It is not very often you get to witness history being made. That is exactly what Neil Warnock’s team tonight as they became the first ever Cardiff City side to win their first three league games in a season. That is an astonishing statistic when you consider the Bluebirds have been playing league football for almost 100 years. In that time 13 promotions, yet none saw a Cardiff City team win the first three league games of a season. Even better, Cardiff haven’t conceded a league goal yet.
Three matches, three wins, none conceded.
Top of the League.
While it lasts City fans have to enjoy it and while it continues there will be the weekly urge not to get carried away. Excited, yes, but not carried away. Nobody wins the league in August and we have all seen Cardiff start well in the past only to crash hard and fast later in the season.
The excitement is genuine and it is justified. It has been a long time since Cardiff fans have seen their team play with as much conviction and threat as this current side appears to. The past few years have been a mixture of the cautious and inept – from Russell Slade to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Even going back to Malky Mackay; it was a successful brand of football, but it wasn’t exciting; predicated on spoiling and set play proficiency.
Having achieved survival last season with an equally negative style focused on grinding out results and points, the early evidence from this season is that Warnock is much more prepared for his side to attack. The players look fitter, more aggressive and willing to take more risks than they did last season. The average position of Cardiff’s full backs is noticeably more aggressive this season and against Sheffield United tonight Warnock fielded four players who are essentially flair players. It is encouraging that Warnock is also getting these players to put in big shifts too, but essentially the front four of Zohore, Tomlin, Mendez-Laing and Hoilett are selected on the basis of their attacking virtues, rather than what they bring to team shape.
The foundation supporting this is Cardiff’s solid looking spine combining Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison’s physicality at the back with the endeavour and selflessness of Aron Gunnarson and Joe Ralls at the base of midfield. The early signs are that Warnock has put together a side well-balanced between attack and defence. The structure is there to ensure solidity (a Championship essential) with several genuine match winners leading the attack. It is a potent combination and while Cardiff may lack the squad depth of other clubs, if Warnock can keep the bulk of his squad fit and in form there are enough options to allow variety of selection as the situation commands.
For example: against Aston Villa Loic Damour started in a midfield set up to overwhelm Aston Villa’s build up play and launch quick counter attacks in the spaces between centre back and full back where Villa’s centre backs were dragged wide and exposed to the Cardiff’s quick forwards. Tonight, against an opposition expected to sit back, Lee Tomlin was given the nod as a more creative player capable of unlocking compact defences.
Speaking of Lee Tomlin, there were glimpses tonight of what he can bring to this team. Technically Tomlin is as good as anybody playing at this level; his touch and vision are head and shoulders above anybody else – especially in the Cardiff team. Given the frenetic pace of the Championship, you rarely see players taking the time to look around, or seemingly having the time to look, receive, look again, then make the pass. Tomlin has fantastic spatial awareness and always seems to have a picture in his mind of the play and how it will develop. In the hustle and bustle of the midfield battle, he always seems to have that extra second others do not. As gifted as Peter Whittingham was, it is questionable whether his awareness was as good as Tomlin’s.
Playing in the number 10 position, Tomlin was good tonight, showing off some his talent with brilliant touches and passes here and there. It didn’t come off every time and the relationship between Tomlin and Zohore needs some fine-tuning, but the City number seven is one of those players who is always trying to make something happen. Yes, his shooting radar was awry tonight (he probably should have scored a hat-trick), but in terms of the conviction, work-rate and the positive ideas in his play, Tomlin was top notch. He fully deserved the applause he received when substituted.
Tomlin was just one of a number of strong performances tonight. Sean Morrison provided the breakthrough with a stereotypically powerful header from a set piece, but it is his defensive work that has been most notable so far this season. The usual lapses have not yet surfaced and he looks a picture of focus and concentration, providing quiet leadership through his unfussy displays.
Junior Hoilett is another who has improved greatly: he looks fitter, hungrier and is now beating players at will (sometimes two or three at a time), creating chances, getting the crowd off their feet. He appears to be happier too; confident, expressive and engaged in the team, rather than the player who seemed to drift through matches last season.
Aron Gunnarson – what is there to be said about this absolute monster of a man that would do his performances justice? It speaks volumes for his consistency under Warnock that you just take for granted that Gunnarson gave another eight out of ten performance shielding the defence.
What about Sol Bamba? Have Cardiff ever had a central defender as good as the Ivorian?
Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. Well he only went and did it again, scoring another wonder goal. How did Cardiff sign this guy on a free transfer from Rochdale? This player came from League One for crying out loud! Mendez-Laing has already given Cardiff fans more moments of joy in three matches than all the Robbie Fowlers, Andreas Cornelius’, Rickie Lamberts, Adam Le Fondres and all the other wastes of time and money Cardiff have signed down the years combined – and he didn’t cost the club a penny!
Then there is Joe Ralls who has suddenly turned into a super-fit, athletic, all-action midfielder; exemplary in his endless fetching and carrying of the ball, the continuity player in Cardiff’s midfield knitting together phases of build up play. There was a time when it was questionable what Ralls brought to the team; the Joe Ralls that has evolved under Warnock’s management is one you couldn’t imagine the Cardiff team without.
On and on we could go…
This run won’t continue; of course it won’t. These players are fallible and mistakes and losses will come. However, it at last looks like a team; one with a clear plan and understanding of what they are trying to achieve and every player committed to their role in that team. This is all Cardiff City fans want, to be able to go and watch their team and know what they are all about, as well as having players and a manager they believe in.
The feel good factor is certainly back at Cardiff City and now is the time, as Warnock says, for everyone who has any feeling for the club to get on board. Tonight’s crowd is further evidence that something is shifting. Just short of 18,000 doesn’t sound fantastic for a club with Cardiff’s catchment; but last season this game would have drawn an attendance figure somewhere between 14-15000.
Build it and they will come. That is exactly what Neil Warnock is doing and anyone who has seen the last two games will testify to this being a team going in the right direction and trying to play the game in a positive way. One day Cardiff fans may get bored of telling themselves what a brilliant football man Neil Warnock is – but I doubt it because he’s fucking fantastic!
He really gets this club, understands its heart and soul to the core and Cardiff City fans need to lap up and savour every single second he’s our manager because we probably won’t get another like him for a long, long time.