A marginal improvement, but this is relegation form.

CoymayThe primary reason for me being so critical of manager Russell Slade in recent weeks has been the antiquated, hopeless (in both senses of the word) and plain boring football that he seemingly was insistent on us playing game in, game out even though we consistently showed we were not very good at it.

It has to follow therefore that, from my point of view at least, anything that sees us adopt more of an approach that has us looking to pass the ball more, as opposed to belt it up the pitch most of the time, has to be viewed as an improvement and, to that extent, I left the ground a bit more happy following yesterday’s 2-0 defeat at Cardiff City Stadium to a Derby County side that is now only being kept off the top of the table by Bournemouth on goal difference.

For me, a change to the 4-2-3-1 formation seen in the FA Cup tie with Colchester four weeks ago was responsible for the improvement. That night City enjoyed the very rare luxury for this season of having more than 50% of the ball (albeit against lower division opponents of course) and, while the possession stats went against us again, 52/48 against a Derby side that were still able to put out a very strong looking midfield five despite not having the likes of Bryson, Eustace and Thorne in their starting line up, is good by our standards.

It was heartening to see us looking to create in the middle of the park for a change, but, and it’s a huge “but”, the slight improvement in ball winning capacity and ball retention only tended to emphasise something that I think, deep down, most supporters knew anyway – merely having more of the ball than we have been getting is not going to solve the myriad of problems there are with this side.

In fact, having more of the ball yesterday only helped to emphasise the lack of vision in the team – looking to create and being able to are two very different things.

Yesterday’s formation saw Aron Gunnarsson and new signing Stuart O’Keefe in deeper positions with Kadeem Harris and Craig Noone on the flanks and Peter Whittingham operating in what I still call the “hole” (everyone else seems to call it the number ten role these days!) behind lone striker Alex Revell. O’Keefe’s industry and enthusiasm helped make us look more solid in central midfield defensively and, up to a point anyway, it could be said that the sitting two did their job well enough given Derby’s lack of goal attempts (the BBC stats show that they only had three of them all game).

There have been so few instances of something happening on the pitch that gets the crowd going this season, but Simon Moore's fine save from Chris Martin's early penalty was one of them - for a while, the crowd were right behind the team after it, but the outfield players weren't good enough to maintain the feelgood factor.*

There have been so few instances of something happening on the pitch that gets the crowd going this season, but Simon Moore’s fine save from Chris Martin’s early penalty was one of them – for a while, the crowd were right behind the team, but the outfield players weren’t good enough to maintain the feelgood factor.*

However, it has to be said that the three in front of them were unable to influence the match in the way that their manager would have hoped for. Noone is not playing well and is lacking in confidence – he did better in the second half I thought, but his impact on the game in terms of the things he was asked and expected to produce was negligible. After the Norwich game, I argued that Harris should be given an extended run in the team, but I have to admit that he has done little to justify such faith since then – it’s tough for a youngster to establish themselves in side that is struggling so much and I thought his lack of “game knowledge” played a part in both goals.

This brings me on to the man who provokes so much debate among supporters these days, Peter Whittingham. So many fans say play him further forward where his vision and shooting ability can be utilised, but I wasn’t convinced by him in this attacking role against Colchester when he played there and I wasn’t again yesterday. When your lone striker has as poor a goalscoring record at this level as Revell does, it becomes imperative that the three behind him get into positions where he gets support in advanced areas and I believe that it is the central player of the three who should do this the most.

Whittingham singularly failed to do this – there was a nice slipped through pass to Revell after the best piece of attacking football I’ve seen from us in weeks in the first half, but, overall, the lack of pace and movement that is so conspicuous in his game these days (he was never really blessed in these departments, but he seems to have got worse this season) was even more evident in a position where such qualities are, if anything, more important.

Too often, Revell was left totally isolated as Whittingham was some twenty or more yards behind him and if he is going to play every week, as seems to be the case under this manager, it’s getting hard to see where he can be fitted in to best show the strengths to his game that he still possesses. Maybe on the left in a flat 4-4-2 could see Whittingham influencing games in the way that we need him to, but, again, for me, a general lack of dynamism counts against him in that position and I feel the same applies to him in wide positions in the system we played yesterday, so I suppose what I’m saying is that he’s best off playing the “quarterback role” he reverted to in the closing stages yesterday.

With so many, seemingly, better qualified candidates for the role Whittingham filled yesterday having left the club recently (e.g Dæhli, Kimbo and Ravel Morrison), it looks to me as if Russell Slade needs to bring in someone from outside if he wants to continue with the policy of playing someone in the sort of withdrawn striker role that can be the central one of an attacking midfield three or at the tip of a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2 (Noone and Harris have not looked too convincing when used in the second of those positions in recent games) – for me, this position more than any other that needs to be filled before the transfer window closes tomorrow.

Again though, just as more possession isn’t going to automatically put things right, so bringing in someone even with the game to play the number ten role really well at this level, isn’t going to get us mounting the late challenge for a Play Off place that Slade insists is still on.

