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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.

manccard

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.

Through balls
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.

thruball1 thruball2

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.

kolheat

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.

noone

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

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.

yayapass

Conclusion

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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Cardiff missed a chance to pick up a valuable three points against West Ham last week and their punishment could not be worse; Man City away is the most daunting fixture on the Premier League calendar. Only Sunderland and Stoke have stopped Man City scoring this season, and neither of those matches were at the Etihad, and with only Fulham having scored fewer goals than Cardiff this season anything other than a convincing home win seems fanciful. We’ll take a look at just how Pellegrini has turned a collection of world class footballers into such an intimidating force.

Man City are one of the few teams in the Premier League to play with two strikers, in a roughly 4-4-2 formation, where the wide players may be a creative number 10 (such as Silva or the injured Nasri), skilful winger (Navas) or a solid midfielder happy to come inside or track back (Milner). The two central midfielders, usually Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, tend to sit back and their incredible athleticism (Yaya in particular) allows them to burst forward rather than retaining possession in the opposition half, as you would see from Arsenal. They tend to sit in front of the back four and make themselves available for short passes should any of the attacking players need to turn back to realign their attack. With one or sometimes both staying back, this allows Man City’s fullbacks to attack, which they do with relish; Zabaleta and Kolarov top the defender assist table with five Premier League assists apiece. Despite some high profile mistakes by their defence this season, Joe Hart taking most of the headlines, Man City have still kept 8 clean sheets this season with no other club keeping more than 9. They lined up for their recent 2-0 win at Newcastle as below.

manc

Man City’s away form has been criticised as being a world away from their home form, but they have recently started to put this right and their determination to attack from the first whistle at St James’ Park is evident from full back Kolarov’s heat map in the opening 15 minutes (below). The Serb spent more time in the Newcastle half than in his own and it proved successful as he set up Dzeko’s opening goal in the 8th minute. After this hectic period, he could concentrate more on his defensive tasks, but he had already caused enough damage for Newcastle to fail to recover (although Man City did rely heavily on the referee cruelly disallowing a fantastic Tiote strike). As we will see later, the space behind Kolarov or Zabaleta may give Cardiff a chance to hit back.

kolarovheat

As mentioned, the job of Man City’s central midfielders is to allow the rest of the team to attack, and yet, in this season of the prolific deep lying midfielder, Yaya’s clever attacking runs have seen him reach an impressive goal tally of 10. His goal to shot ratio this season is an incredible 29% (in comparison to other high scoring midfielders, Ramsey (8 goals) is 20% and Hazard (9 goals) is 23%) while his 10 goals have come from just 14 shots on target (34 in total).

However, against Newcastle, he was a more lethargic character; perhaps because of his recent injury he didn’t cover anywhere near as much of the pitch as Fernandinho did, as the heat maps below show. He has had a week’s rest since that game but Pellegrini’s comments suggest that while he may be match fit, he is not at the level he was in December.

FernYayaheat

Irresistable attack

Should Man City win, as expected, they would sail through a century of goals this season. To score that many inevitably requires a range of attacking tactics, but a key one is the use of short crosses from the by-line into the path of a running forward; both of Dzeko’s midweek FA Cup goals against Blackburn came from low Navas crosses from the right while Aguero’s was made with a low cross from the left.

With two quickwitted strikers, Man City will always be threatening from crosses and this was illustrated well by their opening goal, below. The runs of the two strikers, Dzeko with the white arrow and goalscorer Negredo with the black arrow, start from behind the line of sight of the Blackburn defenders. Fernandinho’s cross from the right was a little to high for Dzeko but firmly met by Negredo.

Negredo1

The major selection story for Man City is whether Aguero, fit enough to come off the bench against Blackburn and score within a minute, will take the place of one of these strikers on Saturday. Only Man City could seriously consider dropping either Dzeko (five goals in three games) or Negredo (six goals in three games) to make way for an even better striker. While Man Utd would put Rooney or van Persie into action as soon as possible, Pellegrini can afford to be patient and not rush him. For this reason, it seems more likely that Aguero will have another second half cameo – not that this will necessarily reduce his chances of scoring immediately.

