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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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