After running the rule over EFL Championship winners Wolverhampton Wanderers, our in-depth coverage of the newly promoted teams continues with an appraisal of Cardiff City’s prospects for 2018/19.
Never outside the top four all season, the Bluebirds sealed the second promotion spot on the final day with a nervy 0-0 draw at home to Reading, as nearest challengers Fulham slipped to defeat at Birmingham City.
Neil Warnock’s eighth promotion as manager was Cardiff’s second to the Premier League, the Welsh side having spent a year in the top flight in 2013/14.
CS = Clean sheets
Cardiff’s success was chiefly predicated on their watertight backline. Along with Championship winners Wolves, The Bluebirds boasted the league’s meanest defence (39 goals conceded in 46 games), while a record of 16 goals against in 23 home matches was also the lowest in the division.
Their attack was just the sixth-most potent in the Championship, though, a total of 69 goals even trumped by 18th-placed Hull City. Utility man Callum Paterson was the only Cardiff player to hit double figures in the league.
Momentum played a huge part in Cardiff’s promotion push. A run of eight victories in February and March was the longest winning sequence made by any Championship team in 2017/18, while the Bluebirds also began the season with five wins on the bounce.
Cardiff’s average possession percentage (45.4%) was the fourth lowest in the league, while they were ranked bottom for mean number of short passes per game (207) and pass completion (59.4%). All of which suggests they are happy soaking up pressure and putting the onus of attack on their opposition, a strategy that will no doubt continue into the Premier League.
Their league-high average of 34.5 successful aerial duels and their impressive Clearances, Blocks and Interceptions statistics – more on this later – underscore such an approach.
A total of 21 goals from set-pieces was a joint-league high shared by Wolves, with a further four efforts coming from the penalty spot.
Cardiff’s record of 65 shots on goal from inside the six-yard-box was also the highest in the Championship.
Neil Warnock’s 38-year managerial career has seen him coach 15 different clubs. The oldest manager in the English Football League this season, Warnock has previously guided two teams to Premier League promotion: Sheffield United in 2005/06 and Queens Park Rangers in 2010/11.
Cutting his teeth in non-league with Gainsborough Trinity and Burton Albion, Warnock’s first notable success came with Scarborough in 1987, who were promoted to the old Division Four from the Football Conference. Two consecutive promotions with Notts County – the second success bringing top-flight football to Meadow Lane – came next, though his time with the Magpies ended with his dismissal in 1993.
Success stories at Torquay United, Huddersfield Town and Plymouth Argyle followed, with spells at Oldham Athletic and Bury preceding a move to his hometown club Sheffield United.
Warnock’s eight-year spell with the Blades was his longest tenure at any club, a stint that culminated with United’s unfortunate relegation from the Premier League in 2006/07. Three seasons at Crystal Palace were followed by his second promotion to the top flight with QPR, who dismissed Warnock in January 2012 with the club embroiled in a relegation dogfight.
An ill-fated, four-month spell with Crystal Palace in the Premier League followed a year with Leeds, before Warnock returned to QPR in 2015 as caretaker manager. Working miracles at Rotherham United to prevent their relegation from the Championship in 2015/16, Warnock was appointed Cardiff manager in October 2016 and led them to a creditable 12th-place finish.
Statistically, his time in south Wales has been his most successful managerial role to date: Cardiff have won 50.6% of their matches under his stewardship.
As malleable with formations as Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo was steadfast with his own favoured 3-4-3 system, Warnock’s tactical tweaks this season make a fascinating case study. Cardiff are anything but long ball, 4-4-2 merchants: City in fact were ranked a lowly 18th among Championship clubs for long balls per game (72).
Warnock’s preferred formation in the latter stages of the 2017/18 campaign has been 4-3-3, which, on occasion, mutates into a 4-2-3-1.
In the former set-up, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Junior Hoilett flank workhorse Kenneth Zohore in attack. Joe Ralls has been a mainstay in the midfield three, with Aron Gunnarsson, Loic Damour, Callum Paterson, Marko Grujic and Craig Bryson used variously in the centre of the park.
Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison are the backbone of Cardiff’s imposing rearguard, with Joe Bennett a regular at left-back and Lee Peltier generally preferred on the opposite flank. The versatile Bruno Ecuele Manga has featured at both centre-half and Peltier’s position throughout the season.
