Back in August when it seemed that there still might be a chance of securing Craig Bellamy’s services for another season, Malky Mackay was asked about his former Norwich team mate and replied that he would give us that “X Factor”. Now I’m pretty sure that our manager wasn’t referring to crap, stage managed, talent shows there, he was talking about what the online slang dictionary I just consulted defines as “the unknown factor or the unexplainable thing which adds a certain value to that object, element or a person” – on the football pitch I would say it equates to the ability to make the opposing manager and players say “where on earth did that come from?” as the ball is being picked out of their net.
In the intervening eight months, City have striven unsuccessfully to add some of that X Factor to a side which prospered while they were able to play to their strengths as opponents were closed down relentlessly and their mistakes ruthlessly seized upon. One of the abiding images for me of the first half of the season was of Aron Gunnarrson breaking forward as we gained possession and sliding accurate passes through to one of our strikers (usually Kenny Miller) who would go on to score – when is the last time that Gunnarsson was able to do that though? We were never the quickest of teams, but there was a good tempo to our play until early in the New Year, since then though, the closing down of opponents has been less urgent and so the opportunities to hurt them by turning over position high up the pitch have declined.
As the effort put in when we were challenging for a top two place took it’s toll, I suppose it’s inevitable that the crispness of our passing and movement off the ball would decline and our ability to punish teams in the way we used to would lessen. That loss of dynamism and energy has meant that we have become slow and predictable in possession and so our need for more players with the X Factor has increased.
We did have one player with X Factor aplenty mind – Peter Whittingham has always had it and in the weeks leading up to Christmas especially, he showed plenty of it. This, together with his new found work ethic and defensive discipline, made him the best player in our division in my opinion, but those days seem long ago now sadly. Besides being virtually solely responsible for it’s X Factor, Whittingham worked as hard as anyone in the team. Whitts may have not have always had much need for it in the past, but he’s always had a good engine – there are limits though and, even someone with his stamina cannot carry on playing like he was earlier over the full course of a season.
For weeks now, Whittingham has been some way below his form up to the second leg against Palace. There was more evidence of this yesterday as City recorded a sixth home game without a win in their 1-1 draw with a useful Watford team. In the second half as City looked to try and lift what was at times a siege on their goal, Whittingham was moved to his old position of left midfield – some still say that this is his best position, but it would never have happened a couple of months ago because he had made himself our most important player and we needed him in the middle all of the time. Now though, Whittingham is just one of a number of players struggling to rediscover his game and, sadly, in his case, a tired body also means that his touch and technique is beginning to suffer. There were examples of this yesterday – just as it has been for a few games now, his dead ball delivery and long passing was off with the ball often being over hit and there was also a corner given away in the second half when he miscontrolled what was an awkward high ball for mere mortals, but should have been a doddle for someone of his talent. So, not only are we suffering because our best player is out on his feet, we are also, at a time when our need for the X Factor is greatest, struggling because the one player we have who could provide it, appears to have lost it!
Anyway, enough about the still marvellous Whitts (I’d use the form is temporary, class is permanent cliche now, but I don’t do such things!), what about the game? Well, there was some good news – Kenny Miller’s goal drought ended with an emphatic header in first half stoppage time after some great work by Don Cowie on the right. With Gestede and Mason out injured, he showed a sharpness and inventiveness that could be so important in the run in if only we can get enough ball to him in the right areas. Besides his goal, Miller also had another header turned on to the post by Kuszczak and set up a good chance for Gunnarsson with a delightful chip – I thought he was our best player yesterday.
Miller’s goal was only the third one we have scored in our winless home run (one of those was a daft own goal) – the other two came against Coventry and, just like in that game, our reaction to taking the lead was alarming. We were 1-0 up at half time against the Sky Blues with our grip on the game loosening by the minute, but then proceeded to get absolutely battered by them for twenty minutes after the break, while, when we went 2-1 up with less than ten minutes to go, we dropped far too deep and invited pressure onto ourselves with a series of panicky clearances that eventually got the punishment they deserved. Yesterday was almost as bad – if Miller’s header against the post had gone in, then, perhaps, we would have eased to victory, but the truth is that this came from a very isolated City attack as we were forced back continuously by a visiting team that showed so much more belief than us.
There were other chances for us with Mark Hudson’s header wide from almost point blank range being the best of them, but there was an almost total lack of control and poise in our passing (to be honest, we only passed the ball well in the opening ten minutes) and an edginess which soon communicated itself to the crowd, with the result that we had one of those vicious circle situations where the nervousness on both sides just gets worse and worse. If there was anything surprising about Watford’s goal, it was that it took so long in coming. The very impressive teenager Sean Murray whipped in a superb free kick and Nyron Noseworthy was amongst a group of Watford players waiting to knock it in – the defender almost made a mess of his finish, but the ball found it’s way into the net and the City’s defence were left appealing for an offside flag that never came (I didn’t think it was offside and, as Malky Mackay didn’t mention it in his post match press conference, there was no way it could have been!).
It could have been even worse for City as the visitors blew a glorious three on two chance with the last move of the match, but it was still the latest in a series of very unconvincing displays at Cardiff City Stadium by the team. It would be one thing if we were weren’t winning because we were missing chances galore, but the truth is that the lack of creativity and dynamism in our play means that chances have been at a premium – if anything, we are lucky to have gained four points from the six matches since our last home win.
As is his habit, Malky Mackay refused to criticise his team after the match and, to be fair to him, I think he had a fair point when he talked about the advantage Watford had because they had a day’s more rest going into the game. This showed in particular I thought in Steve McPhail’s performance – he’s a very important player for us at the moment, but I thought he was anonymous after the first ten minutes or so and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was the only period of the match when we played well. He was also right to criticise the latest set of incompetent officials at a Cardiff City game – we aren’t playing well, but we do seem to be getting a lot of poor decisions against us lately. However, supporters aren’t stupid and they can see that our manager is brushing an awful lot that is wrong under the carpet (in public anyway) – I’m afraid that I now think we are going to have to get the wins we need in our two away matches because, unless we were to win with the last kick of the match, I can’t see how we are going to beat Derby and/or Leeds at home in our present frame of mind.
The truly daft thing is though that if Brighton don’t beat Reading tonight (and there has to be a good chance of that happening), then I’d say our chances of getting to the Play Offs increased yesterday. Leicester are coming up on the rails, but, if Brighton don’t win, I think all of our rivals for sixth place would love to be in our position – if only Whitts could get his mojo back!
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/