Alex Keble takes a look at what incoming manager Neil Harris will bring to Cardiff City, and why the Welsh outfit can still make the play-offs this season...
Cardiff City look set to replace outgoing manager Neil Warnock with former Millwall boss Neil Harris, whose current price of 1/5 in Next Permanent Cardiff Manager market suggests the deal is all but done.
Warnock left his post on 11 November by mutual consent, with Cardiff languishing in 14th in the Championship following their relegation from the top flight last season. The Welsh club had convincingly beaten Birmingham City 4-2 earlier this month and are only seven points off the play-offs, and yet the news of his departure did not come as much of a surprise.
The job had clearly taken its toll on Warnock, who described 2019 as one of the most "challenging" years of his life, alluding to the tragic death of Emiliano Sala as well as Cardiff's on-field problems. Warnock and the club had struggled to adapt to life back in the Championship, with that win against Birmingham following a four-match winless run.
A club still grieving
But the straw proved to be a 1-0 defeat at home to Bristol City, ending Cardiff's unbeaten home record this season. In a statement on Monday, Warnock described his tenure as "some of the best days in my long football career," while Chairman Mehmet Dalman thanked the manager for "his invaluable contribution to the future of this great club."
Yet the most telling line in either statement was Warnock admitting 2019 was "the most challenging period both emotionally and physically that I have ever encountered." The next manager, presumably Harris, is tasked with helping Cardiff through a grieving process that will still feel raw.
Harris's tactical approach
Harris is a continuity choice in a tactical sense. His football at Millwall was not pretty, but rather functional, a dogged and direct 4-4-2 formation aiming at stealing points on the counter-attack.
That sort of aggressive football chimes with the anti-aesthetic approach of Warnock, who played a percentage game throughout his tenure. It might not be easy on the eye, but it certainly worked for a period - and should do again given the current Cardiff squad was built in Warnock's image.
"(For) style of play, formation, group ethos and mentality, then I look at Atlético Madrid, Leicester, Burnley, teams that don't always have the football but work extremely hard and play a 4-4-2 formation or variations of it," Harris told the Guardian back in 2016.
As a rough guide, that kind of system should suit the physicality in the Cardiff squad, and help the likes of Josh Murphy rediscover their goalscoring touch.
Harris' achievements at Millwall
Certainly there is plenty in Harris' four-year stint at Millwall for Cardiff fans to be excited about. Already a club legend as their all-time leading goalscorer, Harris took charge in 2015 and took the club to the League One play-offs in each of his first two seasons in charge, winning the final in 2017 to take Millwall back to the second tier.
The following year Millwall finished eighth in the Championship on 72 points, just three shy of a play-off place thanks to an incredible 17-game unbeaten run in the second half of the campaign. However, the club fell away last year, finishing just one place outside the bottom three, and were 18th when Harris stepped down in October.
But Harris' Millwall drew more attention for their cup runs than league success, reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in both 2017 and 2019. Highlights include a 3-2 victory over Everton in the fourth round this year and wins against Bournemouth, Watford, and Leicester City in 2017.
His in-tray at Cardiff
Cardiff are not in bad shape at all. A couple of wins is all it will take to put them back in contention for a play-off place, and indeed playing similar football to Warnock means Harris can anticipate a manager bounce over the next month or so.
What's more, Cardiff have the second best home record in the division, collecting 17 points from eight games, meaning Harris only needs to find a way to win on the road to bring the Welsh club back to prominence, which makes it surprising that they can be backed at 10.50 just to record a Top 6 Finish. His aggressive, no-nonsense defensive management style should certainly improve their away form as the season goes on.
But managing Cardiff City is a unique job. Sala's death in January will still be affecting staff from top to bottom, grief no doubt impacting on the club's steady decline over the last eight months as the club, including Warnock, deal admirably with a tragic situation.
A fresh start under Harris - a sensible choice and a talented manager - might be just what Cardiff need as they continue to process.