With Swansea’s fast start petering out in the face of a run of just one win in their last eight matches that had seen them take just the one point from their last four home games and Cardiff City’s campaign resolutely refusing to get out of a low gear as they went into their fourteenth game of the season (fifteenth if you include the pathetic performance against Luton in the League Cup,) there was fairly common refrain from the pundits before today’s first derby in five and a half years at the Liberty Stadium.
The talk from the likes of John Toshack, Danny Gabbidon and Iwan Roberts was that the losing manager would come under pressure regarding his job and, judging by the viscous social media reaction from Cardiff fans to their side’s 1-0 loss, Neil Warnock is feeling as much of that pressure tonight as at any time in his three years as City manager.
I don’t think any of Cardiff previous fourteen performances can be called convincing. Yes, we deserved to beat Huddersfield and Middlesbrough at home, we played well at Hull and, up to a point, in midweek at Millwall, but a game where we were as convincing as when we beat Fulham, Bournemouth, West Ham and Brighton (away) in the Premier League last season? I don’t think so.
If it’s a struggle to identify a match where we have performed like a top six Championship team, it’s been pretty easy to identify our worst showing – Sheffield Wednesday, QPR (yes I know we won 3-0!) and Wigan would be contenders, but, for me, it has to be the 3-0 loss back in August to a Reading team that have won just three times and stand one place above the relegation zone.
We put on a dismal showing that afternoon in front of the Sky cameras and their viewers must be heartily sick of watching us after worthy, but dull draws against Fulham and Derby and the slowest of slow burners against Wednesday, but this was another level down again – this took the worst of the season mantle off Reading.
Forget about the narrow margin of defeat. A fully committed, mobile and positive, but hardly outstanding, Swansea team were way better than us and I’d say another three goal defeat would have been a fairer reflection of the difference between the sides.
Writing this having had a few hours now to consider the game, I find it hard to come with anything that the side did even moderately well – no, after a few minutes further thought, there’s nothing I can think of that we did as a team which offers at least some consolation for supporters.
Individually, Lee Peltier offered the sort of dogged defending that you get from him game in, game out and I felt some admiration for Sean Morrison for the way he carried on after sustaining what appeared to be a very painful hand/arm injury early on to go along with the bandage he has been wearing on his other hand in recent weeks. As well as that, our captain and his girlfriend have received online abuse, and some at the ground it seems,from City fans – those responsible should feel ashamed of themselves.
Morrison also came up with one or two good bits of defending in the closing minutes as Swansea looked to exploit the gaps left by our chasing an equaliser and had two of our three on target goal attempts (that figure was something else which greatly flattered us given our many failings going forward), but there were also the predictable problems for the captain when faced with nippy and mobile forwards.
As for the rest, Neil Etheridge had no chance with the goal and made some decent saves, but, having always taken the old fashioned view that it is what a keeper does with his hands that is really important, I must say this was a day when his shortcomings with the ball at his feet was an issue. Eccentric is the word which springs to mind when it comes to the contribution of Etheridge the footballer – the Swansea fans cottoned on to the fact that our keeper is shall we say erratic when he is kicking the ball and so built up the pressure on him to the extent that his standards fell below their usual pretty low levels.
It’s always been a source of mystery to me as to why our defenders are so keen to play the ball back to Etheridge to the extent that he almost seems to be like a quarterback as we rely on him to start attacks with long balls forward – there are some keepers around with whom that would be a sensible tactic, but Neil Etheridge is definitely not one of them.
Things got even more bizarre today when Peltier threw the ball back to him when he was stood out on the touchline some five yards out from the penalty area – when the inevitable poor kick arrived and a Swansea player tried a shot from just inside his own half as the ball arrived at his feet with the goal unguarded some fifty odd yards in front of him, we had what would have been the comical sight of a goalkeeper tearing back towards his goal and diving in an attempt to head the ball a yard or two outside the penalty area if had not been for the fact he was playing for your team.
Joe Bennett was another who did very well to prevent a second Swansea goal late on, but that was the only worthwhile thing he did all game. I’ll come to his part in the goal later, but it’s as if being a regular in a relegated Premier League team last season is making him believe that is his natural level, whereas his displays this season suggest he should be in League One – that’s probably being harsh, but I do think we are seeing an example of what can happen when a player thinks there is no real competition when it comes to his place in the side.
Aden Flint wasn’t particularly awful, but, after looking like he was coming into some good form in September, he has slipped back again and, like a few summer arrivals, is looking poor value for money.
Joe Ralls was the better of an overrun central midfield pairing, but that’s the best thing I can say about him, while Marlon Pack’s performance offered a reminder of comments by some Bristol City fans when we signed him that his legs had gone.
On the wings, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing showed he had the beating of home right back Kyle Naughton a couple of times early on as he knocked over threatening crosses and then, as is his wont this season, disappeared from view for long stretches of the game. Gavin Whyte on the right tracked back diligently as usual and offered little or no attacking end product as usual – to be fair to him, he did at least get in the right position when a cross came in from the opposite flank and he struck Ralls’ centre well, but straight at keeper Woodman for what was the closest we came to scoring all game.
Danny Ward, played in what I think was a number ten type role but I cannot be certain of that because he was simply anonymous and Robert Glatzel gave another of those increasingly common performances where he looks like a player completely devoid of confidence who is not enjoying his game at all (Josh Murphy, an ineffective sub for the last few minutes, currently cuts a similar miserable figure).
