Carlos Corberán may have come of age, counter intuitively, with an ugly goalless draw against an in form but rather tired looking Cardiff City side who brought their brand of powerful, effective and physical football to the John Smith’s Stadium and left with a barely deserved point.
Throughout the season, and even with the services of important players still missing in action, a persistent impression has been that the occasionally attractive style he clearly wants to impose was some way beyond the squad he has. The demands of insistent possession alongside the energy required to accomplish superiority have, all too often, weighed down on a team not equipped to maintain it.
The philosophy is laudable but flawed by its practitioners lacking the muscle memory to sustain it for more than brief periods. Sometimes, in those heady days before the turn of the year, those periods were enough to carry the team home but, in the main, a collection of players were playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order for too long periods.
As they strived to adapt, there was an overwhelming sense that they never really earned the right to play with beautiful fluency and the glaring weaknesses could be and were exploited in the unforgiving Championship. The loss of key individuals to a string of injuries upended the progress to mid table comfort which allowed experimentation, but didn’t bring the necessary adjustments to the ideals and an alarming plunge in to trouble has ensued.
Faced with a schedule packed with muscle and established nous, Town have been slow to adapt their own circumstances to reality but the terrible spectacle midweek against Birmingham signalled long overdue change as the Terriers finally adopted a strategy to minimise rather than invite risk. But for a freakish equaliser, the newly found pragmatism should have yielded an undeserved win, and against opponents far more powerful and adept, a single point was earned when 3 were deserved.
The recent elevation of Mick McCarthy to Shankly, Ferguson and Pep levels of managerial genius on the back of an admittedly extended new boss bounce with a squad preternaturally suited to him, coupled with the glaringly obvious mismatch of known strengths and weaknesses, was enough to condemn Town to defeat before a ball was kicked.
The likeable Yorkshireman, last seen in this division leading Ipswich to season after season of such stultifying banality that he was sacked in favour of more entertainment only for his successor to land them immediately in to League One, was celebrating his 1,000th game as a manager.
Painful as it must have been for the transparently idealistic Corberán, all pretence of cleaving to his principles was dispelled by a glance at the team sheet with 2 up front and 3 centre halves. All that needed to be added was resilience, risk aversion and calm competence.
An attritional first half with limited opportunities for either side was more notable for Town’s durability in the face of Cardiff’s predictable aerial assaults from free kicks, corners and throw ins. The first of these, with Schofield allowing an unusually high lofted ball to reach the far post before he recovered well to block an attempt from the knock down appeared portentous but things got better.
The Bluebirds’ direct approach and second ball strategy seemed a little blunted, and Keogh and Sarr should take credit for meeting the challenge, though a good effort from Vaulks required a good save by Schofield and Flint hit the bar from a position incorrectly ruled offside.
For Town, most of the threat came down the right with Bacuna and Rowe linking well without being able to deliver good enough quality in to the box. Debutant Sanango wasn’t given enough opportunity to shine and was rather anonymous through no real fault of his own.
Bacuna also nearly threaded an excellent ball through to Campbell but a slight touch from Morrison saved the day for the visitors. He also fired in a reasonable effort from a Mbenza range free kick which was well saved by Phillips.
As the half came to a close, Flint tripped Sarr near the touchline and an incensed Bacuna raised his hand to the giant central defender. Perhaps the comedy value of seeing Bacuna square up to the aptly named Flint took the tension out of the situation and, remarkably, neither was booked. On another day, Town’s enigmatic midfielder could have seen red.
Overall though, Town competed well and minimised the errors which have plagued their season, though Edmonds-Green, the least comfortable of the back 3, got away with dallying in possession and was rescued by the rapidly retreating Sarr.
A far better second half largely belonged to the hosts whose defensive discipline was maintained, on the whole, and they had now earned the right to be a little more expansive if still wary of an in form opposition.
Sanogo had much more influence as team mates began to probe more effectively. This was particularly true of O’Brien whose surges began to worry, justifiably, the Cardiff back line.
The partnership between Campbell and Sanogo began to take some sort of shape. Though the couple of occasions the debutant won his battles and fed his partner narrowly failed to create chances, it was encouraging to see early signs of understanding, and with one of them resulting in a booking for Morrison’s hauling back of Campbell, a chink in their armour was revealed.
Town’s first chance of the half fell to Keogh from a Bacuna delivered free kick. The returning defender escaped attention in the box but the ball was slightly behind him, affecting his header’s direction and power.
With Cardiff largely subdued, Town seized the opportunity to play and an excellent O’Brien burst in to the area saw a blocked Rowe shot lead to him being brought down while hunting the loose ball.
Sadly, poor execution by the surprise taker, Sanogo, who fired badly wide of the target meant that Town wasted their easiest opportunity to record an unexpected win. A case could be made for Sanogo to be designated penalty taker to give an immediate confidence boost for a striker who hasn’t played competitively for a long time. Which is also the case against him.
As demoralising as the miss was, that it didn’t lead to mental collapse was encouraging. Town continued to boss the contest and two further, very presentable, chances were created.
First, Campbell nicked the ball from a hesitant opponent and freed O’Brien to measure an excellent pass behind Cardiff’s right side in to the path of Pipa. The Spaniard tried to work the ball on to his favoured right foot which caused a momentary loss of momentum and the split second was fully exploited by Phillips who made a good save from a closer range than he should have been allowed.
An even better chance fell to Campbell in the box following Sarr winning another aerial dual. Snatching at the effort when he had more time than he appreciated, and perhaps, like the rest of us, assuming he was offside, Campbell spooned the ball over the bar with an overly acrobatic effort.
Despite the frustration of dropping 2 more points in a week which should have harvested 6, this was a gritty and resolute performance where standards were largely maintained against an uncompromising opponent which has far too often not been the case against the more physical sides.
Relegation worries are far from over, indeed they may increase with other results, but adhering to basic principles rather than leaping straight in to the fancy stuff is a major and welcome shift by Corberán.
With 8 days until the next game at Loftus Road, there is time for the indispensable Hogg to return, gives time to work on the Campbell/Sanogo partnership and aid Stearman’s return to the fold.
Above all, Town finally appeared to understand the gravity of their situation and adopt the qualities required to meet the uneasy challenges which await. Consistency is now essential and a reversal of their horrifically poor away form their immediate next objective.