Thirty-two players made a league appearance for Cardiff throughout the season, highlighting Warnock’s fondness for rotation. Bamba, Hoilett and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge were the only three squad members to make more than 40 starts, while Ralls was the sole central midfielder to start more than 30 fixtures – partly explained by the physical demands made on City’s midfield toilers with their aggressive pressing game, though injuries have also played their part.
Versatility is key: Warnock expects the workmanlike Hoilett and Mendez-Laing to track back to become reservist wing-backs in a 5-4-1, with Bennett plugging gaps in the centre of defence when Bamba or Morrison step out to press.
Paterson, largely a defender by trade, has been reborn this season in a midfield role. In City’s 4-0 win over Sunderland in January, Paterson lined up in the centre of the park with Jazz Richards, another recognised full-back. Fantasy managers with an eye for an out-of-position asset could well be drawing from Warnock’s flexible squad next season.
The Promoted Squad
In sharp contrast to Wolves’ youthful Championship-winning squad, Cardiff had one of the division’s oldest at an average age of 28.2 years.
Fifteen players started more than ten matches for City this season, with only Junior Hoilett and Sol Bamba featuring in all 46 fixtures.
Neil Etheridge (45 starts)
Cardiff’s first-choice goalkeeper following his capture on a free transfer from Walsall last summer, Etheridge’s solidity between the sticks meant that Neil Warnock was happy to sanction Lee Camp’s loan move to Sunderland in January.
Etheridge registered 19 clean sheets in 45 appearances, conceding only 37 goals over the course of the season. The Philippines international only recorded 99 saves in 2017/18, however, underlining the defensive strength in front of him. Jack Butland’s Premier League-high total of 145 saves in 35 starts gives an indication of how relatively quiet Etheridge’s season has been. Like John Ruddy at Wolves, of course, Etheridge can expect a much busier campaign in the top flight.
Cardiff may add to their goalkeeping ranks over the summer, with Etheridge set to miss up to five weeks of action in January 2019 when the Philippines make their debut appearance in the Asian Cup.
Sol Bamba (43 starts, 3 substitute appearances, 4 goals, 1 assist)
The only Cardiff player to feature in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, Bamba is a rock at the heart of the City defence.
Arguably Warnock’s best signing as Cardiff manager, the 33-year-old arrived on a free transfer in October 2016 and signed a new, three-year deal in August 2017.
His bonus point potential looks strong for next season: 445 Clearances, Blocks and Interceptions, at a rate of 8.7 minutes per CBI, is the lowest figure in the Cardiff squad and a better average than any Wolves defender. With the Bluebirds’ defence certain to come under even more pressure in the Premier League, this mean could well lower enough to threaten Shane Duffy’s impressive 7.6 minutes per CBI in 2017/18.
Bamba also led the way for successful tackles (116), which looks promising for his potential in the Bonus Points System (BPS).
Four goals from 38 attempts suggests he has some attacking potential from set pieces, though his central defensive partner Sean Morrison offers a more obvious offensive threat. Bamba did, however, register 12 attempts on goal from inside the six-yard box, a figure better than all other Championship defenders this season.
Sean Morrison (38 starts, 1 substitute appearance, 7 goals, 1 assist)
The supporters’ Player of the Year, Morrison offers Fantasy managers that most cherished of prospects from defence: goals.
Morrison had his best ever season in front of goal in 2017/18, scoring on seven occasions. The Cardiff captain’s 50 goal attempts at a rate of one every 66.6 minutes is someway short of Marcos Alonso (a shot every 44 minutes), but better than any Premier League centre-back this season. Scott Dann (75.5) and Virgil van Dijk (83.4) were the most threatening top-flight centre-halves, by way of comparison.
Only Matt Smith of Leeds scored more headed goals in the Championship than Morrison, who registered six.
Defensively, though, he fares poorly when compared to Bamba. Morrison has averaged 9.3 mins per CBI, while he has managed just over a third of the number of successful tackles (40) than his central defensive partner (116).
Bruno Ecuele Manga (35 starts, 3 substitute appearances, 2 assists)
A four-year servant at Cardiff, Ecuele Manga’s versatility came in useful this season as he featured at both centre-half and right-back. At 9.3 minutes per CBI he narrowly trails Morrison and Bamba, while he’s second only to the latter for successful tackles (92).
