City pass their first test as Zohore and Warnock makes the difference.

Often, they may be scrappy, bitty and dull, but I’ve grown to believe that if one scoreline defines successful teams, especially in a league like the Championship, it is the 1-0 win – this applies even more so when the victory is gained away from home.

I have seen some criticism of our display in winning 1-0 at Burton yesterday in our season opener which, it seemed to me, was based on the theory that a team like Cardiff should be blowing a relegation favourite like Nigel Clough’s team away – I think this is wrong thinking for all sorts of reasons.

Firstly, apart perhaps from the promotion challenge that hardly ever felt like one which was our 2015/16 season, we’ve been decidedly mid table, with a performance level worse than that much of the time, since we were relegated three years ago. During that time, there have been plenty of games I’ve gone to with an expectation that we would win, but not by playing incisive and entertaining attacking football that our opponents couldn’t cope with – the last time I occasionally allowed myself to think like that before a match was during the time of Dave Jones’ mercurial Chopra/Bothroyd teams and I was invariably proved to be wrong when I did so.

No, even when we were winning this division, we’ve tended to be grinders who wear our opponents down by securing single goal victory margins – it’s not been in the nature of recent Cardiff sides to put together performances, especially away from home, which frighten and intimidate our rivals.

Secondly, the Championship as a whole is not that type of league – a look at the results in this first round of matches should tell you that. With just Bolton v Leeds to come, there have been two matches won by two goal margins (Bristol City’s 3-1 win over a Barnsley team that has had the heart ripped out of it by the departure of so many of the players who made them the league’s most eye catching side in some ways last season and QPR’s surprising 2-0 victory over beaten Play Off Finalists Reading), but the other nine matches  have all finished with one of two scores – there have been six 1-0s and three 1-1s.

Finally, there has been just one away win up to now and the eleven games so far have seen just five away goals scored – for us to have scored one of them, the only one that has ensured three points, is a reason for optimism, not criticism.

Just because we’ve been able to make what appear to be some canny signings on the basis of the very limited evidence we have so far which should mean that we will carry more of a goal threat, it doesn’t follow that the essence of what Cardiff City Championship sides have been since Malky Mackay’s appointment six years ago is going to change – especially under a manager who has set his sides out to play in a certain way over a very long career like Neil Warnock has.

Rather like it would be for us if we were able to secure a return to the Premier League, the object of the exercise for a team like Burton Albion in the division they find themselves in is survival pure and simple – we may be operating with a budget that is dwarfed by many of our rivals in this league, but by being able to spend a modest £3 million this summer (according to our manager), we must seem like the very definition of opulence to them!

Given those circumstances, it was terribly bad luck for Burton that they lost their club record signing, Northern Ireland international striker Liam Boyce, whose twenty three goals for Ross County made him the Scottish Premier League’s leading scorer last season, to a cruciate knee ligament injury in their pre season programme which will keep him out for most of the campaign

The absence of the man who was carrying so many of the Brewers’ goal hopes for 17/18 leaves Nigel Clough with the headache of trying to add to his forward options before the transfer window closes, with a major part of his budget already spent and there were some hints that Burton may be Craig Noone’s destination, if and when the winger who has become surplus to requirements at Cardiff does move in August. Burton were in for Noone back in January it seems, but my guess would be that, if he did join up with them now, it would be in a loan move which may well see us paying some of his wages.

So, I think it’s entirely fair to say that our new goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and the men in front of him were going to face sterner tests in the future than the one Burton were likely to present yesterday, but their 2-1 win over Leicester in their final pre season game offered proof that Burton did have a goal or two in them and so the news that Warnock had opted to start with a trio of centrebacks in Sean Morrison, Bruno Manga and Sol Bamba didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Playing a back three with Lee Peltier as one of the full back/wing backs looked like a cautious selection on Neil Warnock’s part, but I’d argue that it showed respect for both the Championship and a Burton team that was good enough to survive fairly comfortably at this level last season.

Rotherham were the exception, rather than the rule, by the way they became tailed off at the bottom of the Championship last season and, even if they do go down this year, I would expect Burton to be competitive and resilient for much of the campaign.

Mention of Morrison earlier takes me on to his post match interview yesterday in which he remarked that Assistant Manager Kevin Blackwell had told him and his fellow defenders that any side looking to win promotion from the Championship should target at least fifteen clean sheets over the course of a season. This almost one in three rate compares to the virtual one in four Morrison and co kept last season with their eleven and, to be honest, there weren’t many times when they looked like conceding yesterday as the home side managed just the three goal attempts, none of which were on target.

After the game Neil Warnock talked with enthusiasm about the way Kenneth Zohore was running from side to side in the dying minutes trying to close down Burton defenders as they tried to get their side back on terms. However, after having an earlier effort disallowed and missing a chance which was not as easy as some said it was in the first half, it was the Dane’s quality late finish which will have pleased City fans most. In saying that, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want Zohore to start the season too well, because it may attract bids from “moneybags” clubs – however, according to our manager, he’s not going to be sold even if he’s scores ten goals this month!

So, while it’s way too early to start drawing any conclusions yet, a clean sheet in our first match is at least a promising first step in that journey towards collecting fifteen of them, but, as the time went by and we laboured to make the breakthrough in a match we were largely controlling (we managed more than five times as many goal attempts as our hosts did as we fired off sixteen efforts at their goal), I found myself comparing what was happening with our opening match of last season.

With hindsight, the 0-0 draw at St. Andrews against a Birmingham side which had flirted with the Play Offs in 15/16 under Gary Rowett, represented one of the high spots of Paul Trollope’s brief and ill fated spell in charge.

On that day though, we missed a golden chance which fell to the man who was supposed to be our main source of goals over the coming nine months, but that scuff from about three yards out by Frederic Gounongbe came to be a metaphor for team, player and manager in those desperate opening weeks of 16/17.

One of the most damning football statistics I’ve heard lately is the one that says we have not yet scored a goal in a competitive match while Frederic Gounongbe has been on the pitch for us. Of course, it’s harsh and wrong to blame him entirely for this, but that miss seemed to have such a huge effect – if he’d scored and we’d won 1-0, how much different would things have turned out for him and Trollope over the past year?

Gounongbe was replaced for the last twenty minutes that day by another player we’d signed permanently during that summer, but the opinion that Kenneth Zohore could be any more than a bit part player for us looked ludicrous a few days later when he gave a miserable performance in a League Cup defeat at Bristol Rovers.

Yesterday though it was Zohore who was the forward on the pitch with the big reputation, it was Zohore who had been the subject of unsuccessful seven, or possibly eight, figure bids in the last few weeks and it was Zohore was scored the fine goal which settled the game – credit of course has to go to the player for this, but the man who has made the big difference at Cardiff in the past year was someone stood on the touchline watching who’ll be getting his state pension paid into his bank account some time soon!

Neil Warnock is the man who has got Zohore consistently playing at a level that he couldn’t reach under Trollope and Russell Slade, but yesterday the Yorkshireman offered another example of what we saw on quite a few occasions last season despite his complaints about the lack of squad depth he had.

Even when we were short on numbers last season, Warnock showed an ability to change games with his substitutions that his immediate predecessors found almost impossible to match – for example, the match against Wolves when we first saw the “new Zohore”and  the games at Bristol City and Derby.

My pre match prediction yesterday was for a low scoring draw, but, if Warnock’s team selection may have suggested he’d gladly take a 0-0, what he did in the sixty fifth minute showed that this was not the case.

Although, on the face of it, the introduction of Loic Damour in place of Lee Tomlin was indicative of more caution on the manager’s part, it needs to be measured along with the other alteration, which saw the three centreback formation broken up as Manga was withdrawn for Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. As a pair of changes, they definitely signaled a positive intent.

Switching to a back four with Damour given licence to get forward and Mendez-Laing and Junior Hoilett (replaced by Danny Ward for the last fifteen minutes or so) supporting Zohore improved a City team, which had been doing okay as Tomlin gave hints of what he can bring to us, that little bit needed to help turn the one point they had into three.

Damour provided the assist for the eighty seventh minute matchwinner with a neat little flick on the edge of the Burton penalty area and generally reinforced the positive impression he created in his pre season matches. However, with his pace, size, power and no little ability on the ball, Mendez-Laing, the free transfer signing from Rochdale who arrived with little or no fanfare, has so many of the assets needed to succeed at this level and the more he plays, the more I find myself thinking that he could turn out to be a very shrewd addition to the squad indeed.

Mendez-Laing, Damour and, the already proven at this level, Danny Ward appear to be good options to have coming off the bench for a top half Championship side. When you further consider that Jazz Richards, Anthony Pilkington and Greg Halford were all unused subs and that we are missing Lee Camp, Matt Connolly, Callum Paterson and Kadeem Harris (out for up to three months with the ankle problem which forced him off last week against Livingston), then we look like a better balanced squad with more depth to it.

I think I’ve mentioned before on here that I’m as optimistic about the arrival of a new season as I have been at any time since our relegation, because we appear to have added more goal power to a squad which, take away those first eleven matches under Trollope, achieved results which would have established us in the top ten. If we can defend a little better (judging by the post match comments of Messrs Morrison and Warnock, a lot of work has been put into trying to cut down on the number of late goals conceded compared to last season), then I’m hopeful we’ll spend most of the coming months more concerned with what’s happening at the top of the league than the bottom of it.

That said, although I still have a sneaking feeling that we may see one more “big” signing before the window closes, I don’t doubt that the division will look more daunting on 1 September than it does now, because a Championship transfer market which has been quieter than expected up to now will surely become more frenetic as millions are spent by clubs that are already feeling under pressure with the season just weeks old.

It’s daft to talk about crises after only one match, but I bet supporters of Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and, possibly, Reading and Birmingham, are feeling a little mutinous after opening day defeats. Also, Aston Villa will come here next Saturday already under a bit of that pressure I talked about after dropping two points at home against Hull in a game which left manager Steve Bruce talking about the “Achilles  heel” his team still has that has been present since he first came to the club.

That was the tough thing about City having the match that they did to kick off their campaign. People who are being a bit sniffy about yesterday’s match will be saying “it’s only Burton”, but just imagine the sense of deflation if we had been beaten. There was a thread entitled “Burton game is huge and must go well.” on the City messageboard I use this week – how could we have coped with only a possible one hundred and thirty five points still left to play for if it had finished 1-0 instead of 0-1!

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6 Responses to City pass their first test as Zohore and Warnock makes the difference.

  1. Barry Cole says:

    Well Paul I couldn’t wait for the start of this season and I am not disappointed. It isn’t about burton and a 1-0 win because we are sure to have a lot more demanding matches than this one. No, it’s about a feeling I got when NW started signing players early on and although a number of those are low profile you could see he wasn’t going mad on spending silly money on well known and ex Cardiff players that a number of supporters wanted back. He was being his own man and he was looking forward not back. This team are going to be entertaining and that coming from me means a lot. Not since the Dave jones era can I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the game throughout the 90 minutes. I am not daft enough to realise it will be plain sailing because we will have the off day, the losses when we should have won but looking at the strength in depth now I see over the hill and it’s looking good.
    Like you I believe we are just one player short in midfield and maybe after the departure of a few more players that may happen.
    We do have a test next week and at wolves the following week so a better assessment can be made after those games and Sheffield Utd in between.
    I thought the team played so well yesterday but there were a few scary moments in defence but we should have been a few goals up by then. The wingers played their part but they seemed to choose the wrong option at the death , they need to put that right quickly. I am sure NW saw that as well and it will be something that is going to be worked on this next week.
    All in all a good start to this campaign and I am looking forward to the villa match to really test our mantle. Onwards and upwards

  2. Russell says:

    Thanks Paul great to have your reoorts and my football review Sunday back.

    Like Barry ,yourself and I guess a few others City fans the season couldn’t start quick enough ,and one where I feel we have a real football brain in charge in NW plus the excellent and experinced back up team.

    When I saw the lind up ,like it had that draw written all over it which was reinforced after the first half so to come away with a win is a huge bonus for everyone .

    I was unable to listen to the match and have lent on other comments and reviews which suggest we did okay, the keeper was untested and wayward with his distribution a fact that us a worry , I would not be shocked to see the back 3 again as he myst be under pressure to play all 3 somehow (Perhaps we will see Manga at full inn a 4 ? )

    Gunnerson and Ralls are good engine , who might get exposed against better opposition, so perhaps another midfielder in might occur, of we get a O’keefe redux ?

    Up front looks good with back up on the bench ,perhaps short of one.

    Mendez-Laing, and Damour are the ones to excite though ,just feel they may have (big may) that leggy powers and skill to kill a game .

    We also have Ward and Patterson to look forward too which is a warming thought as we know they have ability.

    Your one nil and clean sheet comment is the key I think to our season which at this stage I’m enthused about ,even after a potential loss this coming Saturday against a Villa side needing a win ,I think we have the genesis of a decent team .

    The worse thing that could happen now is Zohore moving on due to a silly money offer ,we don’t gave to sell as his contract is signed ,he can only get better and improve his value to both himself and the club ,therfore to sell would reverberate badly through the club ,players and fans.

    Let’s do it ,difficult Burton type one nil wins ,good number of clean sheets and the odd big wins and were good, however my caution is the keeper and keeping Zohore (no pun intended )

    Thanks once again Paul.

  3. Colin Phillips says:

    Thanks, Paul, an excellent result (the three points are all that really matter) and promising start to a very long campaign.

  4. BJA says:

    Good Morning Paul and everyone else. Thanks for your usual sensible and comprehensive report. A good and promising start to the season. It reminds me of our promotion year some years back when we won at Huddersfield by a similar score and a late goal to boot as well.
    The selected team surprised a little, as I thought Mendez-Laing would have started, and we would have fielded a back four. But heck – what do I know about NW’s thinking.
    But I do know how hard it is to defend against pace, and the three substitutions that he mad in the second half appear to have provided that quality as well as energy – and that may well be in his thinking. Bringing on fresh legs with the qualities I have mentioned clearly gave us an edge.
    Ans so, when Villa come calling next week, he may well adopt the same starting eleven with the view to bringing on the same trio to stretch the Villa defence as they have a few oldies in their ranks. Certainly Hull gave them a more difficult second period yesterday. Time will tell.
    I suspect a few of the bench regulars will have a run out on Tuesday, and that will be no bad thing.

  5. Clive Rymon says:

    Hi Paul good report as usual.I was at Burton yesterday and my take on the game was that in the first half it was pretty even ,plenty of effort from both sides which you would expect on the first game of the season.The second half in my opinion was much like the first until Warnock made changes going four at the back and giving the side more width with Mendez Lang licence to attack with pace down the right with Damour supporting him.But for me the difference on the day was Zohore,what a strike long may it continue.

    My only reservation is that if he keeps that up this season unless we get promoted I would think that it would look like he might leave us for pastures new,but we can discuss that if and when it happens,he certainly looked the part yesterday.

    Finally it was good to see a big contingent of our fans their yesterday long may it continue,the championship is a long slog and the players will need all the help of the field we can give them.

  6. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Morning everyone, as always some interesting and perceptive points made in reply to my piece on our latest game.
    Barry, I agree – one more signing in midfield will do for me and based on what Neil Warnock said after the Livingston match, that’s what he’s looking for, but, listening to his pre match press conference on Friday, any new arrival will have to be completely funded by money saved from departures.
    Russell, I’ve said that I’m a bit concerned about our goalkeepers, but, apart from some wayward kicking and a tendency to punch when it seems to me he could catch, I’ve not seen anything from Etheridge yet to suggest that he is unable to do a decent job at this level – I think he’ll have to have one or two eight out of ten matches to keep Camp out when he’s fit mind.
    Colin, brief, but very succinct!
    BJA, I read somewhere that the back four used by Villa on Saturday had an average age of thirty one and had a thirty three year old Glenn Whelan patrolling in front of them. Therefore, provided we are still in the game at the time, the idea of bringing attacking pace in the form of, say, Mendez-Laing and Ward on for the last quarter of the match seems a good idea to me – Villa look potentially vulnerable to that from minute one, let alone minute seventy.
    Clive, I’m quite philosophical about the Zohore situation – if he does leave before the window closes, presumably he will have done enough to get us off to a good start. Yes, it could be awkward if any sale took place really late in August, but, despite all of his comments about us not selling Zohore, I’m sure Warnock will have a list of replacement/other new players he’d be able to bring in at very short notice.

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