It was Eric Cantona who first called Didier Deschamps the “water carrier”. Now Mr Cantona sometimes had a tendency to be a mite hard to understand with some of his pronouncements, but his meaning in this case wasn’t too hard to work out – Deschamps was only in the French team to make sure the most talented players in the team got as much of the ball as possible. While that’s harsh on a player who was good enough to skipper his country to World Cup and European Championship triumphs while winning 103 caps, you can see what Cantona meant – Deschamps tended to do the fetching and carrying for the likes of Zidane, Henry, Pires, Ginola, Cantona etc.
Virtually all successful sides have a “water carrier” – Michael Carrick is a fine technical footballer with an ability to spot and deliver passes that others couldn’t envisage, let alone pull off, and at club level at least, Carrick is a water carrier and a bit more. However, I don’t think anyone would say that he is the most talented player at his club and this is where conversations about water carriers become relevant to Cardiff City.
Ask any City fan who the most talented player at the club is and I’d say the name that would be heard most in reply would be Peter Whittingham – at this level he has a Carrick like ability to spot and deliver that killer ball, but, unlike the Manchester United player, he also has goals in his locker (many of them amongst the best I’ve ever seen a City player score). So, why was it that Whittingham spent his time performing a water carrier role during last night’s very disappointing 1-1 draw with Derby? When I say water carrier there, I mean it in the derisory way that Eric Cantona did when he coined the phrase – until the closing minutes when he was playing long balls into the penalty area from the halfway line, Whittingham spent his time playing passes that any of his colleagues could have delivered just as well, it was as if he was giving the ball to his more talented team mates like Deschamps used to.
Now, speaking as someone who thought Lennie Lawrence’s decision to drop Graham Kavanagh into a deeper role than the one he had in his first season with us made him a more complete player (Kav regained his place in the Republic of Ireland team after this change), I’m not as dismissive of the fact that Whittingham spends less time in forward positions than he used to as many others are because he has the ability to make a Carrick like contribution to our team from his position just in front of the back four, but he looked an unhappy and ineffective footballer last night who was lacking in confidence.
So, what can be done to get Whittingham looking more like his old self? Dropping someone as good as he can be shouldn’t be an option in my book and I just don’t see Malky Mackay doing it anyway. For the last four months or so, Nathan Blake has said Whittingham is not really suited to playing a central midfield role in a 4-4-2 because it requires a mobility and strength that he doesn’t possess and week by week I’ve come to agree with him.
Malky Mackay’s experiment with 4-5-1 last season was a partial success at best because it’s shortcomings became very apparent in the closing months of the campaign. I’ve mentioned before on here that, in my opinion, 4-5-1 stopped working because we didn’t have enough players in the midfield five who had forward’s instincts – at it’s best, it should never be a rigid system, but because we always had at least three, and usually four, of the middle five who lacked those instincts, it was an inflexible system when we played it. The difference this season is that we do have the players who could provide the finishing skills we lacked from midfield last season. Bellamy, Noone, Kimbo and Smith are all players who weren’t here last season who fall into that category – add in Joe Mason as well and we have the players who could make 4-5-1 work better than it did a year ago. You could go at it another way though by playing someone like Cowie, Mutch or Ralls in a central role to give Whittingham the chance to get further forward at times.
Besides not playing to anything like his potential, Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson (who had his worst game in months) had the same tired look to them last night that we saw from them in the closing weeks of 11/12. Malky Mackay had little option but to soldier on with them last year, but we have no end of players who should be able to give the side some of the energy it lacked against Derby because you’d like to think they’d be crying out for some game time.
Our manager has the options he didn’t have last year and that’s why I was disappointed with the side we sent out against a side without a win in six which had lost eight of their last eleven away matches – Derby were also missing seven players through injury as well. I groaned when I heard Heidar Helguson was going to replace the injured Craig Bellamy – to be fair to him, until his very last kick of the match when he played an awful crossfield pass which led to Craig Conway giving the ball away in the build up to Derby’s goal, our Icelandic target man did what he does pretty well last night, he won more than his fair share of headers and worked hard for the team. However, him for Bellamy left us seriously short compared to normal in the pace and mobility department and this was not compensated for by the inclusion of Conway and the out of form Smith on the wings.
