Opposition Report: Cardiff City

Middlesbrough returns to host Steve Morison's Cardiff City in their midweek fixture.



The Championship returns to action following the imposed break for the passing of Queen Elizabeth II with a round of midweek fixtures with a minutes silence as a mark of respect before the match kicks off.


Middlesbrough had a less-than-stellar start to the season, dropping down to 22nd in the league. However, Chris Wilder's side seems to have turned a corner with some promising results in the last few weeks helping to improve their standing in the league. The swelling positive atmosphere around the club was only strengthened with the side's 1-0 victory over local rivals Sunderland. While some of the umph may have dropped out of the positive feeling around the club with the absence of football at the weekend, most fans will arrive at the Riverside this evening in good spirits.


Cardiff City has also had a difficult start to the season. Steve Morison's team have struggled for goals and wins this season resulting in their 22nd-placed standing. However, the former Millwall forward has taken to motivating his side through the press, urging them to put in a better showing against Middlesbrough. While, unlike Middlesbrough, Morison would have welcomed the break as it would have given him a game-free stretch on the training ground in an attempt to fix their clear issues.


Despite Cardiff City's struggles in recent fixtures, they should not be taken lightly, and, as this report details, their current strengths could go hand-in-hand with Middlesbrough's current difficulties.


Transfers:

Cardiff City has had a phenomenally busy transfer window this summer as Steve Morison looked to make the squad his own. The former Millwall striker acknowledged the need to add players that would fit into the club's new identity while those that didn't departed. Overall, the Bluebirds had 18 new arrivals and 14 departures over the summer, giving Morison an almost completely new squad to contend with.

Aden Flint playing for Bristol City (Source: Wikipedia/Ben Sutherland)

Cardiff City was ruthless when dictating which players were to leave this summer, with many former key schemers departing for pastures new, including former Boro player Aden Flint. The towering goalscoring centre-back made 67 appearances for the Bluebirds across a year and a half stint at the club. However, he left the club this summer on a free transfer to Stoke City.


Josh Murphy followed Flint out of the door; the direct winger moved down a division in search of first-team football as fewer teams are looking for players built in his mould. He will face fellow former Cardiff City players Marlon Pack, Will Vaulks, James Collins and Cairon Brown after they all made permanent moves to League One during Cardiff City's spring cleaning. Their failure to find a home at a fellow Championship side speaks both to the tactical evolution in the league and these players' shortcomings at this level.


The Bluebirds have also sanctioned three loan moves, including youngster Mark McGuiness and goalkeeper Dillon Phillips. The former is with a view of giving the 21-year-old much-needed experience, while the latter may be with the view of moving him on permanently in the future.


Cardiff City has predominantly looked in the free agent market to replace their outgoing players. Andy Rinomhota, a free transfer from Reading, is definitely one of their best recruitments this summer. The 25-year-old has shown himself to be a consistent, reliable schemer at this level and should be able to settle into Morison's philosophy.


Sheyi Ojo also arrived this summer on a free transfer from Liverpool. The 25-year-old was once regarded as a highly talented youngster that was touted to take his place in the Liverpool lineup before long. However, he failed to grasp his potential, flitting from a loan move to loan move without putting in the performances needed to impress those looking on from Melwood. Yet, he is clearly a talented attacker, and a settled home could help to get the best out of him going forward.


The acquisition of Callum O'Dowda has to be considered a real coup for Cardiff City. The 27-year-old impressed during his time at Bristol City with technical and energetic displays down the left flank. If he had been under contract, then he is one of those players that could have commanded a transfer fee this summer. Instead, he arrived in the Welsh capital on a free and swiftly got to work, showing himself to be a capable operator. In the first six games of the season, he supplied a goal and two assists to the cause averaging a goal contribution every other game. However, he suffered an injury in August that will likely see him miss the game against Middlesbrough.



Yet, it is the arrival of Romaine Sawyers that impresses the most. The 30-year-old was the centrepiece in a glowing West Bromwich Albion team a few years ago. His dynamism on the ball in central areas and the ease with which he played the ball made him pivotal in many a game. His importance may have dropped since, but Sawyers remains a talented player. If Cardiff City can get the best out of him, then it could prove to be very astute recruitment.


Cardiff City wasn't wholly dependent on free transfers this season. The Bluebirds did put down a considered upfront investment of £540,000 for Tottenham Hotspur academy graduate Kion Etete. Etete joined the club as an inexperienced forward but one that Cardiff City hoped could lead the line in this and future seasons. He has made just 42 senior appearances to date, with the majority of these appearances coming on loan with Northampton Town and Cheltenham. Both of these teams represent a considerable step down from the Championship. However, he was influential during these temporary moves providing 10 direct goal contributions, which translates to a direct goal contribution every 205 minutes or a goal contribution every 3rd game. Cardiff City looked to ease Etete into Championship football, with him averaging just 19 minutes in his first four games. However, an early season injury has interrupted his involvement with the Bluebirds.


