There are those, including myself, who look at our transfer dealings this summer and think about the consequences for the club if Vincent Tan leaves or we fail to get promoted at the end of the season, but, those concerns have been voiced elsewhere already on here. The sole purpose of this piece is to look at the squad Malky Mackay has assembled at Cardiff and try to form some conclusions as to where they are likely to finish in the forty six game marathon which starts tonight against Huddersfield, while also hoping that Vincent Tan proves as capable of delivering on all of the other proposals outlined in his investment plans for the club as he has been in delivering on the one about a bigger playing budget for this season – surely no one can now deny that this has been the case?
For this piece in previous years, I’ve broken the team down into four parts and compared them with the ones for the previous season before arriving at an overall conclusion and see no reason to change from that format today.
On the face of it, all that’s happened in this position is that we’ve swapped Joe Lewis for Tom Heaton. Now, I used to say that I thought Heaton and Marshall were as good a pair of goalkeepers as there were at any other club in the Championship and, his slip in the first leg of the League Cup Semi Final at Palace apart, Heaton certainly didn’t let City down in the Cup matches he played last season (he didn’t concede a goal in the one and a bit Championship matches he played in either). The fact that we offered Heaton a new contract shows that Malky Mackay was pleased to keep him as his second choice keeper, but, understandably, Tom decided to move on to be replaced by Joe Lewis who, with nearly 200 appearances for Peterborough behind him, England caps at all age group levels up to and including Under 21 and a full international squad call up for the finals of a major tournament certainly has the more impressive CV of the two. However, Lewis’ career appears to have stalled somewhat lately and his reviews from Peterborough fans can be described as mixed at best, so it’s not as easy to say he is an improvement on Heaton as it might first appear. What needs to be borne in mind though is that we have the services of a third keeper in Eliott Parrish, who Malky Mackay rates good enough to give a full time contract to, to fall back on for the whole season this time (Guillame Hubert the Belgian keeper we have had on trial was supposed to have been impressive in our win at Barry last week as well), so, overall, I’d say we are slightly stronger in this position compared to last season.
The versatility of Kevin McNaughton and Darcy Blake (assuming he stays) means that our manager’s defensive options are not quite as limited as they initially appear to be. However, although they wouldn’t have been earmarked to play often if they had stayed, losing Anthony Gerrard and Paul Quinn and not replacing either of them has to leave us weaker at the back than we were (especially when you consider that getting into a position where Dekel Keinan is being seriously considered for Championship action would be an admission of failure by Malky Mackay given the way the Israeli international has been treated in the past year or so). With our manager stating that he is still after two or three new players, it’s a good bet that something will be done about our lack of depth before the end of August, but, as of now, we would have major defensive headaches if a couple of our regular back four cried off injured for tonight’s match.
Although I thought we had a good midfield, which was better than the majority of opposition outfits in that department, last season, an over reliance on Peter Whittingham in the creativity stakes and the consequences of so many matches played to such a high intensity were making themselves pretty clear from about early February onwards. Players like Cowie, Gunnarsson and, to a lesser extent, Whittingham were not as prominent in the second half of the season as they were in the first and, with Malky Mackay, unwilling or unable to fall back on McPhail, Kiss and Ralls as others tired, it was left to Liam Lawrence (who did a pretty good job, while not being wholly convincing) to provide a viable alternative or addition to the three first choice players I mentioned. Worse than that though, only Craig Conway (who had a mixed first season at Cardiff) offered the sort of alternatives a classic winger provides. Cowie and Lawrence were both capable of playing wide midfield, but their instinct was to look inside rather than outside when receiving the ball and this was a factor as to why the 4-5-1 system favoured by Malky Mackay was only a partial success. Too often our midfield five was made up entirely of people who, first and foremost, thought like midfield players as opposed to forwards – the situation improved slightly when Joe Mason was one of the five, but, ideally, you need another one or two who think the same way.
By contrast, City appear to have plenty of alternatives if we want to play 4-5-1 this season. Besides Mason (who has had an injury hit pre season), there’s a player who could still walk into most Premiership sides in the country in Craig Bellamy, Kim Bo-Kyung (provided he gets his work permit of course) appears able to play both as a midfield man first and foremost or as a secondary attacker and, although I’d say the promising Jordon Mutch is more of a typical midfielder, he showed a pleasing willingness to get forward in the win over Newcastle.
All in all. I think we have radically improved what wasn’t a bad Championship midfield at all – we are definitely stronger in this department (in fact, I’d say that, if it plays to it’s potential, our midfield is amongst the very best around at this level).
Whatever you may have thought of Kenny Miller (opinion on him tends to be very mixed amongst City fans), replacing him with one striker who scored twenty times for a club which played Champions League football after winning a decent standard league and another who was the top scorer for a Premiership team, has to make us stronger up front than we were doesn’t it? Well, rather like with the goalkeeping situation, it may not be as straightforward as it at first seems. Starting with Etien Velikonja, we have a player who has to settle in this country while also coming to terms with a very different style of play than the one he was used to. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting too much from the young Slovenian striker in his opening months here in particular, but I was impressed by both the way he took his goal and his all round brightness and intelligence against Newcastle and I’m more hopeful about him than I was. As for Heidar Helguson, there are no such worries about him settling in (especially given that he knows Malky Mackay well already), any potential problems will probably be more to do with his age. Although there would appear to be little sign of it happening so far, once players get into their mid thirties, they sometimes hit something akin to the marathon runner’s “wall” and their legs simply go, but I’d say Helguson knows his game better than anyone else and, although he turns 35 later this month, you’d like to think he can make a significant contribution throughout his one year deal with us.
Given this, and when you consider that Bellamy could be used as a striker, Mason and Gestede (if he can avoid the annoying injuries which troubled him from October onwards last season) have a season’s experience at Championship level to draw on now and that, when you consider his very limited impact last season, anything Earnie achieves this year should be regarded as a bonus, I think there is enough evidence to suggest we are better than we were in the striking department.
So, with me considering us to be improved in three areas out of the four covered, logic says that we should be capable of improving on last season’s sixth place – I think we can do that, but will we finish four places higher to take one of the two automatic promotion spots? As is usual just before we play our first match, my answer is to say you cannot predict much with any degree of confidence until you know what the squad, and those of your rivals, looks like on 1 September. If we were to have to play the whole season with the current squad, then I’d say we’d need a good deal of luck to get through the next nine months without our lack of defensive depth catching up with us at times, but, certainly compared to this time in the past two seasons, we are in a better position in terms of overall squad strength and depth than we were – with the right additions, I like our chances this year more than I’ve done in any season since we returned to this level nine years ago.