I listened to a podcast previewing Cardiff City’s upcoming home game with Arsenal last week writes Paul Evans. I won’t give the journalist’s name, but he was of the opinion that, if City were to get anything out of the match, they would have to be at their “typical Warnock team” worst.
City would have to be nasty, brutish, direct, defensive and rattle Arsenal, then, perhaps they could pinch a goal from a set piece to sneak a 1-0 win – however, when pressed to give a score, he went for a 0-0 draw.
Given how the game panned out, it’s hard to see how he could have got things more wrong – City “had a go” at their illustrious visitors, but did it in a footballing sense by attacking Arsenal with the ball, not physically. Yes, they were in Arsenal’s faces, but only in the way they pressed their stubborn opponents who insisted on a playing out from the back policy that their goalkeeper in particular is patently uncomfortable with.
As City tired, bookings followed (Harry Arter maintained his yellow card a game record and faces the prospect of missing what looks like a rare winnable game before November when we entertain Burnley if, as he may well do, he gets carded against Chelsea and Man City), but they were not the thugs they have lazily been portrayed as purely because of who they are managed by – to be fair, although Arter should have been sent off against Newcastle, City have not been thuggish in any of their matches so far.
Anyway, back to the fellow who said we could draw 0-0 by displaying all of the traits which critics of our manager are thinking of when they talk about a “typical Warnock team”. I, for one, aren’t going to knock him for being miles off the mark though because, broadly speaking, I agreed with him!
For example, when Arsenal scored first in the eleventh minute, I pronounced to my mate sat next to me “that’s the end of that then, the only chance we had was to score first and hang on, because everyone knows there’s no way we’re going to score twice”.
Let’s face it, nearly all predictions as to how we could defy the critics/pundits and stay up were based on the thinking that our defence (the joint best in the Championship along with Wolves last season) might be able to compensate for our lack of goal power by keeping enough clean sheets to get us to chisel out the 1-0 wins which could make all of the difference come May.
That’s certainly what I thought and, surely, the methods used when playing one of the “top six” would involve deep defence, plenty of possession for our opponents and a reliance on counter attacks and set pieces?
Being honest, I’m still not ruling out that this will be what our season will be remembered for come the spring, but, for at least ninety madcap minutes in early September, City did all of the things they were not supposed to do and it helped make yesterday’s game probably the most entertaining one of the Warnock era.
The only match I can think of which comes close to equaling it was the 4-3 loss to Barnsley at Cardiff City Stadium just before Christmas 2016. Now, I’ve always been suspicious of anyone who claims that they don’t mind their team losing as long as they have been entertained. However, that was how I felt after that Barnsley game and that was how I felt as I left the ground yesterday with City having been beaten 3-2 in a bonkers match which I’m sure will be one of the ones to be recalled with affection by fans in decades to come when they are asked about our second Premier League season in 2018/19.
Perhaps some of the pleasure I got from watching us yesterday was because we had done something to, maybe, shut up those critics who have not had a good word to say about us in the first three weeks of this season. One of the, many, things I’m not overly keen on about the Premier League is the way that so many in the media who earn their living from covering it are “experts” on everything to do with the division – for example, they knew exactly what Cardiff City would be like in the top flight because they are a “typical Warnock side” that plays “anti football”.
Now, I’m not denying that we can often be hard going (how can I when Neil Warnock himself has said we are not easy on the eye?), but, although I’ve tried to not let it bother me, the constant drip, drip of negativity about City from people who have barely seen us play and whose opinions are based on preconceptions has had an effect.
Therefore, a lot of the pleasure I felt following this particular defeat probably stemmed from us showing the know all’s that there is a bit more to us – I must also admit mind that there was also an element of pleasant surprise there as well stemming from having seen that we had it within us to have proved said know all’s wrong!
So, can we really expect to see City being as refreshing in their outlook as they were yesterday every week? I’m not sure we can. Neil Warnock talked after the game about him not wanting to park the bus every week because he was too old for all of that, but, he’s been our manager for nearly two years now and that’s long enough for me to realise that he’s an old fox who is not averse to telling the media what they want to hear.
Could it be I wonder that we will be more Devil may care against the bigger teams because we may as well have a go at them as sit back and wait for the inevitable breakthrough and defeat and more cautious in the matches which will really decide our fate? We were hardly piling men forward against Bournemouth, Newcastle and Huddersfield were we?
