When Neil Warnock was appointed in October 2016, with the club second-from-bottom with just two wins in their opening 11 games, few could have envisaged Cardiff City’s rise.
There was concern over a lack of playing talent and application in the squad, with a budget too restrictive to challenge at the top end of the season. Yet the fiery and often outspoken manager helped turn around the fortunes for the rest of the campaign – ultimately guiding the Bluebirds to a top half finish.
The Welsh club are Warnock’s 15th that he has managed and few know how to be successful in England’s second tier quite like the Yorkshireman. Winning promotion at both Sheffield United and Queen’s Park Rangers, he had most recently completed a sterling job in maintaining Rotherham United’s second-tier status.
Reeling in the league leaders
With 12 matches of the current campaign remaining, Cardiff have already surpassed their points tally from last season by five and hold a four-point cushion over third-placed Aston Villa.
In so doing, they have reeled in runaway league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers to within six points. Given the fact the budgets at both Midlands clubs are notably more substantial than in the Welsh capital, this feat merits immense credit.
Warnock’s side also hold minimal top-flight experience – only Junior Hoilett, Armand Traore, Anthony Pilkington and Aron Gunnarsson have fleeting spells in the Premier League on their CVs. Yet they are unbeaten in their last eight outings, winning six of those and conceding only twice in a run which outlines their solidity, application and team spirit.
They hold the fifth-best attacking record in the division (50 goals in 34 games) yet their real strength is in defence, which has yielded a division-low 27 strikes.
The Bluebirds main strength is in the air, with Warnock ensuring his side are well-drilled at both attacking and defending set-pieces. Not blessed with the most technically talented squad in the division, their play is based on dominating territory, providing a threat through the middle yet also utilising the width of the pitch.
Bigger than the sum of its parts
There are goal threats throughout the team: defenders Souleymane Bamba (3), Sean Morrison (4) and Callum Paterson (5) have all impressive attacking statistics, helped by the threat from set-piece situations. From midfield, Joe Ralls has scored seven and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing has scored four while up front, Junior Hoilett (8) and Kenneth Zohore (6) provide much more than just a goal threat.
The January signing of Gary Madine reinforces the aerial threat and provides an attacking focal point whose primary contribution is to bring others into play.
Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge – the Philippines international shot-stopper – has been a revelation since signing on a free from Walsall in the summer and epitomises the make-up of the team.
With the majority of players signed from the lower divisions with little experience of top-level football, they have formed a clear identity and playing style which is so often absent from sides in the division.
Warnock could yet be starting next season in England’s top flight with the fourth different club in his career.
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