New manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær bemoaned his side’s bad luck as they crashed to a very damaging 2-0 home defeat by West Ham which meant that City had dropped into the bottom three for the first time this season. From his perspective this was a perfectly understandable reaction from Solkskjær – after all, he had watched his side lay siege to the the West Ham goal in the second half as his team enjoyed sixty three per cent of the possession over the ninety minutes.
There were reasons to bemoan Cardiff’s luck as well. Kimbo’s first half shot deflected on to the underside of the bar and down on to, but not over, the line. If it had been left to the totally inept set of officials to make the decision, then a goal would probably have been awarded, but the video technology introduced this season ensured that the correct decision was made – a slightly different connection off the West Ham defender or the crossbar would have seen us awarded the crucial first goal, but it was not to be.
Lee Mason and his two linesmen (especially the one on the Ninian Stand side of the pitch), were one a few sets of officials we’ve had this season that made a mockery of the claim that there is some sort of elite operating in the Premier League when it comes to the game’s decision makers. It’s over exaggerating to say Mason should get an assist for his part in West Ham’s first goal because play went on for about twenty seconds after he nodded Gary Medel’s pass to the nearest West Ham player to put an end to what looked a good opportunity for a counter attack, but it wasn’t the first time, or the last, where he helped out the visitors.
The incident which led to Guy Demel being stretchered off with what appeared to be a serious head injury (it turned out he had concussion) looked like a possible penalty from my not too good viewing position and there were a couple of others in the second half which were certainly strong shouts for our first spot kick of the season. Like the other one, I didn’t have the best of views of these incidents, but I certainly did of the blatant shirt pulling by Jack Collison on Steven Caulker as he jumped for a Craig Bellamy corner and yet the linesman, who was straight in line with me and twenty yards closer to the incident, chose to do nothing.
In doing so, he took the cowards way out like so many of his colleagues do when it comes to this blight on the game – I’m not being one eyed here either, because we could well have not made the League Cup Final two years ago if Howard Webb had not missed, or, more likely, chose to ignore an obvious shirt pull by Aron Gunnarsson in the Semi Final Second Leg and awarded Palace the penalty they should have had.
Given the view he had, yesterday’s linesman should not be officiating at this level if he missed the foul on Caulker – it happened no more than fifteen yards from him. However, a few minutes later he was flagging furiously for a foul by Craig Noone when the winger got the ball from keeper Adrian as he fell to the ground. Now, it was almost certainly the right decision, but, once again, I was right in line with the official and, like me, he couldn’t have seen the ball because the keeper’s body was in front of it, so he had to be making a guess as to whether Noone had kicked it out of his hands.
I could also mention the first West Ham goal where Matt Jarvis looked suspiciously offside as he was played in down the right to cross for a criminally ignored Carlton Cole to score with ease, but the point has been made - every game we play we seem to be denied an obvious penalty by poor decisions from the officials.
That has to be bad luck right? Well, to an extent, but now we get to the crux of the matter which, all of the excuses we can make notwithstanding, dominates our season and tells us exactly why we are looking increasingly likely to occupy one of the bottom three positions come mid May. With the season now more than half way over, we have scored a pathetic fifteen goals in twenty one matches and you have to consider that stat in the context of yesterday’s match.
Yes, we could have had more luck in terms of the run of the ball and possible penalties, but, as for the latter, we would have to score from all of these spot kicks we are being denied week in, week out and with the standard of finishing we’ve seen this season, can we be confident that they would be converted even if refs started giving us them? The BBC’s stats show we had nineteen goal attempts, but just seven of them were on target and, from memory, only one of them was not straight at Adrian – some of those shots were well struck, but like so many of our goal efforts this season, they lacked the precision or placement to cause serious problems.
So, that miserable goalscoring figure is solely down to poor finishing then? Sadly, the answer to that question has to be no – Fraizer Campbell should have done better than put a great opportunity too close to Adrian from eight yards out and Andreas Cornelius showed his complete lack of confidence in front of goal at the moment with a poor header from a decent opportunity, but all season long, I’ve thought our main problem has been a midfield short of consistency, inspiration and guile.
It didn’t help that we were without our best performer in this area over the past three months or so in Jordon Mutch (his energy and ability to run beyond the striker might have provided the link between attack and midfield in a totally lacklustre first half which Solskjær was right to remark on in his post match press conference), but the truth is, even with him in there, our midfield has been pretty ordinary as a unit this season. Yesterday, they were faced with a side which was undergoing a crisis of confidence, were shipping goals galore and were reduced to ten men for the last quarter of the match - it should have been the recipe for a side making a fresh start under a new manager to impose themselves on the game from the first whistle, but, instead, City looked almost diffident, nowhere was this moreso in our very ordinary midfield.
Players such as Whittingham, Kimbo, Odemwingie and Noone all do the odd thing during games which have you murmuring “well played”, but, overall this season, they have been too lightweight, inconsistent and predictable to be considered good enough to be regular starters in even ordinary Premier League midfields (I realise that is a bit harsh on Noone who hasn’t done too badly in the limited chances he’s had this season, but the fact is our results have been awful since he’s been playing regularly). Yesterday cried out for a Mark Noble type, that is someone with the ability and, so importantly, character to stamp their personality on a game – Noble was excellent I thought, whereas the one midfield player we have who has managed to dominate the occasional match this season in Gary Medel had another of those increasingly common afternoons where the game passes him by.
The introduction of Craig Bellamy, looking more like the player he can be, certainly pepped things up in the second half. There was also a promising first appearance from Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who passed the ball more accurately than most of his team mates, while giving the occasional glimpse that he may be able to provide the incisive delivery from open play that we so manifestly lack. Truth be told though, there was much huffing and puffing, but little to surprise or hurt West Ham who defended with character and resolution once they had been given something to cling on to
In defence, the recall of Mark Hudson in place of Ben Turner was only a partial success. Our new manager has, correctly, identified that we give the ball away too much and so Turner’s place was always going to come under pressure, but although Hudson’s passing is better than the man who hadn’t missed a minute of our season before yesterday, it isn’t to the degree that the unease he showed playing on the left made it a worthwhile change to make – if passing the ball out from the back is going to become a very important consideration in the selection of our centrebacks, then I’m afraid that the simple truth is that we need a new one.
Reinforcements are on the way apparently (albeit not at centreback seemingly) – Manchester United left back Fabio is reportedly coming here on loan, as is England international winger Wlfred Zaha who, for whatever reason, has been a spectator for most of the time this season. Hannover striker Mame Biram Diouf seems set to be given a chance to make the sort of impact in the Premier League that he didn’t in his earlier spell at Old Trafford or in his subsequent loan move to Blackburn and Molde goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland has been repeatedly linked with a move to Cardiff City Stadium.
Last night also saw the confirmation of the signing of the very highly rated Mats Moller Dæhli from Molde for an undisclosed fee. It’s incredible when you think of it, that a player would turn down Manchester United for Cardiff City, but that’s what Dæhli has done by deciding to follow Ole Gunnar Solskjær to Wales. the attacking midfield player cum winger has rejected a return to Old Trafford and, if he’s half as good as some of the pre publicity makes out (he was compared to Samir Nasri and David Silva yesterday by Ole), then we’ve certainly got a player on our hands.
However good Dæhli may be though, you have to wonder if, at just 18, he can have much of an influence on a relegation scrap in “the best league in the world” and I have doubts about whether some others are the sort of players you need for what we are going to face in the next four months, but I understand that Ole faces huge problems in trying to change the way we play and get the results to keep us up at the same time. What yesterday did was prove to those who, very naively in my opinion, informed us that Ole would just tell the team to go out and play attacking, passing football and all of our problems would disappear were wrong.
The vast majority of first team contenders at the club over the closing months of the campaign are going to be players who were brought here to play in a certain way by our previous manager, some of them will be good enough to take on board what they will be asked to do from now on, but there will be plenty who will be less effective because of these changes – I believe we need to improve significantly in central defence and midfield as well as get more strength in depth up front if we are to survive playing the Solskjær way.
* pictures courtesy http://www.walesonline.co.uk/
+ picture courtesy of Pete Thomas, Cardiff City