Neil Warnock faces a formation conundrum ahead of the new season as he attempts to discover a way for his Cardiff City to contain some of Europe’s best teams.
The Bluebirds make the step up to the Premier League this summer and despite ongoing improvements in the squad, they will be favourites to go down in their first season back in the top flight.
Neil Warnock and his coaching staff are tasked with finding a way to avoid that fate, and it’s made tougher than before with the strengthening of recently promoted teams like Huddersfield Town and Brighton.
Such teams are now charged with higher profile players, backed with better tactics and it’s giving so-called smaller teams a better chance than ever before.
That makes the task of staying up far more difficult and Neil Warnock will need to think long and hard about his tactics.
It’s no secret that the 69-year-old doesn’t pride himself on tactics and formations, but he will need to be a little more savvy with his approach compared to last season.
The Premier League is a very different prospect to the Championship, where you can often get through on desire alone.
The top flight will ask many questions of the Bluebirds and they need to find a way of holding some of the best players in the world, and beating some of the best teams in Europe – or at least claiming points from their illustrious rivals.
Cardiff’s most successful formation last season was undoubtedly the 4-3-3, but such an attacking formation won’t work in the Premier League.
Why? The top flight is littered with teams who charge the midfield, they want to win the game in the middle of the park. A 4-3-3 makes you vulnerable in the middle and with Cardiff’s lack of strength in midfield, they could be walked all over with such a formation.
So what’s the answer? How do they keep their threat on the wings while making themselves more defensively sound?
The home formation
Neil Warnock will have an infinite number of formations to choose from, but considering his preferred front line of three, an advanced 4-5-1 will surely suit best.
Now you can ignore the player selections above to some extent, they are just an example, especially as some areas there clearly need improving.
However, this is the sort of formation Cardiff can look to play. It gives them the ability to break as a unit, using Paterson and Ralls on the attack, something that worked well last season.
It gives them width, which is especially important with the pace and ability the Bluebirds have on the flanks.
And it also gives Warnock some piece of mind with a reliable back four and a holding midfielder, which is likely to be Gunnarsson, or Marko Grujic if he re-signs this summer.
How the formation transitions in defence
One of the most important things about Cardiff’s formation choice is how the system adjusts when they are defending.
First and foremost, before any thought of scoring, Cardiff must get things right at the back this season to give them any chance.
They must be compact and they have to make it difficult for even the best teams, such as Manchester City or Manchester United to breach them.
As you can see in the picture, this formation can become compact in defence and that makes it hard to break down.
It’s not the most adaptable or defensive formation, however, Cardiff have to be just a little more ambitious at home and so they must take a small risk on that front.
The bonus to this formation is that everyone sinks back into a natural position and it makes it easier for attacking players to do a defensive job.
The away formation
Neil Warnock trialled three (or five) at the back a few times last season and it yielded mixed results, but the Bluebirds will need to nail it this season.
For much of the away games, it may be the only system that will give them a chance of nullifying talented opposition.
This formation obviously offers defensive solidarity, though, you do need two very fit wing backs. Bennett and Richards are more than capable, and the latter works better in this system than any other.
It also keeps emphasis on wing play. Many think you have to sacrifice wingers in this system, but that comes down to choice. In an ideal world, Hoilett and Murphy, for example, would play higher up than pictured here, but Cardiff will need to make it easier for themselves to transition.
This formation, when played with wingers, does leave the midfield quite exposed at times and the two wingers will need to be weary of that.
The flip side of that, however, is that you have three strong defenders behind the midfield and it gives you licence to break forward with three attacking players.
How the formation transitions in defence
This formation transitions better than most in defence and that makes it perfect for Cardiff away from home in the Premier League.
As you can see in the picture, the two midfielders drop in between the wing backs to create a bank of four in front of the back three.
The wingers also drop in just in front, making it difficult for the opposition to use their defensive line to start a counter attack.
You’ve then got Kenneth Zohore, or whoever leads the line, breaking up play and cutting off channels, making it difficult for the opposition to play through the lines.
That can be particularly important against teams who use a player like Kevin De Bruyne or Eden Hazard to disrupt play by getting into pockets of space.
Ideally, you would use inverted wingers for this formation, so a left footer on the right and vice versa. What that helps you achieve, is you can squeeze the opposition down through the middle of the pitch where you have strength in number, giving you the best chance of regaining possession.
The inverted wingers will do that because their strong foot will be in the inside and naturally, they will force the player in possession towards their stronger foot.
The signing of Josh Murphy allows Cardiff to do that, and it will be interesting to see whether Neil Warnock uses the new winger in that way.
Areas of weakness
The best way to figure out where Cardiff need strengthening is to put the players into a preferred system like this.
There’s no telling which system Neil Warnock will opt for, however, and his preferred formations may differ.
But if Cardiff do go with these types of formations, then there are some areas where they clearly need to add.
There’s no doubt the Bluebirds need another right back, someone more defensively sound than Jazz Richards, but with more pace than Lee Peltier.
They also need another defensive midfielder to give Aron Gunnarsson competition, though, it’s understood Marko Grujic could be on his way back to South Wales this summer.
Other than that, it’s simply about options and competition for Neil Warnock and he’s already set about addressing those areas with the likes of Greg Cunningham and Alex Smithies.
(Featured image: Callum Ellis)