The team-by-team Football League tactics bible - #1: Cardiff City
I’m going to get the hang of these ambitious 72-part series ideas soon, I promise. I think the key is not to promise them every week, but just throw an idea out there and see what contributions come in. So here’s number one in a series that could run for months, but might not. I think it’s got potential though and gets off to a great start with Joe Harrison giving us a brief guide to how Cardiff City strut their stuff.
Current formation and variations
Having started the season using a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, a move to 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1) brought improved performances and has been the first choice formation since. This change has not encouraged a more defensive style though; it is based around a lone forward who is both hardworking and a constant threat, backed up by a midfield who support quickly and in great numbers. The Christmas and New Year period saw new variations as players returned to fitness and were rotated to deal with the glut of fixtures, with 4-4-1-1 and even a set-up approaching a conventional 4-3-3 being used.
Comparing and contrasting with the recent past
Much has been made of the contrast between Malky Mackay and the man he replaced during the summer. Dave Jones is often regarded as a manager of the “old school”, exemplified by his rigidity in sticking to his chosen formation: a flat 4-4-2. To his credit, Jones always encouraged his sides to play good football (although the team had a tendency to slip into knocking long balls to Jay Bothroyd), and his squad was built around the creative talents of exciting attacking players like Whittingham, Bothroyd, Chopra et al.
As noted above, Mackay’s tactical flexibility has been far more evident than Jones’, opting for a perhaps more modern approach, focussed on a single forward with a supportive midfield. It is also true that many fans feel this team works a lot harder than its predecessor, and as more of a collective rather than relying on the qualities of individuals. However, similarities remain as the team is still one based around talented attacking players as well as being committed to an attractive passing, offensive style.
Key attacking players
Mackay’s most important tactical decision was to build his team around (in my view) the Football League’s best player, as Whittingham has become the fulcrum of the Cardiff midfield. Capable of pulling the strings from deep or playing higher up the pitch, he is a taker of excellent free-kicks, provider of sublime assists and scorer of truly wonderful goals. Irreplaceable for the Bluebirds.
Since finding form and fitness he is proving to be an excellent summer signing by Mackay and the perfect forward for the team’s style of play. Miller has an impressive work-rate and ability to link with oncoming midfield players but also — unlike many forwards capable of the first two attributes — he is possessed with outstanding movement and deadly finishing.
The combative and aggressive Icelandic international has, as expected, added bite to a Cardiff midfield. Less expected has been how he has thrived since released into a more attacking role. Whether it be breaking into the box with a perfectly timed run or playing a slid through-ball into Miller’s path, Gunnarsson’s sure touch and confident finishing have quickly made him a fans’ favourite.
Key defensive players
A defender who has received his fair share of criticism from Cardiff fans (including from me) but a very good player when on form. The skipper of the side and leader of the backline, marshalling the defence and aiding his younger partner at centre-half, Ben Turner. Reasonably strong in the air and his excellent reading of the game often makes up for his lack of pace.
Now firmly first choice ahead of Tom Heaton, Marshall is quietly establishing himself as one of the best ‘keepers in the division. An excellent shot-stopper, Marshall has improved other areas of his game, most notably his distribution, while he is also dealing with crosses better than in previous seasons. Rarely makes mistakes and a very dependable last line of defence.
It perhaps seems strange to cite a wide-midfielder as a key defensive player, but Cowie embodies the best defensive qualities of this Cardiff team. A player with phenomenal fitness and stamina, Cowie seems to be running all game, every game – closing down opposition players, snapping into tackles and offering his full-back excellent protection. Part of a midfield that keeps the side solid whilst still dangerous going forward.
Ask Reading, keepers of 4 consecutive clean sheets before conceding 3 in one half at the Cardiff City Stadium. When Cardiff move the ball quickly along the floor, with a midfield and full-backs flooding forward, the interplay can be extremely impressive and few teams at this level can live with them. When on form and playing at a high-tempo, the side is capable of blowing opposition away in short 20 minute bursts, similarly (though clearly at a lower level) to Manchester City in the Premier League, as well as being a huge threat on the counter-attack.
In Whittingham and Miller, the Bluebirds have the individual quality to pierce any Championship backline but, crucially, the team have also developed a balance where they are able to combine being a vibrant attacking force with the hard-work and organisation needed to form a solid defence — always a formula for success.
In their deserved victory at the Cardiff City Stadium, Middlesbrough showed that Cardiff’s defence can be made to look vulnerable. The centre-back pairing of Hudson and Turner struggled to deal with the excellent movement of the Boro players and the lack of any real pace at the back remains a concern, particularly with the space often created behind full-backs who have pushed forward.
Offensively, the squad is short on wingers (the currently out-of-form Craig Conway representing the only natural attacking wide-player in the squad), so Cardiff can struggle to create when teams force them out wide. There is also the slight concern that the team is too reliant on Miller and particularly Whittingham. Should the midfielder miss a significant amount of time, the Bluebirds’ would struggle to find the same creativity and moments of inspiration from midfield needed to unlock well-organised defences.
How to beat us
Stop Peter Whittingham. If the Bluebirds’ key player is kept out of possession and the game, Cardiff’s threat is instantly diminished, even if he still represents a significant danger from set pieces. Defenders must also keep a close eye on Kenny Miller, marking him very tightly and keeping the defence compact to prevent him finding the spaces that he so adeptly moves into.
Midfielders must be well-drilled and told to track their runners to try to reduce the threat posed by the likes of Gunnarsson and Mason breaking from deeper positions. Also try to slow the tempo in midfield: Cardiff thrive on quick passing and swift transitions between midfield and attack so they can become frustrated and far less potent when the pace is slowed. When going forward, use quick attackers to try to drag the centre-halves out of position (making use of space vacated by attacking full-backs) while keeping the ball on the ground to avoid the aerial battles on which Hudson and Turner thrive. Finally, hope some Cardiff players are off-form; the team is a cohesive unit and when all players are on song, one most Championship teams will struggle to match.
If you would like to contribute a version of the tactics bible for your own team, please email it (using the same template as used above and of a similar length) to firstname.lastname@example.org