Or, Will it play in Kuala Lumpur?
The Bluebirds, now dressed in red and bearing the city’s dragon as a crest, have played a mid-table club, a top club, and a top-half club in their opening three games. After the international break, they will face a fellow relegation contender in Hull City and we will have a first look at how they set themselves out against all caliber of competition. Having changed the team’s traditional blue kit to a more “auspicious” (read “popular in Asian markets”) red, Malaysian owner Vincent Tan has also spent going into Cardiff’s first season in the Premier League in 51 years, and even the bitterest of fans cannot be unhappy with the results on the pitch thus far.
In all three games this season, Cardiff have set up in a 4-2-3-1 with only one change in personnel (young Declan John got a runout at left back in Cardiff’s opening game in place of last year’s starter, Andrew Taylor, who returned to the role in the next two games). This is a departure from Malky MacKay’s favored 4-4-2 over two Championship seasons in charge of Cardiff. That Championship formation, though, was sometimes deployed as a 4-4-1-1, a fairly similar shape to this season’s 4-2-3-1, especially when under the pressure faced by Cardiff against Manchester City and Everton. In those games, Cardiff pulled back into two banks of four, with Kim Bo-Kyung initially pushing up alongside Fraizer Campbell to press the opponents’ holding midfielders before dropping back in front of the rest of the midfield while Campbell remained up top to provide an attacking outlet. MacKay’s Championship sides, though, featured two acknowledged forwards, while Kim Bo-Kyung is decidedly a creative midfielder. Probably, MacKay has opted for more bodies in the midfield to help deal with the greater quality of Premier League competition.
Having said that, the presence of newly signed striker Andreas Cornelius (recovering from a shoulder injury recieved in Wednesday’s Capital One Cup game), and of Peter Odemwingie, signed today from West Brom, would allow for two strikers against weaker competition. In that regard, the game against Hull will be telling. But even if MacKay does choose to start most games in a 4-2-3-1–and I think he will–having three first-choice strikers on his books will definitely increase his late-game options. In fact, Cardiff already shifted to a 4-4-2 in the one game they were chasing. Strikers Nicky Maynard and Rudy Gestede replaced Kim and Bellamy at 74′ against West Ham, Maynard joining Campbell up top while Gestede played on the right in Bellamy’s spot. This offers a good hint at the deployments of Cornelius and Odemwingie. In terms of starting positions, Campbell is likely to face more direct competition for his position from Cornelius, who even more than Campbell is a traditional No. 9. Once back to full fitness, Cornelius and Campbell seem likely to vie for that central striker role. Odemwingie, on the other hand, can also play from the flanks and may see more time as a replacement for Bellamy on the right. When and if MacKay does opt for a 4-4-2, Odemwingie could match with Cornelius in a classic big man, little man partnership, though the 5’8″ Campbell will also fit that role. Campbell, too, has the speed to be considered an option on the flanks as well.
In addition to Cornelius and Odemwingie, MacKay has added two critical players on the defensive side of things. Steve Caulker, a 21-year-old prospect from Tottenham who played on loan at Swansea City last season, brings some comforting Premier League experience at the back. He has replaced (still) team captain Mark Hudson in central defense and has been solid enough, though statistically he has not outperformed fellow center-back Ben Turner (excepting Turner’s shaky passing in the opening game). Certainly, Caulker has not hurt Cardiff’s defense, and brings both intangibles and the prospect of further development. Caulker may not be the last new face in defense, as just this weekend Cardiff signed Maximiliano Amondarain and Kevin Theophile-Catherine, joining John Brayford, in from Derby County, on MacKay’s bench.
New defensive midfielder Gary Medel will likely prove the most important figure in Cardiff’s bid to remain up. Having arrived from Sevilla late in the summer, the Chilean international already dominates Cardiff’s midfield. He has led his team in passing all three games, completing 127 of 140 passes despite a relatively weak 28 of 34 in the dog fight against Manchester City.
On a team averaging a 75% pass completion rate, that’s not too shabby. Some critics would like to see him attempting more penetrating passes, apparently unwilling to recognize the (one would have thought, fairly straight-forward) correlation between avoiding speculative passes and ball retention. For a side that will spend most of its Premier League days on the losing side of possession, Medel’s ability to keep things simple will prove invaluable. Similarly, his team-leading 17 ball recoveries (that is, regaining possession of a momentarily loose ball) offers another measure of the calm and consistency he brings to Cardiff’s build-up play. The other aspect of his game which has received much comment, of course, is his disciplinary record. Medel also currently leads his team with 5 fouls, and this despite the remarkably lenient refereeing of Anthony Taylor in the Everton match, a game where Medel should have seen at least one yellow and was probably lucky to remain on the pitch. This last game suggests that Medel’s recklessness in tackling will see him–and thus Cardiff–into trouble sooner rather than later. On the other hand, it’s hard not to believe that the juice is worth the squeeze for a team in Cardiff’s relatively precarious position, and Medel will be the team’s central player whenever available. Look for their win-rate to drop considerably when he is not.
