Attack…and Defence

I have a confession this Sunday morning. I feel OK. All is not lost. I'm not on the verge of going to church in some desperate attempt to find salvation. Even though our slim playoff hopes took a kicking yesterday I'm taking on a massive fry up unbowed. Onwards Bantam soldiers. Our time will come, I am still very sure of that. 

Get up. Stop sulking. Go to church if you have to. It has been a wonderful season. It isn’t over yet but #sowhat, progress is everywhere. It is a great time to be a supporter of Bradford City. Sulking over missing out on the League One playoffs? I’ll take that.

Yes, yesterday was frustrating, annoying and infuriating. It was all rather typical too. It was a game that followed a familiar pattern for City fans. Miss countless opportunities before conceding. Live to regret the missed chances. Have a go... zero. I'm sure that this type of performance - one-way traffic for most of the game, oodles of missed chances, sucker punch goal, defeat - could be patented as a Bradford City trademark. Watching the first half unfold, as Gillingham cleared various chances off the line and City conspired to keep missing, we could all see what was coming. A goal at the other end. That is very telling. 

The defeat has almost torpedoed our hopes of progressing up the leagues and mirroring what we achieved in 2013 - a famous cup run and promotion double. This failure to recapture that magic has proved too much for many, and the reactions have been fevered. 

Blame is being thrown around willy-nilly onto various doorsteps, as usual, but the main scapegoat this week seems to be the forward line. Completely ignoring the fact that PP said a couple of weeks ago on Radio Leeds that a new striker is a priority, the viewpoint is we need a new striker and that PP needs to act now. 

These calls for a new striker are correct, but they are clearly a priority for the club already. Spurned chances are costly, and a 20-a-season man could be the difference between where we are now and where we aspire to be. 

They overlook another issue though. What went wrong yesterday wasn't solely down to a misfiring forward line. The reason we lost was ultimately down to letting in a goal. It was down to fragility at the back after dominance everywhere else. Not being good enough to keep our opponents out. The moment we conceded, almost filleting our playoff hopes, it was not down to a poor attack or lack of pace up top, it was about our back line. And it raised a debate that's every bit as important as who plays up front next season. 

Just a few weeks ago, a tweet from the Bantams Banter twitter account got a few people a little hot under the collar. With Andrew Davies sat on the turf clutching a pulled hamstring, the tweet asked whether Dava’s contract should be renewed or not when it expires in the summer, given the various injury problems he’s had over the years.
The responses came thick and fast. Some people were furious at the thought of letting him go and it all threatened to go a bit George Galloway. Others felt it was time to move on without him. Many sat on the fence, some called for a pay as you play agreement, and some people were completely torn about what to do.
What it showed is a massive diversity of opinion amongst City fans on a topic that I’d previously assumed wasn’t even up for debate. Andrew Davies is our most dominant centre back and our ‘rock’, I’d presumed. Surely everyone else could see that and would want to keep him at any cost? Wrong. As the replies came in, the differences in opinion were varied, passionate and they were very persuasive.
On Davies, both sides of the keep him/release him argument have logic. He is an influential player when he plays. His presence at the heart of the back four gives us more solidity and organisation. The players around him seem more assured and we are a visibly tougher and more stubborn side. At the core of our best defensive performances, the big blonde head of Andrew Davies is central to everything - clearing the ball, winning headers, ushering teammates, doing the dirty work. Yesterday could well have been different with him out there.

This explains why he is reportedly one of the highest paid players at the club. But, bigger salaries bring bigger expectations, and there can be no more basic expectation of a football player than being able to actually play football. And here’s where the problem with Davies lies, for so much of the time he is unable to go out and play football for Bradford City. 
I’ve done some number crunching (excluding Gillingham yesterday which he missed and which we lost) and since we were promoted to League One, Andrew Davies has appeared in less than 60% of our league games. For every five games, he misses two. If we made the playoffs would he be fit for all three games to see us promoted? The stats say probably not.
Based on our League One games, when Davies plays we average over 1.7 points a game and we let in less than a goal every game (0.9 goals a game). Keep that form up throughout a season and the playoffs beckon, based on one of the tightest defences in the league. 
Without Davies, the story is grimmer. We average less than a point (0.8) per game and ship in 1.4 goals every time we play. Keep that up through the season and you’re looking at mid-table mediocrity. Looking at the current trajectory of Bradford City, not many fans will accept that next year if we’re in league one next season.

With Davies playing, just under half (48%) of our games end with us keeping a clean sheet. Without him that falls to less than a third (31%). If I was Ben Williams, I think I know what I’d be asking the board to do in the summer. The chances of us conceding yesterday would have been slimmer.
What can we conclude from this? Andrew Davies makes a big difference, when he plays, and his presence seems to have a noticeable impact on how many goals we let in and how many points we win. The problem is that that presence is far from guaranteed and he’s not getting any younger. In a club where money most doesn’t grow on trees, his wages are likely to be at the top end of the pay scale. 

The choice is a tricky one and I’m sure it’s one that Lawn, Rhodes and Parkinson are thinking long and hard about. In the cold blooded world of football, the emotional attachment won’t come into it for them. He loves the club? He feels at home here? He’s turned down other lucrative offers before?  Not a factor. They’ll take a ruthless look at it and make their decision based on what Andrew Davies brings to the club in terms of performance and points. It’s a professional relationship based on value, much like any other business.

What would I do? Personally, I’d keep him. The stats don’t lie, he makes a massive difference. Then I’d focus on another problem that this all throws up. Why are we so much leakier without him? Why does missing one player make such a big difference to our defence and the amount of goals we let in? I’d look at that, and be looking to get it sorted as soon as possible.

The striker situation will be very interesting this summer, but what happens at the back will be just as interesting and just as crucial. Yesterday brought that home in a big way.
James Pieslak (@jpieslak)