Firstly, I mentioned in my reaction piece to the Sunderland match that I’d do something on here about Malky Mackay this week. Well, in the event, I decided to do my own tribute to Malky in my weekly article in the Echo – here it is if you want to read it and, before leaving our former manager, I’d just like to wish him all the best in the future.
Moving on though, it’s the search for the new King which is the priority now and sat with Vincent Tan and Mehmet Dalman at the Emirates Stadium watching City lose 2-0 to table topping Arsenal was Molde FK manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who, it would appear, is on the brink of becoming our new manager. I use a slight qualification there because nothing has been officially confirmed yet and, apparently, negotiations continued after the game as the former Manchester United striker, who had been flown over from Norway in the morning on Vincent Tan’s private jet, got to meet our owner in person for the first time.
Solskjaer had met Mr Dalman previously when our Chairman was involved with helping put together the deal whereby the Glazer family bought Manchester United and it looks like it was the relationship between the two men which helped keep Cardiff’s bid to entice the sixty seven times capped Norwegian to the club alive when there was widespread speculation that he would follow Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice in selecting an owner rather than a club when making his much anticipate move to the Premier League.
Of course, this presupposes that the media persona of our owner presented this season is an accurate one. I happen to believe that, in many respects, it is, but I’d also say that, certainly recently, there has been plenty of Tan bashing in all of the forms of communication the modern world offers which come across as just examples of picking on an easy target. The fact that Solskjaer was prepared to come to London to meet Mr Tan suggests that he feels he can work with our owner and, as the young manager, who won two Norwegian titles in his first two seasons at Molde before picking up that country’s domestic cup after a sixth placed finish in his third, was the name which stood out for me in the lists we were being given by media people making out they were in the know, I hope a deal can be done.
Given how Mr Tan’s relationship with our previous manager developed, it would be perfectly understandable if Ole Gunnar Solksjaer insisted on assurances about the level of interference from above included in any contract he signed. Obviously,this would be to safeguard the new manager, but I’d also say that it may be a step along the way in the gradual process of restoring Vincent Tan’s reputation. Our owner would always have to stick to the terms of any such contract (no easy task based on his previous form), but, providing Solskjaer does come, getting a highly sought after and well thought of young manager who has turned down clubs in the Premier League before on board, would be something of a feather in his cap. Furthermore, letting the new man get on with the job Tan, obviously, believes he can do at Cardiff would also help to get people in all sections of the media, as well as many Cardiff supporters, to look at our owner in a better light.
If it is to be Solskjaer, then what he saw yesterday will have confirmed that he will be inheriting an honest, well drilled and disciplined squad with a good work ethic. Whatever league you play in this has to be a decent base to build on, but the higher up you go, the more you need others things which will help ensure you can, first, survive, then stabilise, before, finally, prospering at the new level – whether our prospective manager would have been as impressed with the overall ability of that squad is more open to argument. Now, it’s only fair to say here that allowances need to be made here for the quality of our opponents – Arsenal might have had important players missing and they are not playing with the skill and fluency they showed earlier in the season, but they have been top of the league for virtually all of the campaign and are now showing the ability to “win ugly” which served us so well last season, so we were always going to find it very hard to get anything from yesterday’s match.
If you go back a year we had just won at Birmingham to complete a festive period which saw us take a maximum of twelve points from the four matches we had played. It was the time when we opened up a decisive lead on our rivals and, just as in those matches over Christmas and the New Year, we maintained that advantage by displaying an ability to to hang on to leads when we got our noses in front. A year ago, the closing stages of games we were winning 1-0 or 2-1 were nowhere near as fraught as they usually are and I would argue that much of this came about because the team and fans expected to hold on to what they had, while our opponents had little hope that they could get an equaliser – we were good at closing games out, but this year things have changed completely.
In the sort of league we are in now, draws against top sides are nearly as precious as wins – yesterday we almost got there, as we almost did against Spurs as well. Now, that Spurs match was early in the season and so it was not quite the same as yesterday because the team were untouched at that time by what the drip, drip effect of conceding late goals can have on it’s psyche over the course of a nine month league campaign.
It was interesting to hear Arsene Wenger pay us the compliment of being the fittest team in the league after yesterday’s match and yet in our 5-0 “aggregate” loss to Arsenal this season, four of those goals came from eighty sixth minute onwards. Add in the seven others we have let in from the eightieth minute onwards in all games this season and you start to wonder about Mr Wenger’s claim. However, another relevant stat I’d say is that, before yesterday’s match, we had used the least number of players of any Premier League side. Maybe yesterday’s most welcome inclusion of Kevin McNaughton (it’s great that such a fine servant of the club can now say he has played Premier League football for us) means we aren’t the sole owners of that record, but the question about whether key members of the team are tiring because they are being used week in, week out is still as relevant – especially with four goals conceded from the eighty third minute onwards in our last two matches.
Hanging on for a 0-0 at the Emirates with a few minutes left is more excusable and understandable than what we saw on Saturday against the team who have been bottom of the table for almost all of the season. However, the common theme is that, at so many levels of football, having your back four (as well as some midfield players) constantly defending on the edge of your six yard box in the final stages will see you concede in the few minutes that remain far more often than you will if you can move those defenders a few yards up the pitch.
Lack of confidence and tiredness must be factors as to why City ended up sitting so deep against Sunderland in particular and there’s an argument for saying that making greater use of the numbers within our squad (i.e. less tired players who might have a point to prove and so are not as low in confidence as others) could help matters. However, I’d say including the likes of McNaughton, Brayford, Connolly and Smith can only get you so far. We need players who can retain us the ball further up the pitch because we seem short of them at the moment – I don’t necessarily mean target man type strikers there, more players who are capable of getting within ten or twenty yards of that striker and giving them support rather than being thirty yards away as they tend to be at the moment.
A winger who can be as effective at running with the ball in the ninetieth minute as he is the ninth would be a start. Fair play to Craig Noone, I think he’s done well since he has come into the team, but it’s a demanding role he’s got at this level and he’s not lasting beyond the 60/70 minute mark (if someone could make the sort of runs Noone has at times this season in the last ten minutes of matches, that would be invaluable in getting us up the pitch) – likewise, someone who could come on and offer the same sort of drive and skill that Jordon Mutch has often provided in the opening two thirds of matches when he has started could also gain us those vital yards further up the pitch.
Earlier in the season, bringing on the likes of Cowie and Gunnasrsson worked to the extent that it stiffened us up defensively and at places like Hull and Norwich we managed to come away with a point, but as we go into the second half of the season with confidence lower and important players not showing quite the same levels of consistency as earlier, I feel we are crying out for new players who can offer us more than being a”steady Eddie”. The money is there for a new manager seemingly, but, just as his predecessor tended to struggle when he tried to integrate more “flair players” into the side, the success or failure he has in maintaining the core qualities of the current squad which I mentioned earlier (hard work, organisation etc.) while adding to it’s level of ability will decide how the season ends up for us.
Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/