First, let’s deal with the positives. It can be claimed that a team’s success or failure over the course of a season is defined by how often it manages to win without playing well – winning when you turn it on and completely outplay your opponents is the easy bit, but the ability to come out on top when well short of your best is an invaluable asset (especially if you can make a habit of it). Last night’s 1-0 win over newly promoted Huddersfield at the Cardiff City Stadium was definitely a case in point and if the team can also get into the habit of scoring late winners (that’s what sent Norwich up at our expense two seasons ago when you think about it), then that’s even better.
I suppose the sort of luck which saw the ball reach Mark Hudson right in front of goal eight yards out via Joe Mason’s shoulder and Aron Gunnarsson’s miskick in the ninety second minute helps as well, but it also raises the suspicion that City were just fortunate on the night and did not get the three points through the sort of character and never say die spirit that Malky Mackay was quick to praise them for after the match. For me, I’m afraid there has to be an element of truth in the suggestion that our three points was, primarily, down to good fortune. Huddersfield could certainly head back north feeling pretty aggrieved because, although their keeper Smithies became increasingly busy as City managed to find some attacking momentum in the closing stages, the truth is that David Marshall was deservedly handed the Man of the Match award for making three or four fine saves in what was largely a turgid affair with few chances created at either end of the pitch.
Now, with City just starting their tenth consecutive season at this level, there shouldn’t be any need to remind supporters of the attritional nature of so many Championship games – there is very little difference between the teams in this league and it often comes down to one bit of luck, brilliance or ineptitude shown by some individual or another to decide whether it is zero, one or three points for your team on any given day.
Having said that though, it still came as a surprise to me to see quite how anaemic we looked for much of the first half especially. I spent much of the second half of last season defending Malky Mackay for continuing with the 4-5-1 formation in Saturday night debates with friends who found the system boring and negative. However, after watching last week’s win over Newcastle, I was able to rubbish such suggestions because the way four of the midfield five on that day (Conway, Ralls, Mutch and Gunnarsson) were able to make runs up to and beyond Helguson and, later, Velikonja showed that when approached with the right attitude and appetite for hard work, 4-5-1 is anything but boring and negative.
Unfortunately, I can expect some comeback tonight because what our midfield five produced last night was a throwback to the latter weeks of last season when a visit to the dentists was a more pleasant experience than watching Cardiff City struggle to gets efforts on goal away, let alone score. At least the players had the excuse that many of them were knackered back in February, March and April, but it was hard to see why the likes of Gunnarsson, Cowie and Whittingham looked so slow and laboured at times last night (to be fair, I suppose the first two’s pre season has been interrupted by injury). As for Whittingham, I don’t see his use in a deep sitting quarterback role to be as much of a problem as some others do, but if all he is going to do is play one two’s with his centrebacks which leave them with the task of picking out a pass to launch an attack (invariably that “pass” was a hoisted ball in the general direction of Helguson), then you have to wonder how this is benefiting the team.
To be fair to them , credit has to be given to Huddersfield for their defensive discipline and organisation which did not make the task of picking out that killer pass any easier for Whittingham, but just as damaging for him was the seeming reluctance of our other midfield players to make the sort of forward runs we saw against Newcastle in support of an isolated, and immobile, Helguson. This was especially true in the first half when Jordon Mutch (the best of a pretty ordinary bunch in our midfield I thought) was the only one of the five who consistently tried to pose questions for the Huddersfield back line, but, with Craig Bellamy making little impact from his wide left position, the parallels with last season continued as our main threat came from set piece situations – Helguson rattling the crossbar with a close range header which he probably should have buried.
As mentioned earlier, City did build up a bit of a head of steam after the break. This was especially true after Joe Mason replaced Cowie. Mason made a bit of a difference with his ability to find room in a crowded penalty area helping in our goal and some nifty footwork earning him a chance which he blazed over, but, apart from a Mutch effort which Smithies looked to have knocked into Gunnarsson’s path for a tap in before the ball was scrambled back to the keeper and a McNaughton shot turned around the post after the night’s only moment of Bellamy brilliance, it was still hard to see how we would break the deadlock.
Of course allowances have to be made for the fact that this is a team which is still getting to know itself – I’ve already mentioned the injury disrupted pre-seasons of Gunnarsson and Cowie, but that also applies to Mutch, Mason, McPhail, Gestede and McNaughton. Besides that, Bellamy has only had one week’s training with the squad since his signing and there’s the delay with Kim Bo-Kyung’s transfer as well of course as he waits for a work permit, but that was a timely and, for me at least, unexpected reminder of a long term problem from the previous season last night – only time will tell if we are an ordinary side who cashed in on some good luck against Huddersfield or whether we are the real deal and have just given the first of what will be many example of winning while playing poorly.