Malky Mackay joined Nathan Blake for an entertaining question and answer session on the Wales Online website on Thursday. Much of what was said was interesting and informative, but I must admit I groaned when the two men moved into “you have to have played the game to understand it” territory. In this instance, they were talking about Heidar Helguson and the let’s say lukewarm reaction his early performances engendered from some City supporters. To be fair to Messrs Mackay and Blake, I’d say that a great deal of the criticism Helguson got was more to do with his lack of goals than his effectiveness in a team context (which is what the two ex players tended to concentrate on). With three goals in his past two matches, I’d say many of the Icelandic strikers critics have grown more silent and I’d reckon it’s generally true to say that as long as your striker is scoring on a pretty regular basis, a large majority of supporters will be satisfied with his contribution.
To an extent therefore I can understand it when ex pro’s talk about supporters not really understanding the game (I wouldn’t mind betting that it is a pretty unanimous view amongst their ranks), but I don’t really agree with it. Of course, there are opinions through watching players train every day and knowing their character better than supporters do which those working within the game are better placed to form, and I’d also say that there are technical aspects of coaching and tactics that fans may not pick up on as readily as the pros do. However, supporters can usually get a decent idea as to where their team is going right or wrong and, invariably, the collective opinion given on a new signing by supporters of his old club tends to be spot on.
Anyway, I intend to deal in just facts for a while now, so, even though any ex pros who get to read this might think I’m talking rubbish when I start venturing into territory where I give an opinion, there will be very little they can argue with in the next few sentences. Firstly, we lost just four away matches out of twenty three during the regular season last year. One of those was by 3-0 at Ipswich when the excuse could be offered that the team were distracted by their appearance in the League Cup Final the following week, but the other three were by 2-1 (at Hull and Leicester) and a 4-3 at Peterborough that could, perhaps, be explained away by the fact that Ben Turner was being bedded into the team at that time.
In those twenty three matches we conceded twenty four goals at an average of very slightly above one a game, so far this season we’ve let in almost half of that number in just six games – we’ve lost three of them and have conceded ten goals in doing so. If those figures were to be spread over the course of this season we would end up with in the region of twenty six to twenty eight points compared to the thirty five we finished with last year and we’d let in forty plus away goals. Malky Mackay talked in that session with Nathan Blake about ninety points being enough to guarantee promotion season in, season out, so if the aim is a top two finish (and £10 million spent in the transfer market strongly suggests it is), then, without a significant improvement in our away results, we are almost certainly going to have to win twenty or more of our home matches to reach that points target.
One last set of facts – the BBC stats for the Palace match says we had two shots on target in the whole match (the two goals we scored in the first fifteen minutes) and another two in yesterday’s 3-1 defeat at Forest – remarkably, those same stats showed we had eight efforts on goal at Ipswich, but, from memory, I can’t remember us testing Scott Loach before he fumbled a cross into the path of Helguson for his equaliser with more than an hour played. Similarly, I can remember looking at the BBC’s webpage for yesterday’s game after about an hour and seeing the shots on target figures reading four nil in favour of Forest – so, according to the BBC, we had a total of two shots on target in the first two thirds of the matches at Palace and Forest and I’d be grateful for anyone’s help in reminding me of any we had during the same period at Ipswich.
I now move on to the bit where I start talking bollox by giving my opinions . Firstly, let’s be generous and say we had three efforts on goal at Ipswich which I’ve forgotten about during that first hour – what does a total of five shots on target in the the first hour of our last three away matches say about the team’s mind set going into those games? No doubt Malky Mackay would say that a similar approach worked last season (I make it six out of our eight away wins were earned by goals from around the hour mark onwards), so why shouldn’t it this time – I’d argue though that things are proving to be quite different this time around for a few, sometimes contradictory, reasons.
