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August 5, 2018

Cardiff City: 2018-19 Season Preview

By David Rudin

Cardiff City. A preview which exists because it must.

 

So, Cardiff City…

Yes, Cardiff. Cardiff City is definitely a team that plays football and that will play 38 Premier League matches this season, which is why we’re here today.

The Bluebirds were a grim-but-successful performer in the Championship last season, which bodes somewhat well for their 2019-2020 Championship campaign.

Yes, but what about this season?

I thought the above largely covered their outlook, but since you insist, I’ll spell it out.

Cardiff had a very specific idea of what it wanted to do in the Championship last year, which it successfully implemented. Neil Warnock’s team was difficult to break down defensively while lumping it forward to score just enough goals. It worked. Cardiff had the joint-best defence and scored the sixth most goals, good for the second-best goal difference in the league. Cardiff finished second and were automatically promoted. As I said, mission accomplished.

As for the numbers, they completed 59.4 per cent of passes and retained 45.4 per cent of possession over the course of the season. These aren’t inherent failings so much as byproducts of what the team was trying to do. Moreover, while The Bluebirds out-shot their opponents, they were not particularly efficient at turning shots into goals. Of the 24 teams in the Championship, Cardiff was 14th in terms of the percentage of their shots on target that were scored.

Couldn’t this work in the Premier League?

It’s…not impossible?

In fairness to Warnock and Cardiff, the moral valence attached to this kind of football is unfair. Being defensively resolute and scoring enough goals is absolutely a valid strategy, and it’s worked for teams trying to escape relegation. This is a team with a clear idea of what it wants to do and a willingness to stay the course.

Cardiff is apparently trying to do what it did last year with the same squad, but against much tougher opposition. At a bare minimum, the case for their survival requires you to believe that Cardiff’s defence will be effective against mid-table teams with genuine attacking talents and the already sketchy goal situation won’t get ugly against interesting defensive sides like Burnley or Newcastle. Results against top-six sides would be bonuses.

More to the point, either the attack or defence holding up against tougher competition will likely not be enough. While they were a defensive side, Cardiff succeeded in balancing those facets last year. Crucially, Warnock rarely had to revisit this balance. Cardiff recorded points in 36 of 46 matches (27 wins, 9 draws, 10 losses). They only came from behind to record points six times. Cardiff largely managed to sit back and avoid chasing games. The Bluebirds spent one matchday — the season’s first — outside of the promotion spots last season, and only three other weeks out of the top three in the Championship. To Cardiff’s credit, this was a remarkably smooth promotion campaign. A Premier League campaign — even one that doesn’t lead to relegation — cannot be expected to offer such favourable circumstances.

So what happens when Cardiff falls behind?

This is why it’s not enough for either Cardiff’s attack or defence to make the leap to the Premier League. If the team just can’t score, it may have to sacrifice some of its defensive solidity to generate goals, at which point it ceases to be good at anything. Conversely, if more defensive work is needed against Premier League sides, the attack could go from adequate to dire in a hurry. The balance of attack and defence needn’t be a zero-sum game — that’s why tactics exist — but Warnock will have to answer tougher questions this season. To his credit, he seems less likely than some managers to overreact to bad results or game states. Staying the course may not, however, remain a wholly viable option. In that respect, the margins for Cardiff are particularly unforgiving.

But what if the players improve?

That would definitely help!

Transposing the Championship’s runner-up into the Premier League would be a less daunting prospect if 18 players on its squad were just, like, 15 percent better this year. I’m being facetious here, but that’s roughly what would be needed to alter the team’s outlook. A non-negligible, squad-wide improvement would take Cardiff from “emphatically relegation-threatened Huddersfield, but worse in just about every way” to “well, they’re navigating the relegation battle.” That’d be a big and crucial leap.

So will the players make that big and crucial leap?

