I think I’ve mentioned it before on here, but I’m always very reluctant to form opinions based on what I have heard on a radio commentary of a City match. However, I’m going to make an exception to that rule today because three things I heard towards the end of yesterdays very disappointing 4-2 defeat against local rivals Bristol City reaffirmed opinions I had been forming myself in the past week or so and unless something is done to correct these, what seem to me at least, serious weaknesses, then, however good our squad looks on paper, we’ll find ourselves in real danger of doing a Leicester City from the previous two seasons with Malky Mackay cast in the role of Sven Goran Eriksson.
Firstly, the commentator on Radio Wales (don’t know who it was) and summariser Jason Perry discussed the lack of pace in the team, secondly, with City pressing for an equaliser at 3-2 down, they talked about how the best chance of us scoring would come from a set piece and, finally, there was a remark about how some of the team were looking tired and weary when compared to their opponents – cue thoughts from one bemused listener in Fairwater to the effect of “so what’s changed from the back end of last season?”!
To go into those three elements in a bit more detail, although the emphatic 4-1 win over Newcastle a fortnight ago suggested otherwise, is a lack of pace that has our midfielders arriving to support the often isolated Heidar Helguson too late, the reason why Messrs Whittingham, Gunnarsson, Mutch and Cowie are often nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of our lone striker when he is in possession in our opponents defensive third of the field? There was also a certain irony in the fact that on the day when our opponents ran through the gaping gaps in our midfield and defence at pace, someone better equipped, in my opinion, to successfully cope with the likes of Adomah, Woolford and Baldock was making his debut at centreback for Crystal Palace at Middlesbrough – Darcy Blake would have given us a bit more pace in central defence to deal with those midfield attacking runners that we still seem to lack.
To be fair, having Craig Bellamy available would have upped our pace quota and Etien Velikonja has shown himself to be pretty quick on the rare occasions he has been given a chance. Also, although he didn’t look particularly quick in the Olympics, Kim Bo-Kyung might help in this department as well. However, it’s not just a lack of sprinting speed that is relevant here – even with Bellamy involved, I’ve not seen much evidence of an ability to move the ball around with the sort of pace and accuracy which opens up opponents so far.
This leads on to our set piece play. Although Mark Hudson’s goal against Huddersfield didn’t come directly from a set piece it still owed a great deal to the fact that we had so many players in forward areas and our opponents had so many back because there has been a corner seconds earlier – Hudson has also had an effort cleared off the line at Brighton and hit the bar yesterday with headers from corners, Helguson hit the bar against Huddersfield from a corner and Joe Mason scored from one yesterday and, while it’s good that we have caused so many problems for opponents from such situations in just three games, it doesn’t mask the fact that we are not creating much, if anything, in open play.
Finally, and most bizarrely, we come to the matter of fitness. I was very interested to hear those comments on the radio yesterday because it echoed what I said at the Huddersfield game (and then on here later) about how slow and laboured some of our midfield players looked. It was also significant to hear Tommy Smith (regarded by many who were at the game as our best player) hinting about being a bit short of match fitness in his welcome to Cardiff interview on the official site on Friday and, while I’m on the subject of new players, it was asking a lot for Matt Connolly to slot in seamlessly to our back four in the absence of Ben Turner against a side who had scored in their previous match with just a couple of days of training with his new team mates behind him.
Smith’s tacit admission of a need for more match time only made the non inclusion of Joe Mason all the more strange. By common consent he has pepped up our attacking play when he has come on in our previous two matches (Malky Mackay singled his contributions out for praise in his pre match press conference on Friday) and it seems to me that a situation whereby he starts and Smith gets a half an hour or so of the match practice he, apparently, needs by coming off the bench would make more sense than what we saw yesterday.
Finally, and to go back to those three subjects I’ve highlighted, I mentioned earlier about it feeling like nothing has changed from the end of last season. The accusations of a lack of pace (which were levelled at the squad all through last season) have not gone away. Furthermore, just as was the case in February, March, April and May, we look quite an easy team to stop from scoring as long as you defend properly at set pieces and there is a lack of urgency and purpose to much of our passing – my belief is tiredness was a factor in this towards the end of last season and it may be that it can’t be ruled out this time around either (perhaps, a general lack of full match fitness might be a more accurate description though?).
I saw it claimed in the Echo this week that we had spent £5.8 million in transfer fees alone this summer (I think it’s more than that actually because they reported Heidar Helguson as a free transfer and I’m sure we paid an undisclosed fee for him). Now it seems to me that if supporters can claim (legitimately on the evidence of the first three matches in my opinion) that performance levels have not improved since last spring when the implications of running with too small a squad had become apparent, then Malky Mackay must be starting to get concerned when you consider that only, possibly, Steve Kean at Blackburn has had a bigger transfer budget than him for this season. I wanted Malky Mackay as manager and still do, I still believe that 4-5-1 can be an attacking formation as well but, for too long now, it’s not been because some of the personnel used have not been suited to the system being used in such a way. Although we need to remember that we have the player who cost us the most this summer to come into the team, with an owner desperate for promotion, something needs to change, be it a move to a more attack minded utilisation of 4-5-1 or a move away from it to, say, the sort of formation Malky Mackay was using this time last year – the stakes are huge this season and more of the same isn’t going to cut it.