It’s strange how the reaction would have been almost exclusively negative if yesterday’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham City had taken place at Cardiff City Stadium and yet, move the match one hundred miles up the road to St. Andrews, and it suddenly becomes that much more impressive. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing this, so I’m not trying to make some clever point here, just illustrating out how much influence the venue of a game is to our reactions and perceptions before, during and after the event.
Even if it was sometimes hard to escape the feeling that we were playing a team which was even more slow and knackered than us, it still has to be said that, when compared to some of the others in the vast collection of 1-1 away draws we’ve gathered this season, this one had a good “feel” to it. After all, it was at the ground of a team above us in the table, our goalkeeper saved a penalty and, for only the third time in our eleven away one pointers this season, we came back to draw after falling behind. Yes, if you go by the usual premise that away draws are something to be welcomed, then there is a reason for a slightly more upbeat feeling about our chances of finishing in the top six.
If we were to draw our last three away games, I’m pretty certain we would achieve that goal if we backed them up with the right results at Cardiff City Stadium. This is where the “but” comes in I’m afraid though, because it seems to me that, recently anyway, we are a team that is not just playing better away, but is also better equipped to win on other side’s grounds – there’s less onus on City to get midfield players into advanced positions than when we are at home. This applies in particular now that Steve McPhail is back in the reckoning. Yesterday offered further evidence that McPhail’s presence (at least until his lack of match fitness catches up with him), leads to more control in midfield if we stick to a 4-5-1 formation, but, it also means that at least one of the midfield five can be virtually ignored when it comes to providing a goal threat.
It’s interesting to note the contrast in attitudes between the rival managers yesterday. In this piece, Malky Mackay shows his satisfaction with the way we played, while Chris Hughton talks of us only having one chance all game. In a way, I think both managers are right – it does take courage to play as City are trying to currently, but, while claiming we only had the one goalscoring chance is exaggerating things somewhat, the Birmingham manager does have something because playing like we are with five “natural” midfielders has to mean that we aren’t going to have many chances to score from open play.
People who were at the match yesterday will, no doubt, put me right if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, but listening to the first half especially, I was reminded of the opening phases of the Coventry match last Wednesday where we looked comfortably in control, but lacked a cutting edge. Just as on Wednesday, it fell to Aron Gunnarsson to provide attacking support to the lone striker, but, in my opinion, we are now in a position where we either need to start playing with a front two or we need to have two in our midfield five who are able to think and react like forwards (I’m not sure Gunnarsson does).
It’s perfectly understandable for Malky Mackay to accentuate the positive by pointing out that we have only lost once in our last six games, but he must realise that this is going to lead to others coming back with the response that only one of these games has been won (courtesy of our opponents scoring twice for us). Solidity is all well and good, but, having set out one sequence of results that would see us finish in the Play Off positions above, it’s hard to see us going into the Palace match on the final day with our promotion hopes still alive if we get identical results in our next half a dozen matches as we have got in our last six.
Perhaps having Peter Whittingham (someone who does think and react like a forward) playing in a wider position will lead to him getting forward more (he certainly did two seasons ago), but my own view is that he has become too valuable for us playing infield and, even if this means him playing deeper, I’d prefer to see him being used there. I’ve read on messageboards that Liam Lawrence would be of more use playing wide right and, although I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the case, I would say that putting him there with Whittingham more central seems to be a better idea.
However, this is only skirting around the problem as far as I’m concerned because I feel we would still look like a side that does not have enough forward thinking midfield players if we are going to operate with just one striker. If we are going to persist with 4-5-1, then Joe Mason has to be one of that five in my book – I know this means possible defensive problems for McNaughton or Taylor, but our need to start winning over rides that for me. Another option would be to set up as we did in the League Cup Final – on that score, it was interesting to hear Malky Mackay insist that Kenny Miller was used as a midfield player that day and so, certainly in home matches, why not use McPhail, Whittingham and Gunnarsson or Cowie (my preference would be the former I think), with Mason and Miller playing in support of Gestede? It would still be 4-5-1 and would also give us the option of playing in a more direct style if required, but, with Whittingham and McPhail playing fairly deep, you would like to think that we would still be able to pass it pretty well – there wouldn’t be much attacking width, but when has there been this season?
Alternatively, we could forget all this analytical bollox and just stick Mark Hudson up front because that was some finish by our captain yesterday – I think he’s shown over the past few months that he’s a better player with the ball at his feet than I for one have been prepared to give him credit for in the past.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/