The hair may be quite a bit longer and the shirt a disconcerting shade of blue, but it’s very much the same old Aden Flint with the former Bristol City favourite evoking memories of his goalscoring feats of 2014/15 but unfortunately for Cardiff City.
Flint’s surprising place at the top of the Championship top goalscorer chart probably isn’t that surprising considering the emphasis the Bluebirds put on set-pieces and early crosses, with Nigel Pearson putting it succinctly on Thursday when he said: “they don’t turn down the opportunity to put the ball into danger areas.”
As has now been repeated across social media and WhatsApp groups, all eight of Cardiff’s goals this season have come via headers, with Flint accounting for four of them.
It doesn’t need the greatest tactical minds of our time to assess that in order to beat Mick McCarthy’s side you have to, at the very, least stop them: a) getting balls into the box and, if they do, b) win as many headers and loose balls as is humanly possible.
Flint leads the Championship for headers won this season with 44 – at both ends of the field – but thankfully City have their own aerial specialist in the form of Chris Martin, with the frontman second in that particular list with 40.
Martin has started all four of City’s Championship’s fixtures at the tip of Pearson’s preferred 4-3-2-1/4-4-1-1 system (depending on your interpretation), having encouragingly recovered from a calf injury that ruined the second half of his 2020/21 campaign.
The 32-year-old may not possess blistering pace, as certain sections of the fanbase bemoan, but his diligence, work ethic and hold-up play has been absolutely integral to how Pearson wants his team to play this season – even if results haven’t quite matched performances.
Central to that has been Martin’s ability to occupy defenders and physically compete, both on the ground and in the air, and Saturday’s Severnside Derby should present the Scotland international with his most obvious test of strength this season.
With Flint, Curtis Nelson and Sean Morrison ( if declared fit ), Martin will, in various situations, be up against three 6ft+ defenders of immense power and presence.
What’s interesting about that prospect, and the previous statistic concerning the number of headers Martin has won, is that he stands at 5ft 9ins and yet has been competing, and regularly winning, aerial duels against defenders considerably taller than him.
The 6ft 5ins Flint may seem on face value like a mismatch, but Martin is up for the challenge and with 13 seasons of Championship football behind him, it’s perhaps a touch patronising to suggest he won’t be fully prepared for what’s ahead over the 90 minutes.
“Bring it on. That’s the attitude from all of us, to be perfectly honest,” Martin said with genuine relish. “Eight goals and eight headers, we know the challenge they possess but we also can’t forget they’re good players and can play the ball on the deck.
“But certainly it’s a huge part of their game, set-plays and longer balls. They have got some giants in their line-up and we’ve got to be up for the fight, plain and simple.
“We know what’s coming. We know what to expect. It’s going to be much more difficult on the day to stop it – tin hats on at times – but it is all part and parcel of football.
“I feel like set-plays have been pretty big. It’s something we’ve utilised as well. I’m no stranger to it in the Championship, have seen plenty do it. It’s about doing our job on the day.”
There is a school of thought, and perhaps emphasised by Pearson’s comment that “every team has weaknesses”, that instead of City looking to take Cardiff on at their own game, by physically matching-up, they may in possession try and be a little cuter.
Martin is far from just a battering ram, if anything his best attributes are evidenced when he has the ball at his feet and his able to play clever one-touch passes to teammates, before spinning into space.
One crucial link in that chain is Andi Weimann, another City player who’s become a fundamental pillar of Pearson’s XI in this first month of the season after also recovering from a long-standing injury; in his case an ACL sustained in October last year.
City fans are well-versed in Weimann’s game and his status as a manager’s favourite, given then sheer amount of work he does out of possession. Something Martin was keen to shine a light on as he spoke ahead of Saturday’s game.
“He’s a clever football player. I know in certain positions he’s going to be a great foil for me; if one of us chooses to run in behind, the other can show short. We’ve just got a very, very good understanding.
“A massive thing with Andi is the amount of work he does in a game. His high-intensity stats are through the roof compared to pretty much everyone in our team and he gives us that energy and drive in terms of the pressing, working back and he works extremely hard for the team.
“He does everything he possibly can for us to be better. He’s very unselfish in that respect but he’s also got quality as well and he can score and assist.
“I enjoy playing with him because I know we’ve got that understanding of where to be. He’ll be there for me to set it. We look for each other on the link-ups. I’ve enjoyed playing with him and hopefully that partnership can blossom.”
That sense of selflessness embodied by the physical shift Martin puts in and Weimann’s energy in and out of possession are obvious traits of a Pearson team that places importance on constant hard work.
Martin’s position in the team isn’t wholly surprising given he’s the only orthodox lone striker the club possess following Famara Diedhiou’s exit, but Pearson has overlooked the 32-year-old previously in his career when they worked together at Derby.
In the 2016/17 season, Martin was sent on loan to Fulham was the inference being that Pearson wanted more pace in his attack. There was no fallout, just that his attributes didn’t fit into the concept of what the manager wanted from his team.
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“It’s been very good,” Martin said, when asked of his second opportunity to play under Pearson.
“When he came in here he was very clear about that, ‘what’s gone is gone, this is totally different’ and I would like to think I’ve done myself justice in terms of that and shown my professionalism, which he’s mentioned a couple of times to me.
“I’m just appreciative of the opportunity he’s given me and he hasn’t judged me from what happened before and likewise. We have got a fairly good relationship and we’re starting to see what he wants to implement on the team; the energy that we’ve shown, the aggression, our pressing.
“And I know we haven’t got the points we feel like we should have done up to this point, but I think you can certainly see the affect he’s had in the building and on the training pitch with the team.
“If we continue to implement the message that he gives us, we’ll only get stronger.”