It was Eric Cantona who first called Didier Deschamps the “water carrier”. Now Mr Cantona sometimes had a tendency to be a mite hard to understand with some of his pronouncements, but his meaning in this case wasn’t too hard to work out – Deschamps was only in the French team to make sure the most talented players in the team got as much of the ball as possible. While that’s harsh on a player who was good enough to skipper his country to World Cup and European Championship triumphs while winning 103 caps, you can see what Cantona meant – Deschamps tended to do the fetching and carrying for the likes of Zidane, Henry, Pires, Ginola, Cantona etc.
Virtually all successful sides have a “water carrier” – Michael Carrick is a fine technical footballer with an ability to spot and deliver passes that others couldn’t envisage, let alone pull off, and at club level at least, Carrick is a water carrier and a bit more. However, I don’t think anyone would say that he is the most talented player at his club and this is where conversations about water carriers become relevant to Cardiff City.
Ask any City fan who the most talented player at the club is and I’d say the name that would be heard most in reply would be Peter Whittingham – at this level he has a Carrick like ability to spot and deliver that killer ball, but, unlike the Manchester United player, he also has goals in his locker (many of them amongst the best I’ve ever seen a City player score). So, why was it that Whittingham spent his time performing a water carrier role during last night’s very disappointing 1-1 draw with Derby? When I say water carrier there, I mean it in the derisory way that Eric Cantona did when he coined the phrase – until the closing minutes when he was playing long balls into the penalty area from the halfway line, Whittingham spent his time playing passes that any of his colleagues could have delivered just as well, it was as if he was giving the ball to his more talented team mates like Deschamps used to.
Now, speaking as someone who thought Lennie Lawrence’s decision to drop Graham Kavanagh into a deeper role than the one he had in his first season with us made him a more complete player (Kav regained his place in the Republic of Ireland team after this change), I’m not as dismissive of the fact that Whittingham spends less time in forward positions than he used to as many others are because he has the ability to make a Carrick like contribution to our team from his position just in front of the back four, but he looked an unhappy and ineffective footballer last night who was lacking in confidence.
So, what can be done to get Whittingham looking more like his old self? Dropping someone as good as he can be shouldn’t be an option in my book and I just don’t see Malky Mackay doing it anyway. For the last four months or so, Nathan Blake has said Whittingham is not really suited to playing a central midfield role in a 4-4-2 because it requires a mobility and strength that he doesn’t possess and week by week I’ve come to agree with him.
Malky Mackay’s experiment with 4-5-1 last season was a partial success at best because it’s shortcomings became very apparent in the closing months of the campaign. I’ve mentioned before on here that, in my opinion, 4-5-1 stopped working because we didn’t have enough players in the midfield five who had forward’s instincts – at it’s best, it should never be a rigid system, but because we always had at least three, and usually four, of the middle five who lacked those instincts, it was an inflexible system when we played it. The difference this season is that we do have the players who could provide the finishing skills we lacked from midfield last season. Bellamy, Noone, Kimbo and Smith are all players who weren’t here last season who fall into that category – add in Joe Mason as well and we have the players who could make 4-5-1 work better than it did a year ago. You could go at it another way though by playing someone like Cowie, Mutch or Ralls in a central role to give Whittingham the chance to get further forward at times.
Besides not playing to anything like his potential, Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson (who had his worst game in months) had the same tired look to them last night that we saw from them in the closing weeks of 11/12. Malky Mackay had little option but to soldier on with them last year, but we have no end of players who should be able to give the side some of the energy it lacked against Derby because you’d like to think they’d be crying out for some game time.
Our manager has the options he didn’t have last year and that’s why I was disappointed with the side we sent out against a side without a win in six which had lost eight of their last eleven away matches – Derby were also missing seven players through injury as well. I groaned when I heard Heidar Helguson was going to replace the injured Craig Bellamy – to be fair to him, until his very last kick of the match when he played an awful crossfield pass which led to Craig Conway giving the ball away in the build up to Derby’s goal, our Icelandic target man did what he does pretty well last night, he won more than his fair share of headers and worked hard for the team. However, him for Bellamy left us seriously short compared to normal in the pace and mobility department and this was not compensated for by the inclusion of Conway and the out of form Smith on the wings.
Malky Mackay’s selection had a “safe” look to it of the sort we tend to see in away games. I’m not saying that the intention was to invite Derby on to us, but that’s what happened in a first half the visitors dominated as they monopolised the second ball challenges. It was telling that the only time we looked like scoring in the opening forty five minutes came early on when we were able to utilise the lively Fraizer Campbell’s pace and he came within inches of scoring as we broke through Smith. For the rest of the time Derby dominated in the middle of the park and, with the excellent Connor Sammon giving the two Bens a torrid time of it (he made Nugent looked like an inexperienced kid for the first time in his senior carrier) at centreback, City could not have complained at being a couple of goals behind at the interval.
The second half was more even, but, on the balance of play up until then, Derby merited the bit of luck they got when Turner’s block landed perfectly for Sammon to put the visitors ahead. However, where City deserved credit was for the way they responded to going a goal down – Noone, Gestede and, to a lesser extent, Mason definitely improved the level of performance and the team’s strong finish meant that I thought they just edged the second half, but in truth, a Derby defeat would have been a travesty.
The strange thing is that I think we’d been playing better in the previous four matches when we’ve had more to offer going forward than in those weeks when we were “winning ugly” in December and January, but last night was as bad as I’ve seen us in some time. Getting Bellamy and Hudson back will help things, but I just hope that Malky Mackay makes more use of the greater depth of talent he’s got at the club when compared to last year over the next couple of months – Mason proved himself at this level a year ago, Kimbo has already proved himself at a higher level than this, Mutch and Ralls have offered far more in a Cardiff shirt at times than our central midfield did last night, Noone has the ability to be a match winner in the Championship, Cowie can give Whittingham support if he needs it and Gestede again showed last night that he can inconvenience defences that had been looking steady and assured, so why not use them more than he has been in the last few months?