Cardiff's 'land of the giants'

All eight of Cardiff's goals this season have been scored through headers, and Elliot Joyce examines what it is that makes the Bluebirds tick

The Championship season is still in its infancy. Whilst the pandemic may mean that the gap between those who came down with the parachute payments of the Premier League and those who remain at the upper echelons of the Championship is the biggest it has ever been, those critical playoff spots, as ever, are open.

Mick McCarthy’s men currently sit 6th, the last of those playoff spots, and have started the league exploiting their aerial prowess. Maybe exploiting is putting it lightly, Cardiff City are head and shoulders above the league, metaphorically and figuratively, and are using tactic to embarrass their opponents. So much so that they have scored 8 goals in the league this season, so far, with all 8 of them being headers.

The players ex-Bournemouth manager Jonathan Woodgate referred to as the “land of the giants' ', towards the end of last season, have not got any smaller. Of the 18 players to make an appearance for the Welsh side this season, 12 are above 6ft. Of the 10 outfield players McCarthy started at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday (21/08/21), 8 were above the 183cm threshold, with Mark Harris just 1cm away from the 6ft feat. 

The height of the squad and their game plan is evident in the statistics. In the whole English Football League, nobody gets into more aerial duels, nor wins more than Cardiff City at 77 per game and 45.5 per game respectively. 

They want to challenge you in the air and more often than not, they’re going to beat you. Whilst their strategy certainly isn’t as simple as the ‘Route One’ used frequently in post-war Britain, Cardiff are one of the most direct sides in the Championship, 2nd in direct speed, a measure of how quickly a team progresses the ball up the pitch, and 23rd in passes per sequence, the ‘Bluebirds’ certainly don’t hang around. They’re also 23rd in time of each sequence, at 4.04 seconds.

Top goalscorer, for not just Cardiff City but the whole of the Championship, 6-foot-2 Aden Flint is an unlikely candidate but 4 games in and with 4 goals to his name, Flint sits atop of the list. 2 braces, against both Peterborough United and Millwall, all came from headers, all from crosses. A late Sean Morrison header against Millwall means centre halves have scored 5 of Cardiff City’s 8 goals this campaign. However, it’s not as if McCarthy has just the one way for his players to get their heads onto the ball. In the 4 league games so far, tabled below are the instance of play each 21 headed shots towards goal has come from. 

Though, it’s not just the two centre-halves who battle for the ball in the box. The imposing striker Kieffer Moore has had 4 headed shots on goal, with 1 in the back of the net, mirroring the numbers of Morrison. 3 more players have ended up with attempts on goal in midfielders Marlon Pack and Leandro Bacuna and striker James Collins.

Below are the shot maps of them all, for their headed attempts, and where they ended up on goal. 

 Aden Flint

Sean Morrison

Kieffer Moore

Other shots

Using xGOT, a post-shot model, whilst xG is a pre-shot model, the numbers show the finishing of the Cardiff City players in the air is a reason for their 8 goals and whilst the rate of scoring may not be able to be sustained, the club still rank 5th for xG in the Championship and 2nd in Set Piece xG.

Replacing Harry Wilson’s deliveries ought to be a difficult proposition in the Championship after his permanent move to promotion hopefuls Fulham, however another loan move from another Premier League outfit may have done the trick. 21-year-old Ryan Giles, from parent club Wolverhampton Wanderers, spent last year in the Championship with relegated Rotherham and Coventry City, has already eclipsed his 1 assist last season with 4 of his own.

The main man on freekicks and crosses, averaging 4.8 crosses per game, 2 more than the next highest in the Championship, his deep deliveries, with his wand of a left foot, compliment the style Mick McCarthy implemented after his appointment in early January this year.

 Following closely behind in the assist department is Marlon Pack, and whilst his crossing is also exemplary, he is worth his weight in gold for his long throws, one which counted as an assist for Sean Morrisons header against Millwall. Andy Legg, who played for Cardiff from 1998 to 2003, was the true king of the long throw, before Rory Delap’s antics for Stoke City.  

Appearing on the cover of FIFA 96, the bigger accomplishment probably comes from the fact Legg was a Guinness World Record holder for the longest throw in, at 44.6m, before being beaten by current Liverpool throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark. Pack will be hoping to leave the same mark of Andy 20 years prior, with his floated long throws starting the possession of 3 of Cardiff’s 8 goals so far.

Whilst the Welsh side may not be able to keep up the numbers they have achieved, and Aden Flint may not end up with 46 goals to his name at the end of the season, it will be (exciting/thrilling) to see whether this dominance in the air continues for Mick McCarthy’s men, and whether Cardiff end up promoted.