Neil Harris’ Cardiff City failed miserably to reach the target set for them by club Chairman Mehmet Dalman in the new manager’s first match in charge – they were more than thirty three per cent short of the required thirty five goal attempts per game.
In saying that, their twenty three efforts to score was the third highest by any team in the Championship this season, so I think a couple of things can be gleaned from that – first Mr Dalman is a very demanding task master and second, there were definite positives to be taken from a match which was, possibly, the most entertaining that Cardiff have been involved in this season.
As far as I’m concerned though, goal attempts per game is not that important, it’s the number that are on target which really counts and today’s season’s best eight compared very favourably with an average per game of just over four and half before today – only at West Brom has today’s tally been equalled,
The fact that only two of those eight attempts resulted in goals is disappointing and that feeling only increases when you consider that one of the six that didn’t result in a goal was a penalty kick.
Nevertheless, you would like to think that repeating statistics like those over a sustained period would see City climbing the table pretty quickly and it’s always a good result when your team comes back from 2-0 down to gain a draw like we did at Charlton this lunchtime.
However, although there were positives to be taken, this was yet another of those matches where you couldn’t help thinking that quite a few City teams from the last decade or so would have won. Certainly the 17/18 side would have because it’s very doubtful that they would have conceded two in a game like this one, but,although a majority of the personnel involved are the same, this is a very different defensive unit from the one which shared the best record for goals conceded with Champions Wolves two years ago.
Having gone in at the break a couple of goals down, City were always going to have to take risks to get back into the game and so there was bound to be times when things got a bit hairy at the back, but, even when it was 2-2, City were wide open to Charlton counter attacks at times. As Neil Harris remarked after the game, it was like basketball at times and he spoke of wanting his team to be more controlled in the future.
So much of what happened offered further justification of the view that City have been caught on the hop this season by the changed nature of attacking play in this division – too often, we were slow and heavy legged against attackers who offered pace, dynamism and intelligence.
City were lucky to be facing a home side shorn of ten senior players through injury and suspension that were only able to select six substitutes, the majority of whom were untried youngsters. Charlton also lost an influential midfielder in Liam Cullen to another injury and yet still caused the City backline any number of problems – with some of their most experienced first choice performers available, you would have thought that the home side would have been able to turn more of the good positions they worked for themselves into goals.
The two goals City conceded offered differing illustrations of the sub standard defending that has dogged them all season. For the first one, Curtis Nelson and Joe Bennett were doubled up on Macauley Bonne, a centre forward who was playing non league football last season, and yethe was able to get past both of them to supply a low cross that the impressive teenage loanee from Chelsea, Connor Gallagher, whose run into the penalty area had not been adequately tracked, was able to put away with ease from about eight yards out..
The second saw Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, who started the game well and created a decent chance which Callum Paterson put into the side netting when it was 0-0, lost the ball far too cheaply some fifteen yards inside the Charlton half. Within seconds, the home side were making incisive inroads as Oztumer found Johnathan Leko who left a toiling Marlon Pack in his wake and went on to score with a shot which took a slight deflection off the midfielder past Neil Etheridge who had no choice with either goal.
In between the goals, City established a measure of control by, just as against Bristol City, playing a more patient game than the long ball approach that they have become associated with. In saying that, they still looked vulnerable every time Charlton were able to turn over possession and, just as against Bristol again, the additional possession they had only tended to emphasise a lack of creativity – next to nothing was created from open play.
True, we probably should have had a penalty when Paterson was clipped as he moved on to a cross and, with Gary Madine, preferred up front to Omar Bogle, having one of his more effective games in a blue shirt, there was at least some threat going forward. However, with Mendez-Laing blowing hot and cold and Junior Hoilett looking shorn of confidence (possibly due to Neil Warnock’s departure?), our wingers were, once again, not coming up with the goods.
Although Neil Harris spoke after the game about how ” in the first half I thought we had huge control of the football, with some excellent passages of play and we got done on the counter attack twice.”, that was, for me, describing a different game from the one I was watching – possibly a one goal deficit would have been fairer, but Charlton had definitely been the better team.
Not for the first time this season, I looked at a first half performance from City and wondered about their motivation. That for me has been – one of the biggest surprises of the season – a manager who had made his name as a motivator had, seemingly, lost the knack and now it looked like his successor was unable to get the squad up for a game as well.
What followed lifted any early doubts about Neil Harris’ motivational qualities though because City came out breathing fire – a line that Sky’s commentator was keen to use after half time on a couple of occasions.
