Ask Bluebirds anywhere to describe Joe Ralls and prior to last Saturday’s game against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, not many of those responses would have contained too many negative elements. Fast forward to Sunday morning and judging by the mainstream media reaction, you would think he’d been unmasked as Vinnie Jones’ padawan. A thug capable of mindless violence.
Whether or not Joe Ralls should have been shown the red card for his foul on Lucas Moura is still dividing supporters, although it must be said very few opposition supporters feel Ralls was unduly punished. The only aspect that seems to be up for debate is whether it was a red or yellow. That said, the FA appeal failed and Joe now faces sitting out the next three Cardiff City matches against Fulham (home), Liverpool (away) and finally Leicester at home.
Both of those home games could play a pivotal role in Cardiff City’s final league position and to lose a player that Warnock affectionately refers to as his “Ralls Royce,” could be seen in some quarters as a huge blow. Warnock clearly likes Ralls and sees him as perfectly capable of playing at the Premier League level, but does this reflect reality and could his suspension actually become something of a blessing in disguise?
Ralls’ story so far
Joe Ralls has been in the starting XI for all eight of Cardiff’s Premier League matches so far. Barring Burnley at home, where he was substituted in the 79th minute for Gary Madine as the Bluebirds chased a way back into the game, he has been an ever present, until his early exit from the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday.
Many Cardiff City supporters have a deep affection for Ralls and he is very much the closest thing they have to an academy graduate, but sentiment aside, Ralls has left many Bluebirds underwhelmed this season.
The interesting thing is that Ralls plays more passes each game than both of his midfield colleagues (Harry Arter and Victor Camarasa), but his pass completion rate is lower than both of them. See below for a detailed comparison:
The stats show that Ralls can compete with his more experienced colleagues in many areas, but the lower pass completion rate demonstrates perfectly the most frustrating element of his game; his lack of composure at key moments.
For those of that have watched Cardiff in regularly this season, there have been all too many occasions where Ralls has wasted possession when he could have (and perhaps should have) done much, much better.
A measure of composure in the centre of the pitch is a key element at the top levels of football. None of the successful sides have functioned without this very thing (see Kante’s effect at Chelsea) and this is where we see a potential improvement in his obvious replacement.
Gunnar’s time to shine
Not many sides can claim to have a World Cup captain in their side, but in Aron Gunnarsson, Cardiff have a genuine, blue-chip central midfielder. The Icelandic warrior, that bravely lead his team into the Russian World Cup against Argentina et al, can count himself extremely unfortunate to have not played so far this season, due to a recurrence of an old injury. With his return on the cards, does this represent a real opportunity for Gunnarsson to steal Ralls’ starting berth and make it his own? In theory, yes.
Gunnarsson has played enough top-level football for Iceland and Cardiff to show that he is more than capable of providing the very thing that the Bluebirds have been sorely lacking this season; composure on the ball and a steely defence of his back line.
Cardiff City had one of the sturdiest defences last season in the Championship, but have only kept two clean sheets since stepping into the Premier League. The back four have been all too often let down by a serious lack of protection from their midfield.
Gunnarsson can offer a serious buffer to the backline. He is excellent at cutting out passing lanes and is more capable in the challenge than all three of the existing Cardiff midfielders. Bamba and Morrison can relax somewhat knowing that Gunnarsson is there to assist and he will undoubtedly offer some comfort.
In addition to this, his presence frees up the more creative duo of Arter and Camarasa, who will be released to play further up the pitch and create more chances in the attacking third.
Composure and character and just two of the things that Gunnarsson can bring to the team. When you add his goal scoring ability and long-throw skills to the mix, he looks an enticing replacement for an underachieving Ralls.
This is not intended as a personal criticism of our very own Ralls Royce. He is and will always be a beloved Bluebird, but sentiment has to take a back seat sometimes. In the cold, Icelandic light of day, it may just be time for the Iceman to step in and bring some cold steel to a Cardiff defence that has been shaking at it’s foundations.