Bradford City 3 Carlisle United 1: The month is April 2020. Eighteenth-placed Carlisle United have played well in patches but face another forlorn reckoning. If only we could tighten up on set-pieces, the analysis runs, we’d have done better in that game. Repeat to fade.

Is the pattern already set? It is going to take serious improvement to suggest otherwise. A side cannot get by on if-onlys; it is the reality they must confront and right now United’s most blatant flaw is on a constant loop.

Either their dead-ball preparation is deficient, or players are not good enough to execute instructions. There is no mystery third conclusion which lets everyone off the hook.

Finding the solution is essential to this team’s prospects. Yes, this game went to and fro, spinning on a red card which diverted both sides from their initial path.

Yes, there are matters of strategy and selection which will have their day. Yes, there were good things about United’s early display which were submerged by what came after.

The glaring issue, though, stands tallest. Carlisle’s defensive record is the second worst in their division and it would take a determined search to find a side looser from set-pieces. Steven Pressley, a former centre-half, needs to resolve the matter, as do the senior men staffing his back line.

The United manager’s take was this: “Ultimately, my opinion of set-plays is you can go zonal, or man-to-man, but it’s a mentality. We’re clear and precise in our preparation, but on these key moments players have to do their jobs.”

In which case, Christie Elliott, who lost scorer Kelvin Mellor, will have been pinpointed in the post-match analysis, having also failed to prevent Exeter scoring similarly at Brunton Park. Other goals against Swindon and Cheltenham have ended up in their net from the set-piece route, further crosses from open play also finding this rather large weak spot.

This might seem a long dwelling on one issue of a few. The point is that set-pieces are moments when patterns, shape and to an extent recruitment are temporarily shelved. United’s strengths and weaknesses in individual and general play ought not to come into it. It is the domain where a limited team can give itself some help.

A bolstered, aggressive set-piece habit would have this Blues team in upper mid-table. Instead, the opposite. Bradford were not sensational on Saturday but took advantage when they could.

That included the nightmare 10-minute spell which included an equaliser, Jack Bridge’s red card and then Mellor’s goal. The second of those incidents saw Bridge dismissed for pulling back an opponent for the second time.

Pressley had a point when he said Bridge had himself stayed on his feet when similarly impeded, allowing his assailants to avoid punishment. There was a case for criticising the consistency of ref John Busby. Bridge, though, can have few complaints about his own banishment. Earlier incorrect calls do not tarnish one the official got right.

That 34th-minute moment unquestionably spiked Carlisle’s guns after a bright start. Having tamed Bradford’s early attacking, United set about the game well, picking up good midfield ball and gradually putting the hosts on the back foot.

Jack Iredale, more comfortable in attack than in defending Dylan Connolly’s rapid runs, was involved in one hungry foray which saw a cross fizz out of Nathan Thomas’ reach. A minute later, he had advanced to the edge of the box again, waiting for Olufela Olomola’s run and feeding the striker to score with an excellent finish.

It did not end there. Harry McKirdy, next, escaped a Paudie O’Connor grab after good Bridge work and shot wide. Mo Sagaf, from the right, then tried his luck and so it was deflating to see United revert from this brightness to their brittle selves when Bradford came back.

First, a pair of chances from Harry Pritchard and James Vaughan, then the equaliser, as United failed to clear another cross and Pritchard danced past Byron Webster and Gethin Jones to score.

That was soft enough. Then, Bridge’s departure, the midfielder having already been yellowed on 11 minutes for a pull when, with no colleagues close by, he dribbled into danger and then grabbed Pritchard. Finally, a Nathaniel Knight-Percival foul, Matt Palmer’s free-kick, Mellor evading sub Elliott (on for the sacrificed McKirdy) and you know the rest.

Carlisle had simply not been defiant enough in the face of pressure and misfortune and, with McKirdy withdrawn, did not have their most obvious counter-attacker to help chase things. Thomas was on the fringes and the hosts piled it on after the break. Clayton Donaldson forced home the rebound from a point-blank Collin save from Vaughan, and the handball decision that reprieved United looked generous on second viewing.

Callum Cooke, picking up second balls, was another threat United toiled to keep at arm’s length in midfield, while the crossbar denied Donaldson a close-range third. The next period of dismay came next, when Ben Richards-Everton went in recklessly on Iredale and Busby evened up the teams, yet United did not force the issue enough from here. A Thomas inswinger, glanced on by Webster, forced Richard O’Donnell to save, while Olomola and Gethin Jones engineered half-chances.

Thomas had a better one later, forcing a fingertip save, and Carlisle finished with a number of forwards on the pitch (though Olomola dropped deep into midfield). But it was never truly convincing, and Bradford’s final counter-attack, finished emphatically by Zeli Ismail, put things to rest.

“I do feel we’re beginning to see real green shoots in our performances,” Pressley later said. There will be no chance of growth, though, as long as they remain so disconnected in defence.

Bradford: O'Donnell, Mellor, Wood, Richards-Everton, P O'Connor, Pritchard (Oteh 82), Connolly (Ismail 78), Palmer, Cooke, Donaldson, Vaughan (A O’Connor 71). Not used: Hornby, McCartan, Henley, Devine.

Goals: Pritchard 30, Mellor 39, Ismail 90

Booked: Connolly, Cooke. Sent off: Richards-Everton

United: Collin, G Jones, Iredale (Hope 73), Webster, Knight-Percival, Sagaf (Sorensen 82), M Jones, Bridge, McKirdy (Elliott 37), Thomas, Olomola. Not used: Gray, Mellish, Loft, Branthwaite.

Goal: Olomola 14

Booked: Bridge, Knight-Percival, Iredale. Sent off: Bridge

Ref: John Busby

Crowd: 14,217 (828 Carlisle fans)