Premier League 2018/19: Cardiff City vs Wolves Tactical Analysis Statistics
Artwork by @chapulana.

What on earth can you say about that? Neil Warnock’s Cardiff side came from behind to beat Nuno Santo’s Wolves in South Wales on Friday night as Wolves’ dismal run continues. Since playing Crystal Palace at the beginning of October, Wolves have scored once from open play in six games. Prior to the Huddersfield and Cardiff games, the problem for Nuno’s side had largely been down to not having enough conviction in front of goal, however, over the last 180 minutes of football that they’ve played, new problems have started to arise. Rather than not being good enough to take the chances, Wolves are now not creating many chances of note. Of course, credit has to be given for Cardiff and Huddersfield for restricting Nuno’s side, but it seems to be the same problem at the moment.

Wolves struggle to play their free-flowing football against teams that pack the midfield and Friday night was no different as Warnock went to three at the back to counter Nuno in what was a 3-1-4-2 formation. The central midfield triangle of Joe Ralls, Aron Gunnarsson and Harry Arter had the upper-hand over Neves and Moutinho for the majority of the evening as seemingly most midfields do when it’s a three on two situation. That’s not a dig at Neves and Moutinho, not by a long shot as the system is failing them, all the same, changes will be made for the Chelsea game after Neves picked up his fifth booking of the season. We will revisit that later.

Team News

Nuno made a couple of changes as Adama Traore was brought in for Ivan Cavaleiro and Romain Saiss was brought in for the previously ever-present Ryan Bennett. While nothing official has come out from the club, one can only imagine that Bennett had a slight knock which is why Saiss replaced him as the Cardiff game was meant for someone like him. To be fair to Saiss, he did put in a good shift, even if he did pick up what is his mandatory yellow card. Traore was Traore, he excites and frustrates in equal amounts and despite a couple of glimpses, he didn’t look that threatening.

The hosts replaced Greg Cunningham with Junior Hoilett and Kelvin Harris with Josh Murphy. Looking at the scoreline, it’s fair to say it worked a treat and despite going a goal down to yet another goal from a set piece, Cardiff, on the whole, looked like the better side.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at how the three goals were scored, an example of how Cardiff’s midfield was superior and maybe a couple of other bits and pieces chucked in for good measure. Without further ado, let’s get cracking!

A Fine Start For Wolves

In the preview for the game, we looked at Lewis Dunk’s goal for Brighton against Cardiff a few weeks ago and noted that it came about from an outswinging freekick. Nuno finally seems to be reading the previews (I’m joking) as an outswinging corner created the opening and only Wolves goal of the game.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Following good work from Traore down the right, Moutinho delivers the ball to the near post.

Wolves finally recognised Moutinho’s inability to get any real distance on his corners as Jimenez moved to the near post before rising highest and having an effort well saved by Neil Etheridge in the Cardiff goal. The eventual goalscorer, Doherty is being marked by Gunnarsson. Not for long.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Doherty reacts quickest to Etheridge’s save.

Etheridge does fantastically well to get down and save Jimenez’ effort, nonetheless, he is let down by his defence. Gunnarsson has a hold on Doherty, but when the Irishman breaks free, there’s not enough time for the Icelandic midfielder to recover and Doherty puts it into the roof of the net. 17 minutes in and a goal to the good, things were looking good for Nuno’s side. Historically, this season, Wolves don’t lose when they take the lead. That’s a fact. Asides from draws against Arsenal and Man City where Wolves had taken the lead, Wolves always win. Not this time. Hence the slight panic which is emanating from Wolves fans on social media.

Gunnarsson’s Revenge

After Conor Coady deflected Harry Arter’s rasping drive wide, a corner was delivered into the box which was headed out to the edge of the area by Willy Boly. It’s there where we join the action.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Shape? What shape?

Wolves try and press the ball after Boly heads it out. That’s fine, although the lack of positional shape left in the area is extremely apparent. Coady orders Doherty to push up which there or thereabouts leaves Gunnarsson offside from the looping ball and everyone seems to think that’s the end of the problem. Wolves completely discount for any midfield runners and that’s where the problems begin.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Most of the defenders have the same idea.

Is there an argument that Patricio is being blocked off? Probably. Are there bigger questions that need answering? You bet. For starters, why is Rui even coming off his line? If he’s going to come off his line, he has to make sure he gets there as it’s too much of a critical scenario to not do so. He should clear the player in front of him out the way and take it from above Morrison. If not, he should just stay on his line as Morrison is hardly going to score directly from there, not with Saiss in relatively close quarters.