Malky Mackay’s selection had a “safe” look to it of the sort we tend to see in away games. I’m not saying that the intention was to invite Derby on to us, but that’s what happened in a first half the visitors dominated as they monopolised the second ball challenges. It was telling that the only time we looked like scoring in the opening forty five minutes came early on when we were able to utilise the lively Fraizer Campbell’s pace and he came within inches of scoring as we broke through Smith. For the rest of the time Derby dominated in the middle of the park and, with the excellent Connor Sammon giving the two Bens a torrid time of it (he made Nugent looked like an inexperienced kid for the first time in his senior carrier) at centreback, City could not have complained at being a couple of goals behind at the interval.
The second half was more even, but, on the balance of play up until then, Derby merited the bit of luck they got when Turner’s block landed perfectly for Sammon to put the visitors ahead. However, where City deserved credit was for the way they responded to going a goal down – Noone, Gestede and, to a lesser extent, Mason definitely improved the level of performance and the team’s strong finish meant that I thought they just edged the second half, but in truth, a Derby defeat would have been a travesty.
The strange thing is that I think we’d been playing better in the previous four matches when we’ve had more to offer going forward than in those weeks when we were “winning ugly” in December and January, but last night was as bad as I’ve seen us in some time. Getting Bellamy and Hudson back will help things, but I just hope that Malky Mackay makes more use of the greater depth of talent he’s got at the club when compared to last year over the next couple of months – Mason proved himself at this level a year ago, Kimbo has already proved himself at a higher level than this, Mutch and Ralls have offered far more in a Cardiff shirt at times than our central midfield did last night, Noone has the ability to be a match winner in the Championship, Cowie can give Whittingham support if he needs it and Gestede again showed last night that he can inconvenience defences that had been looking steady and assured, so why not use them more than he has been in the last few months?by The other Bob Wilson
I think it’s fair to say that three weeks ago today virtually every one with an interest in Cardiff City was in something of a state of shock after the shambles that was Charlton 5 Cardiff 4. What was of most concern for me was that this ridiculous scoreline was a culmination of weeks of sub standard away results and performances – we were blowing two goal leads, individual mistakes were costing us dearly and, it didn’t matter if sides attacked via aerial or ground routes, we were proving to be too easy to carve open. Conceding five goals in just over twenty five minutes either side of half time in south London appeared to indicate that the Cardiff City squad of 2012/13 was fatally flawed and that the impeccable home record could not mask some serious shortcomings for much longer.
Now, while the person who criticises a manager from the day he arrives at a club to the day he leaves can eventually say “see, I was right”, one of the problems with putting your opinions out there on line for every one to read is that they can make you look stupid at times. Even if that headline of mine eventually proves to be correct, there will be times in the next five or six months when it will appear idiotic, so, on reflection, perhaps I might have been better off if I had entitled this piece “Was Charlton a watershed in our November” – I think I’m on safe ground there!
After losing at Bolton and Charlton in our first two games of the month, it looked like we were heading for another Dave Jones type November after Malky Mackay’s Manager of the Month award last year, but, after ten points from our next four games, we will, barring a huge win for Middlesbrough at Birmingham on Friday night, end the month as we began it – at the top of the table.
All of this has been achieved despite a marked drop in our goalscoring rate – the four games since Charlton have seen us score six times and last night’s effort from Heidar Helguson came, just as the other five did, with a header following a cross or a corner – so, it seems that no only are we less prolific in front of goal, but we now can only score one type of goal! Also, although it’s sometimes felt like we’ve been in an “injury crisis” all season, we really have been in one for most of this month. After Don Cowie picked up a knock at Charlton which has prevented him playing since then, we lost Kevin McNaughton through injury (he has not played since) against Hull, as well as his replacement Filip Kiss. A week later against Middlesbrough, Andrew Taylor, Ben Turner and Aron Gunnarsson all had to go off with injuries (the first two named have not reappeared in the team yet) and we finished the match at Barnsley with ten men after Simon Lappin was red carded.
It was almost inevitable that, having previously gone so long without one, we would pick up another red card last night at Derby when Craig Noone was booked twice within a minute around the hour mark and so, when you consider that Joe Lewis was also absent from the subs bench, I reckon we played out the last thirty minutes or so without eight of what would be Malky Mackay’s first choice match eighteen. Besides Cowie, McNaughton, Taylor and Turner, Tommy Smith hasn’t featured for five weeks and we probably won’t see long term injury victim Nicky Maynard again this campaign – that’s not to mention the suspended Lappin not being available against Derby and that Craig Bellamy and Jordon Mutch are feeling their way back into things having barely featured, in the case of the former, and not at all, in the case of the latter, in the last two months.
