Quite what the good folk of Brighton and Millwall did to miss out on their fair share of goals and points thrown away like confetti by Cardiff City on their travels, I don’t know. Even Ipswich fans had the consolation of a comedy goal for their side as two or three of City’s back five blundered to give D.J. Campbell the chance to punch the ball into the net during their undeserved defeat at our hands last month, but at the Amex Stadium and the New Den, we performed and looked like a team which, bafflingly, were still regarded as favourites for the title before yesterday’s shambles.
We’ve certainly made up for those two exceptions to the Cardiff City away rule in 2012/13 since then though and last night’s embarrasing 5-4 defeat at Charlton (who had only managed five goals from their previous seven home games!) plunged new depths of ineptitude. People can go on about our tremendous home record as much as they like, but we have seven points to show from eight away matches now and if that trend is continued throughout the season, I’d say that we can forget about automatic promotion as soon as we drop, say, six points at Cardiff City Stadium. Given the form Hull and Middlesbrough are in, who is to say that we won’t do that in the next ten days, but what has become clear since we played so well to beat Burnley is that we don’t derive any confidence or feelgood factor to take on the road with us from our home results, so, even if we head to Barnsley with our 100% home record intact (something I still believe we are capable of doing), it will make no difference whatsoever to the quality of the performance we put in at Oakwell if we remain true to the form shown this season.
Trying to put a positive slant on things, you would hope that the state of denial which has existed amongst the players this season (if some of their public utterances in the days after the Bolton game are to be believed anyway) will evaporate and they, and the manager, will have to confront the fact that something has been seriously wrong with our attitudes and performances away from home this season. So far our away record is proving that you can never take things for granted in football. Five of the spine of last night’s side (Marshall, Hudson, Turner, Whittingham and Cowie) were regulars in a team which proved both very hard to beat (just four defeats in the regular season) and very hard to breach as well (twenty four goals conceded in twenty three games) – with stats like that, you could forgive Malky Mackay for thinking that the last thing he would have been facing after just under a third of the season would be a crisis in confidence with regard to our away results and performances?
So what has happened to turn an outfit which gave away so little on their travels in 2011/12 into the charitable disorganisation that those poor souls who go to all of our away games have had to put up with this time around? Well, what I can tell you with some certainty is that it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with what kit we wear – I’m sure some lazy journalists will seize on the fact that we played in blue last night, but what is going wrong runs much deeper than that sort of unimportant and cosmetic froth. I’d also say that those supporters who use some players as scapegoats and attribute all of our woes to them are wide of the mark – Gestede and Cowie bashing is all very well, but can you name one of our players who have turned in consistently good performances in away games this season?
That’s the really worrying thing in my opinion – there is so much wrong with us when we play away that it’s not going to take a quick and simple fix to sort things out. I’ll give three examples of what I mean;-
1. Nathan Blake spoke of a lack of true belief amongst the squad that they were really good enough to achieve what must, surely, be the target set by Vincent Tan for this season (i.e. promotion) in his Echo article written after the Bolton match. His views were given short shrift by those who replied to the thread I started on one of the City messageboards on the piece Blake had written, but after the way we folded from 2-0 up to concede five in twenty six minutes last night, his views don’t look too far off the mark this morning.
2. I have been keeping on about the lack of goalscoring efforts we have been having in the first hour of recent away games because I believe it says something about the attitude that the side take the pitch with and how they are told to approach such matches. Now, with us having 22 goal attempts last night and a shot tipped around the post before Heidar Helguson nodded us in front in the fourth minute, I’ll accept that the stats don’t back that argument up, but I maintain that in the five games from Millwall onwards they did.
3. Having defended well against Burnley and not too badly against Bolton, our poor defending had not been as much of an issue as it was previously. However, no away side should end up losing after scoring four times and having the number of efforts on goal that we did. The truth is though that all of the goals we have conceded at home have come from dead ball situations and we have let in no end of cheap goals on our travels this season – both individually and collectively our defending has fallen far short of what you would expect from a promotion challenging side this season.
Now, if I’m right about point two, then you need to be strong defensively for such an approach to work, but we are far, far from that this season. To develop that further, you only have to look at our last two matches – I said previously that we didn’t defend too badly at Bolton, but it’s more accurate to say we had few problems while the static veteran Kevin Davies was on the pitch and Bolton were playing high balls up to him, but as soon as the quicker and more mobile N’Gog and Petrov came on we began to struggle. So, the conclusion to be drawn against Bolton is that, by and large, our back four (which contains two big stopper centre halves and a six foot plus right back who prefers to play in the middle) are pretty well equipped to cope with an aerial attack, but don’t do as well against one which relies more on pace and movement.
However, you then look at what happened last night and you see that all five goals came from high crosses into our penalty area. Two of them were down to poor goalkeeping by David Marshall (who it could be argued has made more mistakes which have cost us goals already this season than he did throughout the whole of 2011/12), but the other three were from free headers in the centre of goal from less than ten yards out (one of them, criminally, being from a corner when we had eleven players in our penalty area). This sends out a completely different signal to the one at Bolton and offers compelling evidence that the whole team (not just the back four and keeper) are not doing their defensive jobs properly.
However, when all is said and done, when a side is letting in the number of away goals we are, then it tends to be the back four and goalkeeper who end up carrying the can. I see that Mark Hudson, Andrew Taylor and Aron Gunnarsson have been on Twitter overnight apologising for the performance. Hudson has talked about putting things right on Saturday, but is part of the problem that he, and Taylor, can say that safe in the knowledge that, unless Malky Mackay brings in untried youngsters or starts playing midfielders in defence, they will both be playing? I suppose one of them could be omitted for Kevin McNaughton and Joe Lewis could be brought in for Marshall, but it’s almost certain that at least three out of the back five who were so awful last night are going to be playing every week. Certain players are virtually undropable in the current Cardiff squad and there has to be a chance that their intensity levels drop as a consequence.
Malky Mackay must accept responsibility for allowing this situation to develop (and, as an aside I’d say a bench with just one striker on it, when someone he bought for £1 million plus just a few months ago doesn’t get a chance despite scoring a hat trick in his last game, doesn’t reflect well on him either) and he now faces a bit of a dilemma before the we play away again if, as I suspect it does, the loan window closes before we go to Barnsley. We may be able to keep a couple of clean sheets in our next two home matches, but can he trust the defenders not to revert to their old ways as soon as we cross the border into England – for me, they’ve let him, the club and the supporters down too often to deserve that trust and I’d be scouring the lists of on loan defenders available this morning if I were him.
Sorry to be so downbeat, but the only way I see out of our away day malaise is to get the results that will gradually restore confidence over a period of weeks, but with all sections of the team under performing that’s going to be easier said than done. We’ve shown twice that two goal leads are not enough to guarantee us avoiding defeat and are Bellamy, Smith and Mutch going to make that much of a difference when they return? To be honest, I can’t see the first two improving our goals against record, getting Mutch back might help things, but I have little faith in the regular pronouncements that he will be returning soon and, anyway, it comes to something when you are relying on a 20 year old kid to sort out problems that the rest of our expensively assembled squad appear unable to do so.
For the first time there are signs that Malky Mackay may be coming under pressure with some supporters calling for a change of manager, but I’d say he doesn’t have to bother too much about what the fans are thinking, it’s the bloke over in Malaysia who keeps on hearing about our frequent away capitulations who he should be concerned about – can he afford a repeat of what happened at Bolton and Charlton when we go to Barnsley and Derby in three weeks time?