Steve Clarke could probably never have imagined how bad his trip to Cardiff would be. Although his team only went down 1-0, he was surprisingly sacked not long after the final whistle. The win for Cardiff takes them closer, in points, to the top half of the table than the relegation zone – for now, at least.

Lineups

Cardiff played one of their season’s most attacking formations,4-1-3-2, as Mackay recognised the need to go for the win. Taylor returned at left back while Noone, on the right wing, was given his first Premier League start. Campbell and Odemwingie played as a front two, with Campbell frequently dropping deep.

West Brom recalled Olsson to the back four and used Yacob and Mulumbu to give some cover in front of the back four, with Mulumbu being allowed to push forward more than usual. Sessegnon, who did not wear his shooting boots, supported Long, who spent much of the match walking slowly back from an offside position.

cardwba

Cardiff started the game well, showing intent to attack from the first whistle. They dominated the first 30 mins, completing around double the number of passes as WBA, but were restricted to shooting from range. Once the storm was weathered, WBA were able to get Mulumbu, their most potent force for transitioning the ball from defence to attack, involved more often but they still struggled to get into dangerous positions.

The table below shows the number of shots made by each side with the game broken up into three equal periods. Cardiff’s goal came at the start of the final third of the match – after this, West Brom had their most successful period of creating shots, but only Long’s header, wonderfully saved by Marshall, was on target.

0- 30 mins 30-60 mins 60-90 mins
Cardiff 6 2 3
West Brom 1 5 6

Craig Noone

The impact of Craig Noone on Cardiff’s attacking play was something fans and management will have looked at closely to see if he could provide something of a solution to the recent impotence. He started the game brightly but faded considerably as the game went on. The two heat maps below show the first 30 minutes of the game (top) when he attempted seven passes and three crosses and the final 60 minutes of the game (bottom) with just two passes and five crosses attempted. One of these latter crosses led, of course, to Whittingham’s headed goal but, overall, the 90 minute performance did not do a great deal to dispel the theory that Noone is better as an impact player. The bottom heat map shows how he increasingly had to roam over the pitch in an effort to find the ball.

Noone

While he attempted to beat his man more times (six) than any other player, Noone was successful just twice. Compare that to Mutch’s four out of four and Odemwingie’s three out of four, and also consider that both players (and Whittingham) saw more of the ball in the attacking third than Noone, and his attacking qualities seem a little less reliable – although it certainly needs to be stressed that this was Noone’s first ever Premier League start and expectations should not be too high. The presence of an attack minded wide player is without doubt positive for Cardiff and it will be up to Noone over the rest of December, now that he has earned the chance of another start (perhaps not at Anfield), to prove that Cardiff should look to him and not elsewhere in the transfer window to provide this.

The front two

For the first time this season, Cardiff played with two strikers centrally, with Odemwingie as the more advanced and Campbell dropping back to find the ball. In general, Odemwingie was quite wasteful, perhaps showing too much desire to prove West Brom wrong for letting him go, and Campbell really struggled to get involved. The West Brom cover in front of the defence was fairly effective at minimising the contribution of Cardiff’s strikers, with Mulumbu (15) and Yacub (8) making more loose ball recoveries than anyone else. This shielded the defence and Cardiff were forced to make the majority of their shots (nearly two thirds) from outside the penalty area with none at all coming from within the six yard box. While Odemwingie saw far more of the ball than Campbell, he was frequently forced to send the ball to the wings rather than attack the defence head on. Campbell has the pace to attempt this and, with West Brom’s centre back pairing being a little slow, he should probably have been used as the spearhead of the attack. Odemwingie may be concerned that he did not really do enough to justify a start in the next game.

One striker vs two

While two strikers sounds, on paper, like an attacking formation, in reality Cardiff may have been better off by using an attacking midfielder like Kim or Mutch in Campbell’s position and playing Campbell as the advanced striker. Campbell’s instincts are to evade the defence rather than play through it and without space in front of him he found it hard to, firstly, receive the ball, and then use it effectively. Campbell and Odemwingie both have a game that is a little too similar to work in this system, and as Mackay appears to still be reluctant to start with Cornelius, who should complement either, Cardiff would probably do better to use a more creative (Kim) or driving (Mutch) player behind the striker, as long as attack minded players (like Noone or Bellamy) are also used on the flanks.

