By the New Year, Neil Warnock will have learned that his Cardiff City side can barely ever manage to win both games when they play successive home matches within a few days. Only during our record breaking run of consecutive home wins during our promotion season have we suggested that we have been able to put this weakness to bed, but, usually any of our previous half a dozen managers who have expected six points from such a pair of matches have ended up being disappointed.
So, while there will always be feelings of what might have been when City scored so early and produced what I would rate as their best half of football in a home match so far this season, there also has to be an acceptance that, given where we were after we lost at Burton, six points from home matches with sides in fifth and seventh position in the table was a bit too much to hope for.
Indeed, as the game ended with the score 1-1, it was probably fair to say that if a team deserved to win, it was a Sheffield Wednesday outfit which, for me, earned the accolade of being the best side to visit Cardiff City Stadium so far this season. Now, despite our very poor home record, that is not an award which carries much merit because the four sides able to leave with all three points during the Trollope era didn’t have to be that impressive to win and they duly weren’t.
Therefore, I would be giving Wednesday more credit if I said that, come the end of the season, I believe I will still be singling them out as one of the best teams to visit Cardiff City Stadium during 2016/17.
In saying that, I do find myself wondering if I’m saying that because, in the second half in particular, they played a lot of pass and move football at pace – it’s the way I’ve always liked to see the game played and so, perhaps, I’m being guilty of over rating a team that I feel have a decent chance of earning automatic promotion this season?
I’ve alluded to this before on here, but, after a few years where everyone seemed to be using the brilliant Barcelona team of around 2011 as a template, the game has moved on and, nowadays, there is definitely more than one way to skin a cat so to speak.
A look at the highlights from last night’s match will show that Sky thought there were almost twice as many incidents at the Sheffield Wednesday end of the pitch worth showing as there were at ours and, looking back, I’d say that it’s hardly as if they have missed out on many, if any, examples of our opponents really putting our goal under threat with a shot or a header.
To continue with this theme, the BBC’s report on the match states that in the first half Wednesday “enjoyed as much as 78% possession”. As regular readers on here will have seen before, my fundamental attitude to the game is that your opponents cannot score when you have the ball, so that begs the question as to whether I’m contradicting myself when I state that a forty five minute spell when we had less than a quarter of the possession represented our best half at home so far this season?
Well, leaving aside the fact that, up to last Friday and the Bristol City game, we would not have had to play that well to merit such a claim, the easy answer to that question is yes, but I would qualify that by saying that I’m coming around to realising that I have been looking at things in terms that are too black and white.
To illustrate what I mean, I would point to a couple of things that Neil Warnock has said since he was appointed our manager. In his introductory press conference he remarked that he saw little point in passing the ball backwards and sideways all of the time, when all this does is give your opponents more time to organise themselves. Logically, this has to be right and, so I now accept that when I talk about liking passing football, what I really mean is that I like football where the ball is passed with a purpose.
Also, I think it was after the wurzels match that our manager said that we had been able to get a rest while Bristol were passing the ball around at the back (incidentally, it seems that Lee Johnson was not too happy about the way his team went about things as well, because he said his centrebacks should not try to play out from the back because they weren’t good enough at it!).
So, it seems that Neil Warnock is perfectly happy to let our opponents have the ball (to the detriment of our possession stats) in certain areas of the pitch – this helps to make something which, on the face of it, seems to make no sense understandable.
I’m pretty certain that anyone with Sheffield Wednesday’s best interests at heart who was at the match would agree that they played a lot better in the second half when their percentage of possession was lower than it was in the opening forty five minutes. However, what they were able to do, to some extent at least, was pass through us, where they had previously been passing in front of us.
So, looking at things from a City perspective now, they were, just as they were on Friday, able to limit in form opponents to few sights of goal by defending far better than they had done in their previous home games.
There were two occasions when Ben Amos was tested in the first half, once to catch a Gary Hooper turn and shot and then to keep out an Adam Reach effort after the winger had beat three City players (I rate that save as the best he has made for us so far). Apart from that, it was a pretty quiet evening for our keeper as he was, again, given good protection by a back four in which Sol Bamba followed his stellar showing on his debut with a less spectacular, but still impressive, effort here.
Even when we were really struggling, there was little wrong with Lee Peltier’s defending and I would nominate him as the most consistent player we have when it comes to that side of the game. Sean Morrison appears to be benefiting from Bamba’s presence alongside him as well – while there were one or two moments of alarm caused by his failure to deal with what looked like straightforward situations, the skipper has played quite a bit better in the last two matches than he had been previously.
