Although there hasn’t been as much squad rotation as I thought there might have been this season, Malky Mackay definitely seems to have different ideas as to how the team sets up in home and away matches. Not for the first time this season, the defensive discipline offered by a Kim Bo Kyung or Don Cowie was preferred to a wide player who was more of a natural attacker at Leicester on Saturday, but at home it’s been a 4-4-2 with a couple of wide men who are expected to get chalk on their boots as opposed to those whose first instinct is to cut inside.
This more attacking approach has seen Craig Noone and, lately, Craig Conway favoured in wide areas when we play at Cardiff City Stadium and with ten home wins on the trot, it has to be said that, on the surface at least, there has been little need to change things. However, I would say that we didn’t really play with any authority or style in our last three home matches before yesterday’s visit of Crystal Palace. Against Middlesbrough it was a real backs to the wall struggle (our cause wasn’t helped by all the injury disruptions in that match mind) and we ground down a Sheffield Wednesday team in awful form at the time before Peterborough, deservedly, ended our record breaking run.
Playing a 4-4-2 system with two of the middle four stuck out on the touchline all of the time puts a huge responsibility on the two central midfield players, especially if, as Middlesbrough tended to have and Peterborough definitely had, they are up against three in central midfield. For yesterday’s terrific scrap and eventual triumph over Crystal Palace we were up against a team who, even with their recent change of manager, have not changed their style of play for the last two seasons. Palace use a lone striker and rely on their wide midfield players to break forward at great speed to support him, but two of their central midfield players tend to stay deep leaving another to play more in the “hole” behind the striker – when that lone striker is in the form of his life, the two wide players are as good as Zaha is and the previously erratic Bolasie has been recently and they are supported by a someone with the creativity of a Garvan or Moritz, then they offer a considerable attacking threat.
So, with City having to go with a right back in Kevin McNaughton who had something of a nightmare against Peterborough and a left back in Andrew Taylor who certainly has his critics amongst our fanbase when it comes to defending, was it time for Malky Mackay to modify things by going with a slightly more cautious formation? Not a bit of it, we went for our normal attacking home line up and for the first third of the match it looked like our manager had got things drastically wrong. The writing was on the wall when we hit three long high balls towards our strikers before Palace scored from a very poorly defended corner in the third minute and nothing changed in that respect for the next thirty minutes or so.
At the time I was very critical of our defenders for the way they were whacking the ball forward hopefully, but I probably should have been more sympathetic because, apart from playing from side to side before eventually going back to Marshall, they often had no other option. It’s obvious our manager has tremendous faith in Peter Whittingham and Jordon Mutch, but they were both given huge workloads yesterday. Whittingham’s main influence on the first half was to take a quick free kick which, just as against Peterborough, ended up seconds later with the opposition’s striker clean through on goal. Dwight Gayle stuck his chance away, but twenty goal Glenn Murray had one of “those” afternoons for Palace and stumbled when in on goal with a labouring Mark Hudson trailing behind him – Murray also blazed over just before half time, while Zaha cracked a shot against the crossbar before David Marshall pulled off a great save from Murray’s deflected follow up.
While all of this was going on, Mutch was struggling to get into the game as, just like Whittingham, he was closed down as soon as he was in possession by the dominant visitors – finding space to receive passes from our back four to develop attacks from the back becomes so much harder when you are up against a three in central midfield and are expected to cover wider areas as well as Noone and Conway stuck to the touchlines. Although Whittingham and Mutch remained peripheral figures, the balance of the game did begin to change a bit as half time approached though.
For me, there were three reasons why this happened. I’ll come to one of them at the end of this piece, but the other two were that, firstly, Craig Bellamy became more of a factor. Quite how he managed to do this when he was getting so little decent service is fairly difficult to explain, but busting a gut to get on the end of a long pass (it was a pass rather than a hoof) from his keeper helped, as did the clever movement and well timed runs that began to give Speroni something to do.
