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Cardiff vs Everton

Cardiff follow up their surprising win over Manchester City with another home game, this time against Everton, and the midweek League Cup win gives a massive hint to Saturday’s lineup as a who’s who of those not playing. Having appeared, club captain Mark Hudson and new signing John Brayford, both still waiting for their first Premier League minutes of the season, and Jordon Mutch must now all be convinced that they’ll miss out again. Indeed, all signs indicate that the team will be unchanged from the previous weekend. But how will the players be used? Malky Mackay commented when he joined Cardiff that he would use whichever style causes the opponents most problems – so to guess how Cardiff will play, we need to look at Everton.

The opponent’s season so far…
Everton’s two draws, one of them goalless, belie the fact that they have been the division’s most creative team so far, dominating the ball in both matches and using it to good effect – they created 20 attempts on goal at Norwich and 22 against West Brom. They can certainly claim to be unlucky not to have scored against West Brom at home, having peppered the goal with 12 chances from inside the area – the failure being all the more disappointing for the Toffees, as West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster left the pitch injured with 15 minutes remaining. Three blocks close to the goalline certainly helped the visitors keep their clean sheet. The graphic below (blue = saved, red = off target, grey = blocked) shows the pressure that West Brom were put under but ultimately survived.
shotswestbrom

Away to Norwich was a similar tale; Everton had managed two goals but also saw another dozen chances in the penalty box fail to go in. A little more care in front of goal could easily see Everton as an early pacesetter in the division, rather than a team looking for their first win.

Everton choose to attack down the flanks almost exclusively with a reliance on Coleman and Baines, the attacking fullbacks, to put the ball into the area. Cardiff’s fullbacks are already seen as a weak area of the team so the responsibility falling to the tall centrebacks (Caulker and Turner) to deal with crosses will be increased. However, only four of Everton’s many attempts against West Brom came with the head – Caulker and Turner will need to use their feet more often than their frame. The graphic below shows where Everton placed their passes in the attacking third. It can be seen that the defence are happy to play longer balls if needed (though the long red lines from the back indicate failed passes outnumbering successful ones considerably) but the much larger number of shorter blue lines to both flanks show that this is where Everton concentrate their pressure.

passeseverton

The players
Fellaini is one of the most versatile midfielders in the Premier League and, while he was Everton’s most dangerous attacking player last season, under Martinez he has been called on predominantly to provide stability in front of the back four (though he is always keen to come forward and cause danger at setpieces). Consequently, his average position in both matches so far has been behind every outfielder, barring the two centrebacks and his partner Leon Osman. Fellaini’s presence (see the graphic below showing where he made tackles against West Brom) across the width of the pitch is one factor in allowing Coleman and Baines, as full backs, to spend so much time attacking.

tacklesfellaini
Thanks to Coleman and Baines selflessly working the flanks, Everton are able to interchange their central attacking players more easily. Nikala Jelavic, ostensibly Everton’s striker, was frequently found behind Kevin Mirallas in the West Brom game. The two players’ dashboards below show just how hard Mirallas will work.

Jelavic
Mirallas

It seems certain that this fluidity, something that Martinez was becoming reknowned for at Wigan, will cause real problems for some opposition during the season. The number of chances created, but not converted, so far are ample warning of this.

What can Cardiff do?
Fullbacks camped in the opposition half, forwards dropping deep – we’ve seen this before. Everton might have been assembled more cheaply than their Mancunian rivals but they can still play football and it seems likely that Mackay’s first desire will be to stop them doing so. Everton are more reliant on their fullbacks than any other team so Whittingham and Bellamy will once more be required to drop back when Cardiff are without possession to help out Taylor and Connolly. With Medel and Gunnarsson also likely to be committed deep to deal with Jelavic, Mirallas and Barkley, this leaves Cardiff, again, short of players in the attacking third of the pitch.

