Ian Foster takes charge of his first league game at Home Park this weekend. Although he only joined Plymouth Argyle two weeks ago, this one feels as though it’s been a long time coming.
Since Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Huddersfield Town, it’s been two out and two in at Argyle. Kaine Kesler-Hayden and Lewis Warrington were recalled by Aston Villa and Everton respectively, and they’ve been replaced with Tottenham Hotspur loanee Alfie Devine and free agent Matthew Sorinola. Changes have been made behind the scenes too, with Darryl Flahavan joining as a goalkeeper coach, with head of fitness and conditioning Elliot Turner exiting. It all adds to the thought that we’ll be watching a very different Argyle in the second half of the season.
Cardiff City will be Foster’s first Championship visitors. Argyle should know all about the Bluebirds, having played out a 2-2 draw with them just a few weeks ago. But being the lazy man that I am, I didn’t bother writing a preview for the Boxing Day clash. So let’s have a look at Cardiff now, assessing the threats they pose and how Argyle can aim to hurt them this time.
Style of play
Under the tutelage of ex-Fenerbahce (amongst others) manager Erol Bulut, Cardiff have almost exclusively played a form of 4-3-3. That, combined with a number of selection patterns from Bulut’s reign, means some near-certain conclusions can be drawn about who will play.
Mark McGuinness and Dimitrios Goutas have started every game this season, and will surely be the centre back partnership. They’re likely to be joined by Jamilu Collins on the left of the defence and the dangerous Perry Ng on the right. Cardiff have rotated their goalkeepers this season, but it’s expected that Jak Alnwick will keep his place ahead of Arsenal loanee Runar Runarsson.
In the front three they have a few options, but Bulut again appears to have his preferences. Kion Etete has started each of the last four games as the central striker, and he’s even more likely to do so this weekend following one of his competitors, Ike Ugbo, moving to Sheffield Wednesday. In three of those games, Etete has been joined by Karlan Grant, and I’d expect him to start again given his goal against Argyle in the reverse fixture.
There are options on the right side – my money would be on Josh Bowler starting, but they could look towards Yakou Meite or Ollie Tanner. The latter scored one of Cardiff’s biggest goals of the season, opening the scoring in their South Wales derby win over Swansea City.
The real selection questions lie in midfield. Ryan Wintle and Joe Ralls are likely to get the nod, but the third choice will be indicative of how Cardiff are approaching the game.
If you see Manolis Siopis on the teamsheet, he’ll sit behind the other two, and it’s an indication that the Bluebirds want to focus on defence and shore up the midfield. If they’re feeling particularly daring, they may choose to bring in an attacking midfielder instead to play in front of Ralls and Wintle. That’d probably be Wales international Rubin Colwill, though they could turn to Callum Robinson if he’s fully recovered from the illness that’s kept him out since the end of December. Both can also play in the front three if Bulut wants to squeeze them in to the side.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Cardiff a long ball side. They’re certainly not cut from the same cloth as previous opponents Sutton United or Huddersfield Town. However, they do use long balls as an outlet when no easier options are presented. And those long balls can be effective. Only Stoke City and Watford have completed more long passes than Cardiff this season. With the Bluebirds boasting a strong aerial duel success rate, the tactic be effective when used in moderation.
Their moves can fall apart when they get the ball down. It can be very patient and, to be brutally honest, dull. In the final third, they don’t strike me as the sort of team with the creativity to be a constant attacking threat. It may be a strange example, but consider the fact they’ve caught offside 33 times this season, the lowest number of any Championship club. Of course, that could just mean they’re incredible at timing their attacking runs, but the more likely explanation is they don’t try enough defence-splitting balls to get their forwards in behind.
Given Argyle’s vulnerability to through balls, that could play into their hands.
Cardiff are statistically the best attacking set-piece team in the league, and by quite a margin.
Bulut’s side have scored 14 goals from set piece situations this season. That’s comfortably the highest number in the Championship, four more than second-placed Millwall who have scored 10. Those goals make up 41% of Cardiff’s total goal tally this season, another league high. It puts the four goals Argyle have scored from set piece situations this season to shame.
Those set piece goals come in many shapes and sizes. The classic “cross it in and nod it home” does obviously feature prominently, and usually involves Goutas. The Greek defender has scored four goals this season, all from set pieces, with no Championship player scoring more from such situations. But having Perry Ng in the side means they’re also a big threat from free kicks, as he demonstrated with a gorgeous strike against Huddersfield in October.
For their part, Argyle’s defensive set-piece record isn’t bad at all, particularly compared to their record from open play. Nevertheless, they should still be well aware of Cardiff’s threat. After all, the Grant goal I mentioned earlier came directly from a corner.
