This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
With the transfer window long since closed and the international break already a distant memory, the 2013-14 season can finally get down to serious business. For Tottenham, an away game against Cardiff City is perhaps the perfect game to have at this stage: a serious test but one that realistically should be passed – provided the players apply themselves properly and commit to the task at hand.
It will not be an easy game – Manchester City have shown the dangers of arriving at the Cardiff City Stadium under the assumption that three points will win themselves – but Spurs definitely have enough quality to take a morale-boosting win.
Cardiff’s promotion from the Championship was achieved with methods more effective than eye-catching. Their orthodox second-tier setup, based on defensive solidity, midfield aggression and competency at set-pieces and in wide areas, was executed well enough to see them win the division at a canter. There were no real stars of the show – theirs was a genuine team effort.
The Bluebirds’ trump card was the depth of their goal threat: seventeen players scored over the course of the season and their final tally of 72 goals was bettered by only Crystal Palace. Craig Bellamy registered ten assists, Craig Noone nine and Andrew Taylor and Peter Whittingham six. At the back, a solid mix of quality and experience meant that their defensive record was also the second best in the division.
Despite their success, it was clear to all observers that Malky Mackay needed to reinforce to avoid Premier League humiliation. For example, last season’s top-scorers Heiðar Helguson, Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson scored only eight league goals each. Veterans Mark Hudson and Kevin McNaughton were mainstays in defence but neither is up to the task of top flight football in terms of athleticism or quality.
To address these shortcomings, the club spent big and to good effect. Danish striker Andreas Cornelius arrived for £8m and travelling headcase Peter Odemwingie joined him on deadline day for £2.25m. A combined outlay of £10.1m on Steven Caulker and Kévin Théophile-Catherine has seen the backline bolstered, while the £9.5m capture of psychopathic Chilean midfielder Gary Medel made waves all over the continent.
In the first four games of their Premier League stay, Mackay has refined the style of play that brought his men promotion but, aside from the shock win against Manchester City, positive results have proven hard to come by.
The directness of last season has remained intact: no Premier League side has played a higher proportion of long passes than Cardiff so far this season (15.4%), and they have scored all four of their goals from or following crosses or corners from the right – which, given Danny Rose’s likely unavailability, could be something of an issue for Spurs – but they have developed, too.
In open play, they have shied away from constantly punting towards a target man and have also attacked using their full-backs – mostly down the right. Don Cowie and debutant Théophile-Catherine linked up very well against Hull City last week, the wing-back’s athleticism allowing Cowie to drift inside and link up with midfield, creating an overload in the centre. With Craig Bellamy injured, the same will happen again on Sunday.
The Bluebirds’ midfield is now positionally aggressive rather than physically intimidating. No Premier League side has committed fewer fouls per game than Cardiff City’s figure of 7.8 – some achievement when one realises that their midfield lynchpin is Gary Medel, a man whose history of red cards and general insanity makes Lee Cattermole look like a model of composed restraint.
They have instead focused on winning the ball by intercepting passes: only six sides can better their 14 interceptions per game, with Gunnarsson making more than a fifth of them by himself. Medel has brought his trademark assertiveness to Cardiff’s midfield but by playing a measured, passing game instead of maiming the opposition. He plays 51 passes per game, twelve more than any teammate, completing 91% of them on average.
Ahead of the double pivot, Kim Bo-Kyung functions as a ball-carrier and seeks to link the central players and the wide men. He is not the most penetrative of attacking midfielders – he scored or assisted a total of five goals last season – but he has an eye for space and draws fouls, qualities that enable Cardiff’s set-piece-heavy attacking system to function.
Indeed, Peter Whittingham’s dead-ball delivery and goal threat will be the biggest worries to Spurs’ defence. The former Aston Villa man has seen and done it all in the Championship and his return to the top flight is long overdue. That said, while he can prove decisive standing over a free-kick or getting ahead of his marker, as he did last week, he is nothing special on the ball and, as long as he does not dive in, Kyle Walker should not have too many problems facing him in open play.
Up front, Fraizer Campbell made headlines for his Pablo Zabaleta-gifted double against Manchester City, but in every other match he has failed to get a shot on target. Campbell has always looked a capable finisher at Championship level but in this division he rarely looks up to scratch. How Mackay must rue Cornelius’ injury.
Looking to the match itself, there is good reason to think that Tottenham will win and potentially heavily. Their tally of 59 shots taken is higher than any other side’s so far this season and even though they have only scored four times – and twice from open play – creating that many chances to shoot suggests that eventually the goals are going to start flying in. Only Fulham have conceded more shots per game than Cardiff, so expect Spurs to once again pepper the opposition goal.
Furthermore, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen seem to have hit the ground running and both should start on Sunday. Lamela’s dribbling and movement should ensure Cardiff left-back Andrew Taylor endures a torrid afternoon. If, as some outlets are suggesting, Andros Townsend’s run in the team continues, expect a more functional but no less effective attacking display on the right side of Spurs’ attack.
In the centre, Eriksen may find space limited by Gary Medel’s tight marking but his superior smarts should give him the upper hand and could provoke the Chilean hardman’s first meltdown in English football. While this would almost certainly see Spurs win the match, it could come at the expense of Eriksen’s very existence, so perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.
Finally, with Eriksen, Lamela and last weekend’s two-goal hero Gylfi Sigurðsson laying on the chances against a porous and unsettled backline, Roberto Soldado will definitely get at least one good chance to net his first Premier League goal from open play. He should take it.
To conclude, André Villas-Boas should be demanding an away win ahead of the game. While it would be ill-advised for Spurs fans across the country to translate AVB’s demands into hard expectations, it is worth noting that Spurs won all six of their Premier League games against newly-promoted sides in 2012-13 and are definitely due a glut of goals. This could be the weekend they finally win big.