I think we played slightly better in drawing 1-1 with Leicester last night than we did in getting the same score against Derby a week ago, but I wouldn’t put up much of an argument with anybody who wanted to say otherwise. For 90% of both of these games, I reckon I could have played in goals for our opponents and I don’t think the outcome would have been much different – we would not have scored before the 80th minute because Messrs Legzdins and Schmeichel didn’t have anything to do before that.
The BBC’s stats for our last two matches say we had a total of twelve efforts on target with four of them coming last night, but apart the goals we scored, I’m struggling to remember any of them – thinking about it, I wouldn’t have been able to repeat the save Schmeichel made to keep out Peter Whittingham’s best corner in ages in the second half as we enjoyed a very rare, and all too brief, period of sustained pressure. However, after Kuszczak’s heroics for Brighton three weeks ago, opposing keepers could be excused for putting a nice comfy arm chair and foot rest in the goalmouth to relax on their visits to Cardiff City Stadium as they read through the closing stages of that book they’ve been meaning to finish for ages (they could even nod off for the first half if they wanted to).
I’m afraid watching us play at Cardiff City in most of our recent games there has become very similar to what we became used to from the Palace Semi Final onwards last year as you wait in vain for something, anything, to hint that a home goal might be coming. This time last year we we in the middle of a run of three home games in a week which, beforehand were being talked up by supporters vital to our fast fading chances of challenging for a top two and what happened? Having been beaten 2-0 by West Ham in our previous game at Cardiff City Stadium, we started the trio of home matches with a 3-0 loss to Hull where, to be fair, all of the major decisions went against us, we then had a 0-0 bore draw with a Burnley side with nothing to play for before, being gifted a goal by relegation bound Coventry when one of their strikers headed a corner into his own net. The visitors then missed a penalty before equalising, but we finally produced some quality in front of goal when Whittingham scored late on only for us to have to settle for another draw when Norwood leveled deep into added time – for good measure, we then drew 0-0 with Millwall in our next home match ten days later.
We did manage to score four times in picking up five more home points from our remaining three home matches, but we owed our place in the top six more to our away results in the closing three months of the campaign and there are ominous signs that five home matches out of seven in April might not not be the advantage that many have been taking it to be up to now.
Our problems at home for the final third of last season had a lot to do with us playing a 4-5-1 with the striker being an isolated Kenny Miller whose confidence was being put through the mangle as he ended his time at Cardiff by scoring once in his final twenty three games for us. Miller’s cause was not helped by a midfield five who, almost to a man, did not fall into the category of natural attacking midfielders backing him up. So the system being used now is different from the one then, but there was a similarity in that players who many felt could have made more of a contribution (e.g. Earnshaw, Ralls, Kiss and, to a lesser extent, Gestede) were virtually ignored by a manager who seemed to look no further than a group of 12 or 13 “favourites” who, even when some of them were not in the starting line up, were invariably used as substitutes.
This time around, the formation is different with 4-4-2 being the preferred option, but the outcome is much the same. Where lack of support for the striker could be seen as the reason for the goals drying up last year, I would argue lack of opportunities created for the strikers is having the same results this time around. I went on at length about Peter Whittingham (who I thought played better last night) last week, so I’ll not repeat myself except to stress that we are not getting the best out of his creative talents and haven’t been for some time now. I believe to be given the chance to do this he needs to be part of a central midfield trio rather than in a duo with Aron Gunnarsson (who looks to be flagging recently after an impressive few months).
Now, last year Malky Mackay might have been able to claim that he didn’t have the depth and quality to his squad to make the changes he wanted to, but this time around he has often said that while the squad doesn’t have as much depth as he wants, it does have a lot more quality to it. That being the case, why are selections so samey lately? I like Tommy Smith, but he’s not shown his best form since coming back from injury and I’m still trying to work out what role he was playing last night while Craig Conway’s crossing, which had always been something which added weight to his claims for a first team place in my book, has fallen away recently. I wouldn’t drop Whittingham, but he and Gunnarsson are looking increasingly like the two out on their feet footballers whose impact declined as the season went on last year.
Staying with central midfield for now, just look at the options we have there if we did leave out Whittingham and/or Gunnarsson or decided to give them more support. Jordon Mutch gave us decent passing, the ability to run at players in the middle of the park and a good engine in the first couple of months of the campaign, now he’s disappeared from sight amid stories about nerve injuries in his foot and rumours about his attitude. Filip Kiss did a good job a times last season, but appears to have paid the price for a below par showing against Hull when he got a rare first team chance. Judging by this report from Millwall’s official site, Joe Ralls was in fine form as City’s Under 21’s kept up their challenge for an end of season Play Off place yesterday, but he only seems to get a chance as an auxiliary left back these days, Kim Bo-Kyung brings energy, good technique, an eye for a goal and the ability to retain possession to the team, but has barely got a look in recently and, finally, Don Cowie might not be a flashy crowd pleaser, but he does the basics well and Whittingham seems to play better when he is helping out in central midfield.
I’ve not mentioned Joe Mason (our most effective striker over the second half of last season) there either, but there are six players who, besides the likes of Bellamy, Helguson and Gestede give us viable alternatives to yesterday’s “same old, same old” selection.
Of course, all of the above about our different options in midfield pre-supposes that we are going to continue playing the more considered passing game that we’ve seen lately. In an ideal world, I’d prefer us to play like that, but there’s a fine dividing line between “considered” and “slow” and, I’m afraid, we are erring on the side of the latter rather than the former. Some people have responded to my recent stuff on here about the way we have started playing arguing that we need to be more direct in our approach and, having seen the results we’ve got since we stopped insisting on having a big man up front and the contrast in our performances against Derby and Leicester when Rudy Gestede was on the pitch compared to when he wasn’t, maybe they have a point. We only looked remotely like scoring while the much derided Frenchman was on the pitch and, at this stage of the season especially, who cares less about doing things with “style”?
Finally, although the last two matches have generally been as depressing as watching us at home became in the last three months of 2011/12, I did include the word “except” in my title and, while the messageboard critics probably won’t agree, there is a big difference between the two seasons. In our last twelve home matches in 2011/12 we didn’t avoid defeat once we went behind in a game, yet against Derby and Leicester we managed to get unlikely equalisers in matches where we deserved nothing on the balance of play. This might not seem much at the moment, but it’s not what you would expect from a team who are, apparently, in the process of “doing a Cardiff” again as they bottle a promotion challenge. Sheffield Wednesday and Peterborough are in better form than us and London Road is a real bogey ground, but, before we next play at home, we are facing sides who have lost nineteen games between them on their own grounds this season and, just like last year, it may be that we are best suited to playing away at the moment.