Some of them might improve? This is not, to be fair, a team entirely devoid of talent. Midfielder Calum Paterson, who led the team with ten goals last season, is 23. Junior Hoilett and Aron Gunarsson are better than when they were last seen in the Premier League. Striker Kenneth Zohore, despite only producing a double-digit goal tally once in his career (the 2016-17 Championship), is not wholly devoid of upside at 24. Sean Morrison is in his prime as a central defender, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know if these players will come good this season, but they could conceivably prove to be at home in the nether regions of the Premier League.

That, I should note, is not the same as saying the squad will make that big and crucial leap. Relegated teams regularly sell players at home in the lower half of the Premier League to teams that have lived to fight another year; their talents, while useful, are no guarantee of safety. The upside here is of a lesser variety than that offered by the other two promoted club.

And we still haven’t reckoned with the bulk of Cardiff’s squad! Defensive anchor Sol Bamba, now 33, made 43 starts last season. Fellow defender Bruno Ecuele Manga, 30, was good for 35 starts. Fullback Lee Peltier made 27 starts at age 31. These are not the profiles of players you’d expect to find another gear this season. More broadly, Cardiff’s squad a week before the transfer deadline had an average of 28. Insofar as some players are late bloomers, maybe some of last year’s performances can be sustained. That and everyone staying healthy would count as a good outcome. Very little about Cardiff, however, profiles as a team with tremendous reserves of untapped potential.

But I keep hearing about Neil Warnock’s vaunted man management

Let’s say it’s real. I don’t know that it is or how, exactly, we’d go about quantifying the Warnock Bounce, but let’s just stipulate that he can get more out of these players than many other managers. That still leaves us with a tricky question: Why, if there’s more potential for Warnock to unlock, didn’t he do it last year?

Managerial nous is not a panacea. Even if you’re good at it, there’s only so much you can get out of any player. This is not like a game where a good manager adds +10xp to each player at the start of every season. Cardiff got this far by performing near most of its players’ upper limits. It’s not a knock on Warnock to suggest that he’s unlikely to make a convincing Premier League team out of this bunch.

Is help coming in the transfer market?

Hardly. Cardiff’s two main acquisitions to date are 23-year-old winger Josh Murphy and 25-year-old attacking midfielder/forward Bobby Reid. Both came from Championship clubs for about £10 million. These are not inherently bad signings. If you believe in the Warnock Bounce, Murphy and Reid are exactly the kinds of players from whom you’d expect him to extract surplus value. Heck, they’re plausible signings even if you don’t fully buy the Warnock hype. But they’re just two players. While they add some more potential and excitement to a squad that needs it, they don’t do much to change its prospects.

What, then, is the best-case scenario for Cardiff City?

The best-case scenario for any team is winning the Premier League. If you think I’m dumb enough to leave that sentence out after Leicester City, I’m truly hurt.

Come on…

Okay, a survival season might look something like this. Cardiff opens the season with relatively competitive games against Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Huddersfield. Their defence could plausibly look okay against these teams. The finishing Gods smile on The Bluebirds and they amass six or seven points. (Teams only needed 34 for survival last year.) That hot start cushions the blow of then facing Arsenal and Chelsea. Basically, Cardiff avoids falling into a huge hole early in the season and can therefore largely stick to its guns instead of reinventing itself on the fly. Vincent Tan and his board resist the urge to do anything silly when the team inevitably loses a few games in a row. They also don’t make stupid buys in January. (To its credit, Cardiff has become far less dysfunctional in recent years, so you can almost see this part happening.) A couple other teams have disastrous season and Mark Hughes pulls a Mark Hughes; the gap between Cardiff and its rivals turns out to be smaller than anticipated. Everyone stays healthy. Some hot finishing gives The Bluebirds just enough goals to eke out survival. In this best-case scenario, they end up something like last year’s Huddersfield team: A putatively defensive side that actually conceded plenty of goals, rarely scored, and was wholly happy with the outcome.

Will that happen?

Probably not. Cardiff is probably going to get relegated. Just think of all the things that have to go perfectly, all the players who have to stay healthy, and all the players who have to improve for them to sneak into 18th. In all likelihood, some of these things will not happen. That will not constitute a personal failing on the part of Warnock or his players. They’ve done well to get this far, but probably don’t have much more to offer.   

 


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Article by David Rudin