Although two successive defeats hardly constitutes a crisis, Cardiff City are currently going through the closest thing to one that they’ve had this season. A performance as poor as the one against Blackpool last weekend at Leicester yesterday, left them fortunate not to have lost by more than 2-1 and they have now been second best in the last five halves of football they’ve played.
The most damning statistic to come out of the game was the one which said that, Peter Whittingham’s penalty apart, we didn’t have a single shot on target yesterday. When you also consider that we had just two of them against Southampton and three against Blackpool (as well as none at all in the Development team match last Tuesday), then it’s tempting to say that some intense finishing sessions are needed in training before Tuesday’s home match with Peterborough. Based on what I’ve seen of recent games though, the problem is more to do with us being unable to fashion the chances for our forwards because we are losing the midfield battle and so having to play on the back foot all of the time.
What’s also not helping is that we are suffering from more injuries than we have had in recent months – Tom Heaton wasn’t available yesterday and with Malky Mackay having said that he was fit and available for selection for the previous two matches, it was a surprise to see captain Mark Hudson absent again (it would appear that, rather like Kevin McNaughton lately), Hudson is struggling to fully shake off an injury that was picked up weeks ago. However, just as I believe that it is the midfield that is at the heart of the problem as far as our dip in results and performances are concerned, I think it’s the absence of players such as Steve McPhail, Filip Kiss (another who you wonder about how fit he has been so far this year) and now Aron Gunnarsson that is hurting us most.
Gunnarsson is one of a few who have not been at their best lately, but he has become a very important player for us in the last six months and I certainly wouldn’t want to see him out of the team for as long as seemed likely when he went off after just a few minutes yesterday amid talk of a hamstring strain. Malky Mackay’s post match comments offer hope that the Icelandic international will not be absent for too long, but if he is ruled out for Tuesday (and, possibly, longer), there’s, surely going to be some discussion amongst the manager and coaching staff as to whether this might be a good time to ditch the 4-5-1 formation for, say, the kind of 4-4-2 narrow diamond system that we started the season with?
Speaking for myself, I’m not convinced that the system being used is the problem – overall, I would still say our use of 4-5-1 has been a success. That said, even at times when we were getting good results and performances, there was never much evidence of any flexibility in the formation which saw it change to, say, a 4-3-3 when the attacking opportunity arose – I would argue that the most successful use of the single striker system occurs when you have a couple of players in your midfield five who think and react like forwards. Almost without fail, when we play five midfield players, that’s exactly what they are – five players who are, by instinct and experience, happiest and most effective when they are sitting in the middle of the park and not making runs to join up with the striker or gambling on getting into the box if there’s a cross on it’s way. Early in the season, Don Cowie was doing this with a degree of success and, in recent months, Aron Gunnarsson has been fairly effective as the midfield player most likely to get forward to help Kenny Miller out, but I’m not sure that we are getting the best out of those two players by using them that way.
The obvious candidate for such a role in our current squad is Joe Mason and I thought it was disappointing that Mason didn’t start at Leicester after the way he livened up our attacking play against Blackpool in the second half. In saying that, I can understand why Malky Mackay started with Haris Vuckic. Everything I had read about and seen of the highly rated Newcastle youngster suggested he was an attacking midfield player happiest supporting a striker – it was a surprise, as well as a bit disappointing, therefore to hear references to how deep the Slovenian Under 21 international was playing in what were an awkward first forty five minutes for him in a City shirt. Besides giving away a penalty, it seemed that Vuckic found the Championship a bit of a culture shock as he looked to take the time on the ball that he is used to but won’t get at this level – a header which put Miller in for a goal disallowed because of a marginal offside decision was his most effective contribution, but, although he, surely, has the natural ability to make much more of an impact over the next month, he may well need another game or two to become attuned to his new surroundings.
Of course, there will be those who will point to other reasons for our poor form – it’s nothing to do with systems or tactics, it’s down to us being knackered! Speaking as someone who has frequently voiced concerns on here about the possible tiring effects of playing at such a high tempo during the first half of the season, I’m hardly going to rubbish such thinking now. However, my instinct (as well as a fair bit of hope!) tells me that we should look to explore all other avenues in trying to work out what is going wrong rather than just accept it as an inevitability given the way we approached the early months of the campaign. Similarly, I’d be very surprised if this group of players are guilty of collectively taking their eye off the ball because of the forthcoming Carling Cup Final – there’s been nothing in their attitude over the season so far to suggest this might be the case.
Getting the team back playing with the attitude and hunger which had made us into the toughest side to beat in the division until recently is the greatest challenge Malky Mackay has had to face so far during his time at Cardiff and it’s not helping that so many of the teams around us had wins yesterday. Apart from Blackpool’s home draw with Portsmouth, the results couldn’t have gone worse for us yesterday as Southampton, Hull, Reading and Brighton all picked up three points and West Ham, Birmingham and Middlesbrough had their matches called off. Only Cardiff out of those sides which you’d say are candidates for a top two finish lost yesterday and. although I’m someone who finds the way every match we play is labelled “massive” or “huge” by somebody or another quite funny, I must admit those descriptions are beginning to look like valid one’s for Tuesday night’s game.