The season so far: A tactical and statistical analysis
With off-the-field matters at Cardiff City dominating the column inches this week, Malky Mackay will have little time to reflect on his sides start to their first top-flight campaign in half a century. A poor opening day performance at Upton Park was followed by a memorable victory against Manchester City, with draws against Everton and Hull leaving the Bluebirds in a strong position. Losses against Spurs and Newcastle somewhat left fans depleted, though a late victory against Fulham sandwiched inbetween has left the Welsh club in a strong position to push on following the two week international break.
ViewFromTheStands looks at how Mackay’s men have fared in their opening seven games of the season, using statistics provided by StatsZone and WhoScored to give a rundown of each position.
Not so long ago, David Marshall was playing second-fiddle to Tom Heaton in the Bluebirds goal. Three seasons on and a whole load of clean sheets later, the man now considered to be Scotland’s number 1 ‘keeper is the first name on City’s team-sheet – in more ways than one.
With a total of 18 shut-outs in the Championship last season – the highest in the league – Marshall’s form more often than not saved his side valuable points in what was a gruelling, but successful campaign.
Questions were asked of whether or not he could continue his form in the Premier League, but a clean sheet against Everton, combined with a man of the match performance against Tottenham, has ensured that Marshall has silenced any doubters.
In that clash with Spurs at the Cardiff City Stadium last month, the Scot pulled off a number of high quality saves which again helped to highlight his importance to Mackay’s side. A Paulinho goal after 93 minutes of play – Spurs 29th effort of the game – would win the contest for the away side, though Marshall could be happy with his contribution.
One problem the former Celtic stopper does face however is his distribution. A big trait of modern day football is to play from the back, though Marshall is often harried into firing the ball up-field with only Fraizer Campbell to aim for. Not surprisingly, Marshall only found a Cardiff player four times when going long – meaning the opposition were allowed to continue forming attacks.
This is a regular occurrence in the Premier League for Cardiff so far, though Marshall has certainly improved on this aspect, as can be seen in the Newcastle game (right). Marshall attempted 17 passes in that game with just two unsuccessful – the two long passes. It’s something which has gradually been eradicated over the opening stages of the season, but Marshall must continue to work on this facet of his game.
In terms of back-up, Joe Lewis has cut a frustrated figure on the bench, limited to just one league appearance. That came away at Hull last month in an early season ‘six-pointer’ between two clubs expected to be in or around the drop zone come May.
Lewis put in arguably his finest performance in a Cardiff shirt to date against the Tigers; pulling off a couple of vital saves to keep the scores level. Injury to Marshall permitted, Lewis will now look on from the bench until he gets his next chance in the FA Cup in January. Though the former England U-21 ‘keeper has shown that he certainly has the ability to step-up if Marshall was to pick up a recurrence of his injury.
There’s been a lot of talk this week in the light of Iain Moody’s departure regarding the players that he had helped bring to the club during his time as Head of Recruitment. Though it’s a debate which could rumble on, there’s been one player who was brought in that has been consistent throughout – Andrew Taylor.
Though the former Middlesbrough player will not set the world alight, he will regularly put in a consistent performance which combines both defence and attack. Taking two games from this season to date – Hull City and Fulham – Taylor was strongly involved in the build-up play in Cardiff attacks on a regular basis. In fact, during the game at Craven Cottage, the 27-year-old linked up with Peter Whittingham 13 times down the left – the most frequent pass combination on the day.
The majority of the attacking work Taylor carries out certainly goes under the radar. The two chances he created against Fulham (left) from a more central position does show however that he has the ability to both defend and attack well, and is an important cog in this City team.
The biggest defensive problem Mackay faced in the early season games was on the opposite side, with Matt Connolly failing to attack with any real intent. Centre back by trade, Connolly has failed to hold down a place with three different teams (QPR, Reading and Cardiff City) following promotion from the Championship.
The Arsenal academy product was actually dropped following his best performance to date against Everton – playing his part in ensuring the Bluebirds kept a clean sheet, as well as getting forward into promising positions out wide.
Despite that, another of Mackay and Moody’s recruits, Kevin Theophile-Catherine, has stepped in and played his part in much of the Welsh sides promising start to the season. Some have highlighted that City are now attacking far more frequently down the right hand-side thanks to the addition of Theophile-Catherine, but there has been no real change in this sense.
