Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City were looking to bounce back in their first home game of the 2019/20 EFL Championship season against Luton Town, after a largely disappointing 3-2 loss away at Wigan in the opening weekend of the season. Graeme Jones’s Luton Town side were looking to build on the thrilling 3-3 draw against Middlesbrough and were hoping that they could pick up a surprise away win against a recently relegated side.
However, this was not the case for Luton, and Cardiff City gained their first win of the 2019/20 EFL Championship season against Luton Town, picking up a 2-1 home win against the Hatters. A late goal from Isaac Vassell meant that Cardiff picked up all three points in the early stages of the Championship season. This tactical analysis will attempt to look at how both teams tried to win the game and with this game, in particular, the contrasting tactics of both teams in order to win the game.
The Bluebirds lined up in a rigid 4-2-3-1 with Joe Ralls and Marlon Pack as the two holding midfielders with the role to provide a defensive structure and stability in front of the back four. Sean Morrison and Aden Flint were the two centre-halves for Cardiff: their height and physical strength, as well as their excellent defensive ability, would play a huge role in the victory. The exciting Josh Murphy, Callum Paterson, and Gavin Whyte, a new signing, were all playing as more advanced midfielders to support new signing Robert Glatzel. Bennett and Peltier were the two full-backs on the day, with the clear intention to be defensively solid, and whip in crosses which hopefully the likes of Glatzel and Paterson would get on the end of. This was a clear tactic by Warnock in order to try to exploit a weakness Luton seemed to have, defending against physicality.
As for the Hatters they set up with their 4-4-2 diamond formation with Callum McManaman and George Moncur as the two front strikers. This had worked well for them the previous week against Middlesbrough and in League One whereby they finished as champions. James Collins, Pelly Ruddock, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Jacob Butterfield made up the central midfield four, hoping to not only provide defensive support for the back four, but to be a creative hub in the key area of the pitch. Moreover, Dan Potts and Martin Cranie, the two full-backs, where the key for this system as they were a key foundation for attacking from the flanks. Matty Pearson and Sonny Bradley were the two centre-halves.
A clear tactic by Cardiff in this game was to use the counter-attack against a Luton side who liked to keep the ball. By operating in the 4-4-2 diamond it meant that the Hatters were mainly in control of the ball and ended the game with 63% possession. Therefore, in the attacking transitions, the Bluebirds were able to vertically attack the space that Luton left in front and behind the back four. Utilising the pace of Murphy, Whyte, and Glatzel were important for this to work as they could pose a threat in behind. Later in the game, Vassell also added an even more posing danger of pace. This was, therefore, a clear tactic by the Bluebirds and not a footballing coincidence. As a result, a lot of space was created for the team to move up into, as a result of the counter-attack that was deployed.
This tactic was used by Cardiff as soon as they won possession of the ball. One of the key players the bluebirds try to use in order to achieve this was Murphy. His pace coming off the left flank, and into the Luton box was a clear way to try to use the counter attack. Murphy is quick with and without the ball and could therefore make runs in behind at significant speed. This meant that Cardiff could also get more men forward as he was dragging Luton defenders into positions they did not want to be in. This was effective for Cardiff, and as we can see in the picture below this type of run into the box was common throughout the match.
As mentioned earlier, Luton managed 63% of possession of the ball against Cardiff City. This again was no coincidence and was a clear tactical instruction to try and win the match. Since Luton lined up in the diamond formation, it meant that possession of the football in deeper areas of the pitch was common. One of the reoccurring themes for Luton Town was that Butterfield, the defensive midfielder on the day, would often drop between the two centre halves in order to allow the full backs to push forward. The main explanation for this is that in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, the only natural width on paper comes from the full backs. This therefore means that a defensive midfielder must provide the central cover allowing the two centre halves to spread out into a back three. This, therefore, gives width and allows different transitions of play to be available. This is something Luton considered, and it was often the case that when in possession this pattern of play would happen. This once again is evidence highlighting the story of the match in many ways, Luton controlling the ball and keeping possession in a tidy manner, and Cardiff sitting back ready to pounce on any mistake they might make.
