The sixth matchday week of the 2019/20 EFL Championship season kicked off last Friday in Wales. Cardiff City managed by Neil Warnock faced Scott Parker’s Fulham. Both teams’ start to the campaign has been a mixed one. ‘The Bluebirds’ have accumulated seven points from the first five matches whilst their opponents from South West London had nine points in their bag prior to this encounter.
The game tactics chosen by both managers perfectly reflected their coaching philosophy. From the start, Fulham took control of the game by having a vast majority of ball possession. Contrarily, the home team stayed compact and was aiming to hit their opponents on the counterattack. This tactic adopted by Warnock did work indeed in the first half with Cardiff taking the lead in the 42nd minute thanks to Josh Murphy’s left-footed strike. However, it did not take long for the ‘Cottagers’ to reply. Three minutes later Aleksandar Mitrović equalised after meeting a low cross from Ivan Cavaleiro. The dismissal of Harry Arter in the 68th minute did not bring too much excitement to the game which ended in a draw.
This tactical analysis will take a closer look at both teams’ game strategies and explain the key aspects behind it.
For this match, Warnock’s team lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that has been used in all games this season so far. Alex Smithies started in goal and was protected by a back four consisting of Lee Peltier, Sean Morrison, Aden Flint and Joe Bennett. Leandro Bacuna and Joe Ralls formed a double pivot and Lee Tomlin in a number 10’s position. Josh Murphy and Gavin Whyte were the nominal wingers, with the former taking up the left-wing and the latter staying on the right. The German striker Robert Glatzel was a lone man up top for the Bluebirds.
Warnock’s opponent Parker also showed consistency in his line-up. Fulham started the game in a 4-3-3 shape as it has been the case so far this season. Marcus Bettinelli kept his place between the sticks with a back four of Steven Sessegnon, Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan in front of him. Harrison Reed usually acted as a single pivot in this game with Harry Arter and Tom Cairney being more advanced central midfielders. The front three of Anthony Knockaert, Cavaleiro and Mitrović was also unchanged.
Cardiff’s defensive approach
Throughout the years, Warnock’s teams have been renowned as defensively solid. Teams that like to play out from the back using short and intricate passing routines often find it relatively hard to break them down. In this game, Cardiff’s tactics were exactly as mentioned above – to disrupt the opposition’s clean progression with the ball from the back.
For this plan to work, the home team went for a tight man-marking strategy. It was not ideal as it will be seen later in this analysis but in general, the visitors were handled pretty well for the majority of the game. In the image below, we can see an example of Cardiff’s defensive strategy when Fulham had the ball in the first build-up phase. Fulham used three players in the first line of build-up, thus always possessing a one man advantage in this zone. Nevertheless, it is noticeable how the rest of Cardiff’s players are man-marking their direct opponents.
If an off-the-ball shape had to be described, this would look like a hybrid between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, or even 4-2-1-3 formations. In man-marking, players follow their direct opponents, therefore the rigid lines are seen less unlike in zonal marking. We can have a closer look at the illustration below and explain what was meant with the above statement.
Cardiff’s double pivot of Bacuna and Ralls are tightly marking their direct opponents in Arter and Cairney. Since the ball was switched to Mawson in the right channel, Tomlin had to abandon his initial marker Reed who was now looked after by Glatzel. Murphy remained on the left keeping a close eye on Fulham’s right-back Sessegnon. Tomlin is now the most advanced presser indicating that this could be a 4-2-3-1 shape. However, with Glatzel now covering the opponent’s single pivot, Reed, a bit deeper, it would not be a mistake to interpret this of the ball formation as a 4-2-1-3 with Murphy belonging to the first line of press.
The Bluebirds’ tactic to man-mark the opponent was also implemented when Parker’s team tried to play out from the goal-kick. In the image below, we can see such an example. Here, every Cardiff player has an opponent to mark, making it really hard for the opponents to play out from the goal-kick. Since Glatzel cannot be situated inside the penalty box during the goal-kick, it looked like Fulham had a four versus three numerical advantage in and around the box. However, if the ball would have been played to the left-sided centre-back, Glatzel would have entered the ball to press him. Consequently, Bacuna would have stepped out and pressed Arter, thus nullifying a threat.
This man-oriented high press intimidated Cardiff’s opponent who had no other option but to play it long. The Welsh side took a gamble when using this strategy as it left them in a three against three situation in their own half. Nonetheless, Cardiff were strong in the air in this game and with the midfield line tracking back swiftly, the highlighted area in the image was congested rather quickly, making life hard for Fulham’s front three in case they win a ground duel.
What really made life difficult for Fulham in this game was Cardiff’s really tight and aggressive marking when the ball was approaching the Bluebirds’ defensive third. The two images below illustrate a statement used above.
In the first illustration, Warnock’s team stayed very compact with many bodies overloading the area. A key mention regarding Cardiff’s tight marking tactic should go to a central defender Morrison. Here, he is glued to the back of Cavaleiro and not giving the Portuguese international any space to twist or turn.
The example below shows a similar situation where two Cardiff’s defenders anticipated and closed down Cavaleiro immediately. Interestingly, Cardiff’s only goal of the game came from this specific situation after intercepting the ball and playing a through ball to Murphy into space.
Another illustration below strengthens the statement about Cardiff’s rigid man-marking system.
Fulham’s offensive strategy
As it has been mentioned in the first sections, the Cottagers usually used three players in their first line of build-up. A holding midfielder would then drop deeper to provide the support that resulted in an even bigger numerical superiority. Both full-backs would push higher up to provide width; however, from time to time this approach was altered as it will be seen below.