Besides that, Palace allowed themselves to become distracted by the latest of a series of erratic referees we’ve had at Cardiff City Stadium lately. Just like that clown Coote for the Peterborough match, Phil Gibbs was another one not used to reffing in the Championship and this link shows that yesterday’s was the biggest match of his career so far. Mr Gibbs was poor for both sides, but I must say that he favoured us at times and Palace let this get to them too much in my opinion – I know a team with as much flair as them are bound to have a few prima donnas in the team, but the antics of Messrs Zaha, Bolasie, Jelanik, Dikgakoi etc. might have been punished more severely and showed that they had become distracted by the official.
The fact that we were able to work Bellamy to the byeline to provide the cross for an equaliser by the previously anonymous Craig Noone showed that we were now beginning to play some effective football and meant that we were able to enjoy the half time break a lot more than we should have. Judging by the “I’d take a 1-1 draw now” comments around me at half time, it seemed that there were many who agreed with me that we should shore things up by bringing on Gunnarsson for one of our wingers, or possibly Helguson, to even things in central midfield and when I saw Aron stood on the touchline ready to come on, I assumed I was right (yet again!).
It turned out though that I was wrong (yet again!) – Gunnarsson replaced Mutch and we were still going with our “home” 4-4-2. That said, there were a couple of modifications as Noone and Conway were playing a little deeper – this was especially true of the latter. Over the past four seasons I’ve become used to seeing the likes of Chris Burke and Noone running towards me in my corner of the ground where the Ninian and Canton stands meet in the second half of matches as they attack their full backs, but the only time Conway got near to me after the break was when he was involved in a foot race with Danny Gabbidon which proved that, whatever else all his injuries have done to our former player, he hasn’t lost too much of his pace.
The shift in the balance of the match which started in the first half continued after the break when we started winning the 50/50 balls that Palace had been dominating. Credit to Gunnarsson as well, because his presence certainly led to an improvement in central midfield and he does have this knack of scoring when he comes off the bench in home games, but I also think Whittingham played his best forty five minutes in a while as he mixed some good defending with some of the passing and dead ball delivery we have come to expect from him. Gunnarsson slipped Bellamy through for a chance he should have scored from, but our best player on the day didn’t get much else wrong and it was his bang on the money right footed version of a Whittingham corner that enabled the Iceland captain to head home.
Joe Mason had been ready to come on when the winning goal went in and I mentioned that we’d see Cowie brought on instead of him now, but I’d got our manager wrong again as he stuck with the 4-4-2 with two wingers approach by dropping Bellamy back for Noone so that Joe slotted in alongside Rudi Gestede (who turned in another effective performance from the bench). As Ian Holloway acknowledged, another Cardiff goal was more likely than a Palace equaliser after we went 2-1 up and seeing the game out with a one goal lead was more straightforward than it has often been at home this season.
So, Malky Mackay’s attacking approach had paid off and credit to him for that. However, as I left the ground after the game, I couldn’t help thinking that the time was coming soon when we start playing a system more suited to getting the best out of our most influential player (Whittingham) in the future. Having had a bit more time to think about it though, I wonder if our manager knows something that I’m scared to admit for fear that saying it on here will break the spell and we’ll revert to normal. Maybe, Malky Mackay accepts that we have the winning mentality and belief that promotion winners possess?
This brings my on to the third point as to why yesterday’s match turned in the way it did. In a division as competitive as the Championship, there aren’t going to be many sides who earn promotion by blowing their opponents away week in, week out (Reading in 2005/06 and Newcastle in 2009/10 in their latter stages of their title wins are the only sides I can think of who have come close to doing that in the ten seasons since we returned to this level) – Championship games tend to be physical and mental slogs where any self doubts are mercilessly exploited. Having watched the Leicester game in full now, I’d say there were definite similarities in our last two matches in that we were right under the cosh for the opening periods of both games, before seeing them out quite comfortably in the end.
Leicester and Palace reminded me of us in recent seasons in that I’ve been watching us play some of the sides who ended up getting promoted when we were right on top and thinking we’ve got to win this, but, for whatever reason, we didn’t see the job through and opponents who certainly didn’t play us off the park ended up with a share of the points at least. Those sides often believed that they’d win whereas we hoped we would – up to now at least, the boot has been on the other foot this season.