Next up for Cardiff is a trip to Anfield to play the other team who were the final straw for a club board’s patience with their manager this weekend, as Villas-Boas left Spurs following their 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. No doubt Cardiff’s formation will revert to the more defensive lineup seen for most of the season in an attempt to contain the country’s most in form player (possibly in Europe), Suarez. Cardiffkickaball’s preview to the game later this week will take a look at how Liverpool have hit great heights lately.

 

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Cardiff followed up the disappointing performance at Stoke with an even worse one at Palace, going down 2-0 to their relegation rivals. In spite of Mackay’s post-match comments, Cardiff didn’t create chances and rarely threatened once Palace had taken an early lead. Having not scored in three matches, Cardiff face West Brom at the weekend, another team on a downward spiral, and really do need a win to give their form a kickstart.

Both of Palace’s wide players, Puncheon and Bannan (especially) tended to drift inside and Chamakh putting in a good performance supporting Jerome.

palacelineup

Cardiff started with Kim on the left flank in a failed attempt to give some attacking threat. Mutch and Whittingham returned as the midfield partnership ahead of the holding Medel. With Taylor still injured, Declan John was again given a start at left back.

cardifflineup

The outcome of the game was determined after just 5 minutes. Whittingham fashioned an opening in the first minute and poked the ball wide to Cowie, whose cross from the right flank found Campbell between the centre back and right back. He headed down into the ground with a lot of the goal to aim at but Speroni pulled off a decent save. Shortly after the corner was cleared, Palace sustained some pressure in the Cardiff box and Puncheon found Jerome in the middle. He also headed into the ground and close to the keeper, but Marshall could not replicate Speroni’s save. Palace had an early lead that they would not lose.

The goal could have been stopped a number of times before it finally went in. Although Turner did well to recover from being the wrong side of Jerome when he was initially released, the Palace striker was quickly crowded out and Cardiff failed to clear far enough. Young left back Declan John was easily turned by Puncheon and at the moment of the turn, Turner has his eyes only on Jerome (indicated in the screen shot below with the black line). By the time Turner realises the ball is coming in and Jerome is on the move, he has lost his man. Jerome’s header was not particularly firm and bounced up close to Marshall – with the season he has had so far, he should have done better.

turner

What is even more galling for the defence is that Jerome and Chamakh, as highlighted in the preview, are poor in the air. Over the course of the game, they won just six out of 25 aerial duels and Jerome won only two headers all day; stats that he can take with a wry smile when one of them is a goal.

With the pivotal moment coming so early, it’s hard to see what Palace changed to keep Cardiff out. But the early goal played into Pulis’ hands as the first thing he has done with Palace is instil a tight defence. Cardiff managed just two more shots from range in the first half as they either played balls to the flanks without managing to get crosses in or tried hopeful long passes through the middle that rarely paid off and were easily won by Gabbidon in the air. The graphic below shows their first half passes into the attacking third. Barely more than half (dark blue) are successful.

attackinthird

In the second half, Cardiff brought on Noone for Cowie in the hope of targeting Palace’s out of position left back, Ward, who had started on the right but moved over due to Moxey’s injury. Cardiff did have more possession in attacking areas in the second half and with a good enough player at number 10 might have been able to create more. Jedinak was not giving much protection in front of the back four, but Gabbidon and Delaney were comfortably clearing Cardiff’s central attacks. Cardiff’s wingplay, even against an unsettled full back, was mainly unsuccessful with just two of 14 second half crosses (most from Noone’s wing) finding a man in the middle. When they needed the ball in the middle, they could not make it stick.

With Cardiff unable to hold on to possession, Palace repeatedly hit back on the break. Medel advanced up the pitch as Cardiff chased the game and, unusually, made more attacking third passes than any other Cardiff player over the course of the game, which allowed space in front of Cardiff’s back four for Chamakh to hold up the ball. The win was eventually sealed with unmarked Chamakh’s strike from the edge of the area, having loitered in the zone between Cardiff’s defence and midfield without being picked up. Cardiff had allowed Palace space repeatedly and the home side may have been surprised at how easily they won the points.

West Brom

As Cardiff lost 2-0 to a rival at the bottom end of the table, so did West Brom, going down 2-0 at home to Norwich. West Brom’s form is also dipping although they fell to a smash and grab raid from Norwich on this occasion. The Baggies were dominant with 26 shots in total as they chased an equaliser following an early goal (nearly half of their shots were on target), while Norwich managed just three on target. These were enough, however, to seal the win.

