There’s an interesting tactical trend behind Stuart Webber’s three head coach appointments at Norwich City, a trend which has, thus far, been overlooked.

Ben Lee is a City season ticket holder and author of the NCFC Analysis twitter account, who unpicks Canaries' games with an analytical report highlighting tactical strengths and weaknesses.

Ahead of the upcoming Championship season, Ben has charted the coaching evolution under City's sporting director. He contends there is a clear rationale underpinning Webber’s key appointments.

The Pink Un:

Daniel Farke

Eventually dubbed ‘Farkeball’, Farke’s style of play was comparable with that of Pep Guardiola. It was a style consisting of positional play, patient build-up, positional rotations, and possessional dominance.

Together, these concepts make up a style which became known as ‘Tiki-Taka’, the roots of which lie in Spain and the Netherlands.

In modern football, managers such as Mikel Arteta, Xavi, and Luis Enrique are synonymous with the concepts associated with ‘Tiki-Taka’ and positionism. But it was Pep Guardiola who became most associated with the style during his time managing Barcelona.

These managers all have something in common: they all manage (or have managed) teams with technical superiority over their average opponent. Their style requires technically skilled and tactically intelligent players.

Given the demands of his style, a question often asked of Pep Guardiola is: ‘Could he do it without a world class squad?’.

At the time of Farke’s appointment, Norwich’s aim was to achieve promotion from the Championship. Smart recruitment from Webber and the recruitment team left Norwich with a technically superior squad than most other Championship sides.

This, combined with Farke’s tactical ideology and coaching, saw Norwich comfortably achieve promotion to the Premier League. Two years later, this success was repeated.

While there were memorable moments, ultimately Farke’s Norwich side failed in the Premier League. Perhaps this was proof that ‘Farkeball’ does require a squad with technical superiority.

Eventually, Farke began to abandon his principles, but when Norwich’s style deteriorated and results remained poor, Farke’s tenure came to an end.

The Pink Un:

Dean Smith

The appointment of Smith represented a transition from an ideological head coach to a more pragmatic, reactionary figure.

Smith stated that he wanted Norwich to be tougher to play against, often citing the counter-press as a means of achieving this. But Norwich’s counter-press never seemed to improve for a sustained period.

Despite temporarily guiding Norwich out of the relegation zone, Smith’s attempts to keep Norwich in the Premier League were futile. But it was Norwich’s return to the Championship that proved to be more damaging for Smith.

In the Championship, Norwich fans had become used to seeing a clear tactical identity. Smith was not appointed to provide this. He was appointed to improve Norwich’s chances of Premier League survival; he was a potential solution to a Premier League problem.

During Farke's tenure, Norwich were able to outperform championship opposition. Under Smith, however, a lack of identity and dominance persisted.

This, combined with Smith’s failure to win games consistently, meant his appointment was never going to end well.

The Pink Un:

David Wagner

Wagner’s appointment represented a return to ideology, but it would be wrong to assume that this appointment was a complete U-turn. Ideologically, Wagner and Farke are inherently different.

Norwich’s long-term aim is not merely to succeed in the Championship, as they did with Farke; it is to survive in the Premier League.

If Wagner achieves promotion during his time as Norwich head coach, would he struggle in the same way Farke did? Can an ideological head coach consistently succeed against technically superior teams?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand Wagner’s philosophy. Wagner’s teams are associated with intensity, fast transitions, verticality, overlapping full-backs, inverting wingers, and a German concept called the gegenpress.

The gegenpress, known as the counter-press in England, involves intense pressing at the point of defensive transition (when possession is lost to the opponent).

For Wagner, the gegenpress is not just about regaining possession as soon as it is lost; it also performs the role of a playmaker.

Jurgen Klopp, Wagner’s friend and former teammate, summed this up perfectly, saying: "no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation".

By pressing high up the pitch, it is likely that possession will be won close to the opponent’s goal and therefore only a few passes away from a goalscoring opportunity. This concept is known as the ‘offensive umschaltmoment’ (transition moment).

During his time at Mainz, Klopp played under the German coach Wolfgang Frank. Inspired by former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi, Frank was one of the primary exponents of the gegenpress, zonal marking, and a flat back four.

For Klopp, Wolfgang Frank was influential. In 1995, with Mainz bottom of Bundesliga 2, Frank oversaw a remarkable comeback. His side won 32 points in the second half of the season. They survived against all odds with a squad which was technically inferior to their opponents.

Explaining the influence of Wolfgang Frank, Klopp said: "We (the Mainz players) learned that it’s not important if their single players are better than we are, we can still beat them".

David Wagner worked closely with Klopp during their time together at Dortmund. Wagner has also worked with Ralf Rangnick, another influential exponent of the gegenpress, at Hoffenheim.

Wagner and Klopp were both influenced by the gegenpressing era of German football, they share the same football philosophy. It’s a philosophy which developed as a means of beating technically superior teams.

In recent years, the promoted teams that have survived in the Premier League are those that make it difficult for superior opponents to build up.

Teams such as Brentford and Leeds managed to survive at their first attempt by implementing an intense, pressing brand of football. Intensity and pressing are two words that accurately describe Wagner’s preferred style.

Norwich’s journey from Farke to Wagner is not one of indecision but rather a re-evaluation of their approach towards achieving Premier League survival, and an acceptance that Farke may not have been able to achieve this with a limited budget.

Aside from the rationale, however, there are legitimate questions surrounding Wagner’s tactical approach. The end of last season was far from impressive from a tactical perspective.

The key question going into the 2023/24 season will be whether Norwich’s tactical issues of last season can be resolved with new personnel and a full pre-season, while Burnley’s Premier League fate will indicate whether a more modern positional style than ‘Farkeball’ could have been a more reasonable solution to Norwich’s top-flight woes.

You can read all Ben's previous analysis of Norwich City games via his social media accounts.

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