After rounding off pre-season with a Nice 1-0 victory over French opposition, the Championship season is now less than a week away. 46 games of pure SkyBet nonsense on the horizon and, as is canon, the predictions are flowing. Football Twitter is busting out banter tweets like ‘If I speak, I am in trouble,’ as they go wild with controversial and zany predictions like Reading to be relegated and Sheffield Wednesday to make the play-offs. Chin-stroker pundits are popping Leeds top and Brentford second.
But what most people are trying to say is that, in essence, it’s anyone’s SkyBet. Come the end of the season, there’s a distinct possibility that a new name will be on the Lady and the play-offs could be filled with old favourites.
For Cardiff, it seems that pundits don’t really know how to approach us. Some are sure we are destined to bounce back immediately, others think we won’t even make the playoffs. Some don’t even mention us being in contention. Perhaps that’s the way Neil Warnock likes it.
Two seasons ago, no-one mentioned us in the running for promotion and somehow, we finished 2nd and secured automatic. It was the perfect exercise in making do with what you had and Warnock got us promoted with a bit of a rag-tag bunch. Players like Liam Feeney, Yanic Wildschut, Jamie Ward, players you’ve probably forgotten about, all played a part in our promotion. So if Warnock can get a patchwork group promoted, how will he fare two years down the line?
Cardiff City 2017/18 Starting XI
The method? Scientific AF. Looking back our promotion winning season, I’ve taken the 11 players who made the most appearances that season. I felt this was the fairest way of doing it and gave us the clearest view of what our most consistent team was that year. For clarity, I used Wikipedia and ordered it by starting appearances. I had to get slightly creative as there were one too many defenders for the formation we tend to play so Lee Peltier missed out and Bryson got in just ahead of Loic Damour. Couple of surprises? Aron Gunnarsson only started 17 games that season, Junior Hoilett played 45 out of 46, and big Cal scored about a goal every three games. Not bad for a right back.
Cardiff City 2018/19 Starting XI
This is where it becomes less scientific. I’ve just picked the starting XI from yesterday’s game against Nice. There are a couple of points to be made here. Obviously Gary Madine started the game yesterday but went off injured and Warnock is making noises about signing a new striker – so that could change. I’m very much 50/50 on Will Vaulks and Leandro Bacuna in the middle. Bacuna started yesterday to give us a bit of defensive cover perhaps but I’m sure Vaulks may get the starting call at Wigan next week. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Anyway, the point of all this? There seems to some anxiety amongst Cardiff fans that our squad isn’t good enough to challenge this year. Indeed, Warnock has said as much but one wonders if that’s just brinkmanship to get the lads in the boardroom to stump up the cash for a couple more players. So I just wanted to see how we measured up then, to how we measure up now; position by position.
WalesOnline are keen to point out that Neil Etheridge is still wanted by Aston Villa but, as it stands, I see him being between the sticks at Wigan. He’s a better keeper than he was when he signed and was colossal at times last season. At right back, we’ve swapped out Bruno Manga for Lee Peltier. Manga is and was a brilliant defender but Peltier proved himself in the second half of last season and he’s an absolute stalwart at this level. I would suggest we are equal at right back but losing the option of Manga to switch into the centre of defence perhaps takes something away from our back line.
In the middle, Sol Bamba is currently injured so new signing Aden Flint drops in. Flint and Mozza perhaps lacks a bit of pace but both are adept at this level. Mozza grew in stature last season and is our key man there. Flint is a good defender and adds something in attack, too. With Bamba likely to be back up to start, we’ve got a strong three and probably stronger, overall, than it was two seasons ago. On the left, the ever-reliable Joe Bennett will start and he’s going to be a big player this season.
Perhaps noticeably, we now have a good backup left back in Greg Cunningham and Curtis Nelson, a versatile man across the back line, has come in to offer competition. We also have some strong youngsters – notably Ciaron Brown and Cameron Coxe – who Warnock has mixed in with the senior squad. We also still have Jazz Richards in the mix. A few seasons back, our options were a bit threadbare with players like Armand Traore having to come in halfway through the season and having minimal impact.
Verdict? We are slightly stronger now. The big miss will be Manga but Warnock has taken steps to mitigate that and if Flint has a good season, it could be a masterstroke.
During the 2017/18 season, the midfield was probably the place we saw the most change. When looking into the team from that year, I was surprised that Craig Bryson clocked up as many games as he did – and that Damour was only a game behind him. It was the second half of the season that saw us stick a more consistent line up of Ralls-Grujic- Gunnar in the middle of the park.
