Widely written off before the season started, Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City are viewed as the antithesis to what Premier League football should be.
Lacking in quality, creativity and a proven goalscorer, the Bluebirds are this season’s token lamb awaiting slaughter according to the mainstream narrative.
Meanwhile, the lavish summer spending of both Wolves and Fulham have caught the imagination. Fairytale endings have already been penned proclaiming how their bravery to think big will be rewarded with a second bite at the top table next season.
But should we be so quick to believe this idealistic stance? Are Cardiff already doomed with 36 games remaining or could they prove good enough to defy their critics and fare better than their newly promoted rivals?
The real fairytale
Cardiff’s promotion in 2013 saw them sink over £30 million into eight new players. This season they’ve spent less than £30 million in an inflated market, picking up four players for their money, all of which from the lower reaches of Championship football.
If there is to be a fairytale narrative in the Premier League this season, surely it should be Neil Warnock who, in his 70th year and at the eighth attempt, beats the odds to retain his side’s Premier League status.
Those odds were 9/1 for promotion last season, a feat which they achieved automatically with a very respectable 90 point haul. Compared to the 6/1 odds for them to be relegated, it’s clear which side of the table they were expected to finish.
Function over fashion
Much of the reason for this lies at the feet of their uncouth style. Modern football has become infatuated with the need to entertain, often to the extent that anything not deemed worthy is instantly discounted.
But while Warnock’s bullying tactics are often questionable, it’s hard to deny the manager who has won a record eight promotions in English football is a master of motivation.
Now beginning his fourth attempt at cracking the top tier, the three prior failures are being cited as proof that it is a step too far for Warnock to manage. This is arguably the first settled side he’s been able to lead into battle for a Premier League campaign and that could prove significant.
A case for the defence
The core principle of Warnock’s team which won them promotion last season is their defence. Conceding 39 goals from their 46 league fixtures last season, Cardiff leaked the joint-fewest goals in the Championship along with Wolves.
In the Premier League last season, mean defences proved strong foundations for success for many teams. Newcastle finished in tenth position having scored only 39 goals from their 38 matches while Burnley took a European place despite averaging less than a goal per game (36).
The three teams who were relegated last May all struggled defensively. While a strong defence was not enough to save Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough side in the previous season, it’s an attribute which doesn’t always receive the respect it deserves.
The story so far
Having lost 2-0 to a good Bournemouth side in their opening match, Cardiff battled their way to a deserved point against Newcastle this weekend. This may only translate to a single point. However, they’ve shown enough glimmers of promise to swell a small amount of optimism amongst their supporters.
A second-half fightback on the South coast worried the Cherries while they could and perhaps should have taken all three points from Newcastle during a feisty encounter.
What was notable from this weekend’s clash was how Cardiff effectively dictated the tone of the match. Newcastle fell into playing Cardiff’s game, long balls and aerial exchanges leaving the ball resembling a cork in the ocean. If they can continue to drag their opponents into fighting fire with fire this season, they will lessen the divide in quality and increase their chances of taking enough points to survive.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the league, Fulham and Wolves have secured a point between them despite all the early hype which greeted their arrival in the Premier League.
Are we sure?
Many of the Cardiff squad are unproven at this level but they do have a strong team bond, heightened by their underdog tag which will galvanise them through adversity.
The late loan arrivals of Victor Camarasa from Real Betis and Harry Arter from Bournemouth has added some much-needed experience to the dressing room but they also possess plenty of exciting prospects.
Josh Murphy and Bobby Reid both look well suited to this division and capable of delivering some magic while Neil Etheridge looks assured and nothing like the free signing from Walsall which he is.
While they may be a striker short of having a promising team, they can bridge this gap through set pieces which led to 21 goals last term – the highest figure in the Championship.
While they may not win the hearts and minds of neutrals this season, it’s far too early to write off the Bluebirds altogether. Whatever happens, there will certainly be plenty of talking points along the way.