Monday, 5 December 2016

Has Neil Warnock improved Cardiff?

When Paul Trollope was sacked as Cardiff manager the team was languishing in 23rd place heading for a relegation fight.

Eight weeks later with Neil Warnock in charge, the club is still languishing in 22nd place now very much in a relegation fight with almost half the season gone.

So was it worth it? Has Warnock improved results and performances?

First off, Trollope’s team had amassed just eight points in those 11 games – a rate of 0.73 points per game. Extend that over a full season and it becomes around 33 points – nailed on relegation and quite possibly bottom in some years.

Warnock has flipped those numbers, 11 points in eight games, good for 1.375 points per game. Again if we extrapolate that over a whole season we get 63 points – comfortably top half of the table and potentially just a win or two from being in the playoffs.

Most importantly however, if we extend Warnock’s 1.375 ppg over the whole of the season from him joining we get 48 points.
That in itself should be enough to keep Cardiff out of the relegation zone (just), but added to Trollope’s eight points the Bluebirds should be on course for a steady bottom half finish.

Now this haul has come over a small sample of just eight games – a lucky win here or there can wildly skew the ppg totals – so can we be sure Warnock has improved performances to justify these results?

I'm exiled at the moment, so just watching the couple of televised matches under Warnock it’s been a far better looking Cardiff team than with Trollope, but does that translate into actual solid data? (Remember, appearances can be deceiving.)

Well, yes it does.

Attacking efficiency

Let’s consider the attacking side first.
Warnock has made Cardiff’s attack quite a bit more efficient. Despite cutting down the number of shots Cardiff take per game by roughly 1.5 when at 11v11, the number of those that are not blocked by defenders and that then make it on target has remained almost unchanged.

(click the image for a bigger version)

Looking at locations (under all game states), Warnock has cut down almost two shots per game from outside the box and instead added an extra shot from inside. The biggest increase has been headed attempts from inside the six-yard-box. (Somewhat reassuringly, this is true to form for Warnock and meets what he did at Rotherham last season, as I mentioned in my preview piece upon his hiring.)

While headers are far less effective for goal scoring than shots, if you are going to make them a focus of your attack then you want to do so from as close range as possible. Whether this has been initiated by the types of opportunities created, better crossing, or position of attacking players, it is a welcome improvement that has already yielded two goals from this area.

Overall, although there are improvements, as I wrote previously, this is still a below average Championship attack which relies too heavily on headed attempts and still needs further work to open defences and create chances regularly.

Defensive stability

Given the attacking shortcomings this means the defence has to be above average just to keep its head above water. Warnock has improved on what was a roughly league average unit to make it a well above average group under his charge.

Warnock’s removed a full 2.5 attempts from inside the box during his reign and given up just 1.5 more from outside – a more than fair exchange by anyone’s reckoning.
He’s improved an already strong aerial defence, but most encouragingly Cardiff have cut out almost a full shot per game from both the central and side areas of the 18-yard-box.

Cardiff now concede just 2.25 (foot) shots per game from the danger zone of six-yard-box and central 18-yard-box, well below the league average of 2.95 per game.
Incidentally, the Bluebirds also take 2.25 shots from the danger zone area each game, so a deficit of almost one shot per game in this area under Trollope has been equalised.

In all, Cardiff’s defence has changed from allowing more shots from better locations than the league average under Trollope, to allowing fewer shots from far more distant locations under Warnock.
(I was hesitant about Warnock’s defensive potential in my earlier piece, but I am very pleased to say he has far outperformed my prediction.)

Overall performance

Looking at the overall shot shares under the two managers, we can see Warnock has made noticeable improvements in terms of all shots, unblocked shots, shots on target and goals for.
The team is at least league average in these markers now and better still when the scores are level.

Shooting % (the rate at which shots on target are scored) is typically around 30% within the Championship – although this can be subject to significant short term volatility.

Trollope, perhaps being a victim of poor shooting locations, had a rate of just 22%, while Warnock has had shots being scored at an above average 40%, again perhaps influenced by the improved (though still not great) locations. I would not expect this to continue long term, though the short term correction is much appreciated.

Likewise, goalkeeper save% (the rate at which goalkeepers save shots on target) can be volatile and also dependent on shot location.

Again Warnock’s improved defence may well tell part of the story in this improvement.
However, it is well worth noticing that both Trollope and Warnock’s save% are well below the 70% league average, and it is hard not to wonder if selling TWO first team goalkeepers in the summer without recruiting a suitable replacement may be significantly hindering Cardiff’s progress.

Encouraging signs

Perhaps most encouragingly for Cardiff fans, this improvement in shot shares is seen throughout all score states.
This means the team is able to hold its own or even control the balance of shots when the game is there for the winning, not just when several goals down and the opposition are sitting back. And when ahead it means Cardiff are as likely (or more so) to score a second than concede an equaliser.

Also encouragingly, Warnock has faced a reasonably stiff set of fixtures during his time, including five of the top six teams in terms of 11v11 shots on target share – one of the better statistical predictors of team quality and future success.

The signs for Cardiff are more positive under Warnock and with the whole bottom half of the table (Rotherham excluded) so tight, a couple of wins could easily see the Bluebirds as high as 15th.

Of course football has its shock results (such as Blackburn winning at Newcastle last week) and being dragged into a relegation battle can have unanticipated effects on players and management, but I am now far more confident that Cardiff will be sitting away from the relegation zone in May than I was under Trollope.

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