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Cardiff’s final fixture in a punishing home November schedule sees Arsenal come to visit. The league leaders are in great form, both at home and in Europe – of their five matches so far in November, they have won four with clean sheets, the most impressive result being a 1-0 win away to Champions League finalists, Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal are one of the Premier League’s most attractive sides and Wenger has used a 4-2-3-1 this season, with the holding midfielders (two of Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere and Ramsey) playing in a double pivot and the attacking midfielders (three of Cazorla, Ozil, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Walcott) interchanging their positions behind Giroud. They lined up against Southampton last weekend like this:

arslineup

Versatility in the midfield

The outstanding feature of Arsenal’s midfield is the versatility. Players like Wilshere and Ramsey have filled in all over the midfield as the season has progressed (a little more on the former bluebird’s best position later on), and the addition of Ozil in the late summer has only aided this. He has been described by Zonal Marking as one of the new breed of central winger, a player who is not the traditional number 10 in the hole behind a striker but one who moves from the centre to a flank in order to find space horizontally and vertically (of course no players only move in one direction, but even a winger who cuts inside mainly plays vertically).

In recent matches, he has been more restricted to one part of the pitch. Heat maps from the 3-1 win over Stoke (top) in September, where Ozil was magnificent and set up all the goals, and the 2-0 win over Southampton (bottom) are shown below. Against Stoke, Ozil was the main creative player due to the absence of the likes of Cazorla, Walcott and Rosicky and he was heavily involved centrally. Against Southampton, the creative burden was shared and he stayed more on the right (until the later substitutions).

ozilheat

Cazorla is another player that central winger could be applied to, while Walcott gives his better performances on the right wing (even if he would rather play centrally). Walcott’s introduction against Southampton on to the right wing, the beginning of his return to the team following a lengthy injury, caused a ripple of changes that really underlined Arsenal’s versatility. Wilshere moved from the right into Arteta’s holder/pivot role, Cazorla moved from the left into the central number 10 position, Ramsey dropped back a little and Ozil moved over to Cazorla’s left sided spot (Ozil later replaced by Monreal on the left flank, a more defensive player). The return of Walcott will also ease the burden on Arsenal’s fullbacks to create width – this has been one of the downsides of Arsenal using central players in wide positions, although Sagna’s crossing this season has been very good.

Ramsey

For all of Arsenal’s eyegrabbing talent, it is Ramsey who has taken the most headlines. Only Yaya Toure has had more touches of the ball or made more passes than Ramsey this season and, unlike Toure, he is in the top five midfielders for most passes in the opposition final third and most through balls. On the defensive side, he has won considerably more tackles than any other midfielder and is in the top five for most loose ball recoveries. Finally, only two midfielders have made more assists and he is the top goalscoring midfielder. The stats are impressive and support what can be seen by any observer – Ramsey is fulfilling his potential in a startling way.

He has played his best football of the season in the double pivot alongside Arteta. Although Arteta is not the best player to be left in front of the defence when Ramsey attacks, in general this has worked very well. Ramsey’s impact on matches has certainly dropped off when asked to play on the right rather than a central pivot and he will face a battle from Flamini and Wilshere, as well as Arteta, to be given this role. Flamini and Ramsey both played 90 minutes midweek against Marseille, Wilshere scored twice before being withdrawn and Arteta played for only 10 minutes – could this be an indicator that Ramsey will be rested on his return to Cardiff?

Giroud

Replacing the club legend Robin van Persie, Giroud’s second season at Arsenal has started well. Unusually for a lone striker in the Premier League who will expect to only see glimpses of the ball, Giroud tends to receive it often – Rooney is the only forward who has had more touches of the ball in the opposition half this season and he is not the focal point of Man Utd’s attack but a player who frequently comes deep. Giroud’s job has been a combination of not only getting involved at the end of the move with a strike at goal (and he has had more than any other forward) but also as very much part of the buildup. One thing he lacks is a goal from long range- Cardiff will try to keep Giroud outside the box, despite his willingness to press.

