Cardiff City don’t usually travel very well to Preston North End, so Tuesday night’s defeat at Deepdale didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Given Cardiff had started the season so well, unbeaten and top of the league after six games, the manner of the defeat was shocking: Cardiff were thoroughly outplayed on the back an abject performance, littered with individual errors and a lack of any sort of team cohesion. It was alarmingly similar to the visit to the same ground last season, when Paul Trollope’s clueless Cardiff were thrashed on a autumn Tuesday night.
Taken in isolation not much can be read from the Preston result. It was one poor performance against six good ones (or maybe five and a half) and Cardiff’s recent record at Deepdale is woeful with only 2 wins in the last fifteen years and the three most recent defeats prior to Tuesday being heavy ones (3-0, 6-0, 3-0).
One poor performance doesn’t destroy the positive start Cardiff have made, although alongside the 100% winning record lost at the weekend with that scrambled draw at Fulham, this defeat has certainly tarnished any veneer of invincibility Neil Warnock’s side may have had. These first two games since the international break have confirmed my concern prior to it, that the break would serve to halt the momentum City had built during August. Still, 16 points from the first seven games represents fantastic value and few but the most optimistic Bluebirds fans would have predicted such a haul.
The nature of the Championship means that any team can turnover any side on any given day, especially this season where there appears to be no outstanding team. Cardiff don’t suddenly become an average side after one heavy loss. If you need reminding or further evidence for ignoring individual results, last season’s play-off winners Huddersfield were beaten 5-0 at Fulham early on and they also conceded six goals in two defeats to Cardiff. Additionally, play-off finalists Reading were beaten 5-0 and 7-1 at Fulham and Norwich respectively; while Fulham were thrashed 4-0 at home to Bristol City. It’s the Championship – anything can happen!
Cardiff’s result at Preston isn’t the concern as much as the performance. On its own you just write it off as a bad day at the office, but Saturday’s draw at Fulham was also noteworthy for the significant drop in performance level from August. Prior to the international break Cardiff simply ran all over their opponents and the nature of their physical, aggressive and direct play had some pundits lauding the fitness work that was done in pre-season. Suddenly we’re into the second week of September and Cardiff’s energy levels look depleted.
Fulham are probably the best team with the ball in the league, so a certain amount of leggyness is to be expected lining up against a team that looks to grind opponents down through sheer volume of passes and the work-rate that is demanded to organise and circumvent their slick football. Preston was the second away game in three days, but should Cardiff really be looking as flat as they did at Preston this early in the season? During the international break Cardiff lost few first team regulars and only Aron Gunnarson played twice for his country.
Neil Warnock apportioned the blame to himself, recognising his players looked tired even before the game but unwilling to make changes to a side that hadn’t lost. Warnock’s consistency of selection means seven Cardiff players have started every game, the workload then has been intense for those players. Nevertheless, it is September and Preston was just the seventh of a forty-six game season. Again you have to ask: should Cardiff really be feeling the strain so early in the season?
Steve Claridge – as the BBC’s Football League pundit – used to say you could be top of the league after five games on luck alone. I don’t believe Cardiff had a lucky August. Sure they got slices of fortune along the way, but generally they were the better side in every one of the first five games. Each win was deserved, but it could simply have been the case that Cardiff were the fastest out of the blocks, while a lot of teams used the first five games to find their stride. Only time will tell whether Cardiff’s early season form was just that, but it would be a terrible shame if did burn themselves out after just five games.
The problem turns to whether Warnock now rotates for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend. In Wednesday Cardiff will face another side that looks to dominate possession of the ball, so another big running shift can be expected for the Bluebirds, especially as Warnock has built this team into a primarily counter-attacking one. If the XI that started at Preston were spent, should the manager consider bringing some additional running power into the side. After all, wasn’t much of the summer’s transfer activity about building a squad, providing options beyond the favoured first XI? At Fulham the bench had a positive impact, turning a defeat into a draw, so is it no time to bring some of the reserves in and give one or two key players a rest.
