Everything I’ve heard and read about City’s 0-0 draw in front a record crowd at Brighton’s Amex Stadium last night from people who were actually there to watch it says that the team played well (certainly better than they did in beating Huddersfield on Friday). Furthermore, there’s also been testimony to the fact that City did not go away just looking for a point, but were after the win.
It’s easy to look at a record of one goal scored and none conceded in two matches and come to certain, not very complimentary, conclusions about our style of play so far, but, based on what I saw on Friday and what I’ve gathered from last night, I don’t believe it’s fair to criticise the team’s intent, which, in my opinion, has been to try and win both matches – if I have any questions for now, they would be as to whether the 4-5-1 system we are using is the best way of utilising the talent we’ve got to get those wins.
Before I go any further, I should say that I’m a fan of the 4-5-1 formation if it is flexible enough to be transformed into, say, a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 when the opportunity presents itself, but the trouble is that there is evidence so far that the problems of last season whereby we suffered because of a lack of players in our five in the middle who, by instinct and experience, thought like forwards have not disappeared yet. Too often last year, 4-5-1 was exactly that – an isolated striker with five midfield players not doing enough between them to support him. Things improved when Joe Mason was one of the five, but all that is happening so far is that Craig Bellamy has replaced him as the one in the five who could switch to a striking role and make a decent job of it.
After watching the likes of Mutch, Gunnarsson, Conway and Ralls doing so well in getting forward to help out Helguson in the pre season friendly with Newcastle, it was disappointing to see so little happening in terms of attacking runners from midfield against Huddersfield and you didn’t have to be there at last night’s match to know that Tony Cottee was almost certainly right when he talked on Sky Sports News of Helguson winnings plenty of headers that only handed possession back to Brighton because there was nobody close enough to him to benefit from them.
It was interesting to see that Sky had us lining up in a 4-3-3 formation before Friday’s match – although Bellamy didn’t get forward that much, you could at least understand the thinking behind him being seen as a left sided attacking midfielder with a licence to get into striking positions at times, but look at who we were supposed to have on the other flank as one of our “attacking three”! Now, Don Cowie currently seems to be something of a target for City fans in much the same way as Kevin McNaughton has become and someone like Mark Hudson or Steve McPhail has been in the past. I happen to think that Cowie does a lot of good for the team (emphasis on the word “team”) – for example, if the opposition launch a quick counter attack from one of our attacking set plays, Cowie is invariably the midfield player busting a gut to get back to, often successfully, try and cut out the danger and our full backs will always know that they’ll have someone in front of them who’ll put in a full defensive shift if he is playing on their side.
No, Cowie is a better player than his critics think he is, but, in saying that, I’ve not seen anything to suggest he’ll ever make a success of a Bellamy type winger cum striker role on the right as he was supposed to have been playing against Huddersfield if Sky are to be believed. Now, it needs to be said that if Mason is in from the start once he gets full match fitness after his pre season injury, or we sign the latest player we have been linked with, or if Kim Bo-Kyung is as attacking a midfield player as his recent goalscoring record suggests he is, then a 4-5-1 which features any two of a quartet which includes this trio and Craig Bellamy, looks like a much more exciting prospect in terms of attacking threat than our current selection does.
As things stand, the only formation I’d say our 4-5-1 could be called as an alternative is 4-1-4-1 with Peter Whittingham as the deep lying quarterback style playmaker. Apparently, Whittingham did better in that role against Brighton than he did on Friday, but questions still have to remain as to whether we can keep someone who may not think like a forward, but has the long range shooting ability, general finishing quality and footballing technique to have once been the Championship’s highest scorer in such a withdrawn role when his midfield colleagues are struggling as much as they certainly did on Friday to offer our lone striker any support.
To be fair, as I hinted above, it’s probably too early to get too critical of how we are implementing 4-5-1 this season because, by the time we next play at Cardiff City Stadium our manager may well have the sort of options which would allow him to to play with a more attacking version of the formation. The risk behind doing so of course would be that we would lose something defensively, but, for the moment, with our goalkeeper in great form and our centrebacks looking a really strong partnership at this level, we have a solidity in that area which you would like to think could absorb a change of focus to a more flexible use of what had become Malky Mackay’s default formation.
Talking of defensive solidity, our options in that area were increased with the signing of Matt Connolly from Queens Park Rangers. Connolly, who can play anywhere along the back four, cost a reported £500,000 and has fallen out of favour at Loftus Road in the last year or so, but he started around three quarters of Rangers’ games in 2010/11 when they won the Championship and had a six match spell at Champions Reading playing at right back last season – the first five of these matches were won, but Connolly got injured in the last of them and only returned for the Royals’ final game of the campaign (a 2-0 defeat at Birmingham).
Connolly joins Heidar Helguson as a former QPR player at Cardiff and there might be another one if this story is to be believed. Tommy Smith is the player I mentioned earlier whose signing would give us more attacking options in a 4-5-1 (or any other formation we used for that matter) and he’s someone I’ve always admired as a skilful, good quality, Championship performer whose attitude always looked to be spot on. I think he would be another good signing, but, whereas it only took a few days between Connolly’s name first being hinted at as a transfer target and his arrival at Cardiff, there has been speculation going on about Smith for weeks, if not months, and I wonder if the player’s apparent reluctance to leave the London area could end up scuppering any deal?
Finally, messageboard gossip has it that Sam Hammam/Langston have turned down the club’s latest offer to settle the long running loan note debt. I have to say that if it is true that there had been an earlier verbal agreement to settle for a payment of £7 million plus £2 million on promotion, as claimed here, then you really do have to wonder why a deal which guarantees Langston the same sum with the potential for a further 66% on top is now unacceptable. Furthermore, if Langston/Hammam are reportedly willing to settle for £10 million plus a promotion bonus of £5 million (which wasn’t mentioned when the “close friend” set out what was acceptable to our former owner), then, surely, the difference between a possible £15 million on promotion and a possible £15 million after three seasons in the Premiership is not worth arguing about if Sam Hammam really believed all that stuff he used to tell us about how Cardiff could be one of the top teams in the country – after all, we’ve got someone at the club now with far more of the sort of financial resources to deliver three seasons of Premiership football than he ever had.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/