If there could be a perfect team for Manchester City to play after a humbling Champions League defeat, it would be Cardiff City. The Blues smashed the Bluebirds to the tune of 5 goals to nil in what was ultimately a training session masked within an official Premier League match. Cardiff City are the easy pick to finish in last place in the league this year. They are at 3/10 betting odds to get relegated and for all of you unfamiliar, that makes them a heavy favorite to be back in the Championship next season. So this result is far from surprising, but it is encouraging to see City take care of business nonetheless.
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock and his team have a well-deserved reputation for playing an ultra-defensive, old school style of football, designed to grind out results and frustrate their opponents. To be honest, I haven’t watched any Cardiff yet this season because I value my happiness, but did buy into this reputation based on the general rhetoric that surrounded the team. Teams that play with this philosophy are generally very good at maintaining their shape and staying compact. But against City on Saturday, the Bluebirds were all over the place, coupling a defensive mindset with a chaotic marking system.
Set up in a 4-4-2, it was often difficult to actually see this shape stabilize and the lines of defense broke down frequently due to individual marking assignments. It seemed like Neil Warnock told his team to man-mark City players in the midfield. Whenever a City player would flash towards the ball, they would be aggressively tracked by a Cardiff player routinely. This is uncharacteristic for these type of teams, as they usually tend to congest the middle with a compact shape and zonal defense. Diverting from this strategy made it difficult for the Cardiff players to define clear assignments because they were constantly trading off their marks.
The other problem the Bluebirds had in this match was maintaining the discipline in the final third. As soon as the ball got into danger areas, the whole team starting ball watching and City attackers were finding areas to exploit with ease. Sergio Aguero was able to just float into the center of box at least three times for a first touch shot, one of which was City’s opening goal.
Offensively, Cardiff City was offensively bad. They had an insanely low total of 0.10 expected goals; only two events even registered on the statistical system that tracks this. I want to make an analogy here but don’t want to insult whoever I’d be comparing the Bluebirds too, they were that terrible. Alright, that’s more than enough talk about Cardiff.
Pep Guardiola deployed his team in a 4-3-3 with a ton of flexibility in where those positions were allowed to operate. With Cardiff man marking Fernandinho, Fabian Delph was frequently brought into the midfield from his left back spot to provide an additional central passing option for center backs Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte. Bernardo Silva played attacking midfield while Raheem Sterling was on the right wing, though the two often interchanged. Kyle Walker was much more involved in the attack today and his forward presence on the right opened up passing channels. Sergio Aguero dropped into the midfield for linkup play often, pulling defenders out of position and creating space in behind. We even got to see John Stones as a defensive midfielder for an extended stretch in this one when he came on for Fernandinho!
But the player that should be focused on today is Ilkay Gundogan. The German midfielder has been under fire from City fans as of late (myself included), and rightfully so. In games where he has appeared alongside Bernardo and David Silva, two of the best creative midfielders in England, Gundogan has been deferential. He’s been a guy who keeps the play moving, which can be very useful, but hasn’t coupled it with attacking runs that stretch the defense. Too often, it’s resulted in Gundogan disappearing for long stretches of the match, which is unacceptable for a player of his abilities.
Sometimes, necessity breeds quality.
With David Silva getting the day off and Bernardo spending a lot of time out wide, Gundogan was given responsibility to be the central focal point of City’s buildup against Cardiff and he certainly made the most of the opportunity. Early on, it actually seemed as if he was a player searching for confidence, missing one relatively easy chance and taking too much time to settle another opportunity that probably should have been hit first touch. But Gundogan grew with the game and was doing everything you could want from a center midfielder, being directly involved in four City goals. The beautiful strike from outside the box and assist to Mahrez speak for themselves, but he also had the secondary assist on the goals by Aguero and Bernardo.
Ilkay Gundogan is a versatile player, and that versatility sees him asked to do a number of different things for Guardiola. Understanding his role, and how it changes throughout the game, is the German’s biggest challenge. But this match is as clear an indication as any that, when Gundogan is assertive, he can be a special player.
Riyad Mahrez, another heavily criticized player, also deserves praise for his quality against Cardiff City. He came on as a substitute in the 61st minute and immediately looked more cohesive with the team than in any other appearance. His movement, both on and off ball, was much more fluid and decisive. In previous games, the Algerian maintained his width on the right to such a degree that it actually hindered his ability to get involved, looking like he was still trying to transition from the system he was accustomed to at Leicester. In Saturday’s match, he would drift centrally regularly to get involved with the buildup.
Mahrez scored two goals in this game, one a great team goal while the other was simply a great individual play. I don’t envision a scenario where Mahrez becomes a first-choice winger, but if Pep can get 30 minutes of the guy we saw against Cardiff on a consistent basis, his addition will bring City to an even more terrifying level. I’d love to see Mahrez get the start against Oxford United on Tuesday. Just let him prey on League One talent to get his confidence within the team even higher.
Maybe my optimism on Gundogan and Mahrez is a little overstated based on the fact that the Blues were facing Cardiff City (refer to start of article for how bad they are). However, perhaps the low-hanging fruit that was the Bluebirds was the necessary antidote to unlock the talent these players are known to have. Either way, taking care of business against the bad teams is a requirement for being a great team.