This more urgent and incisive approach paid almost immediate dividends when home left back Purrington held back Paterson as he moved in on a good Bennett cross to the far post and referee Bond this time pointed to the spot.
With both Joe Ralls and Robert Glatzel out injured, City were missing the men who had scored from their previous penalties this season and so there was no obvious candidate to take this one – my choice would have been Mendez-Laing who had calmly scored from the spot in front of the Stretford End six months ago..
Given the type of game he was having, it was a surprise to see Hoilett step forward to take the penalty and, as has been widely noted on messageboards today, his demeanour hardly suggested a positive outcome. In the event, Hoilett hit a low almost scuffed looking effort to keeper Dillon Phillips’ right which he was always going to save if he chose the correct way to go – he did and City’s long road back into the game became that bit longer.
City were not giving up on this one yet though and within four minutes of Hoilett’s miss, they got a goal back when Charlton were unable to fully clear a corner and Leandro Bacuna was set up for a shot by Hoilett which was blocked and then bobbled about some ten yards from goal before an emphatic finish by Mendez-Laing put an end to the scramble.
It was Mendez-Laing’s first goal since his double at Old Trafford and was a reward for a more complete second half performance which saw him pushed into more of a central role. Indeed, the Sky pundits voted Mendez-Laing their man of the match and with Danny Ward still suspended for the visit of Stoke on Tuesday, I wonder if some thought may be given to using him through the middle with someone like Paterson or Lee Tomlin offering him support?
City had momentum now and when Phillips, rather luckily, kept out a Bacuna drive which got a little deflection, I was thinking in terms of us even going on to win the game against opponents who were beginning to look like they were struggling to cope with our physicality.
However, Charlton came again as the game entered the basketball phase that our manager talked about and City were grateful to Etheridge as he made a couple of decent saves to deny some bright home attacks.
There were signs that Charlton had seen off the City comeback and Tomlin and Bogle were brought on for Hoilett and Madine, but, with seventeen minutes to go, they levelled things up with one of their better goals of this season.
Another powerful run by Mendez-Laing was ended with a nicely weighted pass into the path of Bennett, who was another who improved in the second half, and the overlapping left back pulled an intelligent low cross back into the path of Tomlin stood some fifteen yards from goal. The playmaker then took a touch and proceeded to put his shot into exactly the opposite place that I expected him to! Instead of going high to Phillips’ left, he went low to his right and his shot was too strong for the slightly wrong footed keeper.
It was hard to imagine there not being any more goals given the way the game was going and it was not through the want of trying by either side that there weren’t.
The closest City came to finding a winner was when Bogle did well to work a shooting position for himself, but then seemed to be in two minds as to what to do with his shot and ended up hitting a looping effort which Phillips dealt with easily.
Up the other end, Nelson, who was lucky to escape a red card after what looked like a kick at Bonne as they both tried to get up off the floor came up with a good block to deny Oztumer and there was an even better one late on by Lee Peltier as Bonne closed in on what looked sure to be a winner.
A seventh draw out of seventeen matches drops City a couple of places to sixteenth some seven points off from the top six and eight clear of the bottom three – their season could go either way, but today, although there were still unsatisfactory elements to their play, they and their new manager suggested that the more likely of the two possible scenarios would be a possible run for a Play Off place.
Neil Harris has been saying the right things about the club’s Academy and the desire to get some of the club’s youngsters in and around the first team and, with that in mind, it was interesting to see Charlton starting with three former Cardiff Academy products.
Tom Lockyer, who looked comfortable and confident in the latter games of Wales’ successful attempt to reach Euro 2020, had been released by City at the age of fifteen I think it was, Neil Matthews was frozen out of first team selection by Dave Jones after making a very promising start to his senior career as a seventeen year old and opted to join Celtic when his contract with City ran out and Deji Oshilaja was released in 2017 without playing a league game for City.
Lockyer was at centreback today for Charlton, Matthews at right back and Oshilaja played in an unusual position for him in front of the back four. All three of them did not look out of place at this level in the slightest and it needs to be remembered that they are at a club that is currently above us in the table.
All of this rather gives the lie to the oft repeated view that our Academy products are not good enough for our first team – it seems some of them are, but we don’t realise it.
Speaking of the Academy, there was a disappointing 1-0 home loss to a Coventry side that were last but one in the table before today’s match. Any hopes of retaining their league title, or of even reaching the end of season Play Offs by finishing as runners up must surely have gone now for our Under 18s, but this is turning into a transitional season for them and today’s selection mirrored that – it was one of the youngest I can remember.