Without a league goal since April 2016, Ecuele Manga mustered only 16 attempts on goal this season, less than a third than Morrison managed.
Behind Morrison and Bamba in the central defensive pecking order, Ecuele Manga could still see plenty of game time if Warnock decides to revert to a five-man backline next season, as he has done sporadically throughout this campaign.
Joe Bennett (38 starts, 1 goal, 4 assists)
Coveted by Fulham in the summer of 2017, Bennett rejected a more lucrative contract from the Cottagers to stay in south Wales.
The dependable left-back isn’t likely to be sought after for his attacking potential, having recorded only six shots from inside the box in his 38 appearances.
Four assists from 25 key passes represents modest goal involvement, but with greater underlying attacking threat and CBI numbers to be found elsewhere in the City backline, Bennett’s appeal from a Fantasy perspective is limited.
Lee Peltier (27 starts, 3 substitute appearances, 1 assist)
For Bennett, read Peltier. The 31-year-old right-back represents even less of an offensive threat than his opposite full-back. Peltier hasn’t scored since December 2013 and could only muster a meagre two attempts on goal in the whole of 2017/18.
A defender’s defender, Peltier is the antithesis of the gallivanting modern-day wing-back and made only 13 key passes this season. He also accumulated more yellow cards (11) than any other Cardiff player.
Joe Ralls (37 starts, 7 goals, 4 assists)
Once described as “Ralls Royce” by Warnock, Cardiff’s playmaker was the cornerstone of their midfield this season.
Ralls’ seven goals all came from his left boot, while he created more chances (70) for his colleagues than any other Cardiff player bar Hoilett.
Cardiff’s main man for set pieces, Ralls took more corners (94) and free-kicks (65) than any team-mate. He delivered more long key passes (29) than all but four Championship players.
Four of Ralls’ seven goals were spot kicks and Fantasy managers should take note that he is Cardiff’s first-choice penalty taker.
The only central midfielder to start more than 30 games for the Bluebirds this season, Ralls is arguably the only nailed-on pick in the centre of the park.
Craig Bryson (19 starts, 3 substitute appearances, 2 goals, 2 assists)
Signed on a season-long loan from Derby County in August 2017, Bryson’s contribution to City’s promotion left many Cardiff – and Derby – fans wondering why Gary Rowett was willing to dispense with his services.
Bryson’s popularity with manager Warnock was evident in the closing stages of the season, with the box-to-box midfielder trusted in crucial games against Wolves and Reading towards the end of the campaign.
Whether that trust leads to a permanent deal is questionable, given that Bryson will turn 32 in November. Either way, Fantasy managers are unlikely to be too interested: Bryson created a key chance only once every 123.2 minutes and had an attempt on goal once every 59.3 minutes.
Marko Grujic (12 starts, 1 substitute appearance, 1 goal)
Much like Bryson, uncertainty surrounds where Grujic will be plying his trade next season. A January transfer window loan capture from Liverpool, the combative midfielder made a telling contribution to the Cardiff promotion push, albeit not one that will particularly interest Fantasy managers.
Grujic racked up five yellow cards in 13 league appearances for the Bluebirds, making a key pass on average only once every 140.6 minutes. The Serbian international’s solitary goal came from one of 18 attempts, made at a rate of one every 54.7 minutes.
Aron Gunnarsson (17 starts, 3 substitute appearances, 1 goal, 1 assist)
Cardiff’s long-serving midfielder may have already played his last game for the Bluebirds. The Iceland international is out of contract this summer, having turned down a new deal in November of last year.
Warnock had previously claimed that Gunnarsson might be persuaded to stay should City win promotion to the Premier League, but doubts linger over his future. A strong showing with Iceland in Russia this summer may attract other suitors.
Gunnarsson’s season was blighted by injury, and it was cruelly apt that he should miss the promotion-clinching match against Reading having picked up a knee injury in Cardiff’s penultimate fixture of the season at Hull City.
Even if Gunnarsson was to put pen to paper, his minimal goal and assist potential would render him an unattractive proposition to Fantasy managers.
Loic Damour (18 starts, 9 substitute appearances, 1 assist)
Yet another midfielder whose Fantasy appeal is minimal, Damour’s steel and work rate in the Cardiff engine room failed to translate into attacking returns.
