I’ll say straight from the start that yesterday’s great win at the Liberty Stadium came as a total surprise to me. My pessimism was partly down to what I saw as a disappointing performance (certainly in the first half) against Reading on Tuesday, but it had more to do with how completely we had been outplayed in the first South Wales derby at Cardiff City Stadium in November.
On that day a Cardiff side which was flying after five consecutive wins was tinkered with by manager Dave Jones with disastrous consequences. It needs to be said of course that City’s talisman, Jay Bothroyd, was suspended for that game and, perhaps, our manager would have stuck with what was a winning 4-4-2 formula if he had been available, but, instead, our best finisher, whose two goals had proved decisive when the teams had met seven months earlier, found himself stuck out on the wing as we changed to a 4-5-1 formation which said that the intention was to try and out Swansea Swansea when in possession and deny them the space to dominate when we weren’t.
In the event, Swansea worked so hard when not in possession that they gave us no time on the ball in the middle of the park and we looked clumsy and ineffective when we had it while we spent most of the afternoon chasing shadows when we didn’t. So complete was Swansea’s domination that a final score of 3-0 wouldn’t have flattered them, but the worst thing about the game for me was that it sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of players and supporters where, previously, very few had existed – by changing things around so much, Dave Jones had seemingly shown a lack of faith in the method which had worked for three months and, when his plan failed, a psychological advantage had been handed to the jacks while his team entered a two month spell where results were akin to a side in the bottom three rather than an outfit which had a top two finish as it’s target.
In view of what had happened before, there was much interest in how we would approach the return game tactically. With Saturday’s results largely going against us, City had dropped a place to sixth and they faced the prospect of being cast five points adrift of second spot in the event of a Swansea win – despite a run of four unbeaten matches (all against promotion rivals), City went into the game as underdogs for our fixture which Swansea had definitely coped with better in the six matches played since hostilities were renewed after a six year break back in 2008.
It would have been easy to have gone into yesterday’s match with a mindset that would seek to stifle Swansea as we looked for a point (something I would gladly have settled for beforehand) that, though welcome, would have seen us, effectively, lose ground on many of the teams around us. To his great credit though, Dave Jones didn’t do that – instead he sent out a team which always looked to take the game to the jacks while also playing in the familiar 4-4-2 formation that said to Swansea “this is what we are best at, see if you can cope with it” . If the formation and approach for the first Swansea game, when we were at the top of the table and six points clear of the jacks, smacked of caution and a lack of self confidence, the attitude shown yesterday, under much more pressure than back in November, was positive and assertive and, with City coming close to scoring twice in the first ten minutes or so, could well have caught the home side on the hop.
A familiar sight for City fans over the past two years and more has been to watch our central midfield two trying, and mostly failing, to compete with the three used in the same area by some of the better Championship sides who play 4-5-1 against us. Yesterday we were up against the side who, arguably, play 4-5-1 better than anyone else at our level and yet, if anything, we won the, very important, battle in that area of the pitch – the difference for me is that this time we had Aaron Ramsey playing there.
The reason I wanted to see more use made of Danny Drinkwater while he was here was that he had the sort of energy and stamina which we, all too often, have been short of in the middle of the park in recent seasons, but if you can get in someone with skill, flair and composure who can also get up and down the pitch for ninety minutes then our need for the someone like Drinkwater diminishes. Ramsey might not have exactly run the show yesterday, but he did display a side to his game which, I for one, hadn’t fully appreciated before – to be able to play a clever ball down the right hand touchline from pretty deep inside your own half and then pop up in the inside left channel just outside your opponent’s penalty area a few seconds later takes a lot of stamina when you consider that all of this took place in the last ten minutes of the game.
Alongside Ramsey, Seyi Olofinjana became more of an influence on the game as it progressed and, speaking as someone who has probably been more critical of him than any other City player this season, it’s a pleasure to record that his second half display was, possibly, the best I have seen from him this season. Ramsey and Olofinjana did get help at times from Peter Whittingham when he came in from his wide right position, but, essentially it was down to those two that Pratley, Gower, Britton and, later, Allen were not as influential as they have been in past matches between the teams.
I daresay, that Swansea fans will look on the match as just one of those days when their passing game didn’t come together, but, just as at Cardiff City Stadium when the roles were reversed, credit has to be given to the opposition when that happens. Shorn of their midfield platform to work off, the jacks had little to offer going forward apart from a few forays by the dangerous Scott Sinclair and, by and large they looked as anemic an attacking force as they used to under Paulo Sousa – has Tom Heaton ever had an easier game for City? Credit has to go here to the much criticised back four where Mark Hudson turned in what has become a typically reliable performance and Dekel Keinan did all that was asked of him in what must have been a testing debut. Alongside them, Paul Quinn handled Sinclair very well in the main and if, like one or two others, he might have got into hotter water with a less lenient ref than Mark Halsey, he does give the defence an abrasive quality that it has lacked in the past.
Up front, Chopra and Bothroyd worked hard with little tangible reward. The latter recovered from his uncharacteristic bad miss in the first minute to show his quality in the build up to the goal, but it was Craig Bellamy who stole the show with what would have been a great goal in any other game, but given who we were playing, I reckon it will become positively Buchananesque! With goals in each of our last four home games and now this match winner to go with them, Bellamy is becoming an increasingly influential figure in our season as it reaches it’s final third – perhaps he has not had the overall effect that was being predicted back in August, but the signs are promising.
So, five unbeaten matches played against sides who are all genuine promotion candidates and eleven points taken. What must not happen now is that standards that have been set since New Years Day slip when we face the “easy” game in a very testing run of fixtures – Scunthorpe have an away record that is totally at odds with their lowly position and will need to be respected. After that it is back to normal with matches against promotion hopefuls Burnley, Forest and Leicester and I see our next two opponents after that, Hull and Ipswich, are both running into form at the wrong time!
Finally, I always try to be even handed in my approach on here and so, having, called for his head at the turn of the year and had a dig at him after the Reading game, it’s only right to record that yesterday has to be seen as a tactical triumph for Dave Jones. Swansea City and Cardiff City have a very different approach to how they play the game and the Swansea method was seen in it’s best light in the first derby of the season. Following that, it was only natural that many (myself included) did our team down as they compared them unfavourably with our neighbours from the west, but yesterday was a reminder that there are many departments of the game where we have the edge on the jacks – Dave Jones deserves a thank you from all Cardiff fans for taking on board the lessons of the first game and then sending his side out yesterday in a way which saw them play to their own strengths rather than worry about the opposition’s.