Norwich City’s 2023/24 campaign began in promising fashion, but what went wrong after such a strong start? Are injuries entirely to blame, or have they exposed more persistent tactical and individual weaknesses?

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

With no Championship game since the win at Cardiff, Ben has looked at the reasons for the downturn, and what Ben Knapper's arrival might mean for the future.

The good, the bad, and the injuries

  • Provocation in the build-up.
  • What happened to the positive start?
  • Analysing Wagner’s settled play structure.
  • Out of possession failings.
  • Knapper’s data considerations.

Forty games at Schalke 04, 40 games at BSC Young Boys, and after 40 games at Norwich, David Wagner’s Carrow Road job would seemingly remain in the balance.

City's 2023/24 campaign began in promising fashion, with Wagner’s men winning three of their first four games. But what went wrong after such a strong start? Are injuries entirely to blame, or have they exposed more persistent tactical and individual weaknesses?

In their deep build-up, the Canaries create a 4-2-4 shape with a double pivot and a double false nine.

Typically, Gabriel Sara and Kenny McLean occupy the pivot positions, while Ashley Barnes and Josh Sargent initially performed the deep-lying forward roles. This quartet create a midfield box, much like Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton.

The Pink Un:

Norwich’s press baiting under Wagner is also comparable with that of De Zerbi’s side. The aim of provoking pressure is to manipulate the opponent’s press, gradually moving the free man forwards, while creating space behind the opposition backline.

By drawing players out of defensive positions, ‘artificial transitions’ are created. This is where fast ball progression imitates a counter-attacking situation without the team having lost and regained possession.

Within Norwich’s deep build-up structure, optimal patterns of progression depend on the opponent’s press.

If the centre-backs are free, they bait the press to leave Sara or McLean briefly unoccupied. When one of Norwich’s free pivots receive a pass, an opposing midfielder is forced to jump, leaving a deep-lying forward free.

The Pink Un:

As explained in ‘A Double False Nine and a Midfield Box’, Barnes and Sargent were key players within this build-up strategy.

Both players are capable of receiving passes under pressure and, as a result, they allowed Norwich to continue playing out from the back even if the opposition centre-backs followed them into midfield. The duo frequently facilitated Norwich’s controlled escape via bounce passes to the full-backs or wingers.

The Pink Un:

But these tactical considerations generate three crucial questions: what happens if the press is not successfully baited, what happens if the opponent presses man-to-man, and what happens if Barnes and Sargent are unavailable?

Provoking pressure in the build-up is, by definition, based on the assumption that it is possible to entice an opponent to press.

On a few occasions, however, Norwich have faced sides who refused to press from the front. This produces almost comical situations where Wagner’s side wait for the press to start while the opponent waits for the build-up to start.

The Pink Un:

Other teams have decided to set up with an aggressive man-to-man press. Such an approach often leaves just the goalkeeper unoccupied and, as a result, complicates Norwich’s usual build-up patterns.

The Pink Un:

These pressing variations became problematic following the injuries to Barnes and Sargent, without whom Norwich have found it more difficult to adapt to effective opposition pressing strategies.

Barnes and Sargent allowed for more vertically controlled build-up; without them, Wagner’s side often resort to going long into the space behind the last line – an approach riddled with uncertainty.

The Pink Un:

In a league where some opponents refuse to play out from the back, many games are decided by Norwich’s efficacy in possession and their ability to cope with defensive transitions.

The preparation for defensive transitions begins in possession with a ‘rest defence’; this is the defensive protection provided by an attacking structure. In Germany, the term ‘restfeldsicherung’ is used and, translating to ‘remaining field protection’, perhaps defines the rest defence best.

A secure rest defence closes central defensive spaces to force the opponent wide after a turnover, giving defenders time to retreat. By preventing counter-attacks, a rest defence also facilitates sustained pressure.

Increasingly, teams use inverted full-backs to create overloads in midfield. These movements also create a tight rest defence, while attacking players stay wide to stretch the opponent’s backline.

The Pink Un:

In settled possession, where the ball is not under immediate pressure from the opponent, Wagner’s Norwich transition into a 3-4-3 shape with a midfield diamond.

McLean often drops between the centre-backs, leaving Sara as the lone pivot, while the wingers invert and the full-backs overlap.

The Pink Un:

By committing both full-backs to the highest attacking line, the centre-backs become the widest defenders while McLean occupies the space between them. Given the attacking inclinations of the inverted wingers, Norwich are often left with a 3-1 rest defence.