Bellamy had faced the speedy Gael Clichy as his opposite man in the previous game, but Baines’ feet, whilst skillful, do not move fast. The more sprightly Pienaar will drop in to cover, but Cardiff will surely try to counterattack down the right flank to expose this weakness. Expect to see Whittingham try to open some gaps for Bellamy and Campbell to race into with some crossfield rakes. Gunnarson’s late bursts into the box may be fruitful. With Cardiff facing opponents with such danger on the flanks, the counterattack, along with the setpiece threat that barely needs to be mentioned, looks like the best chance of stealing goals in what could be an open match.

Images courtesy of http://www.fourfourtwo.com/statzone

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Cardiff fielded an almost identical lineup in their opening two matches of the season (Andrew Taylor returning at left back following a carried over suspension), yet the results and performances were anything but identical. An opening day defeat at West Ham was followed by an unexpected victory over title contenders Manchester City. How could one team put together such very different performances?

Defensive problems

Both goals in the 2-0 defeat came as a result of too much space being allowed around the penalty spot. To supply Joe Cole for his opener, West Ham pressured Kim into a mistake just inside his own half and sent the ball to the left flank where Matthew Jarvis pulled a low ball back from the by-line to the goalscorer’s feet. Cole’s awareness of where he was in relation to the far post allowed him to turn and shoot, almost blind, into the bottom corner. Meanwhile, eight Cardiff outfielders were in the penalty box and all were too far from the two West Ham forwards to get a block in.

joecolegoal joecolegoal2

West Ham’s second came an hour later, when some neat interchanging on the right flank led to Kevin Nolan sweeping the ball into the net. While Mark Noble’s progress was closed off, it came too late for his simple pass to Nolan to be cut out. Ben Turner and Steven Caulker, the centrebacks, had been sucked towards the ball. Perhaps Nolan’s shot would have been blocked had he taken a touch, but he hadn’t needed to – he had spent at least eight full seconds standing in exactly the part of the pitch he would eventually score from while the move developed. There had been ample opportunity for someone in defence to pick him up while he waited for the ball, having already picked his spot.

nolangoal

This was the story of the goals and  the match as a whole was not much more encouraging for the newcomers. West Ham allowed Cardiff possession in their own half (having scored early, they were at liberty do so) and put pressure on them there – while two thirds of West Ham’s passes were made in the attacking third, Cardiff managed less than 30% there. West Ham were even allowed to balloon four more chances from even closer range than their goals – a third goal would probably have reflected the game a little better than 2-0.

Malky Mackay, no average centreback himself, had seen his team allow the opposition too much space in the area. No doubt this was top of the to-do list to sort out in training and the defensive discipline shown against Manchester City suggests the team paid attention.

Defensive improvements

There can be little doubt that the atmosphere in the Cardiff City Stadium for their first top flight match in over half a century helped inspire the home team, but noise alone is not enough. A much tighter defensive unit was called for – if Nolan and Joe Cole could punish mistakes, a more talented team containing Silva and Aguero would surely be able to with even greater ease. The graphics below show successful tackles (green) and attempted tackles (brown) in both matches, West Ham on the left and Manchester City on the right.

tackleswestham tacklesmancity

Against West Ham, Cardiff looked to close down the wide players and chased up the field, but Manchester City were allowed into the Cardiff half before being challenged. This is somewhat similar to West Ham’s own tactics vs Cardiff, where only one successful tackle was made in the West Ham half but ten (out of twelve attempted) came in Cardiff’s own half.

The graphic below shows how unsuccessful Cardiff’s strategy in the opening game was, as West Ham created about as many chances (blue) from the middle of the pitch as from the flanks (the goals are yellow). Cardiff, it seemed, were to learn from these mistakes.

chanceswestham

In the second match, Cardiff’s centrebacks were able to keep closer together thanks to the willingness of the more attacking wide players (Whittingham and Bellamy) to track back and behave almost as wide fullbacks when they were without the ball. This pushed the fullbacks closer to the centrebacks and consequently Man City found themselves crowded out in the attacking third of the pitch. The chances they created tended to come from short passes rather than crosses (finally finding success with a cross to Negredo in injury time).

chancesmancity

The limited attacking potential of Cardiff’s wide players allowed Manchester City’s fullbacks to move forward – in fact, Gael Clichy at leftback produced more touches of the ball in the opponents half than any other player in the whole weekend of Premier League matches. Both away fullbacks had an average position somewhere inside the opposing half (something only three Cardiff players could manage) which all led to congestion. While Man City’s players attempted to beat their man 13 times in their 4-0 rout of Newcastle (successfully nine times), against Cardiff they managed to do this just three times out of seven attempts. Two of these successes came on the touchline – the space was just not to be found anywhere else on the pitch (in comparison, Man City performed three successful take-ons inside the Newcastle penalty area).

