If we had headed north to Leeds with two or three Championship away wins behind us rather than just the one, I would go along with those who regarded yesterday’s 1-1 draw at Leeds as a point gained, but, in our present position, I’m afraid it has to be seen as a case of two lost in my opinion. I realise that this is a harsh judgement when you consider that we were up against a side which had taken thirteen points from their last five matches at Elland Road, but until we start winning away games again, it’s hard to see how we will be able overhaul the sides above us in the table.
Back in the days of two points for a win, victory in your home games backed up by a draw when you went away was held up as a way of ensuring success at the end of the season, but in the modern game, where the reward for victory is that much greater, a point per away match is unlikely to be good enough. As things stand, our away record is heading for a repeat of what we saw in seasons 2007/08 and 2008/09 – during those two seasons, we only lost thirteen away matches out of forty six, but, with only nine of the thirty three games where we avoided defeat ending in a win, we finished outside of the top six both times.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of a trend developing this season in our away matches. We have scored the first goal in five of the seven games (six out of eight if you include the Oxford League Cup match) and yet only one of them has seen us finish winners after ninety minutes. If you include the Oxford match, five of the games have finished 1-1 at the ninety minute mark and in four of them we took the lead – add in the Peterborough game which we lost after leading 3-2 in the eighty seventh minute and it’s clear that failing to hold on to leads in away games is fast becoming an issue which could have a crucial bearing on how our season ends.
To be fair, a win for City would have been a case of daylight robbery given the way the ninety minutes panned out, but every team that ends up winning something at the end of the season has their share of backs to the wall away victories where they end up getting more than they deserved. City have, perhaps, had one such win at West Ham already (that gracious loser Sam Allardyce certainly thought so!), but the opportunities passed up at Blackpool, in particular, Portsmouth and Peterborough are costing us and, if this trend continues, the pressure on us in home games is only going to increase – as it is, our habit of only winning alternate league games at Cardiff City Stadium will see us slipping further adrift if it continues.
If all of this sounds a bit doom and gloom laden, it should also be said that there is a lot that is right with our team. The refusal to buckle when put under the sort of pressure Leeds inflicted on us in the second half was impressive and goalkeeper David Marshall had one of his best matches in a City shirt. Indeed, I thought our back five, who have had more than their share of criticism in recent weeks, had a good day yesterday – Marshall was decisive in everything he did and showed again that he is an excellent shot stopper and, although neither of them were faultless, full backs McNaughton and Taylor stuck to their tasks well in testing circumstances.
Inside them, I thought both of our centrebacks did well. I’ve been critical of Mark Hudson so far this season and a clumsy early yellow card suggested it would be a tough afternoon for our captain, but I’d say he was, arguably, our best outfield player after that as he came to our rescue with a succession of last ditch headers and clearances. If Ben Turner wasn’t quite as impressive, he didn’t get much wrong in my opinion either and, after the nine in three conceded since he got into the team, just letting in the one here when you consider the pressure we soaked up was an indication that our manager may be right in thinking that this is the best central defensive pairing we have.
No, if you are looking to apportion blame as to why we spent so much time defending, I don’t think you can be too harsh on our back five – it’s the players in front of them you should be looking at. I think the squad we have is most suited to playing 4-5-1 at the moment, but yesterday did sew a few seeds of doubt in my mind, because, although they all worked hard for the side and Peter Whittingham’s delivery from dead ball situations was as good as usual, none of the midfield five (six if you include Filip Kiss) played that well and they certainly didn’t function as an effective unit. Yes, there was some protection for our defence, but I thought our five came off second best to Leeds’ four for long spells and, given that I believe all of midfielders are good players at this level and that they are becoming more used to playing with each other now, this is a disappointment – our midfield weren’t really at the races yesterday individually or collectively.
Most disappointing for me though was the lack of support given to Joe Mason as he ploughed what was very much a lone furrow up front. Mason got his goal and showed one or two glimpses of the talented link up work that has been so much of a feature of his play so far, but, for too much of the time, he was just chasing around trying to close down defenders – he needed and deserved more help from the midfield, but, unlike in recent home games, there was precious little of it. Whether this was down to us not performing in the middle of the park on the day or to us sitting back more once we had taken the lead is arguable – I’m sure Leeds fans would claim that it was because their team was on top and they might be right, but there is some evidence that the tendency is to put the shutters up when we go 1-0 up away from home and, if this is the case, I’m not sure if Mason can cope too well when his team mates are so far behind him. Thinking about it, it may not have been a coincidence that we came into it a bit more after Kenny Miller replaced Mason. Once again, the question could be asked as to whether we came out more after we conceded, but, whatever happened, we had our best spell of attacking play in the game when Miller was on – if we are going to play 4-5-1 and sit deep away from home when we are leading, then I’d suggest that Miller has to be the lone attacker, but I’d still like to see Mason in as one of the five midfielders to give him a bit of assistance.