Neil Harris took charge of the Bluebirds last November, taking over the reins from Neil Warnock, the man who guided Cardiff to the top division in 2018. In his maiden term, Harris steered his new side into fifth, three places, and 27 points behind his predecessor in their previous promotion push.
Although they may not have matched the exact achievements of two years, Cardiff and Harris are on the right track to reassailing the top six once again and a potential return to the promised land. This tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will assess why the Welsh club are in good condition to fight for a spot in the highest echelon of English football. This analysis will also investigate the tactics that benefited Harris, some modeled on those implemented by Warnock himself.
Why fix what ain’t broke?
Following the dismissal of Warnock, Harris was hired five days later with Cardiff in 14th, just eight points above the relegation zone. Fast forward nine months and the Bluebirds were soaring to a possible promotion, yet fate landed in Fulham’s corner as the Cottagers prevailed across the two-legged tie.
Although the transformation was impressive, Harris actually stuck with several of the basics that head worked so efficiently under the former manager. Firstly, he entrusted his faith in many of the individuals that had already played for Warnock. Nine of those who featured in the final fixture of 2017/18 were also in the matchday squad for the semi-final defeat to Fulham. Sean Morrison, Joe Bennett, Junior Hoilett, and Joe Ralls all began the game, whilst Neil Etheridge, Callum Patterson, Sol Bamba, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, and Danny Ward were either amongst the substitutes or in the starting XI.
Keeping a consistent core was key to Cardiff’s turn around, especially as all of the names mentioned had appeared in their Premier League escapades and therefore knew what was required to attempt a similar reality. Six of those played a part in their final day victory over Manchester United, with Cardiff already confined to the bottom three.
Aside from a few loanees, Harris hardly altered the squad that had been left for him. Therefore, if he can do the same again, minus a couple of additions or losses, then he will have a reliable unit that knows how one another functions.
This is transferred across the sharing of the goalscoring duties. Cardiff have managed a steady goal return in the past few campaigns, knocking in 69 in 2017/18 and 68 in 2019/20, the latter being the third highest in the Championship. On the other hand, they have rarely heralded an emphatic goal scorer, distributing the spoils across the team to further reinforce the togetherness in the camp and less reasonability on one person. Patterson netted ten for Warnock, whilst Lee Tomlin was top marksmen for Harris with eight.
The knack of competing or even defeating their closet league rivals has also been a characteristic that has run through into Harris’ reign. On their way to finishing second, Cardiff beat both Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Middlesbrough twice, also drawing against Derby County and Fulham, all of whom finished inside the top six. This season, they beat eventual champions, Leeds United, and West Bromwich Albion, whilst holding neighboring rivals Swansea City and Fulham to a draw. If they can continue this theme, they have every right to be challenging for the top.
But change can be beneficial
This is not to say Harris had not tweaked a few elements of the Warnock system to suit his style. Cardiff were no strangers to being direct against opponents, a trait the ex-Millwall boss did not want to entirely steer clear from, but provided alternative methods alongside it. Comparing the two spells under the two coaches, it is clear Harris’ side focused more on keeping the ball on the floor, highlighted in their increased passing statistics.
On average, they managed a higher number of accurate, forward, lateral, and back passes as they aimed to maintain more possession rather than going long. Ironically, Warnock just edged in front for overall possession, managing 44.29% compared to that of 43.60% under the guidance of Harris. Interestingly, they were also behind in terms of passes into the final third, accurate progressive passes and accurate smart passes. This could suggest they are not as precise in their build-up play, but just as efficient when they get into attacking areas, emphasised by the comparable scoring records.
Cardiff also relied marginally less on set-pieces with Harris, continuing the trend of moving slightly away from a ‘route’ one approach.
Again, Harris has not completely eradicated this tactic. In fact, he utilised this strength in their highest-scoring match of the year, a 4-2 win over Birmingham City. As the corner is taken, Cardiff set three players virtually on the goal line, crowding the City ‘keeper and filling the six-yard box. After the initial header was saved, Curtis Nelson was on hand to stab in the rebound.
Compare this to their largest victory in 2017/18, a 4-1 romp over Leeds, and the parallels are extremely evident. The Blue Birds threw a barrage of bodies in front of the opposition goal, allowing Patterson a simple tap in thanks to his proximity to the net.
Harris is no stranger to the physical nature of the league, and how effective set pieces can be. Thus, if he can repeat this line of attack, teams will struggle to cope with Cardiff.
Another topic that Harris has avoided eradicating is the importance of dominating inside either 18-yard-box. Whether that be defending or attacking, the process is the same; increased numbers equals a positive result.
In their alarming 2-0 victory over Leeds in June, they were subjected to repeated pressure but were able to withstand it thanks to the commitment of players filling the box. In this clip, Cardiff have almost every player within the confines of their own area, and thanks to a terrific clearance from Will Vaulks, they contained the threat.
This reoccurred throughout the match as Leeds pressed for a route to goal, only to meet with a blue wall. This, accompanied by some wayward finishing and more excellent defending, ensured Cardiff survived another immediate onslaught.
Out of respect to the best sides, Harris set out the same plan at home to West Brom, getting six or seven men between the Baggies and their goal, only conceding via the penalty spot.
And where have Cardiff fans seen this before? The craft of Warnock of course. Against Aston Villa and Boro, both promotion hopefuls at the time, the pep talk was no different. As a result, Cardiff gained all three points and clean sheets in both fixtures, due to the art of flooding the box.
It may sound simple enough, however many have failed to master the art of protection and defending. Despite Cardiff conceding the second-most goals out of anyone within the top ten, they know what it means to put your body on the line. This attitude is crucial against the relentless and ruthless madness of the Championship, which will only become stronger the longer Harris is at the helm.
On the subject of willingness and desire, Harris has a collection of players who have been instructed to channel those qualities down the other end of the field also. In that sizeable scalp over Leeds, two goals were scored because of a dedication to run, attack, and find the back of the net.
Patterson’s come-cross-shot would have been wasteful, if not for the eagerness of Hoilett to get on the end of the ball, having already made that move to the back post in anticipation.
In the second half, it was Anthony Pilkington who was the grateful receiver of a cross, arriving just in time to slot home another Patterson assist.
Flip to the four that Cardiff put past Birmingham and again that devotion was demonstrated in the third goal that pushed the hosts clear of their visitors. Mendez-Laing’s brilliant solo run set up Ralls who was hanging back, whilst Hoilett and Leandro Bacuna made a dart for the posts. These runs took the attention away from Ralls, allowing the midfielder a clean striker at goal which he dispatched expertly.
Often, this kind of enthusiasm can outweigh quality and vitally, win a match that is finely balanced. If Harris can maintain this structure and mindset across his squad, then they will cause problems to anyone in the league.
Cardiff may be under new management, yet they have not strayed away from their ways, owed to Neil Harris and in homage to Neil Warnock. If they show the fight, consistency, and ability they have yielded in the past, then they have every right to push for Premier League promotion.