Although I’ve only watched the 1-0 win over the jacks at Cardiff City Stadium once since getting back from the game, I can assure you it’s going to get plenty of viewings over the upcoming week – well, maybe the first half won’t get that many!
One thing that struck from my first televised viewing of the game though was Sky’s assertion that yesterday’s match was the biggest and most important match to ever be played in this country. Now, hyperbole is second nature to that channel and I can think of a few Wales internationals more deserving of that title than yesterday’s match (e.g. the Wales v Russia Play Off match in November 2003 for a place in the final stages of Euro 2004, the Wales v Rumania game in 1993 where a win for the home side would have taken them to the World Cup Finals a year later, Wales v Scotland in 1985 when a place at Mexico 1986 was at stake and the notorious Wales v Yugoslavia game in 1976 which could have seen us reaching the last four of the European Championships), but have there been bigger club games played in Wales?
I reckon that’s a more valid claim, but I’m still not convinced that it is the case – if we limit it to the two sides in action yesterday, I’d say Swansea’s League Cup Semi Final Second Leg against Chelsea earlier this year was a bigger game and, as for us, I certainly rate our match with SV Hamburg in 1968 with a place in a major European Final at stake above yesterday and I’d probably also include the three occasions since the Second World War when City have clinched promotion to the top flight in front of their own fans as bigger as well.
Games played as early in the season as this one was tend to be less important in my view than ones in April and May even if they are a first ever meeting between us and our neighbours to the west at top level. Yesterday was all about bragging rights for one set of supporters first and foremost, but, even to this cynical City fan who doesn’t tend to do “banter” and who still sees Bristol City as our biggest rivals because we never used to play the jacks when I was growing up, I’ve got a spring in my step this morning and victory tasted very sweet last night.
So, how did a City team which were perceived to be on the slide and representing a beleaguered, imploding, club manage to beat “everyone’s favourite second team” , the club which is put forward by every man and his dog as the example to follow in terms of how it is run? Well, according to our manager, it wasn’t by the method advocated by many “experts” (including myself) before the game. “Pressing” is very fashionable at present and I was amongst those who argued that the way to stop the jacks playing their passing game was to try to cut off their possession at source by closing down their defenders as they tried to play out from the back in typical Swansea style.
To do this would have meant getting more men further up the pitch than we’ve become used to seeing this season from City and I suppose the first clue we got that this wasn’t going to happen came when the team was announced. I groaned when I heard Don Cowie was playing. This was not because I’m one of the many City fans who have little time for him (in fact, I think he is an under rated player who, in the event, turned in the disciplined and effective showing that I thought he would), it was more what his selection represented.
Playing Cowie seemed to me to signify that we were going leave our lone striker very much isolated – he was not going to be rampaging down the right (the area where the majority of our, fairly rare, attacks stem from) forcing Routledge back – he was going to be one of nine outfield players sitting back inviting pressure.
That’s actually what happened in the first half, Williams and Chico were able to play out from the back as City stood off them and, in what seemed an ominous opening fiftteen minutes or at the time, Michu (twice) and Dyer got themselves into dangerous positions with the former forcing Marshall into a save after a mistake by the otherwise very impressive Gary Medel. All City had to offer in response during the first forty five minutes was a Bellamy free kick which was deflected narrowly over and a a Whittingham corner which caused Worm some difficulty – however, there were passages of play where they passed it about quite well at times (albeit in “safe” areas for Swansea) and the visitors found themselves unable to create anything worthwhile going forward for the last thirty minutes of the half.
With a few minutes left of a first period which, let’s be honest, only had the sense of occasion to commend it, I mentioned that our approach reminded me a little of Newcastle’s a day earlier when they entertained Chelsea. They had seemed willing to allow Chelsea as much possession as they wanted and just soak up the resultant pressure – the not at all biased Chris Waddle on Radio 5 kept on going on about how passive Newcastle were and bemoaned the lack of tempo to their game. Come the second half, Newcastle were a team transformed. After a quiet opening few minutes, they started to force Chelsea back and carved out enough chances to more than merit their eventual 2-0 win – it was as if they were conserving their energy for about an hour, but not only that, they were drawing Chelsea’s sting.
I believe that something similar happened yesterday because it was as if someone had flicked a switch and City burst into life in the second half. There was certainly a lot more urgency to the team, Peter Odemwingie (who had made quite of bit out of the meagre possession that came his way in the opening forty five minutes – Fraizer Campbell also did well when he came on by the way) got a bit more support and it was Swansea who were now on the back foot for most of the time – if our continuing lack of a creative edge in open play meant that there were never the number of chances Newcastle created, we did manage to draw the sting of our opponents quicker (about forty minutes quicker actually!) and I don’t think that, as in their game, there were many who could claim that the home side didn’t deserve all three points in the end.
I’m pretty sure the similarity between the Newcastle and Cardiff approaches, which flew in the face of the current vogue for pressing high up the pitch,was not down to Malky tearing up his tactical plan after seeing how his friend Alan Pardew had got the better of the tactical battle with Jose Mourinho. After all, Malky (who said he was happy to let the Swansea centrebacks have the ball as his team concentrated on pressing in “other areas”) is meticulous in his planning and I’m sure there were days spent on the training ground preparing for the approach we saw yesterday, but it does show that, in a tactical sense, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
That said, how much of Swansea’s decline from their smooth start and their eventual decline into something of an indisciplined rabble (by normal jacks standards at least) was down to frustration at the way we went about blunting them and how much was down to annoyance at their own ordinariness is open to argument because I thought that, when compared to other Swansea sides from the recent past, they looked a very ordinary outfit indeed.
I’ll hold my hand and say I’ve enjoyed watching the jacks play in the last few years – they played a passing game at a decent pace with genuine wingers who were in the habit of hugging the touchline (that’s entertaining football in my book). Yesterday however, even in their so called dominance of the first half, much of their play was ponderous with the ball not being moved anywhere near as quickly, or tellingly, as usual while their wingers Dyer and Routledge constantly ran down blind alleys as they invariably cut inside rather than try and take on their man on the outside. Whether both winger’s quiet matches could be put down to them being victims of the pressing in other areas Malky talked about, I’m not too sure, but what became clearer as the second half went on, was that Routledge, in particular, had his hands full trying to deal with the player making rampaging runs down the right for us.
No, Don Cowie wasn’t transformed into a flying winger for forty five minutes, but Kevin Theophile-Catherine was! When watching the game for the second time I made a deliberate point of looking to see where our right back was for much of the second half because my impression at the game was that he was operating in front of Cowie for much of the time. I turned out it wasn’t quite as often as I first suspected, but there were certainly times when the ball was with the likes of Turner, Caulker and Medel when Theophile-Catharine was well in advance of them and, to all intents and purposes, playing right midfield.
This advanced position didn’t have a negative affect on our defending because he was quick and mobile enough to get back when required and he also benefitted from having the conscientious Cowie willing to help him out – in fact, apart from the opening seconds when he was caught out of possession, Theophile-Catharine’s defending was probably an improvement on what he has shown in his last one or two games. While the accolades may have tended to go to the likes of Caulker, Bellmay and Medel, I thought Theophile-Catharine came of age as a Cardiff player yesterday – he was a very important factor in our win, while also showing that he could turn out to be someone who can improve our attacking from open play.
Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/