They also completed the transfer of Callum Robinson. The former West Brom forward has previously shown himself to be a smooth operator at this level, and his arrival at Cardiff City looked to only bolster their options going forwards. However, he has not had the best start to the season, failing to get off the mark either in assists or goals. Robinson's early performances at Cardiff have left something to be desired too, but a goal or two between now and the international break could turn his current predicament around.


Morison's side has also been strengthened through the loan market. The club have brought in centre-back Cédric Kipré from West Brom, stepping into the first team instantaneously with 630 minutes across seven appearances. However, it is Jaden Philogene-Bidace that is most interesting. The Aston Villa youngster has had little senior experience prior to this temporary move, having made just 11 appearances for Stoke City last time out. However, a raw talent he may be, he must have done something to impress Cardiff City enough to gamble on bringing him to the club.


Arrivals:

Departures:

Kion Etete from Tottenham Hotspur (£540k)

Will Vaulks to Sheffield Wednesday (free)

Ollie Tanner from Lewes (£50k)

Josh Murphy to Oxford United (free)

Andy Rinomhota from Reading (free)

Aden Flint to Stoke City (free)

Mahlon Romeo from Millwall (free)

Marlon Pack to Portsmouth (free)

Sheyi Ojo from Liverpool (free)

Alex Smithies to Leicester (free)

Callum O'Dowda from Bristol City (free)

James Collins to Derby County (free)

Jamie Collins from SC Paderborn (free)

Ciaron Brown to Oxford United (free)

Romane Sawyers from Cardiff City (free)

Sean Morrison (free agent)

Jack Simpson from Rangers (free)

Sam Bowen to Newport County (undisclosed)

Ryan Allsop from Derby County (free)

Mark McGuiness toSheffield Wednesday (loan)

Jak Alnwick from St. Mirren (free)

Dillon Phillips to KV Oostende (loan)

Vontae Daley-Campbell from Leicester (free)

Kieron Evans to Torquay (loan)

Ebou Adams from Forest Green (free)

Leandro Bacuna (free agent)

Callum Robinson from West From (undisclosed)

Isaac Vassell (free agent)

Jaden Philogene-Bidace from Aston Villa (loan)

Neils Nkounkou from Everton (loan)

Cédric Kipré from West Brom (loan)


It is not a coincidence that Middlesbrough and Cardiff City have had busy windows leading into their poor early season form. A large shift in playing staff can result in a difficult period as the newcomers attempt to bed into the squad, and that has certainly played a role in the team's shortcomings so far this season. Once these players have bedded into Morison's team, we should see exactly where Cardiff City currently lie.


Style of Play:

Cardiff City was once known for their direct and physical football. A side that stuck to the image of traditional British football with all its advantages and disadvantages. Middlesbrough fans are well adjusted to seeing this style of football play out after experiencing it when former Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock was at the helm and brought some initial success.


The Bluebirds have seen some success playing this philosophy too, with previously mentioned Neil Warnock leading the side to Premier League promotion. It was under these ideals that Vincent Tan and Mehmet Dalman sanctioned hiring Mick McCarthy. The former Ipswich Town manager hit the ground running at the Bluebirds with an 11-game unbeaten run. However, Cardiff City started the following season in poor form, with the Bluebirds losing eight in eight in the lead-up to McCarthy's firing. The final game of McCarthy's tenure came against Middlesbrough.


After a long period of deliberation, Cardiff City decided to promote from within. Steve Morison was appointed first team manager after impressive success with the under 23s as the ownership saw him as the perfect fit to lead Cardiff into a new era.


Steve Morison got to work implementing changes and getting the players available to him on board. The club placed more emphasis on analytics, and Morison put the emphasis on individual improvement resulting in an improvement of the whole, undoubtedly a coaching philosophy that was formed in the development of young individuals in the youth academy.


The former Millwall man also began to introduce parts of his tactical philosophy as he eased the players into his new reign. However, unlike what you would expect from a former Millwall player and current Cardiff City coach, Morison placed the emphasis on controlling the middle of the park.


This is now Cardiff's first full season under Morison. His tactical philosophy is now in full swing in the Welsh capital, and the team's tactics and statistics make for interesting reading.


