No goals but still there's hope. Paul Evans has his say on Cardiff's draw at Huddersfield.
A few weeks ago I looked at our first three fixtures in our return to the Premier League and predicted a pair of goalless draws to start off with followed by a 1-1 draw at Huddersfield – I also went for a draw by the same score against Arsenal in our fourth match before we tasted defeat for the first time at Chelsea.
I felt a return of three points from the fixtures with Bournemouth, Newcastle and Huddersfield, which represented a relatively gentle reintroduction to the top flight, was one short of what constituted a good return, but could be regarded as satisfactory.
The 2-0 defeat at Bournemouth on the opening day immediately made my forecasts look overly optimistic, but consecutive goalless draws with Newcastle and then at Huddersfield yesterday have left me believing that we can compete in this league – albeit with the one, pretty obvious, proviso which is dominating the after match reaction to the draw at whatever they call Huddersfield’s ground these days (I know it used to be the McAlpine Stadium, but I honestly cannot remember the names of about 90 per cent of these sponsor’s named grounds – normally, this would have me thinking of this being more evidence of a declining memory down to, rapidly, advancing age, but I know that’s not the case this time, it’s just that I’m not remotely interested in what grounds are called once they become vehicles for selling someone’s goods and/or services).
While I’m having a whinge, I may as well say, not for the first time on here I would have thought, that I’m no fan of the sort of American corporate speak which is becoming more prevalent in our language, but the term “elephant in the room” is the one which springs to mind when analysing our first three games except that’s not quite right, because that refers to something which is there, but everyone behaves as if it isn’t!
I must admit that, having seen and heard the reaction to yesterday’s game which, ridiculously, was being described as a must win occasion for both sides despite the season being less than a fortnight old, I don’t seem to be getting as worked up about our lack of goals as everyone else is.
I know that the fact that I seem to be taking it all so much more calmly than everyone else probably means that everyone else is right and I’m wrong, but indulge me for a little while as I argue that, for now at least, I see a couple of points on the board as being more important, and a cause for some positivity, than no goals scored from three games. Indeed, the fact we have two points when we are the only side in all four divisions not to have scored yet is, in a strange way, a cause for some celebration!
I suppose what I’ve just said there means that the elephant in the room analogy can be best applied to me, because I accept that I’m probably trying too hard to emphasise the positives. I don’t want to concentrate too much on the obvious problem we have which would make relegation impossible to avoid if it stretched out over the course of a season.
I’ve been doing some checking and, as far as I can tell, there has only been one other season when we didn’t score a goal in our first three league matches since we joined the Football League in 1920.
In season 1958/59 we started our Second Division campaign off with defeats by a trio of Yorkshire clubs – Barnsley were 1-0 winners at Ninian Park, before losses at Huddersfield and Rotherham, by 3-0 and 1-0 respectively, had us propping up the table after the season’s first week.
Anyone looking for positive omens will be pleased to note that we recovered from that horror start to finish a respectable ninth in the league and scored a thoroughly acceptable sixty five goals in our forty two games – if we end up this season averaging slightly more than 1.5 goals per game, then I’d like to think that we will have survived to fight another day in the Premier League in 19/20.
However, while I’m trying to accentuate the positives here, there has to come a time when some concerning facts have to be faced. While, I didn’t accept the “must win” description for yesterday’s game, I would not have argued too much with anyone wanting to call the match a “must not lose” one from a City perspective.
I say that because with our fixtures for September and October consisting of a seven match second phase to our campaign which includes encounters against five out of what has become known as the top six which are always held up as being not only the only possible candidates to win the title, but also the only ones who will be in contention for Champions League qualification (amazing how quickly the Leicester achievement of 15/16 has been forgotten isn’t it!).
The only one of that top six we don’t face in the next two months is Manchester United and so you would have thought that our only realistic chances of picking up any more points in that time will come in the home matches against Burnley and Fulham.
With that in mind, while it is handy to have those two points on the board, we really could have done with cashing in on the fact that we played the final third or so of each of our drawn matches against ten men.
Last week, Newcastle’s Isaac Hayden was shown a straight red card for a foul on Josh Murphy around the hour mark and this time it was Huddersfield skipper Jonathan Hogg who was dismissed after one of those stupid rutting stag type confrontations that don’t seem to happen on any other sporting field.
The fact that the other player involved in the confrontation was Harry Arter, who was almost universally considered to be lucky to have stayed on the pitch last week after he cynically hacked down Newcastle’s Joselu, should be a warning to both club and player that referees and opponents alike will be on the look out for further misdemeanours by someone who has already established himself, in just two games, as a very important member of the team.
To be fair to Arter, I think the yellow card he received from referee Michael Oliver was the correct punishment after he and Hogg confronted each other following claims by the City player that he had been fouled as he contested for a Josh Murphy corner.
