This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
If there is one Premier League match-up this season that will perfectly illustrate why clubs should not sack their managers without having a really good Plan B in mind, Tottenham Hotspur versus Cardiff City is it. Both clubs were going along quite nicely under their former managers before off-field issues and a couple of on-pitch aberrations convinced their trigger-happy chairmen to dispense with their services, ushering in new eras of mediocrity and embarrassment.
However, much as Tim Sherwood has at times made a right hash of things, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign has been characterised by tactical errors, chop-and-change line-ups and preventable reverses. It is hard not to get the impression that, despite his success with Molde FK in Norway, the man once known as the Baby-Faced Assassin is still a little wet behind the ears when it comes to this management lark.
For Solskjær, every week seems to bring a new ‘start from scratch’ line-up and although it seems that his game-plan seems to remain largely the same regardless of personnel – a direct, counter-attacking 4-4-1-1 – the instability caused by his constant changes means that his side has been unable to pick up any momentum week by week.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Cardiff’s recent collapse is that it has happened when the fixture list has been extremely kind to them. Including the FA Cup tie against Wigan Athletic, four out of their last five matches have been at home. Despite this advantage, their only victory has been against Chris Hughton’s suicide-inducingly unambitious Norwich City side.
Having been humiliated in the derby at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium, Cardiff welcomed Aston Villa, Wigan and Hull City to the Welsh capital. Their visitors left with a draw and two victories respectively. Last weekend’s 4-0 reverse to Hull was probably the nadir of a season full of lows for the Bluebirds.
In much the same way that Daniel Levy must occasionally look at his mobile while watching Sherwood’s Spurs and wonder if he should call AVB and apologise for everything, Vincent Tan must surely regret calling time on Malky Mackay’s reign at the Cardiff City Stadium.
While David Marshall has his spot in goal absolutely nailed-down, the back four seems to be different in every game. Kévin Théophile-Catherine, one of Cardiff’s stand-out performers in the first half of the season, is competing with 2011 Champions League Final starter Fábio Da Silva (yes, really) for the right-back spot.
At centre-back, former Spurs man Steven Caulker is one of the first names on the teamsheet but he is not unaffected by Solskjær’s tinkering: the contrasting styles of Ben Turner and Juan Cala mean that his responsibilities change dramatically depending on the identity of his partner. When Turner plays, he has to be more adventurous; when the more aggressive Cala is alongside him, he has to play more of a covering game.
Eighteen year-old left-back Declan John has played most games under Solskjær and has not done badly, but the more experienced Andrew Taylor came into the line-up last weekend. Despite Taylor’s performance – he gave away a goal and was substituted after seventy-five minutes – it would be wrong to assume he is out of contention.
In midfield, the double pivot has changed in almost every game: Gary Medel, Peter Whittingham, Jordon Mutch, Don Cowie and Magnus Wolff Eikrem have all started in the engine room of late. Given how different each of their respective skillsets are, it is not hard to see why Cardiff have struggled to play coherently from game to game, nor that their opponents have found it so easy to get at their defence.
In attack, Craig Noone has been ever-present on the right and his trickiness and willingness to run at defenders has made him Cardiff’s go-to man in possession. In every game, the vast majority of their forays forward have been down his flank and his tendency to cut in and shoot has been nothing short of Townsendian.
On the other flank, highly-rated winger and part-time Twitter superstar Wilfried Zaha has been the most regular starter but his position is far from secure: Mutch, Craig Bellamy and Kim Bo-Kyung have also been fielded in recent weeks and given Zaha’s youthful inconsistency, Solskjær may opt for Bellamy’s experience in such a tough away game.
New number nine Kenwyne Jones has been ever-present since his arrival in January but, like Caulker, he has had a different partner almost every week, with Bellamy, Mutch and Fraizer Campbell all playing off of him at various points.
As such, giving an accurate forecast of which eleven Cardiff City players will take to the pitch on Sunday afternoon is extremely difficult. In any case, the plan will be the same: keep it tight at the back and direct Spurs’ passing into the middle of the pitch, where they will hope to win the ball before releasing one of the wingers on the break.
Given the consistent failure of this idea, Spurs could hardly wish for a better pick-me-up following the abject defeat away to Norwich last week. If Sherwood avoids another tactical clusterfuck and actually picks a midfielder with an eye for a pass and the brain to control a game – *cough* Christian Eriksen *cough* – and his full-backs keep their wits about them, they should not have many problems taking the three points. This is Tim Sherwood, though, so anything is possible.