Of their seven games so far this season, Cardiff have actually attacked more frequently down the right side in five of those matches (see below graphic taken from the Hull match which highlights this). Though it’s important not to read too much into statistics, this clearly shows a pattern: the Bluebirds strongest playmaker may play on the left, but it’s down the right that Cardiff look to form attacks.
In reserve, Declan John is the only other man to have tasted game-time in either of the full-back positions this season – that coming on the opening day following Taylor’s sending at the KC Stadium during the last campaign. Merthyr-born John has certainly had a season to remember so far, with his Cardiff City debut being followed up this week with a first international cap for his country – playing the full 90 minutes in the victory against Macedonia.
It would be wrong to use any of the statistics from the opening day loss at West Ham to judge John’s performance, as in truth the whole side underperformed. The 18-year-old prospect did however show with Wales in the week, as well as in the game against Northampton last season, that he likes to get forward as much as possible – alas Adam Matthews who failed to make the cut under Dave Jones but continues to thrive in Scotland.
Mackay showed immense faith in John by selecting the youngster on the opening day, and he is the man most likely to fill in should Taylor pick up another suspension or injury. Kevin McNaughton meanwhile has impressed at Bolton in his appearances to date, where he is likely to remain for the rest of this campaign and beyond.
That leaves John Brayford, the man many described as the best full-back in the Championship last season, only for him to essentially be shunned by Mackay following his signing in the summer. Brayford may have a part to play yet for City this season; though in Taylor and Theophile-Catherine, the Bluebirds have a steady set of full-backs who provide a strong platform to build from.
With Vincent Tan’s promised riches, Cardiff broke their transfer record three times this summer. While knowledge of Andreas Cornelius and Gary Medel was somewhat limited, fans knew exactly what they would be getting in Steven Caulker.
A strong spell on-loan at rivals Swansea wasn’t enough to halt the excitement felt by fans during the off-season in what was a signal of intent by the controversial Malaysian owner. It’s fair to say that with seven games gone, Caulker has certainly lived up to expectation.
The most impressive aspect of Caulker’s game is his high number of successful clearances, interceptions and tackles. Against Newcastle (below), the England international highlighted this perfectly by shutting out the opposition on a number of occasions in and around the box.
Caulker also has a trait that hasn’t been seen by a Cardiff City centre back in a long time – an ability to push forward to help build attacks. His bursts forwards from defence before finding Gary Medel – the most frequent pass combination for the Bluebirds this season – has become a regular feature. These flashes of quality, combined with his goal against Fulham, has helped show just why he is so highly rated by fans of not just Cardiff, but other opposition teams, including Spurs and Swansea.
The youngster puts his impressive start to the season down to partner Ben Turner, who ousted club captain Mark Hudson to win the remaining centre back slot. Turner made public his disappointment in being named as the player most fans wanted dropped following the West Ham game, though he has certainly made supporters eat their words.
In the toughest test to date against Manchester City, Turner and Caulker put in an outstanding defensive display, despite conceding twice. As highlighted in this match report, Turner and Caulker achieved a 100% defensive header rate in the match, while 16 out of 19 tackles were successful. Turner did occasionally get pulled out of defence by Aguero, though overall the Englishman justified his inclusion over last season’s player of the year Mark Hudson.
It was in the Fulham game that Turner and Caulker truly blossomed, with Turner picking up the man of the match award. Caulker completed an impressive 31 out of 34 passes, again showing his passing ability, whilst Turner cleared up everything at the back – beaten only by a Ruiz goal which was, quite simply, unstoppable.
The strong partnership shows Mackay was right to leave Hudson out of the side, though last season’s player of the year will surely get his chance sooner or later to fill in should injury or suspension strike, meaning this is an area of the pitch that Cardiff are certainly not lacking in talent.
Wingers and attacking midfielders
When Mackay first walked into the doors of Cardiff City, he was welcomed by a thread-bare squad of players. One shining light that Mackay was left with from the Dave Jones era however was Peter Whittingham – the man who was named as the best player in the Football League the season before.
Mackay however felt that Whittingham could offer the team more by playing in a deeper regista role, though the former Villa man was often in a sweeper position for the Bluebirds – not the place you want your most dangerous midfielder to be playing. In the end Whittingham was dropped to the bench, being replaced by Jordon Mutch who fitted in perfectly alongside Kim Bo-Kyung and Aron Gunnarsson to resurrect City’s faltering form and push them over the promotion finishing line.