For getting on for two seasons now there has been a losing culture at the club and Derby manager Steve McLaren’s post match comments were very interesting in this regard. At first, I was annoyed at him for what I thought were patronising remarks about his side getting sloppy in the second half and how it was easy for teams to get sucked into relegation battles, but, on further reflection, he was just being honest and accurate in his thinking.

I can’t help feeling that City fans at yesterday’s match experienced something like what home fans must have felt when watching us play their side a couple of years ago. They would have seen their team being beaten by a side that, on the face of it, were nothing special, but this was to underestimate the maturity and mental toughness the Cardiff side of 12/13 possessed. That team also had a little bit more quality than many are prepared to give it credit for these days and, although they didn’t show it very often, Derby were able to put together a couple of moves which were decisive to the outcome that we never really came close to matching.

While many chose to look at the role of the left side of our defence, in particular Scott Malone, in the concession of the two goals, I think that is to ignore the quality the visitors showed in being able to create goalscoring situations in open play in a way that we have barely been able to match all season. For the first goal, Harris’ error in judgment in thinking he could get to a ball which he couldn’t gave Derby the opportunity to eventually create a two on one situation which led to Jamie Ward’s cross being diverted in by Malone and the second saw them work the ball smoothly from left to right while by passing about half of our team to create oceans of room for Cyrus Christie to put in a cross that Chris Martin had no problem heading home.

As has happened a few times this season, City conceded a goal in the minute or two before half time and, with Derby having already shown that breaching their defence once was going to be a very hard task, the idea of it happening twice was too fanciful for me I’m afraid. To be honest, we seldom looked like taking advantage of Derby’s so called sloppiness after the break – there were a couple of good defensive blocks of shots from the edge of the penalty area and the visitors were somewhat lucky that two close range headers found their way into keeper Lee Grant’s hands.

A hard working debut in midfield for new signing Stuart O'Keefe and fellow newcomer Lee Peltier was solid at right back as well. However, the general impression I have at the moment of our business during this transfer window is that we are recruiting grafters more suited to trying to keep us out of League One rather than taking us towards a possible return to the top flight.*

A hard working debut in midfield for new signing Stuart O’Keefe and fellow newcomer Lee Peltier was solid at right back as well. However, the general impression I have at the moment about our business during this transfer window is that we are recruiting grafters more suited to trying to keep us out of League One rather than taking us towards a possible return to the top flight.*

However, it was only really when sub Kenwyne Jones got his head to a Noone cross and forced Grant into a fine save within minutes of his introduction for Gunnarsson that a goal looked on. In fact, when I saw our top scorer so high above his marker, I was already shouting goal, but, if anything, Jones’ contact was too good and the ball flew close enough to Grant for him to get it over the bar.

I reckon Jones will think he should have scored there and the limited impact he had after that might argue that Slade’s decision to go with the harder working Revell at the start was vindicated, but that choice by our manager goes to the heart of a problem that I feel is making a relegation battle far more likely than a far fetched late sprint towards the top six.

What I’m going to finish on needs to carry the qualification that it may well be that our manager’s hand has been forced by the lack of the sort of spending power which would enable him to bring in more quality, but the preference for Revell’s graft over Jones’ somewhat spasmodic ability to be a real threat at this level when the mood takes him, could be said to be indicative of a manager used to the lower leagues who is a lot more comfortable with players who provide perspiration over inspiration.

If anything epitomised how much expectation has been diminished among supporters this season, it was the way in which Revell’s selfless closing down of opponents and Fabio’s impersonation of a headless chicken when he came on as he chased about from player to player while achieving precious little was applauded by many in the crowd.

Of course, putting opponents under pressure when they have the ball is a vital part of  modern football where the pressing game has become so important and I can guarantee that I would be on here having a moan if we had been standing off Derby and letting them play, but at times our attitude had me in mind of the way non league sides approach FA Cup games against Premier League clubs. I’ve used the term “underdog” football before this season and I just think that this apparent appreciation of graft over craft is indicative of an approach that stems from a fear of what we are up against.

When you look at the sides we’ve been playing recently, then, yes, there has to be respect for the opposition, but we’ll be back playing some of the also rans in this year’s Championship soon and we are going to need to be braver than we were in home matches against the likes of Rotherham and Reading for example in the weeks before Christmas. We looked like we believed those sides were better than us and we aren’t always going to get the sort of luck that saw us somehow get four points from those games – we are headed for an anxious last three months of the season if the attitude shown over the previous three is repeated.

* Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to A marginal improvement, but this is relegation form.

  1. Graham says:

    I agree completely. Main points for me yesterday were : Revell working so hard throughout but little real support from Whittingham and whoever plays in the position he started yesterday must give far more – there were so many moments when Revell had no City player within 25 yards of him [oh, and I prefer Revell to start : Jones has scored goals and - perhaps equally importantly - has often cleared the other team's corners, but when he's there we usually resort to belting the ball towards him in the air and most of those come straight back!] But whether it’s Revell or Jones ‘up front’ there HAS to be someone else up there or thereabouts – and that Slade thought Whittingham could fill that role is alarming.

