On Friday in his pre match press conference Russell Slade said that it wasn’t imperative that Cardiff City beat Queens Park Rangers the following day. Our manager’s thinking was that as long as we could keep pace with Sheffield Wednesday until we go to Hillsborough with the current five point deficit between the teams still in place then we will not be out of contention for that final Play Off place.
I suppose, on a strictly logical basis our manager was correct – if you play a team five points in front of you when there are still six points to play for, you must have a chance of overhauling them.
However, those words felt wrong to me at the time and not just because our goal difference is so inferior to theirs that we’d, almost certainly, finish below them in the secenario our manager set out.
After yesterday’s 0-0 stalemate, they feel even more wrong now. With Wednesday following up their 4-1 hiding at Bristol City last weekend, by letting a 1-0 half time lead slip against a bang out of form Ipswich team , the opportunities have been there in our last two matches to make real inroads into the point deficit that was established after our draw at Burnley. However, we’ve not been good enough to take them and unless we do reduce that gap in our next two matches, we will be heading to Hillsborough with virtually no chance of getting past Wednesday.
On Tuesday we go to an in form Brentford team, while Wednesday entertain an MK Dons team clinging on to their Championship status thanks to former City striker Alex Revell’s highly unlikely penalty save (the Dons keeper was sent off after they had used all of their substitutes) had helped earn them a 1-1 draw at Preston.
Wednesday might be wobbling a bit, but you’d think they’d consign their opponents to the drop on Tuesday, but, say, they were to draw again, are we really saying that another point for us will be acceptable because of that?
What our manager appears to be pinning his hopes on is Wednesday dropping points when they go to Derby on the same day we entertain relegated Bolton. Derby have surprised me by taking nine points from the three matches they’ve played since we beat them and so, it’s entirely realistic to think that they can beat Wednesday on their own ground, but, based on our last two matches, is Bolton really the home banker that it should be?
The answer to that is yes I suppose – a look at Bolton’s away record this season tells you so anyway. However, it seems to me that, after proving the critics wrong for a couple of months, we’ve started to look like a team without a proven striker at this level in our last three matches.
I’ve been doing some research on the BBC’s website regarding our record when it comes to the proportion of efforts on target out of total goal attempts for this season and, overall, they show that we hit the target with about one in three of our goal attempts (one hundred and seventy seven of our five hundred and twenty eight tries on goal either end up in a goal or force an opponent into stopping that happening – I suppose there may be one or two that one of our players has “cleared off the line” as well!).
The original reason for me doing this was to prove that, since the departure of Kenwyne Jones, Joe Mason and the aforementioned Revell in January and our failure to replace them with established Championship standard goalscorers, we’ve become less efficient at hitting the target than we were.
The truth is though that this is not the case. The last time any of the three departed strikers appeared in a City shirt was when Mason played an hour against Rotherham on 23 January and, after that game, we’d had three hundred and forty four goal attempts with one hundred and fourteen of them on target – that’s an accuracy rating of 33.1%.
Since then we’ve managed one hundred and seventy four efforts at goal and hit the target on 63 occasions. So, in actual fact, we’ve become better at getting shots on goal, because our accuracy rating has improved to 36.2% – as an aside, we averaged 12.3 shots per game with our “specialist” strikers, with 4.1 of them being on target, whereas that’s risen to 12.4 per match with 4.5 of them being accurate enough to hit that target since Anthony Pilkington and co took over.
So, it would appear that we have become more productive and accurate when it comes to our shooting and heading at goal. However, although my original line of thinking has been proved to be wrong, the signs are there that, at the most important time of the season, our lack of quality strikers is costing us.
It’s now just one win in five at a time when we can least afford a return to the sort of results which blighted our first season and a half back at this level. In those matches, our attempts on target ratio has dipped to 25.4 % and in that time, we are only averaging three of them per game.
In our last two, so frustrating, matches, there’s nothing wrong with our total goal attempts figure – we’ve managed thirty two of them, but, very tellingly, only five of them have been on target.
That high goal attempts figure is despite a first half yesterday in which I cannot remember us having a goal attempt, on or off target, at all. Russell Slade was quick to compliment our opponents for their part in this as he used one of the buzz terms which have arisen in the game in the last year or two – “playing between the lines”.
Seemingly, QPR stopped us doing that in the first half – by that, I presume our manager meant they reduced the effectiveness of players like Lex Immers. It seems to me that we have become a lot better at “playing between the lines” recently and, as a result, we have become a lot less rigid compared to the days when a 4-4-2 formation under Russell Slade was exactly that.
I’ve mentioned before that the replacement of the statuesque Jones with Immers has had many benefits for the team, but yesterday’s game only served to confirm an impression I gained over the course of a few weeks that the Dutchman doesn’t really “punch his weight” when the ball is in air – he’s not as good with his head as you might expect someone of his height to be.
