How the hell are Cardiff City in 14th place?

during the Premier League match between Cardiff City and Southampton FC at Cardiff City Stadium on December 8, 2018 in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Don’t look now, but it’s almost Christmas, and Cardiff City are in 14th place, four points above the drop zone. It’s safe to say this wasn’t in the script. Neil Warnock may be a promotion specialist, but he’s hardly a survival specialist, and the side has been assembled on a considerably smaller budget than most of the league. They were unanimous choices to go right back down. Has something weird come through the Rift?

A look at their results suggests otherwise. All but one of their 14 points have been gained at home, and that one away point was against Huddersfield, who had been reduced to ten for the final half-hour. Moreover, with one exception, those home results were also gained against fellow relegation candidates (Newcastle, Fulham, Southampton) or teams reduced to ten men (Brighton). The Bluebirds have produced only one surprise result, a 2-1 home win over Wolves.

So this isn’t a set of wandering aliens with a penchant for football – it’s a side picking up points against teams around their level, doing the job at home, getting a few breaks, and delivering the odd upset. At the moment they’re the best of the rest, and that’s all they’ll ever need to be.

Stylistically, they’re as extreme as you might imagine. They play a higher percentage of long balls than anyone else in the league (23.5% to Burnley’s 21.1%). They care not a jot for possession, having the ball a mere 40.9% of the time, which would be the second lowest ever recorded for a full season. Their pass completion percentage is a ridiculously low 64.0, which would be the lowest in the last eight years.

But this isn’t just a team of cloggers. Left-winger Josh Murphy, a big summer buy from Norwich City, has been a revelation with his pace and direct running. Victor Camarasa, on loan from Real Betis, is a sound technical midfielder with a good range of passing. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, coming back from injury, impressed last week on the right with driving runs, crosses and a hard shot. Kadeem Harris has shown promise in a wide role as well.

The striker is Callum Paterson, and he’s most definitely a clogger – which is most definitely a compliment. After playing both right-back and central midfield, he was moved up front, where he’s clogged with the best of them. He has four goals from open play, the same as Glenn Murray. He’s created twice as many chances as Murray, and wins a higher percentage of aerials. He showed his opportunistic side last weekend when he latched onto a Jannik Vestergaard blunder to score the winner against Southampton. Right now I’d rank him the second-best central striker among the relegation candidates, behind only Aleksandar Mitrovič.

The midfield, Camarasa excluded, is what you’d call functional. Harry Arter, on loan from Bournemouth, does the piratical work; Joe Ralls and Aron Gunnarsson keep the ball moving. You’d like a little more creativity, but Cardiff aren’t Leicester City and couldn’t afford James Maddison. There’s some potential excitement in pacy Bobby Reid, who arrived from Bristol City in the summer, and plays in attacking midfield or as withdrawn forward. He has yet to convince completely, but still has a goal and assist to his name.

In central defence, Cardiff have their very own Dunk-and-Duffy in Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison. Bamba is the guy who roams just a bit too much, but makes the spectacular plays; Morrison is the man who stays put and sends back everything he receives. At right-back, Bruno Ecuele Manga has come on strong in recent weeks, and is starting to show himself a fine defender. Joe Bennett is the usual left-back; he gets forward more and can provide a useful cross.

The keeper is Neil Etheridge, 62 caps for the Philippines, notable as the first player from that nation to appear in the Premier League. He made a splash with two penalty kick saves early in the season, although his overall shot-stopping numbers aren’t the best. Football in the Philippines has always been a poor second to basketball, but the national side has made great strides in recent years, and qualified for the 24-team Asian Cup this coming January. It’s their first-ever appearance, and Etheridge will be between the sticks. Alex Smithies, an experienced Championship keeper with Huddersfield and QPR, should take his place.

As suggested, a major weakness is a lack of creativity. Cardiff have recorded eight assists, an amazing six of which have come from defenders. Camarasa has provided the most key passes, but as yet only one has been cashed in. With Mendez-Laing making a bid for a winger spot, we might see a few more chances created. If you’re wondering about dead-ball situations, a third of their goals have come that way, right in the middle of the pack percentage-wise. Morrison gets his share of chances on corner kicks, and you figure eventually he’ll put a few in the net.

Warnock is as old-school as they come, but it’s not just 4-4-2 and run around a bit. He’s used both 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-4-1, with the latter providing more success. Against Wolves’ front three he came up with a surprise 3-1-4-2, Murphy as a second striker, and delivered the upset. Cardiff also went with much less long ball than usual at West Ham, keeping things for 45 minutes. And while the team may not be prolific, they’re certainly resourceful: three of their four wins have come from losing positions.

What are the prospects? If they just keep doing what they’re doing, it might turn out alright. Unfortunately they’ve used up the majority of their easier home matches: only Huddersfield and Crystal Palace remain among likely relegation candidates. Their remaining games in the first half of the season are Watford (A), Manchester United (H), Crystal Palace (A). So when we make the turn for home, they might have dropped a place or two in the table.

But this is nowhere near The Side That Doesn’t Belong. They’re competitive at the bottom part of the table, which is all you could reasonably expect. And guess what? The xG numbers show they’re actually underachieving in both attack and defence, and could easily have a much better goal difference.

Warnock has been known to divide opinion, but the Bluebirds are an enjoyable story, and few would begrudge him a success as he departs the scene. An even better story would be if he departed through the Rift – but I suspect he’s just a distinctive manager helping a distinctive team punching a bit above their weight. And that’s well worth watching.

Peter Goldstein