When speaking about controlling a football match we often assume that this means purely in possession of the football, however, this is not always the case. Both on and off the ball Luton tried their best to keep the diamond structure. Off the ball, in order to press with the two strikers, and on the ball to try and break down the Cardiff backline. Finding this balance was of course the challenge, but the Hatters managed to find the structural balance that the game was asking of them. This was once again an attempt to be able to keep the ball and move up the pitch in order to break down the defensive line. For this to work moving forward, they may need a more creative spark in order to break down these tough defences. Off the ball, there may need to be an improvement in terms of the press when trying to get the ball back, however, in this game, they stuck to their task very well.
One of the main reasons as to why Cardiff were able to win the game was due to their defensive solidity that they managed to maintain throughout the match. What was key was keeping in their 4-2-3-1 structure, which allowed them to have two solid holding midfielders and also allowed them to be solid in the defensive changeovers, and to maintain solidity throughout the game. This made it increasingly difficult for Luton to break down the Bluebirds defence, and this can be attributed the key reason as to why they were able to win the match. The two holding midfielders could always be found sitting outside the box offering pure defensive support for the back fur. The full-backs were also tucked in the majority of the time, to be able to deal with the opposing full-backs who offered Luton the width. This was to stifle the way they played, and to prevent the Hatters playing their normal game.
An interesting development that was evident to see in the match was the role of Luton’s two frontmen Moncur and McManaman. Between the two, one would often drop deep, or similarly to a more wider position, to allow space in the central area. Furthermore, at times the two would drop wide, and the central attacking midfielder, who was Colins on the day, could play as a third striker, which highlights the fluidity that Luton play with. This can be seen on many occasions in the game, however in particular the second half whereby Luton were trying to chase the game and get a goal. The purpose of this was to allow more space in the central area, but also to try and attack the wider area due to the quick and mobile nature of the Luton team. McManaman was seen doing this a lot also in the last game against Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough side to great effect. The other purpose was to confuse the Cardiff backline as to who to mark, as this tactic caused great confusion.
The final point of analysis to look at as to why the bluebirds were able to defeat Luton is due to their physicality during the 90 minutes. This could be seen both on and off the ball. Off the ball it was clear that when they pressed the ball they wanted to be physical and tackle in a hard manner to win the ball back. Neil Warnock’s usual policy of hard but fair was most certainly at play in this match. This was potentially because Luton by default don’t really have any players you would describe as ‘tough’ in their midfield. They are all excellent at keeping the ball, however they are not made to be a physical team. Cardiff on the other hand with the likes of Ralls, Pack and Paterson were constantly getting tackles in. This was to win the ball back, and try and exploit a key weakness in the Luton midfield.
Furthermore, another aspect of this physicality can be seen when Cardiff had the ball also. They were constantly playing direct and this involved high numbers of crosses and long balls into the front players. This was once again to test the potential weakness Luton had with not being able to deal with the physical element of the game. This therefore meant that they were able to flex their physical element of the game on Luton, resulting in goals and good attacking threats especially in the second half. This can clearly be seen with the second goal scored by Vassell, whereby there are multiple Cardiff players in the box waiting for the cross due to their excellent delivery and good aerial ability. This together meant they were able to play a lot more of these crosses into the box, and it further ensured that they were able to find the winning goal.
Overall it was a tough game for both teams, and a really interesting contrast of two different footballing styles. Luton attempted to keep the ball as much as possible in order to try and force through the Cardiff defence. Cardiff stayed solid and in formation to deny this happening and looked to break on Luton whenever they had the opportunity to do so. This clearly worked as they came out winners, however the way Luton played must be applauded. It takes a lot of belief in your style of play for a recently promoted League One team to go to Cardiff, who just came down from the premier league a team who also went to Old Trafford and won 2-0, to continue your beliefs and play an attractive possession-based system. As this analysis has shown, credit must be handed to Luton, however a lack of experience at this level to deny Cardiff the conditions to play their more direct style was unfortunately for them their undergoing, which furthermore cost them the game.
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