Arsenal pressing

The screenshot below shows how Arsenal push up to restrict the opposition’s options when the ball is in defence. Boruc, in the Southampton goal, has received a backpass from Clyne and elects to look for a short pass. Even before he has controlled the ball, Arsenal already have players close to the defenders, with Giroud preparing to pressurise the goalkeeper. The only option left to Boruc is to clear the ball up the field.

giroudgoalwideangle

Unfortunately for Boruc, he doesn’t take this option and repeatedly attempts to dummy Giroud while looking for the short pass. In what will surely be the goalkeeping blooper of the season, Boruc eventually spins so much he loses the ball and Giroud can tap it in for the opening goal.

Cardiff conceded the opening goal to Man Utd in a similar but more understated fashion, with Hernandez pressurising Turner into a loose pass. Arsenal will seek to stop the short passes amongst the defence, whether from the goalkeeper or a centreback, and force Cardiff to play it long. Although this gives Arsenal a good chance of regaining possession, it will happen in a far less dangerous area of the pitch. This match turned on this incident, as Southampton were never able to claw a goal back.

Dealing with Arsenal

Cardiff will need to restrict the space that Arsenal have and that can be done by pulling the midfield back towards the defence – something Cardiff have done often this season, although not against champions Man Utd last weekend. If the two wide midfielders drop back with Medel and Whittingham in front of the back four, it will leave the attacking midfielder (on recent performances, Mutch) and the forward (possibly Cornelius, if given an unlikely start) responsibility to threaten Arsenal on the rare occasions that they have the ball. Campbell is quicker than Cornelius and did a surprisingly good job of bringing teammates into play last weekend, but this Arsenal side (Mertesacker excepted) is much faster than Man Utd so balls played into space will have to be very accurate. The alternative to quickly move defence into attack is to play a higher ball, which will suit Cornelius better as a forward but not Mutch; despite his height, his aerial dominance is poor and he won just one out of eight in the air last weekend.

With the counterattacking game looking unlikely to pay off against a pacey Arsenal side, Cardiff may again be relying on set pieces to get attempts on goal.

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Cardiff remain unbeaten against Manchester’s finest this season, with a late equaliser against the champions, Manchester United. As against their neighbours City, Cardiff fought back from a goal down to finish the match with something to show for their efforts. With another big club, Arsenal, visiting next weekend, the point picked up in this 2-2 draw eases the pressure a little on Cardiff to avoid defeat.

Cardiff again used a 4-1-4-1, with Campbell playing as the striker and Odemwingie moving to the left flank. Cowie started on the right, to give defensive cover for an increasingly attackminded Theophile-Catherine and Mutch came back into the midfield.

cdflineup

The champions went into the match missing three key players in van Persie, Carrick and Vidic, their replacements (Hernandez, Cleverley and Evans) all having at least three seasons worth of Premier League experience. Kagawa made way from the left wing for the newcomer Januzaj as Utd lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Rooney took up a free role between the midfield and attack, and after he had sweated on the referee’s decision early on when he swung a boot at Mutch, he was central to all of Utd’s attacking success.

mulineup

Utd had the better opening 15 minutes, holding possession well just inside the Cardiff half but without creating much. Although Utd weren’t pressing particularly high up the pitch, the opening goal came from pressure put on the Cardiff back four. What should have been a harmless set up for position by the defence became dangerous when Hernandez worried Turner into playing a loose ball intended for Taylor. Valencia intercepted easily and Utd took no time in finding Rooney, whose deflected shot went in for the opener through three bodies.

Three v two in midfield

After the goal, Cardiff started to run Utd down, getting a foothold in the Utd half and beginning to get Campbell into the game to create some chances. Cardiff’s midfield three could live with Man Utd’s two just as Arsenal had taken control when they moved to three midfielders against Utd the previous week – while nowhere near dominating, Cardiff were certainly more comfortable in the middle than they had been in most other matches this season; indeed, over the course of the match, five Cardiff players had more touches in the opposition half than any other Utd player but Rooney. Two heatmaps below show Mutch’s position in the first 15 minutes (top) and then from 15-45 minutes (below) and they are typical of how Cardiff shifted up the pitch to play inside the opposite half.

mutchheat

Utd’s exposed defence

Mutch also combined well with Cowie and the attacking Theophile-Catherine on the right hand side, with the lightweight Januzaj offering no protection for Evra. Cardiff’s numerical advantage in midfield and the wings meant that only Campbell was outnumbered and accordingly he needed a hardworking performance if he was to make a mark on the game. After the Villa defeat, this blog looked at the lack of support for Odemwingie and how he collected the ball in the channels only to have no options in the middle. This time, as the image below shows, Campbell often received the ball centrally and was supported well by Mutch, something he is far better suited to doing than Gunnarsson (who had played that role in the Villa match). Campbell’s pace had the potential to cause Utd’s slow centreback pairing problems and this was demonstrated with his goal.

campbpass

The equaliser was a great illustration of the potential of Cardiff’s midfield to overload – the quick passes of Medel and Whittingham found Mutch, whose fantastically weighted pass begged for Campbell to chase. The screenshot below traces the path of the ball; with no defensive midfielder and a gap between Cleverley and Fellaini (yellow indicators), the space was always there for Cardiff to exploit as long as the midfielders executed the right passes. This was not the only time  Campbell was released behind the defence (he later hit the bar with a chip when one on one with de Gea), but what is interesting is that the move originated from Cardiff possession in the same area of the pitch as Utd’s opener had. The advantage of looking forward rather than the apparent ‘safe’ option of holding it along the back four is clear. Utd’s lack of a defensive midfielder in the Medel mould allowed Cardiff to, unusually, be able to make such advances up the pitch. Although Carrick may be more of a ball player than winner, his presence in front of the back four was missed and, despite having fewer touches of the ball in total, Cardiff were allowed more touches than Utd in the opposition half and final third over the whole match.

campbgoal

Second half

With Utd taking the lead once more just before half time, and somewhat against the run of play with Evra’s header from a corner, Cardiff looked again throughout the second half for the next equaliser. Odemwingie showed some good close control to beat his man in the first half but started playing some loose passes in the second. It could be that Mackay had noted Odemwingie’s success in taking his fullback on, which gave him confidence that Noone, a player who is tricky going forward but offers little defensively, could have an impact in the match. As with Mutch, his direct running opened up space and it was a foul on him by Smalling that led to Cardiff’s late equaliser. Kim had been introduced for Mutch and while he did not get as involved in the game as Noone did, he was left free to head in Whittingham’s free kick.

Cardiff’s attacking substitutions allowed Utd plenty of space to hit back on the break, with Giggs showing Cleverley what it means to be a ballplaying central midfielder, and Utd managed nine second half goal attempts to Cardiff’s seven. But Kim’s goal was the only one of the lot that was on target as Wellbeck missed a good chance and Rooney wasted the easiest chance of the whole match to restore the lead in injury time.

Conclusion

With Utd missing such important players and the poor performances from the likes of Valencia, Fellaini and Cleverley, Cardiff would have followed Rooney’s lead and kicked themselves if they hadn’t found the equaliser (and more so if Rooney had gone on to score the winner). That Cardiff needed possibly their best attacking performance of the season and Utd to be so sluggish to snatch a draw shows the difference in class between the two teams but Cardiff can take great confidence from the match. On paper, this is probably Cardiff’s strongest midfield but the trio need more matches together to bring out their full potential. On the flanks, Cardiff still haven’t found the right combination and while Noone may prove to be a good impact player when the match is right, he isnot defensively stable enough to start matches in Cardiff’s current status. Cornelius is the latest new recruit hoping to make an impact – we’ll take a look at what he may bring to the team in the preview to the Arsenal match.

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The next big team to be welcomed to Cardiff are reigning champions, Manchester United.  After a slow start, Utd have won four of their last five Premier League games with the feared strike partnership of Rooney and van Persie scoring six times.

Utd lined up against Arsenal with a more defensive setup than might be expected against Cardiff, but using the 4-4-1-1 that has been used for most of the season. Jones was used in midfield to bring some bite against the likes of Ozil and Cazorla that Carrick cannot provide and Kagawa was given a rare opportunity on the left wing.

manutdlineup

 The 1-0 win gave Moyes his first major scalp as Utd manager, having previously failed to win games against Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool. Despite the victory, Man Utd actually struggled to get the ball into dangerous areas against Arsenal. They dominated the opening 10 minutes possession but this was mopped up well by Arsenal and the home side managed just one shot from range before van Persie’s header from a corner gave them the lead in the 26th minute. The combination of a lead to hold on to and a defensive injury led to Utd falling back and relying on the counter attack later on in the match but Arsenal remained unable to score the equaliser.

Moyes in Manchester

Moyes maintains a fairly disciplined side and players are generally expected to stay in their part of the pitch; the heatmaps below showing, for example, how rarely Kagawa (top) and especially Valencia (bottom) cut inside from their wing with the ball. Valencia was by far Man Utd’s top crosser in the match, having to do a lot of the wingwork himself as Smalling is not a naturally overlapping full back. Left back Evra is the kind of player to support a winger (crossing more often than Kagawa) which gave Kagawa the space to move inside while Evra occupied the attention of the opposing right back.

kagavalencia
The two players most likely to buck the rigid approach and play between the lines are attackers Rooney and van Persie. Both frequently come deep to look for the ball, which works when they can successfully employ the kind of pivot that is often seen with central midfielders (one staying back as the other goes forward). But against Arsenal, they did not play particularly fluently together, rarely combining with passes. Carrick was Man U’s top passer against Arsenal but he will likely miss the Cardiff match. His probable replacement, Fellaini, doesn’t control a game in the same way, so Rooney could drop even deeper to collect the ball which might isolate van Persie and make it easier for Caulker and Turner to deal with him.
defensive line
Defensively, Man Utd conceded far more attacks from the wings than through the centre as Arsenal looked to spread the play from one side of the pitch to the other in order to find a way through the defence. If Utd are disciplined in attack then they are even more rigid in defence, as the image above shows. Utd instantly dropped into an easily recognisable 4-4-1-1 (van Persie being the only player out of the screenshot) as soon as Arsenal had the ball in dangerous areas, with the two fullbacks coming in close to the centrebacks and the wide midfielders doing the same. Utd were happy to force Arsenal wide, knowing that there were enough bodies in the box, some with a fairly considerable physical presence compared to Arsenal’s forwards, to make it very hard for Arsenal to get a chance on target. This particular move ended with Arsenal tempting the Utd defence over to cover their right flank before Arteta switched the ball back to the other side. A decent Sagna cross did not quite find a team-mate while an even better Sagna cross a little later should have been converted by Bendtner.

Second half change

Moyes’ major tactical decision came when Vidic was forced off with a head injury on half-time. With no other defender on the bench, Moyes dropped Jones back from midfield, where he had been playing an important part in the pressing of Arsenal. Utd went from matching Arsenal in possession in the first half to trailing them 40-60 over the course of the second half as Cleverley (Jones’ replacement in midfield) severely lacked the same positional sense. Arsenal  took more control in the middle by using Arteta/Ramsey/Wilshere as a midfield three rather than a pair with Ramsey playing wide right. As the game progressed, Arsenal found the defence could be stretched by attacking more directly with pace but they still could not create openings close enough to goal. By scoring early, Utd could afford to defend deep and severely restrict chances by bringing their wide players inside.

Cardiff’s tactics

A strength of Cardiff this season has been the counterattack and this is something that Man Utd have struggled against. Fellaini should return to the midfield with injuries to Jones (potentially) and Carrick (certainly) ruling them out. He put in an excellent performance on his visit to Cardiff with Everton earlier this season, but is not fast (and nor are Ferdinand, Vidic or Evans behind him). Cardiff will be encouraged that Arsenal caused them problems with a central midfield three, as this is what Cardiff have used all season.  Phil Jones may not be missed too much against Cardiff because there is no creative number 10 to keep watch of, but his absence may give the opportunity of some space for an expansive player like Mutch to run into, as he had done (and done well) against Chelsea.

manupasses

The image above shows Man Utd’s passes in the attacking third against Arsenal. Knowing that they strongly tend to push passes wide rather than through the middle will surely encourage Mackay to use Cowie and Bellamy again as the wide players; two who are known for their defensive willingness. This also would leave Medel without a threat from deep to track, allowing him to pick up where he left off at Wembley against Rooney. If Fellaini and Cleverley are the two in the middle, it would be foolish for Fellaini to come forward and leave Cleverley guarding the back four. By concentrating on blocking off the wings, Cardiff may be able to steal the ball and launch a counterattack.

Cornelius is the unknown factor for Cardiff. Reports say that he is finally ready to play a part and if so it will more likely be from the bench. Exactly how he will eventually fit in to the system is unsure, and for this match (and Arsenal the following weekend) Mackay might be sensible to ease him in gently; not only for the sake of his fitness, but also to keep him as a surprise for the Stoke match, when he might be ready to start. As mentioned in the previous blog, Cardiff have had problems maintaining possession and bringing team-mates into play in the final third. Cornelius’ style seems potentially far more suited to this than Odemwingie or Campbell, but the best Cardiff can realistically hope from any appearance on Sunday is probably simply that he doesn’t look out of his depth at this level.

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Aston Villa finally broke their recent goal drought to beat Cardiff 2-0. Cardiff, again, struggled to create chances and the difference between the two teams was the quality that Villa had in attack.

Villa have recently been using three at the back, but went to a traditional back four for this game. With two left backs injured, centreback Ciaran Clark moved over to the left; this was a factor in Lambert’s decision to play a flat back four, as Clark does not have the attacking versatility to play as a wingback. Tonev and Kozak supported Benteke in attack.

villa

Cardiff made one change from the eleven that had beaten Swansea, with Gunnarsson replacing Mutch as the most attacking midfielder.

cardiff

Cardiff may have had more of the ball in the first half (60-40) but they found it hard to get meaningful possession around Villa’s penalty area. In fact, very little of the first half was played within sight of either penalty area; the graphic below shows passes received for Villa (top) and Cardiff (bottom) and how rarely either team came near to the box. Although Villa managed six goal attempts to Cardiff’s five in the first half, none for either team being on target, Cardiff did get inside the box for four of their shots, compared to a single Villa chance. The closest either team came to a goal in the first half was when Kozak narrowly missed netting an own goal with a defensive header.

1sthalfpasses

Midfield problems

Cardiff’s three midfielders did not function well together, with most of the ball from midfield being quickly pushed to the left flank. With Whittingham frequently drifting wide, Gunnarsson pressing high up the pitch (but doing very little when in possession) and Medel playing his usual deep role, Cardiff had very little ball in the centre of the pitch in threatening positions, which left Odemwingie without a great deal to work with. The graphic below shows how far into the channels Odemwingie was when he received the ball. Once there, he needed central support from teammates to create anything and this support rarely came.

odemwingiepassesreceived

With the centre forward drifting wide and without a player like Mutch to make an attacking run, Cardiff often found themselves with no option but to go backwards once they had advanced. Gunnarsson has scored a lot of his goals with late runs from deep, but that only works when the defence is preoccupied with a striker or two and there are holes to exploit. Without that cover to move under, Gunnarsson does not possess the close control to beat a player and make a chance, and he plays at his best with another midfielder in front of him rather than at number 10 himself.

Fraizer Campbell did play more centrally than Odemwingie but by the time he came on, Villa’s midfield was starting to take control. Maynard came on to support Campbell in the last 10 minutes, but by this point neither had much involvement.

Second half

After having had slightly the worst of the opening action, Villa made some midfield changes in the second with Sylla swapping sides with El-Ahmadi and Westwood playing further inside the Cardiff half. Villa also started to use longer balls into the corner to try to exploit Tonev’s pace and this kept Theophile-Catherine back in his own half, although Tonev failed to find a teammate with all eight of his crosses. Kozak had been dropping back to collect the ball in the first half, but in the second half it was Benteke who did this, allowing Kozak take up attacking positions.

Villa were having a more even share of possession and they did a far better job than Cardiff of converting this into attempts on goal, taking six more attempts on goal in the first 30 minutes of the second half (to Cardiff’s one). Then they finally had some good fortune in front of goal with Bacuna’s free kick.

Medel rather needlessly pulled Bacuna back as he led a nicely worked Villa breakaway – needlessly, as Bacuna was heading into a crowd of Cardiff defenders. Bacuna then took the free kick himself, which was very well hit but Bellamy’s position a few yards to the left of the wall, with no free runner to cover, has to be questioned. It took an excellent curl to get the ball through the gap and inside the post, but if Bellamy had been part of the wall, Bacuna would have had to choose the more difficult route of hitting the ball over the wall and dipping it into the goal.

bacunafk

Having rattled Cardiff, it didn’t take much longer for Villa to wrap up the points, as Cardiff missed some opportunities to clear the ball which finally landed on Kozak’s head. He scored to secure the win. Both Cardiff fullbacks had been drawn into the penalty box which allowed Villa to cross from both sides in the move. Despite the crowd of bodies, Villa were still able to get first contact on the ball twice.

Villa are a more fluent side than Cardiff thanks to having better attacking individuals, but Cardiff had looked defensively strong enough to take a point up until the free kick. Cardiff’s lack of ability to create chances from open play, as Villa were able to, is becoming more of a concern as the season goes on.

Whittingham

Whittingham’s tendency to drift to the left flank towards Bellamy and Taylor robs Cardiff of central presence. It becomes relatively simple for the opposition to blunt an attack by moving the defence over to that side – Cardiff can’t move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to the other to change the point of attack, which there would be a chance of doing better if Whittingham were to play as a central midfielder rather than an outside left. Cardiff need him to play and distribute in the same way that Medel does in front of the back four.

Converting possession into sustained pressure (and hopefully goals) is vital when the opportunity is there, and Cardiff did not look like they might manage it at any point, especially when on top in the first half. There is always a feeling of playing with the handbrake on, of not wanting to commit too many players forward in case a mistake leads to a damaging breakaway. The cautious approach is still valuable at this stage of the season. A point at Villa Park would have been a very good result but Cardiff aren’t at the stage where they need to be grabbing wins to stay afloat. That’s just as well with Man Utd and Arsenal to come (the cautious approach will again be evident in these matches) but sooner or later draws will have to be turned into wins before the opposition can turn them into defeats.

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Cardiff follow up their South Wales derby win with a trip to Aston Villa. The clubs are separated by just a point with very similar records this season, and can both point to a 3-2 home win over Man City as a season highlight so far. Both are averaging just under a goal a game, with Aston Villa on a worrying run of four successive Premier League games without a goal – in fact, they haven’t scored a league goal since their Man City victory in September. The signs certainly point towards a 0-0.

Tactically, Aston Villa are one of the more interesting teams as Lambert has used a three at the back system at times this season. Their previous match, a draw with West Ham, saw their 3-5-2 come up against Allardyce’s strikerless 4-6-0. West Ham were probably unlucky not to win, indeed five of their players had more penalty area touches than any Villain, but is it any surprise to see a team without a striker struggle to convert their chances into goals? Agbonlahor’s injury means that Villa have had to turn away from the three man attack that had looked so impressive in their opening day win at Arsenal. The starting lineup against West Ham looked like this:

Villalineup

The game ended goalless, but did not have to be. Weimann was released twice but could not get a shot away, the second time choosing to go down a little cheaply when Morrison caught him, only for the ref to play on. He was later withdrawn with a hamstring injury for £7m striker Kozak (who had no more luck) and is a doubt for the game.

Benteke has now recovered from his injury and is of course the star man of the team. Against West Ham, Villa tried to find release him with longer balls into space rather than to feet as can be seen in the passes received graphic below.

bentekepasses

With their wide players being very aware of their defensive duties, Villa tended to play on the break through the middle. If Cardiff use their typical deep defensive line, it might be hard for Villa to create chances. Their central midfielders are not particularly creative, thanks to the likes of NZogbia and Delph carrying injuries, and Villa tend to rely on using their pace in attack with raking passes.

Villa’s best chance of the game was from Benteke, heading a great Lowton cross from deep against the bar (as can be seen above). However, only Fulham have a worse cross success rate than Villa so far this season, and a major factor in that is because their wide players do not advance too far up the pitch – consequently, crosses are more likely to come from deep. The image below shows their passes into the final third of the pitch. Very few were made wide of the penalty area where the most dangerous crosses are made. While Villa’s forwards do have pace, only Benteke is also physical. Weimann is a much smaller player and Villa’s tactics may be geared to getting the best out of him rather than finding Benteke in dangerous areas.

villapasses

In contrast, West Ham used the space behind Villa’s wide players to push Downing and Jarvis forward into the corners. Luckily for Villa, Carroll’s injury meant that West Ham had no targets in the box to aim for and relatively few crosses were put in, despite the field position. It can be seen below that West Ham’s final third passes were far more focused on the flanks.

wsthampasses

As West Ham pushed further forward to find the opening goal, Aston Villa were able to hit them on the break. The final 30 minutes saw VIlla take as many shots on goal as they had in the first hour, and this is the stage of the game where their pace is most likely to be effective. However, it is unlikely that, if the game is still level at this point, Mackay will decide to push Cardiff on for the win and there would be little space for Villa to expose.

Lambert may choose to revert to four at the back against Cardiff, as the visitors’ defensive strengths are very much in the middle of the pitch. Due to this, Villa may need to use the flanks more often than they did against West Ham to make progress, but if they play with three, it could give Cardiff an opening. Theophile-Catherine has been one of Cardiff’s most impressive wide players so far, and his combination with whoever is selected on the right flank ahead of him (one of Odemwingie, Bellamy or Cowie) is a likely source of attacks to at least win a corner, if not lead to a strike on goal.

Although, strikes on goal from both teams might be hard to come by.

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The first ever top flight Welsh derby ended in a home win for Cardiff, upsetting the views of many who had put Swansea as favourites. A combination of successful stifling tactics and a far greater will to win was sufficient to keep Swansea far from goal and then force the set piece that won the game to see Cardiff leapfrog Swansea in the league. Cardiff managed to stop Swansea from having as much possession as they usually do -only Spurs and Man Utd have this season deprived Swansea of as much ball as Cardiff did – and this was key to getting a foothold in the game. Swansea finished the game with ten men, with Vorm being sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity and treating the home crowd to the old school sight of an outfielder going in goal for the final few minutes.

Cardiff made some key changes to the lineup and started with a team that was identical to the one Cardiffkickaball hoped would be selected in the match preview, with the exception of a start for Cowie over Campbell. Bellamy moved to the left flank so that his pace could counteract Rangel’s forward runs and Whittingham moved into the middle to try to control the game.

cardifflineup

Swansea’s bold move was to use Michu as a striker, replaced in midfield by the more physical Shelvey.

swansealineup

Swansea started the match in their typical style, taking the ball into their own half for the first minute and not allowing Cardiff a touch. Their move down the left eventually collapsed, but the first 15 minutes followed a similar theme. Swansea gradually moved the ball forward and from 15-30 mins they had their most dominant period in terms of possession and territory – Swansea’s first half is divided into three periods of action below, and shows how they varied the amount of direct pressure they put on Cardiff’s defence. In fact, Swansea could not create a single attempt on goal in the middle period, and managed no shots on target from three attempts in both the opening and closing 15 minute period of the half, Michu having the best opportunity but firing over. Cardiff seemed more comfortable dealing with Swansea camped in their own half rather than attacking from deep; the teams went in at half-time goalless but Cardiff looked to have been the second best side. Defensively, Cardiff did look as strong as they usually do, with Swansea unable to manage a shot from inside the six yard box over the whole match. But Swansea were the team with more control.

swanseaaction

Swansea’s spine

Michu did well to create his early chance that he could not keep down, but most of his lesser performances for Swansea have come when asked to play as the striker and this was no exception. Perhaps his performance was impaired by the injury that caused him to receive considerable pitch-side medical attention and then be substituted later on, but by playing as the front man, he could not make late attacks to the penalty area to expose holes in the defence, which has been one of his great strengths. Swansea fans may also be worried about his form since his first appearance for Spain – Cardiff fans will remember how Bothroyd’s performances for the club nosedived after he got an England callup. Could the same happening to Michu now he has made the Spain team? Having made his name at Swansea, there will surely be some worries that he is playing out the season in the hope of a move to a Champions League club. Michu will turn 28 later this season and this summer may be his final chance to get a dream move. What is certain is that he will need to up his game considerably to make the Spanish World Cup squad.