There’s also the Arsenal factor to consider. Arsenal were the only fairly predictable thing about the afternoon – you could have forecast the bizarre policy of trying to prove Peter Cech is a wannabe John Stones with the insistence that he be the catalyst for all of Arsenal’s passing moves out of defence, despite this very good keeper (always the main priority for a traditionalist like me when it comes to Cech’s position) having the footballing skills of a drunken giraffe.
You could have forecast that our opponents would look distinctly dodgy at the back if City could ever have put them under pressure, but I’m not sure you could have predicted that Aaron Ramsey would have been detailed to mark Sean Morrison for the free kick which led to our second equaliser!
But, that’s wacky old Arsenal for you (actually, that should be wacky new Arsenal really, I’m old enough to remember the Dixon-Bould-Adams-Winterburn back line which made an art of the 1-0 away win) – the two let in yesterday takes their tally of goals against to eight in four league matches.
I mentioned last week that Arsenal at home probably represented our best opportunity to take points off the so called big six and, although I think they probably just about deserved their win in the end, I’d also say that I agree with Neil Warnock when he claimed we had the better chances on the day.
We created enough chances to offer a valid contrast between our finishing ability and Arsenal’s and, although there were so many pluses to be taken from our display, it has to be said that the visitors beat us hands down in the finishing stakes. You only had to look at the goals scored by Aubameyang and Lacazette for proof of the difference between the two teams – we don’t have players who could score goals like that, or at least we don’t have players who have scored goals like that in games, as opposed to in training.
Neil Warnock acknowledged that there was a lack of comparable finishing power in his team’s ranks, while also making the entirely valid point that the two Arsenal players were signed for a combined fee of over £100 million and yet, I find myself thinking that if we could have played better in the area where we are supposedly at our strongest, this was a game we could have won.
Throughout the summer, our manager was saying that he didn’t see the need to add any more new defenders once Greg Cunningham had been signed. Apart from the possible need for a specialist right back, I agreed with that view and, from memory, I cannot remember any demands from fans for further defensive reinforcements on the messageboards/social media when it came to the centre of the our defence.
Certainly, there was a feeling that Morrison, Bamba and Manga, with back up in the form of Connolly, Cunningham, Peltier and Paterson, left us pretty strong at centreback – there was definitely a thought that our need was greater in other areas of the team.
Just two goals conceded in our first three matches tended to confirm this opinion that we were fine at centreback, but yesterday offered the suggestion that this may not be the case.
In the first few minutes, captain Morrison gave away a cheap corner with a clumsy back pass and then his hesitancy almost presented Arsenal with a goal before the ball was scrambled away for the corner which led to Mustafi heading them into an early lead. Unfortunately, the German centreback was unmarked for his scoring header having worked himself a yard or two on Bamba and so both of our central defenders had endured their shaky moments with barely ten minutes on the clock.
Jim Beglin, the summariser on the video of the goals I watched was also critical of Morrison’s role in Arsenal’s second goal – it was a superb finish, but Beglin thought Aubameyang could have been closed down better. Similarly, Bamba was not close enough to Lacazette for the winner – again, a great finish, but we gave the scorer a little help on the way.
Morrison did get the assist for Danny Ward’s goal (a reward for a player who may well have concluded he would never score a goal in the Premier League before yesterday), but, although not on a par with his miss at Huddersfield last week, I reckon he would have been disappointed not to have put away the headed opportunity from six yards out which came his way in added time after sub Gary Madine had lured Cech out of his goal.
It may be that the problems both centrebacks encountered might have had something to do with the way full backs Manga and Bennett ventured forward in a manner I’ve not seen under this manager before – the latter was superb all afternoon and claimed an assist in our first league goal of the campaign when his cross was fired home by Vincent Camarasa who had his best game yet for us.
The same could certainly be said for Bobby Dercordova-Reid who was excellent alongside Ward up front, while Arter and Ralls were also impressive as, just as against Newcastle, our midfield three played better quality football than we saw from that section of the team for nearly all of our promotion season.
A defeat then, but, even more than in our drawn games with Newcastle and Huddersfield, City looked like a side which can survive this season. As I mentioned before, it is highly unlikely that it will be games against the likes of Arsenal which will enable us to get the points we need to stay up, but we showed a side to ourselves which I didn’t think existed yesterday and I can’t help thinking that there will be sides in the lower half of the table who will be less confident about their visit to Cardiff City Stadium in particular after yesterday’s completely unexpected thriller.
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