Cardiff’s opening day win points to the power of Cardiff’s bench

It was winning start to the season for Cardiff City. Not quite flying, but a win nonetheless. Kenneth Zohore was the match winner again, suggesting that he’s lost none of the touch he discovered last season. While a win at Burton on the opening day hardly means you become world-beaters overnight, it has changed the perception slightly. Before Saturday nobody was talking about Cardiff City and promotion (outside of City fans at least), but last night came some recognition when ex-England international Michael Gray told Colin Murray on Channel Five’s Championship highlights show he thinks the Bluebirds are promotion ‘dark horses’.

Even if it would be cautious not to get carried away with just a single, narrow win at a team almost universally tipped to go down, it is a great start for Cardiff: a first opening day win since 2012. It ensures the momentum that has been building over the summer isn’t lost and for next week’s visit of promotion favourites Aston Villa the club has every right to expect a bumper crowd. Villa will be bringing the best part of 5000 fans and following Warnock’s rallying cry last week and this opening day win, Cardiff and the Valleys needs to get out in force and ensure there’s as close to 30,000 inside the Cardiff City Stadium next Saturday.

I wasn’t at the game itself, but from the media reports and the first-hand accounts I have collected it seems like it was a fairly scratchy Cardiff performance. Warnock went with 3 at the back and wing backs with Junior Hoilett and Lee Tomlin in the space behind Zohore up front. On paper it didn’t look a particularly balanced side. Lee Peltier is not a naturally attacking full back and while he is a top professional who will always do his best with the task he’s given, marauding up and down the flank is really not his game. Without seeing the game, I can’t really comment on the movement of Hoilett and Tomlin, but the accounts I got from the game suggested Tomlin in particularly – bar a few touches here and there – struggled to get into the game.

The difference came when Warnock made tactical substitutions just after the hour. Tomlin and Manga were hauled off and replaced by Loic Damour and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. Damour brought composure, energy and an intelligent use of the ball to the field and Mendez-Laing natural width and greater balance as Cardiff switched to a notional 4-3-3. Cardiff were in the ascendancy after that and the winning strike eventually came.

As much as you can draw from one match, there are several things to consider. Firstly, if Warnock is going to use 3 at the back, realistically this is only going to work when he’s got the right personnel available to him. Lee Peltier is no wing back and while I understand Warnock wanting the defensive assurance he brings (especially away from home), this role is better suited to Callum Paterson or Jazz Richards. Paterson seems the most natural fit because he is an attacking player, but he’s still injured. In the meantime, I would always go with Richards as a wing back. He’s played that role successfully in the past and while he’s doesn’t excel either as a purely attacking or defensive full back, he is a decent all-rounder and has a fantastic engine. Along with Zohore, he was arguably Cardiff’s most improved player in the second half of last season. The alternative is to leave 3 at the back well alone until Paterson is up and running.

The second consideration is how Warnock is going to get the best out of Tomlin. The playmaker is very much someone you have to accommodate, so Warnock has to find the right system that benefits Tomlin but also works for the team. The impact of Damour complicates things further because City improved with three players in central midfield and this is increasingly the way sides in the Championship are going (especially at the top end), using three central midfielders to squeeze and control the middle of the park. Tomlin doesn’t bring enough work rate or mobility to play as one of a three and doesn’t seem like a natural fit as a wide player in a 4-3-3.

That said, the early evidence suggests that Warnock may not be wedded to a particular system this season. Given Warnock’s strength is man-management, rather than tactical innovation, the lazy assumption is that he has a particular system in mind and gets the best from the players in that system. Last season this was very much the case as Cardiff set up 4-5-1 in every game bar the 5-0 thrashing of Rotherham. However, the signings Warnock has made over the summer allows for much greater flexibility and the suggestion from Burton is that Warnock may be adopting a ‘horses for courses’ approach rather than sticking to a set system. This is entirely feasible since Warnock’s management career has reflected pragmatism rather than continuity of style, but it’s a hypothesis that remains to be proven.

The tentative evidence this does provide is that Warnock has better options this season. After the match Warnock commented after the game this was a big difference from last season: there were options on the bench that allowed Warnock to try and change the match in a positive way; whereas last season he was looking at the bench and seeing very little. On occasions he didn’t even name the full allocation of substitutes or filled the bench with academy players.

Of course it’s very early days and we will be in a better position to assess all of this by the time the first international break comes along. By then Cardiff would have played at least 6 league and cup games and there should be a much clearer picture of how the Bluebirds are shaping up. For now let’s just enjoy the opening day win and look forward to three home games in a week. Wouldn’t three wins be nice?

One last thing, last time Cardiff won on the opening day of the season it was also a 1-0 win courtesy of a late goal against a team expected to struggle. What happened that season?