also means players don't expend as much energy pressing the opposition which is critical if you want to bridge the gap against a team with better technical players than you. Remaining organised and concentrating on that organisation is tough if you've been chasing the ball all over the pitch for 89 minutes. The opposition can't score against you if the ball is in their half of the pitch.
4) Hold the ball up top
Both Hanson and Wells understood the need to retain possession when they received the ball - they didn't give the ball up cheaply. This allowed their team mates to get forward and support, and their team to retain possession for more than one or two passes in each phase of possession - that's the platform you need to get attacking options in position to do some damage.
5) Buy time when you're under pressure
Bradford looked like old pros last night, despite the fact they, like Villa, have a a lot of young and inexperienced players. When they needed a break, their youngsters showed maturity beyond their years, often protecting the ball and drawing a foul from over eager Villa players and thereby allowing their team to rest and re-organise again. Paul Lambert will no doubt have been frustrated by his own players' naivety when this did happen, whilst Parkinson and his assistant Steve Parkin will no doubt have taken great pleasure as their coaching and management instructions were executed extremely well.
None of that is rocket science, which is perhaps why I'm surprised that Villa failed to deal with the way Parkinson had his side set up. Bradford obviously work very hard on executing the basics on the training ground. Of course, they also worked extremely hard and showed immense character - they clearly believed that they had a chance but appreciated that they needed to show more hunger, more desire and more spirit to overcome their Premiership opponents. They also had a bit of luck - Matt Duke had a great game in goal for them and when the ball broke in their penalty area, it usually fell kindly for Bradford. The one exception should have resulted in a goal for Darren Bent but didn't. Matches hinge on moments like that so Bradford will no doubt realise that if Bent has scored from a yard out with an open goal, their prospects of getting to Wembley would have diminished considerably.
It was a great performance from Bradford. They'll need one more stellar performance in two weeks' time if they are to achieve the unthinkable and become the first team from the fourth tier of English football to get to a League Cup final in more than half a century.
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