Eleven points from seven matches to guarantee promotion didn’t sound bad, but eight from six sounds so much better – especially when we only had to draw to bring about the three point drop in our target. Last night’s stalemate at Watford was made all the more satisfying because it made obtaining a top two finish so much tougher than it had been for one of our main rivals. Usually a drawn game means, more or less, the same thing to both sides, but we are now into the stage of the season where a point apiece works so much more in favour of the team with the advantage because the side doing the chasing has lost a huge chance to make significant inroads into their deficit and they have a game fewer to do it in.
There was messageboard talk beforehand about us going to Watford and taking the game to them right from the off, but, for me, that was never going to happen – what was there in the way Malky Mackay has set up his team this season to suggest we were ever going to do that? Going to the ground of the highest scorers in the Championship with all guns blazing would have been footballing suicide in my opinion – even before Hull beat Middlesbrough yesterday, Watford’s need for the win was far greater than ours and I would gladly have taken 0-0 at 5.15 yesterday evening.
As it turned out though, we did do most of the attacking for the first half an hour or so, but only because Watford were proving that, even at home, they are essentially a counter attacking team who have relied extensively on their very impressive speed on the break for so many of their seventy six league goals. A telling example of this came about fifteen minutes in when we sent the big men forward for a attacking dead ball situation and within seconds of Watford clearing it, our last defender, Andrew Taylor, was forced into clearing the ball into touch for safety about thirty yards out from our goal as three opponents closed down on him with no other City outfield player in sight.
If City needed evidence of the risks involved in over committing themselves to attack, this was it and it didn’t occur again as they kept Watford at arm’s length quite comfortably for most of the time. When this didn’t happen, Watford’s in form striker Troy Deeney was presented with three decent opportunities, one was blazed over the top after his team took advantage of Kevin McNaughton being down after what should have been a foul by Deeney, and another was luckily stopped by David Marshall when a close range header hit him. However, Marshall earned that luck with a brilliant stop from another header – Neil Alexander (who is still rated a better keeper than Marshall by some City fans it would seem) is remembered for his save from Brian Tinnion in the Play Off match at Ashton Gate a decade ago, our current keeper now has a save to define his time at Cardiff by as well.
Watford did have one or two flurries around our goal besides that, but the fresh legs that Jordon Mutch and Kim Bo-Kyung have given us in the middle of the park, as well as the return to 4-5-1, ensured that we were able to press Watford’s midfield and stifle their creativity which, like most teams, is seen to best effect when they are given time and room. With Leon Barnett fitting into our back four seamlessly (just two penalties conceded in the four games he’s played), Kevin McNaughton doing a good job at right back after replacing Matt Connolly with only ten minutes played, Taylor being his usual very consistent self and Ben Turner being effective at both ends of the pitch as he turned in a man of the match performance, the hard working midfield five had a solid base behind them – given what was at stake, it was a classic away performance in many ways.
When you consider what has happened for so much of the last two or three seasons, I find it amazing to think that we are into the most important part of what could be a momentous season and Peter Whittingham did not get onto the pitch yesterday. However, in placing so much emphasis on a pressing game in our last two matches, we have hardly been playing to Whittingham’s strengths (even a Whittingham that isn’t feeling the effects of a long season). Mutch and Kimbo have given us more in the middle of the park in terms of pressing the ball in our last two matches than we were getting in March and, certainly in the first half, they both showed that they are effective with the ball as well as without it.
So, has Malky Mackay been keeping these two, and Joe Mason, back for the run in as part of some master plan which relies on us playing in a way that many of our rivals are too tired to fully counter or utilise themselves or has he just struck lucky after ringing the changes for the Blackburn match because our midfield was showing signs of the lethargy which effected us at this time last year? I don’t think anyone can answer that question except for the man himself and his coaching staff really, but, assuming we stick with 4-5-1, is there a danger that, just like last season, the midfield five will lack the players with attacking instincts we require for our next three matches when we’ll need more than just an ability to close down and keep out our opponents – it wasn’t an accident that the Football League Show’s highlights package showed very little action at Watford’s end of the pitch.
It needs to be said of course that Conway, Gunnarsson, Kimbo, Mutch and Bellamy certainly worked as a midfield five in our last home match when we turned in our most complete performance at Cardiff City Stadium in months, but the suspicion remains that this might have had something to do with how lacking in energy and drive Blackburn’s very experienced (or old if you’re being less polite!) midfield was. Only Gunnarsson (who has played in a deeper role lately) of the current starting midfield five can be satisfied with his goalscoring return this season – Mutch and Kimbo can point to limited opportunities as a reason why they have just two goals between them this season, but, especially if Campbell, Hudson and Connolly are all out on Tuesday, we look a little short of goals going into the run of home games that will play a huge part in defining our season.
All in all though, it seems to me that there is very little to complain about with the situation we find ourselves in. Our recent results might not have matched the consistency we showed around the turn of the year, but the gap to third has stayed pretty constant and, although some sections of the media talk about nerves getting the better of us, I can’t say I’ve seen any sign of them yet. Finally, wasn’t it good to see us playing in blue again – maybe we’ll get to wear it again at Hull?