Xtra Tactics: Manchester City vs Cardiff City (Premier League)

Every Premier League game is a must-win now for Manchester City, who find themselves with the title race in their hands; if they gain maximum points from the last seven games, Guardiola’s men will be champions once again. There’s an argument to be made that the visit of Neil Warnock and his Cardiff side to the Etihad is the easiest of these seven, but it is unlikely to be that simple…

For starters, this game comes wedged between a flying visit to Craven Cottage and a crucial FA Cup Semi-final, so changes will surely have to be made. It’s easy to say that any team City put out should be good enough to see off the Bluebirds, but even a small amount of rotation could have complex tactical implications.

Cardiff City – Most Used Formations

Cardiff are a team with a strong tactical identity. Neil Warnock has his side playing a deep defensive style with an impetus on counter-attacking football and set pieces. Call it hoofball, call it ‘Brexit football’, but there’s more to it than hit-and-hope. These tactics are extremely effective when executed well, as the players proved against Chelsea a few days ago, when they were unlucky not to win.

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In this game, and indeed in most games against the Premier League’s ‘big six’, Warnock has placed his faith in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Here he utilized Sean Morrison and Bruno Ecuele Manga (two excellent physical defenders) at the back, flanked by Lee Peltier and Joe Bennet. Harry Arter was deployed slightly ahead of Aron Gunnarson as a deep midfield two. On-loan Spaniard Victor Camarasa played as a No. 10 with Josh Murphy and Junior Hoilett playing as wingers. These two had a tendency to cut inside and support workhorse striker Oumar Niasse, who is still chasing his first Cardiff City goal but can create problems for a defence. Key defender Sol Bamba is out with a serious knee injury.

I would expect to see a similar formation when they take on City at the Etihad, but it’s worth having a peek at the team selection come Wednesday night. Neil Warnock suggested he might “play the under-23’s and try and keep it down to 10 or 11” after the defeat to Chelsea on Sunday. While this was probably down to frustration, there is a chance Warnock will opt to play a weakened team and prioritise other games in the relegation battle. It’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

Cardiff City – Strengths

Arguably, Cardiff are at their most threatening from dead ball situations. An impressive 32% of their goals this season have come from corners or free-kicks, of which they have scored nine in total. City have conceded seven such goals this season, so it may be an area the visitors look to exploit. It’s a strength that comes from the aerial prowess of the Welsh side – their 26.1 aerial duels won per game is second only to Burnley in the Premier League. Manchester City happen to be third-from-bottom of this list.

Cardiff City’s Spanish midfielder Víctor Camarasa (3R) takes a free-kick during the English Premier League football match between between Cardiff City and Leicester City at Cardiff City Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales on November 3, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Cardiff’s key player is without doubt Victor Camarasa. He leads the Bluebirds for both goals (5) and assists (3) this season, and in his less defensive-minded role he has the freedom to hurt defences with long passes. With his quality, it’s easy to see why only a handful of Premier League teams have a larger proportion of attacks down the middle of the park than Cardiff City’s 26%.

Cardiff City – Weaknesses

Surprisingly, despite their threat from set-pieces, Cardiff have conceded twelve themselves, the fifth-highest tally in the league. And even with their emphasis on counter-attacks, Cardiff one of just two teams in the league yet to score from one this season (along with Huddersfield).

They also have the second-worst defensive record in the league (although their away defensive record is better than Arsenal’s). With at least one goal scored in four of Cardiff City’s last five league away games, it’s fair to expect late action in this one.

CARDIFF, WALES – FEBRUARY 02: Bobby Reid of Cardiff City reacts after missing a chance during the Premier League match between Cardiff City and AFC Bournemouth at Cardiff City Stadium on February 2, 2019 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

But the biggest problem in Cardiff’s game plan, for me, is actually their attack. In fact, three of their top four scorers this season are naturally defenders and the starting front three from the Chelsea game have just six goals between them all season.

If City can get an early breakthrough, they have a good chance at an important clean sheet and Cardiff may struggle to find a response. The Bluebirds have scored just nine away league goals all season; City have managed to bag fifty-three at home.

Last 10 Head-to-Head results:

(Credit: 11v11.com)

It is worth mentioning that whilst City have suffered three defeats in their last ten games against Cardiff, only one of those has come in the 21st century. With only three meetings in the Premier League, the Blues have won two of the meetings (and technically 100% of their home matches in that time).

The Xtra View – “Don’t Get Complacent”

Should we be beating Cardiff? Yes, easily. Will we? That depends on how the players perform. Cardiff excel at attacking set-pieces, an area in which City happen to be relatively poor, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

With that said, I expect City to get the win by a 3-0 scoreline. Don’t get complacent, and this should be a fairly straightforward match. Cardiff’s record suggests the clean sheet should be a priority and will surely guarantee us a victory against a leaky defence. Whatever happens, you can expect a game of defence vs attack. At this point, though, it seems like City are used to it.

You can follow the author on Twitter: @nallensports

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