There are pecking orders in any league, but it seems to me that they are more pronounced and important in the division we’ll be playing in next season. Although the identity of the clubs who fall into the groups I’m going to describe could be argued about, I would say that at the top of the Premiership pecking order is the group of clubs who expect to put in realistic challenges for at least two major trophies (one of which should be the Premiership itself) at the start of each season – for these clubs qualification for the Champions League is considered a must. Next up is a group who feel that with a lot of luck and a following wind, they might end up challenging for a Champions League place and a domestic cup or two.
In my opinion, the two Merseyside clubs are amongst those which fall into that second category and, currently, Malky Mackay is being strongly linked with one of them for the vacant managers job. Now, I don’t care if you have been supporting Cardiff City for half a year, half a decade or half a century, I’m pretty sure that you’ve not seen a manager of this club being quoted as a realistic candidate to take over a side with the history, prestige and talent of the Everton FC of 2013. Malky Mackay doesn’t appear to be a popular choice as Everton’s next manager amongst their support, but it looks like he definitely has his admirers in the corridors of power at Goodison Park – whether he gets the job or not, he is being looked on as a serious candidate for the post.
Therefore, it appears that important people at “bigger” clubs than ours rate our manager even if some City fans appear to be loath to give him much credit even after our promotion. Malky’s critics say that has never managed at Premiership level, but that could be said about so many notable current bosses – it didn’t put Everton off when they went in for David Moyes and he turned out pretty well for them. There was a time when not having much playing experience in the Premiership (Malky only played fourteen times in the top flight during the final year of his playing career) might have been seen as a drawback to someone who was looking to manage at that level, but a look at the playing careers of four of the men in charge of the top five sides for most of this season suggests that this no longer applies (the managers of both Merseyside clubs didn’t pull up any trees during their playing career either).
There are those who denigrate our manager’s achievements this season reasoning that anyone could have got us promotion with the money he was given to spend in the transfer market, but having the money to spend and spending it well ate two different things – Mark Hughes’ spell at Queens Park Rangers springs to mind in that regard and, at a different level, I always thought Frank Burrows was someone who did better in the transfer market with a really tight budget than he did when he had something significant to spend.
However, it is true that our manager had a bigger transfer budget this season than most of his rivals in the Championship and he didn’t do too badly on that front last year either, but, when you look at the twenty nine players Malky Mackay has brought in since he took over nearly two years ago, how many of them can be called duds? Sad to relate, I think Earnie falls into that category and when you consider how much was paid for Etien Velikonja, I suppose he does as well – it’s hard to see the likes of Kadeem Harris and Filip Kiss making an impact next season, but the former is seen as one for the future and the latter showed himself to be a useful performer last season.
The good signings far outweigh the bad ones then for me – a lot of money was paid for the likes of Kimbo and Jordon Mutch and it would have been reasonable to rank those two as dodgy signings without the fine contributions they made from Easter Monday onwards at a time when questions were being asked about whether we were “doing a Cardiff”.
Anyway, bringing in players from other clubs is only part of the manager’s job, for me a good manager also improves the ones he has already at his club. Of the players he inherited, it may well be true to say that David Marshall has had the best two seasons of his career under Malky’s management, Aron Gunnarsson’s game came on leaps and bounds last season, Ben Turner (who I thought was tremendous in the closing stages of the campaign when we were short of experienced centrebacks) continues to develop, Andrew Taylor was a model of consistency and, although his legion of critics will no doubt disagree, Rudy Gestede looked a more complete player to me compared to last year.
Mention of Gestede brings me to my main bugbear with Malky Mackay’s management of the club – we don’t play the sort of football I thought I saw his Watford team play when he was in charge there! Even here though, I wonder if I’m really being fair to Malky – I think you tend to be more critical when you are watching your team play, whereas the “good bits” you see from a game you watch as a neutral tend to stick in your mind, while the dross gets ignored. It’s easy to look at a City team including Gestede or Heidar Helguson and the number of set piece goals we scored and dismiss us as a long ball team (it’s a reputation we’ve got in some places – for example, I’ve seen Malky dismissed as a long ball merchant by Everton fans on some of their messageboards.
I fall into the same trap myself sometimes, but keep on going back to what Malky said at his first press conference after taking over here when he told the media that his Cardiff side will play in a way that causes our opponents most problems. I take this to mean that if the side we are playing are thought to be weak in the air at the back, then we’ll go more direct, but if we are up against a side that are strong aerially, but lack a bit of pace defensively, then we’ll try and exploit that by trying to work the ball into areas where we can cause most damage.
I suppose when you think about it, isn’t it best to be flexible tactically rather than stick slavishly to one method of playing through thick and thin? Although I think it’s fair to say that there weren’t as many instances of us turning on the style as you might expect from a team which topped the league by an eight point margin, it would be wrong to say we only played one way – the two games with Blackburn, Blackpool and Burnley along with Wolves, Brighton, the wurzels and Forest at home are all examples of matches where we’ve passed the ball well which I’ve come up with off the top of my head.
In the two seasons under Malky Mackay, City look to me to be far more professional in terms of training and preparation. Squad discipline and togetherness is much stronger than it was and there appears to be a coherent structure below first team level following the appointment of Dick Bate – Dave Jones used to talk about building a club, Malky Mackay doesn’t, but he seems to be making an excellent job in doing it. Put all of that together with the fact that in each of the two seasons he has been with us, there have been achievements which, arguably, rank in the top five in the club’s history, I’d say Malky deserves to follow his seven out of ten ranking for 2011/12 with a nine this time around.
by The other Bob Wilson
Back in the summer I can remember Malky Mackay saying at the time we were being linked with Craig Bellamy that he was the sort of player who would give us that “X Factor”. I took it that our manager meant that Bellamy could give us something that we did not have a great deal of in 2011/12 – that is the ability to win or turn games through doing something out of the ordinary or showing brilliant skill. If I was right in my thinking, then Bellamy has definitely increased the X Factor quota available to Malky Mackay and players such as Craig Noone, Kim Bo-Kyung, Jordon Mutch, Tommy Smith and the injured Nicky Maynard all added to it to varying degrees as well.
So, it seems to me that our manager recognised that we needed to have more game changers in his side and, generally, his team selections have contained a fair proportion of these players. However, last night’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Barnsley was another of those occasions when you came away thinking that there is something in Malky Mackay’s make up that is not comfortable with giving gifted individuals full, or sometimes even semi, licence to show the skills they are capable of – to use a not very good analogy, it’s like someone driving hundreds of miles in a high performance car with the handbrake on.
Now, it’s only right that I say a few things in mitigation in favour of our manager here. Firstly, although I daresay a few of his critics will maintain that the amount spent on the team in the last year means that we should be top of the league, our position with five matches of the grueling marathon that is the Championship left is proof that Malky Mackay has done a fine job overall this season. Secondly, he might well have thought that going into last night’s match with a starting line up which included only four players who have scored in 2013 (and they had only managed six between them) hardly suggested we were going to see City going on a goal spree and so, I suppose, that might have led to an attitude of mind that said we had to protect any lead we had rather than look to increase it. Thirdly, I can understand a desire to give players who might be very important to us in the games to come a rest once we had taken the lead (I think that applied to Kimbo) to some extent, but, even when you take all of this into account, I have to say that I find our attitude last night (especially after Ben Turner’s goal) disappointing, but also,and maybe more importantly, a little worrying when I think of what the future might hold.
On Saturday we went to the side with the best goalscoring record in the division who are genuine automatic promotion contenders and played 4-5-1 with an isolated striker – it was no great surprise therefore that you didn’t need all of the fingers of one hand to count the number of times we really came close to scoring. What was important though was that we barely gave Watford a sniff of a goal either. Of course, it would have been great to have gone there and murdered them 4-0 by playing sensational attacking football, but Watford are the best in our league at picking off sides who commit too many players forward and I maintain that our 0-0 draw was an excellent outcome for us and that Malky Mackay’s got his tactical approach spot on given who we were playing and the way the league table looked before the game.
Last night represented a completely different challenge though and it was a concern to see Joe Mason cross a ball to the far post from the byeline in the first minute or two and there not be a single Cardiff player within fifteen to twenty yards of where the pass was aimed. Now, you could say that Mason should have waited longer before crossing, but this wasn’t in the last minute of a grueling game, it was within seconds of the kick off and you would have liked to think at least one of the midfield five would have been busting a gut to try and make something of the cross.