Changing in the personnel is not the only solution. While I understand Warnock has built Cardiff into a counter-attacking outfit, looking to exploit transitions with the pace of Zohore, Hoilet and, in particular, Mendez-Laing going forward, is it really feasible for Cardiff to sustain these huge running loads over a forty-six game season? Cardiff’s possession share (as %) in their first seven league games was (in order) 47, 35, 40, 36, 51, 36, 45 – that’s an average of 41%. In short it means Cardiff spend a lot of time using energy to deny the opposition. Given their main attacking threat is through explosive counter-attacks, it’s a game-plan that puts huge demands on the bodies of the players.
Before the season started I noted that Warnock had to find a way to improve Cardiff’s share of possession in general. It doesn’t mean Cardiff have to become a possession-oriented team, but a share closer to 50% would significantly reduce the amount of time Cardiff players spend running around. At times Cardiff have been brutally efficient going forward, but at the same time they have also looked unable or willing to keep the ball for prolonged periods of control.
If Warnock does rotate two players that seem to have come under scrutiny this week are Kenneth Zohore and Neil Etheridge.
The idea of Zohore being dropped or rested after seven games is almost unfathomable and you wouldn’t have found many punters for any price on that at the start of the season. The Dane was outstanding in August without getting his reward in terms of goals. At Fulham and Preston he was effectively marked out of the game and unable to produce many of his trademark powerful bursts. With just one goal to his name and on a six-game goal drought, suddenly there are Cardiff fans questioning whether it is time for Zohore to spend a game or two on the bench with Danny Ward (the goal scorer at Fulham) given a chance bring a new lease of life to the attack.
I can’t imagine Warnock dropping or resting Zohore unless he’s injured. He’s such a lynchpin of the Cardiff attack and while I believe Ward will prove to be a good player for Cardiff, he doesn’t really offer the same skill set or level of physicality the Danish forward does. There is a possibility of pairing Ward with Zohore in a 4-4-2, but for this game I feel that is unlikely. Zohore has been too important and too consistent for Cardiff for the best part of twelve months now; for that, at least, he deserves the faith of being retained in the side. You get the sense it is just a matter of time before the goals start to flow again for Big Ken.
Etheridge, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the luxury of being a talismanic figure in the side. The goalkeeper has generally looked fairly sound at the basics of keeping the ball out of the net: he’s a very athletic shot-stopper and has already made more than one key save for the Bluebirds this season. However, his judgement looks ropey and already he has made enough errors that it’s close to averaging one per game. In August he was only punished for one – at home to QPR – but at Preston he came under a certain volume of criticism.
Ultimately, Etheridge, like all Cardiff goalkeepers, will suffer with standing in the shadow of David Marshall – at least until the memory of the former captain’s exceptional seven years at the club is somewhat diminished. The wisdom out there states Cardiff never really replaced Marshall. This is true, but it’s also obvious to the point of being a vapid observation: you don’t replace a Premier League standard goalkeeper in the Championship when you are operating with Cardiff’s budget.
Marshall was an outstanding goalkeeper but he also made mistakes, especially in his first few season before he became firmly established as Cardiff’s unconditional number one. Lee Camp is an alternative with vast experience at this level and his squad number suggests he was signed as Warnock’s first choice. Injury means he hasn’t yet appeared for Cardiff, therefore Etheridge is currently the man in possession.
I don’t believe players should be dropped on the back of one poor game, and it is harsh to drop the Preston defeat on the goalkeeper’s doorstep. Etheridge’s general performance level so far means he deserves the chance to put those errors behind him before being expected to play back-up to Camp. Ben Amos was given adequate opportunity to ‘make up’ for the errors that saw him dropped as Cardiff’s goalkeeper last season. Etheridge is an upgrade on the ex-loanee, so deserves, at the very least, an equal opportunity.