So, nearly a third into the opening seven home fixtures from hell and we are unbeaten and have four points. If I’m being honest, that’s four more points than I had expected us to have both before and immediately after our somewhat limp opening day showing at West Ham. In the days after the loss at Upton Park, I tended to console myself with the hope that although we might be heading up to Hull in mid September with no points from our first three matches, we would be going there on the back of gradually improving performances which would lift confidence levels.
As it is, a win and a draw against opponents who both finished in last season’s top six means that there is a buoyancy amongst both team and supporters which is not just down to the feelgood factor that all promoted sides can hope to trade on for their first few games at the higher level. City have managed to live with, and come out in credit against, two of the better sides we’ll face over the next eight months and in doing so, they’ve shown us what our style will be for much of that time – I say “much” rather than “all” there because I would expect a different tactical approach in home games against sides expected to finish in the lower reaches of the table.
Although completely different in terms of sheer drama and the huge range of emotions involved, our first two home matches have been quite similar in some ways. For example, they’ve shown that the saying “possession is nine tenths of the law” does not really apply to football. The BBC’s possession statistics show Man City enjoyed 56 per cent of the possession last Sunday (I seem to remember that Sky said the figure was a fair bit higher than that) and Everton had even more at 61 per cent, but when you consider that we, apparently, were in possession of the ball for 52 per cent of the time at West Ham, you begin to see why some managers do not place much store by possession stats.
Based on what I saw of the West Ham match, we were up against opponents who were happy to sit back on their lead and let us have possession in areas where they knew we couldn’t hurt them and I think something similar has been happening in our two home games, in that keeping our defensive shape and discipline is more important than seeing our midfield bank of five (Kimbo has a lot of defensive duties as well) pressing and trying to win the ball all of the time – that said, it was interesting to see Gary Medel pushing so far forward in the first half to challenge Fellaini when Everton tried to build from the back.
When our opponents are intent on playing a passing game which consists of patiently probing for gaps and not being afraid to go back to where they were a few seconds earlier if that gap does not appear like Man City and Everton were prepared to do, and this is done at a fairly slow pace, then it’s hardly surprising that such an approach would see them dominate possession. This would apply especially against opponents who are perfectly happy to let them have the ball in their own half as City have been seen to be for most of the time at Cardiff City Stadium this season.
One of the things that has been so good about us in our past two games has been our defending when opponents get into our last third. Time and again, it’s been a Cardiff boot or head which gets to the ball first or a Cardiff player who throws themselves in front of a shot or header to make a block – Turner, Caulker and Taylor have all played two excellent games defensively in the past week and Connolly hasn’t been too far behind them, while in front of them, all of the other outfield players have been doing their bit to make it as hard as possible for our opponents to work the ball into threatening areas.
Although the scoreboard might not show this to be the case, I think Everton had a bit more success in doing that than Man City did, but Mirallas twice should have done better with headers, sub Deulofeu flashed a cross that was just crying out to be touched in by one of his team mates across goal in the dying minutes and, although I wasn’t sat in the best position to judge, it certainly looked like a penalty to me when Medel brought down Baines just before half time. Apart from that though, I can only remember the visitors really threatening to score when David Marshall produced a truly brilliant reflex save to deny Jelavic whose close range header had got a deflection off Turner. Our keeper also made a couple of smart saves from situations where we given offside decisions, but, besides the two goals he let in obviously, that one marvelous stop remains the only time I can remember him being seriously tested in the past two matches – our opponents have had eight on target attempts between them.
So, if the team are performing really well when they don’t have the ball, how are they faring when they do? Well, the first goal against Man City shows that we are capable of putting together sequences of patient passing as we try to work a gap, while we were able to keep possession for long periods in the second half against West Ham – albeit against opponents who weren’t too bothered about us having the ball in the sort of areas we were playing those passes in. However, based on what I have seen in the past week, I don’t believe the plan is to adapt the Man City or Everton approach when in possession.