Of that midfield five from two years back, you’d have to say that only Ralls is guaranteed a start this season. Ralls got a lot of stick throughout last season but he’s such a metronomic midfielder. While players like Harry Arter ran around after the ball, Ralls always gave the easy option and made room for the pass. He’s going to be pivotal as a calming influence this season, as well as a creative force.
In terms of the rest, Bryson is out and Vaulks or Bacuna is in. For me, both of those are an upgrade. No offence to Bryson, he’s a good honest player, but Vaulks has goals and assists in his locker while Bacuna is a more calming presence in the middle of the park.
In 2017/18, Callum Paterson played as a defacto attacking midfielder and who knows what might happen to him this season. But this year looks set to be Bobby’s year. He’s going to take the Victor Camarasa role and one has to be hopeful that he’s going to have the season he could’ve had last year if Warnock had trusted him more. An upgrade there.
Then on the wings, Josh Murphy and NML started against Nice but there’s no guarantees that will be the starting two come Saturday. NML, for me, is our most explosive and dangerous winger. He’s got an impudence about him that is inimitable, and his pace is electric. On the other side, Murphy should flourish at this level. His confidence was up and down last year, but on his day? A filthy player who can make defenders look like mugs.
In terms of depth, Hoilett isn’t a bad player to bring off the bench considering he was our player of the year in 17/18. We’ve also got the much heralded return of Lee Tomlin and whoever drops out between Vaulks or Bacuna to back up the middle of the park. Perhaps we could do with another body in there – Damour may be off and we need someone to fill the gap left by Gunnar – but Warnock is still working away there. We also have the prospect of Gavin Whyte coming in from Oxford to back up the wingers…
Verdict? Compared to 17/18, we are stronger. Our wingers are better, our midfield options are better. But that’s a slightly disingenuous view as we will miss Gunnar and Camarasa from last season – even if Gunnar’s powers were on the wane. If Reid starts well, the latter will be less felt and that could be the key to a productive midfield.
In 2017/18, Kenneth Zohore was the main main. Our most consistent starter up front, he managed nine goals and led the line impressively well sometimes, perhaps frustratingly timidly at other times. Despite this, it was still somewhat of a shock to see Cardiff accept an £8m bid for Big Ken. A lot of people were hopeful that this season was to be his breakout year. Instead, we’ll have to wonder what if…
And in that Big Ken shaped hole stepped Big Gary. Madine has all the attributes of being a success in a Warnock side. Big? Check. A water carrier? Check. Can score goals? Check. Bit of a bastard? Check. He’s struggled to make an impact at Cardiff but a confidence building loan spell at Sheffield United last year did him a world of good and Cardiff fans will be hopeful he can come in and do well this season.
Backing him up, we’ve got a selection of players who were with us during 17/18. Danny Ward is still knocking about, perennially injured but still good. He managed four goals in 2017/18 but only managed six starts. He looked great at home against Arsenal last season and did well at other times but injury seems to forever be his blocker.
We’ve also got the return of Omar Bogle who has looked bright and confident during pre-season. A lot of Cardiff fans seem to be banking on his return but his last two loan spells don’t fill me with confidence. He scored a couple of big goals two seasons back but also cost us with a red against Bristol.
Of course, the ace up our sleeve is a man who needs no introduction. Currently injured, Big Pats was a revelation as a striker last season. An instinctive finisher, a brilliant player in the air, and completely committed to the cause. Two seasons back, we didn’t know where to play him. Now he’s very much found his niche and he was damn good at it in the Premier League too. Once he’s fighting fit, there’s a very good chance he will be our talisman for another year.
But all of the above could fly out the window if Warnock gets his way. The rumour mill is oiled and Warnock is fuelling it. Two or three players to come in this week, a striker should be amongst them. The outlook could change dramatically, whoever that may be…
Verdict? We’re about the same as were in 17/18. Madine for Zohore is pretty much like for like, in terms of ability. Ward and Bogle were involved then, and the only real striker we’ve lost is Rhys Healey. Paterson perhaps nudges me into saying we are more equipped up top but until we sign another bonafide striker, I’m sticking with equal.
There’s a tendency to panic when looking at our squad and the fact that other teams around us seem to be spending big but I’m cautiously optimistic going into this season. Yes, this piece mainly focuses on our starting XI but our starting XI has improved from two seasons ago. Despite us losing several players over the summer, I’d say we still have a decent level of depth in a match day 18. Warnock is working towards signing more players and if he can get three through the door this week, things will look even rosier.