Forget all of the stuff about the FA Cup being an irrelevance in the modern Premier League obsessed game and the talk about it being best if we lost at Newcastle yesterday so we could fully concentrate on staying up, Cardiff City were a team in need of a win. Everyone knows that the ideal situation would have been to get three points for that win when it came along, but a victory in any competition, particularly one away from home against another Premier League team is the next best thing.
By winning 2-1 after conceding the first goal with less than half an hour remaining, City booked a place in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup for the first time since the 09/10 competition and, on a personal level, after six consecutive ties where we came out of the hat second, I hope today’s draw sees us actually getting a home tie in a domestic cup tournament for the first time since we faced Blackburn on the way to the League Cup Final two years ago – apart from the replay after we drew at Stoke in 10/11 it would be our first game in the FA Cup at the Cardiff City Stadium since beating Leicester 4-2 four years ago.
To win at the ground of a club which was, arguably, the form team in the Premier League throughout October, November and much of December would be a notable achievement at any time, but, inevitably, the story was that we did it in our new manager’s first game in charge. The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær had been all but confirmed when I wrote my reaction piece to the Arsenal defeat and he was introduced to the media in an impressive forty minute press conference held at Cardiff City Stadium the following day.
That was an opportunity to learn more about Solskjær because, although he was part of the strongest Premier League club of the modern era and played a leading role in finally securing the Champions League trophy for Sir Alex Ferguson in 1999, he was never the most high profile of players off the pitch and it was only in the few days leading up to his appointment at Cardiff that I actually realised how little I knew about him. If you would like to find out a bit more about Ole Gunnar Solskjær and you’ve got an hour or so to spare this Sunday morning, then this documentary made in 2011 is well worth a watch.
So what can we expect from an Ole Gunnar Solskjær Cardiff City team? All of the indications are that we will be a more attacking side than we were, but merely telling a group of players to go out and attack more is no guarantee that they will be able to do – the opposition, particularly in a league like the one we are in now, will have a say in that. Without going into too much detail here about Malky Mackay, I don’t think there were too many matches this season where he sent out the side with instructions to camp in their own penalty area most of the time and try and snatch something from a set piece – such tactics would be doomed to failure and we’d be a lot worse off than we are now if we had played like that.
In fact, many of our worst performances this season under Mackay came when he fielded midfield fives which included more attacking players like Kimbo, Mutch and Odemwingie – the selections for the first game against Newcastle and the ones at Norwich and Palace along with his final match in charge against Southampton saw a more attacking philosophy, but also saw us being comfortably second best to opponents who were either around the same place in the league as us or in indifferent form going into the match.
Based on what we have seen so far, there have to be questions asked as to whether our more attacking midfield players are good enough to make a more attacking approach work? Actually, it’s probably more accurate to replace the word “good” with the word “consistent” there – Odemwingie has certainly been good enough in his time, but questions have to be asked as to whether he will be in the future, Kimbo has been erratic, Mutch has been good (in fact I’d rate him as a candidate for our best outfield player this season, but, within that, there have been the inconsistencies you’d probably expect from someone so young and his decision making has betrayed his inexperience at times). The other player to add here is Craig Noone whose performances have surprised me so far in that they have been less hit or miss than I expected – there has been a consistency to his game so far, but he hasn’t been able to turn in ninety minute performances yet.
Hopefully, what will change under Solskjær is that these players will be handled more sympathetically than they have been in the past. For example, I said Kimbo has been erratic and it’s true to say that, invariably, he was the man to make way when we struggling in matches like Newcastle, Norwich and Palace. However, knowing that, in all likelihood, you are only going to get forty five minutes or maybe an hour if things aren’t going well for the team is bound to start having an impact after a while and so, if our more attack minded midfield players are given more obvious signs that the manager has faith in them might coincide with a few of those inconsistencies disappearing.
