When a beaten team can point to a controversially disallowed goal, which would have levelled the scores, two efforts off the woodwork and one of the opposition goals having more than a suspicion of offside about it, then it’s fair to say they didn’t enjoy the rub of the green. Unless he said something different in his post match reaction that wasn’t broadcast on the official site or the BBC, Malky Mackay, as is his wont, chose to concentrate on these aspects of City’s very damaging 3-0 home defeat by Hull City last night, but, surely, he must know that what his side produced over the ninety minutes was just not good enough to sustain a Play Off challenge?
There was so much wrong with a City display which did not measure up in all areas of the pitch – indeed, I would say that only David Marshall had cause to be reasonably satisfied with his performance (and, even in his case, you have to wonder if it is right for our goalkeeper to be stood rooted to his line when a corner drops into our six yard box for the first goal). At the back, City were made to look ponderous and slow witted by the pacey Hull attack and, although I say this with the benefit of hindsight, the way our opponents were set up meant that this was an occasion where serious consideration could have been given for including Darcy Blake at centreback. Indeed, the longer he stays out of the side, the stronger Blake’s (and one or two other of our defenders) claims become.
That farcical first goal would never have been conceded by a defence like Hull’s and it soon extinguished any hopes for a long overdue clean sheet. By my reckoning, all of our back four have been at fault for at least one goal we have conceded in our last two matches and this is following on from a spell of a month where opposing attacks have been finding it too easy to score against us. I happen to think that, when playing to their potential, the players who make up our regular back four are the best we have in their positions, but they have not been operating at that level, either individually or collectively, for weeks now and so, in my opinion, the time has come to look beyond them – Hull, with their average of one goal per game before last night, are one of the lowest scoring sides in the Championship and yet they could have scored seven or eight against our ramshackle back four!
In midfield, Peter Whittingham gave what was, by some distance, the worst display I’ve seen from him this season and I thought it was significant how easily he was dispossessed in the build up to Hull’s second goal at a time when we had a good chance of hitting them on the break. Whittingham has never been especially quick, but, earlier in the season, he seemed to have that little burst of pace and energy to get clear of such challenges. Lately, he has been getting caught in possession quite often and, being one of those supporters who is continuously on the look out for signs of tiredness amongst our players this season, I can’t help thinking this is because his energy levels are not as high now as they were a few weeks ago.
Similarly, Liam Lawrence appeared to lack the dynamism to escape markers and so, for much of the first half especially, he and Whittingham would get a pass from our centrebacks and then check back and pass the ball, and the responsibility, back to Hudson or Turner to do something constructive with it. To be fair to Hudson in particular, he tried to make things happen with a few passes which were far from the usual lumped forward stuff we sometimes get from our centrebacks, but he’s not in the team to do that and, hardly surprisingly, he met with mixed results.
Whittingham and Lawrence were both up to standard with their deadball delivery though and nearly all of the problems the Hull defence encountered came from free kicks, corners or long throws. However, this only served to highlight a couple of our other shortcomings – that is, the lack of creativity in open play from our midfield and the inability of our strikers to fashion chances for themselves. Speaking of strikers, Kenny Milller is in desperate need of a goal and he was very unlucky with his second half effort against the post where he used his striking instinct to get his shot away almost automatically, but, when given time to think in the first half shortly after we went 1-0 down, he made a horrid mess (I presume he was trying to lob the keeper?) of the sort of chance he was snapping up easily at the turn of the year.
I haven’t been too critical of Miller during his goal drought, preferring to focus on the other things he has been doing to help the team, but that miss had me thinking that it might be time to give him a rest and it was telling that it was Miller, not Joe Mason, who was withdrawn when the change that the supporters were demanding was made and Earnie came on (about twenty minutes too late in my book). To be honest, I thought Earnie should have done better with the chance laid on by Kevin McNaughton’s excellent run and cross, but at least he got his shot on target, as he did shortly afterwards with a snapshot from outside the penalty area, and I wonder if he did enough to earn himself a start against Burnley on Sunday?
If Malky Mackay’s post match comments about a core of players he has stuck by because they have been producing the goods are anything to go by, then I doubt it if he did, but none of the outfield players amongst that group of regular starters have been playing to the standard they showed before the Palace Semi Final Second Leg in recent weeks and so the time has, surely, come for changes. I would like to have seen Fillip Kiss introduced last night, because he brings an energy that we seem short of to me and the sooner Steve McPhail is available again, the better – getting Rudy Gestede and Harris Vuckic back would be a help as well. In fact, if there is a genuine desire to go up this year at the club (and I believe there is), then all of the stops should be pulled out to try and ensure that at least one player is brought in on loan in the next week – the way that Liam Lawrence was signed so quickly shows that the dossier system of recruitment can be put to one side when it suits us, hopefully, that can happen again soon.
Finally, it’s all very well having more home matches left than most, but recent performances offer little encouragement that we can cash in on this apparent advantage. At the start of every season since we returned to this league in 2003, we have heard managers and players talk about making our home ground a fortress, but every year we always end up losing too many matches for this to happen. This season looked like being different – up to and after that aforementioned Palace match we were seeing off all comers. However, you cannot have a “fortress” when you are conceding two or three goals a game in front of your own fans – the current team (especially the nucleus of regulars Malky Mackay talked about) have got us so far, but recent evidence suggests they aren’t going to take us any further without some tinkering and/or a new face or two.