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Thursday 06 February 2014

Talking Tactics: Balance the key as Cardiff City plot survival

Adrian Clarke looks at how Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is making changes to the Bluebirds

  • Pic 1: Cardiff have typically spent more time in their own half than in opposition territory this season

  • Pic 2: Giving the ball away cheaply inside their own half has been a recurring theme this season

  • Pic 3: The balance of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side looks to be better than earlier in the campaign

When he took the Cardiff City job last month, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was under no illusions. He knew that his debut season as a Barclays Premier League manager was never going to be plain sailing.

Sitting in 19th with 14 matches left to play, the Norwegian's attempt to preserve the club's top-flight status in their first season in the Barclays Premier League will be put to the test in the coming weeks. Ahead of their South Wales derby at Swansea City this weekend, Adrian Clarke analyses where the Bluebirds have struggled so far, and what could assist their bid for survival.

On the back foot

No goalkeeper has had to work harder than David Marshall this season. Making a total of 92 saves, Cardiff have been indebted to the Scot's heroics on more than one occasion, even if only Fulham to have let in more goals than they have this term.

A priority for Solskjaer will be to provide his goalkeeper greater protection. Encouraging the defence and midfield to play higher up the pitch, to press with more aggression, and to try to win the ball back in opposition territory more often, would all be advisable.

As shown in Table 1 below, no team have spent more time inside their own defensive third than the Bluebirds this season. Content to sit off opponents and keep their shape, as a team they have had to absorb an awful lot of pressure, especially on home turf where they average only 45.3% of possession. In contrast, Swansea boast 60.2% possession of the ball in front of their own fans.

Centre-backs Steven Caulker and Ben Turner are not the quickest pairing, which perhaps explains their reluctance to squeeze further upfield. However, this is also a side who lack combative players (they have put in fewer tackles than anyone this term), and until recent weeks also the pace to hurt their rivals on the break. Cardiff have not scored a goal on the counter-attack all season.

Pushing up 10 yards, harassing opponents more aggressively, and avoiding their habit of simply retreating into a 4-5-1 shape, should help ease the strain. Right now, Solskjaer's side are spending too much time defending without the ball, inside their own half, see image 1 above.


Cardiff city 2013/14
Time spent in own defensive third 31% (1st in BPL)
Tackles per match 15.8 (20th in BPL)
Shots conceded per match 18.5 (1st in BPL)
Goals conceded from open play 36 (1st in BPL)

Better use of the ball

Creativity has also been a problem area. Going forward no Barclays Premier League side have had fewer shots than Solskjaer's men, who register only 10.6 per match, with only 3.1 on average hitting the target.

It has been a struggle to use the strengths of lone front man Fraizer Campbell. He is a striker who likes to make clever runs, or take on defenders in and around the box, but the service into him has not catered for those assets often enough. Instead he has been asked to chase a lot of hopeful long balls, or to hold up the ball for team-mates, and that has not suited his game. Interestingly, despite lacking a physical target man, only four teams have launched more long passes forward than the Bluebirds this season.

Confidence on the ball and calmness in possession are other facets of Cardiff's play that need addressing. As seen in Image 2 above, Cardiff give the ball away deep inside their own half, too often. More composure is needed in those areas.

Then, going forward, with the notable exception of Peter Whittingham, none of the midfielders has excelled at supplying goalscoring opportunities either.

Most clubs in the bottom half of the table can boast multiple players who have carved out more than 20 chances this season, but not the Welshmen, as shown in Table 2. With a large proportion of Whittingham's key passes also coming from set-pieces, it is clear they desperately need to show more imagination and craft inside the final third.

CHAnces created by midfield 2013/14
  Key passes (inc assists) Minutes per key pass
Peter Whittingham
40 52
Jordan Mutch
15 88.33
Kim Bo-Kyung 12 87.83
Craig Noone 11 78.63
Aron Gunnarsson 11 113.7
Don Cowie 9 87.7
Craig Bellamy 8 98
Gary Medel 3 641

Reasons for optimism

There has been an imbalance in Cardiff’s set-up for most of the campaign, but two stand-out January acquisitions made by Solskjaer, appear to have redressed them.

Kenwyne Jones' introduction adds necessary power to a side who like to be direct at times, and he will also provide additional strength from set-pieces at both ends of the pitch.

Dead balls have been Cardiff’s greatest plus point all season. As a team they have conceded only 12% of their goals from corners and free-kicks (the best record in the top flight), and with 44% of the team's goals being scored from set-pieces, it is clear to see the importance they play. With eight goals already from dead balls, the aerial threat of Jones can only help add to that tally in the weeks to come.  

Starting line-ups under Malky Mackay also tended to be a touch lopsided. Using a standard 4-2-3-1 on paper, the former manager would deploy Whittingham on the left, tucking inside as an auxiliary central midfielder, with the speedier and much more forward-minded Craig Bellamy often on the right. As a consequence their forays forward became predictable, with 43% of their attacks stemming from the right, compared with only 29% on the other flank. Floating between the lines in an attacking midfield berth would be the intelligent, but not especially dynamic, Kim Bo-Kyung.

The loan signing of Wilfried Zaha instantly provides Solskjaer's team with more vibrancy and equilibrium. The Manchester United youngster's pace and skill from wide areas should add more spark and creation, while the in-form Craig Noone or local hero Craig Bellamy, are positive options he can use on the other side. Having the symmetry of speedy outlets on both wings is a major plus. 

Inside them, a midfield trio of Whittingham (on the left), Gary Medel (holding) and Jordan Mutch (right) also looks well balanced. With Medel providing decent protection in front of the back four (53 tackles, 44 interceptions and 41 clearances this season), the craft of Whittingham to his left, and the running power of the powerful Mutch to his right, the blend of the side looks significantly better as they approach the run-in. See Image 3 for formation comparisons.

Final thought

To stay in the Barclays Premier League, Cardiff will need to pose more of a threat from open play, and should they stay fit and healthy the new signings are likely to instigate a positive change.  

Saturday's South Wales derby at Swansea City will provide a strong indication of how the new-look Bluebirds are developing under their new manager. If Solskjaer can discover a formula that helps to string precious victories together, all is not lost for the men in red.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke takes a look at Cardiff City's season so far
  • Analyst looks at areas in which Bluebirds can improve
  • Cardiff City take on Swansea City in the South Wales derby on Saturday