Where has the cutting edge gone? Stodgy Millwall draw continues trend towards Cardiff decline (a bit on Vincent Tan too)

After a month without a home game Cardiff’s draw with Millwall was hardly worth the wait and will not live long in the memory of many fans of either side. Many Cardiff fans were unhappy with the referee, while others bemoaned Millwall’s ‘strangle’ or ‘parking the bus’. In reality the visitors did neither. They did come with a plan to be hard to beat, but should this surprise anyone given Cardiff’s home form and position in the league? Cardiff didn’t do enough to win the game – irrespective of the referee’s performance – and Millwall had as much of the game as the Bluebirds. Neither side was particular inspired on the day though and a bore draw was about what both sides merited.


The point against Millwall comes off the back a one win and one defeat from an away double header. Four points from the three games probably feels a bit underwhelming, but is probably something City fans would have taken at the start of the season. There are a number of talking points that have come out of these games, so let’s get on with it.


Missing cutting edge


After the game Neil Warnock accepted Cardiff didn’t do enough to win the game, citing missed chances as the main problem. Cardiff did create some clear cut chances in the first half, denied by three excellent saves from Millwall keeper Jordan Archer.


However, in general Cardiff lacked cutting edge in the final third. Early in the second half there was a lot of bluster from the Bluebirds, but little in the way of creativity. To the best of my recollection, I think Cardiff’s first shot on target in the second half came in the 86th minute, when Lee Tomlin decided to take matters into his hands, producing a superb individual run and drive that forced another good stop from Archer.


It could be pointed out that Cardiff missed injured Kenneth Zohore in the final third, but let’s be honest the big Dane hasn’t really been setting the division alight quite like he did last season and 3 goals in 12 starts in the league this season testifies that. Would Zohore have taken those chances Danny Ward failed to? On this season’s form I am not convinced.


Cardiff’s problem is more widespread and they are not producing the same number of quality chances they were early in the season. Some statistical analysis picks this up and points to some trends that should be a cause for concern for the Bluebirds.


Stats show general decline


Throughout the season Warnock has been at pains to eschew possession stats and instead point to the fact Cardiff have more shots than any other side. Going into the last international break, Cardiff were more or less there, just 0.1 shots behind Brentford who led the division. Brentford continue to do so with an average 17.9 shots on goal per game, while Cardiff have slipped to 4th with 14.4 shots per game. This has come after just 7 shots on goal (0 on target) at Birmingham, 9 (3) at Middlesbrough and 13 (4) against Millwall.


This decline in attacking prowess is confirmed by just one goal in the last four matches, that was Joe Ralls’ penalty at Middlesbrough. The Bluebirds haven’t scored in open play for 391 minutes (since Zohore scored Cardiff’s 3rd v Leeds). Cardiff have only conceded once in those four games so the defensive solidity is what’s keeping the Bluebirds afloat at the moment.


All of this may be reflected in Cardiff’s ever decreasing points per game (ppg) average from month to month. After a perfect August the Bluebirds averaged 3.00 ppg (5 matches), it was halved to 1.5 in September (6 matches), in October City are down to 1.33 ppg (3 matches). Of course, Warnock’s side were never going to continue the 3.00 ppg average, but the level of decline should be a cause for concern.


Too negative? Well there are still three more matches in October so that average could yet improve.


That explosive August does feel a long way away though. In the nine games since defeating QPR 2-1, the only performance that has come close to those heady days was the home victory over Leeds. Cardiff simply haven’t hit the same heights enough since that explosive first month of the season.


Five at the back?


Warnock went with five at the back against Millwall, presumably after its success in helping the Bluebirds achieve a 1-0 win at much-fancied Middlesbrough the previous weekend.


It’s a system that has always been on the cards, and expected, when Callum Paterson returned to fitness. Very much a forward-going full back/wing back, with three centre backs it would provide more security for the Scotsman’s forays up the field.


When Paterson did come on to make his home debut (following injury to Joe Bennett) it looked more like a 3-4-3 with both Paterson and Lee Peltier (switched to the left) playing high up the field from Neil Etheridge’s long kicks. Paterson played most of the second half as a right winger with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing apparently given a much freer role.


For the first half hour (before Paterson’s introduction) Cardiff looked ill at ease with the system. When Paul Trollope tried using five at the back last season it failed miserably due to a number of factors. Both Bruno Manga and Sean Morrison struggled under Trollope, Manga especially looking unsure as a wide centre back and defensive mistakes and disorganisation at the back were characteristic of a woeful start to last season.


