When Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City and Fulham won promotion, there was one from the trio that everyone thought would be going straight back down.
Over the summer, one of those three brought in half of Portugal; one of them kept starlet Ryan Sessegnon and snapped up Jean Michaël Seri; and one of them bought exclusively from the Championship and loaned Harry Arter from Bournemouth.
The one that everyone thought would be going straight back down didn’t change.
Cardiff’s two points from four games might not be surprising, but they’re actually doing better than their place in the table would have you think.
Despite being sixteenth on points, they’re bang in mid-table looking at their expected goals (xG). By Football Whispers’ numbers, their chances have been worth 1.02 xG per game and the chances they’ve faced have been worth 1.09 xG per game. It’s a difference of -0.07 – which in real terms is essentially nothing – and is the tenth-best difference in the league at the moment.
It’s not been the hardest schedule, but nor has it been the easiest. Arsenal are still a quality side; Bournemouth, who Cardiff also lost to, are one of the surprise packages this season; Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town are well set up sides, and the 0-0 draws against them are unsurprising, although both saw the non-Cardiff team spend nearly half an hour with ten men.
How are they doing it?
In attack, Cardiff are pretty much what you’d expect. Their Football Whispers Team Persona radar shows that their style of play is heavily characterised by both long balls and crossing.
On the other side of the ball, things are a little more surprising; Neil Warnock seems to have undergone a Renaissance in the twilight of his career.
“At my age, I don't want to be parking the bus anymore,” he said after the 3-2 defeat to Arsenal.
“We've tried in the Championship, to play one upfront and it has worked for us, but in the Premier League there are too many good players in defence and we never create anything.”
Cardiff don’t let their opponents settle on the ball. They harry and harrass, particularly when chasing their own long balls.
Take just one example from their match hosting Arsenal at the weekend – a team who you’d, usually, expect a newly promoted team to sit back against. Sol Bamba launches the ball forward into Cardiff’s left channel, behind Shkodran Mustafi, for Danny Ward and the centre-back to chase.
Mustafi gets there first, the ball now by the sideline, and he clears it back into play where it goes straight to Cardiff’s left winger Junior Hoilett. Thanks to the tenacity of Ward and the rest of the team moving up into position, they now have possession in the final third.
This all shows up in various pressing stats.
Warnock’s side are in the middle of the league for the pass completion percentage of their opponents. What’s more, they’re still in the middle when you look at the completion percentage of passes that start in their opponents’ defensive third: Cardiff don’t sit back and sit off like you’d expect them to.
Like with their expected goals stats, these will be affected by who they’ve played so far. Newcastle and Huddersfield aren’t exactly Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, but Arsenal and Bournemouth will have balanced that out to some extent.
There are even some stats where Cardiff show up as one of the most intense pressing sides in the league (partly because of how make the game bitty by playing long balls and pressuring them where they land).
Cardiff have won possession in the attacking third the second-most times in the Premier League, although it helps that they’ve had more opportunities to win it back. Everton top the list; Manchester City are 13th.
But this is all to say that the Bluebirds are far more interesting and far more competitive than most people assumed that they’d be.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” Warnock said towards the end of last season, when his team were within touching distance of the automatic promotion that they soon confirmed. Cardiff might not be supposed to be here, but now that they are, they’re proving that they belong.