When you add the fact that Pilkington’s strengths lie in different areas to heading as well, it really does emphasise that City need to be more flexible in their attacking play than the getting the ball wide to two wingers who then cross for the big man in a pair of strikers that Russell Slade said he favoured when he was first appointed City manager.
This doesn’t mean that crosses when they come cannot be aerial ones – Immers was able to put away Aron Gunnarson’s fine ball with his head at Fulham after all, but, generally, it seems to me that the sort of cross Joe Ralls provided the Dutchman with at Bristol City for his goal is the more likely one to produce dividends from our current front two.
That’s why it was so disappointing for me that we, almost exclusively, took the aerial route with our crossing yesterday. I can recall a couple of occasions where City players tried a low driven cross in the first half, but they came to nothing primarily because we were not getting midfield players or full backs into the box to offer enough targets to the crosser.
Things improved in that respect in the second half, but despite the increased options for the crosser, the thinking was always, as far as I can recall, to look for the “big man in the box” who, for about 80% of the game wasn’t there unless we were talking about a corner or free kick – the only time it almost worked in open play was when Pilkington headed just wide from a Scott Malone cross.
Our manager unwittingly reveals a side to his basic thinking on the game when he, almost always, works the words “but he’s only twenty one” into the conversation when he’s talking about out only current target man striker Kenneth Zohore. Now, from what I’ve seen of him so far, I can understand, to some degree, our manager’s reluctance to include him in the starting line up.
The age factor mentioned before is obviously important to our manager (by the way, Ipswich aren’t quite out of promotion contention yet, but they brought on a sixteen year old yesterday who promptly netted their equaliser – can you imagine our manager introducing, say, a nineteen year old for his debut in a game with nothing riding on it, let one with something on it? No, I can’t either.) and I cannot deny that the young Dane falls into the “raw” category currently as he struggles to best utilise the physical advantages he possesses over many of those who mark him.
However, what I don’t understand is why we played the whole game yesterday as if someone of Zohore’s stature was there on the pitch when, for nearly all of the time he wasn’t. The one dimensional nature of our crossing meant we were not playing to the strengths of the two players in our team who were the nearest thing we had to strikers, but it also begged the question as to why, if that was the way the ball was going to be delivered from the wings, it took so long to get Zohore on the pitch?
I’m afraid yesterday was another of those occasions where Russell Slade’s substitutions had me scratching my head. Going back to playing between the lines, it seems to me that Tom Lawrence is as good as any at doing that on our staff currently, yet we had Sammy Ameobi brought on to break the record for the most ever substitute appearances in a season by a City player. One effective run along the left touchline apart, Ameobi offered as little as his previous appearances suggested he would, but he did contribute to the overall lack of composure shown in front of goal by blazing wildly over when presented with a decent opportunity very late in the game.
It wasn’t just that Ameobi was seen as our best option to break the deadlock by our manager that was odd though, it was also that it was Stuart O’Keefe who made way for him as Peter Whittingham was brought in from the left into the vacant central midfield spot.
I’m afraid that Whitts had one of those afternoons when, apart from the occasional good dead ball delivery, he made little or no impact on the game – to me, Lawrence or Zohore (with Pilkington dropping out on to the wing) for Whittingham seemed the much better option for the first change made.
It was hard for me to get my head around why our manager then waited a further quarter of an hour to make a second and third switch – it was hardly as if we spent the fifteen minutes after Ameobi came on hammering away at the QPR goal.
At the end of a week in which “impeccable sources” claimed that Mr Slade was going to be offered a new contract to take us into the 2016/17 campaign, yesterday’s events offered a reminder as to why there are still many out there who will regard that news with doubt and, in some cases, downright hostility.
My reaction to the news our manager was likely to be staying on was a good deal more philosophical than it would have been around the turn of the year (I’d say I was about 55/45 against offering him a new deal as I read the story), but I thought yesterday offered a reminder of limitations which should count against the man if the goal next season really is promotion to the Premier League.
No matter how good a job QPR did do in stopping us “playing between the lines” in that first half, does that fully explain why a manager whose team talks are “legendary” (according to Wikipedia at least) sent his side out for one of the games which will define our season in a frame of mind that rendered the opening forty five minutes a non event?
To have Mr Slade clinging on to the argument that we should have had a penalty (not seen a replay of the incident yet, but referee Steve Martin did give us two spot kicks, one distinctly dodgy I seem to recall, when he was last at Cardiff City Stadium for last year’s visit by Blackpool, so the odds were always against him giving us another one) as he tried to justify a performance which just wasn’t good enough under the circumstances says so much about the paucity of incisive attacking play his side showed. It all only seemed to emphasise the notion that this fifty five year old manager, who is still waiting for his promotion, will come up short when it comes to delivering the Premier League place that we are assured is still the aim of those in charge at the club.
*photo courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/
+photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy/