One of the first things Neil Warnock said when he took over at Cardiff City was that when he comes into any club, he takes a look at the players available to him and then decides on the way of playing which best suits them.
Now, I think it could be said that if I were to ask anyone who was old enough to have followed his managerial career throughout it’s close to 1,500 matches to describe what they would call a typical Neil Warnock side, the answers I’d get would be pretty similar, but leaving that aside for now, what did yesterday’s 1-0 loss at Cardiff City Stadium to a managerless Wigan team, that still find themselves in the bottom three, tell you about how he judged the Cardiff squad he inherited?
Before attempting to answer that question, I will say that we gave the sort of committed and hard working display that we’d seen in Warnock’s three previous matches in charge and we managed to put our opponents under more pressure than we’d grown used to seeing in home games under Paul Trollope.
As a result of that pressure, there was a season’s best nineteen best goal attempts by City, but the fact that only four of them were on target tells it’s own story about a weakness which, I would say, has been apparent at the club since the end of the Dave Jones era.
Yes, this fifth loss at our home ground with the season less than a third over was different from the other four because we made our opponents work harder than the quartet of previous victors had to do for their three points. However, in many ways, the similarities between all five of them are very concerning and tend to tell a story which suggests that getting clear of the relegation battle under Neil Warnock’s management may not be as straightforward as many thought it would.
There was a definite pattern to how we lost four home matches under Paul Trollope’s management and, although there was always a bit more hope that a goal might be coming for us yesterday, in the end what happened was suggestive that, despite the changes for the good that the appointment of Warnock has brought, fundamental problems that will continue to hold us back remain.
Yesterday, just as against QPR, Reading, Leeds and Derby, we had the better of a goalless first half in which our opponents had rarely offered a goal threat, but we were unable to carry that “dominance” into the second half. Just as previously, the visitors found it easier to cope in the second period as what momentum we had faded and they were able to capitalise on the fact that we are incapable of keeping a clean sheet these days at home (or away for that matter!) by scoring the vital first goal, which three of them added to with a late second.
All five matches have seen us unable to score and, for me, the most damaging thing about yesterday’s loss is that any thought that we had left the dark days of Trollope’s time behind us forever were banished because, despite a better level of performance from us, the outcome was exactly the same, with the same shortcomings at either end of the pitch, and through the middle of it for that matter, being exposed.
Eight home games have seen not one clean sheet kept, while, at the other end, we have only scored a paltry five goals – that’s a recipe for disaster, which is magnified when you look into the nature of the goals we have managed more closely.
To start with, we had those two own goals by the same player that handed us our first win. Besides that, we’ve managed a penalty (gained from, arguably, the most incisive bit of attacking play seen from us in a home match so far this season, but still needing a very tight offside decision to go in our favour), a trademark Peter Whittingham free kick and a scrambled goal from a corner.
That tells you so much about Cardiff City in 2016/17 – no home goals from a striker and no home goals created in open play in 720 minutes of football!
As I said, problems at either end of the pitch and also, a sobering confirmation of what many have said for some time – we lack the creativity, technique and coolness to create goals from open play.
There have been two passages of play that have unfolded right in front of where I sit at the corner of the Ninian and Canton Stands in our last two home matches, where, first, Sheffield Wednesday and then Wigan have employed short, high tempo and clever passing in a confined space to open up a congested left side of our defence – Wigan were unable to take advantage of the man free in our penalty area this created, but Wednesday could and so headed back home with a point for their efforts.
The reason I highlight those two passages of play is, first, to say that I’ve not seen anything from us in a home game this season to indicate that we are capable of playing with that sort of skill and coordination and, second, to question whether we would even if we could?
I ask that because it brings me back to my original question about how Neil Warnock rated the squad at his new club.
If we accept the manager on his word that he bases his approach to playing the game on the abilities and weaknesses of the players at his disposal (a point of view I wholeheartedly agree with by the way), then it seems to me that his opinion of the ones he found at Cardiff was not that high.
How else can you explain the switch from the, generally completely ineffective and cautious, passing style employed under Trollope to the approach that sees us look to play it long and aerially from the back all of the time.
The days of goalkeepers rolling the ball to defenders to play out from the back have, seemingly, gone forever under Warnock’s management. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the evidence accumulated throughout Paul Trollope’s time at the club as coach and then, to all intents and purposes, manager was that we were not very good at these attempts to play the game in the “right” manner.
Combine that with what I said about the nature of the goals we’ve scored at home this season and you have what amounts to some sort of justification for what is an unashamed long ball game that City are playing under the current manager.
As someone who will go to to his death bed wanting his team to play an attractive, passing game based on pace, skill and clever off the ball movement, I cannot really blame Neil Warnock for assessing the City squad in the way he has done – that is one that is, apparently, wholly unsuited to playing in such a manner.
Another thing Warnock said when he took over was that he wanted to play an attacking brand of football. Now, I believe that, just as with his recent claim that we are the number one side in Wales, was just a bit of old blarney from a manager who was saying things he knew the fans wanted to hear.
What has been clear from the first minute of the Bristol City game to me was that Warnock and his coaching staff have made shoring things up at the back their first priority and, despite our chronic inability to get a nil against our opponent’s name, four goals conceded in four games says that this has been a partial success.
However, what is true is that Warnock’s Cardiff teams have always included two wingers who are usually prepared to get chalk on their boots and, although they’ve both been expected to do their bit defensively, I always view that as a fundamentally attacking move.
So, I think the desire is to have at least three men in forward areas when we attack, but it still doesn’t alter the fact that whenever we get one of those wingers into a good crossing position in open play, there only ever seems to be one target for them to aim at!
It doesn’t have to be a winger, occasionally it can be a full back, the target man or even, as happened once with Joe Ralls yesterday, a central midfield player, but there only ever seems to be that one colleague waiting to receive the cross along with something like three defenders.
Yes, we can go on about a lack of quality on the final ball, but it’s uncanny how when you look at other teams who get one of their players into a similar position, he usually has more than one potential target to aim for.
Where the opposite winger disappears to in such situations is something of a mystery to me, but when you have a central midfield three of Aron Gunnarsson, Ralls and Whittingham you have a trio for whom bombing into penalty areas to make a third man running does not come naturally.
Therefore, if Neil Warnock is of the opinion that these three can do the best job overall for him in the middle of the park, then the option of a percentage based, long ball game where even Sean Morrison is taking long throws in his own half to try to gain dead ball attacking situations where he can come forward with Sol Bamba to pose an aerial threat, becomes a viable one.
I’ll not argue too strongly against the approach Warnock is using because we need points and, up until yesterday anyway, it was proving successful, but, being the true fickle fan that I am, I would say that playing this way when we lose is pretty depressing.
I do wonder though about sticking to the same approach when your first choice targetman is out through injury. It seems to me that having Anthony Pilkington as the player who will be looked for when the ball is being launched by Ben Amos, one of the back four or thrown down the line by Morrison is not utilising his talents in the best way.
I’ll talk a bit about the influence the officials had on the game shortly because I believe that was a factor in the dual between Pilks and the Wigan centrebacks, but, generally speaking, I think Burn and Buxton at the back for our opponents would have been worried when they heard who our front player would be, but then delighted when they realised he was going to be utilised by us in exactly the same way Rickie Lambert would have been if he had been fit.
We didn’t play much football that could be termed attractive last season, but around February and March we played good, and more importantly, effective football by using Pilks as a lone striker. The difference compared to yesterday was that back then we looked to exploit his cleverness and excellent movement off the ball by having an in form Lex Immers operating behind him – the stand out example of this was the 4-1 win over Brighton which was only really rivaled for the title of best performance of the season by the win at Wolves in January where the personnel may have been different, but the method of using a clever and mobile lone striker (in this case Joe Mason) was the same.
With Wigan playing so deep for much of the time, could we have sacrificed one of the central midfield three and used someone who is more at home in advanced areas like Immers to give Pilks a bit of help?
Of course, it’s easy to say this with hindsight, but I believe we could have done. Better still, if we were always going to adopt such an aerial approach then play Marouane Chamakh from the start with Pilks operating as a number ten just behind him. While Neil Warnock’s post match explanation for the substitutions he made sounded logical, the non use of Chamakh from the bench seems odd to me and what cannot be denied is that Wigan came into the game more after the first two of the three changes he made.
Stuart O’Keefe for a Whitts whose influence on the game, while never that great in the first place, was in decline and Kadeem Harris for Junior Hoilett seemed okay at the time, but they just did not work. Neither made much impression, but in Harris’ case this had more to do with a midfield fade out that played it’s part in ensuring it was about fifteen minutes before he got a meaningful touch of the ball – when he did, he sent in the best cross of the game from a City player which was wastefully headed over by Pilkington.
I can’t help thinking that different tactics and substitutions might have seen a different outcome, but, given those stats about how hard we find it to be create things at home this season, I’m probably just indulging in wishful thinking.
However, something that could have helped us considerably was a better set of officials.
I thought Oliver Langford was a poor ref. The BBC’s stats show that he awarded thirty one free kicks for fouls in the match and yet there were no yellow cards issued . I’m with Langford in that I didn’t see anything that warranted a caution in the ninety minutes, but, with that in mind, doesn’t the fact that he was blowing his whistle so often to stop the game indicate that he was being too fussy?
I believe it was four times in the opening ten minutes that he saw fit to penalise Pilks and this gave an indication of so much of what was to come in terms of the way he and his linesman went about their jobs. I paid particular attention to the attacking dead ball situations City had in the second half and, in every one of them, a Wigan defender had a hold of the shirt of the City player challenging for the ball.
Now, there were times when there were fouls being committed by City players in these situations and, invariably, they were spotted and penalised, but, there were always fouls being committed by defenders that the linseman on the Ninian Stand in particular could see that were ignored – in that respect, Langford and his colleagues were completely inconsistent in their application of the rules.
There were some good performances from City players – Joe Bennett improves with each game and was a little unlucky with a fierce late shot from twenty yards that was blocked close to the line by Stephen Warnock, and despite a typical centreback’s effort from what was a decent chance to equalise, Sol Bamba continues to impress.
However, City man of the match for me was Aron Gunnarsson who seems to be a man transformed under Warnock’s management – he may not have been able to avoid that midfield fade out around the seventy minute mark I mentioned earlier. but, before that, he was head and shoulders our best player and definitely didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/