I know I keep banging on about 2014, but, in Cardiff City terms at least, 2015 is only ten days old and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s already contained more enjoyment than the Annus horribilis that was 2014 ever did.
Yes, one simple decision has turned supporting Cardiff City into a pleasure again for this fan and a perfect few days came to the conclusion it had to with a City triumph as yesterday’s 1-0 win over Fulham ended a run of five matches without a league victory and maintained our 100% winning record in 2015 - I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if I’m able to use that line again mind!
Before getting on to the game though, just a few words about the attendance and atmosphere yesterday. Regarding the attendance, some have expressed their disappointment at it and, to a degree, I understand where they are coming from, but I suppose a couple of things need to be said in mitigation. Firstly, with the return to blue only being officially confirmed on Friday afternoon, there wasn’t much time for non season ticket holders who weren’t planning to attend originally to make alternative arrangements (especially those living away from south Wales) and, secondly, whereas the 22,000+ announced attendance for the Watford game a fortnight ago was a complete joke, yesterday’s figure was a far more accurate one – I’m pretty sure all but a few season ticket holders were in attendance yesterday.
Similarly, there have been criticisms about the atmosphere. For me, it did flag a little at times, but it was miles better than anything I’ve experienced in a home match since the days when Malky Mackay was in charge and only the Wales v Bosnia match last autumn was an improvement on it during 2014.
As for the game, well the first thing for me was that City deserved the win and to any who were attending their first match in a while after a re-brand related boycott, I’d say yesterday was above average in terms of Cardiff home performances in 14/15. What made it so for me was that we saw some reaction from the players to the change in atmosphere – they responded positively to the support they were getting with an improved tenacity and team ethic.
The two players making their first appearances for the club could both be satisfied with their performances. Scott Malone did occasionally look like someone who was not too well acquainted with his new team mates, but, overall, he appeared at home at left back and looked to pass the ball constructively. Although I can remember Alex Revell giving Ben Turner and Sean Morrison more aerial problems than they normally encounter when he played for Rotherham last month, I’ll admit that he wasn’t a signing that I felt any great enthusiasm about, but his second half display after coming on for Kenwyne Jones showed all of the qualities that Russell Slade talked about in his pre match press conference – he kept on pressurising the Fulham defence when they were in possession, won more than his fair share of headers and showed good all round awareness for someone who had only had one days training at his new club.
There was also a first league appearance for goalkeeper Simon Moore (David Marshall has been linked with a couple of Premier League clubs recently, but Russell Slade said that his absence yesterday was down to an ankle injury) who generally reinforced the favourable impression he made last week in the FA Cup tie with Colchester. Truth be told though, apart from a dive at an opponent’s feet and a couple of caught crosses in the second period to go with an awkward low ball across his goal in the first period, which he dealt with comfortably, it was a pretty gentle introduction for Moore to Championship football and this takes me on to the “but” part of yesterday’s match.
City might have been worth their win, but they didn’t really have much to beat – for me, only Forest have been a poorer visiting team than Fulham this season. Up until recently, Fulham have tended to be a side who have scored plenty and let in more, but, as so often happens, a tightening up at the back brings about a decline in goalscoring and it’s now four matches since they last found the net. This was reflected in a lack of belief in attacking areas which enabled City to pick up one of their more comfortable clean sheets of the season so far. I’m sure that Fulham are a better side going forward than they showed yesterday, but I heard the word “lightweight” applied to them at half time and it summed the visitors up perfectly on the day.
Now, at this stage, I think I should say that in any sporting contest between two fairly equally matched opponents, the winner is often decided as much by who best exploits the other’s weaknesses as it is by who is the more naturally talented of the two. Therefore, while I think we would all like to have seen us go out and put Fulham to the sword in style in a match where both sides were committed to playing the “beautiful game”, the people making the decisions on playing style believed, probably rightly, that our best chance of winning lay in us playing a set piece orientated game that relied greatly on us gaining superiority of the skies!
So, I think it’s only fair to mention that what I’m about to say is tempered slightly by that intention to exploit perceived weakness. However, in the first half of yesterday’s match I thought Russell Slade’s”back to basics” approach was as basic as it has got in his time at the club and that’s really saying something!
I can remember Nathan Blake calling for more entertaining football soon after Russell Slade was appointed. Being a member of the “give everyone a fair chance” school, I thought it was very harsh of him to say that when our new manager had barely got his feet under the table so to speak, but I’ve got to admit now that Nathan had a point! That said, I’ve always been pretty pragmatic about a club’s “duty” to entertain – as much as I’ve heard former players (including Blakey) talk about City having a history of being a passing team, I’ve got to say that I’ve seen more Cardiff sides using a long ball percentage based approach than I have a patient, possession based one.
Malky Mackay’s sides were often accused of playing “hoofball”, but in the first forty five minutes yesterday the reliance on set pieces for all of our attacking threat got so bad that I think one of our attacking players on the touchline might well have opted to blast the ball against an opponent to get a throw in or corner rather than try to play in an unmarked colleague in a central position ten yards from the Fulham goal!
After the Watford match, City dropped to the bottom of the Championship possession table and, with the BBC reporting that we only had 37% of the ball yesterday, I presume we are still there. In fact, as I watched the ball being wellied forward constantly yesterday, I found myself wondering if we really want to have the ball that much at all – are we happy as long as we can gain the occasional throw in/free kick in attacking areas and win a corner every now and again as well?
Possibly because we had a lead to defend and so were less willing to push captain Ben Turner and Morrison forward as much, we made less use of Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw after the break. Consequently, we played a little bit more football with a few quite nice passing movements creating half chances which were never accepted probably because the person they fell to had forgotten how to react to an opportunity presented by means other than a Gunnar throw in or Whittingham free kick or corner.
I feel there are two things that need to be said here. The first goes back to exploiting opponent’s perceived weaknesses and it’s that I’m struggling to remember a game this season (certainly under Russell Slade anyway) where our opponents supposed failings dictated that we try to beat them by outpassing them. Secondly, although I’ll admit to my patience being sorely tested lately, I believe most fans will accept their team winning while playing an unattractive brand of football, but as soon as it’s stops working then they’ll be quicker to turn against the manager responsible for this “basic” approach than they would if their side was losing, but playing a brand of football that was, for the most part, easy on the eye.
With some supporters against him from day one because of his lower league background, our manager is taking something of a risk by setting out his side to play in the manner it does and I have to admit it that he looks like someone who has come in and imposed “his way” on the side whether it was the approach best suited to the squad he inherited or not. Yet, I still maintain that I saw Leyton Orient playing effective, possession based counter attacking football at times last season – perhaps Russell Slade has concluded that we do not have the pace and/or the players capable of giving us the midfield control required to get us to play in the manner his old side did last season?
With the transfer window having been open for ten days, we’ve done well to get a couple of players in so far, but neither of them play in the area where I think most fans would say we have been weakest this season – in fact, I’m struggling to even think of any central midfielders we were linked with in the weeks leading up to the window opening. I cannot believe for one minute that our manager is content with what he has seen from us in the middle of the park for the last three months and so am hoping that he is going to surprise us with, preferably, two central midfield signings who will enable us to play in a less one dimensional manner than we are now.
* picture courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy/sets/
+ pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/