The PFA recently announced their Championship team of the year – an event which always acts as a massive discussion point for fans, with many looking to promote the virtues of their team’s best players whilst at the same time point out the deficiencies of their rivals. It is a fascinating annual occurrence without acting to be the grandstand of populist consensus.
ExileBlog has awaited the announcement of this Championship team of the year, not so much in order to slag off the voting of the playing elite – after all, they are best placed to comment from their position being up close and personal – but instead to respond with a selection of a different focus.
It was a long pause in play during Cardiff City’s first home game versus Bristol City that got this writer thinking. For every home game Cardiff City play during the 2011-12 season, it is important to note that there are always two teams out on the pitch. As such, any enjoyable spectacle is as a result of a positive dynamic between the two teams; with the converse applying to uneventful match experiences. And one possible component in this overall dynamic is the quality of the player. Whereas no more than 20 players would have contributed and had an impact from Cardiff City’s standpoint, the number far exceeds 200 for the opposition.
It is following this loose logic that has led one to consider those individuals in opposing teams that have made an impact. There are some who have had a notable impact, including a certain Barnsley left back. However, this writer reserves the right to assemble a collective with positive memories in mind. As such, herewith a team representing the best players to line up against Cardiff City during 2011/12. A deliberate 4-4-2 formation has been chosen, including those most impressive individuals as opposed to partnerships in any position. So here goes…..
ExileBlog’s Best XI v Cardiff City at CCS 2001/12
Goalkeeper – In all honesty, no outstanding all-round performances between the sticks have been witnessed this season. Notwithstanding his general susceptability at crosses, this writer retains a soft-spot for Joe Lewis of Peterborough. Cardiff were easily victorious when the sides met during the post-Wembley slump in form, but it is fair to say that the score could have been extravogant had he not made a series of impressive stops. It is a regret that Hull City decided to bring that great timewaster Adriano Basso to the CCS and not Vito Mannone, who has received rave reviews for his performances whilst on loan from Arsenal. An honourable mention also goes to Andy Lonergan of Leeds United, who made one of the best saves that I have had the pleasure of witnessing during the end of season encounter.
Right Back – It may be putting it bluntly to say that Craig Conway has under-achieved for Cardiff this year. However, ExileBlog was particularly impressed with how Nathaniel Clyne set up to nullify his thread. From a technical point of view, he was spot on with his body angles and also the timing of challenges. Honourable mentions to Trippier of Burnley and also Liam Rosenior of Hull.
Left Back – Just before Christmas, it was widely accepted by fans that Cardiff’s only wide threat was through the advancing Kevin McNaughton (lack of end product notwithstanding). Julio Arca dealt with this apparent threat most superbly. He worked out how to nullify McNaughton’s attacking advances, sometimes allowing him to cross but not to cut inside, and at other times pushing him back into a wide full-back position, where he was worryingly separated from his centre backs. Could still cut it in the Premier League going by what ExileBlog saw.
Centre Back – Rhys Williams. For his decision to play for Australia I really, really want to hate him, but his performance at centre back against City prior to Christmas was ultimately commanding. Comfortable when the ball is played on the ground neverthless, Cardiff’s switch to Gestede and a direct game had him at his best.
Centre Back – Partnerships invariably involve players of differing virtues. However, the quality of both of centre back that I have chosen allows them to be similar. Having seen him play twice, one cannot help but conclude that James Tomkins will not be at West Ham for very much longer. On two occasions, ExileBlog observed witnessed brilliant anticipation and organisation of his stopper partner, good speed, mature distribution skills – I could go on. Honourable mentions to Jack Hobbs and Matthew Mills.
Defensive-Minded Central Midfielder – Mark Noble. A pleasure to see him go about his craft – a statement that is based more than mere side-parting envy. Honourable mentions to Liam Bridcutt and Danny Drinkwater for their energy and anticipation. It should be noted that none of these three players could be described as a physical presence.
Attack-Minded Central Midfielder – Kevin Nolan. Mentioning this man gives me no pleasure at all. Lazy and in the referee’s ear all game (x2), his physicality in midfield is admitedly impressive. Has closed down Whittingham and made him look like a reserve player on both occasions at the CCS. Honourable mention to Robert Koren.
Right Midfield – Jimmy Kebe. Glides at time and generally has pace to burn. I daresay there are better footballers in the league, but Kebe put Taylor under serious pressure. Even though Cardiff defeated Reading at the CCS, there was a always an element of doubt and that something was about to happen everytime he fronted up to Cardiff’s left back and defence. Jamal Campbell-Ryce was impressive in that poor Bristol City side, but it is noted that he has since gone on loan down the leagues.
Left Midfield – Matt Phillips. Counter attacking excellence. Blackpool soaked it up and then awaited the moment when Phillips could take on a defender in isolation. It may have been idle speculation, but there is no wonder that Cardiff were linked with this player during the New Year transfer window.
