Tactical Preview: Preston North End vs. Cardiff City


Since Neil Harris took over Cardiff in November, they have lost only 4 of their 22 league games. The former Millwall coach has taken his pragmatic approach from The Den to Wales with great effect, as his hard-working side sit level on points with North End in 6th. Cardiff have a really good blend of experience, quality, and physicality, and tomorrow’s game will be very challenging.


Cardiff tend to set up in a 4-2-3-1, which often looks different depending on the phase of play. You will often see the CAM push forward to create a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase in order to stop teams playing short from the back. You will also often see the shape become a deeper 4-5-1 as Cardiff settle into a defensive pattern. This sees the striker become very isolated from the play and they rely on him doing a good job at holding the ball and usually aiming to find the wide players to transition quickly.

Cardiff TA 1 Cardiff TA 2

Cardiff generally use a man to man system out of possession, with the nearest player pressing the opposition hard, and the player nearest to the opposition receiver pressing hard from behind, aiming to force mistakes. This is what we saw in the build-up to Cardiff’s first goal during the 2-0 win against table-toppers Leeds last week.

We commonly see the no.9, Paterson in this case, block the passing lanes between the CBs whilst simultaneously pressing the ballplayer, the LCB here. Cardiff’s near side winger, Adomah here, is man orientated to the LB to cut off that pass. The far side winger (Hoilett) takes a narrower shape, meaning he is able to shift out to the RB if Leeds play a long diag, or he can press onto the RCB if the ball is circulated to him – crucially, he is ideally placed for an attacking transition as well.

Joe Ralls, the no.10, is man orientated with the Leeds CDM, Kalvin Phillps. Cardiff’s no.6s man orientate and follow the Leeds no.8s, as seen. This system is incredibly effective at disrupting an opposition build-up phase. Below, Ralls forces Phillips into a stray pass, which Hoilett intercepts and goes on to score from.

Cardiff City Tactical Analysis 3

If you open up the game against Cardiff, you risk being exploited as their attacking transitions are very effective, with the likes of Hoilett, Mendez-Laing and Adomah all possessing direct running ability with a good degree of clinicality. Joe Ralls, as the most advanced midfielder, supports transitions well with clever movement in relation to the ball to create space for himself and others.

Cardiff’s second goal last week came in similar circumstances. The no.9, Glatzel this time, splits the CBs, and although the LB is man marked by the RW, now Mendez-Laing, he plays that risky pass. Again, Ralls is man orientated to Leeds’ deepest midfielder, this time Klich. Mendez-Laing intercepts, immediately finds Glatzel in acres of space between the CBs, who finishes to make it 2-0. Note that Hoilett is in that same far side narrow position, which allows him to transition directly and gives him a head start on his full-back. Again, this is the same tactic as we saw in the first goal, and Cardiff finished clinically. They showed that if you play into the pivot or the full-back, you are at risk of transition.

Cardiff TA 4

Given how North End like to play, especially at Deepdale, this could be problematic. In the first phase of our play, we tend to circulate the ball between the GK, CBs and a CM, so we do expose ourselves to quick transitions. With this in mind, it’s possible that we may see Jayden Stockley start as North End look to bypass this trap from Cardiff. However, in the reverse fixture in December, Tom Barkhuizen started centrally as we looked to catch Cardiff’s slow defence with balls behind their backline. North End could do the same tomorrow, aiming to draw out Cardiff’s midfielders in the first phase, then going long to either get Barkhuizen in behind or to pick up second balls behind the Bluebirds’ midfield.

With that in mind, here is how the teams may look as North End look to play out from goal kicks. From goal kicks, we always look the play short, and if we can’t, we generally look for the wide attackers who aim to flick the ball on into a more central area. Here we see a common theme of Cardiff’s set up – the 3rd midfielder, usually Ralls, will move up into their highest line, aiming to screen passes to both the RCB and the CDM, whilst the usual no.9 will cut off the LCB. Again we see a man orientation with their wingers onto our full-backs. North End may use the 4v2 in the highlighted area to find a short build-up, or they may be more cautious and look to find the wingers, who in turn look for flicks on.

Cardiff Tactical Analysis 5

Cardiff rank lowest in the league in terms of possession, averaging 43% per game, but this has usually been sub 40% against teams who like to pass the ball. As shown by their deep 4-5-1 shape in the defensive phase, they are happy to sit behind the ball in an organised unit, often aiming to shift opposition possession into wide areas, and then backwards, from where they will occasionally press into a 4-4-2. This has been a solid pattern since Harris came in, keeping 8 clean sheets. In their last 8 games, they have conceded only 7 goals – including games against Leeds, Brentford and Forest.

They will be hard to breach, possessing a very strong and dominant centre back pairing in Nelson and Morrison, with Aden Flint on the bench. A pattern of the current centre back partnership has been for Morrison to attack long balls when the opposition are forced direct, whilst Nelson has been deeper, ready to sweep anything that gets behind Morrison. This was shown in the average positions map against Leeds last week.

