Saturday, 17 March 2018

On Neil Warnock and Cardiff's 'anti-football' success

It's been a pretty busy year for me so I've not had the time to dedicate to this blog, but with the big game coming up on Sunday the @DerbyCountyBlog asked me for something on Cardiff this season.

I got rather carried away and so here's my thoughts on Cardiff's season so far. You can read the abridged version, along with the Derby perspective on The Derby County Blog.


There’s lots to say about this season for Cardiff, but if you watched the game at Brentford on Tuesday night then you probably know all you need to know about how Cardiff play.

That’s not meant as a flippant way to disregard Cardiff’s performances, it’s just that game probably replicates the vast amount of games the Bluebirds have played this season.
The strategy under Neil Warnock is not necessarily pretty, but it is mightily effective.
It is reliant on stout, energetic, pressing defending and quick, direct attacks, often from long balls forward or powerful runs from the wings.
And then there are the set pieces, boy are there set pieces.
When Warnock took over early last season that was the first most noticeable change he made.
But it is not by luck Cardiff find themselves in the top two – despite what some would believe.


Statistically they deserve to be there and I’ll break this down a bit why Cardiff are genuine.
Sure, the passing measures are pretty awful with the Bluebirds looking more like a relegation battler than a promotion candidate here.
Cardiff average 45.7% possession (fourth worst) and just 60% of passes are completed, the absolute lowest ratio in the division.
Unsurprisingly they’ve played the fewest short passes in the Championship 212, less than half the total of the top possession teams.
But Warnock does not care about possession – he cares about activity at each end of the pitch.
And in this regard whether you look at goals scored and conceded (fourth and top) or by expected goals – the numbers are clear, Cardiff are legit.

But how?

Cardiff are second in shots for per game (14.1), shots on target per game (5), and top in attempts generated from set pieces (5.3).
Meanwhile they are fourth best in shots conceded per game (11.2), and in the top group for shots on target conceded.
So, they concede few shots and take plenty. And then add-in the locations of those to give a sign of Cardiff’s dominance.
The Bluebirds take 10% of their attempts on goal in the six-yard box (joint highest with Wolves) and 55% within the rest of the 18-yard box, third best.
At the other end, just 6% of shots conceded are taken by opponents in the six-yard box (5th best), with the remaining locations at mid-table rates.
Finally, we get to set pieces, where Cardiff really stand out.
Cardiff have scored 18 goals from set pieces (joint top with Wolves) and conceded just 7 (joint top with a couple of other teams).

Depth to the strategy

Don’t be fooled into thinking Warnock is just a hit and hope long ball merchant.
Sure, the strategy has an element of that, but it is designed to clear balls from Cardiff’s defensive third quickly and put pressure on opposing defenders with strong, quick wingers or forwards chasing down.
Most of these don’t work admittedly, but the tactic does not allow defenders to switch off or make a mistake at any time in the game.
Think you’re in good shape with the ball on the edge of Cardiff’s area?
Seconds later you’ve got a winger and forward bearing down on you with a ball bouncing around in no-man’s land.
Do you stick or twist? Get that wrong and another second later it’s in your net.
Likewise at set pieces there is subtle complexity designed, with flick-ons and targeted headers across goal all painstakingly setup on the training ground – this isn’t just hit it into the box and hope stuff.
Think the shortest player on the pitch isn’t a threat? Wait until he’s heading the flick-on back across goal from the far post after cutting in from the side of the box.

Play with the ball

This team can also play with the ball too, they just choose to do it in the final third.
Junior Hoilett has been one of the biggest threats in the Championship this season while the currently injured Joe Ralls is, in my mind, as good as any central midfielder in the division.
This pair can press and disrupt the opposition or work openings through tight defences and hit quickly on the counter.
And with Kenneth Zohore back and seemingly up to last season’s pace there is a real goal threat.

Custom-built player

But I’ll end this preview with probably Cardiff’s most important player this season – captain and central defender Sean Morrison.
As impressive as Sol Bamba, Bruno Manga and the rest of the defence have been, Morrison is that cut above.
He takes control of situations, is rarely out of position and wins countless headers and tackles and clearances, not to mention chipping in with the odd goal or two.
If Neil Warnock could forge his own custom-built player I suspect it would look a lot like the Cardiff captain.
And so, although the Bluebirds were due a dip in form, it’s probably not a coincidence Cardiff’s poor run around Christmas and New Year happened during his absence.

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