Under the Friday night lights, Cardiff City produced arguably their best performance of the season in a 2-1 victory of last season’s Championship title winners Wolverhampton Wanderers.
In what was a fantastic match, Neil Warnock’s men produced the magic in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Neil Warnock has to take massive credit for the system he deployed on Friday night. It was a change from the usual, with Cardiff lining up in a 3-5-2 system. Playing Junior Hoilett and Victor Camarasa as wing-backs seemed slightly bonkers, but there was method to Warnock’s madness.
Wolves primarily play through Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho. They are two creative players who get the ball down and dictate the play. By putting three players in midfield, Warnock was able to suffocate their creative heart (more on that to come).
What the stats say
|Shots on target||3||4|
The stats on this occasion aren’t quite representative of the match itself. Cardiff were well and truly dominant of Wolves throughout the match, although the stats show that Wolves had more possession than Cardiff.
Perhaps the most telling stat of Cardiff’s dominance is that Wolves had to make 48 clearances (compared to just 21 of Cardiff) showing that the Bluebirds piled the pressure on Wolves.
Suffocating Wolves’ midfield
Covering the game for Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher was full of praise for Neil Warnock. The former Liverpool man identified Warnock’s tactical change as a key factor in the Bluebirds’ win.
Wolves are heavily reliant on their creative midfield duo of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho. While both players are superb technical midfielders, neither are particularly robust.
Warnock’s system overcrowded the centre of the park and suffocated Neves and Moutinho. Cardiff’s three central midfielders were joined by Paterson and Murphy pressing backwards and Hoilett and Camarasa often pressing inwards from the wings.
The result of this was a lack of impact from the Portuguese duo. Neves in particular found it difficult, with the young star completing zero key passes – testament to Warnock’s system.
In the example below, you can see three players around Wolves’ central two, alongside Paterson who is pressing backwards.
Murphy provided an outlet
When you play deep or to frustrate the opposition, you need an outlet. Against Everton, I was critical that Cardiff didn’t have the outlet and couldn’t make the ball stick when it was cleared from the defence.
The introduction of Josh Murphy in a central role alongside Callum Paterson provided City with that outlet. Murphy is fast and technical and was a constant willing runner. He ran the channels and played off the physical Paterson well.
It meant City were able to transition quickly from defence to attack, relieving the pressure on the defence and forcing Wolves back towards their goal.
The graphic above demonstrates that Murphy has taken Cardiff deep into the Wolves half and is running the ball into the channel. His constant running was a big factor in Cardiff’s win.
Reading some of the match reports and player ratings after the game, I was really surprised that few raved about Sol Bamba. The joyful centre-halve was imperious against Wolves and really suited that left-sided centre back role in a three man defence.
Bamba is an aggressive defender, opting to press the man and the ball rather than be passive and wait for the player to come to him. In a two man defence, this means that Bamba can sometimes get caught out of position and leaves a space in behind him – particularly at the pace of Premier League football.
The three man defence allowed Bamba to press the ball and have sufficient cover behind him. Bamba completed more tackles (7) than any other player on the pitch and his constant pressure on the ball, particularly against a lightning fast opponent in Adama Traore, was a crucial factor in Cardiff’s win.
Credit to Hoilett
Let’s be honest here, Junior Hoilett has been a disappointment this season. Much was made of last season’s star’s contract situation in the summer and we all felt that his resigning would be a crucial component to survival this year. We’ve just not seen that Hoilett at all this year.
Friday night showed us glimpses of the old Hoilett. In an unfamiliar role, Hoilett showed flashes of his talents, including that superb winner. While I think some have over-hyped his performance, he certainly deserves credit.
Where I think Hoilett – and Camarasa on the other flank – deserves huge credit is his work rate and how he adapted to an unfamiliar role. There was a lot of emphasis on Hoilett’s defensive duties, with Matt Doherty often bombing forward in support of Adama Traore.
In the example above, Hoilett has matched Doherty’s run and is doing his defensive duties well, blocking off the passing lane for Traore.
While all the attention will go to Hoilett’s winner, it’s his work rate and defensive responsibility that deserve praise in what was an unfamiliar role for him.
What a game, what a performance, what a genius Neil Warnock is! On the eve of the gaffer’s 70th birthday, he produced a tactical masterstroke which nullified Wolves’ biggest threat.
The system also seemed to suit the rest of the players, so it’ll be interesting to see whether Warnock opts for the 3-5-2 on Tuesday night against West Ham United.
Scott is a lifelong Cardiff City fan and freelance football writer. Scott hosts the VFTN podcast.