Cardiff and Swansea meet this weekend for the first time in the top division in what must be the biggest South Wales clash since the 1994 Welsh Cup final. Both teams come into the match on the back of 0-0 draws where the opposition managed more attempts on goal than the Welsh side. The league is tight enough at the moment that whoever wins will find themselves higher in the league, but Swansea are the established top division side with a reputation for possession football so it will be up to Cardiff to stop them playing. Swansea have a 0-0 with West Ham and a 4-0 win over Sunderland as their two previous matches, so this blog will take a look at what West Ham did right and what Sunderland did wrong.
Swansea lined up in both matches with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Britton as a deep playmaker rather than a defensive Medel-style player and Michu as a false 9, dropping deep and making late runs to evade his marker, although he has played as centre forward this season too. Michu always plays centrally but was kept quiet in both matches, not managing a shot on target.
West Ham may have had far less ball than Swansea, making 185 successful passes to Swansea’s 484, but they made the most of the ball when they had it, counterattacking to create 15 attempts on goal (12 inside the area) more than Swansea’s 10 (6 inside). Before they got hold of it, they restricted the areas that Swansea were allowed into as shown in the two Swansea heat maps below, from the West Ham game (bottom) and the 4-0 win over Sunderland (top).
Sunderland had two midfielders (Cattermole and Gardner) in the centre, with Giaccherini playing far further forward alongside Fletcher up front. Swansea made a midfield diamond with either Routledge (from the left) or Dyer (from the right) coming inside to form it with Britton, de Guzman and Michu. This easily overpowered Sunderland’s central two to give Swansea the run of the central midfield. Sunderland could barely get out of their own half, making just 26 passes in the opposition final third to Swansea’s 118 – an incredible difference and once Sunderland finally conceded the first goal, the rest followed quickly.
West Ham used Noble and Nolan as the deeper lying midfielders, with Diame and Morrison in front; something not quite as excessive as the 4-6-0 that won at Spurs, but not far off it. By playing a defensive midfielder so far forward, West Ham were able to close down Swansea before they could start attacks. Diame’s match dashboard is below, and while he didn’t see much of the ball, his job was to disrupt Swansea’s buildup in their own half.
This is an extreme measure, yet West Ham still created more chances than Swansea by breaking quickly. Swansea’s closest opening was a well saved Chico header from a corner, which West Ham were quickly able to turn into a three-on-two break, only for Morrison to pull his chance wide. Mackay’s tactic of pulling all players back for a corner severely diminishes the chances of a similar breakaway, although Cardiff will probably play on the counterattack. The question is, how much territory Cardiff are willing to give up to Swansea?
One of Bellamy’s best performances in his second spell at Cardiff came in a 3-0 win over Blackpool in September 2012. Playing as a second striker behind Helgusson, he used his pace to chase balls along the Blackpool back four, eventually forcing mistakes. Swansea have shown vulnerability there in the past and while it may not directly lead to chances, forcing Vorm to play it long gives Cardiff a better chance of winning the ball than tackles or interceptions in the middle of the pitch. It would be surprising to see Bellamy in this position again, but his workrate and speed make him a great player for closing down.
This is a key zone where Cardiff need to apply pressure as the options of the goalkeeper are always more restricted than outfielders. Applying pressure in the middle of the pitch means that a team can always pass backwards to the unmarked goalie, but marking up the goalkeeper’s passing options in the back four will force a long ball.
Vorm is currently third in terms of successful goalkeeper distribution this season, averaging 11 distributions a game and frequently choosing to play it short to the back four (particularly Rangel) . It can be seen in his distribution maps below from the two games (blue successful passes, red unsuccessful) that the best chance Cardiff have to regain the ball is to force Vorm to play it long.
Mackay does have the pace in the squad to play a high pressing game, but pace is one thing that Whittingham on the left certainly doesn’t have. If he was to move into the middle, where he could control the game more, Cardiff could line up like this.
This gives three fast players in attack who can all pressurise Swansea in their own half when they have the ball. Mutch and Whittingham could restrict Swansea’s passing options in midfield and consequently starve the wide players of the ball. Swansea’s right flank is particularly potent, with Angel Rangel’s attacking intentions clearly indicated by his having received more passes in the opposition final third than any other player in both matches. This makes Bellamy more suited to cover that flank as he is keener to track back than Odemwingie. Rangel, Dyer and the right sided central midfielder (likely to be de Guzman) often overload the right flank, which would require Whittingham to move over to help out – Whittingham’s lack of pace vs de Guzman is a worry but less so than his lack of pace vs Dyer or Rangel in a more exposed area of the pitch. Dyer’s pace on the right could expose Taylor at left-back; another reason that Bellamy would be a better choice on that side.
Cardiff will need to avoid sitting back and inviting Swansea pressure on to them, as Michu’s movement and their propensity for throughballs will unquestionably lead to chances. Should Cowie be selected on the right, as he was against Chelsea, with Whittingham on the left, it doesn’t seem possible that Cardiff could avoid letting Swansea set up camp in the Cardiff half as Cowie will always cautiously withdraw backwards. By sucking Cardiff’s players infield and then quickly moving the ball to the wings, Swansea’s fast wingers would find getting behind their fullback a fairly simple task. Having slower players like Cowie and Whittingham wide also severely reduces the chance of a fast breakaway; exploiting the space left by Man City’s attacking players was key to the victory in August.
If Mackay neglects to use pace to pressurise Swansea in their own half, it will be a long match for Cardiff.
Graphics provided by: