DO THEY HAVE WHAT IT T AKES TO ST AY In THE PRE­MIER LEAGUE THIS TIME?

Australian Four Four Two - - PREMIER LEAGUE -

A lot’s changed at Cardiff since 2013-14. Five years ago, their long-awaited Pre­mier League de­but saw one man­ager sacked fol­low­ing an off-field scan­dal, an­other ex­posed as so tac­ti­cally naive that his big break also ru­ined his coach­ing ca­reer, and the whole sorry mess painted on a can­vas of red shirts. Cardiff lost long-term fans to that ill-ad­vised iden­tity swap, and even good me­mories – beat­ing Manch­ester City 3-2 in the first home match; nick­ing a last-gasp draw with Manch­ester United – are stained crim­son. But now, red is dead and re­demp­tion is here. The Blue­birds are back in blue and back in the top flight, Neil Warnock hav­ing taken them from sec­ond-bot­tom to sec­ond within 18 months. After a dif­fi­cult, di­vi­sive few sea­sons, there’s pos­i­tiv­ity (“I don’t know any fans who don’t like me,” claims Warnock, away sup­port­ers not­with­stand­ing). Even Vin­cent Tan seems less evil.

Of course, seren­ity doesn’t guar­an­tee safety. On the pitch, there are con­cerns that Cardiff’s style – a word their crit­ics wouldn’t use – won’t be as ef­fec­tive in the Pre­mier League. Last sea­son, only three Cham­pi­onship teams had less pos­ses­sion than Cardiff: Mill­wall (8th), Bolton (21st) and Bur­ton (23rd). Warnock’s men found a team-mate with a league-low 60 per cent of passes. Fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally, it doesn’t look good.

How­ever, los­ing the ball with two in ev­ery five passes is a by-prod­uct of their big strength: get­ting it for­ward quickly. Pretty, no, but nor is it dull – only Brent­ford had more shots on tar­get and a higher ‘ex­pected goals’ value per game. Cardiff rarely snatched wins.

Even so, their de­fence is key. Con­ced­ing the fewest goals, top­ping the ta­ble for in­ter­cep­tions and be­ing the only team to win more than two-thirds of their at­tempted tack­les all con­trib­uted to pro­mo­tion. When Sol Bamba joined in Oc­to­ber 2016, he was told to be “a Warnock player”. The ex­pla­na­tion: “He thought he was Beck­en­bauer, strut­ting around, pass­ing, drib­bling – you name it.” Now Bamba is in the form of his life.

There’s no point in Cardiff try­ing to be a medi­ocre pass­ing team in­stead of a di­rect yet ef­fec­tive one. But can a sec­ond-tier de­fence re­pel Europe’s best strik­ers? Ad­mirably, Warnock con­tin­ues to buy from be­low. His pro­mo­tion heroes in­cluded two play­ers signed for free from League One; this sum­mer’s first four ar­rivals (Alex Smithies, Greg Cun­ning­ham, Josh Mur­phy and Bobby Reid) cost $50 mil­lion from the Cham­pi­onship. Pre­mier League ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t vi­tal to sur­vival. The ques­tion is whether enough Cardiff play­ers have ei­ther the ex­ist­ing qual­ity or po­ten­tial to raise their game.

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