Problem-solving was a major part of Norwich City's important 1-0 victory over Preston at the weekend as they moved within striking distance of securing their Championship top six spot. 

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

This is what Ben made of another victory for David Wagner's side. 

Preston Vs Norwich: Extending the lead.

Score: 0 – 1

Possession (%): 40 – 60

Passes: 334 – 518

Shots: 13 – 15

xG: 0.96 – 0.51

  • · Playing through versus over pressure.
  • · Norwich’s build-up rotations.
  • · Preston’s pressing variations.
  • · A pressing mistake and a moment of quality.

Base Formations:

Following a disappointing result against relegation battlers Sheffield Wednesday, David Wagner’s Norwich made the trip to Lancashire to face Preston in a crucial game for both sides’ play-off ambitions.

Ryan Lowe made three changes to his side, as Jack Whatmough, Alan Browne, and Milutin Osmajic came into the host’s 3-4-1-2 base formation, while Shane Duffy replaced Danny Batth in Norwich’s 4-2-3-1.

The Pink Un:

During Norwich’s goalkeeper restarts, Wagner’s men dropped into a variable 4-2-2-2 structure when Sara (17) dropped alongside Barnes (10) ahead of City’s double pivot, leaving Sainz (7) and Sargent (9) in the last line.

In response, Preston pressed high from their 3-4-1-2 base. Behind the front two, Frokjaer (10) jumped onto the free pivot when one of the centre-forwards pressed, while the wing-backs were ready to press Stacey (3) and McCallum (15), and the double pivot occupied Sara (17) and Barnes (10).

The Pink Un:

Early in the first half, however, Sara (17) often dropped even deeper, almost creating a midfield three with McLean (23) and Nunez (26). But Browne (8) advanced to stay tight to City’s Brazilian midfielder.

With Norwich often going long soon after goal-kicks, Barnes (10) advanced to occupy the space just behind Sargent (9), hoping to challenge for second balls. But as Whatmough (26) stayed back, Preston maintained a last-line numerical advantage and frequently regained possession.

The Pink Un:

Given the numerical advantage in their initial build-up phases, Wagner’s men had more success playing through the host’s press rather than playing directly over it.

On one occasion, Barnes (10) moved over to the left, pinning Holmes (25) away from McCallum (15). As a result, when he received from Gibson (6), Norwich’s left-back had time to advance before Osmajic (28) moved over to press.

The Pink Un:

At the same time, McLean (23) advanced towards Sainz (7) as the Spaniard dropped into the left half space while Barnes (10) stayed wide.

McCallum (15) then found Sainz (7) who, with Storey (14) following him, bounced the ball back to McLean (23) before City shifted over to Sara (17) in space on the opposite side. This was a perfect example of the benefits of playing through pressure rather than over it.

The Pink Un:

In Norwich’s open-play deep build-up phases, their 4-2-2-2 with a midfield box became even clearer.

Sargent (9) often switched places with Barnes (10), as Norwich’s number nine dropped alongside Sara (17). The host’s front two initially shadow-marked Norwich’s double pivot, while the centre-backs created a 3v2 in the last line.

The Pink Un:

But when one centre-forward pressed Gibson (6) and the other was drawn to press Gunn (28), Nunez (26) dropped into space to receive between the two forwards before playing out to Duffy (24) on the right.

The Pink Un:

When Preston transitioned into a complete man-to-man press, however, with Browne (8) advancing to occupy Nunez (26), and Hughes (16) jumping into midfield to occupy Sara (17), Norwich resorted to a more direct approach.

In these situations, Gunn (28) aimed for Barnes (10) in the last line, who tried to play back to Sargent (9) and Sara (17). But this approach had limited success given the profiles in Preston’s eleven, with four natural centre-backs in the side, including Whatmough (26) in midfield.

The Pink Un:

When Nunez (26) dropped between the visitor’s centre-backs, Stacey (3) and McCallum (15) advanced into the last line on both sides.

With Sara (17) and Sainz (7) typically positioned in the half spaces, while Barnes (10) and Sargent (9) alternately occupied the number ten position, City created their fluid 3-diamond-3 shape. In response, Preston’s wing-backs initially dropped to create a 5-2-1-2 mid-block.

The Pink Un:

Sara (17) and Sainz (7) often moved out wide to stretch the host’s double pivot and to receive from City’s back line.

When Sara (17) received to the side of Preston’s defensive block, for example, Browne (8) was forced to shift over to the same side. This created a sizeable gap between the host’s midfielders before McLean (23) advanced to receive in the space behind Browne (8).

The Pink Un:

But Preston did have a solution to this problem, with Holmes (25) frequently tracking Sainz (7) into midfield, while Brady (11) stayed in Preston’s back line on the opposite side.

This allowed Whatmough (26) to occupy the number ten, while Browne (8) tracked Sara (17) on Norwich’s right. This asymmetric rotation created a situational 4-3-1-2 mid-press, making it more difficult for City to find a free man within Preston’s defensive block.

The Pink Un:

Preston continuously shifted between their compact 5-2-1-2 mid-block and a more aggressive 4-3-1-2 mid-press.

But their general strategy out of possession remained constant; Ryan Lowe’s side allowed Norwich possession outside of their defensive block, but once City tried to play inside, the visitors pressed hard in a man-to-man fashion.

The Pink Un:

Preston mostly went long from goal-kicks, taking Norwich’s high press out of the equation. Woodman (1) only played a short pass when one of the wide centre-backs or wing-backs was free to the side of Norwich’s defensive unit.

The Pink Un:

With much of Preston’s build-up play taking place in settled phases of possession, Norwich typically remained in their 4-4-2 mid-block. In these phases, the hosts built from a 3-2 base while the wing-backs advanced on both sides.

Occupying space between Norwich’s defensive and midfield lines, Frokjaer (10) shifted between both half spaces, while the wing-backs stayed wide to receive switches of play.

The Pink Un:

Norwich’s 4-4-2 mid-press occasionally forced Preston back. When the hosts shifted over to the right, for example, Barnes (10) pressed the right centre-back, Sainz (7) pressed the wing-back, McLean (23) tracked the ball-side pivot, and McCallum (15) jumped onto Frokjaer (10).

The Pink Un:

Towards the end of the second half, Norwich started to exploit vast spaces between the lines of Preston’s mid-press, including in the build-up to Gabriel Sara’s 86th-minute winner.

With Riis (19) and Keane (7) drawn to press from the front without the host’s midfield line closing the space behind, McLean (23) became free to receive and advance on the right, before Browne (8) eventually closed him down.

But City’s captain had time to find Sara (17), who received on the half-turn, evading Hughes (16) and Brady (11), before dribbling into the box, cutting inside, and finding the bottom left corner of the net.

The Pink Un:

It was a goal highlighting Sara’s obvious individual quality, but it meant far more than that, as Wagner’s men extended the gap to 7th place in what was a crucial result for their play-off hopes.

At long last, we saw a return to action for Jonathan Rowe. David Wagner now needs to find a way to reintegrate him without disrupting the balance of the side. But in the midst of a tense play-off race, finding a way to reintroduce Rowe is a positive problem to have.