There seems to have been an unusual amount of focus on the ‘packed winter calendar’™ this year. While it is often referred to in order to beef up links on highlights shows or pad a thin interview, this Christmas period has been awash with managers and players commenting on the practice, treating it either as a curious and mystifying British idiosyncrasy or as barbaric mistreatment of players that will leave our domestic football in the relative dark ages while the enlightened likes of Real Madrid use their festive breaks to pop over to Morocco to grease the wheels of world domination.
Unfortunately for fans of Championship football this year’s offering of non-stop football has been pared back. Barring last weekend’s two games in three days, and the mild inconvenience of only having six days to prepare for Friday’s Boxing Day tie, it’s pretty much business as usual regarding the weekly football regimen. Unlike those hardy fellows in the Premier League, we don’t have to worry about getting up on New Year’s Day to trudge around a frostbitten pitch, giving us an extra few days to clear the decks in the abattoir ready for our trip to Chelsea.
The great thing about all the football at Christmas is that it allows storylines to develop without a week of faff in between. Although the performances against Wolves and Cardiff weren’t exactly polar opposites, the immediate reactions to both games – held less than 48 hours apart – show how quickly things can change in football, especially in the short-term.
After the 1-0 home defeat to Wolves on Boxing Day, the mood was pretty severe. Not for the first time, we had been pretty toothless against a properly prepared side and seemed to be completely devoid of ideas once the opposition hadn’t deigned to just let us waltz through their defences.
Most of the ire fell upon Slavisa Jokanovic: he took the blame for crap tactics, team selection, the spirit and commitment of the team and pretty everything from the structure of the club’s management to the lack of hot water in the blokes’ toilets (none of that in the Upper Rous, I’m pleased to report).
But nobody was really safe from criticism. Most of our shots on target came from giving the ball back after Wolves had put it out to allow one of their players to writhe around in false agony, the first half was almost entirely a showcase of Sebastien Bassong’s ability to pass both left and right along the backline – even managing to get most of them to their target – and the visitors’ goal came from a distinctly characteristic lapse of communication amongst the defenders, leading to the Cameroonian losing Nouha Dicko to score from close-range.
And that’s pretty much all I remember of a fairly dull affair.
I think the main reason for our rather meagre performances over the past few months – with only the 5-1 win over Fulham really impressing – is that teams have realised how important Daniel Tözser is to the way we play. Gary Rowett was the first manager to deploy a player solely to frustrate the Hungarian, and since Andrew Shinnie did it so well in the 2-1 defeat to Birmingham at the beginning of November (and indeed, since Rowett bragged about it afterwards), Tözser has found space to pick locks in defences hard to come by.
On Boxing Day it was Dave Edwards who took up the stifling role. This meant that our main playmaker was forced deeper and deeper to get the ball, and when in possession he only had enough time to offload it to the aforementioned Bassong or the equally inelegant Lloyd Doyley. And when the entire basis of your attacking game rests on foundations like those, you won’t be constructing any grand designs.
This also has a knock-on effect on the rest of the midfield. Almen Abdi is very good, obviously, and Gianni Munari is a fine player when the going is good – he takes up intelligent positions, maintains a physical presence and can be dangerous around the box – but when Tözser and Abdi are not allowed to dap it up and take the ball upfield with their pass and move thing and the Italian is forced to take a more primary role, he tends to go missing.
So when teams take away Tözser, they pretty much take away our entire midfield. Abdi wandered lonely far too deep, just trying to get in a position to get something going, but was unable to, especially with the poor options on the wings.
We have talented players, gifted enough to have workable Plan Bs. That we were unable to turn it around after going down to Wolves was not the fault of Jokanovic, nor really of the players. The problem, I think, was confidence. At half time, we switched to a back four, and subsequently stopped allowing a flood to chances to rain in on Heurelho Gomes, and looked very slightly better going forward, especially when Odion Ighalo was introduced; but there still seemed to be a weight on the players’ shoulders that they were unable to budge.
When you’re in a rubbish mood and your computer crashes, you throw something across the room, slouch back in your chair and lament the work you’ve lost. If you’ve had a good day and everything’s going your way, you might just cheerily start it back up, check your hard drive, find a back-up and get on with everything. With your shoulders slumped and the feeling that the world is against you, even if someone told you to just look for an auto recovery, you would probably tell them to piss off and spend the rest of the day licking your wounds.