When Medel is sent off, his replacement will likely already be on the pitch, as Peter Whittingham has moved from his midfield role of the last two seasons out to the left flank in order to accommodate the new signing. Whittingham is the only player to significantly pre-date Malky MacKay’s tenure at the club, having spent virtually his whole career there. He is less flashy than fellow attacking midfielders Kim Bo-Kyung and Craig Bellamy, but he is a smart player with a wicked left-footed service on dead balls and has created a team-leading 6 of Cardiff’s 15 chances. He will continue to work patiently in attack as well as deputize in the middle of the park when necessary. His former and Medel’s current partner is Aron Gunnarson, Iceland’s 24-year-old team captain. Don’t expect many more goals, but Gunnarson looks like a competent journeyman midfielder whose job is to link more actively with Cardiff’s attack than Medel. He is usually positioned slightly ahead of the Chilean and did a nice job of chipping balls over the top of Manchester City’s makeshift defense for Campbell to run onto. He and Whittingham also created what should have been the best scoring chance against Everton at 31′, but Campbell intercepted Gunnarrson’s pass intended for the cutting winger.
Nonetheless, the main thrust of Cardiff’s attack thus far has come from Craig Bellamy and Kim Bo Kyung. Having missed out on the dream of helping his boyhood team to promotion thanks to transfer politics, Bellamy will be primed to do everything in his power to keep them up. The fact that a goal for Cardiff will make him the first player in Premier League history to score for seven different clubs will not hurt his motivation either. Bellamy is remarkably fit for his age, having converted to a more carefully regimented training system in the past few seasons. Commentators claim that he still has pace, and clearly he does in normal human terms, but one wonders if he can still beat top backs in a footrace. Perhaps he still has enough pace to sell his feint down the line, allowing him to turn inside and deliver a cross. In any case, one would expect the heavier burden to fall on the 23-year-old Kim. Marked out as a player to watch, Kim has thus far looked impressive. Honing his final touch will be critical to making good on that promise, but his ability to work with Bellamy on the right is the most exciting aspect of Cardiff’s attack thus far, at least the part most likely to come good against defenses less injury-ravaged than Manchester City’s. It remains to see how Campbell, Cornelius, and Odemwingie can most effectively combine with Kim and Bellamy (and, to a lesser extent, Whittingham) in attack.
Ben Turner has thus far performed admirably in the Premier League under significant duress, quieting if not entirely silencing fans who feel that team captain Mark Hudson should be the one playing beside Caulker. At least statistically, he has significantly outperformed Caulker in the air. Of the wide backs, Matt Connolly has been the more active of the two. Changes seem imminent at the back, however, given the recent spate of arriving defenders. The back line, like the strike force, remains a work in progress.
In the Championship, Cardiff had a reputation as grinders (a reputation that was perhaps unfairly cemented during a late season run of draws after promotion was a safe bet). That seems unlikely to change in the Premier League, and you can expect MacKay to favor a counter-attacking style of necessity, if for no other reason. How deep-lying that side will be is a less certain question. In both home games, Malky MacKay could be heard during the telecasts imploring his defense to push out when in possession. Moreover, expect Cardiff’s attack to frequently remain on the floor. The first goal against Manchester City is an excellent example of what they will hope to achieve. Working the right flank as a unit, they had nearly a full 1′ of possession before scoring. With Kim at the center of the action, Bellamy, Medel, Connolly, and Whittingham all played a part before Kim cut down the right flank (dribbling not included in the dashboard below) and delivered a laser to Fraizer Campbell at the near post. Hart saved the first shot, but Gunnarson was there to put in the rebound. Cardiff City will probably not score many goals this intricately, but with Kim, Whittingham, and Medel in the side, they will look to pass smartly first.
Cardiff will also continue to look to set pieces for success, though their two goals at Manchester City owe a great deal to the absence of both City’s starting center backs, the individual failings of Pablo Zabaleta (Campbell’s marker on both goals), and perhaps too his team’s transition for zonal to man-marking (it is refreshing to hear public criticism of man-marking, however self-serving). Nonetheless, Peter Whittingham’s delivery should continue to serve Campbell–and eventually Cornelius–well.
Having already discussed the likely scenarios for Cardiff’s reinforced unit of strikers, the last important issue is that of fatigue over the course of the season. Newly promoted sides often push impressively through the opening months, only to be undone by a combination of reduced adrenaline and December fixture congestion, followed by the inevitable grind of the latter half of the season. With the addition of Odemwingie to provide a significant and tested goal-scoring threat (as well as cover for Bellamy), Cardiff have made the right moves to secure points early and/or weather the storm late. If MacKay’s new defensive acquisitions can also come in and provide solid support and a potential upgrade, they should remain odds on favorites amongst the newly promoted to escape relegation. The current struggles of Sunderland, Fulham, and West Brom cannot hurt Cardiff’s position, and a comprehensive win against Hull City and their newly purchased Tottenham B-squad midfield would be a further confidence booster. The season, however, is not won in August or September; and notwithstanding a bright start and some apparently shrewd purchases, Malky MacKay’s squad have a long journey ahead of them. Perhaps the Bluebird’s will be hoping that Vincent Tan’s claims about the auspiciousness of their new red jerseys is more than an old wives’ tale.