In front of them, I thought the central midfield three of Ralls, Gunnarsson and Whittingham performed the defensive side of their game with discipline and selflessness. This side of the game does not come naturally to the last named, but, whereas with some as talented as he is, you can say that they are not a team player, that has never been the case with Whitts. So, while there is the quandary about whether what he can bring to the team justifies his inclusion while there are better options available when it comes to other facets of the game always applies, you know he’ll always give of his best for the team.
Certainly, when he can provide you with a goal like the one he scored last night that only begged the question “if you can make scoring a goal like that appear so easy, why on earth is it more than three years since your last goal from a free kick in a home game?” then Whitts begins to look indispensable – especially when you extend the discussion beyond the defensive side of the game.
While the central midfield three worked their socks off when we didn’t have the ball, they did little to alter my perception from Friday night, that they will only very rarely be able to provide the “third man running” situations that teams (especially teams that only play with one main striker) need if they are to offer much of a threat in open play. With no disrespect to him because he is not in Warnock’s team to be it’s creative hub, when Aron Gunnarsson, as he did last night, offers your best attacking option from central midfield in non deal ball situations, then you know you’ve got problems.
With little to harm opponents in terms of counter attacking or running beyond them in our central midfield, the need for some attacking threat and penetration switches to the wings. When you look at the right flank, while it would be wrong to say that Craig Noone was left to do all of the attacking by himself, I think it’s fair to say that if Peltier had the attacking game to back up his fine defending, he would be celebrating his thirtieth birthday in December as someone who had spent most of his career playing Premier League football.
So, while Noone showed the same dedication to the team that the three central midfielders did, he was given a heavy workload that included having to be the one who would need to provide so much of the attacking thrust down that side of the pitch and, as has been the case too often in recent years, he was never really able to deliver on that score.
There is some cause for optimism on the left though I believe. I didn’t mention Joe Bennett when I talked about the back four earlier because there is a common perception that he is a full back who is happier attacking than he is defending – certainly, there was more talk about what he could give us in an attacking sense than there was about his defending when we signed him.
So, Bennett looks like he might be able to do a job in our opponent’s half of the pitch in a way which Peltier struggles to on the other side. However, the issue which struck me from last night is that, in the second half in particular, Bennett was very often further up the pitch than Junior Hoilett was.
This was not as obvious on the right, but it did strike me that, perhaps, our wingers were being told that they had to stick with the Wednesday full backs come what may rather than “pass them on” to Peltier or Bennett because they were expected to play narrower when Wednesday attacked to deal with what was going on in the inside right and left channels.
Although the equalising goal came from a move which developed in the sort of areas I’m talking about on our left, our opponents lack of a real goal threat was testimony to a plan which worked when it came to defending. However, while Hoilett was more of an attacking influence than he had been on Friday and was, in my book, a candidate to be our man of the match (I think it had to be Bamba again though in the end), you have to wonder what he might have been able to do if he had not been required to play so much of the game as an auxiliary left back.
One of the other things Neil Warnock has said since his appointment is that there are not many goals in our team at the moment and so particular emphasis has to be put on attacking dead ball situations – so far, two of our three goals in the Warnock era have come via this route and the other one was a penalty.
I feel our manager is correct in what he says, but he must know that the way we set up last night in particular did little to rectify this problem and, even more so than normal, Rickie Lambert (who, one shot flashed not too far over from a Gunnnarsson long throw apart, got as close to scoring his first home goal with a shot straight from the kick off which forced Keiren Westwood to tip the ball over) and then a Marouane Chamakh who, hardly surprisingly, looked well short of match fitness, cut a very lonely figure up front.
By the same token, even if the manager is not too bothered about winning the possession battle, I wouldn’t have thought he would be too happy with the twenty nine per cent possession figure the BBC credited us with – it’s hard to say how we can move away from being a side with not many goals in us if we are only going to have the ball for just over a quarter of the match every week.
That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of Neil Warnock because, with the situation he inherited, the defence did need a great deal of work done on it and I think any incoming manager would have made it a priority.
However, I’m sure that he will know that getting things sorted at the back is a lot easier than turning the goalshy group of players he inherited and the quartet, at various degrees of fitness, he brought in into a potent attacking force.
Overall, four points is a good return from Neil Warnock’s first two matches – the Bristol game was a very timely shot in the arm and we went toe to toe with a good side last night, but, at the end of it all, we are back where we found ourselves when Paul Trollope was sacked.
While Rotherham are in danger of being cast adrift already, the other sides at the bottom have all shown that getting clear of them will not be as easy as those who see us becoming promotion contenders believe it to be – especially when you look at our games in November, plus a visit from Brighton to get December underway.
For me, avoiding relegation has become the priority for this season – as for more than that, our manager believes there’s not enough goals in this side yet and I agree with him.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/