The Season So Far
Given that Cardiff City were by far the least fancied of the promoted sides, the fact that they’re not propping up the table and already planning for Championship football next season means it’s been a qualified success up to this point.
Neil Warnock’s side currently sit 18th, two points off safety, their fate very much in their own hands. With Huddersfield and Fulham certainties for the drop and Cardiff’s relegation rivals Burnley facing an arguably more ominous fixture list, Cardiff must fancy their chances of securing an unlikely second season in the Premier League.
Avoiding the drop would be an enormous achievement for several reasons. They lack the financial clout so necessary to compete in the Premier League and their squad is made up of journeymen simply happy for the chance to compete at this level. Consequently, their football is necessarily uncomplicated and unpleasant. To call manager Warnock ‘old school’ is not accurate — what we think of as ‘old school’ is actually rather new-age to ol’ Colin. Despite their numerous limitations, however, Cardiff are going into the final stretch having won eight times and knowing that two or three more wins will probably be enough to send Burnley down.
It’s doubtful that they can get those wins, however. While the fixtures arguably favour the Bluebirds, their lack of quality means every point won is a bonus regardless of opponent, while the tragic death of record signing Emiliano Sala knocked everyone at the club for six. The closer they get to the drop, the easier they’ll be to beat.
The Season Ahead
It’s tempting to characterise the remaining games as eight cup finals, but that’s not really the case. Four of their matches are against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United, and realistically they’d be lucky to get a couple of draws from them. In reality, the double-header of Burnley away and Brighton at home in a fortnight will pretty much decide their fate. Six points from those games and they’re as good as safe; zero and they’re gone.
Cardiff are nothing if not distinctive. Their entire strategy is what we used to think of as Football League long-ball orthodoxy — no surprise given Neil Warnock’s long managerial career in all three divisions and his unparalleled record of securing promotions with unfancied sides.
Their gameplan is based around not having the ball, being hard to break down and transitioning from defence to attack with long balls and fast breaks down the flanks. They have by far the lowest possession average and the worst pass success rate in the division and they’re absolutely fine with it. Rather than have the ball, they look to win set plays around the box and only then do they commit men forward in numbers, preferring to send their towering centre-backs to act as threats as high balls are thrown into the box. Sean Morrison is especially menacing from dead-ball situations and no other Premier League side is as accurate or uncompromising when it comes to putting the ball in the mixer.
For most of the season, Warnock has played a 4-1-4-1 system but, in recent weeks, he’s flipped the midfield triangle, giving talented midfielder Victor Camarasa more options behind the striker and thus enabling more frequent cohesive, incremental advances up the pitch.
One of the few pluses of having a basic, understrength squad is easily achieving maximum buy-in from the players. Motivation has always been Warnock’s forte and with a set of players like this he comes into his own, as proven by their promotion push last year. What they lack in quality they more than make up for in determination. One would go as far as to say that if Chelsea’s players had Cardiff’s spirit, they’d win the league every season.
It’s also worth remembering that while their football is basic, it can be effective: Cardiff have created the highest number of chances from set plays in the Premier League, while they’re also strong in aerial duels and show great aggression and tenacity in midfield.
Their biggest issue in games such as this is the chasm in quality between the teams. Warnock is good at turning their weakness into their strength, but sometimes it’s impossible. Cardiff have been mercilessly torn apart on several occasions this season and rare is the afternoon when the Bluebirds step out onto the pitch sure that they’re not about to get pummelled. In their eight previous games against the Premier League’s big six, Cardiff have let in 27 goals. That says it all.
Statistically, they’re also underperforming given their underlying numbers. They have the fourth lowest Expected Goals figure but the second lowest in reality; the fourth highest Expected Goals Against figure and the third highest in reality; Expected Points puts them 17th and yet they’re in the drop zone. If you set your bar low and you then underperform, you’re never going to achieve your objectives.
Key Cardiff defender Sol Bamba has been ruled out for the long-term, while Joe Bennett, Harry Arter and Victor Camarasa face races against time to be fit for Sunday.
As for Chelsea, we know the drill.
If Chelsea score first, it could be a cricket score. If Cardiff score first... Gulp. Let’s assume Chelsea score first.