The evidence from Saturday suggests the same problems exist. All three of Cardiff’s central defenders seem much more comfortable in their roles as part of a centre back pairing and under Warnock any combination of Morrison, Bamba and Manga has served the team well. It was quite alarming then how many unforced, individual errors were committed by Cardiff’s centre backs yesterday.


Bamba and Manga were guilty of sloppy back passes that should have led to Millwall scoring on both occasions. There were a number of positional errors at times that were uncharacteristic and, unless this was a bad day at the office, can only be put down to the strangeness of playing as a centre back trio.


Even beyond these issues, you have to question why Cardiff were playing with five designated defenders at home to Millwall. These are the games that Cardiff have to be winning if the club are serious about challenging for promotion and were these not the sort of games Warnock signed Lee Tomlin to play a pivotal role in – the playmaker there to unlock deep lying defences?


Yet Cardiff remain in the mix


Despite a disappointing performance, Cardiff remain 3rd with only Sheffield United of the top six at the start of the weekend managing to win. The positive is that even if Cardiff haven’t been playing too well in the last six weeks or so, they have still been picking up points along the way.


It appears too that this season the Championship is as open a contest as it has been in years. There are no teams that really stand out or look like they are going to run away with it. At different times supporters of Leeds and Wolves fancied themselves as 100-pointers. However, Leeds have lost 4 of the 5 matches since they went top in September; Wolves have been beaten 3 times already – by both Cardiff and Sheffield United too.


Unlike last season when you had Newcastle who spent tens of millions and had one of the most successful managers in European football in the past 15 years spearheading their campaign, and Brighton, for whom promotion was only a matter of time after years of steady progress and several near misses. Last season those two clubs led the division more or less from the start; the gap between them and the rest rammed home their dominance.


Maybe one or two clubs will go and take the bull by the horns over the winter months, but at the moment you’re looking at 8-10 clubs who will still fancy their chances and there is nothing to separate them. The evidence I have seen so far is that the Championship is as much a muchness as it has ever been. There are no exceptional teams and the division this season is very much defined by its competitiveness rather than its quality.


We want to see better performances from City, but if they can keep ticking over, picking up enough points over the remainder of the season at an average of a shade over 1.5 ppg they should be there or thereabouts with the top six at the finale.


Tan in the house


Vincent Tan was in attendance for the Millwall game. Given I don’t get into the stadium until shortly before kick-off I missed the owner’s reported parade around the ground. Actually, by the looks of it, he largely stuck close to his comfort zone in front of the Grandstand glad hands with a brief foray towards the Canton End.


WalesOnline are reporting he received a warm reception from 17000 (Cardiff fans) in attendance. A slight exaggeration since a lot of Cardiff fans are either not in the ground or don’t take up their seats until more or less 3pm, so it is very unlikely if not impossible that every Cardiff fan witnessed Tan’s ‘homecoming’. The fact that it also wasn’t announced over through the stadium’s PA system (confirmed by Paul Abbandonato) suggests many of those applauding were probably unaware exactly who they were applauding.


Nevertheless, it does seem WalesOnline have now thrown their full weight in support of Tan, prompting an article that suggests Cardiff fans have forgiven and forgotten the Malaysian’s past transgressions and all is rosy in the relationship. It should come as no surprise, the organisation have always been opportunistic in their position on the Cardiff owner; first demanding all fans get behind the rebrand before claiming to lead the campaign ‘back to blue’ two and half years later once it was clear the red kit could no longer be tolerated.


As for forgiving Tan, it just isn’t as easy as saying ‘he brought in Neil Warnock’. There are plenty of apologists out there who take this line and want to remind you how Tan ‘saved the club’ or was badly advised regarding the rebrand. However, his disrespectful and bitter attitude towards those Cardiff fans committed to seeing their club play in blue speaks volumes for his true thoughts and intentions. Nothing can take away the words and the threats he made, the way he trampled over the club’s heritage and spouted all that ‘lucky red’ nonsense to satisfy his own ego.


Concessions have to be made that things have improved, but given the appointments of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Russell Slade and Paul Trollope by Tan and the board who represent him, I would say bringing in Neil Warnock owed more to luck than the good judgement of these people – especially Tan.


What I will say the club finally have some people inside who are committed, passionate and seem to care about the fanbase again. There has been a lot of good PR work coming out of the club in the past couple of years; not quite enough to bridge the disconnect the rebrand created, but I do believe it is getting better.


As for Tan: for my own part I will let bygones be bygones for the sake of moving forward. In that sense had I been in the ground when he was ‘paraded’ to the fans I wouldn’t have booed or jeered, but I certainly would not have stood and applauded that man.


Forgive and forget? No chance. We already sold our soul once, why so quick to do so again?