There’s nothing in football quite like celebrating an equaliser deep into injury time. They are moments that seem to enjoy an extra burst celebration from supporters as something is snatched from the jaws of defeat. Conversely, nothing seems to hurt quite as much seeing a win slip in the death throes of a match. When it happens to come against the team you consider your greatest enemy – well you can understand why Neil Warnock was beaming after the match in which Cardiff City metaphorically robbed Sheffield Wednesday of two points.
The tired clichés about ‘showing character’, ‘having never-say-die spirit’, ‘a great bunch of lads’, they all get churned out at moments like these. As with any cliché is there is some truth behind the utterance and Cardiff – like they did at Fulham last weekend – did well to take something from a match through a late goal, having trailed to a side that were superior on the day. Yet the overall performance from the Bluebirds has left more puzzlement than the satisfaction of earning an arguably undeserved result.
It has been a reality check of a week for Cardiff City with just two points gained and no wins from three games. In each of those games Neil Warnock’s side have been largely outplayed by their opponents: Preston were ruthless, while Fulham were profligate and Sheffield Wednesday committed their usual crime of letting opponents they have smothered off the hook. Cardiff, in contrast, have looked a shadow of the team that blasted their way to five wins from five in August with performances bursting with energy, enthusiasm and attacking efficiency. Since the international break the Bluebirds have look lethargic, limited and at times lackadaisical.
Has the bubble burst and are the limitations of the Cardiff side already beginning to show? Or, on the flipside, do we put the last three results into their true context? Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday are undoubtedly the best possession-based sides in the league, established sides that have been playing this way for a long time. Most weekends they will outpass their opponents and so you get the sort of possession deficit we’ve seen in these games (at one point against Sheffield Wednesday Cardiff were registering as little as 20% possession). Neil Warnock would have known his side couldn’t beat either side at that game, so set them up accordingly: defend deep and attack quickly from transitional moments.
There is no problem with this and it is essentially what Cardiff did in those early victories against Aston Villa and Wolves. However, it doesn’t work when there is a lack of intensity and aggressive action in the defensive phase. In those early games Cardiff were aggressive when they pressed, aggressively compacted space to prevent probing passes between the lines and when their opponents’ attacking phase broke down exploded into a counter attack. Against Sheffield Wednesday there was a lack of purpose and energy about Cardiff’s play, allowing the Owls to dictate entirely the first half.
There is no doubt Wednesday are fantastic when it comes to keeping hold of the ball; in Barry Bannan and Kieran Lee they have two of the best continuity players at this level, whose perpetual ‘pass and move’ action keeps build up play alive for sustained periods. However, they are not a devastating attacking side. Their build-up play is usual quite slow and methodical, they don’t move the ball as quickly as Fulham, nor do they have the pace up front the Cottagers possess; therefore the same threat (or risk) isn’t there for over-committing on the press or compacting space with a high defensive line.
Cardiff’s defensive depth and lack of pressure on the ball made it easy for Wednesday yesterday, meaning the visitors could pass the ball around at will and pull Cardiff’s shape all over the pitch. Barry Bannan, in particular, was allowed the freedom of the Cardiff City Stadium to do as he pleased and he ran the game for long periods (especially the first half). Against a better or more assertive side, City could have been two or three goals down at half time. Fortunately, Carlos Carvalhal’s side are no such outfit and their lack of killer instinct has been their downfall over the past two seasons – for all the lovely, technical football they play.
In the second half Cardiff went back to doing what they are good at, getting it forward quickly into the front three, bombarding the opposition box with crosses, long throws and set play delivery. The less build-up through the midfield meant there was a lower risk of Wednesday asserting their superiority in those areas. Once again it Nathaniel Mendez-Laing providing the spark: his pace, trickery and direct play putting pressure on Wednesday’s defence after the break. He almost repeated his trademark ‘cut in from the left and curl it into far corner’ goal, but for a superb block in the box; he had a couple of penalty appeals turned away and was the quickest to react to Lee Tomlin’s saved free kick and direct the ball back towards goal for Sol Bamba to bundle home.
The underlying concern remains the sudden lethargy of the side. I can’t accept the players are knackered after eight games, especially coming off the back of a two week break for the most of the squad. You don’t go from looking like the fittest team in the league to looking like everyone’s blown a gasket in the space of a fortnight when there have been no injuries. For whatever reason the levels have dropped and Warnock has to find a way to get it back quickly.
It is obvious from this week that Cardiff won’t be competitive at the top end of this league if their performance is anything below 100% intensity. It may have taken a game and half for the players and staff to realise that and the second half showing against Sheffield Wednesday was some way towards getting back to where they were. If next week against Sunderland, the Bluebirds of August are back as a result of yesterday’s second half fightback, the Sheffield Wednesday draw will go down as a very important result indeed.