A Defensive Disaster Class

Secondly, Doherty, Coady and Saiss all have the same idea once Morrison wins the ball in the air. Get back on the line and cover Rui. Nobody bothers to close down Gunnarsson who has got a criminal amount of room in the penalty area. So much so, he has time to take a touch on his chest before scoring a scissor kick. What’s that all about?

Lastly, there’s Willy Boly. After winning the initial header, he doesn’t get back to a jog, let alone a sprint. The ball goes over his head, he turns around has a stroll back, watches Gunnarsson chest the ball down and score. All while maintaining his walk. I mean, seriously? At least try and get back. Nobody is going to criticise Boly if he sprints back and Gunnarsson scores, but the fact of the matter is that he didn’t and it’s quite frankly inexcusable. Then again, the same could be said about Neves, who is too busy appealing the block on Rui and also Vinagre. Boly is the closest though so he should take responsibility.

In summary of this goal, all of the three that went to the line shouldn’t have all done the same thing and Boly should have just done something. Not good enough.

Another Set Piece, Another Goal Conceded

There’s something about defending set pieces that Wolves really don’t like doing. A free-kick from just in front of the halfway line ultimately results in Cardiff’s second goal. A cross into the area doesn’t really cause any damage, so we will join the action on the other side of the pitch after Hoilett brings Joe Ralls into play.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Doherty and Hoilett are circled for a reason.

Ralls’ left foot swings the ball into the box, nothing much seems to be happening from it, though. The danger is pretty much over, or so the relaxed state of the Wolves defence would have you believe. Let’s fast forward a few seconds and see where we are.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Saiss blocks the attempt before it all unravels.

Going back to Doherty and Hoilett (circled), you can see that Doherty has now decided to watch the ball rather than his man. Gunnarsson has also left Gibbs-White for dead on the edge of the area which is worrying in itself considering Gibbs-White had only just come off the bench. Essentially, what happens next is the block from Saiss goes into the path of Hoilett and he bends one in the top corner.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Keep that one out.

Right, take absolutely nothing away from Hoilett here, it’s a wonderful, wonderful strike which was fit to win any game. Nevertheless, there are a couple of question marks that can be raised once again. The split second where Doherty is watching the ball is paramount as Doherty would have got the block on the shot. Secondly and being uber critical, does Rui lead with the wrong hand when he tries to save the shot? He tries to save it with his right-hand, yet his left-hand would have had a greater reach.

Individual Errors Cost Wolves Dearly

Regarding the goals, you could atone some of the blame onto Rui for the first and maybe the second. Boly can’t be let off with the first goal, Doherty can’t with the second. I’ve lost count of how many times Doherty has been at fault yet he continues to play because we literally don’t have anyone else that can play there in the senior squad. When Jonny returns from injury, it’ll be interesting to see if Nuno persists with Jonny on the left and Doherty on the right or whether Jonny will slot in at RWB.

Before closing off, we’ll take a look at an example of how Cardiff’s midfield three easily turned over possession. From this single image which I’m about to show you, you get an idea of how Cardiff crowded out the two Portuguese midfielders and won the game. Yes, there were other mitigating factors involved in Cardiff beating Wolves, however, it was first and foremost won in the midfield.

Cardiff City Wolves Premier League Tactical Analysis
Crowded out.

As mentioned earlier, Ralls, Gunnarsson and Arter worked really well as a triangle and the above example is one of the numerous times where they worked in a trio to win the ball back. From there, they win the ball back and then press the Wolves backline, using manipulative passes to keep the ball away from the baying Wolves. To repeat an earlier point, this is the second game on the bounce that this has happened and Wolves have now got the joy of welcoming Sarri’s Chelsea to Molineux tomorrow.

Final Thoughts

Four out of the Wolves back five had a pass success rate of under 70% which tells it’s own story. Cardiff’s overall pass success rate was actually worse than Wolves’, but it’s not as big as a part of Cardiff’s game so therefore it shouldn’t be taken into that much consideration from the Bluebirds point of view. Chelsea will line up with a three in midfield against Wolves and it’s quite a simple equation. If Wolves keep playing with the two in the middle, Chelsea will win. If Wolves change their system, maybe they’ll have a chance. Cardiff, on the other hand, travel to West Ham and will be hoping they can make it two wins on the bounce.

Dendoncker’s absence from the 18 on Friday raised a few questions and if he doesn’t feature against Chelsea despite Neves’ suspension, you have to wonder why on earth the Belgian was signed in the first place. Nuno deserves time at Wolves and anyone calling for him to go should give their head a wobble. Saying that, if Wolves fail to win any of their next three, questions should be asked.

Until the next time.


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