After the highs of last week’s emphatic late win against Southampton, Cardiff City came crashing back down to earth on Saturday with a 3-2 loss against Watford.
The score suggests a close game – one in which Cardiff were just edged out by a plucky Watford side. In reality, there was only ever one side in this match. Watford dominated the game and made Cardiff look like a Championship club.
While Cardiff some spirit in the last ten minutes by grabbing two goals, all they did was gloss over a very poor performance from the Bluebirds.
Cardiff City remained largely unchanged from Southampton, with Neil Warnock opting for the same 4-3-3 system. The only change came in terms of personnel, with Junior Hoilett replacing Nathaniel Mendez-Laing on the right wing.
Watford lined up in a 4-4-1-1 system, with former Barcelona winger Gerard Deulofeu playing just behind Troy Deeney in a withdrawn striker role.
What the stats say
Cardiff City were poor – and the stats reflect that. The Bluebirds were never going to dominate the possession, but just 28% of the ball is a really poor showing from a Premier League team. When the City did have the ball, they were wasteful – completing just 61% of their passes.
Is it time for a chance of system when away from home?
Cardiff City have been pretty passive when playing away from home this season. They’ve stood off their opponent and invited them on. I’d say that the 4-3-3 system isn’t adapt to deal with that pressure.
Neil Warnock likes his players to man-mark, which means that they are constantly being pulled out of position. We saw this on a number of occasions on Saturday, with holes being left in the back line where Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison had followed their men.
By changing to a back three, Warnock can ensure that there is sufficient cover in the centre of defence when a defender has followed his man.
I want you to consider the tactical board above, which hypothesises a 5-3-2 system for Cardiff City on Saturday. We’ll go from back to front.
With three centre halves, there is sufficient cover in the centre when one defender follows his man out of position. In front of them, Aron Gunnarsson can man mark Deulofeu, who likes to drop off.
City are then man for man at full-back and in the centre of the park. Up top, we’re 2v4 and Watford get their overload there. That’s okay, though, as with such a congested midfield and defence, it’ll be tough for them to pick out a pass.
I’m not saying Warnock got his system wrong, but a system like that suggested above would make City harded to break down away from home.
What will Cardiff City do without Neil Etheridge?
Neil Etherdige has been Cardiff City’s best player this season, and you’ll have a hard time persuading me otherwise.
Etheridge was absolutely superb on Saturday, despite City conceding three goals. The Philippines international made five saves on the weekend, well and truly keeping Cardiff City in the match.
One thing some City fans always pick up on is Etheridge’s distribution, with the ‘keeper completing just 43% of his passes. What I would say is that it’s a clear instruction from the Cardiff coaching staff to pump the ball long. You see every time he gets the ball, all the team turn their back and walk away from him.
Despite the distribution issues, Neil Etheridge has been one of the Premier League’s best ‘keepers this year – coming third in the most saves (62) and saving the joint most penalties.
Etheridge will miss all of January by participating in the Asia Cup for his international side. That means that Alex Smithies – who has played just one cup match this year – will come into the side.
This isn’t a slight on Smithies – who was one of the Championship’s best goalkeepers last year – but his only showing in a Bluebird shirt came in the 3-1 cup loss to Norwich.
It’s worrying to think that Cardiff may lose their best player for four matches, including six-pointers against relegation rivals Newcastle and Huddersfield.
Cardiff were too lacklustre
It’s not something you say of a Neil Warnock Cardiff City side too often, but the Bluebirds were simply too lacklustre on Saturday. Particularly in midfield, we just didn’t see the work rate and energy that we usually see from the likes of Harry Arter, Victor Camarasa and Gunnarsson.
Perhaps they were tired – there’s been a lot of football played already this season and the Bluebirds are in for a busy festive schedule.
For the opener, a lovely solo goal from Gerard Deulofeu, there were a number of examples of lacklustre play from the men in blue. First off, Sol Bamba’s clearance was lazy and he should’ve done better.
Once Watford had the ball back, the reaction from the Bluebirds was not good. In the screenshot below, you can see the amount of Watford runners that have made it behind Cardiff’s midfield. I make it five. With Troy Deeney up front, that means that Cardiff’s back four have six players to deal with.
The result is confusion and an overrun defence. Bruno Manga and Sean Morrison are unsure who should close down the Spaniard, with Deeney and Roberto Perreyra also to deal with.
Well and truly a day to forget for Cardiff City. Watford were two levels above Cardiff and ran away with the match – they should’ve been 5-0 up before Cardiff’s first goal.
Cardiff did show a bit of spirit to grab two goals and put Watford under pressure late on, but it simply glosses over a poor performance from Warnock’s men.
The Bluebirds head into a busy festive schedule without an away win so far this season and lots to ponder. Tired legs won’t help and Warnock may need to call on the squad’s rotation players during the winter games.
Scott is a lifelong Cardiff City fan and freelance football writer. Scott hosts the VFTN podcast.