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Eight reasons why Cardiff City should go all out for Gareth Ainsworth

The Wycombe manager is 20/1 in the market.
The Wycombe manager is 20/1 in the market.

EFL pundit Gab Sutton makes a case for Cardiff City to go all out for Gareth Ainsworth...

He fits the Cardiff ethos

Over the road, one thinks of silky, light individuals playing expansive, possession football: Trundle. Britton. James. Allen. Grimes. Martinez. Rodgers. Laudrup. Potter. Martin?

That’s perceived to be “The Swansea Way” and anyone who contradicts the style that fans expect do not tend to be popular.

At Cardiff City, different themes come to mind: Andy Legg and Aron Gunnarsson’s long throws. Dominant defenders like Glenn Loovens, Danny Gabbidon, Mark Hudson, Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison. Selfless utility men like Gary Croft and Callum Paterson. Tenacious midfielders like Graham Kavanagh, Stephen McPhail and Joe Ralls. Industrial centre-forwards like Heidar Helguson and Kenneth Zohore.

These teams were not without quality - the late, great Peter Whittingham saw to that when playing, and Junior Hoilett provided some magic for Neil Warnock’s side – but they were all extremely intimidating to face.

Older supporters will remember how hostile Ninian Park was. How the 2012-13 and 2017-18 outfits won promotion with a physical, direct style and an aptitude for exploiting set pieces.

That blueprint can still be a success: Cardiff merely need a more modern version of it. Having worked miracles at Wycombe, Ainsworth is the perfect man to provide that. 

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He’d build around Kieffer Moore

Ainsworth already has experience working with a tall, strong, predatory Welsh target man who has better link-up play and more mobility than externally given credit for.

After Uche Ikpeazu left for Middlesbrough in the summer, Wycombe signed Sam Vokes, who has been one of the signings of the season in League One.

Where Ainsworth has got things spot on with Vokes, though, has been that while he is very much the Chairboys’ go-to man in possession, he is never isolated.

Instead, the Buckinghamshire outfit operate with a fluid front-three: Vokes is supported by an extremely intelligent operator in Garath McCleary, plus a third forward who is quick and likes to run in behind – sometimes Daryl Horgan, more recently Brandon Hanlan.

With two players close to him at all times, Vokes has the option of either knocking the ball down to McCleary, or flicking it onto Horgan or Hanlan – and the unpredictability keeps opposing rear-guards guessing.

Drop off? McCleary has the space to produce a moment of quality. Push up? Horgan or Hanlan are in behind. There is no perfect solution.

The mistake Cardiff have been guilty of making previously, under Neil Harris then Mick McCarthy, is assuming that because Moore is such a well-rounded target man, he doesn’t need support.

What Ainsworth would do is not only build the attacking game plan around direct balls into Kieffer Moore, but also give him the support to perform when he does have the ball.

Moore may leave for Wolves in January, at which point there is the possibility of using some of the fee to replace him with Rotherham’s Michael Smith – another selfless, mobile target man who has played well at this level previously.

He’d add pace in attack

Continuing from the above themes regarding support for Kieffer Moore, who was hopelessly isolated in the crushing 3-0 derby loss to fierce foes Swansea, Ainsworth would have a solution.

“Wild Thing” often comes under criticism for style of football, but he never leaves his striker isolated.

If we take his side’s last three league games – 2-0 win at Doncaster, a 0-0 draw at Rotherham and a 2-1 victory over Crewe - as an example, there has always been a front-three, regardless of how deep the rest of the team may or may not be.

The opposition might have the territorial advantages, but all it takes is one direct ball to Vokes, or one clever pass in behind for Hanlan or Horgan, and Wycombe are immediately looking to create a clear cut chance.

Cardiff need to keep an attacking trio at the top end of the pitch, while they do not have the personnel to consistently control the middle third with their work in possession. 

For now, they are not blessed with the proven Championship equivalent of Horgan or Hanlan in League One, especially while Isaac Vassell’s injury woes persist, but there is talent from the academy.

Ainsworth would have to hope the raw exuberance of Isaak Davies – a highly rated 20-year-old, capable of scoring and creating, who has impressed for the Under-18s and Under-23s – could see his side through until January, when there would be the option of a loan move.

He’d simplify the game for Flint and Morrison

Chris Wilder is the current favourite for the Cardiff job and, typically favouring a possession-heavy 3-5-2 setup, the Yorkshireman would ask for overlapping runs from his centre-backs.

Curtis Nelson would be capable of performing the Chris Basham role for the Bluebirds, on the right of the back-three, because he is quick, strong and has good ball-carrying ability.

We have seen in the Premier League, though, that when Wilder’s sides do not have a good, left-footed, ball-playing centre-back like the injured Jack O’Connell to operate on the left of the defensive trio, the results can be disastrous.

Sean Morrison and Aden Flint are big, cumbersome defenders with next to no ball-playing ability and appointing Wilder would limit their ability to contribute to this team massively.

Ainsworth, meanwhile, gets the best out of centre-backs: Alfie Mawson, Aaron Pierre, Anthony Stewart, Adam El-Abd, Darius Charles and Ryan Tafazolli have all enjoyed better careers because of working with the former QPR midfielder.

Morrison and Flint could also reap the benefits: their job would become simpler because of how well the team is structured without the ball.

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Could Ng be Cardiff’s JJ?