Cardiff typically set up in a 4-3-3 formation. The 4-3-3 was Ernest Happel's invention, and Morison intends for Happel's invention to be the outline that allows his more controlled possesion style of play to develop. Despite struggling for results he has had tempered success in implementing this wildly new identity with the side averaging the 5th highest average possession in the league (55.3%), marginally above Middlesbrough following their win over Sunderland and Swansea in which they had less than 50% possession. The teams possession statistics are accompanied with passing statistics with Cardiff making 326 successful passes per game despite a safe but not awe-inspiring pass success rate of 77%.


The sides focus on short passes, and keeping the ball when in possession means that the side refrains from long balls unless there is a clear tactical advantage to doing so, as such they have averaged 24 accurate long balls per game, the 16th highest in the league. All of this is to say, that the direct spraying passes that bypass the midfield are a thing of the past for Cardiff City. Under Steve Morison, the Bluebirds have implemented a steady short style of passing which gives them more control over the game but comes with its own weaknesses.


While the midfield has undergone a serious evolution under Steve Morison, the club has remained much of the same defensively. Cardiff City defend in a structured system suffocating the room between the midfield and defensive lines to prevent opportunities from arising. A style of defending that has proven to be a real success so far this season with the Bluebirds recording the joint second highest cleansheets in the league while their average of one goal conceded per match places them in a more than respectable 7th. Impressively, this is a record that is sustainable with them conceding 0.7 goals more than they would have expected to at this point showing that there is no concerns that they will default to the norm. If they continue in this vein then they will pick up points but their aspirations of a high finish will collapse altogether if their offensive issues aren't remidied.


In mixing Cardiff City's previous defensive identity with Morison's new philosophy of short passing to advance through the thirds, the club has managed to evolve the teams style of play while maintaining some of its long-held identity. However, this has come at a cost going forwards. The teams passive disciplined defensive style means that the side will spend considerable periods without the ball. Under previous managers this did not matter, or it was encouraged to play direct or on the counter. However, playing this way defensively often results in deeper turnovers of possession leaving the team with a lot of distance to cover with the short passing style. This, in itself, is not a negative, however, it does allow the opposition to settle into their own defensive systems. From that point onwards it is a question of breaking down the oppositons defence. A task that they have struggled with so far this season which has resulted in a tally of just 4 goals or half a goal per game.


Morison has taken to complaining about his strikers inability to finish, a fair criticism as they are currently four goals behind their expected tally. The side clearly lacks a reliable goalscorer at this level, Robinson is the closest to providing this output but has only scored in fits and starts at his previous clubs. Outside of the former WBA man, Cardiff City are reliant on young prospects in front of goal.


Despite their lack of a clinical edge it is their 8 expected goals which should the primary cause for concern. Cardiff City have the 17th best xG tally, which is far from a top tier return indicating that the side has also struggled creatively. They have hired Romaine Sawyers to help unpick defences but it is early in his time at the club and his other instructions mean that it isn't his sole priority in games.


In time this could be turned around. However, if Morison doesn't see an improvement against Middlesbrough then he may instigate an unfortunate precident of Cardiff City managers getting the sack following a game against the Boro.


Perry Ng:

Cardiff City have a number of potentially exciting attacking starlets, but, as highlighted above, they have failed to impress so far at the Bluebirds. Meanwhile, their defensive counterparts have shown themselves to be worthy of a mention. The top of of this list is Perry Ng.



The ever-young looking Perry Ng has been at the club for 18 months, but he has witnessed a turbulent summer at Cardiff City. Many of his previous teammates have been moved on while others have come in their stead. Yet, none of it has fazed the Liverpool-born fullback.


A very safe and capable pair of hands at right back, Ng rarely puts a foot wrong defensively. He really comes into his own when defending 1-on-1 down the flank. Ng makes good use of the byline as another defender hustling and forcing his opponents into losing the ball. He is not the tallest of defenders and can be caught lacking when defending aerially but with taller defensive representatives at the heart of the defence, Ng is permitted to mark the more dominitive but busy attacking options.


He will also get involved in the initial transition phase with Morison pushing his fullbacks forward as the connection between the defence and attack as well showing him to be a trusted individual on the ball. While his versatile deployment in midfield shows that he has the passing ability to back it up.


Perry Ng will face one of the sternest tests of the season. Ryan Giles has been a phenomenal star for Middlesbrough so far this season and the battle between these two could be a fascinating watch.


Prediction: Middlesbrough 1-0 Cardiff City

Many Boro fans may overlook Cardiff City after their poor start to the season. However, Middlesbrough's relatively strong chance creation and Cardiff City's defensive success go hand-in-hand with concerning possibilities. Likewise, Boro's poor defensive record and Cardiff's blunt attack. However, with the return of Dael Fry, and a clean sheet last time out, there is a real possiblitiy that Boro have turned that around. For that reason, Middlesbrough will edge out a tight game.



Who will win?

  • Middlesbrough

  • Cardiff City



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