Stopping Man City

For most teams visiting the Etihad, leaving without having been on the end of a thrashing and conceding at least six goals, as Norwich, West Ham, Spurs and Arsenal have all done, is something of a success. Crystal Palace only lost 1-0 and they were able to do this due to Man City’s narrow formation. Fullbacks Boyata and Clichy failed to attack down their wings while Milner and Silva offered very little width further down the pitch. Should Zabaleta and Kolarov start as expected at fullback, Cardiff will need to deal with an onslaught that was spared Pulis’ Palace.

To create chances on the counter attack, Cardiff will target quick balls to the gaps left behind Man City’s advancing full backs. Liverpool did this with some success in their 2-1 defeat at the Etihad. Their attacking third pass map is shown below and it can be seen that they looked to the flanks in most of their attacks. T-C is an attacking full back and his overlaps with the right winger, be it Noone or Bellamy, would be crucial as part of Cardiff’s attack should they focus on the flanks, but he has been caught out advancing too far up the pitch in a few matches this season so his forward movement must be premeditated by the scoreline – at 2-0 down, Cardiff may as well attempt to pull one back, but with the memory of holding Arsenal to 0-0 up until the 88th minute still fairly fresh in their minds, it would be foolish for Cardiff’s full backs to attack with gusto while the game is goalless.

lpoolpasses

Navas is a old-style winger in so much as he is more predominantly right footed and prefers to get to the by-line than cut inside (as someone like Nasri would). This may actually be trickier for Cardiff’s left back, looking likely to be Declan John again with Andrew Taylor needing a few more weeks to recover, to deal with, as he could show a winger who tends to cut inside around the outside and hope he fails to find a team-mate with his cross. Showing Navas inside will only offer him a pass to another dangerous player. As such, Cardiff’s left sided centre back (Turner or Hudson) and Medel will need to be sure they are closing off passing options to numb the attack should Navas be forced inside. However, to cut off space behind, the back four will need to drop deep; to give any chance of hitting Man City on the break, as Cardiff were able to do in the 3-2 win earlier this season, Medel will have to return to the form he showed in that match rather than the displays seen more recently.

The Cardiff centreback pairing of Caulker and Turner are the division’s best so far in terms of successful aerial battles; no defender has won more balls in the air than Turner (81) with Caulker (74) not far behind. The aerial threat of Dzeko and Negredo may give Turner the edge in selection over Hudson. Cardiff should be well aware of the Man City strikers ability with their heads, as Negredo’s late consolation goal at the Cardiff City Stadium in August came with a well placed header.

Conclusion

This is the kind of game that is usually described as a stern test for a promoted side, but in reality it’s not even that. Cardiff have proved they can surprise the big teams (beating Man City, drawing with Man Utd, taking the lead at Stamford Bridge and holding Arsenal and Spurs until the death throes) but these matches were all played under Mackay, who had drilled Cardiff’s defence well.

It is still open to question whether Solskjaer can null opposition in the same way that Mackay could but failure to keep Man City out will give any answers to that. In truth, Cardiff will probably be pleased to leave without injury to either their players or their goal difference.

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The latest under fire manager, Sam Allardyce, earned a stay of execution with a 2-0 win at Cardiff, seeing the clubs change places in the league and Cardiff drop into the bottom three for the first time since the opening day (also a 2-0 defeat to West Ham). Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was making his management debut in the Premier League and his side put in a decent performance, only for the superior finishing of West Ham to steal the points.

Cardiff lined up in a 4-1-4-1, with Noone and Odemwingie the wide midfielders behind Campbell. Mark Hudson made his first Premier League appearance replacing Ben Turner and Declan John again played at left back. Theophile-Catherine returned after injury at right back, while Mutch was not fit and was replaced by Kim.

West Ham used a tight midfield three, with Downing and Jarvis encouraged to cut in from the wings and advance in front of the physical Carlton Cole as lone striker. Andy Carroll was available on the bench following a lengthy injury and Roger Johnson made a return to his old club after his January signing.

ccwhlineups

Cardiff dominated possession in the opening fifteen minutes but chances were rare for both teams, West Ham coming close with an overhit Downing cross beating everyone in the Cardiff area and hitting the post. Cardiff themselves hit the woodwork when a nice effort from Kim struck the underside of the bar and just bounced the wrong side of the line. These two chances could quite easily have gone in, but the game remained cagily goal-less for much of the first half that had been fairly even in chances.

