It’s difficult to know where to start about last night’s match, the transformation in the team in the last week has been amazing. Seven days ago, we were gaining results through sheer belief and will power as we ignored a horrendous injury list and just got on with things – the football may not have been that great to watch, but it was still impressive stuff as mentally we looked as strong as any team in the league. Now we look broken, bereft of confidence and you wonder where the next point is coming from.
There was some disagreement among messageboard users about my use of the word “outclassed” in the title of my piece on the Fulham game, well those who thought I was wrong then don’t need to worry this time, because we weren’t outclassed at all last night, but, in a way, I wish we had been.
I say that because I see less reason for alarm in us being well beaten by a Fulham side that played very well on the day, than I do in in what happened against Preston.
No, Preston certainly didn’t outclass us last night. I thought they were pretty ordinary in fact, one of the least impressive sides to come to Cardiff City Stadium so far this season and yet they were still good enough to be, comfortably, the better of the two teams. That’s the truly worrying thing about what happened in our latest match, we managed to look so poor against a team which, I suspect, was some way short of their best themselves.
Of course, when a team is beaten by a scrappy last minute goal to nil, there is always a case for saying they were unlucky. In truth though, I find it very hard to begrudge Preston their win because, right from first minute to last, there was a feeling that, if a side was going to conjure a goal from somewhere out of the mess of misplaced passing, aimless hoofing and general incompetence those at the ground or watching on Sky were being forced to endure, it was always going to be the visitors.
For nearly four months now, we have been having spells on a fairly regular basis of complete footballing ineptitude when we looked unable to get the simplest of tasks right. We make no claims to be among the Championship’s best passers of a ball, but, during these spells, we seldom look like being able to pass the ball from one blue shirt to another at all because we never seem to have it under control.
The result is that the ball is just hoofed vaguely forward and, hardly surprisingly, it keeps coming back at us.
Up until recently, we have been able to get through these periods when the last thing we look is a side in the upper reaches of the table and keep them down to something like twenty minutes duration. However, gradually these very poor spells have been getting longer (against Hull for example, it was around half an hour before we managed to start playing a bit of football) until in our no shots on target showing at Bolton and our capitulation against Fulham, they went on for more than half of the game and culminated last night in a performance where we were in that awful football free mode for almost the whole ninety minutes.
People, including me, said wait until Kenneth Zohore is fit again, then we’ll be able to recapture some of the style that even those who have been critical of our play during the first half of the season would have to admit we showed at times before, and occasionally after, he was injured.
However, I would now argue that our first choice strikers return has been counter productive. I say that while not being too critical of the man himself, as it’s very difficult for anyone to come straight back into first team football to play whole games after some ten weeks or so out injured. No, for me, the blame lies with team mates who think that now Zohore is back, we can just knock long balls forward in his general direction for him to chase.
Zohore is in need of match fitness and I would have thought the last thing he needs is to be running around chasing punts forward or back passes to keepers with no real hope of getting any joy from them. Surely, what we have seen from Zohore in the almost two years he’s been with us is that he is more effective when the ball is played into his feet, as opposed to his head, and that he can cause havoc when given proper passes, rather than overhit punts, to run onto in the channels.
It was so telling for me that, just like Fulham, Preston played with a high line. With the sort of attacking pace we have in Hoilett, Mendez-Laing and Feeney (who started in place of Hoilett last night) to go with Zohore, you would have thought this would have been asking for trouble, but, in both cases, they had goalkeepers who had a double role as a sweeper as they came outside of their penalty area quickly to deal with balls played into space behind the back four.
Would Fulham and Preston been prepared to push up so far if City’s midfield had possessed somebody with the range and accuracy of passing of a McPhail or a Whittingham I wonder? I doubt it, but the truth was that City’s inability to get either Ralls or Damour (Gunnarsson and Bryson were absent injured again) on the ball meant that they were unable to show us whether they had it in them to match those midfield pass masters from our recent past.
No, most of the balls played in behind the Preston back line were overhit hoofs forward from defenders and, just like Bettinelli on Tuesday, Welshman Chris Maxwell had no problem in dealing with such poorly played “passes”.
For example, I thought the Bamba/Manga partnership at centreback played quite a lot better defensively than they did on Tuesday, but, for two players who have shown they can use the ball pretty effectively when playing out from the back in the past, their passing was pretty woeful.
So, I’m forced to conclude that the management of both of our most recent opponents figured that playing with a high line against our attacking pace was a risk worth taking because they did not believe we had the passing ability to be able to exploit the acres of space (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration!) in our opponent’s half available to us.
That said, Preston did need some luck when we actually did play to Zohore’s strengths for once and he was able to set Lee Tomlin free some forty yards from goal. If it had been one of those four pacey players I mentioned earlier in that position, they might not have gone on to score, but they all would have been able to stay ahead of the chasing defenders to give themselves a one against one with the keeper, but, as it was, the cover was soon able to catch Tomlin up and what looked like a golden chance at first just fizzled out without the Preston goal coming under any threat.
Now, Tomlin has never been a speed merchant and so it would be wrong to be critical of him for not having something that he does not possess, but I thought it was telling how quickly he was caught and it goes to the heart of what I think is the dilemma the Tomlin of 2017/18 poses compared to the one of, say, two or three years ago.
I thought it was noticeable last night that nearly every time Tomlin was able to show his undoubted ability to beat opponents in one on one situations, the other player was able to recover and put him under pressure again. In the sort of positions Tomlin worked for himself, that ability to get by other players in tight spaces would normally result in someone being taken out of the game, but, too often, it doesn’t – with his ability, you shouldn’t need lightning acceleration to do this, just a normal little burst should do the trick, but I’m not sure he has even got that in his locker these days.
This brings me on to the one bright spot of the two miserable home games we’ve had over the Christmas period. Against Fulham, Rhys Healey came on and showed a little of the creativity that we had so been lacking before his introduction and he did his cause no harm at all again last night as he showed a brightness and sharpness that contrasted vividly with what was on offer from his team mates.
I’ve always looked on Healey as an out and out striker, but Neil Warnock seems to think he can be effective as a number ten and I must say that last night he showed a footballing intelligence that taken together with the lovely weighted pass he gave Zohore against Fulham, suggests he might prove our manager right – based on the level of performance seen from all City players over the past seven days, Healey will be in the team on merit if he starts at QPR on Monday.
With no disrespect to Healey, who is another striving to get fully fit after a significant injury, this really does show how far some players have let their standards drop from the heady days of August. It should never be forgotten that we seem to be cursed when it comes to injuries (Joe Bennett joined the queue for the treatment room again yesterday), but that can only go so far towards explaining away the downward spiral which appears to be getting more dramatic by the game – until a week ago, it seemed we had the strength of character and downright cussedness to come through almost anything, now too many of our players are like rabbits caught in the headlights when they see the ball at their feet.