Set pieces will be Cardiff’s main threat going forward. At the other end, there are a few elements to their defending that catch my eye. They have been lucky that both McGuinness and Goutas have been available all season, but they’ve taken advantage of that to make themselves hard to beat. Their numbers for defensive interactions are strong, with the centre backs making clearances and the full backs generally strong in the tackle.
I’ve been most impressed by their ability to intercept passes. Cardiff have made 309 interceptions this season, the second highest figure in the league. They’re just edged out of top spot by Preston North End, who pip them with 310. It means Argyle will see many of their attacks broken up, which will naturally be frustrating for the players and crowd. Keeping their heads under pressure will be vital to play around Cardiff and unlock the door.
Finally, I just want to delve a little more into Cardiff’s ability in the air. In the previous section, I mentioned that a good aerial duel success rate allows them to turn to long balls when required. Specifically, that success rate is 53%, the fifth best in the Championship. As we touched upon in the recent Green & White podcast, Argyle’s are much worse in the air. The Greens’ success rate by comparison is 46%, which now ranks 22nd across the league.
An aerial battle is the one obvious area I can see where Cardiff would have a clear edge over Argyle. Foster’s side could do with keeping the ball on the ground and not turning the game into the attritional, aerial one we saw at Huddersfield. Let’s hope the rain forecast for Saturday waits until after full time.
Cardiff’s set piece attacking is an obvious strength. Their figure of 14 goals scored from them is, objectively, excellent. However, the fact that this makes up 41% of their total goals is symptomatic of another issue. Cardiff are comparatively toothless from open play.
Their goal numbers are damning. If we exclude own goals (such as Matt Butcher’s brain fade in the reverse fixture), Cardiff have scored just three goals from open play in 18 games, a run stretching back to the start of October. It’s an almost comically bad figure. By comparison, Argyle have scored 23 goals from open play in the same timeframe.
Why has their record been so awful? There are a few stats we can look towards. Most obviously, they’re not getting enough shots away, with their total of 287 shots ranking them 20th across the league. That’s compounded by the fact they’re not creating enough opportunities to shoot. Their number of crosses is low to middling, whilst only two teams have launched fewer counter attacks this season than Cardiff’s ten. Indeed, Cardiff are one of only five Championship teams not to have scored from a counter attack this season.
Given the extreme numbers we’re dealing with, it won’t surprise you to know that Cardiff are currently overperforming against their set piece xG, and underperforming against their open play xG. Perhaps, as the season progress, we’ll see a reversion to the mean in both metrics. For now at least though, their open play numbers should be ringing alarm bells for Bulut.
Cardiff’s attack obviously has its weaknesses, but I also just want to touch on the defence again. As I’ve mentioned they’re generally settled and strong, and their numbers in many defensive areas are reflective. Nonetheless, they do seem to struggle at one particular defensive aspect: blocking shots.
The Bluebirds have blocked 88 shots this season, with only Stoke and Middlesbrough blocking fewer. That’s in stark contrast to Argyle, who have made more blocks than any other side with 142. Lewis Gibson has made 37 on his own, a higher figure than any other player in the league, and he’s predictably become a fan favourite. Perhaps the lack of a “bodies on the line” attitude, despite their general strengths, has led to Cardiff’s defenders not being held in the same regard by their supporters.
Cardiff also strike me as another side who are never too far away from dropping a clanger. Think back to our analysis of Birmingham City, where we explored their disturbing figures for mistakes leading directly to shots and goals. I’m going to inflate my own ego by deciding Wayne Rooney read that piece, panicked, and that led to Dion Sanderson’s mistake leading to Joe Edwards’ goal against his side. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
Cardiff post similar numbers. Only four teams have made more mistakes leading to shots, and only three have made more mistakes leading to goals. These are treated as separate stats (mistakes leading to goals won’t automatically also be listed as mistakes leading to shots), so Cardiff’s combined figure is eye-opening.
One such example is below. Look how Cardiff give the ball up under so little pressure, leaving Preston’s Milutin Osmajic in on goal. Who’s to say we won’t see any further blunders this weekend?
Cardiff are one of the few teams with a style of play that could suit Argyle, at least compared with some of the other sides the Pilgrims have faced recently. Bulut’s side aren’t bad in their own right, but they don’t seem to have a setup that will challenge Argyle in their weakest areas.
That being said, their defensive strengths could make the game tight. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some frustrating passages in play, and patience may be the name of the game for Argyle. I do though think Argyle will have just about enough to win the game and, if they can hold out from set pieces, they may also do enough to secure Foster’s first clean sheet. I’ll go for a nervy 1-0.