Connor Southwell: Is Norwich City's midfield still under construction?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Midfield was arguably the area of the pitch where Norwich City lacked the most two seasons ago.
Not in terms of quality, but most definitely in physicality and depth. City were forced to rely on a defensive double pivot of Alex Tettey and Kenny McLean - beyond those options, Farke found himself hamstrung.
Tettey and McLean offered City more defensive protection, but as they did that, Norwich struggled to find a number 10 option who could really impact the play. Marco Stiepermann had struggled with the step up and Ondrej Duda didn't fulfil his early promise.
During the post-mortem of a season that ended disastrously, those who matter admitted a lack of physicality and variation in the centre of the pitch had been one of their greater issues.
That is why Farke described McLean as 'irreplaceable', that's why City's recruitment the following summer consisted of sidelining Tom Trybull and Mortiz Leitner and signing Oliver Skipp, Jacob Sorensen and Kieran Dowell.
Their work to revamp that area of the pitch has continued this summer. Pierre Lees-Melou offers a height and presence that wasn't visible before. Billy Gilmour has a snap to accompany his technical proficiency and Mathias Normann will add a defensive edge that has been somewhat lacking so far.
Whatever direction Farke wishes to head in, he now has the personnel to implement it. That wasn't the case two years ago.
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Following the opening three games of the season, many have been calling for a change in approach and the instalment of a purely defensive midfield.
That leads us nicely onto a theory that has been swirling around my mind during the international break. What if Norwich don't want to have one player solely focused on screening the back four, but rather a functional midfield three? Hear me out...
In each of City's four competitive games to date, they have operated within a 4-3-3 system. The midfield has been relatively flat in terms of average positions across those four fixtures, almost to negate the lack of outright defensive option.
Chelsea loanee Gilmour is a defensive midfielder in terms of position but perhaps should be seen more as an orchestrator. Whereas Skipp's role last year was primarily focused on retrieving possession and offering protection, Gilmour's is more about beginning attacking phases and getting City on the front foot.
That context leads us nicely to their new Norwegian recruit and why his introduction doesn't automatically end Gilmour's role in the centre of their midfield three.
As a collective, the Canaries' midfield has been focused on offering both attacking support and defensive protection as a collective. Thus far, they have lacked cohesion, something that you would expect to improve as the matches continue.
Against Leicester, City exposed their vulnerability in defensive transitions, and their struggle to support Teemu Pukki was highlighted by just how isolated a figure the Finn cut. City seem to be attempting to push Todd Cantwell into more central areas when in possession, but that hasn't looked convincing as yet.
Normann isn't, certainly on the evidence and performance data of his time at Rostov, just a midfield destroyer.
Some of his performances for Norway over the international break, particularly against the Netherlands, suggested he can occupy a more restrained role, however. In Russia, he contributed just as much to the attacking phases as he did defensively.
He also didn't play in the base of their midfield three but to the left.
Seemingly, what Norwich are attempting to do is surround Gilmour with energy. Lees-Melou is an intelligent presser and capable of fulfilling a more box to box style role. Normann is similar, but like McLean, perhaps has a bit more of a defensive focus and is aggressive in transitions.
Simply plucking Gilmour out of that midfield and slotting Normann in would be extremely risky and would possibly not get the best out of either player. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising to see the Norwegian play in that central role, certainly initially.
Especially when you consider that Norwich's second half display against Leicester, when they opted to ease off their pressing, was vastly improved, and the midfield was seemingly more comfortable. Beyond a goal that arrived through a series of errors, they didn't concede any serious chances to the Foxes.
Whether they can do that in the majority of their games remains to be seen, it's more likely that they improve their pressing, which was scattered against Leicester and allowed Brendan Rodgers' men to bypass it relatively simply.
Normann may not be someone to sit and protect the back four, but he will offer a vastly improved defensive contribution within that midfield three in a way that allows Gilmour to be utilised more in possession.
Either way, this remains a shift from how a Norwich midfield has worked under Farke before and tests against Manchester City and Liverpool didn't contain any particularly insightful answers due to the quality of the Canaries' opponents.
Given the way Norwich play, the midfield is a key battleground. It remains under construction and not fully functional, but the blueprint makes for interesting reading.
If they do strike that balance and unlock Gilmour in the way they are trying to, then it could be an area that both chips in with goals and contributes defensively. The proof will be in the pudding, but Norwich are still putting together the mix.
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