Lee Tomlin: the gamble Cardiff City simply had to take?

Following the success of the Taffs Well friendly, Cardiff City have now headed on tour to Cornwall. Neil Warnock has taken the bulk of what he considers his first team squad for next season, minus the odd exception due to international commitments, for a week of hard training and three fixtures in five days. Among those on the tour bus is Cardiff’s latest signing, Lee Tomlin. The biggest signing of the summer so far, Tomlin completed the move across the Severn from Bristol City last week. The fee was undisclosed, but it is believed Warnock has spent the bulk of his transfer kitty on the playmaker.


For Warnock, Tomlin is effectively the final piece in the puzzle for next season. He is expected to bring creativity and goals to the side; a player that Warnock believes will add something Cardiff lacked last season: a little bit of subtlety in the final third; the intelligence, touch and technique to unlock opposition defences. Warnock has clearly identified that Cardiff cannot rely entirely on set pieces for a promotion push; Tomlin, therefore, will be expected to pull the strings for the Bluebirds in an advanced midfield role.


There is no doubt City needed this sort of player. It has been a busy summer for City with six other signings besides Tomlin. While some of the summer arrivals make obvious sense, others have the whiff of a punt about them. What Cardiff fans were missing and waiting on was a creative player to replace Peter Whittingham. Given the small budget at Warnock’s disposal, as well as the lack of available playmakers proven at this level, this was always going to be the toughest role to fulfil.


There is no doubt Tomlin arrives as a player of real pedigree. He’s been known around the Championship for years as an extremely talented player, if a somewhat problematic one. In the past there have been accusations about Tomlin’s weight and attitude. Cardiff are Tomlin’s fourth club since he left Peterborough in January 2014, which fuels those concerns Tomlin comes with baggage and discipline issues. Tomlin has stated in the past he isn’t the problem player he is perceived to be, and there are some qualifications around his moves in recent years.


At Middlesbrough he was a revelation, helping turn the club around from also runs into promotion contenders. His move to Bournemouth for the 2015/16 season was a logical one as it involved a step up in level to the Premier League. According to Tomlin, the Bournemouth move never worked out because Eddie Howe’s (the Bournemouth boss) tactical vision for Tomlin was wedded to the fitness of Callum Wilson (who suffered a long-term knee injury in the early weeks of the season). Tomlin made the move to Bristol City in January 2016 because he didn’t want to sit in the stands. Again his influence on the team was immediate:  6 goals in 18 appearances helping the Wurzels avoid relegation. On the back of this form Bristol City broke their transfer record to bring Tomlin to Ashton Gate at the end of the season.


Last season Lee Johnson’s team wooed the league with its early season form and Tomlin was at the heart of it all (6 goals in the first 11 games). It quickly unravelled for Bristol and Johnson and after losing to Cardiff in Warnock’s debut (a game Tomlin scored in), they went on a horrendous run that forced them into another battle for survival. Tomlin was jettisoned in the final weeks of the season, coinciding with an upturn in form for Johnson’s side as they once again escaped the drop. This led to some Bristol City fans declaring on his departure they were a better team without him anyway


It’s a dubious claim given Bristol City played their best football in the first three months of the season when Tomlin was at his peak. Without watching them every week it is impossible to judge, but did Bristol’s decline coincide with Tomlin losing his form, rather than it being the case they functioned better without the playmaker?


Another accusation Bristol fans have aimed at Tomlin in the past week is that he was lazy, unwilling to do his bit for the team off the ball. There may be some element of truth in this; Tomlin acknowledged last season his good form at Ashton Gate was in part due to Lee Johnson’s willingness to let Tomlin do what he wanted. There was no responsibility for him to track back or ‘do his bit for the team’ out of possession, Johnson trusting him to save his energy and hurt the opposition when he had the ball.


This may seem at odds with Warnock’s Cardiff, whose strength last season was their work rate and organisation. Even a player as languid as Peter Whittingham significantly increased the amount of running he did under Warnock last season. Is a player who has been so open about not wanting to put in hard yards for the team really right for the balance of side?


Ultimately, this is a conundrum for Warnock to solve. If there is a precedent to comfort any anxious Cardiff fans it is how well Warnock managed Adel Taarabt when he led QPR to the Championship title (ironically at Cardiff’s expense) in 2011. Warnock built his team around Taarabt, set up in such a way that he wasn’t expected to do any defensive work. The results were devastating as the Moroccan scored 19 goals and was voted Football League Player of the Year.


Tomlin may not quite have the absurd levels of talent the Moroccan possessed, but there are certainly similarities in style and technique; the curious case of Adel Taarabt may well be in Warnock’s thinking here. Further evidence to reject the Wurzel’s anti-Tomlin rhetoric is anecdotal data from Middlesbrough supporters. They loved Tomlin in his time at the Riverside and you struggle to find a bad word said about him. Aitor Karanka (their manager then) managed to get the best out of Tomlin and make him a key component in a side challenging for promotion.


The lingering worry with Tomlin relates to his consistency. Why did his form drop off so alarmingly last season? In part it is probably due to the level of the Bristol City team dropping. That lofty early season position was obviously a false one and their form equalised. That may have had a detrimental effect on Tomlin, but Lee Johnson has eluded to problems caused by Tomlin’s daily commute from Leicester. If this is true it does pose a problem for Cardiff because it’s an extra hour each way. It’s a situation that wouldn’t be ideal for any of the concerned parties, but, again, you would expect it is something a man of Warnock’s vast experience would have taken into consideration – especially as Tomlin has been his ‘number one target’ for a long time.


The Tomlin deal does bring a certain amount of risk, but so does every transfer. The worry for Cardiff fans will be that Warnock has practically blown his budget on Tomlin, so he’s kind of putting all his eggs in one basket – and it’s a basket that may not be as sturdy as it appears at first glance. Nevertheless, it is a gamble that is perfectly understandable from Warnock’s point of view. You could argue it’s a gamble he could not refuse.


When it came to such a key player in the team, Warnock was never going to seek out a project. He will only have at most another 1-2 seasons at Cardiff, so he needs players he believes can come in and do the job from day one. Tomlin comes with plenty of experience and a proven track record in the Championship.


On top of this there is a lack of this type of player available to Cardiff within their financial model. If Cardiff go up on the back of Warnock’s investment in Tomlin then he’s pulled off a considerable coup for the Bluebirds. If it doesn’t work out, while the outlay is believed to be above anything Cardiff have spent post-Solskjaer, it has clearly been budgeted for. This deal won’t cripple Cardiff financially.


Cardiff also need a playmaker. Peter Whittingham’s departure leaves a massive hole in terms of creativity, but as good as Whittingham was, even his influence rarely extended beyond set plays in his final seasons. Tomlin brings exactly what Cardiff have lost without Whittingham, but he also brings some extra that Whittingham didn’t provide: dribbling ability, close control, cuteness and imagination in tight spaces, that ability to create something completely out of the ordinary.


From a fan’s point of view Tomlin brings a potential for entertainment that makes him a worthwhile gamble. It has been many years since Cardiff have possessed a truly flair player in the team; the sort of player that gets you off your feet and gives you a reason to want to go to the game. Last season Kenneth Zohore brought some of that back to Cardiff with some goals of breathtaking individual brilliance. Tomlin will add to that and is probably the first true pretender to Jason Koumas’ crown as Cardiff’s last great entertainer.


Tomlin and Zohore is definitely an exciting combination, when you add in to the mix Danny Ward, Junior Hoilett, Kadeem Harris – and potentially Idriss Saadi and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing too – suddenly Warnock’s roll of the dice makes more likely a stronger outcome.