This rather presumptuous piece from this morning’s press which gives the impression that it was finished after seventy minutes of last night’s match and then had to have a few more sentences and a new headline added to it, maintains that we played 4-3-3. Sorry, but I saw no evidence of that – I’m struggling to remember if we have ever played a 4-5-1 which can effortlessly convert to 4-3-3 when we are attacking – when we play the extra man in midfield, it tends to be more rigid than the best versions of that system are.
Barnsley offered very little going forward in a one sided first half as they sat back with two banks of four and conceded territory and possession, yet Mason was left to fend for himself with hardly any examples of the runs beyond the lone striker him by midfielders which I swear I saw plenty of times in the excellent 4-1 win over Newcastle in our final pre-season match but have barely seen since. Perhaps it was too congested to get midfield runners into space, but, given the way the game was going, we could have switched to 4-4-2 to give Mason a hand by having Bellamy join him or put someone like Kimbo in the hole behind him – as it was, the visitors were able to go in level at half time with few serious threats on their goal despite it being virtually one way traffic for forty five minutes.
The second half saw more of what I would term muddled thinking – we fell asleep completely early in the second half to allow Barnsley to play a short corner where we didn’t even have one player closing them down and Hassell missed a chance which was better than anything we could come up with in the first half, but recovered to work up a bit of a head of steam which culminated in our goal. Once we had scored, that should have been the signal for us to play slightly more conservatively and wait for the opportunities to utilise our X Factor players to pick Barnsley off as they pushed men forward in search of an equaliser and visiting keeper Luke Steele enjoyed the sort of luck David Marshall had on Saturday when a close range header (not sure who it was from) from another corner hit him a few minutes later. However, from then on, it was as if the shutters went up as the word went out that 1-0 was enough.
After that, we did play some neat stuff to get in down the left once or twice but nothing came from it and Heidar Helguson maybe should have done more with a good cross from the other flank by Tommy Smith, but that was it until the veteran striker’s one on one miss in added time. Without a goal in nearly five months, Helguson hardly inspired confidence as he bore down on Steele and his tame finish offered a further reminder that our squad last night had very few, if any, players who are used to scoring goals lately. Worse was to follow though, as City didn’t seem to do one thing or another from the corner that followed and Barnsley were able to work their way clear from a throw in near their own corner flag far too easily as we, yet again, seemed happy to sit back and give them the freedom of two thirds of the pitch.
We continued to boot the ball up the pitch for the next few minutes and wait for it to come back at us (forget about blaming the ref for the time played past the five minutes added time, Kevin McNaughton needed treatment which explained why there was time for Barnsley to equalise) and we ended up getting what I feel we deserved for our approach to the whole game, but, in particular, the last twenty five minutes. Would Foster’s late deflection have gone in if our back four had not dropped so deep that he was stood virtually on the penalty spot when the ball hit him and he had been about five or ten yards further from goal like he should have been forced to be? I think it probably would, but we should have ensured that there was never any need for such a question.
It’s only fair mind to give some credit to Barnsley, they defended resolutely for about an hour and then, when they had to come out and play, they showed why they have done so well in recent months after looking certs for the drop around Christmas. They were able to hit incisive, low twenty or thirty yard passes to players in advanced positions which we weren’t able to match and the introduction of hate figure Jason Scotland (I wish our fans would just ignore him because he’s always struck me as someone who feeds off the abuse he gets when he plays against us) and Chris Dagnall caused us problems as they dropped into the positions where confusion is caused as to whether they should be picked up by defenders or midfielders (i.e. the sort of area we failed to exploit in the first half).
So, Barnsley weren’t mugs by any means, but, when all’s said and done, they were thirty one points behind us and nineteen places below us in the table – should an outfit that we are constantly told are Champions elect really spend almost the last third of a game on their own pitch sitting back and trying to protect a 1-0 lead in such circumstances? The positives our method of playing have brought should never be ignored or taken for granted, we are better than anyone else in certain “ugly” areas of the game, our defensive record is excellent with only one team letting in less than us and fifteen clean sheets show that one goal is often all we need to get the three points. That said, we let in one a game on average so, more often than not, 1-0 isn’t enough – roundhead football has taken us so far, but nights like last night makes you cry out for a bit of the cavalier as well.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson