The strange case of Cardiff City’s inability to fire when they play with a back three.

There was a thread on the City messageboard I use most last week in which readers were invited to nominate their best Cardiff team from players who have turned out for us this Millennium. I had a go at it and was reminded of something I knew anyway – we’ve had an awful lot of good centrebacks since 1 January 2000!

A list of the candidates that I decided to leave out tells you all you need to know about the strength in depth we’ve had in this area down the years. Loyal servant and hero of the never forgotten FA Cup win over Leeds sixteen years ago Scott Young barely featured in my thoughts, James Collins, Darren Purse, Glenn Loovens, Roger Johnson, Mark Hudson, Ben Turner, Matt Connolly, Steven Caulker, Sean Morrison and Bruno Manga were considered and cast aside, while others such as Gabor Gyepes and Anthony Gerrard who were decent players for us were not considered at all and I’m sure there are one or two others that I’ve not mentioned at all who may be regarded as candidates by some.

Turning to the current day, I think all you need to say about the depth and quality we have in this area is that Connolly, our Player of the Season two years ago, someone who was a regular in Neil Warnock’s title winning QPR side in 10/11 and someone who has played an important part in three other promotions from this division since then, has barely been able to get in our matchday squad, let alone the team, this season – before anyone says ah, but he’s old and over the top now, I should inform you that he only turned thirty in September.

Switching sports for a while, it’s said that the Australian attitude in cricket towards the selection and captaincy of their test team is to pick their best eleven players and then the one who seems to have the most in terms of leadership qualities becomes captain. The claim back in the eighties was that someone like England’s Mike Brearley, a fairly ordinary batsman who was still picked by the selectors for his outstanding ability as a captain, would never have got near the Australian team.

This is relevant as far as Cardiff City in 2017/18 is concerned, because, if it was ever decided that the best eleven players at the club would be selected every week, if fit and available, then I believe that Morrison, Manga and Sol Bamba (who was one of the two centrebacks in my team of the Millennium selection along with Danny Gabbidon) would be there in the side game after game.

This is why I’ve been an advocate of us playing three centrebacks for the last few years. I was pushing the merits of playing Connolly, Morrison and Manga as a central defensive trio before Bamba signed for the club and spent the summer of 2016 looking forward to watching the three of them launch a new era of possession based, cultured football at the club founded on a defensive unit comprising three players who were well above the standard of the average level of performance in that area at this level.

Well, we all know what happened to Paul Trollope’s Brave New World! I think it’s probably fair to say that when the highly regarded coach was sacked less than two months into the campaign, the main reason why we found ourselves last but one in the Championship was more to do with our inability to put the ball in the opposition net than keeping it out of our own, but, nevertheless, three at the back had not worked and there were very few dissenting voices when new manager Neil Warnock opted for a more orthodox back four in his early matches in charge.

Yet, I suspect that even our manager, who I believe would be happy to accept the description “football traditionalist” for some of what that term entails at least, must have looked at his squad in training and wondered how he could get three out of Connolly, Morrison, Manga and Bamba into his starting line up.

This might explain why it was a back three put in an appearance at times as last season was transformed from a relegation struggle into a comfortable mid table ending that even included the sniff of a top six finish at times. It may also explain why, as Connolly drops out of contention, Neil Warnock still seems to want to get the names Morrison, Manga and Bamba on his team sheet this season.

Mr Warnock has been in charge at Cardiff for getting on for sixteen months now and going into matches with three centrebacks has remained a theme, albeit an intermittent one, of that period.

As someone who has championed this cause for years, you would think that I would be all in favour of that, but, after watching our 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough yesterday evening, I admit defeat – the current crop of City centrebacks are just not suited to playing three at the back and the system should be consigned to the dustbin for the foreseeable future!

I say that even though I daresay some would look at that final score and conclude that, by keeping a clean sheet, which ensures we are 80 per cent of the way towards achieving the pre season target of fifteen, the system must have worked – after all, isn’t the first priority for any centreback to defend the goal of the side they are playing for?

My answer to that question has always been yes it is, but I would argue that, this time at least, the reason we didn’t concede a goal wasn’t because of the performance of our centrebacks, it was despite it!

I don’t know whether it’s because having that extra insurance through the middle that having three centrebacks, as opposed to two, should provide causes a feeling of uncertainty or, possibly, complacency whereby you get the thought “someone else can deal with that rather than me” or not, but, whatever the reason, cases where Neil Warnock’s use of three centrebacks can be classed as conspicuous successes are thin on the ground.

Yes, the formation may have worked to a fashion (as it did yesterday I suppose) on the odd occasion, but is our goals against record when we play with a back four under this manager worse than when we play with a back three? Not having access to the sort of comprehensive statistical and analytical data that is considered to be the norm at professional football clubs these days, I cannot provide the definitive answer to the question I ask, but I strongly suspect that it is no, it isn’t – in fact it’s better!

To repeat, although the first priority when playing in a back three should be defending, the theory is that the standard of passing out from the back should be improved because there will be a little bit of extra time on the ball for each of the three players involved. So, it could be argued that this will in turn lead to an improvement in the quality of attacking play – if there is evidence to suggest that this has happened when we play three at the back, then it it is too subtle for me to have noticed it. Last night for example, I’d say it could be argued that this happened for the first half an hour or so, but, overall, we gave another demonstration as to why only two sides in the top half of the Championship (Middlesbrough and Preston) have scored less goals than us.

To look at our three centrebacks individually, Manga had another of those “dreamy” games where you wonder if his mind is completely on the task in hand. As far as Sean Morrison is concerned, the fact that we have conceded just once in the four games since he came back from injury only strengthens the suspicion that, out of all of the players who have suffered medium to long terms injuries this season, he is the one whose absence caused the most problems.

However, even the player I’d rate as our most consistent defender this season allowed the man he was supposed to be marking to make a run in behind him which could have resulted in us going 1-0 down in the first half and, while the main blame for what was, arguably, Wednesday’s best chance of the game lie with Joe Ralls for a wayward header, I thought it was a situation which Morrison would usually have dealt with.

As for Bamba, he was skinned down the left inside the opening minute and that set the tone for what was, by his standards, an error strewn display, with another piece of poor defending by the left hand touchline giving our opponents the chance to create their other contender for best chance of the match.

No, although I’d again rate Morrison the best of them, our three centrebacks’ individual contributions were some way short of the standards they’ve set themselves during their time at Cardiff, while, as a unit, they again did nothing to advance the claims of a back three over a flat back four.

This time I’d say the main reasons for our clean sheet were twofold – Neil Etheridge continued his good form since being recalled to the team after a two game absence and Wednesday’s finishing was of the standard you would expect from a team that has now failed to score in five out of its last six matches.

The home side were one of my tips for a top six finish this season, but the gradual decline in the quality of their attacking play during the time Carlos Carvalhal was manager has continued until it cost the Portugese his job a month or so ago. Therefore, with an injury list that makes ours look like a minor inconvenience, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how ordinary they looked early on compared to the team that were one of the better visiting sides to come to Cardiff City Stadium this season in a 1-1 draw back in September.

Wednesday were there for the taking early on and maybe we would have done so if it were not for the dubious decision by Premier League referee Roger East to deny Kenneth Zohore what would have been the sort of goal which could have snapped him out of his current malaise. Our first choice striker is not getting much luck in front of goal at the moment, but, with Neil Warnock saying in his pre game press conference that he feels Zohore’s main problems now as he recovers from his two months out are mental not physical, I do think he lets his head drop too easily.

However, generally speaking, our performance matched that of our recent loan signing Yanic Wildschut – a lively first third and then, generally, second best. Wildschut did have our best attacking moment in what was a very barren second half when his shot from the edge of the area whistled narrowly wide, but, as Neil Warnock said after the game, he looked like someone who was making his first start in a couple of months as the game went on.

Our manager thought the same about Marko Grujic who managed to pick up a yellow card within ten minutes of his City career, brought an element of order to our midfield and then waned as an influence, before being withdrawn for Callum Paterson in what I would class as an okay debut overall.

Also, there was an unexpected plus as Kadeem Harris was named on the bench and saw his first glimpse of senior team action of the season as he replaced Junior Hoilett for the last ten minutes or so.

Finally, to return to Messrs Morrison, Manga and Bamba, there are two other methods by which Neil Warnock has managed to get the three of them into the starting line up. First, the experiment of using Bamba as a sitting midfield player has had mixed results overall, but, having mentioned “conspicuous successes” earlier, I would say that term could be applied to two games when it happened (Villa at home last season and Leeds at home this) – Bamba as a midfielder appears to work when it takes opponents by surprise and I’m sure we’ll see it again.

The other method is whereby Manga is picked as a right back. There has been some criticism from fans of how Bruno fares when faced by a particularly pacey winger, but team results have generally tended to be good when he moves out wide – he also gives us a bit of quality when he goes forward from that position. With Jazz Richards back and giving the sort of good quality, quietly efficient, performances that I’d say are his trademark and Lee Peltier not far off a return seemingly, I wonder if we will see much of the Bruno at right back approach in the future, but I’d call it a success overall and, to show how much my attitude has changed, would prefer it now to a Morrison, Manga, Bamba back three!





This entry was posted in Out on the pitch and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The strange case of Cardiff City’s inability to fire when they play with a back three.

  1. Russell says:

    Thanks Paul for your summary of a game we should have won easily in the first half ,these missed chances games can come back and haunt you and nearly did in the second half, therfore a draw pehaps in hindsight was a good result in the end .
    With regards to our defenders I believe it can only work if you have defenders with good recoverable pace and I think our defenders lack that , so yes back four is the only answer.

    Our midfield looked better with the new lad in , e showed promise , reminds me of that Newcastle midfielder we has some time back (named started with V ) however we must remember he is very young and inexpeinced at this level, it’s doesn’t always ring true that a premiership player stepping down into this league is likely to become an instant hit .

    I felt the team showed great improvement in their passing game, but we certainly lack a poacher in the box .

    I also felt we ran ourselves into the ground in the first half and that showed in the second half where we saw the Owls got the upper hand , thank god for Etheridge , he went close to being my MOM along with Richards .

    Let’s hope we see a striker in soon like Lewis (lets) grabone ,as we need one or play Healey off Zohore’s shoulder.

    I did thi k Zohore’s goal was legit .

    Bring on the Pep.

  2. Anthony O'Brien says:

    In his (as always) thoughtful and comprehensive report, Paul hits the nail on the head when he mentions the ease with which the Wednesday strikers managed to get in behind our central defenders. There has tended to be a weakness all season among the central defenders when opponents come in from wide and wrong-foot them, but sneaking in behind them in the goal area, as happened more than once yesterday, is rather worrying. It was something I didn’t really expect.

    I see that Mr Warnock hopes to sign a striker fairly soon. Kenneth Zohore showed what he was capable of when he barged past a defender and curled a superlative ball into the net, only for the goal to be disallowed. But really, that was almost his only contribution as an out and out striker, apart from one attempt when he took too long moving the ball to his left foot and then just prodding it as he raced towards goal. He has abilities but is rarely showing them, or not getting the opportunity to do so. In the old jargon phrase, he flatters to deceive (where “deceive” means to disappoint).
    What fun we had on Friday standing in a crowd for nearly three hours waiting to buy tickets for next Sunday’s showdown. Neil Warnock came out at one point (to a very good response) and jokingly called out “Where were you all this season?” It was only after he was long gone that I realised I should have replied “We are all season ticket holders here”. As is always the way, the telling response came too late. What struck me about the crowd, however, was the patience and good humour of everyone as we waited and shivered in the cold wind. It was a kind of “Dunkirk spirit” and I congratulate everyone who was there.

  3. Colin Phillips says:

    Nice accurate report, Paul.

    I don’t we have good enough ‘footballers’ to play a back three, Manga when he is in the mood is capable but I feel Bamba and Morrison will always struggle. I think you are right when you say the responsibility is spread to thin and in the end no-one takes it. Bemba was uncharacteristically poor last night, seemed to want to spend too much time on the ball.

    With a little more composure we should have had the game won in the first quarter.

    Not sure about the new members of the team, Wildschut faded badly after a promising start and Grujic went close to scoring but the keeper made a good save. Much too soon, of course to make judgements on these two.

    With most of the sides at the top dropping points we really could have done with a win but in the end it was a game we could easily have lost.

  4. P R says:

    On the whole it was a good point, but once again we are on the wrong end of a poor decision.
    I dont believe they balance themselves out and why should we be looking for it to do just that. Refs standards need to improve.
    Zahore is not a target man and needs the ball played into the channels as happened last night and last week when he set up Ralls. We may see more of it now Grujic is in the centre.
    Bamba was shocking last night. We are all allowed an off one though.
    Morrison is stability personified.
    Manga, what dream is he reliving at times.
    Richards, unlucky not to score and we need his pace. As with Bennett.
    Wildschutt is looking a great acquisition. Let this team settle and a few more games under their belts along with another striker, and who knows.

  5. DJ says:

    Do you feel the Zohore “foul” was a result of a number of managers previously commenting on Warnock’s tactics? A “lose the battle but win the war” post-game interview tactic. I didn’t see much/anything wrong with what Zohore did, although the keeper may have tried harder if not hearing the whistle.

  6. BJA says:

    Paul – Thanks once again for your perceptive analysis of our defensive formations, and I, too, just about prefer the three centre back scenario to the two, on the proviso that the wing backs, whoever they are, do track back to perform their dual role.
    Certainly on Saturday their were some moments when Messrs. Bamba. Morrisson and Manga were found wanting, and we would have been punished had the Wednesday forwards not been so wasteful. That Rhodes and Joao failed with at least four great scoring chances resulted in our clean sheet, but I must congratulate Etheridge on his positional play which kept our goal intact.
    I think we all must accept that every player can have an off day, and I just hope that Bamba has got his out of his system. A colossus for most of the season, he took Saturday to demonstrate that he is human with a number of poor decisions. I accept that Bruno is no right back ( lack of pace being his main problem ) but he reads the game well and if the wing back on the right is able to provide the defensive support necessary, I am happy with the three incumbents that presently form our central defence.
    On the subject of the right wing back, as both Patterson and Richards are full internationals, I am happy for either to take this position. I think I would just about prefer the former because of his attacking heading abilities with Richards waiting on the bench.
    I though Grukic had a fairly sound debut and will be a welcome addition to the mid-field. Wildschut faded after a promising start, and needs some more time on training field but looked like a useful addition. But he too needs to understand that there are defensive responsibilities he must undertake, whether on the right or left.
    I felt sorry for our Ken as his alleged “foul” before his “goal” was not recognised by the linesman standing a few feet away and Mr East’s decision was perplexing and I am unsure on what was the basis for his ruling. Ken needs to have a little more composure, but it will not be too long before he appears on the score sheet.
    This league is an unforgiving. With Villa and Fulham on the march, and ‘Boro and Sheff Utd over their bad patches, we seem to be in Bristol City’s territory at the moment, somewhat becalmed and we need to up or game somewhat or the top six may well fade away in the coming weeks to have been no more than a hopeful aspiration. That would be an enormous disappointment, and could impact on NW’s future involvement with the City.
    I see that we are still linked with Grabban amongst others. If this involves a fee, then I hope Mr. Tan will authorise this expenditure. I do not wish to see any more loan signings – Bryson, Feeney, Wildschut and Grukic are enough.

  7. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Just about to go out for the day, so these comments in reply to your much appreciated messages can only be very brief.
    Russell, we did put an awful lot into our matches in the early part of the season and so fatigue has to be a consideration in any debate as to why we’ve been unable to maintain the level of performance seen in August and in various matches in the autumn, but I’d like to think that it would be a few weeks yet before we started to show obvious signs of wilting through tiredness.
    Anthony, Neil Warnock mentioned the incident with the queue you refer to in his pre match press conference on Friday. He also had something to say about what I believe he sees as below par home crowds at his meeting with supporters in November and now Sol Bamba’s wife has been having a go on social media as well it seems – it looks like manager and team are disappointed by the size of home crowds this season and I’m with them about that, they deserve a better level of home support than they are getting.
    Colin, although it can be said that we should have won the game on the back of Zohore’s legitimate, in my opinion anyway, goal, I also think that on the balance of play, Wednesday were the team who had most cause to think they deserved more from the game than they got, therefore I’m happy enough with the point.
    PR, welcome on board and, as stated above, I agree with you over the disallowed goal. Also, one of our regular correspondents pointed out after the Mansfield game how much the foul count is going against us lately and that trend continued again on Saturday. I must say though that I thought the refs got most of the decisions right in the Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday matches, but, having now watched the whole of the Mansfield match on the club website, I agree with those fans who were at the match who commented that the ref was a right “homer”. Even then though, Mansfield thought that Junior Hoilett should have been sent off and, having seen the tackle a few times now, I’d say it was one which could have gone against us. Similarly, Hoilett launched into a tackle on Saturday in the first ten minutes which, for me at least, more worthy of a red card than the which saw that Sunderland player sent off last weekend – we do get wrong decisions against us, but, then so do most clubs and I don’t really share the view that we suffer more than others with this sort of thing.
    As with PR, welcome to the blog DJ. I think you might be right about the decision to disallow Zohore’s goal and, although it’s impossible to know for sure, I don’t think the keeper would have saved it if play had been allowed to go on.

  8. Barry Cole says:

    Nice summary and spot on about the three at the back. I think the three options of three at the back , Bamba in midfield and manga at right back have all got their merits but the decision to play whichever against opponents is down to NW. if as you can see in the 0-0 draw on Saturday we let Sheffield off when we should have possibly changed the formation quickly when they were being overpowered early on by bringing Patterson on.
    With players coming back and new forwards on the horizon I am at odds with putting players on the bench who are not either fully fit or game fit and to bring them on in a game we should have won replacing players that were spent but had more quality. The decision to bring on Mendez Lang and Kadeem Harris I thought was nothing short of saying it’s a draw we will just see if something happens out of the ordinary.
    With Mendez Lang’s previous dozen games I cannot see him being considered for the match day squad and with kadeem I just could not see him influencing the game whatsoever because of his lack of game time.
    The defence were lucky not to concede all thanks to the poor finishing of Wednesday forwards.
    I still cannot understand the exclusion of Paterson and the plus factor of Richards will have had something to do with that. Paterson is not only a goal scorer but he is a creator and boy are we short of that.
    Another forward is on the cards and I hope it’s grabbham rather than McGoldrick:

    So we go into the final few months with a. Dry strong team both on the field and on the bench.
    This week we test ourselves against what is the best team in Europe . Liverpool showed how to beat them by high pressing but they were hanging on at the end.
    If NW is really to be believed that Bamba manga and Morrison will be able to consider themselves premier defenders then Sunday’s test will show it one way or the other.

  9. HarryKirtley'sGhost says:

    Your fine quality is almost matched here by some quite illuminating observations from your contributors.
    I don’t have to necessarily agree with all those comments to find them thought-provoking: but what the heck, I have to admit to like reading opinions that run counter to mine.
    And similarly, I hope than all of our MAYA gang will tolerate my regular swimming against the stream, on the basis that at least my barking up the wrong tree is a pleasant sound in a footballing world where Deafness Rules, and contrarians are seen as people who rock the boat.
    Remember folks, we can disagree here, Paul is remarkable in that he gives us all free rein. But the important thing is that when we disagree, we disagree in an agreeable way.

    So with that preamble over, here is my two cents’ worth…

    Neil Etheridge: the more I see of this boy, the more I like him. I love his speed off the line, and I like the length of his kicking. Just stop trying to find touch on the halfway line though…leave that to the egg-chasers at The Arms Park. Try aiming at that giant Visit Philippines sign at the back of the opposite stand.

    Kenneth Zohore: As AMO says, the boy has lead weights in his boots. Surely such an otherwise fine athlete can be taught to jump, can’t he…? Can’t he attend the Welsh Gymnastics Centre at Sophia Gardens for weekly coaching? Or failing that, now and then try throwing a Jacky Jumper under his feet.
    But one thing for sure, as of the moment, he is not a centre forward, because of this inability to leave the ground. Morrison would still be my centre forward of choice, although perversely, his vertical standing jump is not the best either…but he is lethal when running forward at the high ball.
    That said, NW does not think outside the square that much…so our Great Defecator and proud team captain, will remain a centre half.

    Bruno Manga: a candidate for the title of our most casual player of all time. When NW signed Sol Bamba, he apparently told him that he would be ideal for Cardiff as long as he quit behaving like he was Franz Beckenbauer (something that Bamba alas is still far too prone to believing, as evinced at Hillsborough on Saturday). But I have to say that if Bamba is Beckenbauer, then Manga is David Luiz…on Nitrazepam.
    Bruno…your job is to get the ball into the other half of the field, and not play suicidal fancy-pants football in your own half.

    Sol Bamba: I wish that Hillsborough was a one-off. Alas it was not. We have seen casual dwelling on the ball and wayward distribution and cracks in his temperament, all manifest themselves from time to time.
    That said however, when he brings his A-game to the table, he is truly an inspiration.

    Marko Grujic: Now I have to admit to once being a racist. Let me explain.
    Although in 1965, as a pseudo Young Communist, I worked as a labourer in Yugoslavia in a Youth Camp on the banks of the River Sava, (and slept in a massive dormitory with youths from all six devolved republics of the then Tito run state), I soon developed a feeling that Serbs were the real hotheads of the Yugoslav people…an animus that ran full throttle in me for many years. Certainly the events of Ninian Park 22nd May 1976, right up to the shocking events of Srebrenica, 11th-22nd of July, 1995, did nothing to disabuse me of that prejudice. And watching Serbian eyes well-up at that awful one stringed gusle, that sounds like a cat in pain…well, that has not helped either.
    And then there’s that nutter playing centre forward for the Toon, that boy with a boiling point of zero whom even teammate Jonjo Shelvey is a calming influence…

    But one man has done more than you could think possible to rehabilitate Serbs in my eyes. And that man is Novak Djokovic. What an absolute gentleman, so noble in victory and magnanimous in defeat. And probably the greatest athlete in the world…and if not him, then it will be another tennis player, methinks

    Which brings me back to our Marko.

    When he pulled that opponent back and was yellow carded, just ten minutes or so into the game, all my old prejudices came flooding back. Idiot…putting himself and team under silly unnecessary pressure, for the rest of the game. And something about his physique, gait and playing style brought to mind Filip Kiss…and that too gave me the shivers.

    That said, he had a decent shot at goal…he was clearly by this act trying to tell his colleagues to stop trying to walk the ball into the net.

    Gee we were lucky to play against such a toothless Wednesday team. Against a good opponent, we would have shipped in five goals.

    As for our disallowed one…look, regular MAYA readers will know I worship the teachings of the great Charles Hughes, and only recently wrote of my admiration for the current Malcolm Macdonald throwback, Jordan Hugill. I love hustle and bustle.

    But I also know the Laws of the Beautiful Game. Alas it has changed diametrically when it comes to the shoulder charge.

    I can remember as a kid seeing Trevor Ford charge Bert Trautmann after taking a five yard run at him with shoulder pointed…and the great noble ex P.O.W. moving with ball in hand but shoulder pointed ready to meet Trevor’s. And how the crowd cheered…!! One of my earliest memories at Ninian Park. It was like two stags in rutting season. Unforgettable.

    But times have changed so much so that although shoulder-to-shoulder “coming together” is allowed, (i.e. where the weaker player is bounced off by the stronger), the actual act of deliberately shoulder charging an opponent is not. And what made our Ken’s “wonder goal that never was” doubly invalid, was the fact that if you look closely, Ken’s shoulder does not meet the Wednesday boy’s shoulder, bicep to bicep, but collides with the fella’s shoulder blade instead…i.e. hits him slightly from behind.
    And what makes the “goal” triple invalid, is the fact that the Wednesday keeper hears the whistle and makes no real effort to save.
    And to be consistent for the record, I would have disallowed Roberto Firmino’s infamous recent goal, which resulted from a charge slightly in the back of John Stones.
    Not that I am any fan of Stones…now there is a guy who doubtless thinks he is the secret lovechild of Franz…!!
    I have this advice to Mr Stones…take the “Beck” out of Beckenbauer, and learn to play like John B himself…a “no nonsense” player.
    But if you ever follow Beck into management , stop short of his black arts like ensuring the visiting team – and sometimes his own team too (!!) – had only cold showers…

  10. HarryKirtley'sGhost says:

    OMG…I have just seen the Headless Man doing the fascist salute, and it truly is a ROTFL moment…!!
    But beware Bluebirds fans: we are sure to have some fans trying to emulate Leeds.
    Can you imagine a Cardiff crest showing a player “doing the Ayatollah” …????
    Funny, yes. But be on our guard.

Comments are closed.