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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 9 vs. Cardiff City

Yeah, this is kind of a big game

Cardiff City v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic can downplay Saturday’s fixture with Cardiff all he wants but let’s make no mistake about it. Fulham win, and their Premier League campaign gets rejuvenated. Fulham lose, and the supporters will wonder when they will ever see this beloved football win another game at this level the rest of the season. In spite of all this pressure, winning away from home is always difficult, no matter the league of opposition.

Still, Cardiff are also having a horrid time at the Premier League themselves. This was quite predictable after Neil Warnock instilled a counter-attacking sytem that saw them have the worst passing and possession levels in the Championship. However, Cardiff had the likes of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Junior Hoilett and Kenneth Zohore constantly running down opposition defenses whenever they bypassed midfields and bagged in plenty of goals that guided them towards automatic promotion. Love them or not, this was an efficient system that worked at England’s Second tier and the underlying numbers agreed with this sentiment.

This season, Cardiff face a true reality check that their best players weren’t good enough for this level. Even with plenty of reinforcements coming in, the Bluebirds just didn’t seem to grab any from a talent pool that was demanded to survive at this level of competition. It’s just too difficult to imagine 33-year old Sol Bamba and 31-year old Sean Morrison handling Premier League attacks the exact same way they did in the Championship. It’s also been a while since a now 29-year old Junior Hoilett was running rings around Premier League defenses. As a result, only Huddersfield has scored as few as Cardiff’s four goals in their eight Premier League fixtures.

That being said, their expected goals tallies sees them only as the fourth worst attack (7.44 expected for) and the fifth worst defense (13.68 against) according to Understat. That may not sound like much, but the key here is survival and that is why the same analytics website sees Cardiff as a club playing not only be better than Fulham, but also as one that should be sitting 15th in the league.

That is why it is downright unacceptable for supporters, players and coaches to take this Cardiff side lightly. They know who Fulham is quite well and will surely have a game plan to beat them coming off of an International Break.

With that said, here are the three players to watch when these two sides meet in Wales.

Bruno Ecuele Manga

All data from whoscored.com

Morrison and Bamba will be getting all the attention as they are the center back pairing that continues to be strong in the set piece and the bedrock in Warnock’s conservative defensive schemes. But if you are looking for an energetic defender that can just get it over with and break things up quickly, Bruno Ecuele Manga is your guy.

The Gabon International seems to be one of the few Cardiff players to not have his radar look significantly worse than his career totals, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen this edition of Manga before. We all know he’s a center back being told to play fullback in a very defensive manner and he plays it very well. That said, Cardiff have little to no outlets to push the ball forward when they can and Manga’s passing just doesn’t cut it for when he needs to make plays up and down the pitch. Either way, Manga’s production constantly gives food for thought as to how Cardiff can utilize him in his back line that already lacks ball progression types.

Harry Arter

All data from whoscored.com

Next up is a 29-year old midfielder that was previously with a club that he has been through thick-and-thin and helped launch his Premier League career. But once Bournemouth were in need of strengthening the rest of the squad, Harry Arter was deemed surplus to requirements and signed with Cardiff over the summer.

With Joe Ralls out due to a red card suspension, it will be up to Arter to make up for his absence in the center of midfield. Only Ecuele Manga and Ralls has more defensive actions in the league than him and with Warnock constantly experimenting how to set up his midfield, Arter has shown in the past he can fulfill the job. Along with that, he is also fourth in the club at xG Buildup at 0.12 per 90 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much at all, but in a Cardiff side lacking creativity, Arter will do. Whether or not he can be able to play a focal role on Saturday could determine the result in Saturday’s contest.

Josh Murphy

All data from whoscored.com

We’ve already talked about how Cardiff struggle mightily to score goals. As a result of that harsh statistic, not a single player has been able to score more than one goal for the club. However, if there is one player that looks the closest to being Cardiff’s leading scorer by seasons end, it could be the former Norwich City man.

At 24, Josh Murphy has been everywhere in attack, and I mean that in positive terms. His 3.47 shots per 90 minutes is a very strong output, no matter where they’ve been taken. Proof of that is that his 0.41 combined expected goals and assists per fixture is only bettered by super-sub Callum Paterson, at 0.49. With all the numbers behind this kid, even if he only has one goal to his account so far, you will struggle to find a better attacking outlet wearing Bluebirds Blue than him.