Manager Malky Mackay was left with the right sort of problem after last night’s hard fought but deserved 1-0 victory over Burnley in the Fourth Round of the Carling Cup. Team changes were kept to a minimum compared to previous League Cup matches this season, but the two that were made were to the back five that had leaked nine goals in the three matches played since the international break as Tom Heaton got a rare start in goal and Anthony Gerrard returned at centreback in place of Ben Turner.
Both of these players can point to a clean sheet kept as a justification for their retention at Leeds on Sunday, but my suspicion is that neither of them will feature in the starting line up at Elland Road (Gerrard picked up his fifth booking of the season which will mean a suspension that will hardly help his cause) . This would be harsh on Heaton in particular who, although not too busy for much of the time because Gerrard and co were able to keep the visiting strikers at arm’s length, produced quality saves early on from Keith Treacey’s volley and then tipped over Ben Mee’s header from the resultant corner. Heaton looked confident in everything he did and this shouldn’t be ignored in light of recent mishaps at the back – his kicking wasn’t always perfect, but a quickly taken free kick to Joe Mason in the second half was an example of goalkeeping distribution at it’s best.
The strangest thing to me about our recent defensive problems is that it’s hard to put too many of them down to new signing Ben Turner. I didn’t see the Peterborough match, but I thought Turner played pretty well against Ipswich and Barnsley – certainly, it’s hard to point the finger of blame at him for any of those nine goals. However, it has to be said, that Mark Hudson looked more like the player of last season last night – he looked more assured and could have made the win more convincing if he had been able to direct Peter Whittingham’s lovely second half cross downwards instead of just over the bar. At full back, Burnley did enjoy some success down our left in the latter stages of the game, but Andrew Taylor was able to mix his usual good quality distribution with some solid defending, while the visitors made scant progress on the opposite side of the pitch where Kevin McNaughton, backed up by the workaholic Don Cowie gave their opposite numbers little or no cause for comfort.
Actually, for a spell in the second half, it was hard to tell who was the full back and who was the midfield player on City’s right as Cowie spent most of the time playing behind McNaughton who seldom seemed to be in his own half. My theory as to why this was happening was that McNaughton was doing a marking job on Treacey (who always strikes me as a very talented but inconsistent performer), while also trying to push him away from our goal – if that was the case, then the plan worked because Treacey was seldom seen in threatening areas of the pitch and it was interesting to see McNaughton and Cowie reverted to their normal positions when the Burnley man was withdrawn midway through the second half.
If City were more secure at the back, it would be wrong to give all of the credit for this to the defence because the five man midfield gave Burnley little time to settle into the passing rhythm that they obviously wanted to impose on the game (they were yet another team who were very reluctant to have their keeper kick it long into the opposition half) . Burnley had little success throughout the ninety minutes in trying to pass their way through us and it was telling that the times they did threaten tended to come from dead ball situations – besides Mee’s first half header, he had another not far over in the second half and the only other time they really came close to scoring after the break was when Jay Rodriguez’s free kick was deflected narrowly wide.
Besides putting in a solid defensive shift. City’s midfield also played some decent stuff, particularly in the first half – the goal came at a time when we were enjoying our best spell of the game. Aron Gunnarsson was rather muted compared to his Barnsley performance, but he did win the ball to start off the move which produced the goal as Cowie carried the ball forward twenty or thirty yards before releasing Mason. Alongside them, Peter Whittingham was his usual self in the first half (I’m at the stage now where I take his excellence for granted – he is twice the player he was two or three years ago), but he was less of an influence after the break and his time on the left in the closing stages after Filip Kiss replaced Craig Conway had me thinking that he’s a better player in the middle of midfield now than he is on the flanks (was it a coincidence that Burnley got in once or twice down that side of the pitch after the conscientious Conway went off?).
However, it was Steve McPhail who took most of the midfield plaudits for me. This time Macca completed the full ninety minutes during which he provided the continuity that ensured that we kept the ball for long periods. Much of what McPhail did looked simple as he hit five or ten yard passes to unmarked colleagues until you start to wonder why no one else in the squad seems to be able to do it when he isn’t there – McPhail always seemed to have a little bit more time and space than others and I wonder if this is because Burnley knew that he had the vision and ability to really hurt them if they left gaps he could exploit if they tried to press him? Whatever, I find myself increasingly thinking that, in McPhail’s sixth season at the club, we have finally come across a system designed to get the best out of him – the extra man in the middle of the park means that his weaknesses do not become the liabilities they often were in a four man midfield where his partner was often required to do a fire fighting job as Macca found it hard to cope.
Of course, having the extra player in midfield puts a huge responsibility on the lone attacker in a 4-5-1 system and many good strikers are simply unable to perform this role well enough to make the formation work. Bearing this in mind, you have to say that the twenty year old, whose physique hardly suggests he’s strong enough to take on such a physically demanding job, forced into that role made a very good job of it (again) last night. There were times in the first twenty minutes when I thought that maybe we were asking too much of Joe Mason – the ball wasn’t sticking with him and the focal point needed for our midfield to play off wasn’t really there. However, no doubt buoyed by his goal, Mason was one of the few City players whose performance got better as the game went on as he was consistently able to just get his pass off as bigger opponents tried to make their physical superiority count.
Much has been said already about the maturity and intelligence that Mason brings to City’s game, but I must admit that his finishing had disappointed me a little. When he first signed for us, both players and manager commented on how he was showing in training that he was a natural and calm finisher, but I had seen little evidence of this up until last night. Early on, he was put through in the inside left channel by a superb Cowie pass but shot wide – given the angle he was at, it was not an easy chance, but it was disappointing that Mason didn’t force keeper Lee Grant into a save*. Therefore, when Cowie played Mason in after that run of his in the fortieth minute, I didn’t really think a goal was on – Mason’s customary clever movement had bought himself a little bit of space, but it was quickly being closed down. What the youngster did next though came as a very pleasant surprise, as he controlled the ball with his right foot, then took a touch and placed a low shot well beyond Grant from just inside the penalty area with his left, allegedly weaker, foot. It was a goal fit to win any game and the finish of someone who has the ice in his veins that all good strikers need – so far at least, most of Malky Mackay’s summer buys look to be good signings, but Mason may just be the best of the lot.
* It was pointed out to me, and later confirmed by watching the highlights on the official site, that Mason’s shot in fact hit the base of the post, so apologies for making out it was a worse effort than it turned out to be!