That said, for me yesterday’s game offered a snapshot of what Solskjær will need to give some serious consideration to if he is stop the downward spiral of the last six weeks or so. Ironically, the relative lack of importance of his first match in charge gave him the chance to have a strong bench and the introduction of goalscorers Noone and Campbell for the closing stages was undoubtedly a big factor in our win. The first named was the archetypal “impact sub” as he scored brilliantly from twenty five yards within seconds of coming on to equalise and his contributions so far this season lend themself to him being told that while, he is an important part of the first team squad, he is best suited to giving his all during a contribution which won’t last for ninety minutes if he is in the starting eleven – he should do what he is best at while he is on the pitch and not worry about conserving energy for the latter stages.
Noone epitomises a problem which was apparent in the two matches under David Kerslake – he, and the team, played well for the majority of both games, but tiredness took it’s toll and, in both cases, late goals cost us dearly. Now I would argue that, certainly against Sunderland, this was because the players who came on were unable to reproduce those moments of quality that Noone had been able to provide for the first hour of both matches and so we were unable to break free of the sieges we found ourselves under – if we had players of the quality of Campbell and Noone (in his present form) to come off the bench all of the time then our opponents would have to be more wary about what we could hit them on the break with if we were “hanging on” to a win or a draw.
I’m not saying Campbell or Noone should be dropped, more that we need more creativity, pace and skill on the bench – I’ve mentioned before that Malky Mackay struggled to get the balance between craft and graft right within his team because he didn’t have enough players who could combine both of these elements in their game to the standard required in the Premier League. Now, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s success as a coach so far appears to be based more on an ability to get the most of the players, especially young players, at Molde rather than what he has done in the transfer market.
Obviously, part of this is down to him not having that much spend on new players at his old club, but, that said, he does seem to have the knack of making some within his squad better footballers and, if he can do that, as well as show a talent for spending the money he will be given at Cardiff wisely (I’m not sure he was being entirely serious mind when he said he was looking to bring in local boys Giggs, Bale and Ramsey mind!), then that stronger bench I talked about might be available to him in time to become a serious factor in whether we stay up or not.
On that score, there are signs that Solskjaer is going to be moving in the transfer market very quickly. Herenveen’s Norwegian international midfield player Magnus Wolff Eikrem (someone who was described as Molde’s Michael Carrick by our new manager – he also said he would have taken Eikrem to Aston Villa with him if he had accepted their job offer in 2012) was at St. James’ Park yesterday and, apparently, boarded the team bus after the game – not 100% proof that he will become a Cardiff player, but a pretty strong indication that he will.
Before going to Holland in the summer, Eikrem followed Solskjaer to Molde from Manchester United having worked with our new manager during his time in charge of the reserve team at Old Trafford and there have been persistent rumours that Mats Møller Dæhli an 18 year old midfield player whose career has followed a similar path to Eikrem could be joining us from Molde – widely thought of as the best young prospect in Norway, Dæhli would, at first glance, appear to be one for the future (where have I heard that before!), but looking at some of the endorsements he’s had already, maybe he could be another one to improve the quality of our squad straight away if there are anything to those rumours?
Both of these players would appear to fit the bill as far as Solskjær’s preferred methods are concerned, as would other players linked in the media like Wilfred Zaha, Johnny Williams and Thomas Ince, but would any of them provide the goals that we are short of at the moment? You would have thought we would be looking for a striker as well and, although Declan John’s emergence (he played very well again yesterday seemingly) may make the need for more competition at left back less urgent, I wouldn’t be surprised if we did bring another one in over the next few weeks.
Finally, I’d like to welcome Ole Gunnar Solskjær to Cardiff – obviously, it’s very early days yet, but I think he’s made a very encouraging start in many ways. Also, having spent much of the past fortnight or more rubbishing the hierarchy at Cardiff, I think it’s only fair to congratulate them on appointing the man who always struck me as the best of the candidates we seemed to be linked with seriously over the past month or so. It goes without saying that a great deal of the credit for this should go to Chairman Mehmet Dalman because he played the most prominent part in getting Solskjær to come here, but the much maligned Vincent Tan shouldn’t be forgotten either – the last three months have been very messy and embarrassing ones for Cardiff City, but let’s hope that lessons have been learned on all sides and we can now move on.
pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/