Paul Evans writes:
There was a thread on the City messageboard I use most last week in which readers were invited to nominate their best Cardiff team from players who have turned out for us this Millennium. I had a go at it and was reminded of something I knew anyway – we’ve had an awful lot of good centrebacks since 1 January 2000!
A list of the candidates that I decided to leave out tells you all you need to know about the strength in depth we’ve had in this area down the years. Loyal servant and hero of the never forgotten FA Cup win over Leeds sixteen years ago Scott Young barely featured in my thoughts, James Collins, Darren Purse, Glenn Loovens, Roger Johnson, Mark Hudson, Ben Turner, Matt Connolly, Steven Caulker, Sean Morrison and Bruno Manga were considered and cast aside, while others such as Gabor Gyepes and Anthony Gerrard who were decent players for us were not considered at all and I’m sure there are one or two others that I’ve not mentioned at all who may be regarded as candidates by some.
Turning to the current day, I think all you need to say about the depth and quality we have in this area is that Connolly, our Player of the Season two years ago, someone who was a regular in Neil Warnock’s title winning QPR side in 10/11 and someone who has played an important part in three other promotions from this division since then, has barely been able to get in our matchday squad, let alone the team, this season – before anyone says ah, but he’s old and over the top now, I should inform you that he only turned thirty in September.
Switching sports for a while, it’s said that the Australian attitude in cricket towards the selection and captaincy of their test team is to pick their best eleven players and then the one who seems to have the most in terms of leadership qualities becomes captain. The claim back in the eighties was that someone like England’s Mike Brearley, a fairly ordinary batsman who was still picked by the selectors for his outstanding ability as a captain, would never have got near the Australian team.
This is relevant as far as Cardiff City in 2017/18 is concerned, because, if it was ever decided that the best eleven players at the club would be selected every week, if fit and available, then I believe that Morrison, Manga and Sol Bamba (who was one of the two centrebacks in my team of the Millennium selection along with Danny Gabbidon) would be there in the side game after game.
This is why I’ve been an advocate of us playing three centrebacks for the last few years. I was pushing the merits of playing Connolly, Morrison and Manga as a central defensive trio before Bamba signed for the club and spent the summer of 2016 looking forward to watching the three of them launch a new era of possession based, cultured football at the club founded on a defensive unit comprising three players who were well above the standard of the average level of performance in that area at this level.
Well, we all know what happened to Paul Trollope’s Brave New World! I think it’s probably fair to say that when the highly regarded coach was sacked less than two months into the campaign, the main reason why we found ourselves last but one in the Championship was more to do with our inability to put the ball in the opposition net than keeping it out of our own, but, nevertheless, three at the back had not worked and there were very few dissenting voices when new manager Neil Warnock opted for a more orthodox back four in his early matches in charge.
Yet, I suspect that even our manager, who I believe would be happy to accept the description “football traditionalist” for some of what that term entails at least, must have looked at his squad in training and wondered how he could get three out of Connolly, Morrison, Manga and Bamba into his starting line up.
This might explain why it was a back three put in an appearance at times as last season was transformed from a relegation struggle into a comfortable mid table ending that even included the sniff of a top six finish at times. It may also explain why, as Connolly drops out of contention, Neil Warnock still seems to want to get the names Morrison, Manga and Bamba on his team sheet this season.
Mr Warnock has been in charge at Cardiff for getting on for sixteen months now and going into matches with three centrebacks has remained a theme, albeit an intermittent one, of that period.
As someone who has championed this cause for years, you would think that I would be all in favour of that, but, after watching our 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough yesterday evening, I admit defeat – the current crop of City centrebacks are just not suited to playing three at the back and the system should be consigned to the dustbin for the foreseeable future!
I say that even though I daresay some would look at that final score and conclude that, by keeping a clean sheet, which ensures we are 80 per cent of the way towards achieving the pre season target of fifteen, the system must have worked – after all, isn’t the first priority for any centreback to defend the goal of the side they are playing for?
My answer to that question has always been yes it is, but I would argue that, this time at least, the reason we didn’t concede a goal wasn’t because of the performance of our centrebacks, it was despite it!
I don’t know whether it’s because having that extra insurance through the middle that having three centrebacks, as opposed to two, should provide causes a feeling of uncertainty or, possibly, complacency whereby you get the thought “someone else can deal with that rather than me” or not, but, whatever the reason, cases where Neil Warnock’s use of three centrebacks can be classed as conspicuous successes are thin on the ground.