So, if Charlton represented the low point of our season so far, having our goal tally tumble (in relative terms anyway) and having players, in particular defenders, dropping like flies in the following matches hardly seems to be a recipe for recovery. Of course, if we are picking up points at a time when goals have dried up somewhat then it has to follow that we have tightened things up in defence. In the four matches up to and including Charlton, we scored eleven times, but eight ended up in the back of our net during this time – if we have scored only just over half as many since, this has been more than made up for by a goals against figure which is less than forty per cent of what it was.
This leads me to put forward a theory for discussion which I only just thought of this morning – it might be rubbish, but I would say that, for now at least, it does seem to be backed up by results. To explain what I mean, I need to go back to last season where I’d say a hard working squad with a real team spirit came up short in the promotion stakes for two main reasons – firstly, it ran out of steam in the final third of the campaign and, second, because it didn’t have the depth of quality and numbers in it that would make the crucial difference in matches which ended up as draws or narrow defeats. Therefore, the challenge Malky Mackay faced in the summer was to build on a solid base by bringing in the sort of quality which would turn those draws into victories and narrow defeats into draws, or better, while also enabling him to indulge in some squad rotation which would lessen the chances of the sort of burn out we saw in important players in March and April.
That ever present injury list has meant that there has been little chance of squad rotation and, as for our £10 million’s worth of summer spending helping us to win the type of matches we weren’t last season, I’d say it has certainly been successful (at home at least). Huddersfield, Leeds, Birmingham and Watford are all matches which I could have seen ending up as draws last year and the games with Wolves, Blackpool and Burnley saw us play with more quality than was the norm at home in 11/12. However, there was a drawback to this increase in matchwinners which I for one had not foreseen. All of a sudden we had lost some of the resilience and battling qualities which had made us so hard to beat last season away from home – we were getting the wins from what would have previously been home draws, but, conversely, the away draws and narrow victories we were getting when not playing too well were now turning into losses.
What seems to have happened in our last four games is that we have taken a step back to go forward. Now, I happen to think that, although they played some pretty passing football in front of us, Hull were second best to us by some way, but the perceived wisdom seems to be that it was a battling win against a quality side and so I’m happy to lump it in with the Boro, Barnsley and Derby matches which I would argue have all been 11/12 away type performances and results. In the last three weeks we seem to have rediscovered the cussedness and determination which made us so hard for home sides to see us off last season – for the third successive match our opponents had more efforts at goals than us and I’ve not seen anyone claim that we have come close to being fluent in our play, but, in the face of adversity with all the injuries and other absences, we’ve gone some way to conquering the away day problems of the first three months of the season – I suppose the challenge for Malky Mackay is to ensure that we don’t slip into our bad old ways as the “better” players return from their various ailments.
Anyway, I suppose I’d better say something about last night’s match before I finish. I would have gladly taken a draw beforehand and so, even if we hardly created chances galore, I’m not going to complain about it now. Derby have a very good home record and were one of only two sides in the Championship to have scored more home goals than us before last night’s game. On Saturday they made beating Birmingham appear easier than we did in early October and were especially dangerous down the right flank where Coutts and the always impressive Brayford looked a potent combination. Therefore, I feared for us when I learned that Joe Ralls was having to fill in at left back, but, by all accounts, he did very well again in that strange position for him as City paid particular attention to stopping Derby down the flanks.
Malky Mackay has said he was more reliant on kids last season than he wanted to be and I suppose all of the summer spending was supposed to stop this happening so frequently this time around, but all of those injuries has ensured that Ralls (who always looks ready for this level to me anyway) and Ben Nugent have been seeing unexpected first team action. All three of Nugent’s games have featured a lot of backs to the wall defending and he played a full part in that again last night – the best compliment I can pay him is to say that our other Ben wasn’t missed at Barnsley or Derby. It was the name of Mark Hudson who was invariably mentioned by the commentators as Derby attacks were cleared though and, although I suspect he might be upset at the way Connor Salmon got away from him in the build up to Derby’s equaliser, our captain really seems to have upped his game since the Charlton debacle. With Matt Connolly popping up to make a last minute clearance off the line as well to preserve our point, our back four are defending so much better as a unit than they were – November hasn’t turned out too badly after all!by The other Bob Wilson