The opening goal came for West Ham as half-time approached , with Carlton Cole bundling a cross into the net. When Taylor received the ball outside the area, Caulker moved towards him (indicated with the black arrow in the top screenshot) but failed to return back to his position in the back four quickly enough. Jarvis’ quick first time cross (bottom screenshot) went into an area that Caulker should have been positioned in to clear (white arrow). While Theophile-Catherine had gone to sleep briefly to allow Cole the space in front of him, the ball should have been cut out before then had Caulker not been drawn towards the ball when he had no need to.

Cole1

Cole2

Solskjaer’s style

Cardiff began to look more effective after the break – while the opening team selection was not a million miles away from one that Mackay may have picked, substitutions look to be an important part of Solskjaer’s management style. As a Man Utd player he was known as a super sub, and Alex Ferguson noted that he was so effective from the bench as he could see how the game was developing and where the holes in the defence were for him to exploit. In his first match managing Cardiff, the FA Cup win at Newcastle, the two late goals came from substitutes and Cardiff were to hope that he could do the same again. Bellamy came on for the, yet again, poor Odemwingie and played across the breadth of the pitch rather than staying on the right flank, as can be seen from the respective heat maps below.

bellamyodem

Bellamy’s movement allowed space for Kim to tend to drift towards the right flank vacated by Odemwingie, with Whittingham also able to get forward more often (although he saw less of the ball the further forward he went). Kim was Cardiff’s most involved player in the final third of the pitch, having more touches there and creating twice as many chances than any other player. Along with Bellamy, Kim looked most likely to be the source of an equaliser. As Cardiff pushed West Ham back, Noone was able to get forward more often, although this meant there was less space for him to exploit behind the deep-lying West Ham defence.

Other than their penalty claims for handball and holding at corners, the closest Cardiff came in the second half to scoring was a strong counterattack involving Kim finding Bellamy in space on the right and his cross being met by Campbell, only to be turned over the bar well by Adrian. What was most encouraging about this passage of play was that Whittingham and Noone had also got into the penalty area. The benefits of pace amongst the attack is clear and something that was sometimes shelved by Mackay in order to find more defensive stability. Time will tell if this is more successful in the long term, but it only can be if Cardiff take good chances like this one.

Further attacking changes

As Cardiff chased an equaliser, debutant Norwegian Eikrem came on for Medel and took up a more advanced position, before Cardiff became even more attacking following Tomkins’ deserved red card. Hudson left the pitch for Cornelius, as Cardiff moved into a 3-5-2 where two of the defenders were the still attacking full backs, T-C and John.

With the lead intact, West Ham were able to drop back and prevent Cardiff from space to create any excellent chances. Any that Cardiff did create were generally hit towards the goalkeeper who saved comfortably. With the fullbacks joining in with an almost all-out attack, it was with some inevitability that Cardiff would get caught out at the back, and they were in injury time when Carroll was released down the right flank (below). Caulker, as the sole defender, has no choice but to go towards him, leaving Noble (run indicated by white arrow) free to pick up Carroll’s pass and secure the win.

noble

Looking ahead

Cardiff’s next two matches are away to Man City and Man Utd. Despite having picked up four points from the two in the home encounters, Cardiff will view avoiding defeat in either match as a success. To do this, Cardiff will have to defend very well and the West Ham match possibly offered the only chance until February (in the league, at least) to see how Solskjaer will try to take a game to the opponent. Despite the result, he can be encouraged that Cardiff dominated possession and had plenty more shots. With a little more luck, whether keeping shots away from the goalkeeper or from decent penalty claims, the three points could have stayed in Cardiff. By the time of the next ‘winnable’ game (Norwich at home in February), Solskjaer may rely on success in the transfer or loan market to improve Cardiff’s shot conversion and start picking up points again.

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