Now, it must be said that it could be argued that some of our players can’t pass the ball well enough for us to continually play a patient, passing game when in possession anyway, but I believe we are trying to go straight for the jugular when we get the ball. The intention is to pass and move at pace while counter attacking. Such an approach means that “riskier” passes have to be made and some players have to accept the chance that they might lose the ball if they try to dribble past an opponent with the inevitable outcome when using such a policy being that the opposition often regain possession quickly and their “superiority” (in terms of possession of the ball at least) is further emphasised.
That policy came very close to working at times yesterday. Those BBC stats show us just having the single effort on target, but, once again, I don’t think this is a case where the stats tell the full story. I said to my mate after about an hour had been played that, for all of Everton’s possession and passing, we had opened up their defence in more threatening ways than they had up until then. The two best examples of this I can remember came in the second half when Kimbo went past two or three defenders and crossed low in a run reminiscent of of the one against Man City, while the same player then played a defence splitting pass through for Craig Bellamy to run on to shortly afterwards.
For me there are a couple of relevant points to these two incidents. The first is that we didn’t take advantage of Kimbo’s good play – his cross at the end of that fine run was pulled back into a great area around the penalty spot with no Everton player within yards of the ball and yet none of our attacking players had the nous to put themselves in a position where they would have been presented with what would have been probably the chance of the game. Of course you needed players working to get into the type of area that Frazier Campbell was in to meet Kimbo’s cross against Man City, but it was so disappointing that there was no one in an area where the ball was equally likely to go. As for the second chance, sadly Craig Bellamy showed the lack of confidence in front of goal you’d expect from someone who is on the longest run, stretching back nearly nine months now, without scoring of his career and his touch let him down in a situation where he must have hit the net plenty of times before in his career.
So, one chance missed by a lack of Premier League type thinking and another by a lack of Premier League type technique, what is also concerning is that you start to struggle when you try to find someone else beside Kimbo in our current starting eleven to provide the flair and creativity needed to maximise the opportunities we get with our counter attacking style - Bellamy as he rolls back the years maybe, Whittingham with a raking long pass or a clever ball threaded through to a runner perhaps, but it’s a struggle to think of anyone else.
Now, that’s not to say that the other players we have are not capable of doing a good job at this level – I’ve already praised our keeper and back four and I’d add Gunnarsson (who has surprised me by how effective he’s been in our last two games) and Medel (who, penalty shout apart, was tremendous yesterday and my City man of the match) to them. I’m already firmly of the opinion that Caulker and Medel will be better than most who play in the same positions for other sides in this league and if Fraizer Campbell can continue to show his Man City form, the same will be true of him.
However, none of these fall into the “game changer” category who can conjure something out of nothing – we didn’t have too many of them last season and I don’t really think we’ve added one to our squad yet this summer. I think it’s pretty obvious that Malky Mackay has been looking to sign more than one such player over the past few months, but, for a number of reasons, has not been successful yet – I believe sides will find it increasingly easy to cope with our attack unless he succeeds in his hunt for what he calls “X Factor” type players. The rumours that we will be signing West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie are encouraging because he would be one such player – albeit an aging one, but I like the idea that he’d be coming here with something to prove to his former club and it was also good to hear Malky say that we were still trying to sign “one or two” players before the window shuts (hopefully he means the latter).
As it is, the last two days have seen us make two additions to the squad. I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that 20 year old Uruguayan centreback Maximiliano Amondarain who has signed a four year contract is seen more as one for the future. He played a trial game for the Development side around a month ago shortly after returning from the Under 20 World Cup where he was part of a squad which reached the Final and must have done enough to convince the club that he had something to offer us – no details of any fee we paid his previous club Nacional have been given. The local press are claiming that we paid £2.1 million to Rennes for 23 year old defender Kévin Théophile-Catherine which, if true, would take our summer spending over the £30 million mark. Théophile-Catherine, who has won a cap for France at Under 21 level and has also signed a four year deal, is described on the club website as ”a right back who is comfortable at centre-half”, but is shown as a left back on a few of the websites I looked at when news of his signing broke, while I also came across one which saw him primarily as a centreback – all of this seems to prove that he has a versatility which will serve him well in his career at Cardiff.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/