Yesterday’s 0-0 stalemate with Leicester at Cardiff City Stadium raised plenty of questions as far as I am concerned. Trouble is, I don’t think it is possible to answer most of them with any certainty because the way that City’s gameplan was disrupted by injury meant that anyone wanting to argue against any of the more ominous conclusions I may come to has a ready made and, very possibly, valid reason for why the game panned out as it did. So, all I can do is raise the questions, I don’t know the answer to them, but I just hope that my suspicions aren’t correct.
To start off with, Malky Mackay has told us that we can expect a hard working, high energy pressing game from the team this season and, apart from too much of the Brighton match, that’s just what we have got so far. I would say this approach has proved popular with supporters so far and, by and large, the response to our new team has been favourable. However, I’m sure I’m not the only City fan who remembers Watford’s finish to the two seasons in which Malky was in charge (particularly last year) and thought the real acid test for us will come in six months time when bodies and minds get tired – watching us labour away yesterday for much of the match though had me wondering whether we may already be beginning to pay the price for pushing some of the team too hard and too quick?
Of course, a small squad and our insistence that any match we play in the League Cup has to last for one hundred and twenty minutes doesn’t help matters, but was the slow and lethargic start we made to the game just down to the injury Craig Conway picked up or was there more to it than that? My suspicion is that Conway’s injury did effect the way we began the game – he has become a very important player for us in the short space of time he has been here, so many of our goalscoring opportunities are down to his crossing ability and the fact that he is really the only player we have of his type could well explain much of the hesitancy we saw early on when the team were, to all intents and purposes, denied their go to attacking outlet.
The injuries picked up by Conway and Mark Hudson appear to have been impact injuries that can happen at any time, as to when Earnie picked up the knock that forced him off, I’m not sure, but, listening to Malky Mackay after the game it seems to have happened when he was trying a shot. Therefore, it would appear that, just like Steve McPhail, Andrew Taylor and Rudi Gestede, Earnie picked up a pull or a strain that did not involve contact with an opponent during the course of a game. Ben Turner is also still unavailable because of injury picked up in training when he stretched to attempt a block in a practice situation while Tom Heaton is also unavailable with what we are told is a calf injury, so that’s five or, possibly, six players currently receiving treatment for non impact injuries – coincidence, bad luck or the result of a group of players being pushed too hard in training? I don’t know the answer to that, but when we have more than half of a team out with such injuries, I think it’s a fair question to ask.
Going back to how we started yesterday, I reckon any theory about us being tired going into the game can be dispelled by how we played in the third quarter. It was the only time that I ever thought that a goal might be coming as we showed plenty of urgency and endeavour in forcing Leicester back time and again. As Malky Mackay said, we looked to be likely winners at this stage, but Gestede’s injury seemed to change all of that as the visitors dominated late on. Just as with Conway in the first twenty minutes, it can be said that any superiority Leicester had in the last few minutes was down to the fact that, essentially, they were playing ten men, but there were a few others making tired mistakes in those closing stages – a sign that the whole ethos of the Mackay management style is already catching up with some or an understandable reaction in a match played out in a pretty unique circumstances? Again, a question which I feel cannot be answered with any certainty until we see how the team reacts against Southampton on Wednesday.
A more left field question occurred to me in the closing stages as Peter Whittingham sliced a decent shooting opportunity well wide with about twenty minutes left. Although there were a couple of occasions when he caught shots really well yesterday, it seems to me that Whitts isn’t hitting his shots as cleanly as he usually does this season – could that be anything to do with the fact that he is covering so much more ground and working so much harder this year? Obviously, this would not effect him in dead ball situations, but in open play is he finding it more difficult to “set” himself properly because he is on the move so much and could, perhaps, be stretching when he gets shooting chances? Whatever, although I didn’t think he had his best game yesterday (he was overhitting a lot of long passes that he would usually make), I’d say the new Whitts this season offers more than the one we grew used to seeing in his first four years with us.
During our period of dominance in the second half, the main threat came from the marauding runs down the right of Kevin McNaughton. Although there were times when his passing, once again, wasn’t the best, the fact that he was our main (or, indeed, only!) attacking outlet made him my City man of the match. Unfortunately, the other candidates (Gerrard and Gunnarsson) tended to impress because of their defensive work as did Darcy Blake, who in my book, improved the central defensive pairing when he came on.
Of course, some credit has to be given to Leicester. If a side deserved to win the game, I would say that it was definitely them – they looked a lot more solid defensively than they did whenever I saw them last season and, just as on Wednesday, they edged the midfield battle, but, overall, I couldn’t help thinking that all of that money spent should give them a better team than that – maybe when the very poor Jermaine Beckford stops thinking he’s too good for this level, they might start justifying that enormous outlay over the summer, but there still looks to be something missing there to me.
As for us, I think it needs to be remembered that we now have exactly the sort of side that many of us were crying out for after the Reading defeat last May. They all work very hard, they all play for each other, there is a great team ethic and they are a lot more resilient than most recent City sides have been. However, after the last three home league matches, I think it’s fair to say that sides visiting us this season can do so knowing that if they can keep Whittingham quiet, there is not much in the current squad that is going to take them by surprise in the way that Joe Mason probably did to the wurzels. There is plenty of honest endeavour and that will be good enough quite often in this league, but every side needs a few players capable of turning tight matches like yesterday’s in their favour with a bit of magic from somewhere and I’m afraid that we probably only have one of them at the moment.
City have made a loan signing in the last few days with Aston Villa keeper Elliot Parish being brought in for six weeks as cover for David Marshall in Tom Heaton’s absence, but you got the feeling that Malky Mackay would not be rushed into making other signings if they weren’t exactly the type of player he wanted. It’s hard to argue with such reasoning, but I’d like to think that this situation might change now in view of all of the injuries we have picked up in the last week or so. Whether we have just been plain unlucky or there is a more ominous reason for what has happened, we are fast getting to the stage where our squad will not be able to remain competitive at top six level unless we can draft one or two loan signings in.