With Jonas Olsson suspended, Lugano had his first league start at centre back against Norwich. Olsson is likely to reclaim his place at the weekend. Yacob and Mulumbu as the two holding midfielders have given good cover in front of the West Brom defence and both tend to stay central so Cardiff may be encouraged to use two attack minded wide players to create chances (something Mackay has been loathe to do this season).

wbalineup

West Brom’s form does not necessarily match their performances, with just one win in the last nine games (the previous being the notable win at Old Trafford). Not only did they dominate this match in terms of chances, they were also close to ending Mourinho’s unbeaten home league run at Chelsea until a highly dubious last minute penalty awarded against them.

The difference between the West Brom of this season and last is stark – Romelu Lukaku. On loan last season, the Chelsea striker scored 17 league goals and finished as their top goalscorer, with more than double the number scored by Long (who played in more matches). While Clarke tried to replace Lukaku with a few different players, the problem is continuing – this season, only six goals have come from their strikers, all three of top-scoring Long’s coming in a 41 minute spell against Chelsea and Villa. Long was dropped for Victor Anichebe against Norwich (Anichebe having scored the late goal in the previous 2-3 defeat to Man City), with Anichebe then guilty for the most misses during the match, missing all six shots from inside the area and he certainly should have finished at least one of them. Indeed, West Brom’s shooting accuracy ratio of 16% over the season is the worst of all teams except Hull.

While Lukaku was finishing his chances, he was also having more. Last season, Lukaku averaged a touch every 2 minutes (similar to Anichebe this season) and had a chance every 26 minutes unlike Anichebe at every 37 minutes, the equivalent of one chance fewer per game. With fewer chances coming around and more of them being missed, it’s little wonder West Brom are, like Cardiff, struggling for goals.

sesspasses

Supporting the striker, Sessegnon was lively against Norwich but has also had a fairly unproductive season. His pass map is shown above and it can be seen that while he did not give the ball away often, he would usually choose to go sideways or backwards. Medel will likely be the player sticking close to Sessegnon and he will hope to consistently force Sessegnon away from danger.

Against Norwich, West Brom did the majority of their attacking on the right flank, with Billy Jones at right back receiving the ball more often than any other player but his crossing was poor, finding his man just once from eight attempts. Alongside Jones in the defence, West Brom field two older centre backs, Olsson and Macauley, who may find the pace of Campbell a handful. Norwich’s opening goal by Hooper came as he outpaced the pair from a simple through ball between them (and Hooper is by no means a quick player). However, they are as strong in the air as Cardiff’s pair – West Brom have allowed fewer headed attempts on goal than any other club this season.

In the two previous games against relegation rivals, Cardiff were guilty of hoping to keep the opposition out instead of going for the win. Those were away games where a point was a good result, but it is concerning that the attitude did not change against Palace, despite being behind for 85 minutes. Fans who would like to see Cardiff attack may be encouraged by Norwich’s win, where they played with two strikers (Elmander and Hooper) and a very attacking right winger in Redmond.

Whether Mackay does take the game to West Brom this weekend remains to be seen; if not, then Cardiff run the danger of seeing West Brom’s recent bad luck running out.

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On an exciting evening of Premier League football, Stoke and Cardiff bucked the trend by playing out one of the season’s most tepid 0-0 draws to date. If we didn’t learn whether Messi could perform on a cold winter’s night in Stoke, we discovered the names of a good number of players who certainly can’t. The point did allow both teams to rise up the table, but while it was an acceptable point for each, neither can be delighted with the performance.

Stoke lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Wilson coming in at centreback, Arnautovic starting on the right and Adam pushing forward to provide balls for Crouch.

stklineup

Cardiff went to a more defensive side than had been seen against Arsenal, with Whittingham moving to the left flank to replace Kim. Declan John came in for Taylor at left back and Gunnarson sat in front of the back four with Medel.

cardifflineup

Stoke had the better of the early possession, particularly on the left flank, but they could not create good openings and were restricted to speculative efforts from range, which Cardiff could block at the source. Gunnarsson moved into the middle to stop Adam’s playmaking abilities and Cardiff were then able to get Mutch on to the ball more often. With Campbell coming so deep that he could not receive the ball inside the area, it was down to Mutch to be Cardiff’s attacking threat, as little of it as there was. Mutch had more goal attempts over the match than any other player and was responsible for the best chance of the first half, when he was first to the near post to firmly head a Whittingham corner goalwards, only for Begovic to save.

