On paper, Cardiff’s game plan against Fulham should have played into Fulham’s strengths: the towering duo of Brede Hangeland and Fernando Amorebieta.
Cardiff City’s strengths can be categorised into four different elements of play:
- Set Plays
- Positional play when playing out from the back (in their own half)
- The defensive organisation of their medium and low blocks
- Wide play as an entry route into the opposition’s box
It is by no coincidence that each of Cardiff’s strengths are that of strategic-tactical elements – elements of the game that have been calculated and practiced throughout the week, designed by Malky Mackay and his backroom staff. This article will attempt to detail each of Cardiff City’s strengths and point out the fundamental tactical weaknesses that have been exploited on a small number of occasions this season.
STRENGTH ONE: SET PLAYS
Fulham’s central defensive duo really struggled in the first half and it was often poor defending from Fulham, rather than ingenious set plays, that opened up the opportunity for Cardiff to score on a number of occasions (particularly during the first half).
That said, one thing will be certain for every manager in the Premier League, either through his own analysis or that of his supporting staff – Cardiff City are a threat from set plays. Cardiff City like to deliver the ball within yards of your goalkeeper, in hope that either an oncoming attacker meets the ball with too much power for the goalkeeper to do anything about it or for your goalkeeper to think he just might be able to get the ball himself, otherwise known as a ‘teasing set piece’. Take corner kicks for example, you can expect Cardiff to have Gunnarson standing in front of your goalkeeper and for Whittingham to deliver the ball accurately right underneath your cross bar or centrally at the edge of the six yard box.
So when Brede Hangeland loses his man five times in a matter of just fifteen minutes inside the six yard box from corners, there should be a case for concern from the Fulham management. Ben Turner and Steven Caulker provided the threat over and over again – and Hangeland seemingly lost his ability to even contest for the ball against Turner at times, not even jumping to challenge and resigned to losing them.
Cardiff scored their first goal from a corner, and for the ten minutes that ended on the half hour mark, had wrongfully had a second goal disallowed from a set piece and hit the post from another.
STRENGTH TWO: POSITIONAL PLAY WHEN PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACK
Cardiff City appear to play through a strict structure when retaining possession in their own half and the three vs. two overload (Cardiff’s central defenders and Medel vs. Fulham’s ‘casual duo’ Darren Bent and Dmitar Berbatov) allowed for Cardiff to dictate the game for the majority of the first half.
Martin Jol intelligently responded to two tactical problems with the substitution of Bryan Ruiz for Kacaniklic. By bringing on Ruiz, Fulham had now structurally (through the formation) closed down the space for Gary Medel to dictate play. Medel finished the game with a 99% passing accuracy and walked off the field having attempted the most passes of anyone else on the field (69), many of which were attempted in the first half.
Cardiff’s five lines of passing were evident throughout the game and this strategy cannot be achieved without ‘deliberate training sessions’ that look to implement this structure.
STRENGTH THREE: THE DEFENSIVE ORGANISATION
Cardiff City’s defensive strategy isn’t unique; Jose Mourinho actually employs a similar tactical method at Chelsea (see Everton vs. Chelsea analysis 2013 ).
When the opposition is in possession of the ball in their own half, Cardiff’s front two look to force play down to one of the two ‘flanking overloads’; then, when the ball is eventually forced wide, the trio will look to pressure play and win the ball back. This will enable them to counter attack, while the remaining members of the team shift across and offer balance and support.
For the circumstances where the opposition has managed to successfully retain possession and break into the Cardiff half, Cardiff will then fall back into their 4-4-1-1 formation, that looks to find balance between defending in two compact and disciplined lines, and the opportunity to break away on the counter attack through the two wide-midfielders and front two (those that have a skill-set that is strong in areas such as shielding, dribbling and acceleration into space)
STRENGTH FOUR: WIDE PLAY
For anyone who analysed Cardiff City and their route to promotion last season, they will know that Cardiff City crossed the ball into the box more times than any other team in the Championship (subsequently scoring the most headed goals in the league too). This season however, there has been a twist in the way that Cardiff look to attack in the final third as there haven’t been as many crosses coming into the box. That said, the wide play strategy is still the foremost important aspect of Cardiff City’s controlled attack
Cardiff simply don’t have the flair of teams that boast players like David Silva, Ozil, Coutinho, Eriksson and others and therefore cannot attack centrally as effectively as other teams in the league. As a result, Cardiff treat their own ‘zone 14’ (the central 15×15 area at the edge of the 18-yard box, that many teams look to play through) as the spaces at the corners of the 18-yard box, by looking to be patient or performing intelligent combination play with the ball in these areas. Cardiff will look to overload these areas (3 vs. 2) in order to keep the ball for long enough so that the Cardiff City attacking players can flood the box, and make the overlapping and well timed runs from deep.
During the wide-play example (illustrated below), we see a typical situation whereby three players have occupied the space to retain possession of the ball and work an opening into the box. Three attackers are looking to break into the opponent’s 18-yard box and Caulker and Medel have offered angled options to support in behind, in case there’s some congestion. The dynamics of the trio on each flank is unique: Odemwingie will look to cut inside, the energetic Theophile will look to overlap and Kim will hope to execute the defence splitting pass or dribble. On the left wing, a completely different relationship and combination will occur between the trio.
WEAKNESS ONE: PLAYING AGAINST TEAMS THAT WILL LET CARDIFF HAVE THE BALL AND LOOK TO COUNTER ATTACK
This weakness does not require the opposition to have less possession over the course of 90 minutes; rather for brief moments of the game. West Ham and Fulham have both taken advantage of Cardiff’s drive to push on forward when in possession and have scored goals on the counter attack.
WEAKNESS TWO: PLAYING AGAINST PLAYERS WHO CAN DRIFT IN BETWEEN THE LINES OF CARDIFF’S DEFENCE AND SHOOT FROM DISTANCE
Ruiz’s goal, like Dzeko’s, came from the edge of the box where the striker had fallen off from marking the central defender. Cardiff’s weakness here is particularly evident when the opposition have found an opportunity to counter-attack and break forward before Cardiff can fall back into their defensive shape.
It is for this reason, along with the problem of Medel having too much space, that Martin Jol’s tactical change could have been a moment of brilliance from the Dutchman.
WEAKNESS THREE: CARDIFF CITY’S ABILITY TO ATTACK CENTRALLY
It seems particularly noticeable that Cardiff struggle to find the through-balls from central areas to test the opposition centrally. Therefore, there is a strong suggestion that by keeping Cardiff centrally you would restrict the opportunity for The Bluebirds to find goal-scoring openings. While Campbell’s movement is fantastic on the counter and his relentless pressing is problematic for the opposition, Campbell is yet to prove he possesses the technical capabilities to find space where there seemingly isn’t any.
It is often said that Malky Mackay’s strategy doesn’t allow for much ‘opportunism’ or the ‘unplanned’ moment of magic. While it is true that Mackay’s tactical strategy is very mechanic, there is no denying the moment of magic that won the Fulham match (Sat 28th 2013). When a long ball from David Marshall dropped to Jordan Mutch into the ‘zone 14.5’ (corner of the 18-yard box), it was very much an unplanned left footed strike from 25-yards that flew past the young Fulham goalkeeper.
There is no denying it, it was a moment of unplanned brilliance from an individual that finally secured the points for the newly promoted side. Strengths and weaknesses aside, some of football you cannot prepare for as a football manager; it is instead the individual players’ practice, hitting speculative thirty yard shots as a teenager, that leads to great moments like this.
Footnote: “Zone 14” – this is the zone that analysts revealed that 60-80% of all assists came from during the early 2000s. If you divide the pitch into 18 equal zones, zone 14 is positioned directly outside of the opponent’s 18-yard box (zone 17 being inside the 18-yard box). “Zone 13.5 and 14.5” aren’t technical terms, but terms used by the author to relate to the fact that Cardiff City’s attacks seem to come from those areas of the field that are in between zones.