The all-conquering Man City surprised nobody by beating Cardiff, although the match was a little closer than most had anticipated. Despite a spirited performance for 75 minutes, Cardiff dropped for the first time to the bottom of the division.
With Nasri injured, Silva and Navas started behind the usual Man City front two, with Silva roaming across the pitch and Navas targeting the right flank. Aguero wasn’t quite ready to start so Dzeko (again, very willing to drop back for the ball) and Negredo began up front. Kolarov played his usual attacking brand of full back play and Fernandinho dropped out for Javi Garcia to play as defensive midfielder, which gave Yaya Toure the opportunity to dominate the centre of the pitch.
Cardiff brought Gunnarsson and the fit again Mutch into midfield to try to counter Man City’s attacking threat, with McNaughton replacing John at left back, a position that harked back to his earliest days at the club. Odemwingie, a player who has not impressed much in the last month, also dropped out. The 4-1-4-1 shape was again similar to a Mackay team but with more desire to attack.
Man City took early control of the match, with only a desperate McNaughton tackle on Dzeko (and one not particularly close to the ball) preventing a goal in the opening minute. The threatened goal which brought up Man City’s century for the season eventually came with a mis-hit shot from Dzeko spinning over the line and setting off the referee’s goal detectors before McNaughton could clear. Although the game was only in the 13th minute, Man City were worthy of their lead, even if Cardiff could legitimately claim that the throw-in the move originated from was harshly awarded the wrong way and Silva controlled the ball on his upper arm.
They continued to pen Cardiff into their own half whenever the Bluebirds were in possession and looked particularly dangerous when opening the defence up with angled runs and some clever through balls. The first half saw Man City attempt this a few times, two such occasions shown in the images below, one from the left flank and one from the right.
Without Cardiff’s wide players dropping back far enough and Man City’s fullbacks Kolarov and Zabaleta frequently attacking, the back four found themselves too spread out on the pitch to cope with the number of runners hitting the space between them. Kolarov, in particular, spend most the match in Cardiff’s half, as his heat map below shows. Over 70% of his touches came in the opposition half, more than Silva or Toure and even higher than Cardiff’s striker, Campbell.
Noone’s attacking threat
Craig Noone, who has so far taken good advantage of his recent run of starts, was without doubt Cardiff’s best attacking threat. As noted in the preview, there was always the possibility that space left by Kolarov’s incessant attacks could let a pacey winger in, and Noone did well to take advantage. On one of Kolarov’s excursions up the field, leaving Dzeko behind him to cover, Cardiff won the ball and quickly countered. In the screenshot below, Kolarov’s position is indicated in yellow, and the gap that Gunnarsson and Noone exposed is clear. Demichelis, the centre back, raced over to cover and was taken out of the game by Gunnarsson’s neat inside pass to Noone. This left only Kompany with the decision of whether to close down Noone or cover the attacking runners in the box; after skipping round Kompany, Noone rolled the ball into the near post and Cardiff were level.
However, a few minutes later, Noone, from a similar position high up on the right wing, should have played the ball off Kolarov to win a simple corner for Cardiff but instead lost it quite easily. One excellent through ball from Yaya Toure later saw the ball eventually find an unmarked Navas for a Man City lead they would not lose. But thanks to Noone, Man City could never fully believe the match was won until Yaya Toure overpowered Noone (this time turning up in central midfield) and burst up the pitch, pulling off a one two with Aguero before finishing. Noone vs Toure could never be a fair physical battle, and it would be wrong to blame Noone for his part in this goal. He is not on the pitch to win 50-50s with one of the most intimidating physical presences in the Premier League but to provide an attacking outlet to ease pressure on the defence. This, he did excellently.
Yaya Toure’s combination with Aguero, one assisting the other for the third and fourth goals, proved to be vital to secure the win, and the Ivorian’s powerful performance over the whole match was just as impressive. As befits his prolific season, he had just two penalty box touches but certainly made the most of them – both were shots and one was his goal. He combined very well with Silva and the pair found each other with passes more than any other combination of players. His pass map below, with a completion rate safely 90%+, shows how he dominated the centre of the pitch, whilst rarely dropping back or coming forward.
Cardiff’s performance was encouraging but they need to play like this during February during key home matches against teams like Norwich and Aston Villa. Players like Noone must perform when the pressure is on and the opposition are happy to defend deep as well as when his opposing fullback allows acre of space. If he can continue his impressive recent consistent form then Cardiff may start scoring the goals that keep them up.
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