Shelvey had been picked for his physical presence in midfield, perhaps to try and limit Medel’s own physical approach. Indeed, Shelvey started the match by trying to stamp his authority with some strong tackles, but he received a stern lecture from the referee after a high boot on Mutch. After this, Shelvey was a quieter character. He was Swansea’s prominent midfielder, making considerably more passes than Britton, but his passing accuracy of 80% was far poorer than any of his midfield teammates. His passing style, indicated in the images below with Shelvey’s first half passes (top) and second half (bottom), is perhaps symptomatic of the differing Swansea approach. While the first half saw Shelvey move the ball from the centre to the widemen, in the second half he tried to move the ball more vertically, to find the forward players more urgently. This coincided with Swansea losing their grip on the game.

shelvey

Cardiffkickaball had called for Cardiff to press up the pitch, but Mackay instead happily allowed Swansea possession in their own half and only pressed when they came into Cardiff’s half, as can be seen in the images below showing where Cardiff made challenges in the first half (top) and second half (bottom). Cardiff mainly allowed Swansea to play around 30 yards inside their own half for the opening 45 minutes and then turned the screw in the second half by pressing further up the pitch and into the Swansea half. By now, Swansea were no longer playing to their own strengths and Cardiff began to dictate the play.

cardiffchallenges

Second half swing

Cowie moved into the middle at the start of the second half, leaving Theophile-Catherine as something of a lone ranger on the right flank (something that he coped with admirably). Cardiff now had enough players in the middle to stop Swansea before they could find their wide men in dangerous positions, and this was only strengthened when the disappointing Mutch was substituted for Gunnarsson. This led to Cardiff being able to play Swansea at their own game, and in the second half, Cardiff were the dominant force in terms of possession, something that few would have predicted before the match.

After the controversial departure of Ian Moody, Cardiff’s head of recruitment, it was notable that the three outstanding players for Cardiff were recent signings Caulker, Theophile-Catherine and Medel. For all the talk of Swansea’s possession football, it was Medel who was the most dominant midfielder on the pitch. He made more passes than any other player, with an astonishing 96.5% accuracy – a higher completion percentage than Swansea’s Britton, traditionally the player who sees the ball most often, though he managed just half as many passes as Medel.  And Medel did not just sit back, with a third of his passes being made in the opposition half; something a little unusual for him. He also defended the back four excellently, making nearly twice as many loose ball recoveries as any other player, preventing Swansea from pouncing in dangerous areas.

Again, Cardiff concentrated their attacks down the right flank (though not as often as in previous games, thanks to Bellamy’s appearance on the left). T-C was Cardiff’s most potent attacking threat, with over half of the passes made to him (below) being taken in the Swansea final third.

tcpassesreceived

The long pass to the goal-line, above, led to the corner from which Caulker scored the only goal of the game from. Medel’s exceptional pass, which just sailed over Neil Taylor’s head, was played on to the full-back by T-C. Bellamy’s outswinging corner was then beautifully placed into the corner of the net by Caulker.

Swansea could point the finger of blame at a few of their players; firstly, Michu (seemingly already mentally prepared to be substituted) could not clear it at the near post after taking a few paces forward, while Shelvey should really have stayed on the post after stepping backwards towards it. The two players had made the wrong decisions to move at the wrong time. Most importantly, Chico concentrated more on trying to stop Caulker running into position than getting his head on the ball. It was a combination of these small mistakes that allowed Caulker to get a very firm head on the ball, which he steered in between Shelvey and the post.

Conclusion

The deterioration of Swansea’s performance, particularly in the 20 minutes between half-time and the goal where they had only around one third of possession, will be a great worry to them. It certainly seemed that the derby atmosphere in the stadium drained their players while only invigorating Cardiff; Swansea’s pass completion fell from 86% in the first half to 76% in the second and few teams can pull out a result when the cornerstone of their tactics is lost. Swansea have now failed to score in three of their last four Premier League matches and the two differing approaches from West Ham and Cardiff to keep a clean sheet (the former pressing further up the pitch than the latter) will give future opponents some good ideas.

Although Whittingham has had more influential matches, his return to the centre of the pitch made Cardiff more balanced. In recent weeks, far too many of Cardiff’s attacks have come from the right flank – there was just too much pace there compared to the left. With a punishing November schedule still to come, this lineup is getting closer to Cardiff’s optimum. Cowie is still a little too defensive for some tastes as a wide man, but Cardiff don’t currently have much middleground to choose from, with Odemwingie probably being too attacking for matches against Man Utd and, particularly, Arsenal. One thing is sure, Cardiff will need more spirited performances like this and far fewer of the type seen against Norwich to stay up.

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