Some people may say it is luck that has enabled City to win games in added time on successive Saturdays despite being almost over run at times by their opponents, but considering all that they have had to put up with this month, I prefer to call it character. With injuries, illness and off field shenanigans all giving Dave Jones, his assistants and his players reason to take their eye off the ball over the past few weeks, they have instead shown resolve and spirit to eke out the results that have made January an excellent month on the pitch at least.
In winning four and drawing three of their seven January matches, the team have shown bundles of a commodity that I had spent the last eight months of 2009 saying they lacked – bottle. The first half of the season had seen us being virtually unstoppable when things were in our favour, but seemingly lacking the stomach for a fight with the final game of the old year at Peterborough offering a perfect example of the frailty that had dogged us since that fateful visit to Preston. In adversity though, the players have found a spirit and determination that has enabled them to win matches that they would never have done a month ago.
There were plenty around me yesterday who were being very critical of certain players and the team as a whole as Doncaster got right on top during the period either side of their goal, but I really do think that people should be more realistic about what they should expect from the side we currently find ourselves with.
All season long supporters have been saying we need strengthening in central midfield and I agree with that. Even when we had what could be called our first choice pairing in there (for me that’s Ledley and this season’s Steve McPhail) we were hardly dominating games in that area and over the first half of the season we got used to seeing us coming second in that area of the pitch game in, game out – we might be a top four side at the moment, but I don’t think we have ever had a top four central midfield.
Therefore, I don’t think anyone should have been surprised yesterday when we started to lose our way in that area of the pitch from about the half hour mark onwards, especially against a team like Doncaster who are, currently, far better equipped in central midfield than we are. Any team playing Doncaster at this level can expect to be without the ball for long periods of the game as they are very good at keeping possession and we certainly had to do a lot of chasing and closing down for the last hour yesterday.
Yesterday’s game offered a perfect insight into the conundrum we have when playing Peter Whittingham in central midfield. For thirty minutes he was the dominant creative force on the pitch as we carried on with our Ashton Gate form and exploited a square looking Donny defence to create chances galore. Whittingham’s pass to present Michael Chopra with the first goal was a real beauty and showed what he is capable of from the centre of the pitch when in possession, but as soon as we started losing that battle for the ball, Whits became a luxury which I am not sure we can always afford to have in there. I can’t help thinking that, especially in his goalscoring form of this season, he is more use to us getting further forward – he could still deliver those raking long passes from the middle of the pitch at times because he is the type of wide midfield player who likes to cut infield a lot.
I was pleased with the team that was selected yesterday because it had all five of our attacking players who can each be matchwinners on their day in from the start, but, it has to be admitted that it did have a lopsided look to it in that it placed an awful lot of defensive responsibility on Gavin Rae, who is not overly suited to that sort of role anyway. This contributed to Rae struggling for much of the time he was on the pitch yesterday, but, again, I think those being critical of him are being guilty of expecting too much from him at the moment – the fact that he has been withdrawn around the hour mark in each of his last two matches makes me think that he is one of a number of players (e.g. Burke and Bothroyd) who are playing at a time when they should probably be being rested for a game or two.
In my view we started against Doncaster in central midfield with one player who is some way short of being 100% fit and another who is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and I think we are going to have to accept that, at least until Steve McPhail comes back, and possibly even after that, we are going to be chasing around trying to get the ball off the opposition as we see them dominate central midfield even more than they were earlier in the season.
Look at the combination in there that we finished yesterday’s game with – even in an area where we are probably at our weakest, a combination of Darcy Blake and Soloman Taiwo would probably have been about our eighth best central midfield pairing a few weeks ago. To be fair to them both though, they were probably better suited to the way the game was going when they came on because they both gave us a bit of defensive solidity and resilience with Taiwo again showing a few composed touches which suggest that he could yet become a decent player at this level.
On the face of it, this suggests that we are over achieving at the moment and I believe we are when you consider our recent starting elevens and, in particular, our substitutes benches, but, even though we are short in numbers and quality in some areas, there is still one thing which we are better at than virtually anyone we play- goalscoring. Because of this, we are always going to have a chance even when we don’t see the ball for long periods – in this respect we are like the Welsh rugby sides who used to say if we can get 40% of the ball we can win because our backs are good enough to live off scraps. Okay, yesterday wasn’t the best day to choose to illustrate our potency in that department, but it is still true to say that Michael Chopra put away the most difficult of his first half chances in a way which few others in this league could match and I don’t think we will have too many other days this season when some of our good finishers are as profligate as they were yesterday.
However, with about twenty minutes to go when we were really struggling as we were passing across the pitch and getting nowhere because none of our much vaunted forward players were making good enough runs for the defenders and midfielders with the ball to hit, who was it took on the responsibility to actually try and get something started by himself? It wasn’t Chopra, Bothroyd, McCormack or Whittingham, it was Super Kev of course! It was only a forceful run forward with the ball which ended up getting us a corner, but the game changed from that point – the crowd started getting right behind the team and, although I would hardly say we were dominant, the game became a more even contest and you just began to sense that maybe we could just end with the three points.
We don’t half miss Kevin McNaughton when he is injured and I really hope his dodgy hamstrings can last out the upcoming months because he is so important to us, but, leaving all that to one side, I just want to see my favourite player in this team in action more often!