I can’t help thinking as well that Hogg, a player I’ve never been too fond of after he ended Craig Conway’s season with a nasty tackle in a City v Watford match in 2012, probably deserved no more than a caution as well, but, perhaps, his manager David Wagner got it right when he said;-
“There were two aggressive players and one was very clever.
This wasn’t Hoggy in this situation and this is why he conceded this red card.”
as it was Arter who ended up on the floor as Hogg pushed out at him.
The sending off completely changed the flow of the game, but it also denied us the opportunity of finding out what City’s plans were going into the game – would they have been as happy to sit back and let Huddersfield dictate in the game’s final quarter as they had done for all of the first half and the opening stages of the second?,Or would they have been more ambitious and gone for the three points in the latter stages if it had remained eleven against eleven?
The most worrying of the myriad of stats which are produced for every game at this level was the one which said we only had one on target goal attempt in each of our first two matches, but there was an encouraging start of sorts for City to their third game as they managed to match that figure inside the first five minutes. Unfortunately, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, in for the injured Junior Hoilett as the only change from the Newcastle match, played no further part, and may well face a significant period out, after his collision with home keeper Ben Hamer following a pacy and brave run which took him past a couple of defenders before getting in a shot which the keeper blocked as the players collided.
Mendez-Laing was replaced by Callum Paterson, while Hamer admitted defeat after trying to play on for a few minutes and also had to be replaced. However, the attacking intent shown by our winger was not repeated by his team mates as City looked all too happy to concede the ball and space to a home side trying to get their season off and running after couple of heavy defeats by Chelsea and Manchester City.
To be fair, it was hardly a case of City hanging on as Huddersfield bombarded them because, apart from a long range shot into the side netting by the lively and effective Terence Kongolo early on, I’m struggling to remember another goal attempt by the home team in the first half. Nevertheless, it was all a bit dispiriting to see City so obviously intent on just keeping their goal intact.
Neil Etheridge was forced into a good save by home centre forward Mounie, but, essentially, things stayed the same way after the interval until the Hogg dismissal when the attitudes of the two sides changed completely. All of a sudden, Huddersfield were the team who were content with the one point they had and now the onus switched to Cardiff to be the ones who were charged with forcing the issue.
Where City deserve some credit, is that they made a much better job of playing with a man advantage against Huddersfield than they had done against Newcastle seven days earlier. Where Newcastle were able to hold City comfortably at arm’s length when they were a man short, Huddersfield struggled to cope at times and, by the end the BBC’s stats were showing five goal attempts by the hosts with one of them on target, compared to fourteen by us with four on target.
Where it was hard to be too critical of the team for missing chances in their first two games (for me it was more a matter of poor passing and crossing in the final third), this time questions had to be asked about our finishing as Sean Morrison missed exactly the sort of opportunity you’d expect him to bury from a good dead ball delivery by Joe Ralls and subs Danny Ward and Bobby Reid will feel they should have made more of the chances that came their way in the final twenty minutes.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to know if Reid (Ward had replaced Kenneth Zohore ten minutes before the sending off) would have been on as part of a more aggressive approach by City in the final stages if Hogg has still been on the pitch, but I’d like to think he would, because we are going to need more to our game than going to places like Bournemouth and Huddersfield with the intention of just digging in for a 0-0 draw.
Zohore copped quite a bit of flak for those missed headed chances against Newcastle and there was little to his performance yesterday to suggest that he is going to be the long term solution to our goalscoring problems, but I must say that, given the way we set out against Huddersfield and, to a lesser extent, Newcastle, you could have Harry Kane playing at centre forward for us and he’d struggle to score, simply because he would be so isolated from his team mates.
In my view, you could try Ward, Gary Madine or Reid in the role Zohore is being asked to play, but it would make little or no difference, because, too often there is no one within twenty yards of our main striker when they have the ball.
Therefore I think it’s got to be worth trying someone like Reid in a number ten type role behind whoever the striker is. In the Championship, this would probably mean us playing the 4-2-3-1 formation that Neil Warnock often used even if meant someone like Hoilett playing in that position, but I accept we have to be a bit more cautious in the Premier League, so it would be more of a 4-3-2-1 which would mean one of the wingers having to be left out.
I can’t see this happening though – our manager often talks about how much he likes wingers and he was certainly bemoaning his lack of wide options on the bench yesterday after the game.
So, it seems likely to me that we are going to carry on with a, very, isolated lone striker and two wingers for now as we go into the next, very demanding, stage of our Premier League adventure. However, seeing as our next opponents have lost eight out of their last nine away Premier League fixtures and, once again, looked all at sea at the back at times in the win of big spending, and pointless, West Ham, maybe we can end our scoring drought sooner than expected – if we have to spend the next couple of months almost exclusively facing members of the big six, then Arsenal at home is the best way to start that sequence I can think of.
One other thing, former TNS full back Ryan Price has signed for City in the last few dys and, presumably, will go straight into the Development team squad for tomorrow’s match at Sheffield Wednesday;-
Welcome to Cardiff City and best of luck to you Ryan.
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