Cardiff TA 6

We see Morrison (4) much higher than Nelson (16) due to the former’s aerial prowess. I’d expect similar tomorrow if both start – Morrison won all 5 of his aerial duels against Leeds. If we see this pattern occur tomorrow, however, there may be a chance for North End to exploit the space in behind the RCB area either from beating Morrison in the air to a flick on or using the second ball to attack the space that he vacates. This could suit Scott Sinclair who thrives in attacking that space, as shown by his goal last weekend.

So, Cardiff don’t like possession and they love aerial duels, but North End play the most long balls in the league – this doesn’t bode well for the neutral tomorrow. North End will maintain their directness, but a big part of that is based upon winning the second balls behind the opposition midfield and then transitioning quickly from there. We may see something like the below, in this case.

Cardiff Tactical Analysis 7

Ben Davies plays this straight ball into the channel multiple times per game, and with Morrison sweeping up, we may see the 4 “runners” aiming to latch onto the second ball with their forward momentum – this is something we see a lot from North End. Neil’s men will probably have to rely on their physical intensity and desire to “earn the right” to play tomorrow, and second balls are going to be a big factor in allowing North End to move deep into Cardiff’s half.

With North End likely to have the lion’s share of possession, and with Cardiff happy to sit in a deep shape, I fear we may witness more pedestrian possession tomorrow with North End lacking the needed intensity in the final third. We know that Neil has a few options at his disposal tactically – Stockley could start as we look to play off him, Barkhuizen could start up front, Gallagher may or may not start, but we do know that North End are struggling to create real chances.

10 goals in 10 home games since beating Huddersfield in November is a concern, as Neil needs to find a way around it sharply. Cardiff though, as already said, are conceding less than 1 goal per game recently and are keeping a healthy amount of clean sheets under Neil Harris. A further point is that since Harris took over, Cardiff have the best record in the lead when scoring first – if they score first, they are generally incredibly hard to break down, and as the opposition become more expansive, Cardiff use their attacking transitions to great effect.

Another potential alternative for North End could be to play Gallagher alongside Pearson, using the 35-year-old in the “false fullback” role that we have seen on various occasions this season. Here, almost always on the left, we see Hughes move forward, in order to create space for Gallagher to move into, where he has time on the ball. In doing this, we create an issue for Cardiff’s no.10, who is usually marking Ben Pearson, and we create an issue for their RW, who is man orientated with Hughes.

In theory, and we have seen this already at times, Gallagher has time and space to play forward passes, usually lofted over the defensive line. This has been done to varying success, however, it could be something that we look to use on the big Deepdale pitch tomorrow as we look to move from outside to in, behind Cardiff’s slow full-backs. If Barkhuizen starts on the right, for example, he could be a target for the pattern of play I’m talking about. Only Charlie Adam has played more successful long passes per game this season than Gally.

Cardiff Tactical Analysis 8

Another one of Cardiff’s strengths, unsurprisingly, is their set-piece threat. 19 of their 54 goals (35%) have come set pieces – no team has scored more. North End have conceded 12 goals from set-pieces, 1 every 3 games or so, and with the likes of Glatzel, Morrison, Nelson, Flint and Paterson at their disposal, this is a major area of concern for me. In Will Vaulks they also have an outstanding long-throw taker, so any throw-ins around 30 yards out will become dangerous set-piece threats and will at the same time pin North End back. If I was a betting man, I’d back Cardiff to score from a set-piece situation tomorrow. Interestingly, Tom Clarke has usually been favoured against Neil Harris sides probably for this exact reason, so his absence may impact us in this way tomorrow.

Here is a look at a couple of Cardiff’s effective routines:

Cardiff Tactical Analysis 9 Cardiff Tactical Analysis 10

Cardiff scored from this throw-in against Brentford. 4 men attacking the box, and 2 waiting outside to pick up loose balls. Vaulks found the nearest box attacker, who flicked on to the back post area where Ralls sneaked in on the blindside of his man. These are dangerous because of the goal threat from the second contact, but they also force 10 men behind the ball and disrupt any attacking rhythm. They scored a near-identical throw-in against Wigan, again a second contact towards the back post.

Cardiff scored from a corner against Wigan as well. A common tactic is for an inswinger to place the ball right onto the goal line, with Cardiff usually using 2 players to distract the keeper, and a further 3 running in to attack against a zonal system. Again, this is something to consider against North End as Rudd is not the most commanding keeper, and we use a sort of zonal system similar to Wigan’s above.

So, set pieces are a major threat.


With the physicality, organisation, set-piece threat, strength in depth and quality (Glatzel, Paterson, Adomah, Mendez-Laing, Hoilett, Paterson, Ralls, Murphy, Bacuna, Tomlin), I think Cardiff may edge this tomorrow.

Alex Neil spoke about how North End may rely on the fans for their intensity whilst Cardiff will be comfortable in their shape, and will always pose a threat. I think this is a must not lose for both teams, as a loss would create a 3 point gap to 6th place.

I suspect both teams will start cautiously, as displayed above, Cardiff beat Leeds due to their expansive approach. North End will need to come up with ways to use their possession, we could circulate it and look between the lines, we could use Stockley, we could look to get in behind them with Gally. We have options, being able to carry them out effectively is the issue.

One thing is for sure, we can’t allow Cardiff too many throw-ins or cheap set-pieces. We also cannot concede first.

Score prediction: 1-2.