Town’s dismal early season form continued as they failed to beat a limited, rugged Cardiff side in a contest barely befitting the top league. On this evidence, both will be back in the Championship next season and relegation may prove a blessed relief.
The hope was that Town would progress in their second season but, perhaps unsurprisingly with a team which, so far, has lined up with pretty much the same players as last season, the same failings remain at the fore.
Faced with Cardiff’s physicality, David Wagner left Pritchard on the bench in favour of a strategy apparently designed to test Cardiff’s stamina before introducing him later on. This is an assumption incapable of testing and proof as circumstances interrupted the presumed game plan when Hamer – a bold reselection having conceded 9 goals in two games – was injured early on, reducing substitution options and fatally compounded by Hogg’s dismissal.
For all his achievements with Town – and they are amazing, legendary achievements – Wagner’s meticulous game plans often fail to survive the setbacks which regularly intercede in a chaotic sport. There is a distinct lack of spontaneity – a quality Pritchard can bring – in and amongst the efficiency which can feel and look robotic, particularly when ball possession is held in higher regard than anything resembling risk.
The midfield 3 – Hogg, Mooy and Billing – were largely a cloying mess and simply not creative enough to unlock a solid Cardiff defence. Individually, for an hour, they did little wrong and Billing was at least influential at times and was one of the few to stand out, but the home team cried out for Pritchard’s unpredictability in front of Cardiff’s centre halves.
Far too often forward runs were ignored, particularly by Mooy, in favour of recycling and virtually nothing was of any surprise to the Welsh visitors. The exception was Kongolo who shone like a beacon amongst the dross. A rasping effort in to the side netting – the least said about his other shot which ended with a throw in the better – athletic raiding down the left which rattled Cardiff’s back line and a superb cross for Mounié in the second half were the highlights of an excellent individual performance which was depressingly out of place with the rest of the mess.
The right hand side, with Hadergjonaj having a particularly ineffective game offensively, was frustratingly poor. On the assumption that Diakhaby was bought for his pace, he was rarely set free to use it – the one exception saw him finish his run with a bemusing half pass/half shot which dribbled to the keeper. Billing broke forward down the right in a decent move, skipped past a defender and put in a poor cross which lead to Kongolo’s drive after a scuffed clearance but, generally, the home side avoided the byline in favour of hitting the first defender with crosses which would have been easy to defend had they travelled further.
Cardiff were similarly unthreatening in a hugely disappointing first half – after Mendez-Laing’s strong run and collision with Hamer after 5 minutes (both players brave in the challenge), the visitors’ limitations were exposed. In archetypal Warnock style, power over precision ruled with the ball spending a lot of time in the air to little effect. Sean Morrison’s long throws had the appearance of threat without actually delivering any.
A first half involving a team moving the ball far too slowly, against one with few pretensions of sophistication made for pretty desperate fare. Forgettable for all but Kongolo’s exploits, long on endeavour but short on quality the game felt ominous for the two relegation favourites, and it was about to get worse.
It could have been very different. Early in the second period, Lössl tried to emulate Ederson with a dead ball delivery directly to Van La Parra who, unfortunately, isn’t quite at the level of Agüero. The Dutchman brought the ball down a little too clumsily, allowing defenders to recover but, more crucially, allowing the offside Mounié to take the ball from him. Dumb.
Town’s best moment of the game came shortly afterwards. Billing burst forward to release Kongolo who delivered a sublime cross for the usually starved Mounié only for the striker to power his header too close to the keeper who made a competent if spectacular looking save. A goal at this point would have sunk Cardiff, who have even more problems – as would be proven – in front of goal than their hosts.
Just after the hour, a rare Cardiff corner was cleared towards Diakhaby who looked to be cynically fouled as he unleashed his pace at long last, but everyone’s attention was drawn to a fracas in the area and a prone Arter being harangued by home players. The linesman’s report to the referee resulted in Arter’s aggression being punished by a free kick against him and a yellow card while Hogg, who had pushed him over with head and hands was sent from the field.
The unprofessional actions of the on field captain should have proved disastrous. For the remaining half hour, the visitors played with considerably more freedom than they looked capable of against 11 men, it allowed them to introduce the more subtle skills of Bobby Reid and the commodity of possession, one which they had previously been severely restricted.
Before the sending off, we had been treated to the slightly bizarre sight of Danny Ward playing in the Premier League – to be fair to him, he looked far more effective than Zohore, even if the contest itself was a pastiche of a top level game.
Lössl had to make a decent save from the ex-Town man, whose diet appears to have improved, before seeing Morrison miss with a header when it was far easier to score and he was grateful for decent blocking of shots by Schindler and a lucky deflection off Zanka.
Cardiff really should have won the game with Town down to ten and conceding possession and territory but their inability to put the ball in the net, like ours, is going to be fatal for them. They will have few better chances to win 3 points than that last half hour, having largely suppressed their lacking in confidence hosts.
Towards the end, with Cardiff out of ideas, substitute Depoitre may have made more of a good opportunity but was thwarted by Samba.
At least the 11 v 10 circumstances provided a level of entertainment rather lacking in the first hour, but a scoreless draw delivered the damnation the game as a whole deserved, exposing just how much improvement both sides will need if they are to defy the opinions of the experts.
For Town, something of a sea change is required. Shoehorning your strongest players in to a team only serves to create duplication – Mooy spent far too much time too far back to be a true number 10 and was outshone by Billing’s willingness to burst forward to some effect at times, and his safety first orchestration of play slowed the team down to the point of hum drum.
Goals remain rare and elusive. The common consensus is that better supply to Mounié and Depoitre could solve the problem, but there is precious little evidence that a solution is near at hand. Kongolo’s adventures forward are promising, but the pace of Diakhaby was barely in play and Mbenza’s introduction when down to ten offered no clues to his ability either.
The much maligned Van La Parra – bar a near catastrophic short back pass to Lössl – tried to add threat and paired reasonably well with Kongolo, but, frankly, unless one of the three purchased wide men does not prove to be better, we are in a lot of trouble.
A dismal day which thankfully didn’t turn disastrous, did little to lift a now pervading gloom.