The heat maps below show the positions of Campbell (top) and Mutch (bottom) in the first half and how often Mutch pushed ahead.

campbmutchheat

Both teams found themselves battling on the same flank, with Stoke’s left sided Assaidi and the combination of Theophile-Catherine and Mutch, in the second half particularly, on Cardiff’s right seeing a lot of the ball, with Cowie happy to drop back and allow T-C to come forward. Stoke leftback Pieters was substituted at half-time for Muniesa, a player more suited to centre back, which was a major factor in Mutch spending more time on the right flank as the game progressed. Mutch’s second half heat map, to be compared with the first half above, can be seen below.

mutch2ndheat

The youngster Declan John made a rare appearance at left back so Cardiff spared him too much ball. John’s start may have been a factor in Mackay’s decision to move Whittingham back to the left flank, where he had put in fairly unconvincing performances earlier in the season, in the hope that he could provide better defensive cover for him than a player like Odemwingie might. With Cowie and Whittingham playing wide, Cardiff had only T-C able to give attacking presence on the flanks (the right-back having twice as many touches in the opposition half as John).

Just as T-C and Mutch combined, Adam and Assaidi rained in crosses from Stoke’s left but Turner and Caulker dealt with them well, Crouch having a single header on goal. Despite their previous reputation, Stoke have failed to score with a header all season which underlines the change in approach that Hughes has tried to bring to them. But with so many members of the squad very much in the Pulis mould, Stoke face a tough season of transition. As yet, Hughes has not brought the best out of smaller players like Ireland, although he had the opportunity to win the match late on, only to fire a wild shot when unmarked in the area.

The match was doomed to remain scoreless (though Stoke had a goal narrowly ruled out for offside) despite Adam’s attempts to create a talking point with a couple of incidents he may well have received a second yellow card for.

Crystal Palace

While Pulis might claim that Stoke were never a long ball team, he would probably find many disagreeing. But since replacing Ian Holloway at Crystal Palace, he has brought defensive stability where there had previously been none and a chance of staying up (to be fair, the turnaround had begun under the temporary care of Keith Millen).

Palace are on an enviable run of form, seeing them win two of the last four matches and conceding just one goal. 1-0 wins over rivals Hull and West Ham (with a defeat to Norwich) have given them hope. They lined up against West Ham in a 4-2-3-1:

palacelineup

West Ham dominated the ball in the match, completing 349 passes to Palace’s 166, and yet Palace managed five shots on target to West Ham’s two. Although Pulis may claim otherwise, Palace certainly did look to find Jerome with long passes – 20% of their passes in the match were deemed as long (compared to 15% of Cardiff’s and 16.6% of West Ham’s, two teams which are known for being quite direct too). But when a team has as little of the ball as Palace did against West Ham, playing a direct route must be deemed sensible. The image below shows the length of passes received in Palace’s attacking third of the pitch and how they lost possession from these passes (red is unsuccessful) just under half of the time.

palacepasses

As with any system, the players have to be suited to the direct approach for it to pay off best. Jerome and Chamakh may have been the targets of higher balls, but they won just seven out of their 26 aerial duels against West Ham. Turner and Caulker’s aerial success rate in the Stoke match (12 out of 23) looks far better and was achieved against the lanky Crouch. With 56 balls won, Turner has the second best aerial stats for a defender in the Premier League this season and if he can keep this up, Palace will find it hard to get themselves into dangerous positions.

Defensively, Palace allowed West Ham to come into their half before attempting tackles (seen in the image below), although they were quite effective at also keeping the Hammers away from the danger zone. West Ham managed only one unblocked shot on target from inside the area, which was saved by Speroni.

palacetackles

This may well be another cagey encounter, particularly if Mackay elects to play for a 0-0 draw away to a rival, as happened at Stoke and Norwich. With Palace’s recent low scoring matches, there’s little reason to think this game will be pan out any differently. While there may be goals in this game, don’t expect either manager to go looking for them.

 

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Arsenal showed their true class with a 3-0 win at the Cardiff City Stadium, but they weren’t able to wrap up the points until Flamini’s late strike. Anything other than a defeat for Cardiff would have been a surprise, but their performance was more encouraging than the midweek opponent, Stoke, in their 4-0 defeat at Goodison. With the games coming thick and fast, we’ll look ahead to that match after rounding up Saturday’s game.