It would have been tough for Whittingham – who can surely now fit into the bracket of ‘Cardiff City legends’ – to take. Though Mackay reiterated his importance to the side throughout the final months of the last campaign, and has played ‘Whitts’ in every league game so far this season.
With two assists and one goal to his name, Whittingham has proved that he does have the quality to play at this level once more. As Gary Neville said following the Manchester City game “Whittingham offers Cardiff a secret weapon with his set-pieces” – though it’s not just set-pieces that make Whittingham so important to this Cardiff team.
Using average position diagrams provided by WhoScored, it can be seen that in the West Ham game, Whittingham was the man most advanced for the Bluebirds – certainly a change from his reserved role of the past couple of seasons.
This was a similar story against Everton, where Campbell would often fill into a deeper midfield role to help defend from the top. It was in the Hull game (right) however that the trio of Kim Bo-Kyung, Peter Whittingham and Fraizer Campbell truly integrated into their triangle system that Mackay had set out.
One of the key players for this formation to work is Bo-Kyung, who at his best has shown that he has the ability to back-up rumours that Borussia Dortmund were at one time chasing his signature. In the Tottenham game last month, the South Korean helped out the team defensively by winning two tackles in midfield, intercepting the ball to create an attack and pulling off two defensive clearances in and around the box.
This, combined with his ability to take on an opponent with ease, has made the recently named South-East Asian football of the year a real fan favourite at the Cardiff City Stadium. Though one man is doing his best to try and force his way into the team at Bo-Kyung’s expense – Jordon Mutch.
Although Mutch is not your typical attacking midfielder, he is in the team to help build attacks from midfield and get his name on the score-sheet – just as he did at Craven Cottage last month, scoring his first goal for the club in style. As discussed in a previous article following that game in West London, Mutch has made a strong case for a starting position in the Bluebirds starting XI – a point which has been made even stronger following his ability to single-handedly swing the momentum of the game against Newcastle after being brought on last time out.
For all of Bo-Kyung’s ability to glide past an opponent, Mutch creates more chances and scores more goals per-minute than the Asian. In his 30 minute appearance at Fulham, he created more chances than Kim to go alongside his winning goal. Again, after replacing Kim last weekend against Newcastle, Mutch made his presence felt in the Cardiff midfield by completing more passes and creating three goal-scoring opportunities – one of which was converted by Peter Odemwingie.
It’s the type of competition that Premier League sides need if they are to remain in the league – and on recent performances, Jordon Mutch deserves his chance to shine at Cardiff.
Elsewhere, the last of Moody and Mackay’s summer recruits, Peter Odemwingie, has already fitted in perfectly to this system. His goals against Newcastle and West Ham have shown that the Nigerian attacker can add goals to this Cardiff City side.
In this article, it was mentioned that Odemwingie can offer the type of defensive cover that Craig Bellamy puts in every week, with the added threat of goals. It was exactly what the side needed, and it’s no surprise to see, as previously stated, the vast majority of Cardiff attacks are down Odemwingie’s prominent side.
The former West Brom player is expected to be a regular for the rest of the season, with cover provided by Craig Noone, who has surprisingly yet to make an appearance in the league, and Don Cowie who can be happy with his appearances to date in the top tier. Cowie was expected to be nothing more than a squad player following promotion, but, in many ways just like Mutch, he has seized his chances and picked up two assists so far this season to stake his claim for a starting spot.
That leaves one man: Craig Bellamy. After calling time on his Wales career this week, Bellamy has signalled the final stretch of his football days – on the field at least, with a move into management expected in the coming years. Though Bellamy was praised highly for his defensive performances against Manchester City and Everton, his attacking ability has reduced drastically over the past 18 months, and he is expected to make do with appearances from the bench for the remainder of the campaign.
Having said that, should injury strike the Welsh club there are not too many better replacements to bring into a newly promoted side than Craig Bellamy, who may have one last chapter to add to his incredible playing career.
If the attacking midfielders are seen as the shining lights in a side, then the defensive midfielders are often the unsung heroes – though in the case of Gary Medel, the club have recruited somewhat of a hero to fans.
Medel’s tough style had won him many plaudits before he even put on a City shirt, though having kept his discipline under control, his ability to win the ball on seemingly every challenge he contests, before building attacks with his near faultless passing, has made him one of the vital components to this side.
