Cardiff's direct, no-nonsense style can test Manchester City
On Saturday, the greatest stylistic mismatch of the 2018-19 Premier League campaign takes place when promoted Cardiff City, managed by Neil Warnock, host Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
The statistics tell the story effectively. Man City's pass completion rate this season is 90 percent, a reflection of their determination to build patiently from the back and move the ball through a technically proficient midfield trio.
Cardiff, on the other hand, have a pass completion rate of just 64 percent. With an emphasis on territory rather than possession, their approach is largely about knocking long balls into the channels for centre-forwards to chase. In terms of short passes and through balls, the clubs are at similarly opposite extremes.
Cardiff have won 29 aerial duels per game -- the most in the league -- while Man City's figure is 11.8; only Fulham's total is lower. At 2.2 per game, Cardiff have managed the fewest shots on target; Man City average the most, with nine.
In short, Cardiff vs. Manchester City now is what Stoke vs. Arsenal was a decade ago and that comparison can be extended to the level of ferocity in challenges, as evidenced by the clubs' FA Cup meeting last January.
Predictably, Cardiff attempted to unsettle their opponents with a series of strong challenges, which culminated in Joe Bennett's reckless lunge on Leroy Sane, an attempted "tactical foul" that crossed the line into the realm of a horror challenge. The German international winger was somewhat fortunate that he was "only" out injured for two weeks.
Bennett, meanwhile, was lucky for a different reason in the he was only shown a yellow card, but he subsequently saw red for on Brahim Diaz. Sergio Aguero also limped off after a heavy tackle. Guardiola fumed at Cardiff's level of physicality and marched onto the pitch at full-time to confront referee Lee Mason.
"I said many times: the only thing they [referees] have to do is protect the players," Guardiola said. "Please protect the players. Not the Manchester City players, [all] the players...every team can play how they want. If they decide to play in that way, perfect. But there is one man, in black; he has to decide what is correct and incorrect."
Never one to hit back at a rival manager, Warnock responded. Ignoring the fact that the game took place in Wales, the Cardiff manager's argument was the stereotypical one that, more than in any other major European country, English football is about hard tackling.
"They dished out a bit as well," Warnock said. "I think they had one or two naughty ¬tackles. He is in England, isn't he, what do you expect? I suppose when you're like that, you want everything to be nice and pretty, but you don't get that in England."
This weekend's challenge for Man City, though, is more than about physicality and refereeing because Cardiff offer a different tactical challenge for Guardiola's players. Again, January offers a pointer.
"They've a different play style to everyone else, they play man against man on the whole pitch; it's a little weird," Kevin De Bruyne said after January's game. "[Vincent Kompany] was always free so we worked the midfield to let him through."
Man City's captain pushed up into midfield that day, acting as a deep-lying playmaker in the absence of a midfielder in space, and Kompany could be just as important this time around, though possibly for a different reason.
Guardiola's first-choice partnership in the middle of defence this season has been John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, who happen to be his most technical centre-backs. Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi are far more suited to aerial battles and there will be plenty to contest against a Cardiff side that will attempt to launch the ball into the box whenever possible, particularly at set pieces.
Centre-back and captain Sean Morrison is outstanding at timing his jumps and among the Premier League's most threatening players in the air. Cardiff's goals at Chelsea last weekend was a classic example of his threat: A free kick was floated toward the far post, where Morrison headed across goal for Sol Bamba, his central-defensive partner, to score.
Morrison also boasts a dangerous long throw that, though not quite on the level of Rory Delap, is useful in the opposition half, to create danger and also inside his own as it forces opponents to turn as Cardiff gain territory.
Wales is as much a rugby country as a football one and Cardiff's approach is sometimes more reminiscent of that sport. Their forwards have proved ineffective -- Bobby Reid has been lively without ever really convincing -- but, when Cardiff can throw the big men up from the back, they look dangerous.
With Stoke having been relegated, it is natural to cast Cardiff as their replacement in the Premier League, so we are duty-bound to mention the words "wet" and "windy." It is ideal, then, that this game follows a week that has seen Great Britain and Republic of Ireland battered by Storm Ali, which has brought winds of up to 100 mph. Rain is forecast throughout Saturday afternoon in the Welsh capital.
Being considered brutal and direct might not be an enviable situation, but at least Cardiff have an identity. Their only previous Premier League season, 2013-14, was a forgettable affair notable only for controversy involving manager Malky Mackay and the fact their home kit was, ludicrously, red rather than the traditional blue. They finished bottom and disappeared without too much notice.
Warnock's might not avoid the drop this time around, either, and bookmakers consider them shortest-price to be relegated. If they are, however, at least they will have had a coherent plan and, though January's game vs. Man City suggest they perhaps take it literally at times, some fight.