Cardiff and the ball have not always seen eye to eye. It’s very much a love/hate relationship. A can’t live with you, can’t live without you sort of thing.
All new Cardiff managers come armed with promises of learning to love the ball, but they all seem to draw the same conclusion; the less of the ball that Cardiff see, they better they tend to play.
Neil Harris gave it a try and before conceding defeat somewhere along the line. Mick McCarthy didn’t start out by fielding five centre backs, but that’s how it ended. Even as far back as Paul Trollope, who wanted Cardiff to play like Wales, but he meant the Euro 2016 vintage, as opposed to the Wales that used to get hammered in Georgia and Moldova.
The only one that didn’t even bother with the masquerade was Neil Warnock. In fairness, his sides have never played anything other than functional, lowest common denominator football, but usually with great success. He’s also pragmatic enough to know what he has and where their strengths lie.
That’s the thing with pragmatism, it works, and as long as it does, why would you try anything else?
Steve Morison’s Under-23 side knocked it about a bit and the assumption was that he would, over time, seek to implement a more cultivated, progressive playing style with the seniors. If you split his tenure to date in half, the first half certainly gave that impression.
Their average possession in those first 12 games was 48.5%, a significant increase on what we’ve become accustomed to. Those games included 62% of the ball against Hull and 66% versus Blackburn. Both were home games that Cardiff lost 1-0. It felt like the latter was something of a turning point because in his last 11 games, their average has dropped to 36%, and they’ve improved.
Morison took charge with Cardiff in a hole and initially, they were working hard to stand still. Since relinquishing more of the ball, results have improved, they’ve shot up the form table and started to creep up the actual table. Cardiff are more or less clear of danger, Morison has a new deal and things are looking up.
He addressed this change of approach in his press conference this morning, admitting: “We had a lot more possession early on and we did OK, but when we haven’t got the ball, we are in a really good shape. When we have the ball, we try to keep it initially, trying to secure that first or second pass. That’s the difference. We are not so quick to give the ball back. That lends itself to not having as much possession as the other team, but we have more output.”
“That helps with the personnel as well. We have wing-backs who can travel with the ball. It’s been really interesting working it all out, getting to where we are now. It’s not how we first initially wanted to play, but we have to adapt. If someone is better than you, you have to work out how to be better than them. Otherwise we’d still be scrapping at the bottom.”
Now there are a few important things to say about possession stats. They don’t give the whole picture, so they don’t reflect Cardiff’s improved shape and tactical discipline, nor their higher tempo or greater work ethic. They also, on the surface, don’t reflect where on the pitch you have control of the ball. They can be misleading, but they should never be disregarded.
Possession is a touchy subject, especially for Cardiff fans. One of the primary reasons for that is Swansea, who have a very different modus operandi. There are some that love to mock Swansea’s high possession stats, that are often inflated by sterile possession, by knocking the ball around in their own half. The thing is though, dominating the ball should never be ridiculed. It is a perfectly understandable goal because if you have it, your opponents can’t hurt you. It doesn’t always lead to success, but its still a noble pursuit.
Cardiff fans have a complicated relationship with possession. They want the chicken and the egg, or nothing at all. Cardiff’s brief flirtations with keeping the ball have often been met with impatience and derision. Play it forward, not backwards, idiot! Depending on how Cardiff are faring, the cries for a more pleasing brand of football become louder or more muted.
When Cardiff were kicking and scrapping their way to the Premier League, there were very few grumbles, but when they were neutered and rendered inadequate in the top flight, the tide started to turn. Reactive, backs to the wall football will only ever take you so far and Cardiff took it to the limit.
That is the eternal compromise. Short-term pain for long-term gain, or just extended short-term gain? Why would Warnock care about next year when he might have retired by then? How can you expect Morison to transform things while Cardiff remain in a perilous position and his job is on the line?
It all ultimately comes down to raw materials, which in Cardiff’s case are usually rather limited, and the grand vision, which Cardiff never appear to have. They do have a Cardiff way though and it has rarely, if ever, included dominating the ball. Any aspirations of doing so, while noble, go against the very essence of what the club has come to represent and their complicated relationship with the ball therefore looks set to continue.