Cardiff City have received some criticism lately and seeing as they rank 11th for goals scored in the Championship with 39, the complaints seem perfectly valid. However, with much of the same squad that achieved automatic promotion to the Premier League in 2017/18, the squad still contains high quality players that are probably underperforming compared to their potential.
The likes of Junior Hoilett, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Josh Murphy have all proved themselves at Championship level, but something isn’t quite working this season. Neil Harris’ appointment in November promised a rebrand of the Bluebirds after sustained one-dimensional football under Neil Warnock. But the former Millwall man has failed to put his own stamp on things and the Bluebirds are changing personnel frequently.
Getting the best out of his attacking players should be one of Harris’ main objectives. He’s done this effectively to some extent with restored faith in creative midfielder Lee Tomlin who has 10 goals and assists this season – including what must surely be the Assist of the Season away to Leeds United. Other than Tomlin, though, no other Cardiff player ranks in the league’s top 30 goal contributors.
That’s something that has resulted in the Bluebirds struggling to establish any sort of momentum this season. They’ve registered consecutive wins just once in the league this season which came with three straight wins over Stoke City, Nottingham Forest and Barnsley. To sum up inconsistency in the league, that impressive burst of wins was followed up by a winless streak of four matches.
Finding a way of beating the opposition is often done through consistent performances and line-ups that allows players to build partnerships on the pitch. In that sense, Harris’ frequent rotation, combined with injuries and the nature of the opponent, hasn’t helped his side establish a good run of form in the league.
Looking at this from a data point of view, that’s something that has really impacted the club’s wingers who haven’t had the chance to fully find their feet in the team and find some form. Given the nature of wing-play, consistency and trust from a manager is key in allowing players to feel like they can try something ambitious to beat an opposing defender and create chances.
Below, this is summed up by the fact that Hoilett ranks well in terms of dribble success rate yet attempts far less dribbles p90 than some of the Championship’s top dribblers. Individual performances from Hoilett haven’t been setting the world on fire this season, but it is quite clear that something just isn’t working for him at the moment.
Murphy and Mendez-Laing, on the other hand, rank much higher in terms of dribbles p90. Murphy’s 9.13 dribbles p90 show him to be one of the most active dribblers in the league, whilst Mendez-Laing isn’t far behind with 7.95 p90. Such high numbers indicate more ambition from these two, but the contrast in success rate to Hoilett is noticeable.
If you’re looking for a complete dribbler, Murphy isn’t too far away from the best in the league this season. However, it is important to note that dribbling statistics don’t tell the entire story – far from it. What is crucial to remember is that dribbling only provides an indication of players moving with the ball, not what they do with the ball or how effective they are with it.
Therefore, the below graph shows that – despite high activity when it comes to dribbling – converting those numbers into threatening opportunities or chances created is something that the Bluebirds struggle with.
For further context around Expected Assists (xA) and final 3rd passes p90, both are used to illustrate the levels of serious attacking involvement from players. From the top 30 dribblers in the Championship, high attacking involvement is seen from players that are used well within formations that suit their needs.
Jed Wallace, at Harris’ former club Millwall, is being used to great effect on the right with nine goals and eight assists so far this season. Whilst Bristol City’s Niclas Eliasson has enjoyed much success with creative responsibilities in attacking positions.
One common theme across the top level of Championship wingers is that they are all used within carefully thought out systems. Cardiff City’s, on the other hand, has less direction and identity of other teams in the league.
With the attacking players at Harris’ disposal, you’d be expecting the Bluebirds to be higher than 11th for goals scored. Most notably, they rank second lowest for ball possession in the league with a 42.3% average.
But, as Cardiff City fans will know from time under Neil Warnock, it’s not always about having the ball, but more about what you do with it. 11th for goals scored would suggest the Bluebirds are effective in possession, given their lowly ranking for time with the ball. Nevertheless, there is a significant lack of urgency to Cardiff City in possession. They rank bottom in the league for passes per minute of possession with 11.1. If you compare that to Fulham (15.7) and Brentford (14.4), you’ll notice that the pass rate metric is useful in illustrating the tempo of attacking phases of play.
Such a lack of urgency and tempo about Cardiff City’s attacking style of play has two main drawbacks. Firstly, it allows the opposing team to set up in a solid defensive unit to block passing lanes and prevent goal-scoring opportunities. Secondly, it establishes an element of predictability in the way that the Bluebirds attack. Both points result in attacking phases of play becoming predictable, often finding Tomlin in tight spaces who is expected to produce an unrealistic amount of defence-splitting passes.
What is most noticeable, though, is the way in which Harris has high expectations of his wingers. Indeed, Murphy, Holiett and Mendez-Laing all possess technical quality. But such quality is only unlocked through following key attacking principles.
Josh Murphy beats Brentford’s defender in a 1v1 situation but his shot goes wide (Image: Wyscout)
In the above picture, we see Murphy taking on a Brentford defender and shooting wide of the post. Whilst this is a technical quality of Murphy’s, the expectation of him to cut inside from the touchline, beat a defender and whip in a 20 yard screamer with his weak foot is high unlikely.
The issue here, and has been for a large portion of this season, is the involvement of full-backs in attacking phases of play. An overlap from Peltier here would create a 2 vs 1 situation and provide Murphy with an added option to create a chance.
However, Bacuna is the nearest available player in what is a largely unthreatening position. Peltier’s lack of presence here typifies the lack of attacking support from full-backs this season.
The right-back has the lowest progressive runs p90 of Championship full-backs who have played more than 1000 mins this season with just 0.12 progressive runs p90. For anyone unfamiliar with football analytics. progressive runs is a metric used to illustrate a player advancing at least 30 metres with the ball from their own half into the opponent’s half or running at least 10 metres entirely in the opponent’s half.
Therefore, it is clear that the attacking involvement of the full-backs is far lower than other teams in the league. Whether this is a result of lack of on-the-ball quality from Peltier or a reserved approach from Harris, it is hard to tell.
Nevertheless, one thing that must be reiterated is that there needs to be an improvement in the overall attacking fluidity. Yes, the wingers boast technical qualities that they probably aren’t fully using this season, but there are clear reasons why this hasn’t been the case.
Without the necessary changes, Cardiff’s inconsistency is likely to continue with such a disjointed and predictable attacking style of play.
By Reece Chambers. Follow Reece on Twitter @_reecechambers.