For thirty five minutes or so last night, Cardiff City looked something like the team that were only beaten four times in their first twenty eight Championship matches this season. My own belief is that this was, to a large extent, down to the return of Steve McPhail to the side. The long serving midfielder probably spent more time on the ball than any other player during that early period and he got City passing the ball better than we had been doing for weeks. Now, McPhail has never been the quickest or most dynamic of players – his game has always been about finding little pockets of space and time so that he could make himself available to receive and give passes. This might sound quite simple until you start to ask yourself why so few players seem to be able to perform this function (no one has been able to in the City team for weeks!) – as for speed and dynamism, that’s for McPhail’s team mates who hope to be given the chance to show these qualities when given the opportunity by his passing.
Unfortunately, for me, that was where our problems started. You may have noticed that I said we looked “something like” the side that played so well for two thirds of the season – the difference as I saw it was that, whereas in the Palace home Semi Final, there were plenty of players with dynamism and power around him for him to pick out, last night we had too many who were, for want of a better term, doing McPhail impressions! Therefore, although we were dominant in that Coventry were getting little of the ball and were unable to do much with the few bits of possession they had, so much of our play was deliberate, lacking in real urgency and quite easy to defend against. With players such as McPhail, Whittingham and Lawrence in a midfield, you’d expect a side to pass the ball pretty well and City did for much of the time early on, but, at the pace it was being done, that passing needed to be of a slide rule precision to open up the visitor’s defence – it did happen once when a fine move, including a major contribution by Mark Hudson, ended with Gunnarsson shooting just wide, but, for most of the time, City’s attacks just petered out eventually.
There were some exceptions to the rule, Joe Mason, playing the lone striker role in place of the injured Kenny Miller, was constantly on the move and Kevin McNaughton got up and down the right hand touchline as he has done so often this season, but both achieved little because they lacked options to pick out when they worked their way into promising situations (in McNaughton’s case, he just had the one and in Mason’s he had less than that!). To be fair to him, Aron Gunnarsson was able to work himself into some promising situations by showing the sort of urgency and individual ability that we have lacked for much of the last six weeks, but, being honest, we were still over reliant on set pieces during our best spell.
So, if it wasn’t perfect, at least it was fairly comfortable for City until the closing stages of the first half, but there was an ominous look to those last ten minutes or so as City, and McPhail in particular, began to see less of the ball. After the break though what had been slightly disquieting, now became downright panic inducing as Coventry tore into us in a way which made it look like an equaliser was inevitable. Credit should go to the visitors for making tactical changes which showed that, as is always the case these days, our opponents had more attacking pace and vibrancy than us, but we were awful during this spell – McPhail was barely touching the ball and no one amongst his team mates was able to step into the breach and take over the simple, but effective role he had performed earlier.
McPhail was obviously struggling and it was hard to argue with Malky Mackay’s decision to take him off – Rudy Gestede’s introduction helped to turn the tide a little as we made the, long overdue in many people’s eyes, transition to 4-4-2. Indeed, once Coventry got their overdue equaliser, City began to get on top again – no doubt, this was partly due to the visitors deciding to protect their point, but we were able to build up a bit of a head of steam and there had been a feeling that a goal was coming before Whittingham’s superb volley. I’m pretty sure that a couple of months ago, City would have seen the game out quite comfortably after that, but a lot has changed since then and now, to add to the tiredness which I feel is a factor both over the course of a game (Coventry manager Andy Thorn said after the match that it had been pointed out to him how many late goals we have conceded lately) as well as the season, we have edginess and nerves.
Coventry had paid the price for dropping deeper and now City did it with bells on . As soon as we went 2-1 up, I said we should bring Darcy Blake to sit just in front of the back four, whether that would have made any difference, I don’t know, but City’s feeble attempt to “park the bus” in those last few minutes was doomed to failure. It only served to put the crowd immediately on edge and something of a vicious circle emerged as clearances became more desperate and the crowd response more anxious. To that extent, there was an air of inevitability about how it all ended as Norwood hammered home in the ninety fifth minute with the City back four virtually camped on their own six yard line.
If only the signal had been for three minutes added time to play rather than four - then we would all have been able to come out with stuff about it all being about results and not performances at this stage of the season, we could have said eight points from our last five matches is a good foundation to build on for the final haul of this long season. Let’s face it though, on the evidence of the last three matches, we’d be deluding ourselves. Coventry didn’t “rob” us of two points last night, they managed to get themselves the draw that was the least they deserved over the ninety odd minutes.
In our two recent home midweek matches, we faced opponents who had scored a total of twenty goals in their thirty four away matches before facing us – they managed to score five between them and that figure could easily have been doubled. I concentrated on our shoddy defending after the Hull match, but we’ve got problems all over the park – a one paced and immobile midfield and a main striker who hasn’t scored in nearly 1,200 minutes (all of this with a knackered squad which has been rendered smaller than it actually is by our manager’s decision to ignore experienced players who don’t even get a game for the Development team these days).
Amidst all of the gloom, I suppose we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are one point off the top six with twenty four still to play for and, who knows, perhaps today will bring the loan signing that will transform the mood? I can’t help thinking that there’s a bit of clutching at straws going on there though because, apart from those one hundred and twenty minutes at Wembley last month, I cannot think of anything that the Cardiff City team or management have produced that’s realistically suggested that we will be contesting the Play Offs since the January transfer window closed - where there was once freshness, decisiveness and vitality, there’s now staleness, uncertainty and langour and I’m afraid that the manager who made such an impressive start to his Cardiff City career seems completely unable to stop the rot.