It’s strange isn’t it? To some supporters, last season’s “Galacticos” squad were an outfit that should have walked away with the Championship with the whole event becoming something of a procession where the main topic of interest was who would finish runner’s up to all conquering Cardiff! However, ask many of those people their opinion on this season’s squad and they would say that we were headed for a finish half way up the table following a season of consolidation. I still hear this now from many people who choose to ignore the evidence of the league table and our place in the Carling Cup Semi Final – we are a solid, hard working outfit which has Peter Whittingham there to provide a bit of flair and craft in the middle of the park and Kenny Miller to supply the goals, but, apart from that, we’re nothing special.
Bearing the above in mind, it’s interesting to compare the results of the 2010/11 stars with our current group of artisans at the twenty game stage;-
P W D L f a Pts
20 11 4 5 35 21 37
P W D L f a Pts
20 10 7 3 34 22 37
Indeed, when you also consider the League Cup results of both sides (we lost at Peterborough in the Second Round last season), I think there’s every reason to believe that the current side are stronger at the moment. In saying that, I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that this squad is more individually talented than last year’s, but, this year’s squad does not have the sort of glaring weaknesses that saw us short of a decent left back for much of the season last year and a midfield which blows as hot and cold as the 10/11 one did (even with Aaron Ramsey in there, our four men in the middle of the park were sometimes no match for the opposition’s five). Besides that, I do not think the team spirit and mental toughness of last year’s squad even remotely compares to this year’s model and, to illustrate this point, you only have to contrast what happened on 4 December 2011 with what happened on the same date last year.
Last season, City entertained bottom of the table Preston North End who went into the game with just one win and three draws to show from their previous ten matches. City had already dropped home points in draws with the sides destined to finish twenty third and twentieth in the table (Sheffield United and Crystal Palace), but were grateful for the draw this time as Andy Keogh’s equaliser four minutes into added time prevented a 1-0 defeat. Nevertheless, that result left City with just one win in six matches and that bad run eventually stretched to two in ten before a strong showing in January and February got things back on course again – to a large extent though, the damage had already been done because the poor spell in November and December ultimately cost City automatic promotion.
Now, City will, no doubt, have a poor run of form at some time or another in the next five months or so, but you’d like to think that the fact that we are so hard to beat (three defeats in twenty five matches in all competitions) will help to sustain us during that time (there’s evidence to suggest as well that Malky Mackay and his staff will be more successful than Dave Jones and co were in identifying and acting upon the cause of any slump). Anyway, back to yesterday and here’s some food for thought for those who still aren’t convinced by this season’s side – the way that the last three teams to visit Cardiff City Stadium in a league match have set up, has made it pretty obvious that, increasingly, our Championship rivals think we are not a mid table outfit intent on consolidation.
Yesterday, Birmingham City joined Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest in coming to Cardiff with a game plan intent on stifling us. They all used different methods, with Palace having three defensively minded midfield players, Forest using Jonathan Greening to do a man marking job on Whittingham and Birmingham deploying their central midfielders (Fahey and Spector) so deep that their front two of Zigic and King were often left isolated. All three sides provided a stern test for City and it has to be admitted that none of these matches have made for an entertaining spectacle, but all three have been remarkably similar in that City have patiently probed away after an uninspiring first forty five minutes and gradually built up the pressure around the hour mark before making the decisive breakthrough about ten minutes later.
The main difference between yesterday and the two previous matches though is that it, probably, needed the red card shown to Curtis Davies by Anthony Taylor, who, for me, was poor (as were his flag happy assistants), to create the momentum which led to the goal – City needed help yesterday whereas it was all their own work in the other two matches. The sending off looked to be the decisive moment of the match and Chris Hughton (a manager who I’ve got a lot of time for) complained that the decision against Davies was a harsh one. I have some sympathy with that because my initial reaction to the showing of the straight red card was one of surprise, but as he had been yellow carded already anyway, Davies was always going to be dismissed – the only question was whether he would end up with a one or three match ban.
As for individual displays, I thought we were treated to a midfield master class by Peter Whittingham who, for me, was the best City player on the pitch. Whereas Forest had put a marker on him, Birmingham went the other way and allowed him a fair bit of freedom – by the end of the game, I would have thought they might have been regretting that decision. If only one of those shots had rebounded in off the post rather than out, then I’d say Whittingham would have provided a complete midfield performance – as it was, he was just very good! Kenny Miller looks a completely different player now than the one who appeared to be a bit off the pace at the start of the season and I don’t think there are too many strikers at this level who would have anticipated Ibanez’s header as well as he did in the lead up to his goal. Just a word about Don Cowie as well, when Chris Burke (who looked much more like the Burke of last season than the one of two years ago) got free for just about the only time in the match in the first half, it was Cowie who got back there to close him down and put the ball out for a corner – now that his goals have dried up somewhat, it would be easy to say that Cowie is going through a quiet spell where his form is not so good, but he’s still doing a great job in my book because he works so hard every game and also provides that bit of quality as well.
That passage of play I mentioned again emphasised that the midfield players are all prepared to do their bit defensively, but I’m going to finish with some praise for the back four. I mentioned Chris Burke earlier and one of the main reasons why he was so quiet was that the much maligned Lee Naylor did such a good job on him. Despite the handicap of a very harsh booking early in the match, Naylor had a fine game yesterday which confirmed the impression gained from his earlier first team appearances this season that he is a much more reliable performer than he was at this time last year. Ben Turner played to the standard we have come to expect and, alongside him, Anthony Gerrard was playing well (some of his passing was excellent) until he got injured and Mark Hudson then came on and, if anything, played better! Finally, Kevin McNaughton was his usual combination of defensive excellence, tremendous endeavour going forward and wayward passing, but as a unit, our back four have now kept five consecutive clean sheets in home matches in all competitions – we are going through a spell where visiting sides can come up with all sorts of plans designed to keep us out, but if we find a way to break them down just once, then they know that, in all likelihood, they have lost the match.