The Pink Un:

This alone is not a fundamentally flawed structure – in fact, current La Liga leaders Girona often create a similar shape – but such a setup requires two qualities Norwich currently lack. It requires effective ball retention and defenders who are capable of counter-pressing and defending large spaces convincingly.

The defensive profiles within Norwich’s squad are not conducive to these demands, with many fans legitimately questioning the mobility and speed of the Ben Gibson/Shane Duffy centre-back combination.

When ball retention is poor, the profiles within Norwich’s rest defence are exposed by the structure, and when the counter-press fails, the space created by the structure leaves them vulnerable to counters.

The Pink Un:

Conversely, however, Norwich have multiple players suited to the attacking element of Wagner’s settled-play shape.

Most notably, the full-backs are suited to overlapping into wide areas, and the wingers are more than capable of inverting; players like Jack Stacey, Borja Sainz, and Christian Fassnacht were recruited for precisely these demands.

This contrast between the defensive and attacking suitability of players within Wagner’s system is reflected by the underlying numbers. Norwich currently sit third in the table for goals scored (29), but bottom for goals conceded (32).

To mitigate defensive transition weaknesses, Wagner should focus on strengthening his side’s rest defence. With Liam Gibbs, Marcelino Nunez, Sara, and McLean all fit, Wagner could do exactly that without compromising the suitability of the attacking players within the system.

The Pink Un:

Aside from the defensive transition issues, Norwich have also had problems in every phase out of possession.

In their highest pressing phase, Norwich typically create a 4-1-3-2 pressing structure; but are often either too passive or they fail to adapt to the opponent’s structure when attempting to press aggressively.

The Pink Un:

In more settled phases out of possession, Wagner’s side frequently drop into a 4-4-2 mid or low block, but they often lack man-orientation. This allows their opponents too much time on the ball and leaves large spaces between the lines.

The Pink Un:

Wagner often asserts that ‘focusing on ourselves’ is more important than focusing on the opponent. While the media communication benefits of such a statement are clear, optimal strategies both with and without the ball are entirely dependent on the opponent.

In truth, the absence of any significant adjustment to Norwich’s structure in settled possession has undermined Wagner’s ability to end the cycle of conceding from transitions.

Suggesting players need to ‘be better in possession’ is not a valid solution. A structure should allow players the freedom to choose creative passes over safe ones; if it does not do that, the structure is suboptimal.

Out of possession, Wagner should double down on the intensity he was once associated with. While entertainment value is usually placed on a side’s style in possession, an intense (and opposition-specific) press can have the same value.

Although, despite the blatant defensive failings, metrics such as open play expected goal difference have Wagner’s side joint eleventh with Hull City, who sit eighth in the Championship.

The Pink Un:

Following Knapper’s arrival, however, City’s new sporting director cited ‘control’ and ‘winning the ball back high’ as key facets of a team under his leadership. As a data-driven figure, it will surely not be lost on Knapper that Norwich’s current performance metrics largely fail to meet either requirement.

Thirteen teams in the Championship currently average more possession than Wagner’s Norwich (50.6%), while nine teams press with more intensity based on the passes per defensive action (PPDA) metric; a low PPDA figure indicates an intense press.

The Pink Un:

Despite all of this, it is worth reiterating the key points discussed in ‘The tactical rationale behind the appointment of Wagner’.

Daniel Farke was more than capable of getting a team with technical quality promoted; but to survive in the Premier League, his style requires far greater financial resources than Norwich can provide. The verticality and intense pressing originally associated with Wagner are concepts which developed as a means of beating technically superior sides.

There is no doubt Wagner needs to do much more to prove he can bring that rationale to fruition – after all, you cannot achieve Premier League survival without getting promoted – but sacking him would mean abandoning a theoretical solution to Norwich’s Premier League struggles.

However, if the German coach fails to fix the issues outlined in this article, any consideration of future promotion or Premier League survival can be forgotten, and Knapper will be left with no alternative but to dismiss him.

In this scenario, Knapper would be judged on the replacement he identifies. He would do well to avoid some of the names already being mentioned, including coaches with more questionable and unproven tactical identities than Wagner.

Current data trends suggest a mid-table finish, but the current form and defensive problems suggest a relegation battle – and once confidence becomes an issue, your fate lies in the lap of the gods.

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

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