Just before his inevitable substitution around the hour mark, Sky put up a graphic showing that Glatzel had not had a single touch of the ball in the Swansea penalty area and I’m pretty certain he hadn’t had one as he left the field. Now, anybody who has played central striker for us since our level dropped from our great start to 17/18 (so we’re talking about two years really) has grounds for complaint about the poor quality of service they get and that could be extended today to include the wingers and Ward.
Our lack of creativity, or even reasonable passing ability, too often offers the forward players an excuse for their lack of success, but with Neil Warnock’s Cardiff side this is a double edged sword because those players guilty of providing so little for the front four can also, justifiably, say that the lack of movement and footballing intelligence in front of them gives them very little to aim at when they are looking to launch attacks.
If the words “lumbering” and “statuesque” were not in use before today’s match, someone watching Cardiff’s performance would have thought them up. “Lumbering” could be applied to City players all over the pitch as bigger, but less mobile and manoeuvrable footballers were constantly shown up by Swansea’s dexterity and commitment.
Up front, players in blue were on their heals waiting for something to happen while those in white charged with dealing with them moved quickly to snuff out any perceived (it was barely ever real) threat. In the middle of the park, the visiting midfield players wanted too much time when they were on the ball and were, invariably, harried off it by opponents who were sharper in mind and body.
As for at the back, well it was just like it has been all season as a defence which has looked porous and ponderous over the past three months again endured a tough afternoon.
Swansea manager Steve Cooper was praised after the game for his decision to go for the mobility of a front four of Ayew (five foot seven), Celina (five foot eleven), Routledge (five foot seven) and Dyer (five foot four) who were all most comfortable with the ball at their quick feet against our giant centrebacks.
Now, normally, I’m not one for blowing my own trumpet, but if you look back a few months on here, you will see that I was expressing my reservations about the decision to sign Flint as a replacement for Bruno Manga because he was too similar to Sean Morrison. I was far from alone in saying what I did as well, there were stacks of City fans who were concerned about our centreback pairing before a ball had been kicked in competitive action this season and so, with due respect to Mr Cooper, I would say that he did not pull off a tactical masterstroke today, he was just doing what was bleeding obvious!
This brings me on to “statuesque”. Once again, City conceded a shocker of a goal as, firstly, they allowed themselves to be caught out by a short corner routine from Swansea that exploited a three to one advantage which they did not have to work hard to create. Even then though as Routledge crossed.’ City’s distinct height advantage should have enabled them to have dealt with the danger, but instead, Ben Wilmot, a centreback on loan from Watford playing his first league game for Swansea as a replacement for Wales’ Joe Rodon who faces two or three months out with injury, was able to run from behind Bennett to a position a yard in front of him without the City man moving a muscle to guide his header beyond Etheridge.
There is what seems to be an endless argument going on in the game as to the relative merits of the man to man and zonal marking systems when defending dead ball situations. I’m a man to man man myself, but Cardiff have, it seems to me, been favouring, at least partially, a zonal system lately. Well today, they came up with a variation on that theme as they opted for each player standing stock still in their own zone no matter what the Swansea players were doing – I can only hope that this new statue or dustbin method of zonal marking is retired gracefully after its first outing today!
After watching his side look second best all over the park, Neil Warnock went through the motions of blaming the officials a bit, having another go at his sides defending, saying City did better in the second half (otherwise known as damning his side with faint praise) and had a dig at the home fans for how quiet it was in the ground.
Our manager’s interview was played on Radio Wales’ Rob Phillips Phone In and I was struck by how some of the Swansea fans who spoke on the show afterwards had figured him out. One of them, who had his call interrupted to take Warnock’s interview, replied that he should concern himself with his team’s performance rather than what the Swansea fans were doing, while another remarked that he and his side seemed surprised by the intensity of the occasion – I’d say these were all fair points.
Furthermore, Ian Walsh, who played for both sides in the eighties, thought that the lack of players in the Cardiff side, particularly Welsh ones, with experience of this derby was a factor in how poorly City coped with the occasion.
Again, I believe that it is a valid argument, as is the one expressed by Iwan Roberts I think it was which had it that Steve Cooper had comfortably won the battle of the managers.
I’ve heard Neil Warnock, justifiably, describe himself as a motivator first and foremost in the past. Well, motivated struck me as something his side weren’t today. If a team set up to play in a manner that is not easy on the eye, is not winning, their motivator of a manager is not motivating, his record in the transfer market has been poor at best in recent years and they’ve only won four in fifteen matches,is it really a surprise when supporters start thinking it’s time for a change?
Those who defend our manager might point to his record in the Championship – the perception is that he knows all there is to know about this division, but is that really the case?
Is it truer to say that Neil Warnock knows about a version of the Championship where it made sense to play with a Morrison/Flint type pair of centrebacks, but the division changed a lot in the way teams attack while we were away and I’m not sure we’re fully aware of that yet.
Just a few quick words about other games to finish, the under 18s lost again I’m afraid, this time by 3-2 at Watford where a last minute goal for the hosts proved decisive. Also, in the only game in the Highadmit League structure which did not fall victim to the weather over the weekend, Blaenrhondda beat Pencoed Athletic (who are second currently in the Premier League), by 2-0 on the artificial pitch at Clydach and Cambrian in the Second Round of the FAW Trophy.
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