For a start, shouldn’t £10 million spent in this division mean that you should be able to go into away matches with a far more adventurous mind set than we appear to be showing? Ah, but it’s not really £10 million is it – take the injured Nicky Maynard and Jordon Mutch out (as well as Craig Bellamy who may not have cost anything in transfer fees, but is, arguably, the most influential of our new players) out and our manager loses a good portion of those multi million pound options. Add to that Kim Bo-Kyung and Etien Velikonja, whose combined value of £3.5 million is beginning make their non use from the substitutes bench look either like a serious misjudgment on the club’s part in bringing in a couple of players not good enough to cut at this level or indulging in luxuries we can barely afford as we wait for them to “develop” into Championship performers – us supporters can’t form an opinion on which one it is because we never see them play! Last but not least, we have Craig Noone, who, admittedly, was poor at Ipswich, but has been very influential in every other match he’s played, also sat on the bench – if there is one player who represents our manger’s seemingly different outlooks in home ad away matches, it’s Noone with his non selection at Palace and now at Forest.
So, with the £1 million we paid for Noone as well, I make it that something like £8 million’s worth of that total transfer spend (plus Bellamy) didn’t start the game yesterday afternoon, so not for the first time, our side had a last season look to it going into an away game. Therefore, is it so surprising that our manager has so far opted for what generally tended to work well enough last time around in terms of how we set up away from home? I’d say no if you were talking about the start of the season, but for me, and a few other supporters I’d guess, the alarm bells started ringing when we conceded four against a team who only just managed to stay up last year at Ashton Gate. After that defeat, Malky Mackay talked about individual errors of a type he assured us we would not be seeing again, a month or so later after we blew a two goal lead to end up with nothing at Palace, our manager, correctly, talked about really poor decisions made by his players in the conceding of two penalties and yesterday he was lamenting poor defending for the last two Forest goals.
If you add in the awful goal we conceded at Ipswich (forget about the handball, Campbell should never have got the chance to punch the ball in), isn’t it reasonable to argue that last years methods aren’t going to work (for now at least) because we simply aren’t defending well enough in away games? As to why this should be, do we blame it on the ex QPR contingent – after all, the three of them all played at Bristol, Palace and Forest? I think not, but, in terms of Matt Connolly, I would say that the time has come to bring Ben Turner back . We kept clean sheets in the first two games of the season with Ben in the starting line up and I’d say we need an out and out defender with his desire to get his head or foot to the ball first back in the team – I’m not saying that means Connolly should drop out, but, perhaps, he should move to full back (whether we could afford to lose McNaughton’s pace is a moot point mind and Taylor has played pretty well in recent matches).
It’s interesting to see in this superb analysis of the first ten matches of each Football League club’s season that they say we had conceded the third most goals in the division from corners. Now, this is a surprise to me because I can’t remember any off the top of my head, but if you expanded to deal ball situations, then I’d agree because we do seem to have conceded a lot from free kicks so far – once again, this suggests that we are not defending as well as a unit or individually.
When a lot of new and expensive players arrive at a club in the close season, it’s easy to forget or not acknowledge how this may impact on the things that the team were doing well before – it’s wrong to assume that previous strengths just automatically stay in place. I think we are seeing this in how we have been transformed from a resilient and disciplined outfit on our travels last season to the flaky side prone to expensive individual and collective errors we are seeing now. Maybe an explanation to this comes from the way it is taken as read that our squad is so much stronger this year – could it be that this year the, perhaps subconscious, attitude is “if I mess up, one of our stars will get us out of the sh*t” whereas last year there was more of an “all for one and one for all” approach as a less gifted group of players made team spirit count for an awful lot?
Whatever the answer, things need to be kept in perspective, twenty two sides in our league would love to swap with us now and you have to assume that, eventually, we will start reaping the benefits of having a virtually full squad fit and playing well as at the same time as opposed to the two thirds of it that appears to be the case at the moment. However, even if we were to keep our 100% winning run at home going with a couple of victories in the winnable home matches we have in the next week, it’s at Bolton and Charlton after that where we need to show that the worrying, and surprising, trend that has afflicted us so far is not something that is going to dog us throughout the campaign.