I think it’s instructive, from a Cardiff City position at least, to look back on our meetings with these sides in the first two months of the season.
Back in August, Malky Mackay’s new side, with eight players making their debuts, rode their luck at times, but showed resilience and energy in recording a great 1-0 win. However, it was the Southampton win seven weeks later which I believe was the more telling one as it seems to represent a microcosm of how our season is beginning to pan out.
Southampton came to Cardiff City Stadium on 28 September on top of the league with much of the early success based on their close passing ability in and around the opposition penalty area. The Saints were picking sides apart back then, but City were in their faces from the start of the game and never allowed the league leaders to settle in the first seventy minutes. Eventually, City’s superiority was rewarded with two quickfire Kenny Miller goals and, with Southampton, barely having mustered a shot on goal as we snapped away at their heals, it looked like we were on our way to a comfortable victory. However, the last twenty minutes saw us completely lose our grip on the match – all of a sudden, Southampton were creating chances and we were lucky in that players like Lallana and Lambert were having an off night in front of goal. De Ridder’s goal came too late to effect the outcome and we ended up just about deserving our win, but, although Southampton showed their quality in those closing stages, the suspicion lingered that they had got back into the game because we tired as the consequences of working so hard to close the opposition down took effect.
Right from day one, Malky Mackay promised that there would be “sweat on Cardiff City jerseys” after every game and it’s a pledge that has been kept to throughout the season. However, the style used by City to establish themselves as genuine automatic promotion candidates going into the last third of the campaign, is a very physically demanding one and since the, very taxing, 120 minutes against Crystal Palace in the second leg of the Carling Cup Semi Final six weeks ago, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, in league matches at least, the mind has been willing for some very important members of the side, but the body has not I’m afraid. Our last six league games has seen us playing as we did in those final twenty minutes against Southampton last autumn.
Putting all of that into the context of yesterday’s disappointing 2-0 defeat by West Ham, I’d say that it needs to be said that the quality of the opposition has to be taken into account – the Hammers weren’t exceptional, but they were good. They worked hard to nullify our strengths, kept our attack at arm’s length for most of the time and also benefited from a referee who appeared to have decided that certain City players were trying to con him all of the time and so refused to give free kicks even for blatantly obvious fouls against them. It’s also a possibility that City’s flat performance was brought about by the mental and physical demands of a very draining occasion at Wembley and that things will be back to normal again soon, but that is to ignore our results and performances in the run up to the Final- I’m afraid West Ham looked fitter and more lively than us yesterday, whereas back in August, a case could definitely be made for saying that the opposite was true.An excellent finish, but Kevin Nolan was helped on his way to West Ham's first goal by some poor defending - there were at least two chances to clear the ball before it reached the Hammer's skipper.
Apart from fifteen minute spells in either half, the visitors were comfortably the better team – indeed for a period at the start of the second half, we were as poor as I’ve seen us this season. To the team’s great credit (one thing that can never be queried about this City side is their spirit and determination), they came through that rough patch and forced West Ham back for a spell culminating in Peter Whittingham’s free kick which rebounded to safety off the inside of the post, but, sadly, that was one of the few occasions when City’s most important player made a significant impact on proceedings – overall it was another muted performance by the man who was making us tick from August to January.
I believe Whittingham is one of a group of players within the side who are showing clear signs that the work they have put in so far this season is catching up on them. Alongside him, Aron Gunnarsson summed up the team display really with a lively first quarter of an hour or so, but not a great deal after that. I say this about our two central midfield players not to be critical, but to recognise that, at the moment, they do not seem to be physically capable of giving the same energy and dynamism to the side as they were – both are now being caught in possession quite often and they are not as effective in making themselves available to our defenders as they once were. As a consequence, people like Hudson and Turner were criticised for just lumping the ball forward yesterday, but with the option of the ten yard pass into our midfield not being available for much of the time, what choice did they have?
Although Don Cowie’s energy levels still seem as high as ever, he’s becoming more isolated in wide areas because, sadly, our midfield has begun to resemble the often overrun unit that we grew used to seeing in Dave Jones’ last few seasons with us. In front of them, I thought Kenny Miller showed signs of tiredness for the first time this season and, unfortunately, Rudy Gestede’s fitness just cannot be relied upon – ever since his injury in October, I’m afraid it’s been one or two games back for our French forward and then his hamstring goes again (dodgy hamstrings are no longer the sole property of grey haired full backs at Cardiff City it seems!).
Speaking of Kevin McNaughton, he looks to be suffering the consequences of six months of tearing up and down the right touch line as a winger cum full back – yesterday he was barely seen as an attacking force, but more worrying was the fact that his defensive qualities went missing at times as well. Whittingham, Gunnarsson, Miller and McNaughton are very important players for us given our style of play and formation this season, and they need help, or adequate alternatives, in the coming weeks if we are to finish in the top six. Hopefully Liam Lawrence will help as far as the midfield is concerned, but given Gestede’s injury record and Earnie’s disappearance from the match day squad, there is little we can do up front except use Joe Mason (one of our better players yesterday. but, like Harris Vuckic, being asked to do too much really at their age) – it’s in this regard, that our lack of transfer action in January is being felt most.
In the build up to the League Cup Final, I saw Malky Mackay being interviewed in front of a door which had the words “Recruitment Department” on it. I remember thinking at the time that it was a shame that it wasn’t open to show somebody sat in there hard at work, because that would have dispelled my uncharitable suspicion that our recruitment staff have been on holiday for most of this year. As I say, I’m not being very fair there and I’m sure that Malky Mackay and Iain Moody would be able to give you valid reasons why it didn’t happen, but it seems to me, that, increasingly, a season of much promise (forget about our players not being good enough, they are, it’s just we don’t have enough of them) is floundering because of our failure to bring in no more than a young winger, who is seen as one for the future, during January.
Yes, we have brought in two loan players since then, but, with one of those being unavailable yesterday and the other someone who I believe would be seen to best advantage in a side going well where he could come off the bench in the last half an hour and show what he can do, it’s not enough to paper over the cracks. We definitely need more striking options if Malky Mackay’s third league campaign as a manager is not going to go the same way as the first two – that is a fade out from February onwards after a very encouraging first half of the season. I’ve still got a lot of faith in this manager and this team, but the players need help now and, unlike at Watford, it appears that Malky Mackay has the financial resources to do something about it.