Right from day one, Malky Mackay spoke of his teams coming off the pitch with sweat on their shirts. Last season he said his side had been competitive in every game they’d played and he’s said he hoped the same would be true this time around as well. For about fifty minutes of yesterday’s 2-1 defeat by Newcastle at Cardiff City Stadium however, Cardiff looked like a side who were not competing – the sort of qualities I’d started to take for granted from City teams overs the past two years or so (i.e. organisation, a never say die attitude designed to make life as awkward as possible for their opponents and an obvious team ethic, all backed up with a determination to work their hardest for the cause) were missing.
Now, it needs to be acknowledged that most of Newcastle’s talented, but flaky, individuals chose to have a good day yesterday – they responded in the right way to the pressure that was growing on manager Alan Pardew and, in spite of our second half fightback, there can be no doubt that the right team won. However, were Newcastle better than the Man City and Everton sides that we stood toe to toe with or the Spurs team which we fought with great heart against before succumbing to a goal in added time in our earlier matches at Cardiff City Stadium?
The answer to that question is a definite “No” as far as I’m concerned and so, although I’m sure any Newcastle fans reading this would disagree with this conclusion, it seems to me that you need to look more at our performance rather than that of our opponents if you are looking for reasons why the game turned out as it did from a Cardiff perspective. For me, yesterday marked the first home match this season that I went to with reasonable hopes of us getting something from the game – instead, we ended up giving back at least one of the four points we picked up from our first two home matches that put us well ahead of expectations in terms of points won from the first six weeks of the campaign.
So, why did we behave like so many of you will have done this morning, why did it take the City side the best part of an hour to wake up from their slumbers? I don’t have a definite answer to that question except to say that I’d be very surprised if it was down to complacency, as was suggested on the Radio Wales post match phone in programme last night, after last week’s good performance and result at Fulham. Whilst I wouldn’t deny that there were some aspects of our first half display that might have looked sloppy and complacent, it flies in the face of everything we have seen from the squad so far this season (and through the whole of 12/13) that they would have started off against Newcastle thinking that victory was as good as assured.
Even though results and performances at this, very testing level, have generally been encouraging so far for City, we aren’t good enough to go into any game this season in a complacent frame of mind – there are very few Premier League teams who are. Perhaps though, the feeling which I alluded to earlier that this was a game that the local media, and a great number of home supporters, thought we should be getting something from seeped through to the players (and, possibly, management) and this resulted in slightly different mood in the squad before kick off?
By that, I don’t mean complacent, but maybe a bit more relaxed – less in your face. Whatever the reason, City just weren’t “at it” for the whole of the first half and the very early stages of the second. Now, although the fact that we didn’t exactly come flying out of the traps at the start of the second period argues against this a little bit, I think that if Malky might possibly have got how he pitched pre-match preparations wrong, he got the desired effect from his charges after the half time interval – it must be concerning however for the manager and his coaching staff that in two of our last three games, a woeful first half performance has left us with a two goal deficit that a much improved second half display has not been able to make up for.
The manager’s unhappiness with what he had seen in the opening forty five minutes was made apparent by the half time substitution of Kimbo by Jordon Mutch. Although there was some talk of his withdrawal early in the second half last week being injury related, the player who, for me, looked our most effective game changer early in the season has not lived up to those standards in his last two matches – if he did have any grounds for complaint about his substitution, then they could only really have been of the “why me?” type because Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson had been equally as poor and even Gary Medel had been well below his best.
Kimbo could easily find himself relegated to the bench when Premier League fixtures resume in a fortnight after the latest international break when you consider that he is probably off globe trotting again next week, but, more than that, surely someone is going to have to drop out of yesterday’s starting midfield five given Mutch’s excellent contribution. Although most of the first half poor performances got better after the break (for example, while Gunnarsson still lost possession too easily, he did play an important part in bringing about our goal), I think only David Marshall (the only Cardiff player who could look back on his first half performance with any personal satisfaction) is the only viable challenger to Mutch for the City Man of the Match award.
Mutch made such a difference yesterday – when he is on his game, he displays so many of the abilities which make for a very good modern central midfield player. The 21 year old was able to break past opponents in a way very a few of his team mates were able to even after they started playing better after the break, his passing was perceptive, with the little flick that set up Odemwingie for his superbly executed goal being the stand out moment in that department for him, and his work rate and ability to get around the field was first rate.
Mutch was the catalyst for Citys’ best period of the game shortly after their goal, when they really started doing what they are good at and I truly believe that, given Newcastle’s shaky self belief, we would have gone on to win if we had equalised during this spell – our opponents were rocking and the crowd were doing their bit to contribute to this as well.
However, even though there were plenty of instances when City got into promising situations and the Geordies were forced into defending which had none of the poise of the first half, the truth was we only got to see the whites of Krul’s eyes once in the half an hour or so that remained after our goal, when the keeper was out quickly and effectively to block Mutch’s attempted lob from Whittingham’s best pass of the afternoon.
Too much of City’s work in and around Newcastle’s penalty area was unconvincing and hurried in an area of the pitch where a bit of composure can pay so many dividends. It also hinted at the weakness which I believe, much more than the sort of lack of focus we saw yesterday, represents the biggest danger to our prospects of staying up.
By this I mean our inability to convert pressure and promising situations into attempts on goal. Newcastle had twenty goal attempts yesterday with half of them on target. Contrast that with our four on target efforts from twenty two last week. Yesterday there was only our goal and Mutch’s effort on target from eight attempts. We are not clever, precise or incisive enough when attacking and the current situation whereby we are doing well in terms of the ratio of goals to on target efforts cannot be expected to continue throughout the season – our “easier” looking home fixtures come December won’t turn out to be like that unless we can start working opposing goalkeepers more.
* Photos courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/