Slowly but surely, Mario is having a ball with Canaries
PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:27 22 January 2018
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He was lauded as one of the club’s marquee signings of the summer.
Nearly everyone who’d been paying attention to City’s pre-season build-up was eagerly anticipating seeing Mario Vrancic line up in the Championship, resplendent in yellow and green and sporting bleached blonde sleeked back locks to add a continental flavour to the team’s midfield.
Those people were disappointed. Mario returned to his natural hair colour, and maybe with it his decision was akin to Samson sacrificing his powers. The first few months of the campaign, often with two games being played in a week, offered little from the Bosnian.
Languid and unsure performances were interspersed with rare moments of passing quality, yet Vrancic’s inability to quickly adapt to the speed of the division’s hurly burly saw him written off by vast sections of the support. The levels of scapegoating were reaching Steven Whittaker-style proportions. Some of the criticism was fair, most of it borderline abusive.
Often Vrancic would look lost when the ball was at his feet, seemingly unwilling to take on a shot and unhappy to play the simple ball when in and around an opponents’ penalty area. Daniel Farke had a dilemma on his hands. Upon signing Vrancic, everything made sense. The head coach had a preference for 4-1-4-1 as his starting formation and Mario had most of the attributes of an offensive and traditional number eight, provided he had industry, energy and a few willing ball winners around him.
The switch to a more solid, but ultimately less expansive, 4-2-3-1 left the midfielder in no-man’s land. Not combative enough to shield a previously fragile defence, lacking the urgency and pace to form part of an offensive midfield trio, he was being shoehorned into a side often out of necessity, given the lack of options in central areas.
However, Vrancic has perhaps been the most notable beneficiary of the recent tactical switch to a 3-4-3. With Tom Trybull, Alex Tettey or Harrison Reed as his partner-in-chief, his natural gifts are being given a chance to shine. His ability to make defence-splitting passes or raking crossfield balls are able to be showcased more often, primarily because he’s able to occupy the pockets of space where we feels more comfortable. It is no coincidence that since the change in tactical emphasis of City’s play, Mario has played an integral role.
At Stamford Bridge it was notable Vrancic displayed one of the coolest heads on the pitch, especially when in tight, pressurised areas. He also managed to complete 120 minutes, all while battling illness, testament to the fact his body is starting to get to grips with the pace of English football. At Ashton Gate, his vision to find an ever-willing runner in the shape of Ivo Pinto ultimately led to the defining moment of the match.
On Saturday his introduction, coupled with Wes Hoolahan’s evergreen verve and guile, saw Norwich place more importance on ball retention in the opposition half. While their efforts were ultimately fruitless, Vrancic’s presence coincided with the Canaries’ finer moments.
The doubters will remain for some time to come. Mario’s body language and his penchant to pick a pass, rather than wastefully throw it into the box, can often be perceived as him willingly slowing down the play. However, it could be argued he is only performing the role his coach has asked him to. Colleagues around him are equally reticent in their risk taking and a lack of movement could more likely be the root cause of Vrancic’s hesitancy.
His development arc needs to remain on an upward trajectory before the case can be made that Norwich have got value for their close-season investment. He won’t suit every fixture, yet add further pace and industry to the squad before the end of January and his skills should flourish further. The man is a fine technician, someone who was singled out as a stand-out performer in a struggling Bundesliga outfit for good reason. Now he just needs to continue to prove it.