Sometimes the lack of a Plan B is not in the strategy, but in the execution.
Jokanovic shuffled his pack against Cardiff, and rather than let the opposition take away Tözser, he did it himself – bringing in Adlene Guedioura, amongst five other changes. To begin with, it was fine – just as it always is. And then, as often happens, the opposition scored a slightly spawny but not entirely undeserved goal and the heads went down.
When this happens, we retreat into our shells. After 40 dreary minutes in the Welsh capital we had created nothing. In the cavernous silence of the imaginatively-titled Cardiff City Stadium, half-full with muted souls (this coming from a Watford fan, mind you) the Watford fans in the corner muttered disapprovingly. Juan Carlos Paredes was the obvious target for ridicule. Time and time again he collected the ball wide, looked up the line, decided against making a run or playing a pass and tended to stand with the ball until someone came to take it away.
But this was a symptom of a greater problem. The reason he kept getting the ball was because we were scared of playing an incisive pass or making an aggressive run. Whether it was fear of reproach from the fans or simply a lack of belief it would work, the ball would – as against Wolves – travel from defender to defender until it reached Paredes. Out there on the right the Ecuadorean was completely isolated: no midfielder getting close for an easy pass, no striker pulling wide to run onto a ball down the line. He didn’t do what he did very well, but there was very little that Paredes actually could do.
There was simply a malaise around the ground. Guedioura was trying his best to make things happen, and up front Ighalo was holding the ball up well but holding a position to deep to make any sort of impact, and then something happened. From nowhere, a neat passing move tick-tacked into the box, Ighalo was played in wide and he swept a cross to an unmarked Fernando Forestieri. He connected, the ball flew towards the top corner, and then it was about twenty yards behind him. From my vantage point I had no idea what had happened, and in a state of disbelief I missed the ball being played back into the area where Guedioura was lurking to drill past David Marshall at the near post.
The celebrations were muted but suddenly the players were reborn. Abdi awoke and started to strut, Forestieri and Ighalo started to get themselves in better positions and Daniel Pudil, who hitherto hadn’t managed to cross the halfway line, pushed forward, taking the ball and arrowing a cross onto Ighalo’s head at the near post for the second goal.
There was no need for tactical remastering from Jokanovic. All that had changed between the 40th minute, plodding and insincere at 1-0 down, and the 83rd, when Gabrielle Angella role to head in the fourth after a half of utter domination, was confidence.
Granted, Cardiff are not a good team, and they did very little to stop us, but all it has taken in recent weeks is for teams to close off one outlet and prompt us into defeating ourselves. On Sunday we found a way back into the game and realised that it is well within us to run teams into the ground.
Ighalo was fantastic, as he could have been against Wolves had he been given more time. He holds the ball up not through physicality but through lightning-quick feet. After a hard bedding–in period he is proving to be not an inadequate replacement for Deeney but a completely different type of striker from him. By finding a scoring touch – he could have had a hattrick if not for an odd offside flag and a poor finish/good save from close range – he could have made himself an important part of the squad for the second half of the season.
It was Guedioura who stood out, whoever. Playing up for a contract perhaps, but when the going was listless it was he alone who tried the unexpected and brought a modicum of energy to the side. When it improved, he was the ringleader. His second goal, a cannon off the crossbar from some 25 yards that fans of Wolves and Forest will tell you he will try – and fail – to reproduce at any opportunity, was just the cherry on top of an energetic and effervescent display that engaged both his teammates and the fans.
We enter 2015 in an odd place. We’ve won four of the last five games, including three straight away victories – 5-0 and 4-2 against teams in the Premier League last year and a hard-fought 1-0 victory after being a man down for over 45 minutes – and it’s not unreasonable to think that Jokanovic might be in line for the month’s Manager of the Month award. But it’s still a bit shaky. I don’t think team harmony is too much of an issue, especially given the all-encompassing celebrations after Angella’s goal at Cardiff, but the spirit within the squad is. We are a team capable of squeaking out unconvincing wins, but we also look far more likely to go on a run of crippling defeats rather than resounding wins, which given our ambitions for the season is needed at some point.
But at least our band of unmerry men, precarious in their self-belief, get to ease themselves into the new year – they have three days to rest their heads before Chelsea.