I think it’s fair to say that three weeks ago today virtually every one with an interest in Cardiff City was in something of a state of shock after the shambles that was Charlton 5 Cardiff 4. What was of most concern for me was that this ridiculous scoreline was a culmination of weeks of sub standard away results and performances – we were blowing two goal leads, individual mistakes were costing us dearly and, it didn’t matter if sides attacked via aerial or ground routes, we were proving to be too easy to carve open. Conceding five goals in just over twenty five minutes either side of half time in south London appeared to indicate that the Cardiff City squad of 2012/13 was fatally flawed and that the impeccable home record could not mask some serious shortcomings for much longer.
Now, while the person who criticises a manager from the day he arrives at a club to the day he leaves can eventually say “see, I was right”, one of the problems with putting your opinions out there on line for every one to read is that they can make you look stupid at times. Even if that headline of mine eventually proves to be correct, there will be times in the next five or six months when it will appear idiotic, so, on reflection, perhaps I might have been better off if I had entitled this piece “Was Charlton a watershed in our November” – I think I’m on safe ground there!
After losing at Bolton and Charlton in our first two games of the month, it looked like we were heading for another Dave Jones type November after Malky Mackay’s Manager of the Month award last year, but, after ten points from our next four games, we will, barring a huge win for Middlesbrough at Birmingham on Friday night, end the month as we began it – at the top of the table.
All of this has been achieved despite a marked drop in our goalscoring rate – the four games since Charlton have seen us score six times and last night’s effort from Heidar Helguson came, just as the other five did, with a header following a cross or a corner – so, it seems that no only are we less prolific in front of goal, but we now can only score one type of goal! Also, although it’s sometimes felt like we’ve been in an “injury crisis” all season, we really have been in one for most of this month. After Don Cowie picked up a knock at Charlton which has prevented him playing since then, we lost Kevin McNaughton through injury (he has not played since) against Hull, as well as his replacement Filip Kiss. A week later against Middlesbrough, Andrew Taylor, Ben Turner and Aron Gunnarsson all had to go off with injuries (the first two named have not reappeared in the team yet) and we finished the match at Barnsley with ten men after Simon Lappin was red carded.
It was almost inevitable that, having previously gone so long without one, we would pick up another red card last night at Derby when Craig Noone was booked twice within a minute around the hour mark and so, when you consider that Joe Lewis was also absent from the subs bench, I reckon we played out the last thirty minutes or so without eight of what would be Malky Mackay’s first choice match eighteen. Besides Cowie, McNaughton, Taylor and Turner, Tommy Smith hasn’t featured for five weeks and we probably won’t see long term injury victim Nicky Maynard again this campaign – that’s not to mention the suspended Lappin not being available against Derby and that Craig Bellamy and Jordon Mutch are feeling their way back into things having barely featured, in the case of the former, and not at all, in the case of the latter, in the last two months.
So, if Charlton represented the low point of our season so far, having our goal tally tumble (in relative terms anyway) and having players, in particular defenders, dropping like flies in the following matches hardly seems to be a recipe for recovery. Of course, if we are picking up points at a time when goals have dried up somewhat then it has to follow that we have tightened things up in defence. In the four matches up to and including Charlton, we scored eleven times, but eight ended up in the back of our net during this time – if we have scored only just over half as many since, this has been more than made up for by a goals against figure which is less than forty per cent of what it was.
This leads me to put forward a theory for discussion which I only just thought of this morning – it might be rubbish, but I would say that, for now at least, it does seem to be backed up by results. To explain what I mean, I need to go back to last season where I’d say a hard working squad with a real team spirit came up short in the promotion stakes for two main reasons – firstly, it ran out of steam in the final third of the campaign and, second, because it didn’t have the depth of quality and numbers in it that would make the crucial difference in matches which ended up as draws or narrow defeats. Therefore, the challenge Malky Mackay faced in the summer was to build on a solid base by bringing in the sort of quality which would turn those draws into victories and narrow defeats into draws, or better, while also enabling him to indulge in some squad rotation which would lessen the chances of the sort of burn out we saw in important players in March and April.
That ever present injury list has meant that there has been little chance of squad rotation and, as for our £10 million’s worth of summer spending helping us to win the type of matches we weren’t last season, I’d say it has certainly been successful (at home at least). Huddersfield, Leeds, Birmingham and Watford are all matches which I could have seen ending up as draws last year and the games with Wolves, Blackpool and Burnley saw us play with more quality than was the norm at home in 11/12. However, there was a drawback to this increase in matchwinners which I for one had not foreseen. All of a sudden we had lost some of the resilience and battling qualities which had made us so hard to beat last season away from home – we were getting the wins from what would have previously been home draws, but, conversely, the away draws and narrow victories we were getting when not playing too well were now turning into losses.
What seems to have happened in our last four games is that we have taken a step back to go forward. Now, I happen to think that, although they played some pretty passing football in front of us, Hull were second best to us by some way, but the perceived wisdom seems to be that it was a battling win against a quality side and so I’m happy to lump it in with the Boro, Barnsley and Derby matches which I would argue have all been 11/12 away type performances and results. In the last three weeks we seem to have rediscovered the cussedness and determination which made us so hard for home sides to see us off last season – for the third successive match our opponents had more efforts at goals than us and I’ve not seen anyone claim that we have come close to being fluent in our play, but, in the face of adversity with all the injuries and other absences, we’ve gone some way to conquering the away day problems of the first three months of the season – I suppose the challenge for Malky Mackay is to ensure that we don’t slip into our bad old ways as the “better” players return from their various ailments.
Anyway, I suppose I’d better say something about last night’s match before I finish. I would have gladly taken a draw beforehand and so, even if we hardly created chances galore, I’m not going to complain about it now. Derby have a very good home record and were one of only two sides in the Championship to have scored more home goals than us before last night’s game. On Saturday they made beating Birmingham appear easier than we did in early October and were especially dangerous down the right flank where Coutts and the always impressive Brayford looked a potent combination. Therefore, I feared for us when I learned that Joe Ralls was having to fill in at left back, but, by all accounts, he did very well again in that strange position for him as City paid particular attention to stopping Derby down the flanks.
Malky Mackay has said he was more reliant on kids last season than he wanted to be and I suppose all of the summer spending was supposed to stop this happening so frequently this time around, but all of those injuries has ensured that Ralls (who always looks ready for this level to me anyway) and Ben Nugent have been seeing unexpected first team action. All three of Nugent’s games have featured a lot of backs to the wall defending and he played a full part in that again last night – the best compliment I can pay him is to say that our other Ben wasn’t missed at Barnsley or Derby. It was the name of Mark Hudson who was invariably mentioned by the commentators as Derby attacks were cleared though and, although I suspect he might be upset at the way Connor Salmon got away from him in the build up to Derby’s equaliser, our captain really seems to have upped his game since the Charlton debacle. With Matt Connolly popping up to make a last minute clearance off the line as well to preserve our point, our back four are defending so much better as a unit than they were – November hasn’t turned out too badly after all!