As part of a midfield three or playing further forward in front of the double-pivot, Damour recorded a total of 26 goal attempts without finding the back of the net.
A solitary assist was his only goal contribution.
Callum Paterson (23 starts, 9 substitute appearances, 10 goals, 4 assists)
Utility man Paterson’s curious career metamorphosis continued this season.
Ostensibly a right-back with experience as a forward for Heart of Midlothian, he was shifted into midfield by Warnock midway through the season and demonstrated his striking instincts to finish as Cardiff’s top goalscorer.
Paterson’s ten strikes came from 51 attempts, his goal conversion rate of 19.6% bettering Leroy Sane’s (17.5%) and Eden Hazard’s (16.9%) this season. All ten of his goals came from inside the opposition penalty area, highlighting an ability to get forward and support the City attack.
Paterson’s 6.2 aerial duels won per game was a figure only beaten by Morrison (7.2) in the Cardiff squad, with three of Paterson’s goals coming via headers.
Junior Hoilett (44 starts, 2 substitute appearances, 9 goals, 11 assists)
Playing wide left in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Hoilett is key to Cardiff’s attack. Appearing in all 46 league games, Hoilett supplied more assists (11) than any team-mate and his total of 86 key passes was the seventh-highest in the Championship.
Hoilett’s pass success rate of 69.9% was the best by any Cardiff player to have started more than five games, though his prospects on the Bonus Points System are damaged by the amount of times he is caught on the ball: only four Championship players were dispossessed more times than Hoilett (98) this season.
A total of 92 shots was joint-top in the Cardiff squad, though the former Blackburn winger only registered a goal attempt every 41.4 minutes.
Nathaniel Mendez-Laing (33 starts, 5 substitute appearances, 6 goals, 5 assists)
Playing on the opposite flank to Hoilett, Mendez-Laing’s underlying statistics suggest he is a less appealing Fantasy option than his fellow winger.
While the goal and assist counts are an obvious comparison tool, Mendez-Laing also registers fewer shots per game than Hoilett (51.1 minutes versus 41.4 minutes) and makes fewer key passes (one every 77.3 minutes compared to Hoilett’s one every 44.8 minutes).
Four of Mendez-Laing’s goals were scored in August 2017, with the wide forward then suffering a seven-month goal drought before adding to his tally in March of this year.
Kenneth Zohore (30 starts, 6 substitute appearances, 9 goals, 5 assists)
The spearhead of the Cardiff attack, Zohore is a physical presence whose function is as much to ruffle the opposition defence and provide an out ball than it is to score goals.
Nevertheless, Zohore averaged more shots per game (one every 29.1 minutes) than any Cardiff player this season. That rate of goal attempts bettered the likes of Roberto Firmino (33) and Gabriel Jesus (29.8) this season, albeit in a lesser league.
Despite his towering physique, none of Zohore’s nine league goals came via headers and the Danish striker lost 189 of his 306 aerial battles.
The number of strikers already being linked with a move to City (see below) suggests that a new centre-forward is a priority for Warnock over the summer, so Zohore will surely expect to play a more peripheral role next season.
The Potential Targets
While Cardiff may not feature as prominently in the back pages as free-spending Wolves this summer, Warnock plans to add six new faces to his squad ahead of City’s return to the top flight.
Salomon Rondon has been strongly linked with a move to south Wales, and the West Bromwich Albion striker’s bustling style seems ideally suited to Warnock’s approach. Seven goals in 36 league appearances and a goal conversion rate of 8.9% (one of the worst among Premier League strikers this season) does temper his appeal, however.
Sam Johnstone and Lukasz Fabianski are purported goalkeeping targets, with Warnock keen to provide competition for Neil Etheridge. Johnstone’s total of 20 clean sheets – plus a further two in the play-off semi-finals – was second only to John Ruddy in the Championship this season, while Fabianski racked up more BPS points (772) than any other FPL goalkeeper.
Meanwhile, James McArthur has distanced himself from a move away from Selhurst Park after supposed interest from City.
The centre of midfield is an obvious area where Warnock will be looking to bolster, with Josh Windass a reported target. The Rangers star scored 13 goals in the Scottish Premiership this season.