Cardiff score

If there was no space in the Cardiff half, there was plenty in Manchester City’s. Fraizer Campbell was released twice in the first half, his speed causing some problems to the makeshift centreback pairing. He was unable to take the chances but Cardiff’s first Premier League goal came as a result of another burst past the defence, this time from Kim.

To me, Kim is a confidence player. As the previous season in the Championship progressed, he began to take more chances and give the crowd the opportunity to see what a talent he is. But, as stated earlier, it was Kim who was pushed off the ball for West Ham’s opener, and he was easily shrugged off in another encounter with Joleen Lescott on Sunday. While he may still be coming to terms with the physical side of British football, what is astonishing about him is how often he makes the correct decision. The graphic below shows the moves he attempted and their success – there are a handful of failed passes and unsuccessful aerial duels (which you would expect if you saw his height); everything else, in a match where his team was up against it, came off. For now, he appears to be concentrating on doing the simple things well and perhaps the rest will come as confidence in the division grows. I’ll go into more detail about Kim and his creative partner Whittingham, and their different styles, in another blog.

Kim

Aron Gunnarsson finally finished off the attacking move, after Campbell’s close range shot had been saved, and Cardiff’s next two goals came from a more predictable source.

Anyone who had viewed a compilation of Cardiff’s goals the previous season would have noted the large number that came from setpieces. Sam Allardyce appeared to have done his homework against Cardiff, nullifying them all over the pitch and I am sure that had Cardiff won more than three corners in that match (or even put better deliveries in than they did), Allardyce’s defence would have known what to expect. In short, and I cannot be giving too many secrets away by now, the template is for Gunnarson to stand in front of the goalkeeper and for Whittingham to curl a wicked delivery to the backpost. They are hard to defend against if you know what to expect, but if you don’t (and Pellegrini’s post-match comments hinted that he had taken Cardiff lightly) then goals are inevitable. Campbell’s canny runs gave him the space to score the goals his overall performance deserved – could Manchester City have expected the deliveries to find one of the shorter members of the Cardiff team and not one of the three towering defenders?

Closing down

As vital as the goals were, to complete the story of the victory we need to come back to the defence. Goalscorer Gunnarsson and his defensive midfield partner Gary Medel finished both games with similar average positions, but the jobs they performed were very different. Medel had, fairly surprisingly, touched the ball more often than any other player on the pitch vs West Ham but these passes were all ultimately harmless. Gunnarsson had had half as many touches and finished with a paltry 25% successful tackle rate. Against Manchester City, both saw the ball equally (which was still less than almost all the Manchester City team, including Nasri who was on for less than half the match) but between them, they recovered twice as many loose balls as against West Ham, with Gunnarsson also managing two goal attempts (more than any other Cardiff player but Campbell).

The two players formed the kind of partnership that you might expect from two centrebacks. It was this that closed off the penalty box to centre circle zone for Manchester City. The graphic below shows David Silva’s passes (dark blue successful, red unsuccessful and light blue leading to a chance). This part of the pitch, usually his domain, was out of bounds for him. He was not able to find the space that makes him so dangerous and frequently resorted to passing wide.

Silvapasses

Always room for more improvement

This was an exceptional team performance by Cardiff City, but their survival in the top division will not come from sterling defensive performances alone. The defence need to be able to keep clean sheets without the help of the wide players constanly tracking back. The attack must not only rely on corner routines and Campbell’s pace.

Perhaps most importantly, not every match will be played in front of a fired up local crowd. Cardiff must learn how to surprise the opposition when they are no longer a surprise themselves.

Images courtesy of http://www.fourfourtwo.com/statzone