Striker – Craig Mackail-Smith. He made Hudson look a fool during that early season encounter, which moved this writer to question the defender’s future at the club (I have since been proven wrong). Has not performed to his ability since the turn of the year, but this selection is based on his performance in the early season game.
Striker – Ashley Barnes. The ideal foil to Mackail-Smith’s pace and movement. Honourable mention goes to the evergreen Kevin Phillips (we all knew he would score when he came on for Blackpool, and he didn’t disappoint).
ExileBlog’s Championship XI
It is noted that the Championship team of the year was based upon the classic ‘British’ 4-4-2, with the folly of fitting individuals within set positions. Instead, this writer would select a team that would seek to ensure that the best players can shine. In this respect, it is widely accepted that the Championship’s best triumvirate consists of (in no particular order) Peter Whittingham, Ricky Lambert and Adam Lallana. And so the first step is to select a formation that will maximise these talents. The following XI will set up in a 4-2-3-1 system with these players in key roles.
Goalkeeper – Kelvin Davis. Has gone about his business without making mistakes whilst commanding the defence setting up in front of him. This team needs no more. Adam Federici deserves to be considered by virtue of his forming part of a Championship winning side
Right Back – Nathaniel Clyne. As above.
Centre Backs - Kaspars Gorkss and James Tomkins. The classic sweeper and stopper combination. Tomkins is a shoe-in for this team – such a commanding presence and on the cusp of greater things. Gorkss is a better player than Tomkins’ current club partner Winston Reid, who hasn’t been considered for this team. Ultimately, Gorkss gets into the team ahead of the excellent Jack Hobbs as a result of him being part of the best defence in the league.
Left Back – Danny Fox. Ian Harte has had a good season playing for the Championship’s top club, but I consider him to be over the hill and generally susceptable to a good wide man. Fox is a better player and his advances up the left hand side will be covered by Clyne’s ability to stay tight with the centre backs.
Deep-Lying Midfielders – Peter Whittingham and Mark Noble. Forget his efforts of two years ago, when he was top scorer from a left wing base, Peter Whittingham has really found his place this year as a deep-lying regista. Up until Christmas, he was pulling the strings for Cardiff, being the catalyst for a passing style through midfield, thus negating the need for natural width. The Middlesbrough game marked the changing point, from whence teams either marked his options or intensely pressed him when he was in possession. It also was the start of his midfield team mates going it alone and away from the need for one to sit deep as assistance (here’s looking at you Gunnarsson, with also Kiss’ injuries / being overlooked by Mackay a further cause).
Looking after Whittingham and allowing him to play is key to the way that this team will play. The selection of the hard-working Noble as his minder is vitally important – being the engine of West Ham’s intense play this season. However, Noble is also an able ball-player and can act as an alternative playmaker if Whittingham is being marked out of the game.
Attacking Midfield Right – Adam Lallana. I am glad to say that Kevin Nolan doesn’t make the side because it will be playing through the centre of midfield and thus avoiding the Allardycian direct game. Some of his fellow players (including Lambert) regard him as the best player that they have ever played with. Lallana has undoubted talent and would normally play in a central attacking role if it wasn’t for the need for a more physical presence to lead the pressing from the middle of the pitch. However, in this formation he will be afforded a fluid presence – starting from the right, but swapping with Phillips on the left in order to accommodate Danny Fox’s attacking runs.
Attacking Midfield Centre – Mikele Leigertwood. ExileBlog retains a big soft-spot for this player. Indeed, should this formation revert to a 4-4-2 then there may be a temptation to select Leigertwood together with his club partner in the middle Cem Karacan. This formation needs a physical presence high up the pitch to be prominent in phases of transition – from both attacking and defensive sides – and also to act as a good support to Noble in adopting a pressing game. Arguably one of the best players in the Reading side over the last two years and sadly overlooked in eyes of many writers.
Attacking Midfield Left – Matt Phillips. On loan at Sheffield United last year, and has come back a more refined attacking presence. Will give this side counter attacking presence through his pace, whilst at the same time being comfortable during periods of possession play.
Striker – Ricky Lambert. 27 league goals this season. His physical presence will allow him to lead the line, hold up the ball for the likes of Phillips and Lallana, whilst his lines of running will always cause problems for defence. The able Vaz Te and his 22 goals will warm the bench, with Mackail-Smith’s drop in form post-Christmas counting against him.
5 Substitutes: Adam Federici, Jack Hobbs, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jimmy Kebe, Ricardo Vaz Te
There may be some overlap of personnel, but I would wager that this ‘team’ would overcome the selection of 11 individuals in the PFA team of the year. However, the thoughts of the reader are neverthless welcome.