Sitting alongside ever-present Aron Gunnarsson – working as a double-pivot in front of the back four – Medel perfectly summed up his role in the Fulham game (left) by topping the ball recovery and tackles chart, as well as completing 68 of his 69 passes – one of the classic individual performances of the season to date.
Despite the fact that there have been calls for Gunnarsson to make way for Mutch in central midfield, a lot of what the Icelandic international does goes unnoticed. Gunnarsson has actually created eight goal-scoring chances so far this season, to put that into some context, that is double the amount Bo-Kyung has himself instigated.
One aspect the former Coventry man does need to work on is his ability to convert chances himself – he often finds himself in space in the area, though fails to get on the score-sheet. However, Gunnarsson does enough to warrant his place in the side alongside Medel, with the recent Newcastle match (below right) showing that his role in the team is to keep the side ‘ticking over’ so to speak – something he does extremely well.
Following the historic triumph over Manchester City in August, it appeared that Fraizer Campbell had given Malky Mackay a huge selection headache in terms of who to field in the lone striker role – Campbell or Andreas Cornelius.
However, Campbell has failed to score in any game since, and Cornelius has played just two minutes of football in the Premier League so far following injury. With Cornelius due back in the next few weeks, Campbell has three games – Chelsea (a), Norwich (a) and Swansea (h) – to prove to Mackay that he deserves his place in the side.
There’s no denying Campbell’s hard work and his commitment to the team, but is the England international doing enough to warrant a place in the side? The stats suggest not.
It would be harsh to judge Campbell on games against the likes of Spurs and Everton – conserved contests in which the Bluebirds were sitting back creating limited chances – though in the matches against Fulham, Hull, West Ham and Newcastle, Campbell failed to make any real impact.
In fact, since that Manchester City game, Campbell has failed to have a single shot on target. An astonishing fact that means his place is under real threat should Cornelius make a smooth transition to a new league. Judging by Cornelius’ exploits in Denmark, he could make a real impact at his new club should he be free from any more niggling injuries.
One man who has been given a chance to shine at the expense of Cornelius is Nicky Maynard, who has made seven appearances in all competitions so far – albeit from the bench on most of those occassions. Maynard has managed to get a shot in at goal at least, though his cameo appearances haven’t suggested that he deserves a place in a lone-striker role.
Campbell may do a lot of hard work for the side, but failing to score goals – or hitting the target at the very least – means your place is going to come under threat. With Cornelius still a few weeks away from a return, Campbell has a chance to turn around this statistic before it’s too late. Mackay will also be open to the idea of playing the more threatening Odemwingie upfront with a shift to the wing for Campbell – or even a breakthrough for Noone.
In the five games since his brace against Manchester City, Campbell has failed to have a single shot on target
So while all the talk off the field rumbles on, manager Malky Mackay will have a lot to chew over ahead of Saturday’s return to league action away at Chelsea. Cardiff face tough fixtures in the coming weeks, including a home tie against rivals Swansea, before welcoming Manchester United and Arsenal to the Cardiff City Stadium.
Ultimately, the pessimists will say Cardiff are just one point clear of the drop zone, while the more optimistic will counter back that if the season was to end today, the Bluebirds would be quite content with a low mid-table finish.
Many have suggested following the disappointing loss to Newcastle that there had been no real transformation of this Cardiff City side since the opening day, however the stats suggest otherwise. Mackay has gradually got his side playing more fluent passing football, and this is reflected when looking at the passing statistics in the Newcastle game, in which Cardiff players dominated the pass combination charts (right).
Record signing Medel has helped transform the Bluebirds from a side that looked to hoof the ball up-field, to a more reserved team that looks to keep hold of the ball to relieve opposition pressure. This can be backed up when looking at the number of long balls played this season by Mackay’s side.
In the opening day loss to West Ham, 19% of Cardiff’s passes were played long, this figure then understandably increased to 21% against Man City, though since then the figures have been startling and show a constant improvement: 16% (vs Everton), 14% (vs Hull), 12% (vs Fulham) and 11% (vs Newcastle) – the anomaly being Spurs at home in which, again understandably, 19% of passes played by City players went long as they came under constant attack.
These statistics are in no way revolutionary, but they do show that Mackay is gradually transforming this Cardiff side ahead of what will be a gruelling seven months. While discussions off the pitch centre around the future of the man who led Cardiff to the Premier League, it should be remembered that he has single handily built up this side – and it will continue to improve.