Cardiff City are through to the second round of the League Cup (aka the Carabao Cup) after a win over League One side Portsmouth. Greg Halford was the unlikely hero; his powerful strike deep into extra time saving the Bluebirds’ blushes. The result means the Bluebirds maintain their 100% winning start to the season and, if you really want to stretch it out, provides a modicum of revenge for City’s 2008 FA Cup Final defeat to Pompey.
In front of a lively crowd of 6,592 – Cardiff’s highest League Cup attendance in five years – the Bluebirds laboured to victory against a side promoted from League Two last season. Neil Warnock made eight changes to the starting XI ahead of the weekend’s visit of Aston Villa, the match providing a useful run-out for a number of squad players, as well as providing answers to questions about a few others.
For the second game in a row Cardiff started very slowly. It would be easy to put this down to the number of changes and the fact this XI had no previous experience of playing together in a competitive match (Cardiff gave full competitive debuts to Danny Ward and Loic Damour). It was a very disjointed first half performance littered with individual mistakes all over the pitch. Although Cardiff seemed set up in a notional 4-4-2 (Tomlin and Kennedy out wide, Pilkington and Ward up front) it is difficult to discern what tactical approach City were taking. There was little in the way of build up play and therefore no penetration in the final third. Contrast that with Portsmouth who played with a clear purpose and sense that every player knew exactly what they were trying to do. Organised out of possession and looking to build through midfield with the ball using short passes; Pompey outplayed Cardiff at times and fully deserved their half time lead.
The first half performance was evidently down to sloppiness – from both the players and the management. There was a clear sense in that first half that Cardiff’s XI was just thrown together. With Lee Tomlin stranded out wide, Pilkington and Ward anonymous and no-one looking to take the ball off the back four and initiating build up play, there was little pattern of play and Cardiff (Sean Morrison especially) resorted to launching speculative long balls up the pitch.
At half time Warnock hauled off Pilkington and introduced Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Cardiff switched to 4-2-3-1 and instantly looked better balanced with natural width on each flank and Lee Tomlin operating where he should: in the number 10 position. The impact was more or less immediate as Tomlin was able to get on the ball in better positions and feed the wide players. The equaliser came inside the first four minutes of the first half: Tomlin spreading the ball wide to Kennedy on the left, he crossed for his opposite winger to tap in at the far post. Cardiff totally dominated the second half with Tomlin’s creativity and the endeavour of Kennedy (in particular) and Mendez-Laing on the wings creating almost constant pressure and several chances.
On a positive note, the second half at least showed that Cardiff do have a few players beyond the first XI that can influence matches. Mendez-Laing looks a real find and he has made a big impact off the bench in Cardiff’s opening matches. Kennedy was fantastic in the second half, beating his marker at will and getting some decent balls into the box. He could have had a couple of goals too, and will certainly be disappointed he didn’t get at least one. Nevertheless, he looks ready to finally step up from the under 23s and become a regular part of the first team squad this season. The young Scot should take a lot of confidence from this showing.
We’ve also learnt from the first two games that Warnock is not just a ‘Plan A man’. That certainly seemed to be the case last season as Cardiff always set up 4-5-1 and rarely deviated from that. Already this season we’ve season three at the back, three up front and 4-4-2, to name but a few of the variations. It shows that a) Warnock has better options this season and b) that we can expect to see a plan B, maybe even a plan C and beyond this season. This is something Cardiff have lacked for many years: a manager with the nous and personality to take risks and make game-changing decisions when it is clearly not going very well.
On the other side of the coin, Warnock needs to get a firm hold of these slow starts. At the start of a season you can expect a side to be operating at less than 100% of its potential. It takes time for players and pattern of play to bed in, for full match fitness to be obtained and the fluidity or coherence of a well-functioning side to take shape. However, this pattern of Cardiff starting slow or passively goes back further than the first two games of this season.
There were a number of games last season, under Warnock, when Cardiff put in fairly sleepy or sloppy first half displays, only for half-time to be the catalyst for invigorated second half displays. It could be down a tactical risk aversion early in matches, but if Cardiff are going to do anything this season they do need to stamp themselves on games much earlier. There are much sterner tests than Burton and Portsmouth to come.
Craig Noone played no part against Portsmouth – he wasn’t even named on the bench. Warnock revealed after the match this was to prevent him falling foul of the rule that states a player cannot play for more than two clubs in a season. If a permanent transfer cannot be arranged, Warnock’s preference is for a short-term loan as it leaves the door open for Noone to return in January if necessary. If he plays for Cardiff before a loan can be arranged, any deal will have to be for the duration of the season.
While it is pretty ominous for Noone, the selection of Anthony Pilkington and Stuart O’Keefe is equally revealing as it seems they are not entirely surplus to requirements. It is unclear what is going on with O’Keefe. He is Cardiff’s fourth central midfielder, it is worth keeping him around as cover, but he has been linked with several clubs over the summer. What City can’t do is let him go at the last minute without a replacement. It is a bit of stretch trying to get through a season with just three central midfielders (Greg Halford does not count).
As for Pilkington, his half-time substitution was a pretty damning review of his performance. After all, Warnock could have made the same tactical adjustment but switched Pilkington to the wing. He is a player that divides opinion among City fans: some see a talented player who hasn’t quite fulfilled his potential at Cardiff; others see an average player who occasionally does something spectacular. There is no doubt Pilkington can be a match winner on his day; the problem is that day comes around about ever three months. A team aiming for promotion needs more than that. Pilkington has probably become stale at Cardiff and a move would suit all parties. But if, like Noone, he’s on a good wage, how on earth are City going to get rid?
Aston Villa come to the Cardiff City Stadium this weekend. It will be an intriguing battle and as Steve Bruce’s side are among the promotion favourites, it should prove a good barometer of Cardiff’s own credentials. Of course, the season doesn’t rest on this one game and whatever the result, no City fan should get carried away.
Warnock’s tactical approach will be interesting, whether he continues with three at the back as he started the Burton game, or instead gravitates more towards the shape Cardiff finished the Burton game with, or the more attacking system used in the second half against Portsmouth; maybe he’ll go back to the 4-5-1 that so successfully stifled Aston Villa in the home fixture last season (with Gunnarson and Bamba operating as stoppers in front of the back four).
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic though. Aston Villa looked vulnerable to pace in their draw with Hull at the weekend, with Frazier Campbell’s clever movement more than once exposing the lack of mobility John Terry has these days. That channel between Terry and left back Neil Taylor is definitely one Cardiff could target, especially on the counter attack when Taylor is likely to have advanced high up field. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing is exactly the sort of direct and aggressive runner who could exploit any space down the right hand side.
As they clung on for victory at Colchester tonight, Villa didn’t look comfortable with a succession of balls launched into the box. An aerial bombardment is one way to go and last season Villa really struggled against Cardiff’s physical approach. However, John Terry was rested for the Colchester game and you would think with him in the side, Villa would be much better equipped to deal with the high balls.
Whatever happens, it will be a fantastic occasion. While the football was scrappy, the Villa game was one of the best atmospheres at City last season. They are supposedly bringing a large contingent of fans again, and with Cardiff starting with a win and aiming for a good campaign let’s hope there’s an even better turnout than last season and even more noise.