Player rotations were one of the key strategies for Fulham in this game and such an example can be seen below. In this case, both Mitrović and Cavaleiro dropped deep inside to the halfway line. Such a tactic was used to unsettle the opposition’s players by dragging them out of their original positions and likewise facilitate the build-up process.
Moreover, as mentioned in a previous paragraph, at times Parker instructed one of his full-backs to stay back. It meant that the width was provided by a winger, in this case, it was Knockaert as can be seen in the image below.
An even better example of player rotations is illustrated below. Here, Knockaert abandons his original position on the right flank which is now occupied by Sessegnon. As a result, the Frenchman drags out the opponent’s left-back Bennett with himself. He plays a backwards pass to Mawson who then takes advantage of the space created in behind and plays the ball to the feet of Mitrović.
A left-sided centre-back Flint steps out to follow the Serbian striker with Cairney now making a forward run into space after Ralls was caught ball watching.
Another example of the same tactical manoeuvre is presented below. Mitrović drops deeper once again and pulls out the centre-back Morrison. Now it is Cavaleiro who occupies the Serbian’s position; however, since Cardiff adopted a man-marking system it was the right-back Peltier who was chasing him and not a remaining centre-back. Knockaert stayed wide on the right, thereby pinning Bennett. Sessegnon could now exploit the zone in behind with Murphy losing track of him.
These were the moments when the visitors from London were able to manipulate the home team’s rigid man-marking strategy. When Fulham began to construct their attacking moves with more pace, Cardiff started to struggle and got confused with the opponent’s intricate rotations. As a result at times, they were unable to follow their opponents due to the confusion factor. However, it was not the case for the whole game. As mentioned previously, Cardiff’s rigid and aggressive defending restrained the visitors pretty well for the majority of the match.
The one man that was instrumental for these player rotations to happen was Mitrović. In numerous times, he dropped deep to collect the ball, which meant dragging out a corresponding centre-back with himself. Such a manoeuvre creates space in behind that can be exploited by other players. The illustrations below display this particular strategy that led to Fulham’s only goal of the game.
Mitrović’s deeper position on the pitch can be seen in a heat map below.
Finally, at times, when the home side eased off its defensive barricades Fulham were able to make use of the one man advantage in midfield. The visitors had Reed, Arter and Cairney up against Bacuna and Ralls at the heart of midfield. At first sight, Cardiff’s central attacking midfielder Tomlin could have supposedly covered the position to make it three against three. However, as mentioned already, Fulham always used three players in their build-up and the aforementioned scenario was impossible due to the home team’s adopted man-marking tactics.
The image below illustrates exactly such a situation. Bacuna and Ralls are both man-marking Arter and Cairney respectively. Cardiff use a line of three including Tomlin to press the opponent’s corresponding line of three. This leaves Reed completely unmarked in the centre with acres of space in front of him to run into. The important thing to note is Cairney’s and Arter’s positioning. As we can see, they are situated quite wide with a reasonable distance from each other, thus creating a gap in between. This allows Reed to run forward unchallenged with both Bacuna and Ralls being pinned by the Fulham players.
At that moment in the second half, there was a notion that Fulham will be able to find the second goal once they were able to reach the opposition’s final third more freely. Nevertheless, Arter’s two yellow cards in two minutes made this task impossible for the London club.
Cardiff’s limited attacking strategy
The teams that set up to be defensively solid first and foremost tend to use counterattacks as their main attacking weapon- the Bluebirds were no exception in this case. Tight and aggressive man-marking allowed the home side to win the ball back on quite a few occasions. Fulham were dispossessed 15 times in this game with Cardiff also making 10 successful tackles (five more than the visitors) and eight interceptions (two more than the visitors). These numbers seem to back up the statement about Warnock’s aggressive defensive approach.
Consequently, after regaining ball possession, the counterattacking team is on a front foot if there have pacey wingers in the side. One such player was Gavin Whyte who possessed the biggest attacking threat for the home side. The 23-year-old attempted and completed three successful dribbles in this game- the same number as Cavaleiro. Bearing in mind that the home team had only 31% of ball possession and its passing success was as low as 56%, this statistical value looks quite impressive.
In the image below we can see how Whyte dribbles past both Reed and Arter with ease.
However, at most times the youngster lacked support from his teammates and was caught in a situation like the one demonstrated below. Here, Whyte is surrounded by three Fulham players with no one around for support.
Another example where Whyte dribbled past the opponent using his skill and pace. The end product, however, was lacking at times.
The heat map and the touch map further strengthen the argument about Cardiff right-winger’s high influence on his team’s attack.
In general, Cardiff’s players lacked movement upfront without the ball and were often trapped in certain zones. Such an example can be seen below. Tomlin and Whyte are surrounded by three opposition’s players with the striker Glatzel refusing to make a run into a highlighted area for some reason.
After the red card, the home side was unable to put the visitors under any reasonable amount of pressure. Fulham’s 4-4-1 defensive block forced the opposition to deliver quite a few crosses into the box with no dividends. Cardiff attempted 15 crosses in this game with only two of them being successful (13% accuracy). The opposition’s centre-back Mawson had a monstrous game at the back having won 11 out 15 aerial duels.
As this analysis explained, the visitors from London dominated the game in terms of ball possession and used some intricate player rotations to find a way of reaching the final third. In the second half, Fulham found their way of making use of the numerical superiority they created in a midfield area. However, Arter’s dismissal for the second yellow card did not allow his team to go for the final push and the Cottagers had to settle for a draw.
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