Back in 1995, Everton surprisingly beat Manchester United 1-0 in the FA Cup Final. To a large degree, their success was down to their “dogs of war” midfield that were as much to do with making life tough for their opponents as they were with what happened when they were in possession of the ball – in fact, it’s probably true to say Parkinson, Horne and co were there mainly to destroy as opposed to create. Although the dogs of war approach did see Everton pick up a trophy, it was first used by manager Joe Royle as a way of getting Everton out of relegation trouble and, as the article I linked to states, it’s limitations were more apparent when Royle tried to turn Everton into something more than relegation battlers.
Comparing City’s 2-1 win over Southampton last night to the dogs of war is meant as a compliment. I’ll mention later why I have a few slight reservations about one or two aspects of such an approach, but, for now, let’s celebrate the fact that, after two or three seasons of watching opposition midfield’s walk through us almost at will, we now have a unit in the middle of the park which fights every inch and is prepared to compete for the ball when it is thirty yards or more from our goal rather than just retreat so far back that they are standing on our back four’s toes!
I must admit that as Southampton enjoyed virtually 100% possession for the first three or four minutes, I thought we were in for another Brighton type match where the opposition had us chasing shadows for long periods as they moved the ball around crisply and with purpose. However, we didn’t have Aron Gunnarsson and Filip Kiss in our team that night and these two soon set about showing why Brighton might not have had things so much their own way a month ago if they had been around.
I had been very impressed with Southampton when I saw them beat Leeds a lot more convincingly than the 3-1 scoreline indicated on the opening day of the season and much of their close interplay as they got close to our penalty area did look very threatening, but Gunnarsson and Kiss were nearly always around to snuff out the danger with the result that, apart from a shot into the side netting by Guly, City’s goal didn’t really come under threat in the first half. After the break, Southampton were able to offer more evidence as to why they had been averaging two and a half goals a game before last night but, significantly, apart from when Marshall saved brilliantly from Lallana, what attacking success they enjoyed was as a result of long balls forward from the back or crosses hoisted in from fairly deep areas as opposed to the intricate triangles that appeared to be their default mode when it came to attacking. Now, of course, part of this is down to the fact that they became increasingly desperate as time went on with them still 2-0 down, but I’d also like to think that it was because Gunnarsson and Kiss had made the ten yards outside our penalty area in central areas of the pitch something of a no go area for the Saints.
Kiss did give the ball back to the opposition straight after winning it off them a bit too often, and, although the way he goes flying in to make tackles that, so far at least, have been well executed, is great to see and gets fans excited, I can’t help thinking that he is a red card waiting to happen. Kiss is showing that he is a good tackler, but, in the modern game, you only have to be a fraction of a second out in an attempt to legitimately win the ball and you get shown a straight red. If Kiss can learn from his, slightly, more experienced colleague alongside him that, although there are times when tackles are required, putting opponents under pressure carries far less risk and can result in possession being gained, then we have got ourselves a terrific midfield base to build off.
If Kiss was good, then I thought Gunnarsson was superb. One of the drawbacks to operating with two sitting midfielders in front of the back four is that it puts much of the onus for attacking play on just four players and, with the players we currently have, that seems to leave us a bit short on the creativity front. However, with that simple pass which led to our second goal, Gunnarsson showed that his knack of playing the right pass is not just restricted to when he plays deep – it was also great to see City’s pressing of their opponents bearing fruit further up the pitch.
Although I have been a bit critical of Kiss, it needs to be remembered that he is still only twenty and that he is having to handle what must represent a major upheaval in his life as he tries to a move to a strange country while attempting to give of his best on the pitch – Kiss looks a terrific prospect and I hope he is able to complete a permanent transfer to us soon. Talking of twenty year olds, further forward, Joe Mason again offered confirmation of his innate cleverness as a footballer – he often operates in that area between midfield and attack where opposing defenders don’t like to be drawn into, while midfielders are often unsure as to whether he has become their responsibility or not. Mason might not have caused the havoc he did in the first half against the wurzels, but he unsettled the Saints and offered more clues that he could soon be capable of providing some of that creativity we will need from the four “attackers” if we continue with two sitting central midfield players.
In this City team, it’s probably not right to talk of “stars”, but if there was one last night, then I suppose it has to be Kenny Miller. There were still times when he looked pretty ordinary (I think that will always be the case with him mind), but, for the first time, he showed the home crowd what he does best. Like so many of his team mates, Miller’s attitude was spot on as he chased David Marshall’s punt forward for what would be the most direct goal I think I’ve ever seen us score and I’m grateful to the messageboard contributor who pointed out the contrast between what our new striker did and what last season’s England international did when he found himself in a similar position in our most important match of the season. Without a goal in eight games, Miller could have thought discretion was the better part of valour as he saw the onrushing Kelvin Davies, but, showing the honesty he has done throughout his career, he got the reward he deserved – maybe we could have salvaged something from the Reading game in May if Jay Bothroyd had been so selfless?
Having ended his lean spell, Miller was never going to miss the opportunity presented to him seven minutes later and with the dogs of war continuing to yap at their heels and our back four having a good night individually and collectively, Southampton probably knew they weren’t going to get anything out of the game. I have to say though that their response was pretty impressive and, with Malky Mackay hamstrung to some extent by the lack of attacking options on the bench, the last few minutes were pretty hairy as, hardly surprisingly, one or two in the side tired. Although it was a shame that City conceded the goal that their effort and performance didn’t warrant, it also has to be said that Southampton deserved a goal in the closing stages and things would have been a lot more fraught if De Ridder’s goal had come two or three minutes earlier – as it was, City saw things out pretty well as they camped themselves near the corner flag on Southampton’s right and the visitors could not get out.
So, a positive result at Hull on Saturday would see us go into the second international break of the season in good heart – there are still the same five sides above us, but, whereas as we have already played three of them, none of them have played each other yet. Therefore, after the last two matches in which they have all dropped at least two points, there should be more of the same to come for them in the coming weeks as the Championship finally gets some top of the table clashes. With us showing a far greater degree of tactical flexibility (we’ve already successfully used 4-4-2 with a flat middle four, with a narrow diamond midfield and with two central midfielders sitting deep as well as 4-5-1), defensive solidity and an excellent team ethic, I’d say we only need a little more of that X factor to be genuine contenders.