Cardiff brought Kim into the team on the left wing to provide some pace with Campbell’s performance against Man Utd earning him another start in attack.

carlineup

Arsenal brought in Gibbs, Cazorla and Arteta from their previous victory over Marseille and again gave their attacking players the freedom to roam, with Ozil, Wilshere and Cazorla changing behind and in front of the deep-lying Giroud.

arslineup

Ozil started on the right flank but spent the latter part of the opening half on the left. In the second half, he again went back to the right flank. Although he didn’t have a strike on goal himself, he was the most dangerous Arsenal player, creating the most chances and assisting two of the goals. Wilshere and Cazorla also frequently moved around, Wilshere going from the centre to the right and Cazorla from the left to the centre as the game progressed. This constant movement made it hard for Cardiff’s defensive players to track their man and the space was there for Arsenal to exploit by threading passes through Cardiff’s midfield. In the 15th minute, this resulted in the unusual sight of Giroud being released by an Ozil flick whilst a couple of yards offside. The officials were the only people in the stadium expecting the game to continue as Giroud stopped and looked over for a flag that stayed down.

Ramsey

While Giroud had allowed Caulker to recover and tackle him on that occasion, Ramsey took his chance quickly and gave Arsenal the lead as he headed in a floated Ozil cross. Cardiff had most of their team behind the ball, but they had not kept formation and Ramsey was able to run into the gap. Caulker and Turner, the centreback pairing, are indicated by the black line on the screenshot below; Caulker had tracked the run of Cazorla (out of shot on Arsenal’s left flank) which left Taylor to pick up Ramsey (indicated by the red line), which he had no hope of doing from the wrong side.

ramseygoal

Man of the match Ramsey was the most involved player on the pitch, receiving the ball more often than anyone else and even beating the most players. His heatmap from the game, below, shows how truly he was a box-to-box midfielder. While he scored twice, he could have also assisted two more, as Wilshere hit the bar in the opening moments and Giroud had a shot blocked on the line after Ramsey had battled his way to the goal-line.

ramseyheatmap

Cardiff’s best chances to score came from Campbell’s head, the closest in the 51st minute when Szczesny got down well to block a strong header. Despite his height deficit against most centre backs, Campbell’s ability to time his jumps very well, winning three out of five of his aerial duels against both Arsenal and Man Utd. While Cornelius is expected to give Cardiff more aerial presence, he may struggle to perform better than Campbell in the air.

Late goals

Arsenal were always in control of the game, but the points were not secured until the two late goals. Cardiff matched Arsenal quite closely in shots on target (Cardiff’s four to Arsenal’s six) and the images below show how Arsenal were forced to defend a lot more deeply in the second half (bottom) than the first half (top).

arstacklesfirst

arstacklessecond

Stoke City

Cardiff may have lost 3-0 but they will go into the Wednesday evening match at Stoke City feeling more pleased with their performance against the best team to visit the CCS this season than Stoke will after their 4-0 defeat to Everton.

Stoke lined up as below, without the injured Huth at centreback. Under Mark Hughes, Stoke are no longer the direct team of old but have struggled of late, winning just one of their last ten PL matches.

stokelineup

Stoke had held firm, despite being the second best team, until just before half-time when Deulofeu scored Everton’s opener, playing one-twos with Pienaar and Barry (helped by N’Zonzi leaving Barry free for the vital final pass). He was the brightest Everton player of the match, playing in a wide right position (although the goal came from the left). Everton’s smart passing created plenty of chances on the day and Stoke were increasingly forced back into their own area. The graphic below shows where they made tackles in the first half (top) and second half (bottom).

stoketackles

Huth is still injured for Stoke and this might give Cornelius a chance to test out his aerial dominance in the Premier League, although it seems more likely that Campbell will start up front again with another late cameo from the Dane. Without Huth, Stoke defended poorly, with Adam cheaply allowing a short corner routine to pass him for the third and Lukaku permitted to win the ball between two defenders for the fourth.

In attack, Stoke will use Crouch but their top crossers of the season (Etherington and Arnautovic) will both probably miss out, which will make taking advantage of his height a lot more difficult.

While Cardiff may not have the fluid attacking football displayed by Everton at their disposal, it is at least encouraging that they were able to put similar pressure on Arsenal’s defence, despite the gulf in midfield class between the two teams. This match is winnable for both sides, but may well be so close that neither gets three points.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.
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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.

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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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