May 25, 2024

Cardiff City’s transfer priorities, Ramsey the key and first choice in problem position emerges – what we learned from Portugal

The Bluebirds’ pre-season tour to the Algarve is over but it would have been a useful learning exercise for Erol Bulut

Cardiff City’s week-long trip to the Algarve is over and it was certainly a useful exercise in gleaning a greater insight into Erol Bulut’s team.

The Bluebirds lost their two friendly matches in Portugal against quality opposition in Braga and Porto, both of whom could be playing Champions League football next season.

There were real moments of encouragement, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. Here, we look at the positives and negatives from a productive week in the south of Portugal…

Transfer priorities

 

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Bulut still wants a minimum of three players in through the door before the end of the transfer window and they are needed.

Cardiff have struggled massively for goals for some time now and while they do look more of a threat in the final third than last season, there is a lingering concern over whether they have a striker who can find the back of the net regularly.

Cardiff have a number of players who can play in that position, such as Callum Robinson, Karlan Grant and Yakou Meite, but all three of them are better out wide and from what Bulut has said and shown so far, he doesn’t see them as out-and-out strikers.

With Max Watters and Isaak Davies likely to leave, it means Kion Etete and Ike Ugbo remain as the main striker options. Etete showed, particularly towards the back end of the season, there is something there, but he has looked off the pace in pre-season. And he is still just 21, with just nine Football League goals to his name – only three of which have come in the Championship.

Ugbo, meanwhile, has just not shown enough in the few games he has played so far. But that is not to suggest he should be written off. He has had very few chances to score, in his defence. But he hasn’t quite stretched the defence or he’s not been an aerial threat, so it’s difficult to decipher what sort of striker he is. He has been decent enough with his back to goal and he links up play well.

But as for a genuine goalscorer, there is a feeling Cardiff are still looking for their No.9 and that needs to be the priority.

Elsewhere, a centre-back also appears to be on the cards. Mark McGuinness and Dimitrios Goutas looked nailed-on first choices, but Bulut will want sufficient back-up for those two. Perry Ng is now viewed as a right-back in this system, which is correct, while Jack Simpson has had a decent pre-season despite a mixed debut campaign.

There is a marked drop-off after that, though. Oliver Denham has gone on loan to Scotland and Xavier Benjamin, sadly, has looked rather out of his depth all summer at senior level. Centre-back needs to be high on the agenda, too.

Style of play

Cardiff played some good football at times out in Portugal, that first half against Porto was especially pleasing to watch.

They broke quickly and were positive in transition. They were notably more accurate with their passing and it afforded them to opportunity to gain ground on the opposition quickly.

That decision-making and clinical edge in the final third is just still lacking, though, and that will be the big difference-maker as we head into the campaign.

 

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Against Braga and Porto it is understandable that City set up to counter, although hopefully that is not the default setting. Cardiff’s home record the last few seasons has been horrendous and they have often relied on counter-attacking football at Cardiff City Stadium, which rarely works to their advantage.

City need to be more front-foot against so-called weaker teams and in front of their home supporters and it will be interesting to see if they take more of an initiative under Bulut. It’s difficult to really gauge against Cymru Premier opposition, however they did look to be more positive against League One Bristol Rovers.

Next Saturday, against Wycombe, will be the acid test. Bulut will likely pick his best XI and it’s a game in which City should impose themselves on the opposition.

How Ramsey can unlock attack

We only saw 45 minutes of Aaron Ramsey out in Portugal, but he showed enough to get City supporters really excited by what he could offer over the course of a season.

Not since Harry Wilson was on loan have City had someone with the ability to unlock defences at this level and Ramsey did that against Champions League opposition on Saturday evening.

With Cardiff needing goals, they need an expert playmaker to make that happen and Ramsey will certainly be that. Within 20 seconds of being on the pitch against Porto he played a creative ball in behind for Grant, who returned the favour before Ramsey drilled a first-time shot against the post.

He linked up well with Kieron Evans on the left, too, but City were in the decline in the game by then after making wholesale changes against quality opponents.

Ramsey’s own goal return in recent seasons has been relatively meagre, but if he ups his numbers and provides the wingers and striker, whoever that might be, with quality service, it gives City every chance to improve on their miserable goal record last season.

Bulut appears to have his two pivots nailed down in Ryan Wintle and Joe Ralls. Some think that combination won’t work, but if you are to afford Ramsey free rein in those danger areas in the pitch, perhaps you need a couple of warriors sitting in behind. Wintle also showed against Porto that he is looking to be more positive on the ball this season, too, playing a number of accurate long balls forward to start attacks.

It was only 45 minutes, but having Ramsey available and playing in the 10 will be so key to Cardiff aiming higher up the table.

Grant looks top signing

Perhaps the standout player in the Algarve was Karlan Grant. He looked a real breath of fresh air and a weapon on that left-hand side in both games.

From his interview with WalesOnline, it is clear to see he has come to Cardiff with the bit between his teeth and a point to prove. There is no substitute for a hungry footballer.

The West Brom loanee bursts pace, strength and a bit of trickery and is exactly what was needed after Jaden Philogene departed to return to his parent club, Aston Villa, this summer.

Grant’s goal return at Championship level is exactly what City need. Cardiff need goals from all over the pitch and Grant and Robinson should be able to provide that from the wide areas, with a more potent goal threat still potentially set to come in. Otherwise one of Ugbo or Etete will have to step up.

But the early showings of Grant are encouraging and he has the potential to add a really dangerous dynamic to City’s forward line, particularly if someone with the quality of Ramsey can strike up a season-long connection with him.

Grant has scored 40 goals across his last three Championship seasons while playing a fair chunk of his football on the wing. Those are the sort of numbers City need to see from their wingers if they are to have any designs on troubling the scorers at the top end of the table.

Left-back question finally answered

Left-back has been a problem position for some time for Cardiff City.

Joel Bagan has never been able to nail it down, Jamilu Collins suffered a season-long injury last year and others have played there in a makeshift capacity to plug the gap.

Collins has looked rusty on his return from a year out, that’s not untrue to say. It appears to be more of a mental barrier he has to overcome, but he just looks a little tentative in everything that he does at the moment.

Last season, he was marauding up and down the touchline, smashing into challenges and winning battles in the air. In pre-season, so far at least, everything just seems to be about getting back to basics and finding his feet and confidence again. And that’s fine, too. He will come good again.

It was also notable that Bagan was the only outfield player who travelled to Portugal who didn’t play a minute. He has looked OK in the pre-season games against lower-league opposition before heading out to the Algarve, but the week-long trip appeared to reinforce the school of thought that Bagan might need to head on loan if he is to get regular football under his belt.

So, for the time being, it looks like Callum O’Dowda will fill that role. Against Braga, O’Dowda and Grant clicked immediately and that left-hand side was a real outlet through which Cardiff mounted a number of attacks.

He was a little quieter against Porto, but O’Dowda is so dependable that he rarely lets you down. Maybe that is what Bulut is looking for as he eyes a solid start to the campaign. And with the inverted wing-back role he likes to deploy against weaker opposition, O’Dowda is as comfortable as anyone in possession of the ball and that could play to his strengths, too.

Is it ideal? No. But it’s a problem position and O’Dowda, for the moment, looks to be Bulut’s best bet.

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