Well, what can you say? Cardiff City were well and truly outclassed by Premier League Champions Manchester City, on one of the most deflating days we’ve seen under Neil Warnock.
It’s a hard one to analyse. Could Cardiff City have done much to stop Pep Guardiola’s rampant champions? It’s hard to say. When the Citizens are in full swing, it’s hard for anyone to stop them. But did Warnock’s men play as well as they could have? Probably not.
Neil Warnock opted for the same system as deployed against Arsenal and Chelsea. The 4-4-2 saw Bobby Reid and Danny Ward remain up front, but the surprise was that Harry Arter moved out to the left, with Joe Ralls and Victor Camarasa playing in the centre of midfield. Sol Bamba and Joe Bennett were dropped, with Lee Peltier playing at right-back, Bruno Manga at centre-half and Greg Cunningham made his first league start at left-back. Talk about a baptism of fire!
Breaking #CARMCI team news!
— Cardiff City FC (@CardiffCityFC) September 22, 2018
Manchester City were so fluid it’s hard to pinpoint a specific system! With a back four and Fernandinho as a defensive midfielder in front of them, City had a solid base to maintain possession at the back. In front of them were a fluid five, with Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva starting centrally, with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling playing on the wings. Sergio Aguero was the lone front man.
That’s how you would look at it on paper, but with such fluidity and movement, the five switched positions at all times. Yo would often find Sane in the central role, with Bernardo Silva on the wing and Sergio Aguero in midfield.
Our line-up for #cardiffvcity!
CITY XI | Ederson, Walker, Laporte, Otamendi, Delph, Gundogan, Fernandinho (C), Bernardo, Sane, Sterling, Aguero
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 22, 2018
What the stats say
Doesn’t make for easy reading does it? Cardiff were schooled all over the pitch, averaging just shy of 22% possession and completing just 67% of their passes.
The latter isn’t a huge surprise, considering how Cardiff usually play, but what is perhaps worrying is that Manchester City won 8 of their aerial duels, suggesting that Cardiff’s long-ball game was also ineffective.
Did Warnock choose the wrong system?
This is my opinion, and I’m no expert, but I think that Warnock chose the wrong system against both Chelsea and Manchester City. The 4-4-2 was effective against Arsenal as the Gunners are vulnerable at the back. It meant that having two press the back line and goalkeeper caused uncertainty for Arsenal.
Against Chelsea and Manchester City, though, the top two meant that Cardiff were overloaded in midfield. This was an increasing problem on Saturday. As they often do, Cardiff City were set up to man mark (more on that later), but it always seemed like Man City had an extra player. This was as a result of the 4-4-2 system deployed.
I think that Warnock used this in reaction to last year’s cup match against City. After that match, Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne commented that Cardiff’s man marking resulted in centre-back Vincent Kompany always being free:
“It was a different playing style to everyone else. The tactics we used were class because Vincent Kompany was always free and we opened up the midfield.”
I believe that Warnock went for two up top to stop this – meaning that in theory Bobby Reid and Danny Ward could occupy both of Man City’s centre-halves.
City man mark again
Like last season, and on so many other occasions, Warnock set up his side to go man for man. It’s a bold approach, particularly against such a talented side. The thinking is that if Cardiff can mark their opponents tightly, it means that they can apply early pressure on the ball, or limit the passing options.
The problem with Cardiff’s approach here is that, although the centre-halves are occupied, it means that Manchester City have a spare man in the centre of the pitch.
Ralls and Camarasa were always against at least three players. Fernandinho is available to receive the ball off the back line, but if they press him, one of Gundogan or Bernardo Silva is free to move into space and receive the pass. With no man marking them, they are able to drive into space and draw out the spare centre-halve.
Manchester City’s rotation creates space
As mentioned above, Cardiff City operated with a man-marking system at all times. Manchester City were extremely clever in the way that they created space. Their back four and Fernandinho were pretty static in their positions, but the front five would rotate at all times.
Sergio Aguero was particularly effective in the way that he moved away from his position, taking marker Bruno Manga away from his position at the heart of the defence, leaving space for a Man City runner to penetrate. The chalkboard above, taken from WhoScored? shows the extent of Aguero’s movement.
In the example above, Bruno Manga has followed Sergio Aguero into midfield, leaving a big space where he should be. With Ralls and Camarasa focused on the ball, Gundogan is free to penetrate the space vacated by Manga and Aguero.
Cardiff were unable to get out
Cardiff are never going to be the best team on the ball, especially in the Premier League. Neil Warnock prides his sides on their ability to get the ball deep into the opposition half quickly, winning the ball in the final third and putting pressure on the opposition’s goal.
On Saturday, Cardiff seemed unwilling to do this. I’m not sure why, but there seemed a reluctance to hit the ball into the channels.
In the example above, Junior Hoilett loses the ball after trying to dribble his way out of trouble. What is frustrating – and somewhat strange – is that there was space in behind for Hoilett to pump the ball into the channel for Ward or Reid to chase. He didn’t and lost the ball, allowing Manchester City to reapply the pressure on the Cardiff goal.
It wasn’t just Hoilett, either. Ralls, Camarasa and many more were caught in possession, something you don’t see too often from Cardiff.
Perhaps the players were aware that the chances of Reid and Ward being able to keep possession up high were slim, but it was a strange tactical trait on Saturday.
Why was Harry Arter out on the left?
One of the strangest things on Saturday for me was the decision to play Harry Arter on the left of midfield. In the previous matches against Chelsea and Arsenal, Victor Camarasa had moved out to the right, with Arter and Joe Ralls in the centre of the pitch.
Why Arter was moved to the left, with Camrasa and Ralls in the centre, is baffling to me. Not only has Arter been one of our best players so far this season, his aggressiveness and tenacity would’ve been useful in the outnumbered centre of the pitch.
I can only assume that Arter was moved out left to add protection to left-back Greg Cunningham, who would’ve otherwise been caught 2v1 with Kyle Walker often pushing up in support of Sterling.
In the situation above, you can see that Arter has doubled with with Cunningham, who is 1v1 with Leroy Sane.
While this may very well be the case, I still think it is an unusual move by Warnock. All of the Cardiff players are pretty good at doing their bit defensively – a trait Warnock insists on in his players – so I don’t think it’s a case of being unable to trust a player.