Leandro Bacuna finally finds a home in Cardiff’s fluid front three


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Leandro Bacuna has been something of a frustrating figure for much of his time at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Since joining from Reading in January 2019, the Curacao international has struggled to nail down a regular place in the first team, often being shuffled between midfield and full-back without ever quite convincing in either position.

On his day he is able to use his combination of physicality and technical skills to really stand out at Championship level, but all too often errors in possession and a lack of consistency can lead to him leaving both managers and supporters underwhelmed.

His versatility has also counted against him for much of the current season. After an injury to Arsenal loanee Jordi Osei-Tutu, Neil Harris deployed Bacuna at right-back for the majority of this campaign, limiting his ability to contribute in the final third and also exposing defensive weaknesses in his game.

Mick McCarthy’s arrival in South Wales in January has revitalised both Cardiff’s Championship season and the individual performances of several players who struggled to deliver under Harris.

Aden Flint has been brought back in from the cold to now anchor Cardiff’s imperious back three, Marlon Pack is the new manager’s on-field general, talking to team-mates through games and rarely putting a foot wrong, and Josh Murphy looks like a player re-born after struggling to make an impact for much of his Bluebirds career so far.

Bacuna has largely been a victim of the upturn in form under McCarthy in terms of his place in the team, often being used from the bench and only making three starts so far.

However, that does not mean the Yorkshireman sees him as surplus to requirements. He made it clear in his early weeks in the Cardiff dugout what his intentions were for Bacuna:

“I don’t see him as a right-back, that’s for sure. He’s more of a creative midfielder to me. When you haven’t got many options, you have to try something. I guess that’s what Neil (Harris) did. I don’t want to be moving players round and playing them out of position.”

With games coming at a startling rate even by Championship standards – Cardiff have played ten games since the change of manager less than six weeks ago and will play another four before the March international break.

McCarthy rested both Harry Wilson and Murphy for the visit of Derby County, allowing Bacuna a start in a roaming role in support of Cardiff’s top-scorer Kieffer Moore.

The freedom afforded to both Bacuna and fellow advanced midfielder Sheyi Ojo was noticeable from the first whistle. They would regularly switch between right and left flank, at times even filling Moore’s role at the head of the trident when the tall striker dropped deep or wide to encourage defenders to play the ball into his feet.

Whilst this increased level of freedom played a significant role in helping the 29-year-old escape in behind the Derby defence to latch on to a Joe Bennett pass and slot past Derby goalkeeper Kelle Roos to open the scoring, it was McCarthy’s constant encouraging and cajoling that helped him remain involved and influential throughout the 90 minutes.

Booming cries of “Leo drop-in” and “press Leo, press” ensured that the former Aston Villa man was effective in both the attacking and defensive phases of the game, and with the Bluebirds largely happy to allow Derby to control possession there was no shortage of work off the ball for him to do.

Bacuna saved his standout moment for the second-half though.

After seeing a 25-yard free-kick well saved by Roos, Cardiff City’s number seven found himself in the perfect position to curl home a game-clinging third goal of the evening for the hosts after Ojo had pulled the ball back to him on the edge of the box.

The quality of the strike was matched only by the composure of the man who struck it, and even though the goal came about thanks in part to some slack Derby defending, it was a massive part of what felt like a defining evening in Bacuna’s Cardiff career.

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The overwhelming cocktail of excitement brought about by scoring your first goals in 16 months, mixed with the desperation of chasing a first career hat-trick, encouraged the wide man to take on a half-volley from 30 yards as Cardiff comfortably saw out a 4-0 win.

Even though it flew a foot or so over Roos’ crossbar, it was further evidence that Bacuna had found a role he felt comfortable in.

“It’s great for him (Bacuna). Whenever he’s come on, he’s done really well. He’s always contributed, and that’s been brilliant. It was lovely to see him get his goals today, and he gave a really good performance.

“He has skill, ability, power and pace. He can wander around and pick the ball up, but he can also run in behind. He is really a very good technical footballer, and his goals have shown that today.”

– Cardiff City manager Mick McCarthy

Despite Bacuna’s standout performance, there are no guarantees he will keep his place for the trip to Huddersfield on Friday.

Ojo played almost as well as him in a similar role against Wayne Rooney’s side, both Murphy and Wilson have been two of the most influential players in the early weeks of McCarthy’s Cardiff reign, and Welsh international Jonny Williams, who can also play in support of Moore, made his Bluebirds’ debut in the closing stages on Tuesday night.

The commanding win made it ten games unbeaten for Cardiff’s new boss and saw them move back into the Play-Off places.

The Welsh side are an experienced side that look comfortable doing what McCarthy is asking of them. They defend compactly in an organised shape before springing on the counter through Moore’s hold-up play and the quality on the ball of those around him.

Moore scored his 16th goal of the season in between Bacuna’s brace against the Rams, and Will Vaulks capped an impressive, all-action performance with a remarkable long-range strike to seal the victory in injury-time of the second-half.

The hosts had just 27% of possession throughout the evening but were rarely troubled at the back – another indication that the new boss has quickly identified the optimal way for this side to pick up points – and the four goals mean that Cardiff are now the second top-scorers in the Championship behind Brentford.

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Whilst McCarthy’s policy of rotation did just the trick amidst the hectic fixture list, the changes that Rooney made resulted in a disjointed Derby performance.

Six players were brought in to the starting line-up after last Friday’s draw in the East Midlands derby against Nottingham Forest, and the experience of Colin Kazim-Richards-Richards in particular was sorely missed throughout as the Cardiff backline had a relatively trouble-free evening.

The star of the show though was undeniably Bacuna. If he can continue to make such an impact playing closer to goal, he may just have found an unlikely answer to the positional conundrum that has defined his Cardiff career so far.

With McCarthy bellowing instructions and encouragement from the sidelines, he could really take some stopping, and thanks to Perry Ng’s impressive start to life in the Welsh capital, Bacuna’s days at right-back might well be a thing of the past.

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