I remarked that it was like watching a last day of the season match between two sides with nothing to play for who had their minds on other things. On reflection, this was unfair. Burnley weren’t lacking in effort, but, without Jay Rodriguez (the scorer of ten of their last twelve goals), they lacked a real cutting edge – as for the team in blue, they can be criticised for many things, but this Cardiff City team always put the effort in.
In saying that though, wanting to give of your best and actually being in good enough shape to do that are two different things and, if any more evidence that the players have run out of steam was needed, then it was there again yesterday. Those who maintain that we, somehow, over achieved for the first six months of the season and that the level of performance in our last ten games is a more accurate representation of the player’s capabilities need to consider a few things. For example, at yesterday’s post match press conference, it was pointed out that City had just played their forty sixth competitive match of the season – this was not the case, add on the five periods of extra time in our League Cup run and we are in fact, going into the last third of our forty eighth match of the season.
Let’s not forget either that these players, who many are now trying to write off as ordinary mid table scufflers or worse, have been playing for a manager who, right from the time he took over at the club, has been promising that supporters would “see the sweat on the team’s shirts at the end of games” – indeed, much of the success enjoyed over the first two thirds of the campaign could be put down to the side’s work ethic. So, we have a small squad playing to a very physically demanding style and, on 24 January we saw an example of that approach at it’s best when Crystal Palace were overwhelmed in a very one sided Carling Cup Semi Final Second Leg which, somehow, had to be settled by penalties – with one exception, City have not been able to reach their earlier standards since that night.I thought Liam Lawrence did better than he did on Tuesday, but. like so many of his colleagues, he seems unable to work time and space for himself - a team that played the pressing game so well earlier in the season, are now very easy to press themselves.
Just over a month later, the team put in a huge effort in the Final of the Carling Cup and I believe it’s very telling to remember how three of our players reacted in extra time of that match – Joe Mason asked to be taken off because he had nothing left to give, Aron Gunnarsson could hardly move in the closing stages because of the effects of cramp and Andrew Taylor was barely able to raise a jog when Dirk Kuyt ran past him in the last couple of minutes. Now, it’s not too unusual to see reactions like that during extra time in Cup Finals, but I would suggest that they nearly always happen in FA Cup Finals, which are played later in the season and, usually, in much higher temperatures than the League Cup Final – to see players struggling as much as some of ours did is very unusual in February Finals. Players reacting as ours did tend to do so in the knowledge that they are playing their last game of the season and that they will get the chance to recharge their batteries over the next six weeks or so while they go on their holidays – ours had another couple of months or more of the two matches a week Championship to look forward to.
I mentioned earlier that we are currently half an hour away from completing our forty eighth competitive match of the season. Well, that’s as many as West Ham and Reading (who both significantly strengthened squads that were already bigger than ours in January) will play all season if they go up automatically and Hull will only play forty nine times if they miss out on the Play Offs. So, is it really logical to expect our players to continue to perform to the same level as these teams when they are currently in the same sort of condition as the players from those sides will be on the final day of the campaign?
A common theme amongst supporters of clubs who we signed players from over the course of the summer was that our new recruits were a bit short of pace. The last seven months or so have seen them proved correct in most cases, but, earlier in the season, they (and many others in our squad) had that burst of energy to get themselves away from opponents they had got a yard clear of. Once again, that was lacking yesterday as our more creative players were unable to work space for themselves that would give them the time to see the runs being made in front of them.
Offensively, that was as poor as I’ve seen us this season. For about eighty five minutes we had virtually nothing to offer going forward in open play and this lack of menace meant that we weren’t even getting the attacking dead ball situations that represent our best chance of scoring these days. The last few minutes saw some improvement though, with both full backs putting in excellent crosses – McNaughton’s almost being headed in by a Burnley defender and Taylor’s being glanced wide by Earnie. An overhead kick by Mark Hudson also flew not far wide, but, apart from when Mason got clear of Grant and Miller forced the Burnley keeper into just about his only save of the match in the first half, there was nothing to excite the subdued crowd.1,181 minutes and counting since his last goal - Kenny Miller did well to work this space for himself in the first half, but, typically for him at the moment, the shot was scuffed and straight at the keeper.
The one positive to take out of the ninety minutes was that, at last, we managed to keep a clean sheet. There were still moments of poor defending in the first half – Marshall had to save well from Wallace and from Stanislaus’ shot which got a deflection off Mason and one of the visiting centrebacks wasted a free header from a free kick, but overall, City were more solid with McNaughton looking more like his normal self and Hudson being my City man of the match. That’s about it as far it goes when it comes to optimistic noises from me I’m afraid though – just as we have been in virtually every league game we’ve played since late January, we weren’t good enough to challenge for and sustain a top six place.
Until his last season with us, I had a tendency to look to the players when things weren’t going well under our previous manager, but I find it very hard to be too critical of these players because, as a group, I believe they’ve given, and continue to give, as much as they can to the cause – it’s not their fault that they don’t have very much to give any more. So, does it follow that it is the manager who is to blame then? Well, put it this way, I think Malky Mackay has to take more responsibility than the players at the moment – for example, it’s been, rightly, remarked on by many that he is not making full use of the resources available to him, but, concentrating on the middle of the park for now, I find it very odd that players such as Joe Ralls and Filip Kiss, who both played a fair amount of first team football when we were going well, are barely being given a chance now. Okay, I know Kiss was ill yesterday, but he has the energy that our midfield has been so lacking recently and yet has hardly featured in recent league matches.
Malky Mackay is an intelligent man, he must know that playing such a physically demanding style with a small squad (especially when he makes it even smaller by virtually ignoring certain members of it) was going to lead to the sort of problems later in the season that we are now seeing. With this in mind, it’s hard to understand the lack of activity in the January transfer market or in the various loan windows throughout the season. I don’t think anyone can say with certainty whether this is down to our manager sticking too rigidly to his dossier system for transfer targets or the Malaysian investors not making sufficient funds available to him throughout the season, but, suffice it to say that our work in the January transfer window wasn’t good enough and, with just four days left in which we can bring in players, it would appear that the same is going to apply in the loan market as well. The nucleus of a top six squad was put in place in the summer, but, increasingly, it’s looking like a great opportunity has been blown because our much vaunted recruitment department has not delivered – why is it that, increasingly, I find myself thinking of this film when I watch us play?