Yes, the formation may have worked to a fashion (as it did yesterday I suppose) on the odd occasion, but is our goals against record when we play with a back four under this manager worse than when we play with a back three? Not having access to the sort of comprehensive statistical and analytical data that is considered to be the norm at professional football clubs these days, I cannot provide the definitive answer to the question I ask, but I strongly suspect that it is no, it isn’t – in fact it’s better!
To repeat, although the first priority when playing in a back three should be defending, the theory is that the standard of passing out from the back should be improved because there will be a little bit of extra time on the ball for each of the three players involved. So, it could be argued that this will in turn lead to an improvement in the quality of attacking play – if there is evidence to suggest that this has happened when we play three at the back, then it it is too subtle for me to have noticed it. Last night for example, I’d say it could be argued that this happened for the first half an hour or so, but, overall, we gave another demonstration as to why only two sides in the top half of the Championship (Middlesbrough and Preston) have scored less goals than us.
To look at our three centrebacks individually, Manga had another of those “dreamy” games where you wonder if his mind is completely on the task in hand. As far as Sean Morrison is concerned, the fact that we have conceded just once in the four games since he came back from injury only strengthens the suspicion that, out of all of the players who have suffered medium to long terms injuries this season, he is the one whose absence caused the most problems.
However, even the player I’d rate as our most consistent defender this season allowed the man he was supposed to be marking to make a run in behind him which could have resulted in us going 1-0 down in the first half and, while the main blame for what was, arguably, Wednesday’s best chance of the game lie with Joe Ralls for a wayward header, I thought it was a situation which Morrison would usually have dealt with.
As for Bamba, he was skinned down the left inside the opening minute and that set the tone for what was, by his standards, an error strewn display, with another piece of poor defending by the left hand touchline giving our opponents the chance to create their other contender for best chance of the match.
No, although I’d again rate Morrison the best of them, our three centrebacks’ individual contributions were some way short of the standards they’ve set themselves during their time at Cardiff, while, as a unit, they again did nothing to advance the claims of a back three over a flat back four.
This time I’d say the main reasons for our clean sheet were twofold – Neil Etheridge continued his good form since being recalled to the team after a two game absence and Wednesday’s finishing was of the standard you would expect from a team that has now failed to score in five out of its last six matches.
The home side were one of my tips for a top six finish this season, but the gradual decline in the quality of their attacking play during the time Carlos Carvalhal was manager has continued until it cost the Portugese his job a month or so ago. Therefore, with an injury list that makes ours look like a minor inconvenience, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how ordinary they looked early on compared to the team that were one of the better visiting sides to come to Cardiff City Stadium this season in a 1-1 draw back in September.
Wednesday were there for the taking early on and maybe we would have done so if it were not for the dubious decision by Premier League referee Roger East to deny Kenneth Zohore what would have been the sort of goal which could have snapped him out of his current malaise. Our first choice striker is not getting much luck in front of goal at the moment, but, with Neil Warnock saying in his pre game press conference that he feels Zohore’s main problems now as he recovers from his two months out are mental not physical, I do think he lets his head drop too easily.
However, generally speaking, our performance matched that of our recent loan signing Yanic Wildschut – a lively first third and then, generally, second best. Wildschut did have our best attacking moment in what was a very barren second half when his shot from the edge of the area whistled narrowly wide, but, as Neil Warnock said after the game, he looked like someone who was making his first start in a couple of months as the game went on.
Our manager thought the same about Marko Grujic who managed to pick up a yellow card within ten minutes of his City career, brought an element of order to our midfield and then waned as an influence, before being withdrawn for Callum Paterson in what I would class as an okay debut overall.
Also, there was an unexpected plus as Kadeem Harris was named on the bench and saw his first glimpse of senior team action of the season as he replaced Junior Hoilett for the last ten minutes or so.
Finally, to return to Messrs Morrison, Manga and Bamba, there are two other methods by which Neil Warnock has managed to get the three of them into the starting line up. First, the experiment of using Bamba as a sitting midfield player has had mixed results overall, but, having mentioned “conspicuous successes” earlier, I would say that term could be applied to two games when it happened (Villa at home last season and Leeds at home this) – Bamba as a midfielder appears to work when it takes opponents by surprise and I’m sure we’ll see it again.
The other method is whereby Manga is picked as a right back. There has been some criticism from fans of how Bruno fares when faced by a particularly pacey winger, but team results have generally tended to be good when he moves out wide – he also gives us a bit of quality when he goes forward from that position. With Jazz Richards back and giving the sort of good quality, quietly efficient, performances that I’d say are his trademark and Lee Peltier not far off a return seemingly, I wonder if we will see much of the Bruno at right back approach in the future, but I’d call it a success overall and, to show how much my attitude has changed, would prefer it now to a Morrison, Manga, Bamba back three!