On top of Ainsworth’s ability to nurture no-nonsense defenders, the Lancastrian has expanded his repertoire this term.

Full-backs by trade Jack Grimmer and Joe Jacobson have been converted into wide centre-backs for a 3-4-1-2 formation, using their different qualities from more central positions.

The athletic Grimmer’s aptitude for one-on-one defending and overlapping runs saw the former Coventry man deployed on the right of a back-three for the first month of the campaign.

The return of Tafazolli has seen Grimmer sacrificed on the right, with Stewart shifting across to make space for the tall, assured defender, but Joe Jacobson has kept his place on the left of the defensive trio.

The Welsh technician’s presence means that, when Josh Scowen and Curtis Thompson – or Oli Pendlebury when he plays - are unable to find the creative pass, they have the option of reverting to Jacobson.

The 33-year-old is capable of putting the ball on a six-pence for Vokes or Akinfenwa, even from 60 yards away, so could Perry Ng do something similar for Ainsworth?

It should not be forgotten that while Ng truly made his name for Crewe as a right-back - and has been performing superbly for Cardiff as a right wing-back – he has at times filled in extremely capably for the Alex at centre-back, in a back-four rather than a back-three.

Ng’s intelligence, ball-carrying ability, defensive positioning and mobility is exceptional, while the 24-year-old has the technical ability to ping a long-range pass onto the head, chest or feet of Moore, which would be a useful go-to option if Joe Ralls or Will Vaulks can’t play through the lines.

Of course, Ng operating on the right of the back-three would do nothing to solve the imbalance in Cardiff’s defensive options, with Ciaran Brown being the only left-footer capable of playing in a back-three, but it would be an intriguing experiment. 

He’d get the best out of Vaulks and Ralls

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a squad constructed by Warnock, Harris then McCarthy, Cardiff do not have any creativity in midfield. 

Any incoming manager who wants a playmaker will have to wait two months until there is the option of recalling Ryan Wintle from his loan spell at Blackpool.

Even then, Wintle dominated midfields at Crewe Alexandra because he was playing in a side that had fostered their identity over numerous years, with lots of gifted ball-players around him.

A manager who would want to build around Wintle would have to overhaul this squad, which would also mean managing with discomfort for effectively seven months: which would be extremely dangerous given that Cardiff currently find themselves, on paper, in a relegation battle.

Ainsworth has never needed a creative central midfielder to be successful: the likes of Hogan Ephraim and Nick Freeman have tended to be used from the bench and typically, when starting, deployed on the left.

Stalwart Matt Bloomfield brought a modicum of flair to Wycombe, but his 18-year stint at Adams Park would not have been possible without his immaculate professionalism, dedication and work rate.

Dom Gape, meanwhile, is tidy on the ball, but typically chooses to recycle rather than attempt a more expressive pass – and, typically alongside a more aggressive ball-winner like Curtis Thompson, still tends to be the most cultured out of the two midfielders.

For that reason, Ainsworth would not be in any way irked by the lack of technical ability in Will Vaulks and Joe Ralls.

In fact, the 48-year-old – an excellent psychologist and man manager – would be the perfect boss for Vaulks, who will run for the team all day and, from an observational capacity at least, needs a bit of love for what he does.

Ainsworth would ask Vaulks and Ralls to focus solely on blocking the opposition’s routes into the final third, and stopping Morrison or Flint getting into a one-on-one scenario, especially against a quick forward, then putting in challenges and making interceptions at the right moments.

Is this hugely different to the requirements of Harris and McCarthy? Perhaps not, but Ainsworth is better at connecting with his players on a human level and making them feel valued.

Under Ainsworth’s management, Vaulks could easily become one of the most consistent ball-winners in the Championship.

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He engages with supporters

All sets of fans like to feel appreciated: this is not something unique to Cardiff City.

However, Cardiff does have a history of being a mining city and, without generalizing too much, there is a largely working-class demographic.

For that reason, it is perhaps more important at Cardiff than at most clubs that the manager in place makes an effort to build bridges with supporters, rather than distance themselves: it’s why Neil Warnock was so popular.

Ainsworth is extremely passionate on the sidelines: he mentally heads and kicks every ball, then plays to the crowd and when he feels his team needs the extra adrenaline, he will encourage Wycombe supporters to up the volume, to which they oblige willingly.

Off the field, though, Ainsworth is classy, respectful and has an endearingly self-deprecating sense of humour: he takes his job far more seriously than he takes himself, which is a hugely likeable trait and would make him a hit with natives from the get-go.

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The compensation snag

“All this sounds marvellous,” we hear you cry, “but Ainsworth is contracted to Wycombe for at least another three years, and Cardiff chairman Mehmet Dalman said the club will not have any money to spend in January and possibly the summer – so can they pay the compensation required?”

This is an extremely valid question: quite apart from the question of whether Ainsworth wishes to move on from a club at which he has legendary status and is in a strong position to challenge for promotion to the Championship, in exchange for a side that’s currently in a dogfight.

However, Cardiff’s financial position was not so bad that they were forced to bend on their £12 million summer valuation of Moore: the club still has the asset of arguably the most complete target man in the Championship.

And, when one considers Ainsworth’s ability to maximize his resources by building superbly co-ordinated teams that play to their strengths and motivating his players brilliantly, the outlay is worthwhile because he can construct a team capable of challenging on a modest budget.

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