I spent the first four months of the season thinking that December, January and February would be the time when we could take some huge strides towards keeping our Premier League status this season. The reason why I felt this was that, having played virtually all of the big guns at home, the winter months saw a succession of matches at Cardiff City Stadium against teams we should view as beatable. Apart from Southampton, Liverpool and Chelsea, all of our remaining twelve home games were against teams in the mini league from which the three relegated sides would come.
On the other side of the coin, after a couple of easier looking games at Stoke and Palace to start December, the away fixtures for those three months looked very testing and with visits to Spurs and Everton to come in March, we had a run of seven away games where it seemed to me that only the derby at Swansea could be a reasonable bet for us to take any points from.
Of course, football being what it is, we turned in our worst performance in an away match since Palace in the Swansea game, but the other five matches we’ve played against teams in the current top seven since the match at Selhurst Park have all followed a similar pattern. The matches lost at Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and yesterday by 1-0 to Tottenham all had City staff and the media making fairly encouraging noises about what each performance might lead to, while supporters heaved a sigh of relief that things had not worked out as badly as they feared they might.
Now, all of this could be seen as mildly encouraging if the supposed good things emerging from these defeats were carried into the home matches which followed them, but I’m afraid that, both in terms of performances and results, nothing of the sort has happened.
The encouragement of “winning” the second half at Anfield (the result might have been even closer if referee Lee Probert had seen fit to penalise the wrestling holds Martin Skrtel had on a couple of City players in his own penalty area while “defending” dead ball situations) was followed by the awful Boxing Day showing against Southampton and the great Christmas giveaway against Sunderland, while a gritty defensive showing at the Emirates on New Years Day brought the feeble reaction we saw against West Ham. Okay, the visits to Manchester were followed by a win over Norwich, but it is still something of a mystery how we managed to get the three points that afternoon and the performance level was little better than what has come to be the norm these days at Cardiff City Stadium.
Hull brushing us aside last week following another poor home showing in losing to Wigan in the FA Cup offered further evidence that the positive noises we hear after away games count for nothing if they do not bring some sort of dividend in home games. Interestingly though, there was something from yesterday that was different to what we saw in those earlier away matches and, maybe, it could be the thing that gives us that bit of impetus for next week’s crucial showdown with Fulham at Cardiff City Stadium.
In my report for Saturday’s Academy team game with Barnsley I mentioned that the City youngsters played a version of 3-5-2. It was the first time I could remember them playing such a formation and now the first team have followed suit in using three central defenders (with Craig Bellamy being used behind Fraizer Campbell, it could be argued that we played something like 3-6-1 at White Hart Lane) . Now, I’m sure there will be those who see that system as being defensive, but I would argue that, just like 4-5-1, it’s the people you use within it which defines how attacking or otherwise a system is, not the system itself.
Anyway, with Ole mentioning that 3-5-2/3-6-1 might be something we see again, it seems likely that it will be all change again next week – I also see that the local media (in the form of Terry Phillips) are saying ”I can’t imagine he (Solskjær) will even think of similar tactics against Fulham at home” – I for one hope he does.
Now, speaking as someone who ended up despairing at the inflexibility which saw Dave Jones play 4-4-2 week after week, I largely welcome the fact that Ole is prepared to try different things, but it also needs to be said that the other extreme of changing things week by week hardly strikes me as the best way to ensure your team stays up. Given, that it largely worked against the team in fifth position, I’d say yesterday’s formation (or, at least, the three centrebacks part of it) did enough to earn a continuation into next week – the goal we conceded came from a break from one of our attacking dead ball opportunities, so Spurs did not really break the three centre back defence down.
I say this in the knowledge that to stay up we simply need to start scoring at about twice the rate we have been and start conceding goals at around half the rate we have until now. Put like that, our task looks a huge one, but it’s worth pointing out that apart from the Norwich and Villa games, both of which saw us hanging on desperately at the end, we had conceded at least two goals in each of Ole’s first seven league matches in charge. Therefore, before yesterday, we needed to score at least three goals (something we have done once in thirty three competitive matches so far this season) in more than two thirds of our games under our new manager to stand any chance of getting the wins we so desperately need.
We need to start getting it right at both ends of the field, but we couldn’t go on conceding goals at the rate we were and, although I accept the evidence that three central defenders will lead to an improvement in our goals conceded per game figure is thin at the moment, the little we have suggests it will – hopefully, we may see the improvement we need at one end of the field anyway.
Obviously, the tougher part of the double we require is the second one – finding a way to improve our appalling goalscoring figures. On the face of it, using three centerebacks is not going to help as far as that goes, but one of the reasons why the system worked for the Academy on Saturday was that all three centrebacks were good enough in possession to come out from their defensive situation and join in with the midfield at times. In a must win match like Fulham at home, Cala and Caulker could, and should, do that now and again, while I’d also say that a couple of personnel changes here and there, as well as some minor tweaks to the system could lead to something which enables us to get enough players forward while remaining pretty solid defensively.
Having Gary Medel back makes a big difference and, although I would prefer a couple of wing backs who were stronger defensively, Fabio and John are probably the best we have when it comes to the attacking side of that role, so, as we need the win, I’d stick with them. Again, the need for three points means that, for me, Gunnarsson has to miss out for one of Mutch, Eikrem or, the forgotten man, Whittingham – I’d go for the first named with instructions to get forward as much as he can. I’d keep Bellamy and Campbell in the side with the former given instructions to operate in the same sort of roving role behind the front man as he had against Norwich.
The toughest choice for me is who has that last place in the side – the candidates for me are Noone (if fit), Zaha, Jones and Dæhli. Ideally I’d say you need to play two out and out strikers, but I don’t think Jones does enough in a relegation struggling team to justify a starting role at the moment. Also, I’m not sure about out and out wingers in a system which includes two wing backs selected more for what they do going forward than what they do defensively – if either Noone or Zaha were more competent when having to defend, I’d be very tempted to include at least one of them as a wing back, but I think I’d keep them both on the bench as options to use if things are going wrong.
That leaves Mats Dæhli then who I’d give the same sort of roaming role to as Bellamy would have – both of them would have to get out to support the wing backs at times when we were attacking and there would have to be a real commitment from at least five of our players to make runs beyond our lone striker when they can (we’ve been rubbish at doing that this season). It needs to be remembered that a draw won’t be much good for Fulham either, so I expect them to be more attack minded than most teams we’ve seen at Cardiff City Stadium recently. Therefore, I believe there will be counter attacking opportunities for us as well and, given Fulham’s awful defensive record, there will surely be chances to end our goal drought – scoring first in a home game would make such a difference.
* courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/