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