    Yes, we passed the ball to each other more often yesterday but our player who received most passes was the goalkeeper!!

    Noone and Harris too often take that extra little touch and lose the ball – they should both practise centreing the ball accurately.

    When they all sit down to look at the video of the game, they should work out why and how Derby had so much room to build attacks especially down the wing [as we used to call it] and we didn’t.

  2. Big Al says:

    Failing better? We must try again. RS my advice to you is to try improving the Quality of your management team. Only then will the results get better. Can Bellamy help in this area? I am sure his experience could help you and the team. Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the rest by now.
    Big Al

  3. Anthony O'Brien says:

    A very well thought-out dissection and clear analysis of the game yesterday, Paul, ably backed up by the comments from Graham.

    Just one or two points I should like to make. As mentioned above, Noone was more effective in the second half. Is this because he was playing on the left and could simply run down the wing and cross the ball without too much thought? On the right he tends to come inside but then run into traffic and fail to get in a shot or find a team-mate with a SEARCHING pass.

    Noone’s cross did give Kenwyne Jones a chance to head towards goal (or rather, the goalkeeper) but he also had another chance when the ball fell to his feet near the area. However, he then lumbered forward rather like a Sherman tank and lost the opportunity to shoot. His lack of mobility surprises me because he looks very athletic and certainly has the ability to perform quite breath-taking somersaults.

    I agree with Graham that Revell is the better option – but he desperately needs support. In the 54th minute yesterday he chased down a loose ball on the right wing, brought it under control, and looked for a Cardiff player for assistance. I don’t think there was one any closer than thirty or forty yards from Revell, and so all he could do was thump the ball against a defender and win a corner.

    Some time later he was in acres of room on the Cardiff left with a good chance of threatening the goal. His arm was up for what seemed like ages as the Cardiff players passed a square ball to each other before rolling it back to the keeper who hoofed it up field – to the very spot where Revell had been signalling. BUT by this time the defenders had closed him down and Derby cleared the ball with typical ease.
    His frustration, not for the first time, was obvious and understandable.

    Incidentally, have you ever seen Cardiff take a QUICK free kick or throw-in recently, especially since Pilkington has been sidelined?

    For most of the game there was a depressing – and predictable – lack of urgency about the Cardiff display, so why was a man with energy to spare, namely Ademyemi, not used earlier? Indeed, why was he merely on the bench in the first place?

    Having said all that, and metaphorically biting my tongue about so many other issues which might tar me as a grumpy old man, I thought the new signings did quite well, including the unfortunate Malone who showed an awareness in defending which augurs well for the future. Nevertheless, how we still miss Gary Medel, the Pitbull!

  4. Mike C says:

    I normally read the Wales Online comments about City as I’m unable to get to most of their games but some of the comments on the site are so abusive and ill informed by fans and media that in future I shall follow Paul’ s comments in future – maybe he could replace the Wales Online team?
    An excellent dissection and analysis.

  5. Dai Woosnam says:

    I think Paul, that between you and – at the time of writing – the three contributions from your regulars, all has been said on the game as far as I am concerned.
    So I will say nowt as it would be re-echoing previous comments.
    Will just add two comments CCFC-orientated, but not re current players.
    Point 1 – Did you note who captained Sheff United yesterday? The man who should have been Cardiff’s captain! A natural leader …if ever I saw one.
    A proper football player.
    Point 2 – I was lucky enouhj to see Trevor Ford play many times. He taught Gerry Hitchens all he knew. And when younger people ask me “is there a player today whose playing style resembles his?” I always say NO.
    But not any longer.
    I swear that this season I have seen someone who is so close – in EVERY aspect – as to be a playing Siamese twin.
    That player is Diego Costa.
    Kindest,
    Dai.

  6. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Again, thanks to you all for your feedback. Interesting comments about Kenwyne Jones, I’ve read in the mainstream media this morning (including from Nathan Blake) that leaving him out on Saturday was an act of madness. Now, I would have picked Jones over Revell as it turns out, but it would have been a close call with only the latter’s lack of goals at this level being the decisive factor. However, apart from his recent scoring record, there is little in Jones’ play that would make me favour him and I still believe he should have done better with his header – Graham’s point about Jones making us play with more of a route one style is a very good one as well.
    I remember that incident where Revell won a corner Anthony. It was embarrassing that he had the ball for what seemed like fifteen seconds and still not one of his team mates got anywhere near him – as you say, his frustration was plain to see.
    Al, I’ve seen a few posts on messageboards mentioning Craig Bellamy, can’t see it happening myself. Dai, Trevor Ford was my Mum’s favourite player – my Dad liked him, but used to call him a “dirty sod”!

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