Last night’s 0-0 draw at Stoke wasn’t a great advert for the league described by it’s advocates as the most exciting in the world, and with the Premier League getting more showbiz in style and presentation with each passing season, perhaps there are those who believe that there is an obligation on clubs to go out and entertain the punters by playing fast, attacking football no matter who the opposition might be?
I think we can take it as read that Malky Mackay does not think that way and I’m pretty sure the large majority of his managerial colleagues, in all four divisions, don’t either. On the other hand, if the reaction to what could be an absolutely vital point come the end of the season on the messageboards is anything to go by, there are plenty of City fans around who expect their team to not only go away in this league and beat sides above them in the table, but also entertain those punters while doing it.
Maybe, it was the feeling that the season was entering a new phase that brought about this impression that we would suddenly become more cavalier in approach away from home (I see Wales Online were at it yesterday) ? Much had been made about December being a potentially critical month for City as we face a series of matches which, taken together, do not look as daunting as the ones we’ve had in the first third of the campaign, but, for me, the reason they don’t is more to do with the fact that we finally have some matches at the Cardiff City Stadium that we might actually go into as favourites to win!
With trips to Stoke, Palace and Liverpool, December looks much like the previous four months in terms of away games in that we have tended to be facing sides nearer the bottom of the league than the top of it. In the six away games we’d played before last night, I’d say that it could, perhaps, be argued that we went out with an intention of attacking our opponents from the first whistle in two of them. We certainly spent most of the first half on the front foot at Fulham where scoring first (s0mething we’ve only done twice up to now this season with Steven Caulker finding the net on both occasions) appeared to give us a massive boost and completely deflate our opponents and perhaps it was our eventual win at Craven Cottage which persuaded our manager to go with an even more attacking front six at Norwich with Jordon Mutch coming in for Aron Gunnarsson in our midfield.
I’ve always argued that the selection of a midfield five of Medel, Whittingham, Mutch, Kimbo and Odemwingie in support of Campbell was a signal of intent that this was a match where we wanted to attack from the off, but, I believe that what happened in those first forty five minutes at Carrow Road proved to be something of a watershed moment for our manager. For a short while in an open and entertaining first fifteen minutes, it looked like we had the fire power to repeat the Fulham win, but the last half an hour of that first period was one way traffic as Norwich attacked at will and faced very little resistance in doing so until they reached our back four and keeper.
I think it’s safe to say that something isn’t right when a manager makes two tactical substitutions at half time – it’s something I’m not aware of Malky Mackay doing during his time his time with us until that afternoon when a combination of last ditch defending, great goalkeeping and a large helping of good luck somehow got us to half time at 0-0. I believe that by bringing on the more prosaic virtues of Cowie and Gunnarsson for Kimbo and Odemwingie, Malky was admitting that, for now at least, his first thought has to be about containment when we go away in this division.
We still needed some heroics from Marshall and a bit more of that luck in the second half at Norwich, but Cowie and Gunnarsson helped to shore things up in midfield and we didn’t look like we could concede at any moment – all of this may have gone a long towards persuading our manager that he had been wrong to go against what appears to be his natural way of thinking when his side plays away. Certainly, the selections for our two away games since then can hardly be described as flamboyant – at Villa, we were solid for three quarters of the game and it could be argued (not by me mind!) that it only started to go wrong defensively when we “opened the game up”, by bringing the more attacking Mutch on for Gunnarsson.
You only had to see our selection for last night to know what we were in for and, with just two goals conceded in our last two and half games away from home (none while Cowie and Gunnarsson have been on the pitch), Malky’s cautious approach is working on one level, but, conversely, how many times have we looked like scoring in an away game since we missed those early chances at Norwich? I get the feeling that a lack of firepower in away matches is something we’ll have to accept for now and, with just one defeat in five away fixtures against teams in the bottom half of the table, we have a record that most relegation fighting sides would accept.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s strange how a trip up the road, even for the shortest of distances, for an away match tends to alter expectations, but, invariably, it does. Therefore, I’m happy to accept last night’s artless scuffling in which our passing was as poor as I’ve seen it this season as long as we end up with something in the points column – if exactly the same match had been played at Cardiff City Stadium, my attitude would be completely different.
Will caution be the watchword again against Palace on Saturday? With two wins in three games and just one goal conceded in four matches for our opponents, I think it might well be.
What did surprise me last night though was that having come through Stoke’s early pressure (I hesitate to call it on an onslaught!), the home side hardly ever threatened after that and, having, largely, drawn their sting going into the last quarter, I expected us to see two from Cornelius, Kimbo and Noone get their chance, but it seems that Malky was content to stick with his one point rather than run the risk of it becoming none as he tried to turn it into three.
Obviously, our manager knows that a time is coming soon when something more ambitious will be required from his side. Having come through a series of home matches where avoiding defeat was considered an achievement pretty well, I’m expecting something more from matches at Cardiff City Stadium from now on – maybe the plan will be more of what we saw against Swansea where, after keeping things tight in the first half, we pushed them back right from the start of the second period and, having got a goal ahead, kept on looking for another one for most of the last half hour.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/