This week, amongst other things, there was a debate on which system the team should play against Barnsley. One of the hacks favoured 4-5-1, but the other disagreed saying it was a system for away games only – this struck me as daft at the time and, after watching us tear Barnsley apart using that formation yesterday, it looks even dafter now!
To be fair, our version of 4-5-1 differs from that of other clubs in that it doesn’t double up into a 4-3-3 with a couple of players who have the instincts of strikers when we are attacking – apart from Joe Mason, all of the players we have who are candidates for the five in the middle of the park are natural midfielders. Therefore, 4-5-1 as played by Cardiff City could be viewed as a defensive formation in theory when you look at the personnel involved, but in practice, it is far from that and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, apart from the opening day win at West Ham, our best results and/or performances have come when we have used that system – the draw at Blackpool where we had twenty odd goal attempts, the win over top of the table Southampton and now a 5-3 win, in which our goal tally could easily have been doubled, offer proof that 4-4-2 (be it a diamond or traditional, flat midfield four) does not have to be the way for us to go.
Of course, there are those on the messageboards who feel that it doesn’t matter what system we used, Barnsley were the worst team we have played in ages and we could have used 1-1-8 against them and still won comfortably. To me though, that misses the point that Barnsley had only lost one in nine league matches before yesterday, they had been beaten just once in six away games before yesterday and had only conceded five goals in that time. I think that Barnsley manager Keith Hill got it exactly right in his post match interviews when he said that what happened yesterday was as a result of a combination of his team slipping from their normal standards and them running into a side putting on a fine attacking display. Hill was honest enough to say that the five goals conceded flattered his team – their keeper was, arguably, their man of the match and they could easily have let in eight or more.The excellent Joe Mason celebrates finally breaking his City goalscoring duck in this Media Wales photo.
Speaking as someone who got increasingly exasperated by the one dimensional long ball stuff we played in our last home match, I have to say that yesterday was a complete contrast as City played some lovely pass and move football which, besides causing the visitor’s defence no end of problems, also gave us a dominance in the middle of the park. Now some of this was down to the fact that Barnsley were not as good as Ipswich (particularly in midfield), but I’d say that having someone there who naturally knits things together helped no end as well. Malky Mackay spoke about Steve McPhail in his pre match press conference and while it is the norm for managers to praise their players at such gatherings, I got the impression that there was a genuine admiration for the player there. Because of this, I was not surprised to see McPhail in the starting line up yesterday and he certainly didn’t let his manager down – given the pro 4-5-1 theme of this piece, I could well argue that our shift to more of a 4-4-2 in the latter stages, and subsequent loss of the control we had on the game, could be another argument in favour of that system, but I think that it was simply that we stopped playing once McPhail went off – coincidence maybe, but I reckon there may be more to it than that.
Of course, anyone who has been watching City since 2006 when McPhail signed for us, will know that he has his weaknesses and one of those is that he hardly seems a natural for the high energy, pressing game that Malky Mackay wants to play. However, I wonder if the other players we have in what, for me, is the best balanced midfield we’ve had in years are able to do do what comes naturally to them thereby leaving McPhail to concentrate on what he is best at (especially if we are playing 4-5-1 with four others able to do the more physically demanding stuff). Certainly, McPhail’s presence on the pitch has had a liberating effect on fan’s Man of the Match Aron Gunnarrson who, after looking like a holding player who barely ever got into attacking positions in most of his previous matches, has been, arguably, our most potent attacking threat since McPhail came on to the pitch fifty four minutes into the match at Peterborough. City’s Icelandic international has scored three goals in that time (with his first one yesterday being a real candidate for our best goal of the season so far) and he could easily have had a couple more against Barnsley with better finishing – I don’t think anyone really expects Gunnarsson to keep on scoring at his current rate, but, for now at least, McPhail’s inclusion is having a positive effect on his game.Aron Gunnarsson (here seen celebrating our fifth goal) on his way to a twenty goal season? Perhaps not, but the last couple of matches have shown a side to his game that hadn't been apparent up to now.
If Gunnarsson was the choice of Man of the Match for some, he wasn’t mine – Joe Mason, who is fast becoming a real favourite of mine, was my selection. Kenny Miller had started the game really well and it looked like there were more goals there for him if he had stayed on (what is it about our strikers and injuries this season – yesterday’s was the most bizarre yet!), but, in truth, he was hardly missed. If someone had said we’d scored four in the hour of the game that remained when Miller went off, I’d have told them they were mad, but those of us who expected to see Earnie come on as his replacement were proved twice wrong as Mason gave another one of those performances that I believe make a very strong case for his inclusion in the starting line up now he has opened his goalscoring account.
One minute in the second half summed up for me where Mason’s game is currently – first he scuffed a shot straight at the keeper when put through, but then he played a peach of a pass through to Don Cowie for our fourth goal. Earnie might well have done a better job with that chance that Mason had, but there is no way he would have played that pass to Cowie. Mason has talent, a real footballing intelligence and is combining that with a with a youngster’s willingness to chase down lost causes – he nearly always makes an impact when comes on as well.
Unfortunately, having spent a lot of time on what was good about the game, I cannot just sweep our defensive shortcomings under the carpet. As others have pointed out, yesterday was quite odd in that, besides Danny Drinkwater’s shot against the crossbar, Barnsley’s goals were just about the only time they looked remotely threatening. On an individual basis, I thought all of our back four played pretty well, with Ben Turner turning in an improved performance which also revealed a pleasing turn of pace when it was required, but, collectively, they are having a very rough time of it. I’d say that Malky Mackay’s desire for our full backs to push on leaves a danger that our centrebacks can become isolated and exposed, but that wasn’t the case with any of Barsnley’s goals. If a team had scored those three goals we conceded in isolation, then you’d say it was bad luck on our part and just one of those things, but nine goals in three matches is a worry. I think it is pretty obvious that the current back five is Malky Mackay’s preferred choice and it might be tempting for him to give them all a further chance to prove themselves in Tuesday’s League Cup game, but if Burnley (who are no mugs going forward) cause us the sort of problems that Ipswich, Peterborough and Barnsley have, then there, surely, has to be changes for the two tough looking away matches that follow.